What’s it like to play bass with the most famous bass player in the world? Anders Lundquist hooked up with Brian Ray to ask him. For ten years, the American guitarist, bassist, and singer has toured with Sir Paul McCartney.
Brian Ray: ”Don’t be mistaken: Paul is the bass player of the band. But I do get to play his bass lines when he plays piano or guitar. I’m the stunt player. It’s an apprenticeship that’s been going on for a decade now.”
Anders Lundquist for Singing Bassist: The story of how Brian Ray got the Paul McCartney gig is one which requires a brief history. Brian started out as Etta James’ musical director for 14 years, including opening for The Rolling Stones on their classic Some Girls Tour in 1978 (at the age of 24). He also played with others, when Etta wasn’t touring. After having stopped played with Etta James, he continued to tour with several other big acts, including some of France’s biggest artists, and record with artists like Willy DeVille. He started to get used to making a lot.
BR: And the burn rate of spending money starts to increase when you’re make more. You start to spend it like you’ll always make money like that. So that’s a lesson for all of us, he laughs.
Things were slow for Brian in 2000-2001. After having prayed for some kind of sign, he was offered to go on the road with superstar Shakira.
BR: In addition to my salary I asked for business class air, because Shakira travels very far: South America, Europe – all over the place. I didn’t ask for first class, but business class was my bottom line. And they wouldn’t give it to me. In fact, they gave the job to someone else, who accepted economy class, without even getting back to me.
This was around 9/11. Brian was sad, and very hard on himself.
BR: I was saying to myself ”Brian, you just passed on what could be two years of great work, for business class plane seats. Isn’t that crazy?”.
While licking his wounds, he started thinking of other options. Wasn’t his buddies Abe Laboriel Jr and Rusty Anderson playing with Paul McCartney?
BR: I had this quiet thought to myself, but I didn’t tell anybody. And sure enough: in January, Abe was at my birthday party. I asked him if they were going to tour. He said ”yeah, we’re gonna get together to prepare for a tour soon”. I asked him if they were looking for somebody to play bass when Paul plays guitar and piano, and guitar when he plays bass. And Abe said that they did. I told him that I’d love a shot at that. Abe put my name forward, Paul liked what he saw and what he heard, and here I am – ten years later – still playing with Paul! In the end it was right to have some kind of value, and believe in yourself. I had a little bit of faith that I could get a shot at something better. And it worked out.
SB: Are you self-taught?
BR: Yes, I’m a self-taught blues/rock player. There are a lot of people who have a lot more experience in school playing. But I have a lot of experience playing live, recording, writing and producing.
SB: Which, incidentally, is the same background as Paul’s …
BR: Exactly. In fact, he was moved by the same stuff that I was moved by, except for his father’s roots in show tunes, vaudeville and English music hall. All that great stuff. That wasn’t in my blood stream. But, just like John Lennon, we both loved Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, and The Everly Brothers. That’s what I gravitated to, as a kid.
SB: You’re mainly a guitarist. How did you learn to play the bass?
BR: By playing a lot of bass on my own demos.
SB: Did you feel you have to be in a different frame of mind playing the bass and singing, compared to playing the guitar and singing?
BR: I always appreciated that bassists are of a different breed. The let the details and the noise fall off their shoulders and have to stay centered. I’ve always appreciated that role. And I’ve never enjoyed when most guitarists play the bass, because they just play it like a guitar. To me, it was a fine challenge to learn this from a bass ”head space” perspective.
SB: How would you decribe Paul’s bass playing?
BR: He plays the most magnificent, graceful, musical – and still very soulful – bass lines. I don’t know how he does it. He plays counterpoint melodies to his great vocal lines with great feel, and it’s very effortless and soulful. It’s not like he’s seen the melody on paper and written counterpint, it’s just come out of him. It’s remarkable.
SB: Paul’s songs demand that everybody sings a lot. In the beginning, did you have problems playing bass and singing at the same time?
BR: Sure. Not problems, but rather challenges. There are things that are difficult, it is a bit like rubbing your belly and patting your head.
SB: How did you learn?
BR: You practice it. Over and over again. You go ”damn!, slow it down and you do it again, and you go ”damn it” and you do it again, and gradually, you speed it up doing it. And in the end you’re not even thinking about it. When you slow it down you can take note of the details. Like if the vocal is on the up beat and the bass is on the down beat. If you can identify, and make a note of that little moment – where it differs – and practice that, it makes an anchor that you have to get used to. If you go for the sticky ones, the tough ones, and get them down, the rest is easy. Just face them head on, stare ’em down and wrestle them.
SB: You play the Gibson SG bass with Paul. Did you choose it yourself, of did he?
BR: On the first three or four tours I used a Guild M85 from 1980, the final of the three versions that they put out. It’s a fine bass, and it sounded great. And the first time we did the Grammys, in 2006, my friend Peter Leinheiser at Gibson called me up and said ”would you like to play a Gibson on the Grammys? We’ll bring one down for you!” And I told them to bring two, because I need a backup. They drove down to the Staple Center and put one in my hand, and it sounded great. It sounded like Paul.
SB: How would you describe that sound?
BR: If you listen to Paul’s bass soloed, it has a really good pawn muted picked point on it, but then it’s got this wonderful voluminous, pillowy low-end presence to it.. It’s a teardrop shape: it’s got a point on top, and it’s big and round at the bottom. And the SG bass did it really well. It’s also a shorter scale bass to medium scale, and I believe the Höfner is technically short scale. But this isn’t a long scale necked job. It doesn’t need that kind of crazy sustain and all those overtones. It need that big, fat fundermental tone that’s kind of pillowy – with a point! Also it only weighs about six pounds, which is great. I can leap around when I’m not singing.
SB: Would you agree that Paul’s chosen sound reflects his personality?
BR: I’ve never thought of it that way, but yes! He’s pointed in that he’s still very curious. He’s intellectually stimulated – and stimulating. He’s smart and has a sharp wit. So that’s a point. And then ’s very tolerant and has got a lot of capacity for love, so that would be the bottom part of the drop. So yeah, I would say so.
SB: I get the feeling that he can be a tough taskmaster, when needed. Correct?
BR: I think he’s the kind of guy that hires and attracts people who do what they do very well. They don’t need a lot of coaching. But he’s also a working class guy from Liverpool. Touch place. It was not cushy there. His thing is that he wants to see people working. He doesn’t wanna so someone laying back, being blasé or taking everything for granted. So Paul has a way of waking people up once in a while, when they need it. But that’s just the sign of a good leader. I’m doing the same with my band, maybe not as well, but…he’s being a good boss, staying on top of things to be able to be keep moving forward. So people don’t get complacent. And look at how good he is. It’s inspiring. He’s got the strength of four men, and the talent of 20.
SB: Do you know which bass players influenced Paul?
BR: I think he was a big fan of James Jamerson, who played on all of those great Motown classics. In fact, he’s my favorite, too. – When I was a kid, American black music, early 60’s R&B, was the most moving music to me. I believed them the most. I could see what was pop bullshit, and what was for real. I’m sure Paul also loved, and was influenced by, the piano movements in English music hall stuff. In the early days he would play the basic tracks and sing lead at the same time. And then he would overdub the vocals. And then, finally, on Sgt. Pepper he overdubbed the bass in the final stages. But that was also because he was tracking some of the songs on piano or guitar. So he would add the bass later. On a song like Getting Better he is clearly not singing and playing at the same time. That’s very difficult.
SB: What amplification do you use for the bass?
BR: Ashdown 900. Great bass amp with a round bass sound. Strong, Well-built stuff. I never really had a problem on stage with it. And the guys at Ashdown are really cool guys, great to work with.
SB: Do you think good music is timeless?
BR: Good ART is timeless – and Paul and others prove it. Music makes me feel vital and ageless. I’m at my best, playing music and performing. It seems like a glib thing to say, but I knew what I wanted to do when I was four years old and was played old rock’n’roll records by my half sister Jean (of legendary folk duo Jim & Jean). That was it for me – and when I saw the Beatles arrived on the scene I was nine years old I thought ”this is doable. Look at these guys, they’re not that much older than I am, and they’re on the Ed Sullivan Show!” They had the inside jokes, and were a member of a club – a team.
SB: And now you play with one of them. How often do you have to pinch yourself, and often do you feel jaded?
BR: Well, I certainly don’t feel jaded. You know, ”jaded” comes with a side order of bitterness and judgment, and maybe a little bit of regret. That’s the only way you can feel jaded is if you feel you’ve done it all and seem it all. I feel vital, and very fortunate that Paul continues to call for me. But it’s a ”pinch myself moment” every time I go out there. I never lose sight of the fact of how special it is, and how special he is as a performer, singer, writer, and player of instruments. And, after that, of course his place in history.
SB: Is it true that Paul never talks bad about other artists?
BR: yes, and he never acts like he’s ”seen it all, done it all”. He never acts jaded. In fact, he remarks on people who do. He’ll hire a magician to come to one of our parties, and he’ll be into the magic trick or the card trick. And if somebody says ”ah, I know what he just did” he’ll ignore that person, because he wants to believe in the magic. He’s just one of those guys who’d rather believe in it, than have it explained to him why it’s not magic at all. And I love that about him.
SB: That’s probably one of the reasons why you’re both into songwriting as well. Because that can be quite magical.
BR: It is a form of alchemy, isn’t it? You’re pulling of things that are floating around in the air, ideas, and guitar hooks, and production hooks that never existed until you pulled them together.
SB: If you could choose any other artist to work with when Paul stops touring, who would that be?
BR: The Stones. When The Beatles broke up, The Stones were, coincidentally, just coming into their highest period. Albums like the late Brian Jones stuff with beggar’s Banquet, and Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street, with Mick Taylor on guitar, are insane albums. It would be really fun to be an added guy, to stand back there on Ronnie’s side and accompany the band.
SB: Footnote: When Brian Ray is not working with Paul McCartney, he tours with his own band and makes great solo albums. Melodic, energetic, and timeless rock and power pop, but with a modern vibe. His latest album is called This Way Up, and is highly recommended.
BR: It had a lot of great players on it, and we had a great time arranging it on the spot at Eldorado Studios – a real studio, with real gear. Instead of doing it one at a time, like they make a lot of records these days, we played together. I really believe in music being a collaborative, shared experience. I wanted a modern guitar rock album, with classic rock roots and songwriting roots.
To learn more about Brian, please visit www.brianray.com