QnA: James Brown Is Annie
FUNKSTERS James Brown Is Annie's second album is just out and it is produced by Average White Band legend Hamish Stuart – so what's the story? On the brink of their Mad Hatters gig in Inverness on Friday, Barry Gordon answers Margaret Chrystall's questions below...
Q One day a man was walking along, saw and picked up a walnut shell with – many times folded inside, a piece of paper with colourful text from a rainbow of pens to accompany the story of a band called James Brown Is Annie (JBiA) and some of their most significant adventures and legendary moments. I wonder what it might have said?
Barry: (Note: This was by far, the hardest question to answer...)
"When the end finally came, Barry told one of the Funkateers who had gathered round his deathbed, to take Jesse Rae's Claymore, find a pool of calm water, and throw the sword into it. One day, said Barry, a new King will come, the sword will rise again, and Funk will be restored across the land."
Q JBiA II is just out and as well as digital and CD now, there will be a vinyl version in the new year. How come you had a legend like Hamish Stuart (Average White Band) produce it – though I think you got to know him as a band a while ago?
Barry: AWB's Molly Duncan, who produced our first album, still plays in a band (360) with Hamish on a regular basis, so when we needed to find a producer for the new album Molly put me in touch with Hamish.
I wanted to maintain our connection to AWB, and because Hamish had also worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and Paul McCartney – and Hamish has the songwriting awards to prove it – I knew that having him come onboard would dramatically improve JBiA's songwriting, stage performance, and help utilise the three vocalists in the band to greater effect. And it did. Big time. So much so Hamish is almost like the seventh member of JBiA.
We got to know Hamish a little bit when we were asked to play some gigs together prior to recording the album, so he had an idea of what we were all about. Not long after those shows, I sent him demos of JBiA's new material, which he said sounded like modern rhythm 'n' blues. I wrote back asking him if he'd like to produce the new album. His reply: "When can we start?"
Q Why did you decide to have the album mastered in Union City, New Jersey, by Gene Paul and Joel Kerr – why did JBiA go for those people in that place?
Barry: Gene used to be an in-house engineer at Atlantic Records in New York during the record company's most successful period.
The son of guitar legend, Les Paul, Gene had worked with just about everybody (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, The Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones, etc.) and he'd worked on Average White Band's classic albums.
AWB's Molly Duncan (who produced our first album) told me Gene was still working in the business, in New Jersey, and, that, I should give him a shout (he put me in touch) when it came to getting the album mastered. So I did.
Sure enough, Gene offered to master both our first and second albums, and what a great job he, and studio partner, Joel Kerr, did on them.
I must say, though, it was nice to see Hamish and Gene reconnect again after many years, which, I suppose, might not have happened had we not recorded a new album.
Q How did the first JBiA album go down – looking back, what were the highlights of that experience?
Barry: There's no doubt the first album helped cement ourselves as an established, credible act. It put us on television, on national radio, and ensured we could sell out shows in London and across the country. In short, it opened a lot of doors, and introduced us to a larger, broader audience.
The new experiences we gained from it are precious, and will stay with us forever. I don't think there are many bands out there who have headlined two stages at the Edinburgh Hogmanay Street Party before.
I think I speak on behalf of the entire band, though, when I say the key highlight was getting to work with one of our musical heroes: Molly Duncan. We'd grown up listening to his music, so to be directly connected to him/AWB in a working capacity gave us all a thrill, as well as giving us the confidence to believe we belonged within the same circles as he, as equals.
Molly helped us find the groove within our material (he referred to himself as a "funky referee"), so to see the skeleton of songs – that started out as simple germs and basic ideas – transform into fully fledged funk juggernauts (that audiences now sing along to) was a personal highlight.
Molly also has some amazing stories to tell. We once asked him about when he recorded his iconic sax solo on AWB's Number One hit, Pick Up The Pieces. I figured it was recorded midway through a famous New York party, the recording stars of Atlantic Records all sitting in the control booth eagerly awaiting Molly to lay down one of the best instrumental solos of all time. The reality: "I recorded it at 10am, on a Sunday morning, severely hungover. One take and I was out of there."
Q How does a typical JBiA track come about – all of you in studio, core writing and the others joining in and adding things later? Would love to know.
Barry: I pretty much wrote all the songs for the first album on my own at home. And they all had a standard formula: come up with a funky riff for the hook, write a catchphrase for the choruses, then produce a chord progression and melody for the bridges. There was no real mystery to it. The guys would then come into the rehearsal room, I'd show them the tune, and they'd put their own stamp on it. Voila! We had a JBiA song.
For the second album, however, it was vital that the entire band write together. We all needed to take ownership of the group. We wanted to be a band – not just someone's solo project – so we spent a few long weekends at the lovely, picturesque Heriot Toun Studio in the Borders putting all the new material together.
There, we'd expand on individual members' ideas, collectively jam to see what we could unearth, and we'd all have a go at writing a section of a song each. It was fun. Something we'd never done before. We'd occasionally argue, as well, which was a positive sign that everyone cared about how the new songs would run out. From these sessions, we wrote about 18 songs, whittling them down to our strongest dozen.
Everyone has their own distinct songwriting styles, so it'll be interesting to see if fans can detect the differences, or if they think it all sounds like one collective piece (which I hope they do).
That all said, now that we have the benefit of Hamish's songwriting experience, his hints and tips, I've no doubt the third album will be even better than the second. Maybe we could get Nile Rodgers to produce it? I have his contact details. We might need to rob several banks to pay for his services, though.
Q The Momentous Gigs for Good And Bad Reasons question. Gigs as legends/dreams/nightmares/etc?
Barry: Thankfully the good gigs far outweigh the bad. For instance... Selling out three gigs in a row at prestigious venues in London. Being one of the first bands to play at a rejuvenated Leith Theatre. Representing our home town on the Mound stage at the Edinburgh Hogmanay Street Party – a sea of people, as far as the eye could see, singing along to our music.
Then there's opening for Average White Band at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh – that sense you belong at that level, that all the hard work has paid off.
Playing alongside Hamish Stuart and seeing how much the songs we played (the soundtrack to many folks' lives) meant to so many people.
Sharing stages with the likes of The Family Stone, The Headhunters, Little Feat – artists who inspired us to play music, and whose respect we earned. There's been no shortage of memorable shows.
I don't tend to dwell on bad gigs, what few there have been, but... we've been attacked onstage by patients who escaped from a mental health ward before, needed a police escort out of Ullapool once upon a time, and played to a handful of irate, blood-thirsty farmers when we had a full-time Elvis impersonator and a 65-year-old Irish maracas player fronting the band. Some might say they were the good ol' days. However...
Q What do you play on your journeys if you travel around together for tour? Something relevant (ie funky), something more perplexing for an outsider (i.e. Mongolian throat singing, Gregorian chants) or even James Brown, Annie?
Barry: Admittedly, my taste in music is horrifically bad, so we rarely hear any of my choices.
Sometimes we'll listen to Radio 4 (some of us are older than the other members of the group) or we might not have anything playing at all – it's nice to have some quiet, and travelling gives us all a chance to catch up with one another.
But, yeah, most of our road-music is of the funky variety. If our phones are fully charged, it could be anything from a streaming internet playlist – think Thundercat, Vulfpeck, Stuff or Knower (look 'em up, folks, if the names aren't familiar).
We don't have many CDs, though, so you might end up hearing Jamiroquai's first album on repeat for five hours.
Q What are your plans for 2019 (... not that far away etc)?
Barry: To lose weight, reduce my caffeine intake, and get a job working as a dentist in the Highlands – that's where the money is, right?
Seriously, though, I'd like us to play more gigs, improve upon the visual impact of our live shows, and, hopefully, make our way into Europe and North America, as well.
We'll definitely have our new album hitting the shelves on vinyl, and there will be a one-off JBiA Big Band (an 11-piece group) gig to launch it within the first third of the year, too.
Q If you had to pick one track from the new album to take to a desert island with you which one and why? (other artists' work might be there in a grass and palm covered wooden shack plus record player – I'm not totally cruel – but obviously your own newest oeuvre not reached there yet!)?
Barry: I suppose I should say Sandcastles – the song Hamish wrote for us – as it would be the most apt for living on a desert island.
Knowing me, though, I'd probably try and utilise what I could find on the island in order to make music of my own.
Desert Island Funk at your service, Sharks 'n' Seagulls.
* James Brown Is Annie play Mad Hatters, Inverness, on Friday.