Pygmies, Green Bullets, and Shitty Amps: Getting Loopy with Randall Bramblett

Randall Bramblett began his professional musical career in the 1970s. Working solo and then as a member of Sea Level, Bramblett crafted songs that synthesized a long list of American musical forms: soul, rhythm and blues, rock, and even gospel flavorings. The highly regarded musician recently released The Bright Spots, his eleventh solo album. He recently played to a rapturous crowd at The Isis in West Asheville NC. I caught up with him backstage before the show started. Here’s our conversation.

Bill Kopp: The opening track on The Bright Spots, “Roll” very much has the feel of a live number, and not just because of the backing vocals; it has more to do with production and arrangement. Did you – as so often is the case – build the tracks piece by piece, or did you do some amount of live-in-the-studio tracking?

Randall Bramblett: Yeah, I think we tracked all the rhythm stuff live on that one. [Looks to bassist Michael C. Steele for confirmation, and receives it. Steele notes that the version used on the album was “one of the first two takes.”] Bass, guitar, keyboards…all those were done live.

BK: Even before I knew about the water pygmy samples, “Every Saint” reminded me a little bit of Ali Farka Toure. When you’re writing a song and you have chords and melody, do the lyrics help point you in the direction of the song’s overall aesthetic, or do you aim for a feel and then build a song around that?

RB: Good question. The way I usually write is, I’ll have an idea, a scene, or something. An idea for a song. A few sentences that I’ve written down over a period of time. Then I bring ’em out, and I turn the computer on, and I use a loop program. A program that has loops from every style. So I’ll just throw up a loop and then play my electric (guitar) and then sing the rest of the song. With those three things – the loop, the guitar, and a sheet with something on it – I can at least get started. And I know, once I get started, once I get the idea going, I play with it. For a long time, usually.

Those pygmy samples, though…those came from (bassist) Michael Rhodes, when I was working with him in a studio in Nashville. I had already demoed the song, but he happened to have this recording of these pygmies, and one of them was “Water Drums,” where they’re playing the rhythm on the water, and laughing. So the next day I thought, since the song begins with the line, “There’s a funny little creek…” it would be cool if we could get the tempo hooked up right so we could use it. So we changed the tempo of the loop in ProTools, and it came out really beautifully. It gave us a sort of magical, sparkling quality. And if you think about it, too, who knows: they’ve been doing that for, what, 20,000 years. They’ve been down there for that long. So they may have been playing this song forever, and we sampled it and took it and added to it, and built a new song.

It also influenced my lyrics on it too. Because I hadn’t finished the chorus. After hearing that, I wrote the second half, about the winds in the forest, and sending children out to play. All that came out of hearing those kids playing in the water. That inspired the lyrics, so it all flowed together. I love that song. I love hearing those kids laughing.

BK: You seem to be having a lot of fun with beats on this album; the drums and percussion are especially musical, and opposed to merely keeping time. “Till the Party’s All Gone” would be a wholly different song with a different drum part. And then when all the instruments kick in on the choruses, it has an almost Stax soul feel.

RH: Right. It does.

BK: How involved do you get in what parts the other musicians play? Do you give them a lot of space, or do you have pretty definite ideas about what they should do?

RB: I bring the demos, and a lot of the time there are parts that I want to hear. So my band will learn that stuff, a lot of times. But the Nashville guys, they’re like, “No, we don’t wanna do that.” [laughs] They’re pretty big stars, so they’re all, “We’ll do it our way.” So it depends on who I’m using.

And I like it either way. It’s good that they were pushing me in Nashville: “No, don’t play that; play this.” They were nice about it and all. And they were suggesting some good suggestions. I like that; that’s why I hire these guys: give me something back!

My guys do that too, but they’re more likely to like the demo and say, “We’d like to do it that way.” Still, they always add their shit to it. [laughs] But in the end, the Athens sessions [on The Bright Spots] are more like the demos [than the Nashville tracks].

Randall Bramblett onstage at The Isis, Asheville NC. Photo © Bill Kopp.

BK: “Whatever That Is” processes the vocals in a way that reminds me of those Green Bullet mics used for harmonicas.

RB: That’s it. [stares and smiles broadly] You didn’t read that somewhere?

BK: No. That’s what it sounds like to me.

RB: That’s exactly what it is. In Nashville, the engineer taped up a Green Bullet and ran it through a shitty amp.

BK: Well, you have to use a shitty little amp; that’s required…

RB: We used a regular mic along with it, so we could mix it in. because you don’t want all that. But you can mix ’em together and give it that old Howlin’ Wolf feel without too much distortion. When we heard it that way, it got me singing in a certain way. So I sang it more bluesy than I would have normally.

And then when I went to Athens, I said, “Let’s go buy a Green Bullet. We’re gonna do this on all of the songs!” We didn’t do it much; we just put a little of that edge in almost every song. Through that little shitty amp.

BK: There’s no digital effect that can accurately model that; a Green Bullet is a Green Bullet.

RB: And you didn’t read about it anywhere. I’ll be damned.

BK: Two points for me!

Michael C. Steele: Ten points for you! [laughs]

BK: It’s always fun to hear an electric sitar on a song. “John the Baptist” has one, but it has a much more middle eastern feel, not at all like The Lemon Pipers.

RB: On the album, that’s a loop. It came off of some acoustic instrument loop set. And I wrote with that loop, so that’s how that song came about. It sounded so cool, I thought, “I believe I could sing something to this.” But Davis [Causey] also played an electric sitar to give it a little more “meat.”

BK: I’m interested to hear how this song will play live, since the horn section and backing vocals are such a big part of it. When arranging the music for tour dates, do you find you have to make compromises in terms of instruments etc. or is live performance always sort of in the back of your mind when you’re writing the songs?

RB: Well, on this record, we said, “Let’s don’t even think about if we can perform these songs live. Let’s just make it a great record.” And then we had to figure out how to play these things! So on this one, we’re missing the horns, yeah. But the way we’re playing it, I’m pretty much doing the horns on the organ. We’ve got the background vocals; the drummer and bass player sing great. So we’re pretty cool.

We did a show in Athens – a one-time thing – and we had all the horns and background singers. And it was fantastic. But we can’t afford to do that on a tour. We pull it off really well now, and we’ve gotten really good at getting all the guitars going on one guitar. I cover some of the horns, and it works as a four-piece group. I was worried about it, but it actually comes off great.

BK: I’ve got two or three more questions…

RB: Take your time. I’m not in any hurry.

BK: “Trying to Steal a Minute” has a sexy Al Green feel.

RB: Or even Isaac Hayes, a little bit…

BK: Yes. That ‘bloop’ sound that repeats in the background almost sounds like a sample of a vintage video game. What the hell is it?

RB: Yeah, what the hell is it? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m telling you, I can pull a loop out that I like and use it for a song, and I’ll have no idea what it is. It doesn’t say what it is; somebody just recorded it and looped it.

We use all those loops. So you’ll hear it onstage tonight.

BK: But you still don’t know what it is! It sounds like what I would have heard as a kid in the 70s going into a video arcade. Space Invaders or something. It’s a totally unexpected sound to find on your album, though.

RB: Well, I didn’t want to do a retro r&b record. I wanted to do something with some edge to it.

BK: We’ve been talking about loops and things, sort of anticipating this question. You’ve been playing, doing session work and recording for a long time, and you’ve been releasing albums under your own name since 1975. How, if at all, has your approach to songwriting and making albums changed in the last few decades?

RB: Some of it comes about because of being able to have a sort of percussion thing; sometimes it helps me get the energy going.

The other thing is, I don’t sit and write like I used to: “Oh, we’ve got a record coming out. I’ve got to stay up for two weeks and write all the songs.” So what I try to do is show up and be more consistent, persistent. Just play with things more.

I mean, I had to learn how to write sober. Because I got sober a long time ago. I used to always write like everybody else: take some speed or coke, drink a bunch, and then you’ll have some great ideas. I’m not one of these people who has these great ideas, where a finished song comes into my head. That doesn’t usually happen. In fact, I don’t know if that’s ever happened for me. I get an idea, and a melody, and I just play with it until it falls together into some meaningful form.

BK: You’re coming back to Asheville this summer for the Bele Chere festival, and I see you’ve got a pretty full tour schedule through late October. What’s next for you after that?

RB: We’re just playing. We’re gonna keep working on this thing a year, probably.

BK: I think the first time I saw you onstage was summer 2006, on an outdoor stage here in Asheville.

RB: We love Asheville. That was probably Downtown After Five. We’ve played a lot in Asheville, really. But I’m still trying to get people to come out. We’ll see how it goes tonight. It’s not easy for us. You know, if you’re somebody like Shawn Mullins who’s had a hit or two, a nationwide thing, you can pretty much go anywhere [and fill a room]. I’m not like that; I’m pretty much unknown, really.

Randall Bramblett need not have worried; The Isis in West Asheville was a packed house, and the audience loved the show. His new album The Bright Spots is out now on New West Records. He’ll perform at Asheville’s Bele Chere festival (July 28 at 4pm) and he tells me he’ll be at the Americana Music Association Festival in Nashville this September. – bk