In Conversation Raging Fire Blues with Alastair Greene
By Wes O’Neill
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Alastair Greene has been a mainstay of the Southern California USA music scene for over 2 decades. Alastair has recently embarked upon a safe bet, even though he doesn’t play slot machines…but we’ll get into gambling later. A new chapter in his career with the release of his solo record “Dream Train” after many years playing with the highly revered Alan Parsons. Alastair has opened shows for many Bluesdoodles favourites in The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robin Trower, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Lonnie Brooks, Jonny Lang, Joe Bonamassa…anyone who is any good is busy right?
Alastair certainly is both but took the time out for me to call amidst the recent raging California fires to chat about his latest release “Dream Train”…
“Dream Train” was released in October and has been really well received – what’s the thinking behind the album and why are you doing this solo now?
I’ve had my band for a long time now and have previously put out a handful of records. I played with Alan Parsons for like 7 years but knew that would come to an end at some point as either Alan would retire or I’d finally figure out it was time for me to leave and launch my own solo career. The album is really me swinging for the fences, trying to make the best album that I could, not that you don’t try for that on every record, but it’s a really important record for me. Writing wise I love the blues and I’m a huge fan of all its tangents. I wanna make everyone happy, I guess we all do deep down, and I have a lot of friends in the traditional blues world that I’ve played with and I can get kinda close to that way of playing/singing/writing but my strengths lie in where things start to rock. It really goes back to a lot of my favourite stuff in Cream, early Jeff Beck Group, early ZZ Top and I love to combine what I dig about the blues in its perceived simplicity as far as the chordal structure goes and then mix in other influences. I grew up listening to Mom’s record collection like Stevie Wonder and The Beatles which is a totally different kind of way of songwriting so that’s had an influence in my combination of the pure blues along with stylised hooks, riffs and melodies. It’s not that I think that the traditional blues is limiting by any means, it’s just that there are guys who are doing it so well so on this record I really wanted to embrace what my strengths are as a writer, a player and a singer.
On the note of writing, did you dig deep into your own life or are you writing about other people, places and times?
Yeah, you know somebody asked me that the other day and the two most personal songs are the two instrumentals. The acoustic one “A Song for Rufus” is about one of our cats that ran off and that was wrote at the last minute. The other one in “Iowa” is dedicated to my Grandmother who lived there and where my Dad spent a lot of his youth. Writing lyrics for me is always a thing in that I kinda want them to be something that people can relate to and not be too personal as you might lose people where they can’t connect with it as it’s hidden away, you know like an in joke no one gets. Sure, you want to write about things that are close to you but you also want to entertain people so it’s a fine line to walk when writing.
I find that I’m an observer of things; I’ll watch people, watch the news and I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in bars and clubs around the country playing so I’ve seen a bunch of stuff. “Down to Memphis” was written in a cab going from the hotel to the airport where the cab driver started talking, telling me his life story so I just got out my phone and started writing it down, maybe he needs a royalty payment for it! Another one is “Big Bad Wolf” about a girl who makes poor decisions in her life but who eventually finds a friend who helps her is more of a story than an observation but there are people out there like it for sure.
The title track is the quickest song I’ve ever written and it’s a proclamation, a mantra in a way, of me re-committing to my solo career. The opening lyric “I never was a gamblin’ man, unless you count what’s in my hands” is me saying this is who I am and I’m gambling with my life.
The renowned producer David Z, what did he bring to the party?
The guys who engineered my last records I always thought of as my co-producers but this was the first time I’ve had an out-and-out producer. I demoed most of the album at home and had a bunch of them where I would send them to David and we would tear them apart and narrow it down to the 12 that would be on the record, not record 16 and then pick which ones but just focus on the ones that really count. What’s cool about Davis is that he’s really easy-going in the studio and he’d have all these subtle ideas about singing, guitar tones and he was the one who brought in the Billy Gibbons cover “Nome Zayne”. He had a load of demos from Billy, we went through them, picked it and David emailed Billy’s people and got permission for us to record it, it’s such a cool song man and people are digging it. An attraction to David was definitely knowing not how many people he had worked with, but who he had worked with which was very validating to me to work with someone like that. There were a few things that we would disagree on a little bit here and there but there was never any friction so I was really able to trust him and my instincts with how the songs were arranged and performed. Ultimately it was cool to have someone else in the room to ask “Good or bad?” and nine times out of ten it was “Yeah, that’s good, let’s keep going!”
That good eh, must have been a breeze tracking the album?
This record was really varied in its recording styles. My last album “Trouble at Your Door” was mostly tracked live then vocals added afterwards and the album before that “Through the Rain” was really put together piece by piece – get the drums down, then add the bass, then the guitar so not as live at all. This record was a combination of styles, for the most part, it’s tracked live but like I said I had demoed most of the album at home here on Logic and there were a few things from the demos that we flew in ‘cos I knew I wasn’t gonna get them any better in the studio like the guitar solo on “Big Bad Wolf” – that’s a plugin right there man and you wouldn’t be able to tell there’s no amp. As you said, there’ll be some purists who won’t like that but you know, they’re welcome to feel that way if they guessed it was a plugin in the first place that it was a solo recorded in my bedroom barefoot and wearing jeans and tee-shirt! I do think there’s something to be said for being in a room with everyone, all the gear and recording live but when the moment gets you, you have to take it. My wife and I recently watched the Tom Petty documentary which is really cool, and there’s a moment where he’s talking about the recording process and what matters is the end result and how you get it. You’re not on stage you’re not in front of people, come to the show for that but in the studio, you are really making this piece of art that’s going to listened to time and time again so it has to be as good as you can get it. With the special guests (Walter Trout, Mike Zito) on this record, technology affords us the ability to fly things in where it’s not possible due to people’s busy schedules to hook up.
There’s a pallet of tones on the record, so for the guitar geeks out there – what was your rig, guitars and effects used?
I’ve had a really good relationship with Hughes and Kettner amplifiers for a few years now, I guess you could say I’m an endorsee of them, so I always had two amps going as well as a direct into the desk in case the event arose where we would want to use a plug-in of some kind. For the heavier stuff, the primary amps were a H&K Tubemeister 36 through a 4 x 12 cabinet with me plugged into a splitter box with one in the vboard and one to the amp bypassing all my effects pedals. The other would go into my pedal board and into an H&K Puretone which is more a real clean amp, a lot of clean headroom and that works really well with pedals. The primary gain/distortion for that was an Xotic AC Booster and a friend of mine makes pedals so I used one of his which I think he calls “Badness” which is a clean boost and a Crybaby Wah Wah. For some of the cleaner tones, we used a ‘72 Super Reverb which has been kinda modded and a Fender Deluxe Reverb. We’d really just mix and match depending on what felt and sounded right for the song. As far as guitars wise, I’m pretty much a Gibson guy but I also have this Musicman Steve Morse guitar. I used a Gibson 335 on the songs that, I wouldn’t say traditional blues, but the ones that lean a bit more that way. A Les Paul is my main guitar, particularly coming out of Alan’s band and that’s pretty much it. There were a couple of random overdubs where I used some guitars that were in the studio – I think I used a Telecaster on some part somewhere, quite simple really but I guess when you see pictures of it all, it’s a lot of gear!
You’ve played with a lot of great bands and artists (Joe Bonamassa, Jonny Lang, The Fabulous Thunderbirds to name a few) over the years – what have you learnt from those experiences?
I think that when you see people that are successful and doing it at a high level (I consider playing with Alan Parsons a high level), that it’s easy to kind of forget the big picture sometimes if you’re playing what you guys refer to as pub gigs – that it’s really regardless of where you’re playing to be professional. Have your songs rehearsed well, have a set list thought out…which I don’t always do mind as if it’s a long gig I’ll read the audience and see what’s going to dictate tempo and dynamic of the show. Any time you’re up in front of people on a big stage where they’ve paid their hard-earned dollars to come and see you, you have to be on it 100%. It is tough with the amount of work you have to do as a working musician and there’ll be some as you say that treat smaller gigs on a local scene as a throwaway thing, an excuse to practice, but it is easy to get burnt out and lose focus so you have to be mindful of that as people will be able to tell. I saw Joe Bonamassa play a couple of months ago…he invited me to come down and hang out, take a look at his amps and all and it was nice that he knew who I was and what I’m doing…he was running late but he took the time to call me to let me know. That sounds like a small thing, but that’s professional. Joe gets a bad rap from some of the more traditional blues guys but everybody has a different path and some will resent popularity and commercial success. There’s a lot of guys out there working their asses off that aren’t getting the same kind of success, not getting the break, tours or whatever and there becomes a kind of psychological game with the headspace that you’re in and the expectations that you have. You think 1+1+1=3 in the music business, then you’re wrong! Going back to your question, you gotta have good songs, good players and you gotta get up there and kick ass. Sure there are other factors like how much money, who you know and so on but that’s where it’s gotta start from…kicking ass.
So, there’ll be Alastair Greene ass kickings for all in 2018?
In the nicest possible way, for sure! Hahaa! Everything that I’m doing right now is around promoting “Dream Train”, to raise awareness of the band, the album and playing shows. We’re looking at recording a live record and maybe put that out later next year. I’m always writing and so I’m already thinking about the next album for in a couple of years’ time! I toured a lot in Germany when I was playing in Alan Parsons band but it’s really England where a lot of my musical roots come from. I’d love to come over to England and kick some ass in your backyard…
In Conversation Raging Fire Blues with Alastair Greene, Bluesdoodles was delighted to have had the opportunity. Copyright and our thanks for fabulous photographs to photographer Amanda Peacock. Bluesdoodles review of Dream Train coming soon…