Bluesdoodles had the great pleasure of chatting to the very amiable and talented guitarist/singer/songwriter Laurence Jones soon after the completion of his band’s eponymously self-titled excellent new album.
Bluesdoodles opened the interview by enquiring how the guitarist was doing?
Yeh! it’s going really good with the new album coming out soon.
It’s coming out at the end of the month and I read that you’ve been holding back from playing songs from it when you play live?
We’ve been playing a couple, the two releases we’ve had as singles; the first one was “I’m Waiting” and the second “Everything’s Gonna be Alright. Since then it’s been really cool, we’ve been listed on Planet Rock with “I’m Waiting” and we’ve also got listed on radio in Holland which means things have really taken off for us out there.
That must be really pleasing, they are both cracking tracks. I was looking at something on YouTube where your keyboard player was saying that the singles had caused a really positive reaction at festivals you’ve played.
Well, it’s been amazing having Benny Holland in the band as he adds such a different sound to us. These guys are the first that I’ve used twice on a record so we’ve got to work together for a couple of years now and tour together as a band. We’re a real band, which is why I decided to call it the “Laurence Jones band”.
The keys are fantastic on the new album and really stand out. I notice that even in your publicity photos the band feature, rather than it just being you, was that a conscious decision, to reinforce that they are not just a backing band?
Yes, thankfully my record label, Top Stop Music, understand that and they do things very old school in the way they support an artist, whereas a lot of major labels don’t do that anymore. They (the majors) are more concerned with how many millions of followers you have on social media. Top Stop acknowledge that we’re doing things the old school way. The records that I grew up with, like SRV had the band on the cover; the Allman Brothers called themselves the Allman Brothers Band. I just wanted to pay tribute to that really. This record is a bit of a change of direction as well, paying homage to that 60s & 70s spirit.
It’s definitely a progression from your previous album and a lot of that is down to the songwriting. I read that you had gone into the studio and worked the songs a bit more this time with the band?
Yes, there were 4 stages to the songwriting process. The first one was where I wrote about 70 songs – Sorry, you did say 70?! – Yes! it was a lot of songs – the label allowed me to have two years to make the album. We’ve normally brought an album out every year or every year and a bit so I had a lot longer to spend on songs; I then brought them to the band and demoed them, and then picked the best 18 and asked the band to bring their input; generally I trusted their contributions and we developed the songs as a band. That was stage 2. For stage 3 we went to Curacao, a Caribbean island.
Yeh, it was cool but we didn’t see much of it, we had one day out (laughs) and visited our producer Gregory (Elias), who lives out there.
That was better than if he lived in Hartlepool or somewhere similar…
(Laughs) Then we came home for a month. While we were there, Gregory changed the songs, the tempo, the feel and the arrangements completely from how we had them. There were 1 or 2 that stayed the same but generally that was the formula. It was amazing working with Gregory; we’d built up a relationship as he worked on my last album as well; it was the same team throughout. The 4th stage was going to Miami a month later; we’d recorded all the demos in Curacao and after listening to them we were really prepared and it was just about getting the feels right by the time we got to Miami. Gregory even trusted us on some days to lay the songs down ourselves and send them over to him in the Caribbean, then he’d fly in for a long weekend and get us all in shape pretty much.
So, he allowed you to do that while he was down the beach, feet up, sipping a cocktail…
No, it definitely wasn’t like that – he had a few days when he couldn’t be there. He’s a big business man so the fact is that he’s doing this for the love of it – it’s his passion, but he’s also a Grammy award winning producer; he’s won many awards and had number ones that he’s written for people over the years as well, so it’s a real cool combination to have someone that loves what they do but has also been very successful at it.
That gives him a lot more credibility when he’s telling you to make a change because you trust he knows what he’s talking about. Sure.
As a songwriter, you probably put your heart and soul into the lyrics but most listeners’ attention is caught by the dynamics of a song. This album has a lot of hooks in it; did Gregory help to focus on those?
From my point of view, while there are points in my set where I’ll play a long solo, I’ve always been a fan of melodic guitar players and Gregory’s all about getting hooks in vocally; he’s introduced me to doing that more with the guitar as well, so it’s about people being able to latch onto a melody and with that simplicity it creates more layers and textures; that’s what the approach was with this album. We kept it organic, everything we do on the album we’ll be doing live. There’s no computerised stuff on it this time, what you get is what you hear, there were hardly any overdubs, it’s a live band feeling.
That comes over well. There are a lot of good guitarists out there but some can be quite self-indulgent; is it more about writing the lyrical guitar line now with you rather than the blazing solo?
This is an important point of Gregory’s; on the last record he had a little bit of a battle with me where he would be saying the song’s got to be three minutes long and I was determined to get a 4 minute one on there (laughs), but he was saying “let’s do it like they used to do it back in the day when it was, boom, in, boom, out, keep it easy on the ears for the listeners: do you want to make a wailing guitar album or an album for the people that’s got guitar in” and I was “I want to make one for the people”. I’ve been practising vocals with a vocal coach for the last two years so I’ve stepped it up with my voice as I’ve wanted that to be the most important thing and then the guitar, although the guitar us what I’m known for.
I think you have a very good voice and that is one of the things that separates the wheat from the chaff, to be able to sing well as well as play. It’s interesting that you are focussing on it; you’ve never had coaching before?
No, I had vocal coaching for my first album but I’ve really put the work in this time, because I wanted to progress; working with Gregory over the last 3-4 years , he’s taught me that people really latch onto the vocals and that’s the first thing they’ll hear, so without having an amazing vocal people aren’t going to hear your guitar. I’ve always prided myself on making my vocals as important as my guitar when I’m practising and when I’m writing melodies for the vocals. When I wrote this album I actually wrote all the music first before the vocals as I wanted the music to feel really natural, so when I put my vocals on top I’d try to make it as effortless as possible, with all the songs in the right keys for my voice; so it was really thought out.
The backing vocals are really good on the album, which makes a big difference and isn’t something you hear on a lot of blues albums. When you tour the UK later in the year will you be relying on the band to do the backing vocals or are you adding any female vocalists?
I’ve had a full-time female vocalist join the band. She’s called Abby Addy (don’t quote BD on the spelling!) a gospel singer from London, and she’s great; it’s an honour to be singing with her on stage as she is incredible vocally. Our management is friends with Di Reed, who’s Rod Stewart’s backing singer; he lets Di perform “Proud Mary” every night when she’s on the road with him because Rod loves her that much; he takes a step back and lets her perform. When we making the album, it just happened spontaneously; we were in the studio and said the album’s coming together amazingly, we need some girl backing singers and the management said we know just the girl for that. They made a call and Di flew into Miami the next morning and spent the next three days putting all the vocal harmonies down. It was incredible to watch her and to hear some of the stories about the people she’s worked with, like Stevie Wonder and Ronnie Wood, she’s done a lot of stuff.
It can be an extra boost of energy as well as adding another dimension to the music; I notice that Kris Barras has added female backing vocals to his latest record. It’s a bit of a trend and seems like a good one.
Well, as I mentioned Abby is joining us on the road for the rest of the year; it’s been interesting to see how the band has progressed over the years; we’ve got three vocalists on stage and they sing on every song with me. It really is a different show to what people saw a couple of years ago in the UK so I’m really looking forward to getting out there; we’ve been touring a lot in Europe so it’ll be good to tour the UK and my home town and give something back to where I began.
I see you’ve been playing a lot of festivals in Europe; do you enjoy those?
I love them! The festivals out there are done to a high standard, they’re incredible! I’ve been lucky enough to support Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Buddy Guy, Status Quo, Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck, all in Holland.
I was going to ask you about the people you’ve played with, the ones you mentioned and others –have they influenced you at all?
Well, I’ve played a gig on stage at the Albert Hall with Walter Trout and Jools Holland, Ruby Turner, Eric Burdon, Paul Jones and Van Morrison; that was quite an experience playing with all them at once. I’ve been on stage in front of 15,000 people jamming with Buddy Guy; that was a funny moment because he said he’d heard about me, this young boy from England, so he’s like “what do you want to do” and “I said let’s play something in C, actually no, what about A” and he’s like “you fuc*ing with me already boy!” (laughs) in front of all these people, saying “you’d better be good!” I said “I’ll sing one then and prove it to you, and he said “go on then…” that was a fun experience; we played three songs and that lasted about 30-40 minutes, which was cool.
Do you suffer from those nerves in those situations?
I get nervous, but I like the feeling of it, because it means you’re going to have lots of adrenalin on stage and play differently from normal, or step it up, so I feed off of the adrenalin and nerves.
Is one of the attractions of a new album that, apart from the excitement of getting it out there, it means you can stop playing some of the older songs and keep the set fresh? Do you get bored with some songs?
Definitely! That’s why I don’t play the same set each night, that would make it boring for me. I’ve seen a lot of bands on the scene that play the same set for a year or more; you see them on the road and think, you’re still playing the same songs in the same order. I think it’s good to progress, especially if you’re an up and coming artist; if you haven’t hit the big-time yet you definitely need to show that progression is important. That’s what I strive to do with my song writing, that’s why I brought out a new album, because we’ve got something to show and we’re ready for a new direction, which I’m excited about.
Where do you think your songwriting will take you? Do you look around at fellow artists and compare yourself?
I think it’s good to do that and be open to what’s popular and what people like; I listen to all types of music, from the charts, and what’s on the radio, to the records that I’ve always listened to. But, with this album it was a case of, we’re not going to listen to anything modern, we’re going to listen to Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and we’re going to do a vibe like that. That’s what’s been really fun about this album; even though I’ve come from that background, I’ve never really committed to doing an album like that; all of us are using vintage equipment including the Hammond, a 50s-60s Ludwig drum kit and I used my 60s Fender guitar.
Talking about the Beatles, I don’t know if you were feeling particularly brave (laughs) in tackling “Day Tripper!Yes, it’s going to be a hard one to play live as well, but a lot of fun.
Using the groove from SRV’s “Crossfire” and dispensing with the riff until the end was inspired. Did I read that was Greg’s idea?That whole idea was Gregory’s from start to finish so I can’t take any credit for that, unfortunately. He said, “we’re going to tackle a song from your friends in Liverpool (laughs), I’ve got a cool idea.” He wanted to reflect my SRV influence as well as see what it would sound like played by a young modern band.
You also did a great cover of “Fortunate Son” so you don’t shy away from covers and don’t feel that playing covers detracts from showcasing your own songwriting?No, I love it! I love watching Hendrix or Clapton doing a cover, they make it their own; you don’t expect it when someone throws in a cover and I like to add surprises, it’s another thing we can do. When I do a cover, I never copy it, one, because I can’t! I tried and tried in my bedroom in the early days playing SRV licks; I couldn’t do that so developed my own thing that felt natural; I guess that’s what I do, play a cover in my own way and people seem to like it; it just seems the most natural thing to do.
Sure, I think audiences love it too, they enjoy the new twist that gets added. Did I read that you dropped out of your University course to go on tour with Walter Trout?That was actually to go on tour with Johnny Winter.
That must have been a bit of an education!It was amazing. I was studying music (laughs) and I had this opportunity and thought I can’t really carry on. I didn’t even go to my cap and gown event as I was playing at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with Johnny Winter. That should have counted towards your practical, getting top marks! (laughs) Well, I’ve been on the road ever since, so I’m not bothered about having that up in my house. They’ll probably ask you back in a couple of years and give you an honorary degree! (laughs) I have been back to Uni’ actually, to conduct a masterclass, which was cool.
Did I read that Walter was a bit of a mentor to you?That’s right, he was really helpful to me in the early days. My second support slot was with him and he’d get me up on stage. I learnt a lot from him, including how to be humble and how he is with his fans and everyone, which I aspire to. I’ve met a lot of arseholes on the road.
Yes, I spoke to Jonny Lang about this and he spoke about how impressed he had been by BB King’s charm and kindness to everyone, and what an inspiration it was. I guess you must have seen both sides of the coin?Definitely; the thing that Walter said to me was “you’ve got to keep the torch going, because if I’m going to help you out you’ve got to promise to help someone else out”. I agreed and have stuck to my promise – I’ve just produced 4 tracks for Toby Lee’s new album. I’ve leant a lot from Walter and he really brings it across that music’s not a competition, which a lot of people can make you feel like it is. But, generally, those old school guys are cool, they all have respect for each and all have their own place and it feels like a family.
I guess they don’t have anything to prove. Danny Bryant also talks about him being a mentor, it’s particularly impressive that he goes out of his way to be helpful.It’s amazing. When he was really ill, back in 2014, I think. He said his liver was bad but had promised to play on my album; he so was so ill but still played on the title track “Temptation”. He was really supportive of me back in the day and got me up on stage every night, which he didn’t have to do; I really respect him for that.
He sounds like a lovely guy. When you’re standing in the wings and watching at close hand the guitarists you’ve been on tour with, have you picked up influences or do you just play the way you play?I know what you mean; it’s not about watching how they play because that’s them and they’re just being themselves and the first thing I note is that I’ve got to be myself. The main thing I do is to listen to the live sound of their vocals and guitar. It’s one thing hearing it on record but hearing it stood next to their amp is something else. I take away more from seeing how they play with feeling or how hard they hit a note or how much attack they give the guitar, which is what I look out for.
The quality of amplification and other equipment has improved immeasurably over the years. Do you use many pedals and so on? Joe Bonamassa, for instance, is a total guitar and amp nut, are you the same or more plug and play?Oh, I’ve been involved in the guitar disease bug! Over the years I’ve spent a lot on buying vintage guitars and exchanging and swapping them, but I’m actually set on my equipment now and am endorsed by Marshall; they’ve got an old Bluesbreaker amp I use and a new amp, that I’ve just been filming for, yesterday actually. I also use Fender amps and have an old school Fender Hot Rod DeVille, that I bought in Denmark (in a guitar shop called “Plektrum”). I also just bought an original 1964 Fender Strat from the same place, so I’ve got a simple clean sound, using re-issues because I want a modern amp that’s not going to break down on stage. Most of the tone is in the guitar for me and you can’t beat the old guitars. After we left Miami, we went to a guitar shop called Walgrave’s Vintage and Rare Guitars just before we went to catch the plane; I didn’t have the intention to buy anything but this guy sat me down with a Gibson ES 335, the guitar that BB King played, a cherry red 1960. I’d seen BB twice and he’s one of my heroes but I didn’t think it was for me; however, we played it in a booth and turned the amp up. My bass player said “it’s the best sound I’ve ever heard but it’s taking my head off!” (laughs). I thought about it during the week and ended up selling 4 of my guitars in order to buy it! It was expensive, $12,000!
It’s amazing that there are any vintage guitars around left to buy as people like Joe Bonamassa and others seem to buy them up by the truckload.
That was one of the reasons actually why I wanted it; I thought if I leave this here – it had the original sought after PAF pickups – then someone’s going to have it and I can’t let it go! It happens once in a blue moon that you pick up a guitar and think, I don’t care what make or colour it is, I just love the sound. I’ve got a tiny pedalboard: I’ve got a tuner, a mini-wah pedal – I’m endorsed by Mad Professor Pedals – I use a royal blue overdrive pedal, another Marshall Bluesbreaker overdrive pedal and a reverb pedal.
You see some guitarists with massive boards with about 20 pedals on and you wonder if they can actually pick what to use when.
It’s way more confusing; I had a bigger pedalboard with about 8 on there and had to strip it down; I like it right under my feet, otherwise there’s too much dancing around and I do enough fiddling around with the guitar as it is (laughs).
Focus on playing the guitar…
When you tour in November are you going to be playing many songs from the new album?
We’ll be playing every song on the album.
I presume you’ll be stretching these out, playing extended solos etc, or are they going to be short and sweet?
We’ll be putting on a full live show and are about to go into rehearsals for it and the album launch, which is happening in Holland and is almost sold out, followed by a 3-week tour in the UK, so we’ll definitely be around.
I expect dates are already in the diary for 2020?
Yes, you’ve got to be one step ahead, that’s the way it goes.
Do you find that you can keep the songwriting going when touring, perhaps jamming a riff during soundchecks?
That’s how I wrote all my previous albums, but since my last album I’ve written the songs on my own. I’ve been writing some tunes already for the next album. I’m always working ahead. I don’t do it because the label says we need new a new album in 3 months-time. I record them on my i-phone, put them in a folder and listen to them on the plane or tour van. I make a list and pick the best. The band hate it when I bring them new songs, complaining that they’ve just learnt the new album, that’s not even out yet (laughs).
Do you ever throw them curveballs during the set, choose an old unrehearsed song?
Yeh, we’ll get to the show and we’ll be standing around, all serious, talking about the set and I’ll say “let’s do “Thinking About Tomorrow””, one we haven’t done for about a year and a half and the bass player will be looking at me, like I can’t be serious, and I’m just winding them up (laughs). That’s one of my favourite pastimes on tour, winding them up.
You’ve got to wind up the bass player and drummer, that’s almost obligatory!
At this point Bluesdoodles decided that Laurence had been grilled sufficiently and wished him all the best for the album launch and tour, which we are looking forward to seeing; look out for future reviews in our live section.
Planet Rock presents Laurence Jones Band
November/december 2019 UK Tour