Interview: Blackberry Smoke

I think at this point we try to discover new bands all the time. But historically we've always been Little Feet, Lynard Skynyrd, Rolling Stones, Ohio Players and Parliament, Funkadelic. We love all that stuff.

Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke are one of the hardest working bands around in the good old rock tradition of constant touring, only stopping briefly to lay down recordings of newly written songs before heading back out on the highway. When they rolled into London’s Roundhouse on 28th March of this year, Echoes and Dust’s Andy Little met up with the relaxed and hospitable drummer Brit Turner to discuss their work ethic, diverse musical influences and heroes, plus the band’s flexible approach to recording.

Please note: this interview was taken before the sad passing of the legendary southern rockers The Allman Brothers founder, Greg Allman, on 27th May 2017.

(((o))): How’s it going?

Brit: It’s been great, Man. Been in Europe for the last 1/2 weeks. Just got to the UK, yesterday, and played Oxford. Then carry on through the UK. And then we go home for a couple of days.

(((o))): Only couple of days?! Then you’ve got another leg of gigs to do in America?

Brit: We do have a lot mounting up. We stay pretty-busy.

(((o))): Do you find there’s a difference between UK and European audiences?

Brit: I think it’s different from country to country. Sometimes people are more polite and some people are more demanding. I mean, our experience is that Scotland is off the chain. I mean, they are fired up people!

(((o))): Are they appreciative?

Brit: They’re not walking out. They’re not asking for their money back (laughs).

(((o))): You guys are over here promoting your new album Like an Arrow. After the success of Holding All the Roses, did you approach the new album differently?

Brit: No, I feel like if we are asked how we want to do something, it’s always going to be totally different, because time is to do with what we can get done. We tour so much, a lot of times we’re like, ‘Oh, Man, we’ve got a handful of songs here, we’ve got an album-full of songs ready, let’s look at the calendar and see.’ And it’s always, when we’re off for Christmas or Thanksgiving with our families, and then we’ve got to duck out and record, which we always enjoy doing, but it just is to do with time. We just get in while we can. We cut a record while we can. I don’t really know what we’d sound like if we took our time to do a record. It may ruin the whole formula! I mean, I don’t know if there is one but we really can’t do it any different.

(((o))): Unless you employ producer Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange (Def Leppard, AC/DC) and take three months just to record the snare drum. (Brit laughs)

Did you all get along making decisions when self-producing the new record?

Brit: Pretty much. I mean, we’ve all got our opinions, but our opinions are pretty much alike when it comes to how we like things to sound. Specifically, with this record… I mean, after the last record we didn’t say ‘next record, we’re going to self-produce’, it was more like ‘We’ve got this window of time, let’s run into the studio we did the last record in. The same engineer is going to be there, the other assistant engineer is going to be there. We’ve used the studio twice before so, let’s just go in and record these songs, and if it doesn’t sound like an album, maybe we’ll think about getting a producer in or someone to help.’ But we were like, ‘This sounds fine. We love it!’

And you know, with Brendan O’Brien on the last record, we were just huge fans of his work. I mean, he’s done so many things but early on like Raging Slab, The Four Horsemen, Black Crows. And his musical talent, himself – he’s played in bands in our town, growing up, he’s from Atlanta. So, from Day One, when we put the band together, he was a success and we were like, ‘Oh Man, it would be great to have Brendan O’Brien as producer, but we didn’t have the money, and he was so busy. So, it wasn’t that easy to achieve back then but we always kept him in the back of our minds.  And when we were going to record The Whippoorwill we asked and they said he’s not interested! And we were like, ‘Oh Man, that crushed our dreams’ [laughter] And then later, when we asked him again, he said ‘I don’t know who you contacted, Dude, but I never heard about it!’ So, he didn’t turn us down in the first place! But that was great working with him to make this great sound. He’s a great talent and he’s fun to work with.

(((o))): Did you learn a lot from him?

Brit: Every time we go in with a big producer, who’s done so many things that we love, we try not to derail them by asking too many questions like, ‘how did you get the sound on this record?!’ It’s fun. And we may get a producer for the next record… It honestly depends on people’s schedules. We want to experience many different things musically, and it’s always going to sound like Blackberry Smoke, but it’s more of a take and leave… Can we learn something? Can it be better than we can imagine?

(((o))): All your albums have the Blackberry Smoke sound but they are also slightly different, Like an Arrow has a mellowness and smoothness that’s different from Holding All the Roses.

Brit: Well sometimes a body of work fits together nicely. I think when a lot of people say about a record this is so much different, to us it’s not, really. We always seem to have a couple of songs that rock, a couple of songs that are traditional country sounding, and a couple of songs that might be here and there – not on purpose, it’s just how it happens, because we like so many different styles of music.

(((o))): You’ve got a lot of influences. In the past, you’ve been labelled the next Lynyrd Skynyrd. But there’s country, gospel, blues in your music. Does everyone in the band bring something different to the table?

Brit: I think at this point we try to discover new bands all the time. But historically we’ve always been Little Feet, Lynard Skynyrd, Rolling Stones, Ohio Players and Parliament, Funkadelic. We love all that stuff. It’s gives us the same feeling, all those different styles…  ‘Believe You Me’ is a very funky track, but to me it reminds me of something that Wet Willie would have done. Somebody said, ‘Are you trying to do a dance track?’ And I was like, ‘I hope people can dance to a lot of stuff!’ But that wasn’t our goal, just what came out.

Charlie has the whole history of bluegrass and traditional acoustic music. His father played bluegrass, so he grew up around that. We would obviously see bluegrass bands at fairs and things, growing up, but I wasn’t involved. Other than that, we all went through the same upbringing where you listen to what your parents listen to, and then you start discovering Iron Maiden. Of course, growing up, on the radio it was Tom Petty and bands like that. But when you first start playing music, especially the drums, it’s sort of a sport. It hasn’t really become musical so you start to discover metal. What is Metallica?! And you like get all of that, and Judas Priest and Maiden, and I love Sepultura.

Then circle back around playing with friends and stuff and you’re just back to where you started with that world, and loving the Eagles and that California country-type stuff, Gram Parsons. That’s always been something that we appreciate. Early on, in the band, driving ourselves all over the country, we’d always have [on] Steve Earle, Gram Parsons, The Stones, and just anything and everything.

(((o))): On your new album there’s a track, ‘Free on the Wing’ with Gregg Allman [RIP] who is one of your big influences. How did that come about?

Brit: Well, it was weird. We’d done some shows with Gregg’s band, and with the Allman Brothers, then asked to be on the festivals that they own and operate in the US – One Eighty and The Peach Fest, which are huge. And they just treated us so well. Our manager knows Greg Allman, and at some point, in conversation, he mentioned he’d like to do something. And of course, we’re like ‘When?’ Like, if it’s convenient right now, let’s do it before he doesn’t want to do it! [Laughter] But you know, that guy is very busy. It was obviously in the front of our minds, but we don’t want to get our hopes up because you don’t want to tell anybody because you don’t want to get egg on your face, and you don’t want to get too excited about it so if it doesn’t happen it’s (not) a real let down. But, we booked the studio time and we called our manager to say let him know that we’re here from here to here, so if he wants to come, anytime, we’ll do that song that day or whatever. We work so quickly.

My job as the drummer is to get my drum tracks done so everybody can do their thing – that’s always been the way that it works. So, it got down to we were knocking songs out and we get to that song, and we’re about to cut this, he’s got to have surgery or something… there’s some serious situation here… So, we cut the song and he was going to come in when they were going to do vocals. And the next thing we know, he couldn’t come in. And we flew to Spain – we were starting a run (of gigs), last year and they called us and said Greg’s coming in, right now, to sing on it! And we were like… OK! We were hoping to be there! But with technology today those problems are easy to fix, there’s iChat, and sending tracks back and forth while we’re on and off stage listening to him and thinking this is awesome, without giving any sort of direction. But I mean, we wanted Gregg Allman and he did it! It’s Gregg Allman on our record! it’s amazing! But when you hear it, I really don’t know how to feel about it, it’s so unreal to me.

(((o))): The band has been together for 16-17 years, did you believe, when you first started out you would ever record with Greg Allman or end up playing venues like the Roundhouse, in London?

Brit: Especially not London… Well, you know, we have friends in our neighbourhood who’ve been in bands that didn’t do anything in the US and have broken up and come over here and had a number one hit – The Georgia Satellites. And they went on to have a huge career. The Kings of Leon, they couldn’t sell three tickets in America and they came over here and something happened. And then they come back to the States and they’re a huge band. And the Black Crows did well over here. So, we’d always wanted to come over to the UK.

The first time we started to plan our tour the promoter’s like, ‘The UK is so expensive! Let’s do mainland Europe first!’ So, we came over in ’09 and did Europe and we knew, at that point, we were like, ‘this is something, over here!’ Because there are so many things going on in America, it’s very hard for any band to get traction. There’s so much going on, so many bands, so many venues, so many outlets for music and this and that. I don’t know what it is, but radio really controls things in the US, and of course, if we’d been getting huge radio play it wouldn’t have been so hard to build our audience, but it took us years of just travelling, and the fans spreading the word and it just grows. Here, we played The Barfly, much later we sold out the Shepherds Bush Empire, maybe eight months later, London’s Forum. And we’re playing here, tonight.

(((o))): It must help having the Classic Rock radio station, Planet Rock, enlist Blackberry Smoke as one of their regular playlist bands. And they have a million listeners UK wide.

Brit: Over here we do have so many special relationships with so many great people, like Michelle, our PR Person. I mean, when you first meet someone and they tell you they’re going to do something, and they actually do it, it’s a great thing! [Laughter] It’s very hard in America, it’s more like people are like lawyers, ‘Hey, I don’t know, I can’t guarantee the outcome’. But everyone we’ve worked with over here, and Earache (Records) has developed relationships with Planet Rock and Classic Rock (magazine), that’s been very valuable. Then our manager came over and helped get us on Later with Jools Holland. And that was magic!

(((o))): That show has been going for many years and is a prestigious music show.

Brit:  We know about the thing. There are so many viewers that that’s where you need to be. So, all these little things together have helped us to get to where we’re playing now… The Roundhouse.

(((o))): You’ve had a lot of different record labels, haven’t you?  Is Earache Records more solid and stable?

Brit: We’ve always been very down roots because record labels, especially in the US, the massive ones, that can really do something for you, are just so damaged and so deluded with weird business. So, we made a decision in the beginning, that we’re going to do what we can control, which is writing music, recording it and playing it live and that’s all we’re going to focus on. We’re not going to be like, ‘Well, let’s not put this out, because the label may want to put this out!’ We’re not going to do that. We just recorded a couple of songs, played them to some other friends that had studios, and were like, ‘if you ever want to come in and record’ and we managed to do a whole record… and we just ended up doing it in a garage, our first record. And it just kind of grows from there. So basically, we just want to do better every time, and that’s what we try to do.

(((o))): In a way, you’re doing it the traditional way, Like the AC/DC’s song, ‘It’s a long way to the top if you wanna Rock n Roll’! In the last year bands that have been together 10–20 years or so, Rival Sons, Drive-By Truckers, Clutch, all of whom have had limited airplay but have built great reputations for their live performances (and for releasing very good records) have headlined the Roundhouse.

Brit: It can be done. It’s just a matter of sticking to it. People say, a lot of times, ‘Hey, I really love it that you guys did it your way!’ I said, ‘Well, we had no other choice, there were no other options!’ I mean no one was pulling up to our house in a limousine full of money and offering it to us, but we knew that we enjoyed what we did, when we play. That’s the way it is. You’ve got to enjoy it too, Man.

(((o))): Would you enjoy the Nirvana way where you’re small and then just go massive in a couple of months?

Brit: I’d take that! [Much laughter] Will it happen next week? But no, we are proud of what we’ve accomplished: having had Gregg Allman on our record; recording with George Jones; all those things make any sort of tour misery worth every bit of it. The milestones that we’ve enjoyed.

Adrienn Pucher: If you don’t struggle in the beginning, you won’t make it big.

Brit: That’s true, we can always be the grandparents that say, ‘You’ve got to work hard for what you do!” because we don’t know that that happens in the other way.

Blackberry Smoke are due to start a comprehensive tour of USA starting June 15th taking them through to the end of September. For the full details check out their website.

A special thanks to Echoes and Dust photographer Adrienn Pucher for stepping in to save the day at very short notice as sound engineer. Check out her excellent photos taken at the afore-mentioned Roundhouse gig here.

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