The Kenneth Brian Band may not be the most famous band in the world, and you may not have even heard of them, but I’d be willing to bet that at least one musician you really dig has, because they’ve probably played with them or had them in tow as their opening act. With a modern blend of Blues, Country, and Southern Rock, the band has been making quite a name for itself lately. They’ve supported ZZ Top, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Winwood to name a few, and they share drummer Steve Ferrone of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Another one of the Heartbreakers, Scott Thurston appears on their latest album “With Lions” which was released earlier this year.
This interview was conducted just a few weeks before the untimely death of Tom Petty, but it bears mentioning because when Ferrone was on tour with Tom Petty, Chris Cano played drums. Kenneth Brian on lead guitar/lead vocals, Travis Stephens on rhythm guitar/harmony vocals and Paul Ill on bass/harmony vocals round out the band.
Their fourth album “With Lions” was recorded right here in Hollywood at “Dave’s Room” and was engineered, produced, and mixed by the studio’s namesake Dave Bianco (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty) and mastered at my favorite musical landmark, Capitol Studios by Kevin Bartley.
Kenneth and Travis sat down with me to discuss the production of “With Lions”, touring, recording, and whatever else came up.
What was it like recording at “Dave’s Room”? I know that place is known for its audio quality. What equipment did you use to get just the right sound?
Kenneth : Dave’s has a lot of really great outboard recording gear, and stuff like that. When we first toured with Lucinda Williams, she got us in there to do a couple of tracks because she had done her last couple of records there. When we were tracking guitars we thought, “Man, this sounds great”. It turns out that he was using the same quad eight pre’s that we had used in Alabama with Johnny Sandlin. The room is great; everything else is just killer there. If you went shopping for a studio, just about everything you would ever want to have is there. It’s got a crystal clear punchy but analogue sound.
You mentioned Neves. Did they have a Neve console?
K: He didn’t have a Neve console; he had a bus, with 4 channels to mix down into. The console that he has is a digital control console, but it’s controlling all the analogue gear.
What gear were you using?
K: I have a 52 LP that was refinished by Gibson in 59, and I was playing that into 1949 Fender tweed pro. I only changed guitars once. That was it. There was a plate reverb too. I barely changed guitars on the record.
Travis: I tend to stick with one setup for my dirty stuff and one setup for my clean stuff. I believe I plugged into a Traynor for a couple of things. I use a lot more than Kenneth, he’s more straight into the amp, and I use a lot more “cushion”. Tremolo, reverb, etc.
Would you say you’re more of purist Kenneth?
I’m not one of these kinds of people that need to wear suspenders and a bow tie purist, but I’m definitely a purist when it comes to sound. I like to use a combination of old and new sound, whatever it takes for what we’re doing. For this record, it was the first time I used a delay pedal live, I used to just run right into the amp. What I grew up with, country and blues, southern rock, jazz, and when I go in to do my thing, its straight forward. 75% of what we do is live in the studio.
Do you have more fun doing it that way?
Yes, it’s much better than having to do take after take after take. You can go crazy recording tracks, and at some point you have to go with what just feels right. The kind of style of music we do needs to be done as close to live as possible.
Did your recording process differ on “With Lions” than it did on your other albums?
It was very similar. David Bianco is an old school kind of dude. Working with the guys that he did, like Rick Rubin…The best producers I know, they tend to stay out of the way of the band, until they have an idea, and then it’s the greatest idea you’ve ever heard. So that’s how David was. We spent less time getting rhythm tracks down on this record than any record I’ve ever done, probably because we had Steve Ferrone and Paul Ill on the bass. Steve could hit a garbage can and sound better than 95% of the drummers out there.
How did you meet David Bianco?
We met through Lucinda Williams. When we were on tour with her for two and a half years, and we were playing the Roxy one night and Lucinda came out at the urging of a friend to see us play, and then flipped out. She ended up taking us out on tour and we became really close friends. She was doing her record at Dave Bianco’s and they wanted to get us in there to do some tracks, and we ended up cutting a few songs, and then her and I cut one of our songs completely live. Then she introduced us to Dave.
You spent more than 2 years on the road with Lucinda, and you also spent a lot of time with ZZ Top, what did you learn from all of that?
K: How to be an opener for one thing. From Lucinda, so much of the performance is about artistry, how to hold it together and how to keep it together. How to command an audience in such a way that brings them to communication with you yet doesn’t take away from the headliner. Not necessarily holding back, but just a difference in energy. Hanging out with Billy Gibbons is pretty cool. It’s every guitar player’s dream to hang out with Billy; he’s as cool as you imagine him to be. Billy took hours out of his day just to show us his guitar rig, and then talk to Travis and me for hours about music. He knows everybody who’s played on every record. He’s rocket scientist kind of smart.
I’ve often wondered about the art of being an opening act. Is there a certain set of rules you have to follow? Is there a protocol?
K: We’ve been an opener for a lot of acts; we just opened for Steve Winwood the other day, which was pretty cool. Lucinda wanted us to just go out there, kick ass, and not hold back. Winwood was as cool as could be. There’s an art to “breathing fire” in front of the headlining act, but not going overboard with it. If you want to come back, you don’t want to stand on the monitor and light your guitar on fire. There are ways to bring up the intensity of what you’re doing without having to showboat. There’s a huge set of rules you have to follow, like, don’t end 30 seconds late. We were opening for Blackberry Smoke and I ended almost a minute late. They didn’t get on me, but I was like “oh crap”. You want to stay out of the way of everything that’s going on. I think a lot of bands that have potential blow it because it’s not a party. They show up late for sound checks, play 10 minutes too long. If you’re gonna play 10 minutes too long, enjoy those 10 minutes, because you’re not coming back.
Why did you choose to have your album mastered at Capitol?
K: Well, the label association was with Rob Christie at Robo Records, and we had a tie-in with him and with Karen, she’s the wonderful lady that does PR for us. They are both associated with Capitol and we had the opportunity to do it. Kevin Bartley told us “there isn’t much for us to do”, but he did old school mastering. When I master something, I’ll just basically put space between the songs, but Kevin did a little more than that. He leveled the whole thing out for us, he didn’t put massive amounts of compression on it, but he didn’t have to do a whole lot. What he told us was that Bianco had pretty much provided us with everything we’d wanted. When mastering goes in the right direction, it’s just so much more tied together than it was, and it sounds so much better. You can’t really put your finger on why it sounds better, and that’s the mark of a great mastering engineer. When I used to get things mastered in Nashville, it would take two or three takes, but Kevin did it in one. That’s pretty cool.
What influence has Steve Ferrone had on the band?
K: Steve is one of the greatest musicians who’s ever lived, and he’s in one of the greatest bands ever; Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. He’s a great person and a great human being; he helps a lot of people out. Musically, he’s provided a big old beat and took our songs in a place it might not have been. He’s been a constant reminder that when things are going this way or that way from a business perspective to just not worry about it, and to just keep the music first. Tom [Petty] is also like that; he always keeps the music first. A lot of people might say, “Oh, he can afford to do that”, but he was always like that even when he couldn’t afford to. He’s always been like that, music before money, and all that fake fame kind of stuff. One time when we were doing the Malibu Guitar Festival, someone had booked an interview with me and I had to take ten minutes out of rehearsal and he lost it. He called up the manager and started screaming at him, “How dare you book an interview in the middle of the rehearsal, I’ll come over there and…” Tom Petty is like that man; it’s all about the music first. All of the Heartbreakers are like that actually. And Tom? Tom’s more relevant now than he was in the 70’s or 80’s, he’s just killer. Scott Thurston helped us shape the sounds of some of our songs by using different guitars on this or that, and using different bass here or there. That was a serious opportunity to have some of The Heartbreakers come in and shape some of the sound. They’ve also helped us to construct the set list, doing it much in the same way that The Heartbreakers would.
Sounds like Tom Petty has been a pretty big influence on you.
K: Definitely! I grew up in Gainesville Florida and that’s where Tom is from, and when the Gator’s ain’t winning, there’s nothing else to write about except what Tom’s doing.
Are you going to catch him at The Hollywood Bowl?
K: I think we are going to go on one of those nights. We both played a few months ago at Summerfest in Milwaukee, and we saw him in Pasadena. I would be great to see him with Lucinda, so yeah; I think we are definitely going to catch one of those shows. You know, every time I see Tom it’s just better, and I’m not just saying that because we’re doing this interview. His sound and energy are just killer you know? Whatever the secret to intensity and longevity is, Tom and his people just have it….
Well, it doesn’t seem to be a life of excess with Tom, maybe it’s just good living.
It is. I think when you grow up just focusing on music, and not focusing on anything else, it just remains that way. One of our friends is a super fan of Tom Petty’s, and we were over at Dave Bianco’s studio, and Steve Ferrone was driving his old Volvo away, and he says to me “Wow, I can’t believe that one of the Heartbreakers drives an old Volvo like that!” I said to him “What do you expect him to do? Show up in a gold Rolls Royce or something?” All of those guys are just really down to earth, kind of blue collar musicians, they’re not all out there blowing all their money on Porsches or what have you.
Lyrically, what’s the most personal song for you on the new album?
K: “Fly Away”. That’s a song about a person I was with, and I dropped her off at the airport in Nashville, and you know when it’s over, it’s over. I immediately got back to the house and wrote that song. For me the writing process can be kind of effortless, songs just come at me and sometime I just have to stop and write them down. But that one, definitely, hits home every time I sing it.
Does she know it’s about her?
K: I have no idea, I haven’t talked to her in…. You know how it is when you bust up! I was dating this one girl, and she said, “My God, I’m never going to date a songwriter again. It’s not because you wrote a bad song about me, it’s because you wrote a good song about me!” I think you know… I think when songwriters date each other, they tend to stay away from the catalogue of songs for about ten years. It’s like the Bob Dylan/Joan Baez thing, “Just don’t listen to my songs for the next five years, and then we’ll hang out after that”. It’s all fun and games man [laughs]…
What’s your choice song on the new album from a performance standpoint?
T: Beautiful Storm is a favorite for me; it’s fun to play live. That’s a song that I get to do a bunch of layering with reverbs and delays and things. I’m really busy during that song, even though the chord progression isn’t super complicated. When it’s done live, we’ve added a cool extension to the end of the song, a kind of jam.
K: For me, as far as live for the new stuff, “You’re Not Mine” is a killer. We take it into a different place every time, and we expand on it in the middle. It’s got a great energy!
So who holds it all together when you perform live?
K: I’m a firm believer in the old school theory that it’s the drummer that’s at the helm. I’ll call out stuff and make sure everybody stops at the right place, but pretty much my freedom on stage comes from being around great drummers. Steve Ferrone has played with me and when he’s out on the road with The Heartbreakers, we have Chris Cano out here from L.A., he’s killer. I’ve just been blessed to be around great drummers. The rhythm section is the most important part of any band, if it doesn’t exist, I can’t play guitar over it.
Thanks for your time guys!