Jamie McLean: This Time Around
As the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's guitarist, Jamie McLean has played on some of the country’s most famous stages: Bonnaroo, Red Rocks, JazzFest and Madison Square Garden. But his efforts with the group has also limited the Connecticut-bred guitarist McLean’s ability to record and perform his own bundle of unreleased material. So, earlier this year, McLean recruited a handful of his favorite artists to play a series of weekly residencies in New York and Boston. McLean’s solo gigs eventually evolved into a new studio effort, This Time Around, which shows off the noted guitarist’s skills as both a bandleader and vocalist. Below, McLean talks with Jambands.com about his new project, his Dirty Dozen Brass buddies and how he brings a little bit of The Lion King to each of his performances.
MG- After spending five years with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, why launch a solo career?
JM- Before I was with the Dirty Dozen, I had kind of been a band leader for a while—-I had always done the lead singer or frontman kind of thing. I basically had written all my own lyrics and, when I joined the Dozen, obviously, there wasn't a whole lot of vocals in the band, so I took a little departure from that. In the last two years or so I've just really started to get back to that. Whenever I'm off tour in New Orleans or just have a little bit of downtime, it's just kind of what has poured out of me. It hasn't been a conscious thing where I wanted to go and write a new record or anything like that. I just had downtime and starting singing and playing my guitar again and this is sort of what has come out of that.
Most of the songs on this record were written in the last year, but there are a couple I wrote just before we went into the studio. And there were a few on there that were kind of newer stuff, but, like I said, I started the process maybe two years ago and I'd say the better bulk of the music has maybe come out in the past year.
MG- Have you noticed any major lyrical themes running throughout your music?
JM- Thematically, I'd say there are some songs on there that are heartache-love, relationship based and there's some stuff on there touching a little bit on good and evil type themes. I didn't really write about the war directly, but there's definitely some stuff on there that's good and evil type. "Battle of Wrong and Right" is one and "One of the Innocence" is another. "Too Much of Anything" is a track which isn't necessarily about good and evil, but it talks about gluttony in kind of a way.
MG- After spending so much time with the Dirty Dozen, did you find it challenging returning to more rock-based music?
JM- No, it was actually really easy for me. Like I said, it wasn't necessarily a conscious thing where I said, "I'm gonna sit down and start writing music again." It was really just me sitting on my porch in New Orleans and strumming my acoustic or whatever I had around. And, like I said, it just kind of poured out of me. There were a couple of tunes on there that I wrote in as long as it took me to sing the song—-you know —- stuff that just has been in me for while——it wasn't difficult at all.
MG- Before recording this album, you tested your new material during residencies in New York and Boston.
JM- Yeah, I'd say the majority of those songs we'd played live. The way that the record kind of came about was we did weekly residencies in January in New York and Boston. Towards the end of that month, I wasn't necessarily even thinking about recording an album, but I wanted to document something because we'd been playing so much. I'm on the road so much with the Dirty Dozen that it's difficult to get the band playing really frequently. So after mid-January, I was going to do a live CD and I just realized that I wanted to do a studio thing. The songs didn't really come out of the residency, but they were definitely played there.
MG- How seriously did you consider recording the residency for a live album?
JM- I thought about it a little, but when I saw the amount of money I would spend on a live recording, I thought it was smart to go and spend a little more and really do it right. Tony Scherr came in and helped record it and he was just a Godsend. He's worked with Norah Jones and plays with Sex Mob and Jesse Harris. I just feel like he did it really right; we did it at a really nice studio and had it mastered at a great place. I'm glad I did it in a studio and not live and I'm definitely looking forward to doing a live album at some point. I think the live thing is a slightly different animal, but I'm really excited with the way the CD came out.
MG- Can you talk about your first experience with the Dirty Dozen?
JM- It was when I was still living in Colorado playing and playing with One Flight Up. We just always seemed to be the opening act for the Dirty Dozen when they came to Colorado. We played Colorado a lot and, every time the Dozen came through it, our band was the opening act. We just became really friendly and I'd ask some of the horns to come sit in with my band and they would hopefully ask me to come up and play. It just became kind of a regular thing. I remember one night they were doing the Fox and I came down and got some sushi with Kevin [Harris] and some of the boys and they were like, "Come bring a rig." I thought I was going to come and do a song or two songs or something and they called me up on the second tune of the night. I played for the rest of the night—-I did two whole sets with them and they asked me to come play with them for the remainder of the Colorado tour—- which was like another three dates. We were in Vail and Roger [Lewis] kind of approached me about playing the next gig in San Diego. I remember Roger saying, "Do you need a toothbrush or a change of clothes or something?" I was living maybe an hour-and-a-half away from Vail at the time and I just totally flipped, jumped in my car and got a good amount of clothes. It was like a five week tour and that was it. At the end of the tour, we headed down and did JazzFest. I guess that was 2001 and that was also the first time I played with Widespread Panic. It was my great introduction to New Orleans—-it was an incredible time.
MG- I’m guessing they didn’t have a guitar player at that point.
JM- They didn't have a guitar player at the time. They had a keyboard for the first six months that I was in the band and he ended up leaving. It's just been guitar ever since. I didn't think they were looking for a guitar player let alone a white boy on the guitar. [laughs]
MG- Your work with the Dirty Dozen has placed you onstage with a number of talented musicians. What is your favorite collaboration?
JM- We did an eight-week tour last fall with the North Mississippi Allstars. It just kind of became like one big family—-the North Mississippi guys are incredibly nice and incredible badasses on stage. It was just fun to do a set, and then get off and chill, and then be able to watch those guys do their thing every night. They were nice enough to bring me up just about every night of the tour, so I've have a majority of the North Mississippi songbook in my repertoire. Luther [Dickinson] basically gave me carte blanche as far as with what I could play. I pretty much harmonized with Luther's lineswe kind of did a quasi-Allman Brothers dueling guitar thing. It was fun because that's not something I can do in the Dozen, obviously. On Halloween a few years ago, the Dirty Dozen also opened for Widespread Panic at Madison Square Garden. Being from Connecticut, playing there is the dream. Plus those guys are sweethearts. So that was really special.
MG- You also joined the North Mississippi Allstars onstage before the Black Crowes?
JM- Yeah, my band opened up for the North Mississippi Allstars at the Bowery Ballroom the night after the Black Crowes finished their little run at the Hammerstein. I called Luther when I got in. I was in New York all that week rehearsing and stuff and they found out I was in town. This is one example of how gracious they are: they were like "oh man, you're in New York," and we immediately went out to a barbeque with their whole crew in Times Square and, then, the next two nights they brought me out to play the Hammerstein with them and the Black Crowes. That's not something that they needed to do at all. I guess that's kind of a tipping of the cap to me. I love playing with those guys and I know Chris [Robinson] and the Crowes real well. Those were two really cool nights.
MG- Can you talk about the genesis of your rhythm section?
JM- My brother Carter is the drummer and I've played with him ever since he's had sticks and I've had a guitar. We just have an insane brotherly ESP. We've obviously played together forever and I don't really need to use words with him at this point. I bring the songs in and show them to the band and he'll kind play along. Carter always comes up with exactly what I would hope for on the song —- and what I'd expect from the drums. He's the drummer and he is living in New York. He plays on The Lion King on Broadway and also with Martin Luther who's recorded with d'angelo and stuff like that. The bass player is Derek Layes and I knew him when I was living in Colorado, briefly. I had a band out there with my brother and Derek. At the time he was doing a lot of jazz stuff. He was always a good guy and he came and we played a little bit out there.
MG- So this project is, in many ways, a reunion of your former group One Flight Up.
JM- When I started to come up to New York to try to get something together as a band, Derek was in town and playing with my brother a lot, so it was a pretty easy choice. Carter and him are kind of like the traveling rhythm section because they just have the pocket going on. Jon Solo is the keyboard player, and I met him through Derek and Carter when I would come up to New York and play. He's sick—-he plays organ and piano. It's funny, when he first started in the band, I'd bring these tunes in and I'd take a solo and he didn't want to. He was like "I don't want to take solos," and most of January he wouldn't solo. Then, all of the sudden, I was like, "Jon, take a solo man," and apparently he'd been dying to do it and I don't know why we didn't make that clear in the beginning. But now he's just ripping, he's insane, he's killing it. Shelby Johnson sings back-up on the record, and she toured on d'angelo's Voodoo Tour. She just makes everything I sing sound like butter. She's just got an amazing voice and she's a sweetheart, and she kills it on the backup vocals.
MG- Do you find it challenging playing a supporting role after being a lead guitarist for so long?
JM- Yeah, a little bit. I wouldn't say it's challenging—-it's definitely led me to want to do some other things. It's been totally incredible. I love playing that role—-playing the funky rhythms over one of the badest New Orleans brass bands. It ain't a bad gig! It's a good time, but, at the same time, I want to get out and sing a little bit. They give me total freedom though. I can take solos on any song, and I've had one rehearsal with them in the last five years, and that was to go in and record the Medicated Magic album, which had Norah Jones, Dr. John, Robert Randolph and all these people on it. So I learned everything on the bandstand and it was basically left up to me. They trusted me with my musical taste and they never told me, "hey, play this or don't play this." I just play what I want to play. But the freedom is great, but, at the same time, yeah, there's other stuff I'm into.