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Published: 2008/09/23
by Fady Khalil

Jamie McLean’s American Heartache

Jamie McLean knows a thing or two about taking risks. The once-upon-a-time Dirty Dozen Brass Band guitarist left a New Orleans jazz institution to sing his own tune circa 2005. Fast forward three years and two albums later and enter American Heartache, McLean’s latest foray into the wilds of music. Featuring a slew of guest artists, Jamie talks about his latest project, days with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and his ongoing fall tour.

FK- Alright, let’s start from the beginning for the uninitiated. Once upon a time, you were the guitarist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. What was it like taking on that role?

JM- To be a white kid from New York and to be asked to join one of New Orleans’ most storied brass bands was an honor. They took me under their wing from day one and really made me a part of the family. They taught me a lot about the history of music as well as the music business, New Orleans, touring life and what it means to really be a professional musician. It all happened pretty quickly and I was sort of thrown into the fire. I never had a rehearsal with them and I learned everything on the bandstand. During my first 6 months I played with Norah Jones, Dave Matthews, Dr. John, Widespread Panic, as well as touring the entire United States, Japan and Europe. More than anything I took away that feeling inside all of those New Orleans rhythms and grooves. I learned that one note played with all of your heart and soul was worth more than 1000 meaningless licks.

FK- Clearly at some point you decided you wanted to explore your own path musically. Do you remember the event or thought-process that led you towards that?

JM- It was something that sort of percolated over a period of time. Before I joined the Dirty Dozen I had always been a singer and songwriter and bandleader so it was always sort of inside of me. After a few years of touring with DDBB, the songwriting flood gates started to open again. I was writing a lot of music while I was in hotel rooms or on the tour bus or on my porch in New Orleans and it was obviously material that wasn’t best suited for DDBB. Once I had a good sized batch of songs, I began flying back up to New York in between tours to play some of this new music with my brother on drums, Derek Layes and Jon Solo. We started to gel, record and tour a bit and it felt like coming home again. It was really nice to be singing again rather than only playing guitar. Singing is a really physical thing that strikes an entirely different chord in me than guitar. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing guitar but singing and playing is a whole other animal. Playing with Dirty Dozen Brass Band was an honor and I brought my best playing to that band every night to try to push myself and to make them a better band, but after a certain amount of time you need a change.

FK- You’ve released a few albums with your band already. What would you say are the goods, bads, and uglies about charting your own path?

JM- I’ll start with the goods. First and foremost, I left Dirty Dozen Brass Band because I wanted to play MY music. That is the most rewarding part of it for me. To see the fans responding to my songs and my lyrics is what it is all about for me. I love the physical aspect of singing and that is something that I’ve wasn’t able to do consistently with DDBB. Being on my own I have a lot more control over some of the details including when, where and how long we tour. I have my hands on the reins a bit more and I know that all of the decisions we are making are for the right reasons and have the band’s best interest involved. When things are going great you feel a bit more pride about it because you know all of your own blood sweat and tears were involved. On the other hand when things don’t work out the way you planned you feel that sting a bit more. I love being on my own because I love really being involved in all sides of the music. I am involved with everything from the songwriting to the performing to choosing album artwork to the touring details. I couldn’t be feeling more creative or having more fun than I am right now.

FK- Your new album, American Heartache is due out this month. First off, what inspired the name?

JM- It’s interesting. I was riding on a train from Paris to the south of France just sort of staring out the window and taking in the countryside. While I was just zoning out the title American Heartache came into my mind. It was totally subconscious. Maybe I was homesick or something but it hit me like a ton of bricks and I wrote it down. Later on during that tour I wrote the song "American Heartache" and it seemed like the only possible title for the album. The title encompasses a lot of different ideas that are on the album. It touches on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, it touches on New York and September 11, it touches on relationship breakups, it touches on the state of the country as a whole. The subject matter on the record isn’t a political statement but it certainly is an emotional statement.

FK- Did anything come together or fall apart in your life during the writing of the music that really influenced the songs or pushed you to write? I guess what I’m asking is why this album, why now?

JM- The album is personal but it is also bigger than that. As I mentioned earlier there have been a ton of things that have happened recently that have influenced my life and music. Hurricane Katrina affected me personally. I love that city and the people that live there and they way the whole thing went down and the response that we got was unforgivable. September 11 hit close to home. Personal relationships have come and gone for better and for worse. It is a culmination of so many things that have gone on in my life and every American’s life that it is more of a patchwork/big picture kind of thing. It is emotional and heartfelt. it is uplifting and pure rock and roll, it paints a lot of pictures from my life and others. I guess I feel like I didn’t choose to write this album but that it sort of chose me. The album title came out of the sky in the south of France, the songs started pouring out of me and the snowball effect kicked in.

FK- You brought onboard some great special guests, like Shannon McNally and Luther Dickinson. How do you think having many varying creative directions shaped the music on American Heartache?

JM- Having the guests on the album was really just the icing on the cake. The music itself was written and shaped with the band well before we really got into the studio so the overall concept of the music was already in place. But, having Shannon and Luther and the Dozen on the album really nailed home the emotions we were shooting for on the individual tracks. Shannon literally melted the hearts of the guys in the studio when she sang on "Bottle of Love" and I really like the way the bridge is sort of a conversation between a man and a woman. Luther brought his usual fire to "Can You Hear Me Now" which really solidified it as a rock and roll track. Kirk Joseph played the bass line for "Cherry Tree" in one take. He listened to the original bass part and then we just rolled tape. It was perfect having his bumping sousaphone on there. It really made the track bounce and hearing his trademark licks makes me smile. Having Dirty Dozen play on "Heads Are Gonna Roll" was perfect. A song about New Orleans and all the emotion involved with it and the players who were actually affected by it. It told them to play angry and loud and to make the bridge sound like a hurricane. They nailed it.

FK- There is diversity throughout the album. What songs came easy and which ones were more trying?

JM- I remember recording "Don’t Do Me That Way" one night after dinner. We were all feeling good after a big meal and some red wine. We turned down the lights and nailed it in one take. What you hear on the record is exactly what we laid down the first time. I overdubbed the Leslie-effected guitar and felt like I was floating. "Heads Are Gonna Roll" was also a single take. The guitar solo was something I played just to keep our place in the tune thinking that I’d go back and play one for real later on. I’m pretty proud of that track. We ended up keeping that original “throw away” guitar solo and it is only 4 instruments and vocals just like we would have done it live. We tried to play "American Heartache" a few different ways. We actually have a version that is at a ballad tempo with mostly just vocals and piano that is really interesting. I’d like to release that at some point. "Cold Wind" was recorded towards the end of the session. We had beautiful blue skies the entire time we were recording but the day we went to track "Cold Wind" it got really foggy and gray and a cold wind was blowing up the mountain. That whole session was magical.

FK- How did your musical interaction with the DDBB members differ on your album then in your days with the band?

JM- It was really nice to come full circle with Dirty Dozen. After recording on their records for so many years it was cool to have them agree to record on mine. The interaction with them is always fun and loose and feels like family. We recorded them at Piety Street in New Orleans where we had recorded a few DDBB records before so it felt like home for everyone. The Dozen always keeps things incredibly loose in the studio and there wasn’t a whole lot of rehearsal. I showed them the parts and we rolled tape. I sort of conducted the horns as best as you can conduct those guys. I just pointed out the cues and encouraged different approaches. When we got to the bridge section I told them to play angry and loud and cacophonous and to make it sound like a hurricane. That is probably one of my favorite sections on the album because I can still see Roger [Lewis] digging into his horn and trying to express how pissed off he was about Katrina.

FK- You’re known for your classic, aggressive guitar sound, like that opening riff on “Heads are Gonna Roll.” Where do you think you get your guitar sensibilities from?

JM- I get asked this all the time and I can’t really pin it down. I have listened to and played with so many guitarists and horn players and piano players and bassists and drummers and vocalists that it sort of becomes something else. I don’t try to sound like anyone in particular. I try to play as best as I can and to play the things I hear in my head and feel in my heart. I’ve been able to play with so many amazing people and you just hope some of it rubs off on you. I remember playing an entire set with James Brown watching from 20 feet away, trading licks with Dr. John, trying to make my guitar sound like Ray Charles, transcribing Wes Montgomery, looking at John Scofield’s tone knobs on his amp, playing Led Zeppelin tunes really loud in a basement, writing the "Heads Are Gonna Roll" lick on an acoustic guitar on my porch in New Orleans, playing with Widespread Panic at Jazz Fest, playing with Elvis Costello at Madison Square Garden. I just try to take all of these experiences and turn them into my own sound. I just try to play as honestly and creatively and emotionally as possible every night.

FK- Was sparring with Luther Dickinson on guitar as much of an adrenaline rush as it sounded?

JM- Absolutely. I’m thankful that Luther and I have been close friends for many years now. He’s one of the nicest guys in the biz. We spent a lot of time together during the Shake Holla and March tour which featured Dirty Dozen and North Mississippi Allstars. They always had me up to play during the Allstars set and the two of did a lot of playing before or after the show in the dressing rooms or on the bus. He showed me a bit of slide stuff and we always just hit it off. When we went to record for American Heartache, Luther was an obvious choice to have on the CD. We brought him into the studio and he sat and listened to a few songs in the control room. I asked him to take the solo on “Can You Hear Me Now” which is a real upbeat rock tune and he said that I should take the solo. We met in the middle and traded licks back and forth for a dueling solo. Rather than having him plugged into one amp and me in another he suggested we plug into the same amp at the same time! We sat next to each other in the control room playing back and forth for a while. I remember a lot of laughing and smiling and that the entire thing felt really easy and comfortable. Like a couple of old friends just sitting around playing guitar.

FK- So you recorded this album incredibly fast, only eight days. Why so quick?

JM- 8 days for us was a luxury. We actually recorded This Time Around in 3 days! I felt like it was the perfect amount of time. We were able to capture raw and honest playing rather than polish things up too much. We kept it gritty. If we stayed for another week we probably would have overdubbed a bunch of extra stuff that would have been nice but not really needed. Our producer Stewart Lerman was great about having us experiment with new ideas and sounds and instruments up to a certain point. We didn’t really wander or try things just to try them. I feel like we really served the songs perfectly without being over indulgent.

FK- So you’re planning on touring in promotion of this album. What do you hope people come away with after seeing you live or listening to the album?

JM- Yeah, we [just started] a long fall tour in support of American Heartache. We are really looking forward to it because we love touring and getting in front of an audience. The songs on the album really lend themselves to the live environment, so we are able to really stretch them out and develop them a bit more on stage. I hope that people come away feeling like they just saw a kick ass rock band that left everything on the stage. A lot of fans tell me that they can sort of see it in my eyes when I’m performing. They really believe in what we are putting out there. They believe that I’m up there for the right reasons and that all my heart and soul gets poured into my show which it does! And then, I hope they go home and put the album on and hear the amazing music that we worked so hard on in the studio. The studio is a different animal and I feel like we really crafted the tracks the way the should for a record. The songs are really strong and stand on their own. I love playing the music live but I’m also very proud of the album because it took a lot of hard work and I know that it truly is an album front to back. It sounds great and has an overall vibe too it and it tells a story from track 1 to track 12.

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