Jamie McLean Band
Jamie McLean is the rare musician to play Madison Square Garden before being anointed New Groove of the Month. But, in truth, it wasn’t until the past year that the former Dirty Dozen Brass Band guitarist truly found his voice. Though raised in Connecticut, McLean first earned a reputation with a number of improv-oriented bands around Colorado. After opening for the Dirty Dozen, McLean scored a spot as the veteran New Orleans collective’s guitarist and went on to play everywhere from MSG to Fuji Rock. In 2004, the guitarist began putting together a new rock band featuring his brother Carter, as well as bassist Derek Layes and keyboardist Jon Solo. Soon after, he issued a solo album, This Time Around, and hit the road opening for groups like MOFRO, the North Mississippi Allstars, and Taj Mahal. After jugging duel responsibilities for a year-and-a-half, McLean left the Dirty Dozen last April to work on his solo project fulltime. Below the guitarist sheds some light on his recent split, his new batch of songs, and his intimate moment with Norah Jones.
MG- At what point did you start writing specifically for the Jamie McLean Band?
JM- Well, the first record we have out, This Time Around, is essentially just me writing whatever was pouring out of me. I was just writing a lot of music by myself on the Dirty Dozen tour bus. From that point on, really, I started writing for the group. It is real personal music, but when I start to get an idea in my head I start to think about everyone’s instrumental part. In the last six months, we have also started to get together at soundcheck to work on songs. We’ll be jamming and all these ideas will start to come out. So, basically, in the last year everything has really come together.
MG- The Jamie McLean Band also features your brother Carter. Do you feel siblings have a stronger musical bond than other musicians?
JM- My brother and I have been playing our instruments together since Middle School. Outside my time with the Dozen, we always played together. In high school and middle school we’d jam everyday. There is definitely an ESP. When I take a solo, he definitely knows when I am going to peak or take a left turn somewhere else. Carter and Derek used to play with Melvin Sparks and Tony Furtado. So, Derek was also an obvious choice since his and Carter’s rhythmic connection is so strong.
MG- So, your relationship is more like the Wood Brothers than, say, the Robinson Brothers?
JM- There is a bit of the Wood Brothers and a bit of the Robinson Brothers too. Sometimes you don’t want to be on the road with your little brother [laughs]. But, musically, we are on the exact same page.
MG- When we spoke last year, you mentioned that you were consciously trying to write more rock-based material. In general do you feel you’ve continued to write in that direction?
JM- First and foremost, I think that the songwriting has gotten stronger and deeper. As far as the genre, it’s more of the same, though I am starting to build up my own little genre. It is definitely rock based, but it is going all over the place. There are a handful of soul songs and a handful of songs which have more of a New Orleans flavor. So, I think I kind of threw everything I’ve been around the last 15 years into one pot.
MG- How has your move from New Orleans to New York influenced your sound?
JM- I think more than my songwriting, it’s influenced my lifestyle. You are around so many styles and people, and all these labels, businessmen, and booking agents are around, so it’s kind of just a big kick in the ass as far as the whole band is going. We are trying to get on a label and trying to start touring nationally. With the Dozen, I have written songs in Europe and I have written songs in Iowa. It’s more about what I am involved with than where I am. But going from the Big Easy to the Big Apple makes you move at a faster pace. I have only been here a year so, who knows, maybe I will enter my pop-rock phase.
MG- Are you currently shopping your new album to any specific labels?
JM- I am going to finish it myself and then shop it. I am feeling real good about the tunes so, fingers crossed, someone will put it out. There are a lot of elements which are real rock and roll and then there is stuff which can pretty easily go to the radio. So, hopefully, something will happen.
MG- What led to your split from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band?
JM- I left the Dozen in April to work on my band. The split was really good on all sides. When I approached the Dozen about leaving they said, “We’d pretty much seen this coming.” So, they expected it and totally encouraged me to do my thing. Roger pulled me aside and said, “You are the guitarist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and anytime you want to come back, come back,” but they knew my vision and my band is what I needed to do.
The Dozen tours relentlessly. I did both for about a year and it was too difficult to get more than a week booked with my band, so it became pretty obvious that I needed to do my thing and get this to the masses. Until now, we had never had time to tour the south or west.
MG- What is the greatest lesson you learned from your time with the Dozen?
JM- I tell people it was my post-graduate work. I had my bands and could play, but the Dozen polished me and gave me a new flavor. Top to bottom, I’ve learned how to live out of a suitcase 250 days a year. They took me around the world, from Japan to Europe to you name it. So, they opened my eyes to a lot of new cultures. I definitely feel like I learned how to advance a gig and put a show together. I’ve been able to put shows together solely from connections I made with the Dirty Dozen. And, musically, when I first joined the band I came out with a lot of flash and played a lot of notes. I went over the top with everything. But I quickly realized that instead of 1,000 notes, three really soulful notes will really do it. So, I have been digging more into the old blues and soul stuff, which helped my guitar, my voice and my songwriting.
MG- Is it true you recorded with Norah Jones?
JM- I worked with her on the Dirty Dozen’s Medicated Magic, which I recorded pretty early on in my time with the Dirty Dozen. Dr. John, John Bell, and DJ Logic were on the album—-those were the three guests I knew. The guests I didn’t know were Robert Randolph and Norah Jones. We had never heard of them and she came in and shared my headphone mix, since I was playing acoustic and set up by the piano. It’s clichbut after the first note she sang I stopped playing [laughs] and said, “Wow.” Less than a month later both her and Robert were huge. Robert and I had a good relationship off the bat as well and, with, Dr. John, I’d hear him moaning, groaning, and smoking cigarettes in my mix [laughs].
MG- At what point did you feel the Jamie McLean Band truly crystallized?
JM- Just in the last month there were a few gigs which stood out. We played the 9:30 Club in D.C. which holds about 1,500 people and our sound really filled the room. In the first year that I played with this band there was a real good energy, but I still felt like we were a club band. After we’d drive home from our gigs, the guys would be like, “that was awesome, we are ready for Madison Square Garden,” and I’d tell them, “this is my thing and I believe in this, but I’ve played the Garden and we are not there yet.” But at that gig I feel we really played to the room, which was packed. We also did a great gig at the Down on the Farm festival. ARU was there and it felt so great onstage. I felt like when I was onstage with one of the big boys, like Panic or the Dirty Dozen. It was great to see the crowd responding to my music and my singing like that.
MG- Have you outlined any plans to record your next album?
JM- The last record I did was recorded at LoHo studies in New York, where everyone from the Stones to John Mayer to Ryan Adams has recorded. So, we really felt comfortable there and might go back. This next batch of songs is really strong and I think people will be able to latch onto it. It, obviously, features a lot of guitar solos, but I hope it also features some really good vocals and lyrics. I feel like my vocals have improved ten-fold. I am trying to keep it natural, but emotional. So, the next album will most likely be coming out in late spring or early summer. I ran into Craig Street, who worked with Norah and produced a bunch of Dirty Dozen records, and we talked on the street for a bit. So, he might be involved, but I’m not sure. A producer has a really intimate connection with a band—-he is like a fifth member—-so I want to make the right choice. What I do know is we are going to use a horn section and have some guests, so it should be a full on rock album.
_Senior editor Mike Greenhaus blogs, podcasts, and posts pictures of Natalie Portman at www.greenhauseffect.com