Interview with Brian Auger

Doug Collette, Glide Magazine

DC: I was really knocked out when I got a copy of your new album “Language of the Heart.” It reminded me of the sensation I had when I first heard you and The Oblivion Express…

BA: That must’ve been a long time ago (laughs)

Let me ask you a little bit about how the “Language of the Heart” album came into being. I saw that Franck and Phil reached out to you after you worked on a project with them and gave you some rhythm tracks.

That’s basically it. Franck and Phil called me out of the blue at one point and said “Would it be possible for you to play on some tracks of ours?” and I said “Well what kind of music is it?” And they said “it’s kind of world music.” So I said “It sounds interesting, but I really need to hear the tracks before I can add anything that really means anything to them.” So they sent me a couple of tracks and I listened to them and said “Wow this is really interesting—I’d love to play on those.” so they came round to my studio and we cut those tracks. And that seemed to go pretty good for Franck and Phil. And then some time later, they called me up and said “Would you be interested in doing an album.” And I said “Well how would that work exactly?”

That’s what I wanted to ask you, so I can’t wait to hear you tell me…

So Phil said “Franck & I would prepare some backing tracks with rhythm and some guitar and drums plus occasional bass.” And I said “I’ve worked that way before and it really depends on whether the tracks were happening or not. How many tracks have you got?” And they said “We’ve got about ten” to which I responded “Why don’t you send them to me on a disc, let me listen and then I’ll tell you if it’s something I want to do or not?” So they sent the disc and there was a hint of lyrics that came with that and I went “Alright!.” “Language of the Heart” was a very nice groove because it reminded me of Venice Beach when it wasn’t too crowded: I would go down there and take a walk and it reminded me of being there and looking out at the sea–being present in this wonderful environment and all of a sudden music would come because I could hear myself.

I’ve only been to California once, but there’s a great sense of the atmosphere in which you live out there within this album. It’s so consistent from the beginning to the end of the album. It is of such a single piece.

I was busy as hell throughout last year trying to patch it all together, but what I would say is that it gave me the time to listen to these things and being to develop some lyrics and some feel for the way the tunes were coming out. Also, I changed some of the chords, since most of these were straight tracks with no changes in them: I was able to go “Well, I want to go to this key, then go back.” That way we got some light and shade within the tracks.

When I heard “Venice Streetwalk” I thought it’s got that kind of thing of walking through Venice and all the stalls and the people, so I thought that one should stay as an instrumental, so I wrote as I figured Wes Montgomery would approach it and that’s how that one came to life. Then there was “Flying free”: I was doing a gig at a festival in the north islands with Dr. John and I woke up one morning and it was such a stunning view of the harbor from the hotel where we were staying and the words just came—which is very difficult for me because lyrics are the hardest—but the poem just came straight out so I looked at it and said “Well I don’t know what I’m going to do with that!?” but at least I liked what it was and then I realized I could apply it to one of the tracks.

You may feel like you struggle with lyrics but there’s a very natural flow to the language in your lyrics. You don’t force images and though it ends up sounding like poetry at various junctures, it doesn’t sound like you’re straining to do so—Thankfully!

No, not at all. Just really taking from what the universe is bringing in to me.

That’s what it sounds like. Whatever it is that you’re thinking as you walk along the beach or the streets in Venice, you are able to get transcribed in such a way that you can then sing them, which is great. And again, it adds to the atmosphere of the album as it was one more sound in the mix of instruments.

I hadn’t sung on an album in a long, long time. I would sing if I didn’t have an Alex Ligertwood around me: in emergencies! (laughs). When Alex left for two years and went to Paris, we did the Closer to It album and they got things going real good and we got to America. At the end of the second year, we’d done the Straight Ahead album and I called him and said “Hey buddy!. How ya doin’ over there?” And he said “Boy, I’m not doing anything really.” So I said “Just sitting there must be ridiculous. I’ve got things going in America, do you want to come with us when we go next time?” “And he said to me “I thought you’d never ask!” (laughs)

I’m interested to know how you got some of the people with famous names playing on Language of the Heart. Who connected you with (Steely Dan & Doobie Brothers) guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter…or did you know him?

I had played with him previously actually. I met him through a project that was another put together band that was him, Walfredo Reyes Jr. on drums, Dave Margen who was a bass player for Santana, Alex Ligertwood and Skunk. I had never played with Skunk, but I had wanted to and I was sitting at breakfast one morning and he said “I have always wanted to play with you.” And I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to play with you, so when I knew you were doing this project, I had to come.” We got on like a house on fire, man! We had such a great time: he’s a very funny guy and a great person.

He seems to be quite a character: I’ve seen him play live a couple times.

He’s definitely been through a few things..

Well, to go from Steely Dan to The Doobie Brothers is quite a journey in and of itself and he’s a lot more apart from that. Was he able to play live with you Phil and Franck in the studio?

No, Phil and Franck had already done their work with the tracks. Skunk called and said he was taking a band to Cabo San Lucas and asked me if I wanted to come and I said “Yeah, what is it?” He said “There’s no money in it, it’s just expenses as they’ll put us up in a nice hotel, but it’s for a charity on behalf of a local orphanage local businesses have put money into and we’re going down there for this concert to raise a load of money for these kids.” “Count me in!” I said…

You wouldn’t want to say no to something like that…

So we went down and it was an amazing band, even playing some rock star stuff, some Doobies and Steve Miller, but anyway I just enjoyed the hell out of it. At another time, he was doing some stuff with some other people on Dana Point on July the Fourth, so he called me and I said I’d be there. So every time we do get an opportunity, it works fabulously, so I said “What’s the chance, if we are doing some recording…” to which he responded “Hey buddy—Anytime!.” So when I called him for this, he said “Oh, great!.”

Did he pick the track to play on or did you give him a couple to choose from?

I had the track and I told him what it was and I said “I’ll send you the track as is, and I’ll play the melody, so you play the melody and here’s where I’ll want you to solo.” So he came to the studio and brought his axe and everything, we plugged him in and had a good laugh, then started working on the track. And I said “Great—thanks so much man!” And Skunk said “Anytime! We gotta do this again”

Is that how it worked with Julien Coryell as well?

Julien has a band with my son (percussionist) Karma and they also have the son of (Crusaders’ keyboardist) Joe Sample on bass. So having had Skunk play on a track, I think Julian is one of those amazing players, one of my son’s peers and just as nice a guy as you could meet, a tremendous technical player who could play anything.

So as we had the opportunity, I asked Julian if he’s like to come a play on a tune on my album and he said “I’d be knocked out!.” So that’s really how it went.

Bass players were added by Phil and Franck and sometimes, when I’d realized the textures Franck is capable of, he’s really got something all his own.

The music on the album, from top to bottom is really dense, but as was one of the main virtues of The Oblivion Express, as you mentioned a moment ago, you want people to get it, and it’s so accessible it draws you right in, then you can see the layers upon layers of guitars and keyboards in there.

There’s one, no a couple of weird ones, strange things that happened: talk about the universe calling!?. The track “Ella” is for my wife of forty-three years now (laughs).

Congratulations to you two…

I just went to Phil and Franck’s studio one day right at the beginning and they asked “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I don’t really know. I thought we’d just talk over stuff and maybe I’d just do some stuff I’d take home.” They suggested I put this little track up, absolute minimal track, and I thought “This is not going to go anywhere, so I will just noodle around” And I started playing and what ended up was this sequence of chords, which they immediately named “The Ballad.” I couldn’t even remember what I played eventually, so surely I didn’t think we could use that but they said, “Oh come on, you ought to listen to it!.” And they were so enthused about this, I eventually ended up, listening to this thing, and having to write the changes out, at which point I thought “I don’t know what to do with this!” Then I’m driving about one day and suddenly comes this thought about this (saxophonist) Stan Getz album called Focus; long, long time about, maybe in the middle sixties, I was in Ronnie Scott’s album and I hear this album, which is a whole string orchestra. This guy had put together all these beautiful orchestral arrangements, going where they go, then invited Stan Getz into the studio to jam over all these changes..

What a great concept!

And what a great album! If you ever get a chance to listen to it, it’s absolutely beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. So, I thought about that and went “Why can’t I do that? I’m going to run this thing and just put an organ solo over the changes and that’s what it’s going to be. So, having listened to the changes a few times and mapped them out, we took it and in the end I listened to it and thought “That’s kind of out there?!

It’s a perfect ending to the album though. The more I hear the album– and I always listen to it start to finish—it’s seems it’s sequenced to cover a day in your life, morning afternoon and evening—and that is just such a restful sensation to listen to that cut at the end of the album.

Right, well when the stuff starts to flow, that’s it. We had an intro where we hadn’t played anything, and Franck or Phil said “Why don’t you put some Rhodes (electric piano) on this at the beginning until the organ comes in and maybe at the end as well?” Because I had stopped before the ending, thinking we’re going to have to fade this off. So I put the Rhodes on at the beginning in one pass and thought “Whoa I don’t know where that came from!” and rolled on to put some stuff on the end and went on and on—for me. So when we finished, I said “We’re going to have to edit the end.,” then there were all these protests: Franck and Phil weren’t having any of it.

I said “There’s too much Rhodes at the end, come on guys!” And they said “no no.” In the end I was persuaded just to leave it.

It’s interesting you say that because going back to what I said earlier about hearing Happiness Heartaches, what really knocked me out about that, long before I got into jazz or any kind of improvisational music, I loved the sound of the organ, but also the sound of electric piano. The combination and the contrast between the two instruments is to this day one of the most delicious sounds in all of music to me.

I’ve just begun to bring the Rhodes back on the road with me. I’ve tried all the various instruments and digital pianos and I don’t know what it is.

It’s the crispness and clarity of the sound of the Rhodes: it just sparkles!

Yeah, it’s just a beautiful sound. The most strange track was the backing of “Hymn to Morning;” there was this kind of fog of sound, not sure how Phil had got that effect, but it was a rhythmic thing going on underneath, with all these textures and sounds, and the more I listened to it, the more it seemed like waking up in the morning, looking into this mist, the sun coming up and the birds tweeting into the mist, all this kind of thing. Then I was listening to some Debussy, a track called “The Sunken Cathedral” the story of which is that the sea has invaded a town and swallowed up the whole place and you can hear the bells ringing in the church steeple underneath the water at certain times. And suddenly that hit me: maybe I could try something like that?

There you go. That is the eerie sensation of that track and, by extension, what it feels like when the day’s starting and the dawn is starting to come on.

So I borrowed some of the chords from Debussy and then kind of added to that and started to find some lyrics.

I find it constantly fascinating to find sources of inspiration that crystallize an idea like that.

It’s funny how things happen. Because we had a lot of time between recording and I was able to listen to the tracks over and over, because of Phil and Franck’s schedule, I really became familiar with the tracks and that, in turn, allowed these things to surface.

It obviously gave you time to really become immersed in the project and yet not feel hurried by it. That’s almost an ideal, the counterpart to doing things in the spur of the moment is that kind of leisurely immersion of the moment, where things percolate and then they’re right there in front of you.

And to that I added some step down things, like a church choir, and then the organ with reverb like a cathedral for a couple passages. Then a line from a Robert Browning poem came to me where and we ended up titling it as we did.

You’ve really set yourself up to be as independent as anyone would need to be in the internet world, wouldn’t you say?

I think that really that’s it. And holding on to your independence as an artist, otherwise it will be taken from you.

And you’ll lose your personality to boot. That’s one of the things I got from listening to “Language of the Heart”: your personality as a musician is so vibrant and vivid, no one would mistake you fro anyone else. And, by the same token, the sounds you make are of their own time; they never sound dated and always sound so fresh and full of energy.

I must thank you for that. When we finished the album—and this must go through every artist’s mind as they play back a recording—”Well it sounds good to me. I don’t know how it will fall on anyone else’s ears! (laughs)