Brinsley Schwarz — The Man, Not the Band — is Back with Something to Say (and a New Album, ‘Tangled’)

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

In many ways, Brinsley Schwarz were the UK’s version of the Band. The progenitors of “pub rock” across the pond, the band, which featured Nick Lowe on bass and vocals, keyboardist Bob Andrews and drummer Billy Rankin — and later augmented by Ian Gomm on guitar and vocals — had evolved from the 1960s pop band Kippington Lodge, and were darlings of the club circuit, until an ill-fated trip to New York City to play the fabled Fillmore East derailed things.

Still, the band had a clutch of hit albums – Despite It All, Nervous On The Road and The New Favourites of… Brinsley Schwarz – and turned in the certifiable classic “Surrender to the Rhythm,” as well as an early version of Lowe’s inimitable “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” but by 1975 the band had splintered, with most of the group joining Graham Parker as his backing group the Rumour on tour and on five studio albums, in addition to releasing three albums of their own.

Parker and the group’s namesake, Brinsley Schwarz the man, collaborated through four decades, co-producing the landmark albums The Mona Lisa’s Sister and Human Soul and, more recently, touring as a duo. 

After going their separate ways – during which time Schwarz worked with a wide array of artists, including Carlene Carter (whose debut album he co-produced), Dr Feelgood, Kirsty MacColl, Garland Jeffreys, and Desmond Dekker – in 2010, Graham Parker and the Rumour reunited to wild acclaim, and Schwarz, who had become a guitar repair man to the stars after leaving the rock star lifestyle behind, kickstarted the solo career he’d long harbored but had never pursued.

In 2016, Schwarz released Unexpected, and today, Sept. 10, comes his sophomore solo effort, Tangled. Full of the hooky, rootsy rock that made Brinsley Schwarz (the band) beloved by the pre-punk crowd, the album is a welcome return from one of the true survivors of the early-70s pub rock explosion.

Rock Cellar spoke with Brinsley Schwarz about his days working with Lowe and Parker, touring with Paul McCartney and Wings, the Rumour reunion, and what drew him back to rock and roll.

Rock Cellar: I first discovered you through Nick Lowe and Graham Parker, and then went back and found you’d already had practically a couple of careers by that point. And what I remember in those first encounters with Brinsley Schwarz were that it reminded me of the Band. Of course, even at that point, there’d already been a psychedelic period and a folky period. Obviously, you went to school with Nick, and like every other kid in England at that time you both wanted to play the guitar. But talk to me about how your particular sound — which launched pub rock, in the UK, but was very reminiscent of the Band — happened. 

Brinsley Schwarz: Yeah, well, everyone knows about the New York fiasco. We wanted to make a big splash, and brought over a load of journalists on a plane to see us at the Fillmore, and for many, many reasons, it was a complete disaster. So, that’s why what happened later happened. It all started after those two evenings. Because we’d already heard Crosby, Stills & Nash. And we’d heard Big Pink. We were still doing our rock fusion thing that frankly none of us were really very good at, but we’d seen Van Morrison, and the overriding feeling of watching Van and his band was that these people were really good, and we really were not.

So never mind making hit records and being rock stars, we decided, “Let’s just try to be good as a band.” And so, when we got back from New York, we managed to get a house together, built a rehearsal room, and we would just play all kinds of stuff: New Orleans stuff, soul music, Motown, what was called R&B in those days, Beatles songs, Stones songs, and all kinds of stuff that we thought was good music. We even learned how to play reggae! Our manager came up to the house one evening with this Jamaican guy and said, “He’s going to teach you how to play reggae.” He just stood in front of us making the noises that the instruments were supposed to make. And we learnt to play reggae, and learned the difference between English reggae and real reggae. But we just wanted to be a good band. And so, that’s what we set about trying to do. 

Rock Cellar: That dovetails nicely into my next question: How did you end up opening for Wings on the ’73 tour? Because that had to be a really interesting experience. He’s obviously still Paul McCartney, but the Beatles had split in a very messy way and Wings hadn’t exploded yet. It was a weird period for him. 

Brinsley Schwarz: Yeah. His guitar player, Henry McCullough, knew Dave Robinson, who was our manager, from Dublin. And so, I think Dave just had a few chats with Henry and said, “If you could get us on the tour, that would be great.” That’s how it started. And what happened in the end was that the Hard Rock Café opened by Hyde Park Corner, and we got the gig opening their evening. And Paul McCartney and Linda and friends came down to audition us to be the support band. We almost didn’t get it because his manager, or somebody who claimed to be his manager, appeared in front of me mid-song and said, “Paul wants to play now. Can you stop?” And I said, “No, we fucking well can’t. We’re playing. Go away.” And he said, “No. You’re not understanding. I’m Paul McCartney’s manager.” And I said, “I’ll stop you right there. I don’t give any a shit who you are. We are playing. Piss off. Go. Now.”

But I knew in my heart of hearts that that was not something that Paul McCartney would lay on a band. Anyway, we got it. And it was quite extraordinary. 

Rock Cellar: The shows were still relatively small. It was one of his first real tours after the Beatles, driving from town to town in a big double-decker bus. What were the crowds and venues like? 

Brinsley Schwarz: The venues, actually, were pretty much the biggest going, apart from the Royal Albert Hall and maybe a couple of others. They were town theaters or town cinemas, between three and four thousand, or something like that. But there weren’t any gigs bigger than that then. Bands didn’t play at Wembley Stadium yet. And I don’t think Paul would have wanted to play there, anyway. I think he enjoyed some kind of closeness with his audience, which is basically what drove us into pubs; to play music to people we could see, where we could see whether they were getting off or not. So, I think he enjoyed that.

There are all sorts of stories, but one of the things I should say about him is that he is aware of the effect that he has on people. I got to speak to him more than once, and just thought, “For God’s sake, say something sensible please, you’re just jibbering away.” But he would wait and try to help you get it out. And the other thing is, he had one of those memories. Because it must have been 10 or 12 years later, and I ran into him, and he said, “Brinsley. How’s Katie and Jill?” — my daughters — so, not only did he remember my daughters’ names, he remembered them for 12 years, which is quite extraordinary.

Rock Cellar: And there’s a great story about Bill Wyman and the late, great Charlie Watts coming by to visit you in your dressing room when you were opening for the Stones as part of the Garland Jeffreys band. Since we just lost Charlie, tell us a Charlie Watts story.

Brinsley Schwarz: Well, we’d played our set and we’re in the dressing room, just hanging out waiting for the Stones to play, and there was a knock on the door and Steve Goulding, our drummer, who’s the Rumour’s drummer, as well, says, “Yeah, come in.” And nothing happened. So then, there’s another knock on the door and Steve goes, “Yeah. Come in!” and still nothing. So, there was another knock on the door and Steve got up and opened the door and said, “What?! Oh. Hello.” And there they were, standing there. And so, we invited them in.

Bill Wyman said, “I hope we’re not intruding, but we wondered if we could come in and have a nice cup of tea.” So, I made them tea, and Charlie sat with Steve. They were deep in drummer stuff. And I talked with Bill Wyman for a bit. He used to live near where I lived then, and he was interested to know — because the village had two ponds — if the ponds were still there. It was a weird thing to be talking to Bill Wyman about, ponds in a village, but they were just guys. It’s weird how we put them somewhere up on a pedestal, but they’re just people. They said, “We heard Graham’s a bit of a birdwatcher.” You wouldn’t think these guys would be birdwatchers.

Rock Cellar: When you first hear a song like “Cruel to be Kind,” or “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” and you first start routining it — just a couple of guys — or when you get in the studio, does it feel different than the hundreds of other songs you’ve tracked? Do you have any sense that there’s something bigger or better or different or unique about a song like that or is it just sort of the next thing you’re doing? 

Brinsley Schwarz: I’ve never really thought about that. I think it’s different for everybody. I don’t remember being overly keen on “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” actually. But I think magic happens if you’re writing from inside. But I think if I were to choose songs that have grabbed me immediately, I think I’d be looking at Steely Dan or the Band. [Laughter.] “Just Another Whistle Stop,” how’s about that? [Laughter.]

Rock Cellar: In the ‘90s, you became a luthier to the stars in because you didn’t want to travel. How did that happen? 

Brinsley Schwarz: In ’89, I was touring the States with Graham Parker. And do you remember back then that they used to have yellow and black striped tape across the entry to planes, on the floor when you walked down whatever that tunnel is to the plane? Well, we were leaving San Francisco, and I couldn’t walk across it. I was just meandering along, no hurry, no worries, with my guitar on my shoulder, and a little bag, and I got to that spot and stopped.

And I looked down and I said, “Oh. That’s interesting. Why did I stop there?” But I couldn’t put my foot across the line. And I tried for about 20 minutes while “Last call for so-and-so” was ringing in my ears, but I couldn’t do it. I tried running at it. I tried looking away, looking up at the ceiling. I tried everything I could think of to get across. And in the end, our keyboard player, George Small, who always left everything to the last possible moment, and who hadn’t gotten on the plane yet, came up behind me and said, “Brins! Great. Waiting for me?” And he slapped me on the shoulder and it pushed me across the line, at which point, I was perfectly okay. I got on the plane and didn’t have a problem on the plane.

So, for about 10 years and during the eighties, stuff did happen on planes, so maybe it crept up on me. Graham was coming to the end of that period of his career, where he wanted to change things up and do different things, and I had been repairing guitars since ’81, at a really cool place that let me go make albums and tour with Graham all through the eighties, and when I got back to work I was done. But yeah, I got more and more into it. It’s fascinating and fun, as long as you didn’t have to hurry.

Rock Cellar: So, did you just build your clientele from the Rolodex you’d built as a player? By that time, you had to have crossed paths with a million musicians. So, did you just say, “Hey, this is my thing now”? 

Brinsley Schwarz: No, I worked for this store, Chandler Guitars, the main place in the UK, really. And it was a time when things about guitar repairing seemed to change. We did “fret stoning” back then, but I noticed that unless the neck was straight or backbone, stoning actually made it worse. And I thought, this is just not right. What we need is something long, that never leaves the frets. So then, if it never leaves the frets, and you touched all of them with the sandpaper, then the top of the frets are straight regardless of what the neck is doing. So, I figured that out, and it turned out incredibly well — much better than anything I had worked on before — and I showed it to the boss, who hemmed and hawed at me a bit, and finally said, “You can try that some more.”

And one of the guys there, a guy called Ian Allison, and I got to the point where we had to call it something. And I said, “How about fret dressing?” Now, I had never heard of fret dressing before. I made that up. That was my invention. So, pretty much from then on, we were all doing that in the store, and we got a really serious reputation for knowing how to set guitars up. 

Rock Cellar: How did you end up being part of the Rumour reunion? Because that then led into your solo records. 

Brinsley Schwarz: Well, from 1990 on to 2010, I was just repairing. And I met loads and loads of guitar players, and heard some sensationally good guitar players trying out guitars in the store. And I did more playing then than I ever did touring. You know, on the road you play a gig and then you don’t want to see a guitar. But when you’re fixing them, you play them before you start fixing them to figure out what’s wrong, and then you fix them, and you play them again for half an hour just to check them out.

And then one day when I’d just got back home from Ikea, and had spent about five hours stacking up the whole load of stuff I’d bought, and had made myself a cup of tea, as an English person would do, and cut a piece of fruitcake, and the fruitcake was about six inches from my mouth, the telephone rang. So, I put it all down, picked up the phone, and said, “What?” And that was Graham, phoning me up to tell me that Graham Parker & the Rumour were going to be a thing again, and going to do an album.

He obviously knew about my problem, and he said, “I know you’re going to say no because you won’t get on an airplane.” But I heard myself say, “Nah, that would be great. Count me in. I’m there.” And we had a little chat about what we were going to do, and I put the phone down and sat back and went, “Shit. I’m going to have to get on a plane again.” But, as it turned out, I had no problems at all. And as I had done in the beginning, I really enjoyed flying. So, who knows what that was? [Laughter.]

Rock Cellar: You and Graham had had a very close, collaborative relationship in the late 70s, early 80s. Did you find that you fell back into that, and is that what led to the solo records? Because you clearly started writing again and wanting to record. 

Brinsley Schwarz: Yeah, I had been writing, but was never really able to finish a song. The song “Game On,” which is on the album, I’d started with a verse and a half of that in 1990 or ’91, and then couldn’t get any further. But I discovered Two Against Nature by Steely Dan. And I just could not stop playing it. And then one day, driving back from the store where I worked, suddenly, an entire song came to me. I had paper in the car and a pencil and had to stop every few minutes to write another line down. And in the next few days, I finished “Game On,” and then I went through a period of writing songs all the time.

But I never did anything with them, until the band got back together again, and every now and then at a sound check I would play something, and everyone would join in, and the response from the guys was really positive. I thought, “I must be onto something.” And then, by chance, I ran into James Hallawell, who had played with Graham and me — he was the keyboard player on Mona Lisa’s Sister and toured with us — who invited me down to his studio, and that session worked really, really well. He seemed to be able to do everything that I couldn’t do that I wanted to happen. And the first album, Unexpected, was the result of that.

Rock Cellar: Playing almost everything yourself.

Brinsley Schwarz: Yeah. All the guitars and all the bass, and a bit of organ. We had a drummer in, Ralph Salmins, though I played drums on one track, or hand drums. And James did most of the keyboards. But yeah, everything else I did. And I really enjoyed playing bass. Playing bass is just great! 

Rock Cellar: My personal favorite on the new album is “You Drive Me to Drink.” Talk a little bit about the writing process for this particular record. Were any of these stockpiled or is this all a new batch, pretty much? 

Brinsley Schwarz: Well, when we came to do Tangled, we had some songs that were left over from Unexpected recordings, some songs that were written before then, a couple of which are quite Steely Dan influenced, and it occurred to me that as the records were proceeding, they were taking on a shape of their own. But yes, “You Drive Me to Drink,” and “Stranded,” and “Crazy World,” they were written either very close to or during lockdown and the pandemic.

“Storm in the Hills,” I started writing that quite a long time ago. I’d written the lyric “thunder on the mountain” before I’d heard Bob Dylan’s song. [Laughter.] I’d never knowingly steal something from His Bobness. [Laughter.] Because the “thunder on the mountain” in the song are the bunker-busting bombs that were dropped on Afghanistan in attempt to get to Al-Qaeda. “Storm in the hills” is the fighter planes. And it comes down to, “there’s always a killing in an alley.” So, the song is about quite a few things, but the last verse is supposed to wake people up. I’m actually trying to wake people up to the fact that if we’re not careful, we won’t have a planet. And when people are talking about, “We’ve got until 2050,” I say, “No, we’ve got until now.”

Rock Cellar: I’m here in New York City. We were flooded recently. Bonnaroo’s been canceled because they were flooded. There’s fires out in Nevada and Lake Tahoe and regularly in California. The world is coming apart at the seams, and yet I keep hearing that same thing, too: “Oh, we’ve still got time!” I don’t know that we do. 

Brinsley Schwarz: Yeah. Well, we’ll see. Recently, I’ve seen some TV stuff about very clever people with some really good ideas. And it’s just really a question of whether they can get around the politicians, who seem not interested at all.

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