Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following exclusive interview with Grammy award-winning musician, producer, songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire PAUL NELSON
The Paul Nelson Band Badass Generation CD on Amazon
Article: The Role of a Producer
Pillow Talking is thrilled to have been able to interview Paul between his many gigs.
PT: So you are based up in our neck of the woods – the Northeast.
PN: Yes, I’m based in the tri-state area, near the studio – Carriage House Studios – where I worked with Johnny (Winter) on the Step Back album that got us the Grammy.
PT: (Wayne) I have a funny story and a deep regret involving Johnny Winter. My wife is a bit younger than I am, but I was a child of the seventies growing up in Yonkers, New York, and my class wanted desperately to have the Winter Brothers perform. At that time the fee may have been around $10,000. We had car washes and everything, but we couldn’t do it. So we had to settle for Rat Race Choir instead. So my big regret is not seeing the Winter Brothers live.
PN: (Laughs) That’s funny.
PT: (Wayne) So I am envious that you were so close to Johnny Winter.
PN: Yeah, we started off on a musical relationship and then it turned into a really close friendship. I was honored that he gave me all these different assignments as we went on – producing and helping with his career – which is actually described in the movie – Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty – about our relationship together.
PN: Yes. It’s the same director – Greg Oliver – who did the Lemmy [Kilminster] documentary. He followed us around for three years when Johnny and I went with the band to Japan and China, the Letterman show, Kimmel – everywhere – to Johnny’s house in Texas, to Europe. It’s very in-depth and describes the comeback that he was having.
PT: You are in another doc as well, right?
PN: Yes. I’m in a documentary called Sidemen about Pinetop Perkins.
PT: Yes, the great piano player. We will have to review that one as well!
PN: Yes. It’s actually called [Sidemen] – Long Road to Glory. It’s got Pinetop, Hubert Sumlin, Warren Haynes, Sonny Landreth, Bonnie Raitt – a lot of people.
PT: Wow. We definitely have to see that one!
PN: Yes. I’ll keep you posted.
PT: So, Paul, tell us about how you started as a musician.
PN: Well, I loved the guitar as soon as I heard it. I loved blues and rock. I grew up on bands like Aerosmith, Zeppelin, Hendrix. I just loved the guitar. I started playing early – played the drums a little – took up a little bass and then started becoming proficient on the guitar. I eventually ended up playing in a lot of bands – as everyone does – and you hone your craft, learning a lot of styles, and studied a lot. And then I ended up going to the Berklee College of Music where I studied Under Steve Vai. When I left there I sought out private instruction and took lessons from Steve Khan, Mike Stern, and [then] started establishing a name for myself in the industry. I played with a lot of acts and I was doing a lot of session stuff. And then I met Johnny at the Carriage House and things went in that direction.
PT: Did you come from a musical family?
PN: Yes. My parents had a dance school, so music was always in my house and around me, and art as well.
PT: At what age would you say you first picked up the guitar?
PN: I started nine, ten or eleven – took some private lessons at school and at music store kinds of things. And then it just excelled from there. But I knew I had to sight read and do all of that. I wanted to make sure I was versed in all the areas so I could continue on.
PN: (laughs) He’s right, it is. Johnny took me under his wing and he was a blues historian. He said listen to this guy – listen to T Bone. Listen to Robert Johnson. Listen to Son House. Listen to Muddy – but not just the overall albums. He would say listen to this track, listen to this riff – so he really fine-tuned me – cut to the chase. So I learned everything that he learned – that gave me even more of an appreciation for the blues because of the people he turned me on to. Johnny had 15,000 songs on his iPod.
PN: Yeah. It was amazing. But he also had some Zappa, Dylan, and the Beatles in there as well. But it was a lot of blues. Blues constantly. And it was the basis for everything…absolutely. But you really have to study it and you have to learn from the masters. Some people may say it’s [about] feel and soul, but you really have to practice first to bring that out. You have to know your craft like with anything. It’s not that all of a sudden you have soul and then you play great. You have to work at it and everybody that is anybody worked at it. Johnny worked at it. Hendrix worked at it. They all did. I worked at it. Warren, Sonny – and then it happens.
PN: Well, it’s always the question – which is first, the lyrics or the music. Well, you pick up your instrument and you start playing an idea and then it develops. And then it will set the mood for whatever the tempo is or the feel, whether it’s a sad song or a happy song. It will start developing itself. And then all of a sudden it will spawn an idea, maybe some words you had before. You know, I write lyrics and music as well. As you heard on my new record Badass [Generation] – a big thing that really inspires somebody are the musicians around them. If they’re good, especially if you have a great singer, you’re there with the mindset knowing wow – everything that I’m going to compose here has got a really good shot because I have someone good that is going to throw it back at me and then spawn more ideas. So the more versatile the people are that are around you the more the song has a chance to develop even beyond. Because if you have all of these learned musicians that have other directions they can go in, other styles to choose from — they can say let’s try this – let’s do this – oh, I hear this – or I hear that – and then it starts developing. But then you have to watch out that it doesn’t develop to the point where the song becomes too long, too boring, too whatever – so there are certain things that you want to try to follow structure-wise and song-wise and that’s what I’m into. I’m into writing songs.
A lot of people know I can shred and do all that kind of stuff — but I really wanted this [my album] to be – to service the song. I used ideas – “retro-izing” stuff – like a Brian May solo. I like those kinds of solos – or a Hendrix solo – or a Jimmy Page solo. Those are as memorable as the songs themselves. So I really wanted to do that. A lot of times you’ll see these guitar players’ albums come out and the listener is getting a guitar lesson. I don’t want to hit people ALL the time with blazing riffs. I want them to be able to sing along. It’s about the song, so I really service the songs in my album – and I’m glad you saw that and got it [in your review of my album]. You got it. You saw what I was trying to do. A lot of people are getting that and it’s really helping the record along. People sing along with it, they air guitar with it – that kind of thing. So that’s where I’m at.
PT: That’s a great way to approach things. So we know how great an influence Johnny Winter was on you. Let’s go back again to when you first met him.
PN: I met him at the Carriage House studios. I was a session musician doing some session work for NBC or TNN, some TV stuff. He heard me and he liked my playing and he said, “Hey you want to write some music for me? I’m working on my new record.” So I did that and played it for him and he said, “This is great!” Then he said, “There are some other guitar parts how would you like to play on my album?” So I said I would. And he said, “Well, since you are going to play on my album how would you like to come on tour?” It just developed to the point where he asked me to produce. He asked me to help him out and we got very close. It was just like that. You work on things. You practice on things and then you get the call. I got the call and I was ready. Just like when Jonny played with Muddy – he was ready – he knew all the material. It worked out. It helped us both out.
PT: So it sounds as if you had quite an influence on him as well.
PN: Well, he was going through some hard times and he needed to straighten up his act. I was there and he asked me to help him. He had one helluva comeback in his last few years – and that is what the movie is about.
PN: Yeah! He had never gotten a Grammy for his own material. And that’s one thing he always wanted. So I’m glad I was able to get that for him. And at the same time I got a Grammy as well. So I’m proud of that. Now I’m producing other people’s stuff. I just produced Joe Louis Walker which is up for a Blues Music Award.
PT: We know. We interviewed Joe Louis walker a while back. You’ve been really busy lately.
PN: Yes. Johnny’s Step Back album did really well and it continues to do so. A lot of notables on there as well. Clapton, Joe Perry, Ben Harper, Billy Gibbons. It was a great project and I’m honored to be a part of it.
PT: How do you think social media has affected the industry?
PN: I think it’s perfect for the music industry. I think it was catered for it. It’s the perfect tool. Now, however, you have to be careful because it’s getting so saturated. People are so proficient in it. It’s flooded. I don’t know how much people can retain, but they are being hit left and right – every time they like something or connect – they are hit with a flood – where a group is playing or when a release is coming out. It’s amazing that it sticks. But if you work it correctly and you do it the proper way it’s a great marketing tool and everybody uses it – Instagram, Twitter – you’re always building that fan base. But at the same time, thousands of other bands are building their fan bases as well. What might happen is it gets so flooded [that] it’s very hard to separate. But if you have a good product and good music and you continue to do your thing you’ll survive – or at least stick it out. It’s all a part of the process.
There’s a reason why things are there and reason why new things crop up. You have to follow all the rungs of the musical ladder to do stuff. There’s a reason why there’s a record label, there’s a reason why there are publicists, there’s radio and interviews and promotion and all those things are lined up in a certain way and they are tested over time and they work – so it’s important. And it helps independent artists, too. The majors really know what they are doing. That’s why I signed with Sony.
PN: I’ve always done that. I’ve always played with other people. Even when I was with Johnny I worked on other projects. I actually produced Lance’s new record. That was his live one. And I produced the one with his solo material as well. I wanted a singer [on the album]. My last album was instrumental – very Jeff Beck-ish, Eric Johnson – that kind of thing. But I knew it was time for this. As you heard, that’s what I did. And the influences there are from Bad Company to jam band to southern rock to classic rock – but not to be dated. It’s fresh. That’s what I wanted. I looked to the past, but I really thought about the future.
PT: Great answer. What advice would you give up-and-coming musicians, singers and songwriters?
PN: Just keep at it. Hone your craft. Have all your stuff together so that when you do get the call you’re ready for it – you have to be ready to perform. People get hip to that very quickly. So you have to be in the right place all the time. Don’t pigeonhole yourself in one direction. If you teach guitar teach; if you’re in sound engineering, know it all. It just makes you a well-rounded musician and you get taken advantage of less. Know the business. It’s very important.
PT: What do you think are the biggest mistakes young musicians are making today? In our interview with Joe Louis Walker, he said everybody just wants to be famous.
PN: Oh yeah. One man, one band. You just can’t do that anymore. You have to be everywhere. You have to network. It’s not for everyone. If you’re going to be a musician, you really have to know your craft. That’s the most important thing. And that now entails [being involved in] a lot of different areas.
PT: What’s the best advice you ever received?
PN: (laughs) My own advice. Just keep on going, keep on working. Keep on writing, producing. Eventually the phone won’t stop ringing. That’s important.
PT: That’s great advice.
PN: You have to establish good friends in the industry. I personally don’t do just one thing. I’m an artist. I also produce, record, engineer – everything.
PT: Is there any particular hat you like wearing more than others?
PN: No, I spread it pretty evenly. I really enjoy producing. I like seeing other people create. I like helping them out, giving them the sound they want – organizing everything around them so they’re free to do their own thing. To give them the availability of things they wouldn’t ordinarily know about or be available to. Give them the right direction, give them the right contacts, help them out in that respect and put out a product that you’re proud of. I like doing everything. I like being versatile. It just gets you in more areas and gets you more opportunities. And as you excel in one area, then one helps the other. (Laughs) And the Grammy didn’t hurt.
PT: (laughs) We are sure it didn’t! What’s the worst criticism you ever received?
PN: Hmm, I don’t know if I ever had really bad criticism. I’m sure there were times when I did not know the music well enough – if I didn’t know a style of music. When I started out, if I didn’t know a style of music, I would form a band or a group and practice that style of music until I had it down – whether it was funk or blues or rock or whatever. The only criticism I had was to myself – I have to be better at this, I have to do that. So it was self-criticism that makes you excel knowing that you want to be as good as the other people, so that you can play with them, work with them and continue on.
PT: What about your family? Has your family been supportive of your career?
PN: Always, always, always. It’s amazing. That’s so important. They are there when things are up and when things are down. Very important. It keeps you grounded.
PT: Is there anything that you haven’t done that you would like to do?
PN: No, not at all. Actually, the opportunities that I’ve had so far – I’ve pretty much covered it. Now it’s just different versions – the playing, the travel, the recording, the nice awards I received – those are all part and parcel. Now it’s just more of it. Actually, I’m doing so many things now. So many records, and guesting, and now with my own thing, and all these movies are coming out – there’s a lot of stuff going on.
PT: Well, you could always use a few more Grammys we’re sure.
PN: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah. That’s not bad. Absolutely!
PN: Well, I’m working on a Junior Wells project – very similar to Johnny’s Step Back project. High-profile artists – doing the whole Junior Wells catalog. I just recorded the Blues Brothers, “Bones” Malone, “Blue Lou.” I’m working on James Montgomery’s record, guesting on his – as you know I just produced Joe Louis Walker’s record. My album just came out. And then we are going to push these movies. I’m also doing a lot of side projects, performing and a lot of guesting on other people’s records. I actually just recorded a solo for guitar work for the singer from Kool and the Gang.
PT: That’s great!
PN: Yeah, JT [Taylor]. And then the number one singer over in Asia had me plan his album. So there’s a lot of stuff going on always. And then I’ll probably tour Japan when my album comes out there. But right now it’s pretty much my album and the movies. And then I have all the All Star Johnny Winter shows – from Canada and up and down the East Coast. We’ve been doing a lot of those shows. We’ve had so many guests – from Sonny to Warren to Debbie Davies to Joe Louis Walker to Jason Ricci, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Edgar [Winter], Earl Slick, Mike Zito, Popa Chubby – everybody. Like the Hendrix experience thing, we want to keep Johnny going. We’ve lost so many great artists. It’s important to keep their spirit alive.
PT: With multi-hyphenates like you we like to play the lightning round where we ask you certain characteristics about individuals with whom you’ve worked and you name people off the top of your head.
PT: So let’s begin. Who was most inspiring?
PN: Most inspiring…Steve Vai was one of them. Because of his drive to practice; his striving for excellence. It was contagious for me.
PT: Most creative?
PN: Hmmm….Sonny Landreth. Sonny. He’s a really good friend and I find him to be the most creative and the most unique.
PT: Most laid back?
PN: Most laid back…Johnny was laid back…but he also was very funny and an unbelievable historian of the blues. But when he kicked back, he was very laid back…and then other times (laughs) he made Ozzy Osbourne look like he had training wheels.
PT (laughs) That’s cool! So for our last question we usually ask that if you were to sum up your life and career to date in one word, what would it be?
PN: Great. [I’m] having a ball. Yeah. Great.
PT: Awesome words to live by! Thank you so much!