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Pete Brown - Interview

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 9 / 2 / 2015

Pete Brown - Interview


Nick Dent-Robinson talks to acclaimed producer and musician Pete Brown, who is the son of Joe Brown and the brother of Sam Brown, about his acclaimed new band the NewGrass Cutters, who play bluegrass covers of classic rock songs

For almost 35 years Pete Brown has worked alongside some of the biggest names in the music business as a highly respected recording engineer, producer, session player and back-up musician. His virtuosity on electric, acoustic and slide guitars plus mandolin and ukulele is widely admired. The son of top sixties guitarist Joe and his vocalist wife Vicki, Pete is the younger brother of multi-platinum singer-songwriter Sam Brown. Pete, now 49, still tours regularly with his dad, Joe, and acts as musical director for him and his band. A while ago Pete finally stepped into the limelight to release his own album. Fittingly it was called ‘Not Before Time’, and it quickly won critical praise for its stunning musicianship and original songs. Then, last year, Pete joined with Joe Brown's other supporting musicians and started a different kind of band. The NewGrass Cutters play in bluegrass style – but they do highly original covers of some of the best known rock and pop songs from the last fifty years. The arrangements are brilliant and their four part vocal harmonies just beautiful. Big fans of the band already include BBC radio's 'Whispering' Bob Harris and Mike Read, guitar legend Albert Lee, Amen Corner's Andy Fairweather Low, Chas 'n' Dave plus Fairport Convention's Dave Pegg – who has invited the NewGrass Cutters to play at this year's Cropredy Festival. Pete took time from a frantic schedule to talk to us about his rich musical heritage, famous family and the creation of the NewGrass Cutters – one of the most exciting things to happen to UK bluegrass music for years. Pete Brown greeted me at the front door of his Oxfordshire village home with a broad, open smile and a strong handshake. There is something instantly likeable about him. He's warm, down to earth, straightforward and at ease with himself. We start by talking about the formation of the NewGrass Cutters band. “It was a bit of a fluke, really,” Pete began. “Our bass player, Mike Nichols, who has a classical and jazz background - he's played with the Royal Philharmonic but has also been touring with us in my dad's band for some years - was asked to put together a bluegrass band for a party. The fee on offer was big and, although Mike hadn't done much bluegrass, he agreed to play and find some other musicians too. He phoned me and said, 'We can do bluegrass, can't we?' and I hesitated a bit saying, 'Oh, I don't know'. But then Mike told me what the fee was and, as any professional musician would, I said, 'Yes, we can do bluegrass!' thinking I can play lap steel and mandolin and we'd find a way to wing it. Plus I knew my dad's drummer Phil Capaldi could definitely handle bluegrass – Phil's a great percussionist and he's played with his late brother Jim and Steve Winwood, Don Gibson, the Flying Burrito Brothers and lots of country music people too. Plus he has a great voice.” “But we still needed a good banjo player. Then someone in one of my sister Sam's ukulele bands suggested I talk to Richard Collins who lives nearby in the Newbury area. Well, Richard has won the UK Bluegrass Banjo Championship so many times they made him a judge - and he's had a really interesting career. He's recorded in Nashville and he plays mandolin as well as banjo. We couldn't have done better. Initially we worried Richard might be a bit of a bluegrass purist but he was fine and loved the challenge of doing something different. In fact, he's now become a regular member of my dad's band.” “For that first party gig we played covers of some well known rock anthems but in bluegrass style and it was a big success,” Pete recalled. “Richard said he'd never enjoyed a gig so much – and it was the first time he'd had so many people dancing as he played banjo. So that was how it began – all in a bit of a rush really. But we had such a great time we all agreed to keep on with the band.” “We have now played some other gigs and we are just finishing our first album which I have produced. It is called ‘Mowing Down the Groove’. We decided not to have original material on it but tried and tested tunes – really great songs. What is unusual is that all four of us can sing in different styles – so there are some quality vocal harmonies as well as some really original arrangements which work very well.” “The four of us have enjoyed interpreting these classic songs in a new way and audiences seem to love what we are doing. Initial reaction has been fantastic. Albert Lee, the BBC's Bob Harris and Mike Read, both Chas and Dave as well as Andy Fairweather Low and Fairport Convention's Dave Pegg are all genuinely enthusiastic about the NewGrass Cutters' sound. Dave Pegg said he particularly liked the cleanness and clarity of the sound and the way our vocals work with the four instruments – banjo, mandolin, bass and drums. We'd wondered whether we might also need a fiddle or a guitar but really it just works so well as it is. In fact Dave Pegg and Simon Nicol of Fairport have invited us to play at this year's Cropredy Festival in August – which is the best event of its kind in the UK. We are delighted about that.” One of my favourite NewGrass Cutters' interpretations is the Beach Boys' ‘Good Vibrations’ which is beautifully subtle and really demonstrates the superb musicianship and vocal virtuosity of each member of the band. Many years ago in California, I heard the Beach Boys play this number live and that performance - despite Mike Love's stratospheric singing - fell short of what The NewGrass Cutters have achieved in their novel bluegrass style. Pete Brown's own personal favourite track is their version of Hendrix's ‘Voodoo Child’ which now sounds like an Appalachian folk song and has a new vitality. ‘Give Me Some Loving’ – beautifully sung by Phil Capaldi - works very well too as do the Police's ‘Message in a Bottle’, Kylie Minogue's ‘Can't Get You Out of My Head’ and Elbow's ‘One Day Like This’. There is also Steppenwolf's ‘Born to be Wild’, Depeche Mode's ‘I Just Can't Get Enough’ plus Richard Collins sings a very attractive interpretation of the Beatles' ‘I've Just Seen a Face.’ The skill with which Pete Brown and the band have adapted all these classic songs is impressive - and highly innovative. As the veteran radio presenter Mike Read recently suggested to me, this new approach by the NewGrass Cutters might even start a trend! What are the future plans for the band? “Well, obviously, we want to get the album out and then we'll do a short initial tour to promote it,” Pete said. “Initially we'll play smaller venues like the Gatehouse in Stafford, the Tivoli in Wimbourne, Cromer Pier in Norfolk, Huntington Hall in Worcester and the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon. I am sure we will be adding some Oxfordshire venues too. I hope that once word about us gets around we might progress to do venues like Oxford's O2 plus more festivals. In five years I would like to see the NewGrass Cutters doing fifteen UK gigs annually, maybe five in Ireland and some in Holland, Germany and France – all countries where I have played before. Part of the band's strength is our good voices and of course our arrangements of classic songs are very original. Over time we might also include some of our own material as all of us write.” It was not until 2009, after thirty years in the music business as a producer, writer, vocalist and highly accomplished instrumentalist, that Pete Brown finally released his first record. Fittingly it was called ‘Not Before Time’ and won widespread critical acclaim. This must have been very satisfying? “It was. But, really, I should have recorded my own songs sooner. For so long people had been telling me I should make my own album. I am very self-critical, but the album actually exceeded my expectations,” Pete said. “And, when I was touring subsequently, it was so rewarding to see people reacting positively as I performed songs I had written and arranged. Not that I've ever minded my time engineering and producing in the studio or out on the road as back-up guitarist. I've loved my musical life. And I have really enjoyed working with my sister over the years and with my dad.” “It was a bit odd how I fell into engineering and production,” Pete recalled. “When I was sixteen I wanted to be a performer, like Sam was at that age. But she was far more advanced musically than I was. I had always been quite handy technically. As a kid I was constantly making headsets out of old telephones, taking things apart, rewiring stuff. My dad was quick to spot and nurture that ability. Not least because he saw the opportunity to use me to do technical work for his band and in his studio rather than pay someone else to do it.” “Soon after I left school that practical experience led to me being offered a job as an apprentice engineer at London's Powerplant Studio – then one of the top recording studios in the country. So I was trained in engineering from a very young age by the best in the business. It was a great start for me! And I was able to work my way quite quickly from engineering to producing records.” For nearly thirty-five years Pete has worked with many top producers and major artists – from Sade to Dusty Springfield, the Specials, Status Quo, Deep Purple, Courtney Pine, Nick Lowe, Gary Booker, David Gilmour, Marc Almond, the Smiths, even George Harrison. Plus his dad and sister Sam. Who over the years most influenced him? “I've learned so much from so many people; I'm still learning,” Pete said. “The first chief engineer I worked with was Mike Pela and he taught me a lot. He and I worked with Sade. Producer Robin Miller also impressed me with his total control of the music. He made me appreciate that the musical arrangement is critical. If that isn't right it's no use making stuff loud or trying to rebalance and equalise. Again, a very important lesson.” “Then I worked with Colin Fairley who was at the other end of the spectrum. He recorded many major names including Elvis Costello. His focus was more on atmosphere...getting a big racket going, as he would say. And there was Mike Hedges who was different again. He showed me how to be radical and sculpt the tones in a recording. He and I worked with Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, Marc Almond and so many more. Mike was a perfectionist technically. and whenever you hear one of his records on the radio the quality really stands out.” “Some of the artists have been inspirational too. Nick Lowe is a particular favourite to work with. Nick has been a big influence on me.” Pete also recorded with George Harrison. “Well, it was late one evening after my dad and I had been working all day at my dad's studio near Henley-on-Thames,” Pete recalled. “We'd gone to the local pub and I'd had a few pints when suddenly my dad's mobile phone rang. Now that was unusual. My dad's mobile never rings. Because he never gives the number to anyone. Anyway, it was George Harrison calling.” “George was one of my dad's closest friends. He was best man when dad remarried after my mum died. But this time George was trying to get hold of me. So dad passed me the phone and that familiar Liverpool voice just said, 'Pete, can you come and give me a hand in my studio? My regular engineer can't make it and I need to record some songs. Can you come here now and help me?' “So, I got a taxi down to George's place in Henley and by about midnight I was trying to sort out the various switches and controls in the Friar Park Studio. Which wasn't easy as I'd never been in there before and it was all rather old-school kit – though very sophisticated and impressive. It was quite a challenge! There were just the two of us. George went off to make me a coffee, and by the time he was back I'd more or less cracked it! We worked through the night together using the drum machine and with me playing bass. We laid down three demo tracks.” “I emerged into the dawn about 5.30 a.m., and George suggested I borrow one of his collection of exotic cars to drive home in. Tempting - but I took a cab, not wanting to risk damaging a classic car. And I just kept thinking, 'I have worked with a Beatle!' Even now, it is great to know I did that. Though I do wish I could have done more with him.” Of course, as a child, Pete was used to famous musicians visiting the family home. How was it growing up with two celebrity parents? “Well, you never have anything to compare your own childhood with,” Pete observed. “But there were quite a few musicians coming and going. One reason for that was that my dad had one of the UK's first big multi-track recording studios at our home and people used to like to come and use it.” “Our parents did a pretty good job of keeping Sam and I detached from the worst waywardness. But I do remember my mum referring to some of our musician visitors as 'casualties', and I appreciated quite early the problems too much drink and drugs could cause.” Pete's mother died when he was still in his twenties which must have been hard. Did it affect his career at all? “It did actually,” Pete reflected. “As it did Sam's, because she just stopped her recording and performing to nurse our mum. And she was at the height of her success, having just had a massive international hit with ‘Stop’ - the biggest seller A & M Records ever had.” “It was a bad time. I had just co-produced Sam's follow-up album ‘April Moon’, which sold almost three quarters of a million copies ,and suddenly the management company that was looking after me went broke, owing me a lot of money which I needed to pay a big tax bill. So I ended up losing my new home near Marlow, splitting up with my girlfriend, and with no work as I'd lost my management company. Plus I owed the tax people what seemed a fortune.” “Within a few months I was living in an old showman's caravan at the bottom of a friend's garden in a Berkshire village. I got a job as a painter and decorator for £75 a day. I was in that caravan for three years. It was a big shock at first, but I soon came to enjoy the simplicity of living there. And, with the help of a kindly accountant, I sorted everything out. Quite soon I was back in demand again as an engineer or producer. At first I didn't ask for much money; maybe double the decorating daily rate. At that price I quickly had a lot of offers but I'd learned to keep my life simple and my overheads low.” “You often gain from adversity,” Pete continued. “Maybe for the first time I saw who my real friends were. And I understood how fulfilling my creative life in music had been; how I valued that. To this day I don't think I've ever grumbled again about working long hours in a studio or having a tough time touring on the road.” How would Pete advise someone keen to pursue a music career? “To never lose sight of why you wanted to do it in the first place. If it is because you love the music, then at whatever level, your time in music will never let you down. But if you are just after fame and fortune, then find another way - go on a TV show or something.” “I never really thought of a different career for myself,” Pete continued. “As a child I always wanted to perform. Though from the Christmas just before I was eight when I was given a drum kit, I was determined to be an ace drummer! I'd play drums all the time and I was coming along quite well. Then, when I was twelve or so, my parents took in my foster brother Richard Newman who was about my age. His dad was Tony Newman of Sounds Incorporated ,and Richard had been drumming since before he could walk! Well, he was a far better drummer than I was. And from that first day I saw Richard drumming, I never touched my drum kit again. Well, not for years, anyway. I stopped it in a heart beat.” “Of course Richard went on to play professionally – he played with Alvin Lee and Rory Gallagher and performs with Deborah Bonham now, John Bonham's sister. Richard is acknowledged as one of the best drummers anywhere. But, had it not been for him, I might have been a percussionist rather than a guitar man!” The formation of the NewGrass Cutters and the promotion of their ‘Mowing Down the Groove’ album this year will take a lot of time. Will Pete still be able to continue producing records and touring with his dad? “Yes, I hope so. My dad will be touring later in the year after he returns from his new second home in Nashville. And I would hope personally to continue producing too. I have collaborated with the jazz saxophonist Joe Henwood who has a new studio locally. I have now developed my own studio in the complex where Joe's studio is – in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside near here. I want to get back to doing more producing. I did an album with Dennis Locorriere not long ago plus I did my dad's ‘Ukulele Album’ which has sold well. But I want to do more.” “With all the downloading people now do, it has become harder to make much profit from recorded music - though the upside is that there is still good money to be made from high quality live performance. Demand for that has actually increased. Hopefully it is a reaction against the blandness of a lot of recorded music now - sometimes it seems that virtuosity is actively avoided by some producers. Yet, when I was young, I really wanted to hear each guitar solo - that's what I was into. For me numbers like AC/DC's ‘Back in Black’ were never about the singing - it was about Angus Young and his guitar and I wanted to hear it.” “Another thing I have enjoyed recently is running one of Sam's ukulele groups,” Pete added. “I take the most advanced set one night each week, and it is a lot of fun. The growth in popularity of the ukulele these last few years has been phenomenal and Sam's various ukulele groups just go from strength to strength. All kinds of people want to play the uke! This is part of the current big revival of interest in live music.” Looking back over his whole career, did Pete ever make any bad decisions? “Yes, there was one really bad one. Just before I was due to go on a world tour as Musical Director for Sam when ‘Stop’ was a huge hit for her, Nick Lowe - who I'd already worked with quite a bit - asked me to go to America to join him and John Hiatt with Jim Keltner plus Ry Cooder to be their recording engineer. I'd made the commitment to my sister so I didn't go - and I would never break any commitment I'd made to anybody. But that could have really boosted my producing career, and I am a huge fan of Ry Cooder and would have loved to work with him - still would.” “I also regret that I have sometimes lost production work when people have assumed that I'm 'just Sam's brother' or 'just Joe's son' - and that I'm only involved in music because I was born lucky. Of course none of that is accurate as I'd worked with Nick Lowe, Sade, Dusty Springfield, Edwin Starr and many more before I'd ever worked with Sam or my dad - but that can get forgotten. Having said that, I am very proud of my family connections and sometimes they have been helpful too.” “Probably some of my most magic moments performing were touring with Sam,” Pete recalled. “When she was on form, she was amazing. She is one of the very few people I have ever worked with whose performance can make you stop in your tracks with her sheer power - even when you were playing in her band. I'd sometimes think when I was out on stage, 'Blimey, I can't believe I'm accompanying her.' It was so powerful and overwhelming. She has such a stage presence. Some of the gigs I did with Sam just blew me away! There have been some other great career moments though. Like playing with Mark Knopfler at the Albert Hall in 2008. and doing backing vocals for Dave Gilmour for a very special show. Plus I loved it when Dave Edmunds did a tour with my dad – he's such a great force on stage.” How does Pete relax when he's not producing or playing music? “There isn't much spare time. But I enjoy family things. Being with my wife Amanda and our three young children. Family days out, doing the garden, enjoying the open country behind our house here.” Is Amanda musical? “No. She does have artistic ability though. She is a photographer. We met in the village here. Down the pub. Amanda's family are local. In fact her dad was born in this house which has been kept in the family. My eldest daughter, Velvet, who is ten now, has had piano lessons and likes to sing. In fact she'll be going to her Auntie Sam soon for singing lessons. Our boy, Sonny, is only four and our youngest daughter, Clemence, is just two – so we'll have to wait and see how musical they turn out to be. Though Clemence does like to play the drums!” “There's definitely advantage in being married to someone outside the music and entertainment business though. Helps keep you grounded. And living in the midst of the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside, surrounded by nature and farming, is good too. Keeps everything in perspective. Which is very important to me.” For news of The NewGrass Cutters go to www.newgrasscutters.com Pete Brown's album ‘Not Before Time’ is available from Amazon and all good music outlets.

Picture Gallery:-
Pete Brown - Interview

Pete Brown - Interview

Pete Brown - Interview

Visitor Comments:-
900 Posted By: Keith Bates, NUNEATON WARWICKSHIRE CV10 9AT on 27 Oct 2019
Having been playing guitar since i was 10 in 1956/7 influenced by Don Lang six five special .....Lonnie Donigan The SHADOWS and Bill Haley I became a member of a lot of groups during the 60s some famous and some not so famous Recording a few tunes still play every day ....I relate to Joe his Dad a wonderful musician .....myself being 73 now ....and the immense talent that Pete has comes from i believe his Dads influence and like his Dad as they say a chip off the old block.....brilliant I live in Warwickshire and still have a small practice room in the garden ....now doing structured electric guitar lessons to all that want to take up this wonderful instrument that adolf rickenbacker invented ...hope to get to see you play soon .......my friend Simeon Daley of Daley Mandolins if you have heard of them .....he was a child i brought up for a while back in the 70s his Mum being Maureen Lennon /Daley from Liverpool ....we lived in Ansty Nr Coventry before moving to Looe in Cornwall...he is a great musician too lived in Nashville played the grand ol opry a few times ...my hero was Chet Atkins and Jerry Read

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