“I look like a thug, don’t I?” laughs Danny Bryant, as we inspect the sleeve of his new album, Blood Money. “I love those old Alligator album covers where they look a little bit menacing, a little bit dark. I showed the photographer some of those so he knew what we were aiming for.”
Not a thug, exactly, but certainly a man who means business. Since forming a creative partnership with producer Richard Hammerton for 2013’s Hurricane, Bryant has fired off two albums in consecutive years, and continued to tour with Bonamassa-worthy zeal. “We even did a week in China,” he recalls, “and I actually had to do that whole thing of submitting the lyrics to the government. That’s probably my most rock’n’roll moment ever. I was actually a little bit gutted when they all got through!”
After the varied songcraft of Hurricane and 2014’s Temperature Rising, Blood Money marks a return to Bryant’s first love, described by the 35-year-old as a “love letter” to his early blues heroes. Yet the album also has its finger on the pulse of 2016, with Bryant channelling tales of love, death, hope and fear from the world around him. “Me writing about a £600 vet bill is not going to be very inspiring,” admits the bandleader, as he prepares his tracklist commentary. “You have to borrow bits of people’s lives, in a way. You fit yourself into those shoes so the songs become real…”
BLOOD MONEY (FEATURING WALTER TROUT)
“That was the first song we cut. I remember that we nearly had a disaster in the studio, Grange Farm, because they have these winding stairs. I was in my socks and I slipped from the top to the bottom and smashed my ribs. They were a bit bruised, so that put the singing on hold for a couple of days.
“Blood Money originally came about when Walter got home from surgery. We had Skyped and he said we should write a song together. So I started it, and I had the riff, but then he got better quite quickly and went in to make his own album. So I just finished the song myself as a duet to play together. We couldn’t do it face-to-face because he was in LA and I was in Norfolk, so we transferred his parts. It was quite strange: I woke up one morning and I could hear Walter’s voice down in the control room.
“I wanted something riffy, and I just couldn’t see it sitting anywhere else but at the start. I loved what Walter did. He’s definitely got his chops back and it was great to hear his voice at full strength after that roller coaster of emotions. I really thought I was going to lose one of my dear friends. I’ve always had him there as a mentor, as something to navigate by and look up to. I’m a much better player now than when Walter guested on Days Like This . But I would hope to be. It just comes with age.”
“Lyrically it’s about the media and the way they seem to be controlling everything. That song was written before [the terrorist attacks in] Paris, but it’s quite topical with what’s happening at the moment. It seems like the media is churning up a lot of racism and hatred. The Paris attacks were absolutely terrible, and it sort of hits closer to home because I have friends who play that venue [Le Bataclan, where 89 music fans were killed]. But I think the dangerous thing is that you can’t blame a religion for a few thousand fanatics. And the media sometimes likes to. You have to be very careful not to bring hatred to a race of people or a religion when it’s just a few nuts.
“I was looking at the live set and we didn’t really have a big Texas shuffle. I’d always kind of steered away from that because so many guys do the Stevie Ray Vaughan thing, which was never anything that I did, as much as I love it. So I wanted something that would be a fun one to take out on the road. Guitar-wise, I wanted it to be balls-out, very much influenced by the Texas guys. Texas has some amazing blues players: I just tried not to think about them while I was playing it. I think there’s something in the water there. I’ve been to Texas and I drank plenty of the water – but it didn’t work!”
“I had a friend at school. We’d kind of lost touch over the years but he died of cancer recently, at 35 years old. It was absolutely tragic. Everyone among our school group was gutted. It just seemed a massive injustice. I’d been out with friends and bumped into him. We all knew he was ill. We got chatting, had a few drinks and he said he’d heard two days before that it had spread.
“When I heard that he’d died, it shocked me, and the lyrics to Slow Suicide came very easily. Y’know, he never got the chance to get married, to continue in his career, to have children, to do everything that we all take for granted. Lyrically, I went back to when we were kids together, and then I looked at other people that I love who are getting older and that’s the other end of the spectrum. That’s like a slow suicide, a gradual decline.
“It was pretty emotional to record Slow Suicide. The guitar was one take. I always find the slow stuff the easiest to play on. I find it much easier to put feeling and emotion into my playing. Y’know, the ballads are really my favourite thing to do.”
“I think Albert King was quite a cantankerous guy. I’m kind of glad I didn’t meet him, but I love his music. I said to Richard Hammerton that I wanted to do a kind of Albert King song, the sort of stuff he did for Stax. I was originally thinking of recording Born Under A Bad Sign, but I thought that, y’know, everyone has done that. So I actually took the riff and just played it backwards.
“Maybe I shouldn’t give away those secrets, but that’s how it came about. I shouldn’t get in trouble because that’s only how the song started, and we’ve changed it a lot – you’d be hard-pushed to find it in there. And then another favourite song of mine is Chains And Things, so I thought I’d give a nod to that and call it Unchained.
“So we sort of went for this funky, Stax kind of vibe. It’s not something I’ve done before – and certainly never on an album – and that funk edge is something I had to challenge myself on, which I love to do. Y’know, this is a blues album, and I was looking for some different vibes. When you’re making albums every 18 months, you want them to be interesting for the listener.”
ON THE ROCKS
“That’s an instrumental jam, cut live in the studio, and something we’ve been playing live for the last year. That’s a complete tribute to Albert Collins. My wife Kirby is always listening to Albert Collins around the house. It’s great to have a wife with good music taste: she makes me remember recordings that I’d forgotten. I hadn’t listened to Albert Collins for a while, then she went through a period of constantly listening to him while getting ready to go out. It completely reignited it for me, made me search out all those old recordings.
“One day at soundcheck, I said, ‘Let’s do an Albert Collins shuffle,’ and it just stuck. Then it became more of a coherent instrumental track, so I decided to record it. I called it On The Rocks, because Albert Collins always had these ice-themed references: y’know, like Iceman, Frozen Alive!, things like that. He’d pretty much taken them all. But then I thought, ‘On The Rocks – he hasn’t got that one.’ So that worked. Albert would open-tune his guitar and put a capo on. I find his guitar style the hardest one to do. A real challenge.”
It seems like the media is churning up a lot of racism and hatred
“That’s quite a fast rocker, and it’s going to be the opening song of the live shows. You really need songs that are going to work well live because that’s my bread and butter. I want the songs I do in the studio to convert on the stage, so if people have bought the album, they don’t go there and it sounds completely bloody different.
“So Sugar Sweet is just an out-and-out rocker that Richard and I wrote together. The lyrics are tongue-in-cheek. It’s referencing a woman, but really the guy is talking about drinking – y’know, ‘Just a taste is never enough, I’m feeling down and you lift me up.’ It’s about a guy who loves drinking. It’s not particularly deep lyrically, but not every song can be a Slow Suicide. People want some relief, some ebb and flow. Blues doesn’t always have to be a downer. Often, it’s some of the most fun music.”
“With that one, it was Richard’s idea to really show some dynamics within a standard blues arrangement. I’d said to him that I really wanted to make a more bluesy album this time around. So it was like, ‘Well, we’ve got to be clever about this.’ You’ve only got these three chords. And sometimes, only having three chords, it’s kind of an art to find different ways of approaching it, and finding different dynamics. So with that song, as you can hear, it starts very softly, and then it goes quite heavy, and it’s pretty funky.
“With the lyrics, that’s the age-old tradition of someone who gambles too much. Which isn’t me – I put a pound in a fruit machine and then I walk away. Albert Collins, he did that a lot. I think he was a gambler, and he’d write about these guys that lose all their money. So I thought I’d write a gambling song. It’s a blues cliché, but I wanted to have a go at it myself.”
You have to borrow bits of people’s lives, in a way. You fit yourself into those shoes so the songs become real
HOLDING ALL THE CARDS
“It’s about a woman who’s got the monopoly over a man – or it could be vice-versa. I used a few different guitars, but a lot of it was the Gibson Firebird I bought in America. I just got desperate for a Firebird, and they’re obviously cheaper out there. We stopped at a Guitar Center and Kirby said, ‘Oh, you don’t really want to buy another guitar, do you?’ So I kinda ran on ahead, trying to get one before Kirby got into the shop and put me off. I’d not been in a Guitar Center before, and I didn’t realise they’re the size of a Tesco. I sorta ran up to this guy: ‘You got any Firebirds?’ They only had one and he had to get a ladder to get it down. And I said, ‘I’ll take it!’
“It’s inspired by Jimmy Reed, that one. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been into him. I read a book on him and although he was blues, he had a lot of crossover appeal, which has kind of been forgotten in blues history. He had a lot of hits, and he actually sold more albums than any blues artist while he was alive, although he hasn’t ended up having quite the same legacy as a lot of them.
“The things you listen to, they end up coming out the next time you write. When you start out, you read a few reviews about yourself and you think, ‘Shit, I’ve got to get my own style.’ But then, you get to a point where you’re more confident and you think, ‘Y’know, I want to make an album and I want to wear my influences on my sleeve.’ So that’s what I was aiming for. I’ve made this album without those shackles of worrying about whether it sounds too much like I’ve copied someone else.”
JUST WON’T BURN (FEATURING BERNIE MARSDEN)
“Lyrically, it’s a lost love-type song. It’s not from personal experience – I’m happily married – but it came from looking at a friend who had split up from his girlfriend, going through all the heartache and saying to me, ‘I just can’t get over her.’ And me saying, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to move on.’
“I’ve loved Bernie’s music for a long time. I didn’t come to him through Whitesnake. I had an album called Green And Blues, which was like a tribute to Peter Green and that Bluesbreakers period. So I came to him through his blues work. We were on the same bill two or three times and we’d spent a couple of hours chatting, so I had his email address. But I couldn’t pluck up the courage to ask him to play on this song.
“Then we arrived at the studio on Monday and I thought, ‘I’m gonna ask him.’ He came straight back and said, ‘I’ll be there at two on Friday.’ And the minute he said yes, I knew Just Won’t Burn was the song. What I love about Bernie is that he’s so melodic. Y’know, everything he plays is like something you would sing. So I knew that was the ballad to have him on.
“He was an hour late because of the traffic, but he turned up and brought his ’59 Les Paul with him – The Beast – which was amazing. That guitar is incredible. I can see why Joe Bonamassa thinks it’s the best Les Paul he’s ever played. I got to play it, too. I was worried about dropping it. It’s like holding a five-bedroom house in your hand. You can’t normally hold something so valuable. You can buy a sports car or get a mortgage and buy a nice house – but you can’t hold that in your hand. Bernie’s not worried about it. He’s had it for years and paid £500 for it. But for me, it was like, ‘Oh God.’
“I think the overriding memory of this album is having Bernie in the studio. When he finished recording, he chatted for a couple of hours, showed me how he wrote Here I Go Again, and sat and played it for us. He showed us old photos and told me stories about BB King and seeing Freddie King when he was young. That was a magical time.”
My overriding memory of this album is having Bernie Marsden in the studio. That was a magical time
“The guitar was all improvised. Lyrically, that song is basically about a guy who’s lost the woman he loves and is trying to find that within someone else. In this case, it’s a lady of the night, so to speak. Obviously, she’s lost as well, and it’s kind of like two lost souls coming together, and neither of them really getting what they want. I wanted to write a song that was more like a film.
“The name doesn’t have any significance. I always loved ballads with girls’ names, and I thought Sara Jayne just sang really well. I think if you put someone’s name in the title, it kind of invites you in. It’s intriguing. You feel like you know the character already. It gives a name and face to it.”
Blood Money is released on January 29 via Jazzhaus, and Bryant’s UK tour starts on February 10