Bryan Bassett of Foghat – Interview

Carly Kutsup: In previous interviews you mentioned that the British invasion bands had a heavy influence over you. What do you think it was that made you so enthralled with them, and which ones really stood out to you the most?

Bryan Bassett: What really got me were the guitar players. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, and of course my favorite, Jeff Beck. He was my favorite guitar player of all time, all through his career. It was a combination of those bands who had hit records on the radio at the time, like the Rolling Stones. We were introduced to all those bands on The Ed Sullivan Show. At the time, without there being internet or video games, having a good stereo and waiting for the latest release of your favorite band was a big deal. You would get the album, and get together with your friends. It was a real communal listening experience. And the timing. The late sixties, early seventies was a big cultural revolution for young people, and music was a huge part of it. It was a very exciting time, the fashion, the music, and, for me, the guitar players. When I saw all those guys playing electric guitars, that was it for me.

CK: What was it about Jeff Beck specifically that stood out to you?

BB: He was very different. A lot of players came from blues influences like Eric Clapton and Peter Green. They took American blues to heart and transformed it by playing it through loud rock and roll amplifiers. Jeff Beck was always more eclectic. He has always had this like slight jazz influence, which became more separated and more individualistic as time went on. And his later albums… he was listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra and John McLaughlin at the time, so he really veered off into a jazz fusion combined with rock and roll. His style really stood out. Then, as he was an instrumentalist as opposed to most of the other guitarists that I listened to.

CK: Would you say that he was more experimental in his methods?

BB: Absolutely. And some of the sounds he got early on, his use of feedback and some of the almost Eastern sounding melodic structures, he used in his solos with the Yardbirds. That was quite impressive and really different from what was going on at the time.

CK: Growing up in Pittsburgh and now living in Florida, what influence has it had on your music and your music career as a whole?

BB: I’d say all my influences happened to me while I was in Pittsburgh. I was there all the way up through the mid-eighties, so that was a lion’s share of my young career. It was a great music city, almost like what happened with Seattle later on. So many great bands all came out of the same area, all with original material, all sounding different. There were literally hundreds of clubs to play. You could play for six, seven nights a week if you wanted to. Everybody charged a cover charge of $5 or something. So, back then in ’72 making $5,000 a week playing rock and roll, that was a lot of money. It was so different, everybody played four sets and you’d play three sets of cover music. I had a band that was more rock. We played Zeppelin and all that kind of stuff, and our original material was more like Night Ranger with guitar harmonies and multiple guitars. It was such a lively music scene in Pittsburgh. It was fantastic. And that’s where I learned my craft.

Of course, I eventually ended up hooking up with Rob Parisi to reform Wild Cherry. He had a band called Wild Cherry from the late sixties and early seventies, disbanded it for a while, and started a restaurant business. I said, ‘If you ever get sick of the restaurant business and want to get back into music, give me a call,’ which he did some months later. We were doing all the latest hits of the day, we were a rock band. And someone came up to our drummer and said, “Hey, better start playing some funky music, white boy.” Casey was coming out, the Bee Gees, even David Bowie with “Fame” and “Young Americans” and everything was going dance and funk. All that took place while I was in Pittsburgh, continuously playing from 1970s, while I was still in high school, but playing clubs on the weekends.

CK: You mentioned that “Play That Funky Music” is autobiographical. Are there any other songs that you can think of that came out from somebody just writing something on a napkin or saying something?

BB: Some of the Foghat songs I know from working with Lonesome Dave early on and talking to him about his songwriting. Some of them were tongue in cheek because he was a blues writer. But a lot of his songs came from personal experience in “Fool For The City.” That was about them, being up in the mountains recording and being away from New York missing the lights and sounds of the city. “Slow Ride” is a little more tongue in cheek. There was a lot of double entendre in his lyrics. Cars are all about hooking up with women and having a good time. He wrote a lot of songs, and so did we, about touring and traveling around the country. What it’s like to be away from home. Some of them are funny, some are a little sad [about] when you’re away from your family and loved ones. A lot of bands revolve around that issue of touring and being away.

CK: You’ve been a part of a lot of bands, including, like you mentioned, Wild Cherry, The Midnight Creepers, as well as Foghat, which you’ve been with for over 20 years. What makes Foghat different from all those other bands that you’ve played in?

BB: First of all, we’re like a family. And of course, after 20 years, how could you not be? But that chemistry happened right away, when I first joined 20 some years ago. I actually played with Lonesome Dave separately for four years before that, and we became instantly best friends. And when I met Roger and when I joined in 2000, it was like an instant family, where we all are like brothers and sisters. That feeling, more than anything, keeps the band together. And plus, it’s my natural playing style. The funny thing is when I first met Dave we were talking about playing together, he said, “Oh, you do play slide guitar, by the way, don’t you?” And I said, ‘Oh yeah, every day.’ I figured I’d play a little bit as a session guitar player. I guess it’s like when you ask an actor, “Well, we have this part for you, but can you ride a horse?” I go, ‘Oh, sure, yeah…’ well, that was me. And then I had to really study hard to perform his songs properly.

CK: What do you think are the qualities that keep a band together for a long period of time?

BB: Friendship and compatibility. Chemistry, musical and personal. A lot of bands, play great music together and at some point have personal animosity towards each other for some reason or another. Some issues big, some small. But we’re lucky that we just like each other. When we’re not playing, we go out and do things together. What keeps the band together is that camaraderie. It’s sort of us against the world and we’re doing this together. Maybe if we had tens of millions of dollars to fight over there would be more discussions that might interrupt friendship. But, we’re all in it together trying to make a living, support our families, and we enjoy making music together. So that’s pretty much the main ingredients right there.

CK: What was the catalyst that made you interested in becoming a music engineer and a producer?

BB: It was always an interest of mine. Early on, I was always the guy that would put headphones on and listen and try to envision how they made that record, how they put microphones on it. In my earliest bands, I was the guy that would set up mics and record our rehearsals and that kind of thing. And as the years went on, I really delved into it.

When I moved to Florida I was thinking there would be tons of bands, but there really weren’t and it took me a couple of years to even find the Midnight Creepers and the Kingsnake label, who I ended up working for as an engineer and a studio guitarist. I worked for Radio Shack, repaired TVs for the first year or two. Then I met Bob Greenlee who owned Kingsnake records, and he was in the process of updating his studio from a small eight track reel to reel studio into a state of the art recording facility. I never had any formal lessons at that time. Being a recording engineer was more of a trade than it was something you would go to college for, like you do now. But at that time you got a job almost like an electrician or a plumber. You started low and got everybody coffee, and slowly but surely you would learn the trade and work your way up the ladder. And that’s sort of how I learned to be a proper engineer. I worked with some great people including Pete Carr who made records with Simon and Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, Bob Seeger… The list is endless. He was my true mentor.

CK: Speaking of music engineering and producing, what do you prefer… that reel to reel or digital?

BB: That’s a big subject among engineers and has been for quite some time. When digital audio first came out, it didn’t sound very good to most engineers. I think the first CD I bought was Jimi Hendrix Experience and to me sounded nothing like a vinyl record and it had a harsh sound. But 20 years later, the digital revolution continues on. I mean, it’s to the point now where it’s almost totally replaced analog everything all the way down to guitar amplifiers for touring musicians. Now, there’s several electronics and they take these analog things all the way down to the transistors, model them and then put it back together. It’s quite amazing really.

The recording technology and the plug ins that go along with it are emulating basically analog compressors, reverbs, every other effect that you would normally have in a rack. And in a big studio in the old days there would be racks and racks and hundreds of thousands dollars worth of this expensive analog gear. Now, it’s all modeled in the digital world. The studio that I worked at back then was close to a quarter of a million dollars for the board tape machine and all the outboard gear. Now I’m making the latest Foghat record on a laptop. Such an affordable price for such a high quality. Then add in the Internet and all the digital means of distributing your own music. In the old days, that was impossible. You had to have a record company to manufacture your vinyl and do all the advertising and distribute the products. There’s so many things musically that are happening now that could never have happened in the analog world.

Me personally, being a 70s musician, I use all this digital technology to record like I did in the 70s. So even though I’m capable of fixing it in the mix and doing all these corrective editing, I still like to capture a live performance. So, we try our best to play together as a group and play the song several times, just like the old days and keep the best take and then go from there with minimal overdubs. I told students of mine, when I was teaching, that we didn’t have an undo button and we only had so many tracks. I can’t even count how many times I would tell a guitar player, ‘Are you sure you can do a better solo? Because if I press this button, that last one is totally gone. ‘

CK: Understandable. It’s like film photography where you couldn’t review a photograph and just delete it right then and there. You took the photograph and prayed it came out the way you wanted it to.

BB: And it’s all a matter of mindset and planning. Look at the Beatles’ records, at all the great records that came out the 70s. Most of them were done on tape recorders where they had to commit to effects early. Look at the amazing music that came out of that time. Sometimes having restrictions is a good thing. I do mixes for other bands and sometimes I’ll get a session in with 60 or 70 tracks on it. It’s like ‘Make a decision, pick one guitar solo.’

CK: You mentioned not having a record label and being able to promote your own stuff nowadays. But regarding social media, do you think it’s harder or easier for an artist now to get their material out there?

BB: Well, that’s a double edged sword. It’s easier from the point that anybody can start a record company now. And if you have a laptop and a bunch of people you want to record with in your home studio, you can do that. You can start an LLC and go on YouTube and create and get your thing out there. What you can’t really do now is figure out a way to properly monetize it so that you can actually make a living from it. So for bands like us releasing records now is not so much a moneymaking endeavor as it is a promotional item. We keep our fan base interested in coming to see our live shows. We sell hopefully hundreds of thousands, not millions, and if you’re lucky, you might break through. It’s totally different for people like Taylor Swift, and all those at the top of the pyramid. But for new bands in particular, you have to have your business game on. You have to be able to self market it. First of all, you have to be good and that’s a given. You have to have songs that appeal to a fan base. But record companies no longer have artists and relations departments that would go out and find bands and bring them to the label. That’s YouTube now. You get your band to a certain level with 10,000, 20,000 followers. Then someone will start knocking on your door to help you take it to the next level and promote it and maybe hopefully bring some financial stability. And touring is expensive now. I did my 20 years on a tour bus and before that, ten years in a van. That part of it never changed. If you’re a working band, which I’m sure there’s hundreds of them out there, you’re driving around in a van, trying to sell T-shirts and CDs off the bandstand to make it to the next city. But the actual recording and how much money you can make from it… you make more money from selling one t shirt, and one CD at your gig than you would make doing 10,000 streams on Spotify.

CK: Is that why the concert industry has changed and why ticket prices are way more than they were 10, 15, 20 years ago?

BB: Yeah, they are getting quite out of hand, I must admit. But it is a product of all this. There’s no more income stream from recordings. Like I said, even the big bands. If you’re a stadium or arena level band, the prices of transportation, staging, and hiring 20 or 30 people to do your production is a very expensive enterprise. Now when I start seeing tickets over $500 range, it’s mind boggling.

CK: I look at what I paid for a concert 10, 20 years ago and where I sat and the experience I got for the price I paid back then compared to what those same seats are today and I know I could never.

BB: Yeah. Instead of going to see ten concerts, you get to your you might go see one. That’s why I think like we do a lot of cruises which are multiple bands, that’s the best value for your money out there. We do the Rock Legends Cruise and several other ones. We did the Thunder Skinner Cruise when they were doing it. But you know, for $2000 or $3,000, you’re going to see 15 high caliber bands with rock legends. Plus you’re getting a cruise on top of it.

CK: I see bands that I grew up with are now doing the same thing and that really does sound like a lot of fun. It’s not just going to a concert, it’s going to a concert and going on a cruise. I love the idea of that combination!

BB: That’s what’s great about it. The biggest venue on any of these ships is maybe 2000 people. So you’re seeing your favorite band and you can literally reach out and touch them. Whereas, you know, we you play on the deck of the ship, there’s 500 to 1000 people there and the biggest theater is only 50 rows. You’re seeing high quality entertainment in small venues. So that’s the other bonus, too.

CK: You also mentioned that you were a professor. Given that you did teach, what piece of advice would you always give to your students and why?

BB: I taught Contemporary Ensemble at the Mike Herb School of Arts and Entertainment, which is like a recording studio. They taught business law, and video editing. It’s a full tech thing but we required every student to play in a band, whether music or engineering was their focus. We wanted everybody to have the experience of what it’s like to play in a band, especially if you’re going to be an engineer or be on the other side of the glass recording people. My job was to organize those classes, pick the material, and help students decide who in the class would be the singers. It was a production class in a way. You know, ‘This is how you build a band, and this is how you record it.’

The lesson I tried to impart to all of them is that success is not as far away as you think. I’ve had a hit record, I’ve been in major bands, I’ve toured the world and I live right down the street. So, you know, just because you’re in Daytona Beach, Florida, it doesn’t mean that your music’s not going to get heard or your business is not going to succeed or you’re not going to be out there and in four years be vying for a Grammy or something. I was encouraging them to follow their dreams. Don’t get discouraged, believe in yourself and then run with your ideas.

CK: You commented on being on the other side of the glass. How has being a musician and also having the background of engineering and producing helped the music that you might produce or play today?

BB: It helps from a communication standpoint because, when I talk to a guitar player on the other side, or singer, we talk like we’re in band rehearsal, like I’m in the band. So I’m not really all that technical. I might explain if they want to know why I need another take, but I can talk guitar tones, I can talk lyrics, and I can talk vocal performance like I was in a band rehearsal. Plus, I come from the perspective where I’m just trying to capture the people in front of me and, to the best of my ability, represent who they actually are. I’m not trying to create a hit record or anything. I’m capturing these people’s live performance. I don’t cut out every single mistake. I mean, I like the human factor, I like tempos to have a little bit of weave in them. I don’t like strict, drum track songs for our genre. I don’t mind them in songs that work well with that, which is quite a few of them. But for our genre of music, I like to capture that ebb and flow of rock and roll energy.

CK: There’s really nothing more exciting than going to a concert and getting that live feeling. I feel like if you can capture it on an album that makes the album even better.

BB: Right? And Foghat’s biggest selling record to date is Foghat Live.

CK: Going back to being a professor in education, what would you say to any school that’s thinking of cutting their music or not program because of budgets?

BB: I think it’s the worst idea ever. I was on the Grammy board for several years in Florida, and we spent a lot of time talking about supporting education, and music in the schools. How to get recording studios in the middle and high schools. First of all, it keeps you out of trouble. I know from personal experience. I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood and a lot of my friends went down a bad path. Music keeps you off the street and helps you in all your other classes. It helps with focus. It’s great for your math skills. Mathematical skills help you develop character. It helps you work with other people, collaborate, work as a team. There’s so many positives to choose from. Even if you don’t become a musician, just to be in the school band, all my children were in school band and my daughter’s at Stetson University as a classical percussionist. It’s just good for people’s brains. Any creative art, whether it’s painting, poetry, writing, or anything that uses your mind in that way opens up you to yourself and who you are as a person. You express yourself. A lot more people playing musical instruments would lead to a lot less angst and violence in the world.

CK: You stated that your daughter is a classical percussionist at Stetson University. Do you play any other instruments, or is it just the guitar?

BB: I play a little bit of everything really badly, but play out of necessity sometimes. I’m a pretty decent drum programmer. I can play drums, but not well enough to record. But I play bass guitar. Bass guitar is my secret thing and I did a lot in the studio. I can play a little bit of keyboards and I can knuckle on some B-3. If I couldn’t play guitar, I think I would have wanted to play B3 organ because I love that sound.

CK: Speaking on having such an extensive library, specifically with Foghat, how do you pick and choose what songs you’re going to play on tour?

BB: Yeah, that comes up every year. We just went through that process because we just finished rehearsals for our upcoming summer tour. We have five or six songs that we’re always going to play, the core hits of our set. But we still have another half a show to fill out, and we get a lot of people that see us multiple times so we don’t want to play the same show over and over again. Every year we try to pick some deep album tracks. The last couple of years we’ve been in a period of anniversary years for all the Foghat releases and we’ve been picking a couple of songs from the anniversary album and a couple of songs from fan recommendations and then maybe one or two that we that we’ve had a hankering to play.

CK: Given that you’ve played so many different places and venues, which one would you say stood out to you the most and has been the most memorable experience and why?

BB: Well, that’s a big one. During my Wild Cherry period it was so exciting to play big venues opening up for the Jackson Five, Earth, Wind and Fire, Average White Band, Chaka Khan, Isley Brothers, pretty much anyone you can name from seventies R&B. That in itself was totally exciting. I mean, all the arenas basically are the same, but the fact that I was actually in them, playing, that was spectacular.

My favorite memory is when I played Pittsburgh, my hometown. I had turned down a college scholarship to Carnegie Mellon, which is quite a good school to go live in a condemned house with a bunch of musicians in Lima, Ohio, because we had a house gig at a club called Yogi’s for the summer. So, I moved up there and after that disbanded, I joined Wild Cherry and we were playing Pittsburgh Civic Arena, the biggest place in Pittsburgh. I played there a couple of times, but this one was with the Isley Brothers and my parents were both still alive and came to the show. That always sticks in my mind as a favorite memory because they got to see me have some success after what might have been a dubious choice, turning down a college scholarship.

CK: I read that you were a touring guitarist with Lonesome Dave’s Foghat from 1989 to 1993 and then rejoined in 1999 as a permanent guitarist. What was the deciding factor in your return?

BB: My friendship with Dave and my desire to play Foghat music again. I mean, I loved playing on Molly Hatchet, which is who I played with between those seven years. We spent a lot of time in Europe, which was very exciting. We did a lot of guitar harmonies in that band, so that from a guitar standpoint, it was really challenging. But it was my friendship with David. He was in remission from cancer. He had been sick for some time, and they wanted to go back on the road, but Rod didn’t want to tour anymore. He called me up and said, “Brian, feel like doing some playing”? I said ‘all day.’ But I was in Green Bay with Molly Hatchet on a concert tour. And I said, ‘I’ll be home in a couple of days. I’ll come over the house, we can jam.’ He goes, “No, I want to go back out on tour’ and I said ‘I will have to quit my band.’ And he said, “Okay, I’ll send you plane tickets to New York for rehearsals.” So, I gave my notice that day. Dave was my best friend, and we kept in touch all during that time while he was ill. I only got to play with him for that one year. It was an important year for me to get back with them.

CK: I also understand that “It Hurts Me Too” and “Terraplane Blues” are two of your favorite songs to play. What is it about those two songs that you really like performing?

BB: They are blues classics. And it’s a slow blues, so you get to show off as a guitar player. Also, “It Hurts Me Too” is a really heartfelt song. Terraplane Blues is a Robert Johnson classic and a Foghat classic. It’s one of my favorite Foghat songs. It’s a fun song to play and a really interesting slide guitar song.

CK: When it comes to traveling with equipment while on tour, do you prefer to travel with your own personal equipment or provided equipment?

BB: In the old days, I definitely preferred my own setup. But I think I stopped. I haven’t played my own amplifier, I don’t think, since maybe 2001 because backline companies weren’t very good at the time. Back then, you had a bus with a tractor trailer and you pulled your stuff around. But over the course of the 2000s, backline companies got to be basically mobile music stores, and all their equipment was pristine. It became cost effective to not have to drag your stuff all around the country. And, when you were tied to a bus and a tractor trailer, you had to do only 500 mile jumps and had to play a lot of smaller venues. Then we started flying everywhere. I’d be in Boston one day, Chicago the next, L.A. next. We jump around. Now we’ve been doing it so long we know different companies in every part of the country. We call them up and say, we have a show, and they know what we need. They have the equipment there when our sound and stage crew get there. It’s like having your own so I have a locker full of amps that I hardly ever use anymore.

CK: You are currently on tour and you have the summer tour coming up. What else can your fans expect from Foghat, let’s say in the next year or two?

BB: We just finished a new studio album, so that’s going to be a big deal for us, just finishing, mixing and mastering it as we speak. We don’t have a release date but we do have a title. I’m not sure it’s set in stone, so I’ll have to get back to you on that. But the songs turned out great. It’s all our personal interest and a really interesting record. A little bit more wide variety of style than people might expect.

Once we get a group of songs that we think satisfy everybody in the band and we think are really good, then we start the process of releasing a record. Every two or three years we seem to do live album and then a studio album and then a live album. So that’s coming up this year for sure, probably sometime mid-year.

CK: What else?

BB: Then we’re just going to play. good friend Kim Simmons passed away from Savoy Brown. I’m sure you’re familiar with the history of Foghat. You know, Foghat was three members of Savoy Brown with the addition of Rod Price that became Foghat in 1971. Kim Simmons. From that time on, there’s always been Savoy Brown in various iterations. He was a good friend and we toured with him a lot. He fell ill and we lost him just a few weeks ago. He wasn’t able to tour but we asked him to write some songs for us, so there’s several of his songs and co-writes on our new record and we play a couple of those live. That’ll be a treat for people that know the history of Foghat all the way back to Savoy Brown and Kim. He was a lovely guy and the songs he wrote were really heartfelt and great and I’m looking forward to getting those out to the world. Other than that, we’re just gonna be rocking and rolling down the road.

Interview by Carly Kutsup, edited by Fredda Gordon. Photo courtesy of Bryan Bassett.