By Thomas S, Orwat Jr.
Grammy award-winning musician, songwriter and producer, Paul Nelson, has stepped into the spotlight with his new solo band, the Paul Nelson Band, and an amazing record entitled, 'Bad Ass Generation.' After spending a decade as the musical director of the Johnny Winter band, Nelson decided to put together his own kick-ass, classic rock-style band, following the passing of Winter, in 2014.
'Bad Ass Generation,' is a 12 track epic release that shows Nelson at the top of his game. It's obvious that the many years working with Winter has greatly influenced Nelson, resulting in him becoming one of the most soulful and dynamic guitarists in rock music today.
What follows is an exclusive Rock Music Star interview with rock n' blues guitar star, Paul Nelson.
Rock Music Star: Paul, after working with Johnny Winter for so many years, what was it like to focus on yourself and start a new band?
PN: Well, it was… As Johnny and my fans know, I don’t play just one style of music. Johnny always encouraged that I went off and did other things, as well. So, he was actually around when I was getting the idea to do this. He was going to play on it. It’s a lot different; I wanted to follow a more retro 70s kind of format. The band and myself were big fans of that style of music. But, we wanted to keep it current. We loved the production, and the style of playing from back then- Bad Company, Zeppelin, Skynyrd. We also come from the school of band jams, and all that kind of stuff. So, I wanted to be able to mix everything up; especially, at a time now, where that’s a good thing to do. Listeners are more open to more diversity on an album, so that’s what we try to do.
RMS: Absolutely. I agree with you, on it being diverse. I was surprised, and not so surprised, because before you joined Johnny Winter, you weren’t just blues-based. You were a hard rock guitarist.
PN: Yup. And a sessions guy. I played blues, rock, jazz, funk… you name it. I’m also in the studio recording for some TV shows.
RMS: Yes, I read about that. With this record, was it a bittersweet experience, working on this and not having Johnny around, knowing that you would never do another record with him?
PN: I really didn’t think about it in that way, like, “Wow, he’s not part of this,” because the music was so different than what he was doing. I mean, it has his influences, because obviously, I was around him for so long, and he’ll always be a part of me. I’m proud of my lineage. But, once I got all of those guys together, it was really just concentrating on what I was doing, and what I was about. I had a great singer- Morten Fredheim- who I had worked with, producing several years ago. His band was actually on tour with Johnny’s band, so there was a little memory there. He was from Norway. He was number two on The Voice. Chris Reddan, who played with Popa Chubby- he was the drummer. They played big shows with us over in Europe, so there was a little memory there. And then Christopher Alexander, who played with Samantha Fish, who we did some of the blues cruises with, and we did some shows when Samantha was first starting off in Europe- she was our opening act. So, there was some memories there. Once we all got together, it was just the music at hand.
RMS: That leads to my next question- how did the band get together? Were those the guys that you chose from the beginning, to be in your band? Was it more of a process?
PN: Yeah, it was a process over time, kind of like the Led Zeppelin thing, looking for the right bass player and the right drummer. Over some time, the singer, I had seen some work over in Europe, and I said, “Boy, I’ve gotta work with this guy in the future.” I always kept his contact. The bass player, I had done some guitar clinics with. He had been on some shows with myself and Johnny. The drummer, I had seen with a lot of people- Chris Reddan. I knew these were the guys. Not only that, but they were recommended to me by other people, as well. So, the names kept coming up, and I know how they played. We just flew them all in to the studio, and we locked ourselves in and just started making music. And it happened; I’m very, very proud of it.
RMS: What was the writing process like, for you? Did you already have the songs ready to go before the band got involved?
PN: No. I kind of wanted to go from scratch, but I had my ideas I had been working on, even with Johnny. You know, at some of our shows, playing at sound checks is where some of it happens, or on the tour bus. But, no, once I had all the artists there, I wanted it to be based around their musicality. So, I started writing parts, and then adding lyrics to it. We started recording things, and the songs just started developing. I would write parts, we’d put vocals on it, rehearse it, record it, record the rehearsals, and then we would lay it down for real. Once you lay it down for real, then the thing starts developing. You’re adding sections, or going back and rehearsing again. What you hear on there is pretty much how the songs were developing during the rehearsal stage. We’d throw the bass down and the guitar, and then the vocals on top. And then, any other ear candy that we heard that could add to the quality of the song, we added; other instrumentation, or whatever. Then, it was the question of putting the songs in a certain order, picking the right grooves, the artwork and all of that. It’s a long process, but we were pretty quick with it. Things happened really well. I wanted to created a classic album; something that you just listen to as a whole, like they used to do in the past, like a Boston album, or a Zeppelin album, or an Aerosmith album. Something where the whole album has a reason, not just individual songs. When you listen to it, back to back with each song, it makes musical sense. The whole feature is interconnected. We were trying to achieve that. And, that’s why there’s a cassette deck on the cover, to refer back to that iconic period.
RMS: One of the things I really like about the records you’ve produced is the fact that you don’t overproduce. I think there’s so many producers nowadays that add way too much, and it distracts from the song. I wanted to ask you: how do you discipline yourself to be able to-not become a perfectionist- but, how do you know when to stop putting crap in a song?
PN: It’s a feeling, or a sense you get. I always find that, just when you think it’s enough, you have to take that extra step, and step back and listen to everything just to make sure. And then you think, “Boy, I’m glad we redid this, or checked this one more time.” It’s a series of checks and levels, and not to overproduce, but there’s a certain drum sound. Drum sound drives the whole album. The bass with the drums drives the album. The rhythm guitar and how everything’s split, the effects on the vocals- everything matters. I’m sure you start getting your own style, because from doing many projects, you have a certain drum sound that you like, and you have a certain bass sound, and that’s a reason that sometimes you get hired to do these things, because people like your style. But, then they come in and they say, “We want it to sound like this.” But, you were hired because of the way that you do it. So, you have to appease everyone, you know? But, the main thing is, is that the drums are of the utmost important- it’s the first thing that’s recorded. That mix-down brings it to life. The mix is where all the stuff happens. You can lay that bed of instruments, and get everything all set, and you just have to know and trust that the mix is going to take what you recorded, and put it in a whole other level. The mastering affects it, as well. It gives it that polished, finished listen. The levels are adjusted, so it’s in par with all the other music that’s being played at the same time. Overproducing? The songs take that, sometimes. If the bass is too compressed, or the drums are too… you don’t want to just start sampling everything, and having the drummer act like a trigger. You have to be careful. You start hearing it. It won’t fit with the mix. If you know what something sounds like when it’s overproduced, you can stop it before it happens. If you don’t know, then you’re screwed. You have to know when to stop, absolutely. When you do it enough… You can deliver a traditional drum sound, and you have tons of horns on there, and it’s like, “It just doesn’t have that punch. What’s going on?” Well, it’s the drums. It’s because you have the live kind of drum sound that just wasn’t EQ’ed correctly. But then, you go back and fix it. If you do the drums correctly, it brings the whole track to life. The biggest thing is when people start tapping their feet, and getting into it. You can sense just from the listening from the people around you. It’s like test marketing. People’s input is important, once you’re ready to play it for them. I do a lot of that.
RMS: That’s a good point. For myself, personally, I listen to music, and as soon as I hear that drum machine, that turns me off right away in a song. I cannot stand the sound of a drum machine. I don’t understand why so many artists still insist on using it. It’s such a big difference between a drum machine, and a live drummer. I just don’t get it.
PN: The minute you hear that first snare hit, you know, “This is in, or this is out. I’m not going to enjoy this record if this is what it’s going to be like throughout.” Yeah, a snare and a kick are the most important. There’s a lot of techniques where people are making stuff in mono. Or, people are mic’ing everything. I’ll tell you, the 70s recordings were all recorded mono. They didn’t have mics on the drums. So, that’s kind of what I went for on this record. But, at the same time, I didn’t want it too dated. It was a purposeful blend.
RMS: I think you definitely accomplished your mission, in what you had set out for this.
RMS: You have been touring ith your band for a few months. How has the tour been, so far?
PN: Oh, it’s great. Everywhere I go, people are there, the fans are there. It’s great. I’m doing a lot of shows in May. I’m playing at B.B. King's. I’m doing stuff for the UN at Washington Park. I’m going to be on the Blues Cruise; Buddy Guy is playing, and that’s coming up. But, all the shows have been great. Playing with James Montgomery; I just finished producing his record. A lot of good things going on, you know? Always working.
RMS: I want to spend some time talking about the Johnny Winter “Down and Dirty” DVD. To be honest with you, it was difficult to watch it. Being a fan, it was a good view.
PN: It’s different.
RMS: To see him getting better, and better, and better, and then dying- it’s just so heartbreaking.
PN: A fascinating thing is, as the film progresses, Johnny gets younger.
RMS: Right, yeah.
PN: At the end, he was in perfect shape, except for the emphysema. But, you see him in the beginning with the heavy breathing and this and that, and then it slowly gets better, and better, and better. He’s more mobile- it was amazing to watch the finished project. You think, “Wow!” Both eyes are open, he’s healthy, he’s chatting and he’s smiling. That was a big thing, because Greg Oliver, the director, followed us around for three years. When Johnny and I were in China, Japan, when we did the taping of Letterman, Kimmel, Johnny’s house, in Texas, Europe. He really got some really priceless footage. You put it all together, and there’s like, three or four stories going on in there. You have excessiveness, the history of the blues, and Johnny’s lineage. So, I think he tied it all together really well. But, it is very in depth. Very close.
RMS: It’s definitely a must watch for any music fan. There’s no way you can walk away from viewing it without loving him even more.
RMS: What an awesome job. The DVD is just incredible. I was a fan, and I was so upset when I heard he passed away. I listened to his music for a while, afterwards, and then I just couldn’t listen anymore, because it made me sad.
PN: Yeah, when he’s singing, “Georgia,” in Japan- oh! You notice, when people do that, it’s a fun thing, and they goof around. But, the minute that light went on him, he got serious. It was one of those moments where I was just like, “Oh my God.” People in the Japanese restaurant stopped eating and came to the door like, “Who’s singing that?” It was amazing. That was one of those moments.
RMS: Wow. It’s just incredible; his guitar playing, too. I saw him back in, I think it was 2011, when you played at the Seneca Niagara Casino. He didn’t seem like he was in great shape, but his guitar playing was just incredible. I was just like, “How could he do this?”
PN: Oh, yeah. He was older, and had done a lot of stuff. But, the minute he went behind that guitar, it was like he was 16. Effortless.
RMS: It really was. It must have been some sort of closure for you, once your last release, ‘Step Back,’ won the Grammy Award for best Blues release. That must have been the thing that said, “This is how the story needs to end.”
PN: (Pauses) I don’t know what it was like. It was all a haze. He had heard the whole record. He actually leaned over to me in the studio and said, “Paul, if you and I don’t get a Grammy for this, they’re nuts.” (Laughs) But, he saw the whole movie. The Grammy came about a month later, after he passed. I just couldn’t believe it. We worked hard on it, and a lot of people who heard it said, “Wow, even without the tragedy, this is a good record. A great record.” He and I got the Grammy, and when I went up to accept it, it was just amazing. I got hit, emotionally; I said that I wouldn’t, but they’re playing the music, and the name of the album is there. You just get a rush of all the time that you spent with him, and you start going down memory lane in that minute, and it hits you. But, he did leave us on such a high note, and he’s on the Mount Rushmore of guitars, where he should have been years ago, if it were not for his over excessiveness and poor management in the past, and all that. With that, I’m happy that he achieved something in that respect, you know? It’s him and Hendrix, B.B. King and Clapton. Those are the guys.
RMS: Absolutely. I remember seeing him for the first time; I got into him a little bit late. I saw him in 1989. He opened up for Stevie Ray Vaughn. I went, of course, to see Stevie Ray Vaughn. I was blown away but Johnny Winter. I still tell everybody, to this day, that he blew Stevie Ray Vaughn off the stage. Even when it was uncool to say that. Johnny Winter- I saw it with my own two eyes- blew Stevie Ray Vaughn off the stage, without a doubt.
PN: Totally. If it wasn’t for his health deteriorating later on… he smoked Vaughn. He smoked Hendrix. There’s recordings where it’s just laughable, and a lot of people knew that. The problem was, when everybody else was on top of their game, Johnny wasn’t. That’s why his comeback was so important. Sure, he didn’t play like he did in the past, but at least he was healthy enough for people to go, “Wow, this is something.” And they watched him get better. There was such a turnaround because the fans were realizing how hard he and I were working together to get him back. But those shows, he was top guy. He gave Stevie Ray Vaughn lessons in Texas. He told me he used to come by the house and show him stuff. It’s pretty impressive.
RMS: It was impressive, too, how you guys built it up from pretty much ground zero, and built it up to where it was, and where it ended- with the Grammy Award and the sold out shows. As a fan, I guess I want to thank you for doing all of that. The fans really appreciate all of your efforts, and I hope you really realize that. The fans really, really appreciate what you did for him, and for us.
PN: Thanks. We started off as music cohorts- guitarist to guitarist. That was fine by me, but a friendship developed, and then I was helping a friend. Hopefully, everybody else would have done the same. He was really just in bad shape, and I couldn’t sit back and let it happen. Plus, knowing his lineage, and him being an idol of mine were just some of the many reasons. I saw him just writing himself out of history. And, just as a human being, he was dying then. But, I thank you for that.
RMS: You’re welcome. I know it was truly genuine, because when I did see him in Niagara Falls, I did talk to you afterwards, for a brief second. You asked me if met him, and I said, “Yeah, it was one of the highlights of my life meeting him,” and I thanked you. And you said, “How do you think I feel every single day?” You had this look in your eye, like you were a kid in a candy store. I was like, “Man, this guy has the greatest job in the world.”
PN: Oh, totally! And, actually, I remember that, now. That’s how it was, and I knew how important it was for everybody to do that. Absolutely. Everybody came up and was like, “Oh, you don’t know what this means to me.” I do! Of course. That’s why I wanted to make him more accessible. It was therapeutic for him. Everybody that loved him loved those meetings. Exactly, it was like that every day for me. But, I had to help him. Like I said, I couldn’t fix the emphysema, but with everything else, he had a clean bill of health. Everything- the drugs, the drinking, the smoking- nothing. But, the lungs. Smoking got him. It’s a shame. But, again, he left on a high note; a big high note.
PN: A lot of people do that- they go all the way up, and go down, and never make it back up again. That Grammy was the final thing. The movie, it was all very important. He will carry on his music forever. There’s so much more material that hasn’t been released. Hendrix put out three studio albums, and that was it. Johnny was around for years and years and years at the top of his game, and a lot of those shows were recorded. A lot of them.
RMS: So there are plans for future releases?
PN: Yeah, the Bootleg series; you’ve seen that. There’s 12 of those albums out, and there’s not one repeated riff, or one repeated song. Yeah, 12 albums of live material. No repeats.
RMS: Incredible. I want to go back, just on the, ‘Step Back,’ release. You had a lot of great guests on that. Two of my favorite guitar players of all time, Joe Perry and Billy Gibbons, were on the CD. What was it like, working with those two?
PN: Well, Perry was the most generous out of all of them. When I first spoke to him and offered him the gig, he couldn’t believe it. He said, “Paul, you don’t understand.” I said, “Yes, I do!” He goes, “I wouldn’t have picked up the guitar if it weren’t for Johnny. I went out, and I bought a Firebird because of him. I wouldn’t have played at all.” It was those records that made him want to play guitar. So, that was great. Billy Gibbons was totally generous. He actually really complimented me on my playing, which is really nice. I gave him a really nice ZZ Top kind of groove for his song. That was cool. And then I later got Billy in the movie- and Joe. So, that was important, too. Clapton did a great job; I’m on there with Johnny and Clapton. All of these artists were great, and none of them said, “No.” They all wanted to be a part of it. They knew the significance. They knew Johnny was having a comeback. That’s the thing with comebacks- once you start having them, and they realize that you’re healthy, everybody wants to be a part of it. It was a nice thing. Those albums are still doing really well.
RMS: The last question I have for you, Paul, is- What was the most valuable lesson that you learned in working with Johnny for so long?
PN: Learning in helping him as a human being. The friendship. He was like a father to me. He took me under his wing. He wanted me to do well; he was a big fan of my playing. He used to say, “Paul, I know there’s a lot of things that you can do that I can’t do- a lot of different styles. I’m so happy that you play the blues with me. The other guitar players I have played with were always trying to outdo me.” We really had a good musical relationship together. I knew when to play, when not to play. He knew. We worked well off of each other; that’s why we were together for so long. That’s why the recordings worked. I learned that less is more. I learned the real tradition of blues through him; the masters that he recommended I listen to. There were names that I hadn’t heard, or that I hadn’t listened to. Old, old stuff that I had no idea of. So, there was that, too. I learned a lot from him. I learned what excessiveness would lead to. I will never go down that route. It was amazing, the life he lived. You know, he did push the envelope. He made Ozzy Osbourne look like he had training wheels. Ozzy looked like a child, compared to what Johnny did.
Special thanks to John Lappen for setting up this interview. Also, thank you to Dana Kaiser for transcribing it.