Country-folk troubadour Sam Brittain has drawn on his life experiences, travelling the world busking, gigging and playing festivals, to deliver his new album Signal Lights, which will be released on June 3. Prior to a national tour in support of the album release, Sam sat down to do a little Question & Answer exercise with us.
Q: What was your first guitar?
A: I remember it well. My first real guitar was a nylon string “Seagull”. My parents gave it to me just before I started school, when I would have been about four years old. I took it everywhere with me, to and from school until I eventually broke the headstock off riding the school bus home, this happened not once but twice. Eventually Brian (Fretco Guitars Adelaide) who still does work on my instruments today told me that it had passed on to its next life and it was time for an upgrade. That’s when I got my first solid mahogany steel string Takamine acoustic electric dreadnaught. It was so big I looked tiny whenever I played it… I still have that guitar in the studio today.
Q: What’s your main guitar now?
A: My main instrument now is a Martin HD-28VS, which is the vintage reissue of the original 1931 D-28. They have round shoulders, more like a J-45 Gibson but a 12 fret V shaped neck and slotted headstock. I used this guitar on every track whilst recording my previous album “Live Simply” and is a great picker’s guitar that accompanies me on the road with me all year round.
For the making of the “Signal Lights” album I picked up a beautiful original 1960’s Gibson Country Western model that was hanging on the wall at Mixmasters Studio and I couldn’t put it down for the entirety of the sessions. Essentially “a rich man’s J45” as my producer Mick Wordley would state it has this beautiful woody midrange that sounds like nothing else in the studio and really suits my particular playing style…I offered to buy it from Mick, as I am sure countless others have too…he smiled and went back to mixing. The core sound of the new record is me playing and singing live with a Neumann U47 on the voice and three mics on that beautiful old Gibson CW. An AKG C12A on the top centre of the guitar recorded through a Neve 33114, a Heil ER30 on the neck of the guitar into a Telefunken U76 and an EV RE20 on the bottom end of the guitar into a Universal Audio LA-3A. These 4 channel went straight into the heart of the studio, the SSL board previously of Rhino Studio’s owned by INXS and onto 24 track Studer tape…That’s it. Just live to tape.
I tend to track the rhythm parts live with the band on an acoustic and then overlay any electric parts that the record may need after. My main electric guitar is a 1952 Fender Telecaster but with a mini humbucker pickup installed at the neck instead of the standard single coil for a darker more bluesy sound. This is the guitar that can be heard wailing on in the background on “How to live Alone” It’s a bit of an homage to one of my favorite guitar players or all time Keith Richards who famously plays a 1954 blackguard Tele with a humbucker in the neck. That and Bruce Springsteen played a Tele…you can’t really go wrong with a Tele.
Additionally, I used a Gibson LP Standard that I have owned for many years for solos on “Trouble” and “The Lucky One” but opting for an old 72 Gibson Gold Top with mini humbuckers for the rhythm electric parts on tracks like ‘Stab in the Dark” and “The Lucky One”.
Q: Through what amp and why?
A: My standard choice of amp is a 1965 Fender Princeton Reverb. An expensive small amp at only 15 watts most guys who don’t know what they are and are looking for a gig amp would probably walk straight past it in a shop opting for I dunno…a silly big heavy quad box or something. The Princeton has this beautiful spot between 3 and four on the volume dial where it breaks up just nicely. That with the tremolo intensity around 5 and speed set to the track we are playing and a that signature Fender spring reverb set usually around 3…and a bit… It has become my staple in the studio and with a SM57 in front of it live it has tone for days.
Q: Which pedals are your standards?
A: Mmm I don’t use a lot of pedals. I tend to achieve most of my guitar tones through the amp and guitar alone, simply by winding on the volume knob on the guitar till it feels right. The only pedals I do tend to go back to are a T-Rex Luxury Drive that I use for a bit of extra boost when required and an old Boss DM-3 Analogue delay. You’ll see these two and an old Tube Screamer on my board most of the time, however I am a huge fan of the Fulltone Fulldrive pedal too. Incredibly versatile.
Q: What’s your latest recording and when will you be back in the studio?
A: Since finishing the recordings for the ‘Signal Lights’ album I have been down at another studio south of Adelaide working on some tracks for another Adelaide artist that I have co-written and am producing. I have ended up playing drums on these sessions too. I try to spend as much time I the studio as possible outside of my touring commitments after all it’s a craft and like any skill the more you do it the more natural and honed it becomes within its own style.
I don’t like to rehearse lots and go in with a plan of what songs will happen and when. Some of the best moments of recording I have ever experienced have just happened haphazardly in between planned songs. I like to operate within the studio completely from instinct, regardless if I am working on new songs for one of my albums or for someone else’s project. If it makes the hairs on my arm stand on end I want to press record and capture the song in that moment. Trusting your instincts and operating on pure instinct is the way to capture recordings that sound human. If a song is good it will work.
Q: What gigs have you been playing lately?
A: Ahead of the new album tour I haven’t been playing a whole lot of shows recently, opting to spend most of my time in the studio working on the product. However I did venture out into the real world in February to play a lovely show that goes on in South Australia called “The Porch Sessions”. Basically a travelling gypsy like festival, it is set up in secret locations all over SA and the tickets sell out in minutes…Sharni Honour, the governor of the porch is an imperative part of keeping the live original music scene breathing in this state. It was a highlight to be a part of it this year.
Q: Most memorable gig?
A: Oh it really only comes down to one gig for me. I was lucky enough to play the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne in 2013 as part of Passenger’s theatre tour around the release of his album “All The Little Lights” that had the single “Let Her Go” on it. Mike and I have been friends for years and he was blowing up at the time. He invited me to come and open up the show and the experience is something I will never forget. So many people, pin drop silent in the darkness hanging on every word you sang until I would tentatively step back from the mic and mumble a thank you at which point they would explode. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. The culture he has created in live shows that really revolved around story-telling and sad songs is quite incredible. I was absolutely blessed to be a part of it.
Q: Worst stage nightmare?
A: I’m not really sure how to answer this one. Generally, for me it’s the offstage stuff that falls more into the nightmare category. On stage just playing is the escape from the grind. The only memory that really comes to mind is back when I was around nineteen. I was playing in a band at some dodgy bar, playing for shit pay and free beer. The crowd on this occasion were incredibly intoxicated and as a nobody band we were literally playing on floor level with only a couple fold back speakers forming a line between us and the huge crowd that had crammed themselves into this small front bar. There was this group of girls standing in a circle in front of me dancing away that would keep stepping back and tripping over the fold back speakers, falling backwards and taking out anything in their path on the way down, usually smacking the vocal mic into my mouth as I was singing resulting in split lips. Eventually one of them connected really well, the mic hit me in the mouth so hard it left me with a chipped tooth and spitting blood. Eventually I had to walk off stage and the show was shut down till the crowd were under control. We did manage to get back on sometime later and finish our set though which was good. It was all very punk rock till the next day when you look like you’ve been in a street fight.
Q: Album that changed your life?
A: Oh, just one? It’s really hard to say. There has been a few over the years that have profoundly impacted me as a person and a song writer and they don’t really sit within one genre or generation. I remember hearing Pearl Jam’s “Ten” when I was in primary school, the album was already a decade old by then but I was discovering it for the first time. I thought the guitar playing was just out of this world to me and the raw power and emotion behind the vocals sent shivers down my spine. It inspired me as a ten-year-old kid to go home, plug in the guitar and just play for hours and hours trying to work out the licks Mike McCready was playing.
I grew up in a household where there was music on constantly. Everything from Fleetwood Mac to Springsteen, Cream, The Angels, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones & Neil Young…Led Zeppelin, Simon & Garfunkl, Motorhead, Midnight Oil…The Who…it was diverse to say the least and I could go on forever.
I was drawn to anything that had a hard hitting lyric accompanied by a band that were just locked into a moment. It had to be real, it had to be raw and it had to sound like people…people with a purpose singing about something they believed in. I’ll never forget hearing Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled record and finding the energy and passion completely unmeasurable…I think that’s what I am attracted to in music the most, not the genre or style but that undefinable thing when you hear or see an artist doing something they feel deep in their bones…I had the same feeling the first time I heard Johnny Cash sing “The Hurt”…MAAAAAN…If you can listen to that song and not feel crushed by his completely and utterly helpless I think you need to check if you still have a pulse.
I love the kind of recordings that you can put on ten years down the road and they transport you back in time to when you first heard them. They have a truth that never grows old and is relatable across generations…Those are the kinds of artists and recordings that changed my life and made me fall in love with music.
The realization I could emote through music. The realization that “Hey if I play these chords on my crappy old guitar and sing that line that I just wrote down they sound really great together” Somewhere between the notes played and the words sung if done with honestly there is a magic that neither part could achieve on their own…
I guess somewhere between the intensity of Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, the song writing sensibility of Neil Young & my love for acoustic instrumentation all supporting a story well told…A few guys that have nailed this balance in recent times are Jason Isbell’s last two offerings ‘South Eastern” & “Something More Than Free” and John Moreland’s “In The Throes” album. These are two perfect examples of records that have changed my life in more recent times and is exactly the kind of mash up brutal honesty and introspection, acoustic, country-tinged records with a punk rock “I don’t give a f***” attitude… These are the albums that blow my mind.
Q: What gigs are coming up in the next few months?
A: With the release of the album, I am on the road in Australia for the month of June starting off in my home of Adelaide with a show at The Gov with my band. We then head to Sydney for a show at Brighton Up Bar on June 8th, then onto Perth for one of my favorite venues “The Ellington Jazz Club” on June 15th. We then trek back east to play The Toff in Town in Melbourne on June 23rd and finally up to Brisbane to perform at The Milk Factory on the 26th June. July – October will see me touring throughout Europe, the UK and the US. Lots to be done and I am very much looking forward to it.
Q: A guitar tip for the kids?
A: Just keep listening. When you find a guitar player or a band you like get on google, search away and find out the bands and players that influenced them…then keep on going further down the rabbit hole. There further you go back the more incredible music you will uncover and stylistically if you pick up little bits from all of these different people and incorporate into your playing and songwriting…You’re going to be formidable. Never stop playing, never stop searching for something new to listen to that turns you on. There is an incredible library of music right there at your fingertips, the more you hear and absurd the better player, performer and artist you’ll become. Period.
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