Q: Thank you for taking the time to chat with Roots Magazine. We wanted to talk with you about your new album out now “The Notorious Burrito Brothers.”
A: Thank you for asking me to do this. I’m flattered and happy to take part. Right now “The Notorious Burrito Brothers” is my favorite subject. We are proud of it. I honestly regard it as the finest album I’ve ever done in my long musical career. It came out exactly as we hoped. I wouldn’t change a note or lyric anywhere in it.
Q: It’s a great sounding record. Can you tell us a little about your style and process with this album?
A: We started conceptualizing the album in early 2019. I suggested to the other guys in the band, Tony Paoletta, Bob Hatter and Peter Young, that we ought to do a new album that year because it marked the 50th anniversary of the original Flying Burrito Bros. “Gilded palace of Sin” debut LP. They jumped on the idea. We started by getting together to write and choose songs that we intended to record. We had some that had been written in previous years that we knew we wanted to do. We also had new ideas that we were excited about completing.
The process was to demo, at least make a rough recording of, everything we intended to do before we went to Alchematic Studio (Mark Richardson’s place in Franklin, TN). In many cases we demoed a song more than once as we improved it. This way we weren’t wasting time when it came to recording masters. That is not to say there isn’t some nice breathing room at the studio. We are always into exploration. But we did have the songs well mapped out. Everything proceeded more smoothly and efficiently than any prior project I’ve been in on.
“Bring It” was the result of our desire to have an opening number. It’s a greeting for listeners to “come on in” and join the party. It is also intended as a show opener. It’s a friendly invitation to have some fun with us. Bob came up with a strong guitar riff hook for it.
“Wheels Of Fire” is the finale. It incorporates themes and lyric references from other songs of the album as well as references to many cool things in music history. That one was probably demoed half a dozen times. It went through many phases of tweaking.
We put a lot of thought into the pacing, the song order. We even included a ten minute suite, “Love Is A River”. The album is a fully realized concept album. It’s meant to be heard as a continuous piece from start to finish. “The Notorious Burrito Brothers” is an album, not just a collection of songs.
Of course another aspect of this process is the fact that working with virtuoso musicians makes it go smoothly. Tony, Bob and Pete are highest level players. They are in constant demand for sessions in Nashville.
Q: How does this album differ from the others?
A: It’s tighter, the most cohesive one we’ve made. It’s actually got slightly better sound quality compared to any previous BBs album too. Everything came together perfectly this time around. So much so that our representative in England, Bob Boiling, acquired the record deal for us when we were only a little over halfway finished. And also, like every Burritos’ album before, there has been a subtle personnel shift. So naturally that results in a slight change of sound. It’s truly amazing that in the 51 years of this group there has never been an example of two albums in a row having identical musicians. Crazy, isn’t it?
Q: Growing up what were some of your artist influences?
A: Of course The Beatles. They’ve influenced just about everyone. I was into The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Bros. and Gram Parsons from an early age. Those so-called “Country-Rock” artists of the sixties and seventies were popular in Kansas, where I come from. Unusual as it may seem, I knew about Gram and those guys when I was just a kid. I had “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and “Gilded Palace of Sin” when they were new albums. I liked Bob Dylan and James Taylor a lot. Other big influences would be The Band, Buffalo Springfield (and all who came out of that group), The Monkees (I was their target audience age) and The Rolling Stones. I loved Procol Harum. A little bit later I got into Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Moby Grape, CCR, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. The list goes on and on from there. I love all kinds of music. I know the other guys in The Burrito Brothers are the same. We all love all sorts of different music. And we turn each other on to new things quite often.
Q: The band has experienced member changes over the years such as the late Gram Parsons, and former founding Byrds members and bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, along with eventual original Eagles member Bernie Leadon on lead guitar and pedal steel guitar genius Sneaky Pete Kleinow. How have you been able to continue to capture the sound throughout the years?
A: The easy answer is: by being acutely aware of their music. Nobody could have heard those albums more than we’ve listened to them. Bob Hatter and Tony Paoletta and I have been listening to the work of those greats all our lives. Peter Young hasn’t quite as much. But, of course, Working with virtuoso musicians makes it go smoothly. He’s gotten more and more familiar with it during his time in the Burritos. And he’s hipped the rest of us to a lot of good sounds. Pete’s from upstate New York. There’s a whole classic vibe to that as well. And it translates right into this group’s music beautifully. To say The Burrito Brothers have had member changes over the years is an understatement. This band seems to be defined by personnel changes. Even the “original” band wasn’t original. Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman stole the name from Ian Dunlop who had been working around LA with Barry Tashian in 1968 calling themselves The Flying Burrito Brothers. Then Gram was gone after only two LPs. Hillman stayed for two more. By sometime in 1972 Rick Roberts was leading a group of Flying Burrito Bros. mostly made up of the guys who became “Country Gazette”. This lineup didn’t have a single original member. That’s less than four years after the debut! Each time it looked like the group might stop, there has always been a record label or concert promoter requesting that they reconstitute and continue. That’s exactly what happened when I came onboard in 2009. One or two new guys gets added to the two or three most viable, interested musicians remaining from the prior lineup.
The “up” side to this is the fact that this results in each new lineup being hungry to prove what they’ve got, to show that the band is still right on track. I am one hundred percent convinced that every person who’s been a member of The Burrito Brothers is a highly talented musician. It’s a cool legacy. And, oh yes! Sneaky Pete was a genius.
Q: Songs like ‘Bring It’ and ‘Dark End of the Street’ among others have become instant favorites of ours. Is there a particular song that means more than others off this album to you and why?
A: I can’t say that I like any one song better than the others. I think they all are strong as they can be. There’s no filler on “The Notorious Burrito Brothers”. The album starts with a bang and stays up the whole way through. I’ve had people tell me their favorite is this or that. But those choices have been different for each person. Every song’s been mentioned.
The song “Acrostic” is special. An acrostic is a poetic tool in which the first letter of each line in the lyric spells out a secret message. You read down the left side of the page. I don’t think anyone’s done that before in song lyrics. I wrote it shortly after my dear mother died. It’s a heartfelt melody. The words are about a parent giving their beloved child life lessons, advice. The “secret message” is: “Make us famous. We need to be heard”. I believe that too. This album is so good, it deserves to be recognized.
Q: Did you always want to be a musician? Any other careers ever interest you growing up?
A: I can safely say I’ve always wanted to be a musician. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, the profession chooses you. It got into my blood from an early age and stayed there. My family is musical. Dad was a great Jazz trumpet player. My brothers Fred, Peter and David are all exceptional musicians who have made names for themselves in the field. I have this sense of having an understanding of it all my life. The basics came pretty easily. That is not to say that it didn’t take lots of effort, learning and experience to do it as a career. One needs to always strive to get better, to improve.
Yes, there is another career that I’ve always been interested in. That is writing. In fact, I graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in Journalism. I have done it quite a bit as a sideline, writing music pieces. I was editor of Shake! Magazine in Nashville in the first decade of this century. I’ve always believed that reviewers are horribly wrong to ever slam somebody’s music. Their job should be to describe what the listener will hear so they can arrive at their own decisions. These bitter hack writers who put down the thing that matters most to musicians have a lot of nerve. They can be so hurtful. And they don’t really know what they’re talking about. They seldom are musicians. There are many tales of mean-spirited, lousy reviews that harmed famous artists who history has proven were great. I know of examples where groups disbanded after somebody slammed them. It’s seriously wrong.
Q: Is there an artist you are looking forward to sharing the stage with one day or have you already accomplished this with an icon of yours?
A: I haven’t really thought of my career that way. I have always felt that I was on a path that just keeps unfolding. I take each day, month, year as it comes. I may not have been mega-famous or super monetarily successful, but I’ve done fine. There’s always been something to keep my attention and feel satisfied. I must admit, though, that I want more and more to happen with this new album. And I have met quite a few iconic people…Funny thing though, for a long time I’ve thought it would be very cool to meet and talk with Julian Lennon. I’d love to hear his take on all the things he’s seen. He strikes me as a cool fellow.
Q: How has the Covid-19 pandemic made you adjust to how you share your music with your fans? Are you doing living room concerts?
A: I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to do a lot of interviews in promotion of “The Notorious Burrito Brothers”. Brian Adams, the head of our label SFM (England), hooked me up with John Lappen, who gives me a daily schedule. We’ve done this throughout March, April and May. It’s radio, podcasts, videos and magazines. So I’ve had plenty to keep me busy.
We haven’t done living room concerts. I look forward to a day when we get together again. It hasn’t happened yet. Tony, Bob, Pete and I are remaining quarantined. We talk a lot and exchange musical sketches and such. But as yet no person-to person activity.
We did put out a video of “Acrostic”. That’s on our website: www.TheBurritoBrothers.net along with many others. Plus there’s a timeline that explains all the changes the band went through in its 52 years. And there a Song-By-Song piece in the Blog section that gives the backstory to all the hidden references and meanings in the songs of this album.
Q: Your new album “The Notorious Burrito Brothers” is out now and available at retail outlets such as Amazon, iTunes, Spotify and more. Make sure you check out The Burrito Brothers coming to a town near you next year. Visit their website at theburritobrothers.net and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Thank you for speaking with us today and best of luck with the new album!
A: Thank you so very much, Columbia. This means a lot to us. We, in turn, wish you and yours all the best. Let’s hope and pray this terrible plague goes away. Stay safe and well. See you next album, I hope.
Chris P James
The Burrito Brothers
Interview by Columbia Jones
Album Cover by John Lappen