To sit and talk with Brian Auger is to sit with the history of our generation’s music. He was part of the swinging ’60s scene in London, playing and hanging with everyone you can imagine. (Jimi Hendrix played his first London gig with Brian’s band!) From there, Auger tore it up in the ’70s with his band, the acclaimed Oblivion Express, in which he continues touring and shows no signs of slowing down.
Auger is one of the rare elder statesmen in rock who is still playing at the top of his game and giving it his all every night. Moreover, he is a brilliant wit and storyteller, and this print version is but a tiny portion of our interview.
You just got off a long European tour with the Italian artist, Zucchero?
Yeah, our tour started last year. This leg was about two-and-a-half months with him. We started at the arena in Verona, which holds 12,500 people. We did 11 nights in a row. We go back and do six more concerts again in Verona, have a couple of days off, and then we start the autumn tour with Oblivion Express which goes through most of Europe for about five or six weeks.
Could you tell me the story of the origin of the name of the band?
I had been having great success with the Trinity, which was a band I started in 1967 with the great Julie Driscoll. We had number one singles in England, all over Europe—we were in the top five in all of the charts. At the end of that, probably late 1969, I started a new band. Obviously, the record company wanted to keep us in the same old groove. And I had an idea that I really wanted to push on with this kind of mix of jazz and R&B and rock ’n’ roll. As I was wading against the commercial tide and my record company, I thought maybe I was headed the quickest way to oblivion. So that became the name of the band, and here we are in 2017, still rolling.
What was your first exposure to the Hammond organ?
Basically, I was walking through Shepherd’s Bush Market, which is where my record store was. They had a couple of speakers mounted outside the store and I heard this incredible sound. I went in and I said, “What the hell is this you’re playing?” And they showed me the cover to Back at the Chicken Shack, the first live Blue Note release in England. I immediately said, “Wrap that up!” I took it home and this started my interest in Jimmy Smith. It was a few more years before I played my first gig on organ, and decided to buy one.
That’s an expensive axe to get in England, right?
Yes, it was. It was like a small mortgage by the time you invested in something to carry it around in and then a couple Leslies, as well, which didn’t really suit me, actually.
Talk to me about that. Obviously, you would have started with the Leslie because that’s what everybody was doing.
I started with the Leslie and I realized that, when I did a fast run, the percussion on the notes would disappear due to the top horn spinning, one side of which is blank to give you that Doppler sound, until the actual speaker came around again. So, I tried stopping it pointed forward. When I started in a band with Long John Baldry, who was a huge star in England, we moved into 500-seat halls instead of being in a little club or pub. You just couldn’t hear the Leslie. There were no monitors at that time. I invested in another one and I still couldn’t hear over the band. There are all these boffins in London, you know, “Oh, you should talk to Fred Blogs. He’s the guy who can make these amplifiers loud enough for you.” Well, so okay, he could, but then both of them went up in smoke [Laughs.]
So, he wasn’t all that boffin.
There was a fire. [Laughs.] The concert stopped and an enterprising roadie said, “I’ve got a Vox P.A. with the two columns and the amplifier. I could take a lead off the back of the Hammond and put a female jack socket on the end of it so you could jack it into the amplifier.” And bingo, that’s it—my sound!
Nowadays, what’s your whole signal chain?
I’m running an Allen & Heath mixer and a couple of speakers from Mark Bass. They’ve got great bass equipment, which we use. They don’t make speakers for keyboards, but he made me two special speakers that are phenomenal. Over here in the States, I’m using a couple of JBL monitors, with a 15 and a horn in each. And the same mixer, Allen & Heath.
Do you use any signal processing on it?
I use a couple of Aphex 207D preamps, the ones with a tube, one for the piano and one for the organ. They really fatten the sound up. And a Lexicon LXP-1 for some reverb. Sometimes we use a SansAmp distortion pedal. If I want to put a little bit of distortion on the organ sound just to give it a little more drive, then we dial that in.
I always found it interesting that to hit the peak or get the excitement, you turn on the chorus like other people would spin up the Leslie. So, you play the chorus buttons the way other people ride Leslies.
Right, exactly. As I said, instead of losing the percussion as the horn goes around—you’ve got everything still there. And it’s easier not jumping about trying to switch this on and that. I can reach over and there it is.
You’ve got two instruments; one you keep in Europe and one’s here. Can you tell me about each of those?
The American one I brought over from England. I bought it in 1968. It had some sort of FM modulation because of the voltage, and that caused it to drift. So, I took it to a guy here in L.A., Ken Rich. He suggested putting a 110 motor in it and a tonewheel bed. And so now I have an Anglo-American organ.
The other one—when I got here in the ’90s, I was using Korg synthesizers to produce whatever I could that sounded like an organ, with the Eric Burdon and Brian Auger Band. I was down in Florida and these guys from Keyboard Specialties turned up with a rental organ that they chopped and put in a streamlined case, and it sounded fantastic. I asked about getting one and he said, “We sold all the ones that we made.” They were too expensive to make because they would actually re-solder all the joints with brand new silver solder. So, the thing sounded better than it did when it came out of the factory. The owner said, “I’ve only got one, which I kept because it’s a special 1956 model. If anybody, I’d love it to go to you.” That’s the one I keep in Europe.
You’re a self-taught pianist. You learned to play by ear, correct?
I did. I had a player piano and used to hang on to the underside of the keyboard and pedal away like some demented cyclist. My dad had a whole cupboard full of piano rolls that he had collected. We had all the operas; he had Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, some Debussy, some Tchaikovsky, plus a lot of ragtime. It was really like a fitness machine and also a brain machine at the same time. I could learn bits and pieces from different tunes.
At the same time my elder sisters were listening to Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, while my eldest brother had a collection of American jazz records, which I loved. Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, the most amazing people. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, my brother gave me an old radio and I rigged an antenna out of my bedroom window. This was 11:00 or 12:00 at night. I had to be very careful I didn’t wake up my parents, but it was, “This is the American Forces Network in Germany. We present the jazz hour.” And I heard Oscar Peterson—the first record that he made I bought in 78 rpm form—and so many amazing people.
Comping left hand on electric piano is a big part of your sound. What are you using these days?
I’m still using the Korg M3, which is a great instrument. You and Jack [Hotop] did some acoustic piano and Rhodes sounds for me and that’s what I use. Sometimes I’m comping with both hands on the piano and doing figures and stuff, like on “Bumpin’ On Sunset.”
I love to solo with the Rhodes sound. Sometimes I get all looney and decide that I feel like playing “Giant Steps” or a ballad like “Chelsea Bridge,” more for me and hope everybody likes it. It always sounds beautiful.
You talked a little bit about a couple of players. You mentioned Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith. In your playing, I hear a lot of that advanced harmonic pentatonic world that Mc-Coy Tyner first brought to the vocabulary.
Right. I love McCoy, and all that pentatonic stuff and the modes—I mixed all that into my playing. And I’ve still got the itch from the ii-V-I jazz harmony. It colors your playing. I can use that ii-V, even in blues, just to give it some other shape.
But then you have such a nice way of slipping up the half-step or moving away at the end of your line and coming back. That’s a signature part of your style.
I discovered that if I’m ripping a solo, say, in D minor, I could just suddenly transfer it to F minor. It didn’t clash that much, but it just took you out somewhere else and I’d play in that key and then I’d fall back into the [original] key, which is always cool. I love that chromatic stuff if you use it here or there.
You played at the tribute concert for our good friend Keith Emerson. Can you talk a little about him?
Keith was a phenomenal player. Another one of those guys who, when I first heard what he was doing, I was like, “Oh my god!” I found out some years ago that he was only living about half a mile from me. We knew each other but we were like ships that passed in the night. We had that wonderful dinner together with you.
Keith was actually a very shy guy and when we went out it was a while before he warmed up, but you started spinning some stories and you could just see Keith going, “Wait, I’ve got something I can share.”
Absolutely. He was always getting himself into strange situations and explaining them in this kind of way like, “I don’t know how this happened but anyway…” He used to come to my gigs and he would get so excited and would say, “I’m going to announce you.” [Laughs.] We had a lot of fun together.
So, what does the near future hold for you?
After the Oblivion Express tour, I’m taking some time off because we’ve been going straight for about two years now. And I need some time to finish my book. Basically, it’s an autobiography, I’m going back as far as I can remember, and coming forward. The ’60s were completely crazy and there are so many things that happened before anybody got famous, and so many people that I’ve met and worked with, and different funny situations. I just want to make it so that everybody has a real good laugh and recognizes these personalities for who they actually were in the middle of all the madness.
For more information and tour schedules, visit brianauger.com.