Brian Auger - Leader of the Oblivion Express

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 [This interview originally ran in the April 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

WITHOUT A DOUBT, Brian Auger has made a name for himself in the keyboard field. In 1964 he was named Brightest New Star by Britain's Melody Maker, and more recently he was voted Best Jazz Organist by CK's readers. Certainly Auger was one of the first to integrate rock and jazz, and many people go so far as to say that he was responsible for the establishment of the keyboards as a viable instrument in a guitar-riddled world. At 36, after stints with Steam Packet, the Trinity, and the Oblivion Express, Brian Auger shows no signs of slowing down.

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When did you begin playing keyboards?

I started when I was three with my parents' player piano. I had to stand on the pedals to make it work. My nose came just about to the keyboard so I was barely able to watch it play. As I got older, I began to copy the patterns with my right hand, playing along with the rolls. We had all sorts of stuff: classical and ragtime—"Turkey In The Straw," believe it or not. I got the right hand together and at five or six added the left hand; vamp style, whatever sounded right. My brother used to play me lots of jazz records.

Early jazz records?

Right. People like Fats Waller, Louie Armstrong, Louie Jordan, Big Bill Broonzy, Muggsy Spanier, Benny Goodman, George Shearing, Sarah Vaughn, and Billy Eckstine. My musical background had a broad base that got me listening to blues, so at ten or eleven I was walking around whistling blues improvisations, totally unaware that years later I'd be doing what I'm doing.

Did your parents encourage your musical interests? They didn't do anything. They just looked and said, "Oh yes, he's playing the piano. Let's leave him alone." No one really rushed to send me to music lessons or put any kind of trip on me. When looking back I think that was healthy. I just did it because I liked it. My brother and father used to play a bit and my sister sang, but they weren't serious about it. When I was about twelve I started a duo with a drummer. At that stage someone who was a drummer was someone who had a snare and a pair of brushes [laughs]. I was listening to Gerry Mulligan, the Jazz Messengers, and early Miles Davis.

Were you playing semi-professionally then?

No. I was just being invited to parties I played. School at that time was good for me because it was fairly open. The schoolmaster liked to hear me play, and even though I wasn't taking lessons, he was open-minded enough to let me play at the weekly assembly. Everyone else that played was a violin player. We had a couple of good classical pianists. But I'd get up there and have a captive audience of five or six hundred dying to hear something different. They loved me because I'd play rags and boogie.

Did you study music in college?

No. I never wanted to be a musician. I put that totally out of my mind. I was going to a really straight school that was turning out guys for government and such, so the actual image of being a musician was beneath me. Yet the thing kept eating away at me. During this period, my family fell into a very tough monetary situation, so I decided to take a job rather than go to a university. I was going to study modern language and come out with a B.A. Honors in French or English Lit. , but I thought, "What will I do with it?" I remembered the hard times we used to give our teachers who were graduates of places like Oxford, and I said to myself, "I'm not going through that!" Going off to work wasn't much of a sacrifice. I started working for a straight printing firm that was founded in 1750 or something. So here I was going up to London in a three-piece suit doing the English gentleman bit. Lo and behold, two weeks after I started, a friend rang up and asked me if I wanted to play a gig at a nightclub in the West End. Since the money was the same as I was making working eight hours a day, I said, "Sure."

You were playing acoustic piano at this time?

Right, playing Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, and some Bill Evans things. It was all solo stuff. But at the time I could play more or less anything, but only in two or three keys. It hadn't occurred to me that these things were written in particular keys, because I'd never really worked with that many musicians. Anyway, guys would turn up with a bass or horns and sit in. Then they'd say, "Hey, let's play 'I Remember April.'" And I'd say, "Okay." But we'd start playing in different keys! They'd stop and say, "Don't you know that `April' is in G?" That kind of freaked me out, but it forced me to learn to transpose, which was great. I played totally by ear, and never understood harmony. Guys would come up and say, "You know you're playing the wrong chord there; it should be Abm9." And I would go away into a corner and think, "What's an Abm9?" So I went and got some books on the subject.My playing changed radically in about three weeks' time. I started to see things in patterns, the hard bop line, the whole bit. By that time I was working night and day, looking like a ghost. This went on for about four years, but I still had this block about being a musician. I couldn't identify with what I thought were all these terrible characters that used to come down to the clubs. On the other hand, I wasn't getting any satisfaction from the day job, as I was a pretty naive guy. I just opened my mouth and let everybody have what I thought was coming to them. That really stood on everyone's toes, making me very unpopular. As my satisfaction with playing continued to grow, I reached the point where I realized that I couldn't do both things properly. With the economic situation being off the deep end, I decided to become a musician in 1963.

Did that gradually lead to session work?

Not for me. What was being recorded at the time didn't appeal to me. I did do a few things, though. It was strange for me to be in a studio because I didn't know what 

was going down. However, when 1964 came around I was voted Melody Maker's Best New Star for acoustic jazz piano. But I'd already heard Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Don Patterson, Shirley Scott, and so on, so I wanted to get an organ and start an organ-based group.

What type and model did you buy?

I got a Hammond for about £500 [$1250.00], which I thought was the organ. The 1100. I tried to get the Jimmy Smith sound as near I could, but never realized until I saw a picture of his organ that I didn't have the same thing he did. His was four times bigger [laughs].

You're known as being one of the few, if not the first, Hammond user who opted for the guitar amp rather than the Leslie.

I used a tiny Leslie at first, then the normal Leslie, and finally had one built because I didn't like the normal one. It didn't have enough poke for what I was after. I stopped using horns on the Leslie I had built because the attack disappeared on the percussion as the horn swung around, since one side's blank. Finally, after going through all sorts of systems, I decided that I wanted a direct-feed, which Hammond in England said couldn't be done. So we found some boffins—whiz kids, as you'd say—and they doctored a few things up. Next, I got rid of the L when I saw it was the B I was after. They didn't have one in England, so they had to order it from America. It took about ten weeks for them to get parts and build me one. I had the signaltaken out of the B because it was distorted. A little guy in Italy named Romano Lombardi, of Forli near Rimini, said, "Oh, but of course, you've got to cut the signal down by 25% of the strength so that it doesn't overload the first stages of the amp." To which I said, "Oh really?" And he said, "Just let me have it for half a day and I'll fix it for you." So I gave it to him and I couldn't believe what a difference it made after it was fixed.

What drawbar settings do you use most?

On the upper manual I use the percussion on Soft, Fast Decay, and Third Harmonic, with the drawbars set to 888440000. To add a nice Leslie effect I'll put the vibrato on C-1. The difference in my sound and Jimmy Smith's is basically that he uses the second harmonic on the percussion. Another sort of mellow sound I'll use on both manuals is 008808000, turning the vibrato on and off as needed. Again it's set to C-1. For gospel, full organ sounds, I'll pull all the drawbars full out. Without vibrato it really sounds like a huge church organ. If I don't want it to be so biting, I'll take some of the top off by pushing in the last two drawbars a bit so it's something like 888888864 or 888888844.

Do you have any equipment problems going from country to country?

Yes. In England we use 220 current, and thus the motor is different. So when we would come to America, we had to have a conversion unit installed so that it would run properly on about 117 volts AC. When I moved here, I had the whole motor swapped for an American generator.

What amplification are you currently using?

I had four cabinets built, two 2x15s and two 4x12s, all with JBL speakers, powered by two Crown DC 300 amps such that each cabinet has one side of a Crown. I'm playing the Freeman String Symphonizer, a Minimoog, a Hammond B-3, and aRhodes, and for effects I've got an Echoplex chain for piano and organ, and a Mu-tron Bi-Phase.

How do you feel about the Freeman?

I think the Freeman's considered to be kind of obsolete, but I've tried other string machines and I like it best. I used it first on the Closer To It album [RCA, APIA-0140], but I never toured with that unit. The reason being that a guy in England named Freeman made the Symphonizer for his own private use, and if you wanted to use it you could call him and he'd bring it down to the studio. I don't know if the one distributed here is a copy of the English one or not. But the first one I actually bought gave us so much trouble that I had to send it back. Todd Fisher, who does my repair work, fixed up the interior so that it would be roadworthy and not as delicate as the first. That one has really traveled well; knock on wood, as has the Moog.

Why did you decide to use a Moog?

I had used it before in the studio, and at the time I purchased it, it was the only thing on the market that I knew of. I've tried out or recorded with just about all the other name stuff and they all have their pluses and minuses. The Minimoog is okay onstage to a certain extent. I basically comp on the Rhodes and I don't use the second manual of the organ. So I have one hand on one thing and the other on something else. That makes the Moog difficult to program while you're doing something else. It's not readily available to be switched about too much, because if you make a radical change you usually put the thing out of tune. I tried to have it modified, but the modifications didn't work so I had the thing put back the way it was. I like the Micromoog very much.

Are you using a mixing board for your keyboards?

Yes, it's specially designed by Todd Fisher. The mixing desk has 3-way EQ, 10- and 20-dB pads, and pan pots so that I can pan anything to any side—stereo to mono, one instrument on one side, three on the other, and so on. Each channel has gain, VU for clip, master gain, and individual treble and bass controls so you can avoid any kind of distortion.

What about the Rhodes?

The Rhodes is about twelve to eighteen months old. It's a difficult machine to amp without getting distortion. I like it, but had lots of problems getting it clear. I usually have to switch off all the bass on the desk and on the Rhodes itself, because it gets muddy. I suppose I should have some kind of split keyboard situation to amp the muddiness up. The bass is nice and clean, but the treble not only breaks up but gets so piercing, forcing you to change to a very light touch as you go up the keyboard. Otherwise, you'd kill everybody. I haven't finished working with that.

Do you feel that the post-CBS Rhodes is not as good as its predecessor?

Most definitely. It's gone downhill completely. The action, for example. I bought a brand new 88 and had the keyboard completely overhauled and even then I couldn't play it. And there are very few keyboards that I can't play because I tend to play so hard, but I just couldn't make this one talk. I was so disappointed that I went to a studio rentals place and asked if they had an old 73. They sort of trundled one out and I looked at it, played it, and said, "Right. You want a brand new 88 for this?" They said, "Sure!" So that's where my present axe came from. The only problem is breaking an occasional tine. I've also had to replace one of the pickups, but overall, it travels well.

You seem to do without the sheer number of keyboard instruments that performers like Patrick Moraz and Rick Wakeman have onstage.

In terms of numbers of keyboards it looks so impressive to have acres of them onstage. I could easily add two or more Minimoogs programmed for different sounds, a Pro Soloist, or an Oberheim 4-voice for 4-piece brass work. And just as well a Wurlitzer piano, or a Clavinet with wah-wah, but the point is that I would be jumping all night playing bits and pieces, not really getting into any of the axes. I think that many groups, like Yes, are basically into studio-oriented situations. It may impress people to have thirty keyboards, but they're still keyboards, producing only slightly different sounds. Most keyboard players like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, or Joe Sample from the Crusaders set up around the acoustic piano or the Rhodes. I set up around the B. They don't have the organ or its overtones.

Weren't you using a Hohner Clavinet for a time; even endorsing it?

I used a Clavinet on "Road To Cairo," which was recorded in 1968. I used it for about a year or so. Since we were really big in England at the time, Hohner came by and asked if I'd endorse it. It's not like they were giving anything away or anything. I'd already bought the instrument. But after Street Noise [out of print], which was in 1969, I stopped using it altogether.

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When the Trinity was formed, what kind of music were you doing?

I was already into crossing jazz and rock. I was doing tunes that lent themselves to jazz and rock, like "Watermelon Man," "Sidewinder," and some Ray Charles and Mose Allison stuff, too. I'd done the traditional thing, and it was time to move on.

Where did things go for the Trinity?

As a trio of electric bass, drums, and organ, we began attracting the attention of singer Long John Baldry, an English legend, and he asked to work with us. He wanted to bring in a protégé named Rod Stewart, and our management's secretary, who was like answering Yardbirds fan mail, had a few hit singles and needed a band. She of course was Julie Driscoll. So, as a collection we formed Steam Packet, which lasted until September or October 1966. For me, that was a searching period. I was out of the jazz idiom and was forced to learn about rock. I knew that I wanted to put together a jazz-rock bridge. I left Steam Packet and a pudgy sort of guy named Reginald Dwight took over—you know him as Elton John today.

How well were you received by the jazz purists?

I got a lot of flack because the jazz purists thought I'd ratted and gone commercial. The rockers would say, "This doesn't sound like rock to us. What's he playing? Where the hell are the guitar players?" It was rather like being in limbo. What helped us was working with Long John Baldry, because he was one hell of a draw. People began to dig us. Mick Jagger used to come by and steal stage presence ideas from John, by the by. But the Trinity started to do well, so well in fact that we could afford to leave John and stand on our own two feet. 1966 to 1967 was a tough period and we made our first LP at that time [Open, out of print.] It was a total miss in England because it was on a new label, Marmalade. They made a release date, then missed that by three weeks, so a lot of promotion and time was lost. But the album was released in France and the single, which was an old Aretha Franklin tune called "Save Me," went to the top of the charts. The album became No. 2 as a result. So Marmalade began to release everything as a single.

So you began to tour the continent?

Yeah, we had wiped the floor with everybody! I mean, everyone on the bills, people like Georgie Fame, played it safe. We went for broke. In France we opened with "Save Me," and the place went ape. The noise that we made went straight back to England and they began to take notice of us at home. As a result the album sold incredibly well everywhere. Our second on Marmalade, This Wheel's On Fire [out of print], did well too. Nothing was released in the States, however. With that European success behind us, we were asked to top the bill at Montreux, a first for an act in the rock vein. There were three nights—the first was headed by Nina Simone, the second by Bill Evans, and we were the third. We drew a huge audience and after that we were offered the Berlin Jazz Festival, which was the most conservative festival of the time. That caused all sorts of scenes. The bill featured the Gary Burton Quartet, The Elvin Jones Trio, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and then us. Fortunately, the LP had done so well that most of the audience was ours. It was a very controversial year—many barriers were broken. For example, at Berlin, about fifty people got up and booed us before we even played a note. I told that crowd, "Look, I know it's a weird time for everyone, but at least give us a chance."

What effect did all this have on the overall rock scene?

By the end of 1969, music had changed so much that there were two areas of influence which rock fed from. One was classical, the other was jazz. I was from the jazz side, and ELP and Yes did a number on the classical side. In terms of what we did, 1969 was an interesting year in many respects. We recorded our first album for Atco called Street Noise [out of print] and came to the States. For its time, Street Noise was a showcase album. Also, it was after its release that Julie left. Problems began with the first album, Open, and our management had already decided that the band was going to break up. Even before we got rolling! That's why my picture appears on one side of the album and Julie's on the other with no mention of the other guys: Clive Thacker, who played drums and later joined Jethro Tull, and Dave Ambrose, who played bass. This was the beginning of the end. Later I did my first album for RCA, called Before [LSP-4372], with the Trinity. It was a very experimental album for me. I put all sorts of material on it, and it was my first shot at producing. That was the last Trinity project. You produce all your own albums now.

Would you list them chronologically?

I produce everything now for Nasty Productions. The album between Open and Street Noise was Definitely What, released on Marmalade in 1968. It's out of print now. The first Oblivion Express album, so entitled, was released on RCA in 1970 [LSP-4462]. It was followed by Better Land [LSP-4540] in 1971 and Second Wind [LSP-4703] in 1972. We did two in 1973: Closer To It [APL1-0140] and Straight Ahead [APL1-0454]. In 1974 we released our first live album, Live Oblivion Vol. 1 [CPL1-0645], which was the first time I'd ever recorded live.

You never recorded rehearsals or performances just to know how it sounded?

No. The band kept changing personnel so there was never you realize that you can't control it, and so you learn to look upon it as good. It creates variety. It got me out of a worried position where I had to have people around me all the time, which I discovered isn't necessary. There's new life, ideas, and energy when people come and go. In this business time is rarely in your favor. Straight Ahead was a rushed album—it was half done and we had to go away on tour and come back and finish it. It suffered some in the mix. Reinforcements [APL1-1210], which was done in 1975, was—I thought—a really great album, but it went under the table because it was time to renegotiate our contract. We never did reach an agreement. As a result, they dumped Live Oblivion Vol. 2 [CPL1-1230] on the market. Marmalade did the same thing by releasing some terrible stuff from the early Trinity. After a year of shopping around I signed with Warner Brothers. Happiness Heartaches [BS 2981] is the first thing I've done on Warner Brothers, and it's the first record I've done in the States. I've finally captured an American rhythm section sound, which I've been after all along. I could never get it in England. I had a great time making it, and whether it sells three copies or three million, I don't care. I'm glad I made it.

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How long does it take for you to do an album?

All the basic tracks are done in about two days. After that, I overdub the guitar, vocals, and maybe some synthesizer. The main thing is I take a long time to mix. I don't produce with the intention of getting a "Brian Auger Sound," but I try to make sure that you hear everything that's being played. I spend a day in the studio just to get the sound together, like the keyboards. I mainly put in a lot of time with the drums and bass to get a hell of a rhythm section sound, clean and powerful.How do you mike your keyboards when you record? The organ is taken direct onto one track, and I also take a signal off of a miked amp in the studio and put that on another track. Then I listen to them both. Sometimes I use the direct track. Other times, to get the range I want out of the organ, I load one track with bass and one with treble. A combination of both will produce a full organ sound.

What about the Rhodes?

Sometimes the signal is quite weak so I do several tracks, usually in mono. You can get the feel, but the proper weight is another thing. You can push the fader all the way up, but to build up the track you have to re-cut it again and again and again to get it really fat. Same with the Freeman. All the stuff goes direct, patched straight in the board in the control room. That way I can play the track back and see if everything fits.

What are your future plans?

One aspires to all sorts of things, and I haven't shelved any of the ideas that I've been carrying around with me. In fact, they keep growing. It's hard to find time to run a band—especially being without a record contract for a year—, spend time with your family, keep your head above water, and try to regulate everything around you. Since we moved from England a lot of things have opened up. Lenny White, who played drums on Happiness Heartaches, was offered to play at the Riviera '76 Festival in France. He told them he wouldn't do it unless I was in it, so we put together a band that included Lenny, myself, Al DiMeola on guitar, and the Brecker Brothers. We rehearsed three days in New York and went over to do it. The Brecker Brothers have expressed interest in playing with the Oblivion Express for a tour, as have the Tower Of Power horns. The only thing you can say is we'll get to everything when the time is right, and that's what life's all about.

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