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Peter Bruntnell - The Triste Interview

Peter Bruntnell Peter Bruntnell was one of few British musicians to be signed to Almo where he produced two albums of quiet meditative rock with a slight country edge. In 1999 his album "Normal for Bridgwater" was released and saw a distinct change in direction with a greater emphasis on classic country-rock. The last 18 months before the interview had been spent touring, either with his band, or acoustic with his lead guitarist James Walbourne - a format captured on record on his current album, "Played Out". Triste caught up with him in Leicester in Autumn 1999.

Triste: You've lived in various countries, New Zealand, Canada, UK, where do you consider your roots to lie?

Peter Bruntnell: I consider myself from Kingston on Thames, which is South West of London, that's what I consider myself as I was a year old when I left NZ. When it's a rugby game I'm Welsh, as my parents are Welsh. If I consider anything I'm Welsh, but from South West London. There's no big story really. I just lived in Vancouver for three month periods - four times - just because I like it so much and I've got a friend out there that I write songs with. I wrote most of this new album in Canada and a lot of the subjects are Canadian.

Triste: Is that Bill Ritchie?

Peter Bruntnell: Yeh.

Triste: What kind of music wre you into as a kid when you were growing up in London? Cos you weren't into Gram Parsons when you were 12 or something were you?

Peter Bruntnell: No. I was playing football. I think I bought Slade's Slayed album first and I was into T Rex and things when I was a kid. And then I got into Neil Young when I was about 20.

Triste: You were probably a bit young for punk weren't you?

Peter Bruntnell: No, I was into a bit of the punk. We were in the 5th form or might have been the 4th form when "Anarchy In The UK" came out. But I didn't really like it to be honest. I was into Yes and Genesis. I just didn't think it was very musical, although I sort of liked it, I like it more now. It was all the rage but I didn't really like it.

Triste: I was into Led Zeppelin.

Peter Bruntnell: I liked Thin Lizzy.

Triste: You say you were playing football as a kid, but when did you become more of a player of music rather than a listener?

Peter Bruntnell: I'd learned to play guitar at school but it was just a minor hobby. So I could play chords and stuff. I suppose it was when I heard Neil Young's record, because all the music before then didn't translate onto acoustic guitar and all that stufff did with Neil Young.

Triste: Were you about 20 when this..?

Peter Bruntnell: No, I think I was bit older actually. Maybe about 21 or 22 I can't really remember. A friend of mine in Guildford gave me After The Goldrush which she found on a tip.

Triste: The difference between Neil Young and Yes is that you can play his songs with chords like E minor, G and D whereas with Yes you've got extended chords and bizarre changes. You can "strumalong with Neil".

Peter Bruntnell: Yeh. That's what kind of did it.

Triste: So you're strumming along with Neil Young or whoever in your bedroom, what made you make the step between being a bedroom strummer and being a performer.

Peter Bruntnell: When I was 21 I'd left BT cos I'd done an apprenticeship and I left that because I didn't get on and didn't finish the apprenticeship. I basically didn't like work much. I just started travelling to the South of France and Greece and places like that. It was a way of remaining in the South of France for 3 months playing guitar and busking. That's why I did it to earn money.

Triste: So the first time you played in front of people was on the streets of France to earn money. That's quite a baptism of fire.

Peter Bruntnell: No I did a few gigs at a few little bars that we used to go to at that time. I played for like 30 on a Monday night at a little bar near where I lived. I knew about half an hour's worth of songs, which I sort of did. I got really nervous and got really pissed before I did it. That started it off, I just went nuts. I learned loads and loads of songs. In the space of two months I knew like two hours worth of songs. That's all I did. I didn't want to work - that was my way out of working and I did that for years. I was on the dole for 10 years and playing in bars and getting various bands together as well and writing songs. It wasn't until '96, I think, I had a friend who was a record producer, who kept saying if you want to do something just give us a call. I didn't and my girlfriend got pregnant and that made me give him a call, cos all of a sudden I thought "fuck!". That was the reason.

Triste: So there was no real ambition before then to record. You were quite happy playing in bars and that was the height of ambition?

Peter Bruntnell: Yes. I didn't really have a driving ambition.

Triste: This was South London where you played?

Peter Bruntnell: Yeh. Kingston, Surbiton.

Triste: It must have been competitive though. If you weren't pushy enough I'm sure there would be someone who'd come along and try and take your place and get the decent gigs.

Peter Bruntnell: I knew what I was doing wasn't what other pub duos were doing, cos I was doing Neil Young and Nick Drake. And they were doing things like Honky Tonk Women and sing-along stuff. But I didn't do that. I was in the student pubs doing Nick Drake and John Martyn stuff. So I was different from then anyway. No-one did that then. When you're getting like 50 a week on the dole, if you do like two gigs a week you're loaded aren't you, and if you get you're getting your rent paid it's loads of money?

Triste: So you're playing John Martyn and Nick Drake tunes. It's a step up from Neil Young strumming. Those songs are more about alternate picking and weird altered tunings.

Peter Bruntnell: Well actually I just sort of flat-picked them. I hadn't really developed a picking technique on a guitar. In fact I've just developed one in the last year - the Steve Earle one which is really easy, or rather not the Steve Earle one, but the one Townes Van Zandt used or whoever it was before that. I just sort of strummed it and sang.

Triste: At this stage were you playing a few original songs among the covers to see how they went down?

Peter Bruntnell: Yeh. I'd slip a few in, but I didn't really think they were good enough. It was only when I got the idea that there was an opportunity to record some stuff with a view to having a record contract that I suddenly sat down and got serious about writing. Which were all those songs on the first record. It was only then that I was concentrating on what was happening. Before then I was too busy getting drunk and stoned and stuff. Happy, rolling along having a laugh. Why work hard? It was time to put a bit of work in.

Triste: This first album Cannibal was credited to The Peter Bruntnell Combination. Was that more of the band situation than now when you're billed as Peter Bruntnell - full stop?

Peter Bruntnell: The only reason we called it The Peter Bruntnell Combination was so that people knew there was a band playing on it. It wasn't a folk record. With the second album we got fed-up of the name Peter Bruntnell Combination, but had a picture of the band on the back to show that it was still a band record.

Triste: Were you not tempted to give the band a name such as The Whatever?

Peter Bruntnell: I didn't have a name at the time. I've got one now and I'm going to see about using it on the next album instead.Of course it fucks up all the press that you've got and confuses people. I think with this line-up that I've got now, I'd like to keep it for the next record too, and all these guys are into it, so it would be nice to call it that and give them some identity too, rather than just being "people who play with Peter Bruntnell". I don't know what the record company might say. I might do it.

Triste: How much contribution do they make? Is it still primarily your record and they play, or do they contribute to the writing side?

Peter Bruntnell: I just present them the songs and they play.

Triste: Are the songs demoed up before presenting them.

Peter Bruntnell: Not demoed up but rehearsed.

Triste: The sound on Cannibal and Camelot In Smithereens are different to the current record. They've got more of a lo-fi different sound to them. Was that deliberate?

Peter Bruntnell: The new record sounds more organic don't you think?

Triste: Yes it certainly is more timeless. Was that deliberate?

Peter Bruntnell: Oh yes. I wanted it to sound just like when we played it. We didn't compress too much. I think that was just the way it came out. The first two records were produced by Pete Smith, who's a friend of mine, who's a really classy producer, so they would sound more "classy"... more "produced". And I think it works great. But because I was in the States with George Howard, he basically let us do what we wanted and looked over it, and the engineer a guy called Peter Lenane said "Let's keep it as organic as possible". We couldn't have made a record like the other two as we didn't have the know how. It was a conscious decision and a necessary decision because we couldn't have made it any other way?

Triste: So when you play stuff from the early records on stage now will it sound as originally written or as the current album?

Peter Bruntnell: We won't be playing anything from those albums. I played a few songs from Cannibal in Birmingham a few days ago just on the acoustic. But we haven't rehearsed the other two records we're concentrating on this one. We will get round to learning them, but Danny Williams who's playing the bass, he's fairly new - he didn't do the record with us, so we're just getting this thing together. It's only about our eighth gig with this particular line-up and this is the record I want to promote, although naturally, I want to promote all three records, but this is the newest one and this is the freshest one.

Triste: And you've got much broader instrumentation on the early albums - strings and horns.

Peter Bruntnell: Like a Hovis advert?

Triste: It does sound a bit brass bandy.

Peter Bruntnell: It's supposed to sound like a brass band/Hovis thing.

Triste: You could do them but I suppose they would need adapting quite a bit.

Peter Bruntnell: James [Walbourne]the guitar player can play the fiddle. But he's only had it since Christmas. But he can do it really good. We've got one song, which we're not doing tonight, called "How You Are" which is off the new album, but we haven't got it down yet.

Triste: Does the lack of fiddle or pedal steel make a big difference? On the last record the guy from Son Volt plays a lot.

Peter Bruntnell: It would be nice to have Eric Heywood playing with us and David Boquist.

Triste: Or somebody else. Somebody who could play mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel and do a few backing vocals would be perfect.

Peter Bruntnell: It would be nice, but there just aren't that many pedal steel players around. A friend of mine, who lives up the road from me, plays and he did a tour when we played with Son Volt about two years ago. But he's so busy, because he's one of the best in the country; he's always in demand and I can't afford him. We might play with Eric when we get to the states. And I play pedal steel. but I can't play pedal steel and sing at the same time, so it's not really viable.

Triste: On the tour where you're supporting Son Volt in the States I believe you're justgoing out as a duo.

Peter Bruntnell: Yes. Just me and James - two acoustics. The record's not out yet, so they wouldn't pay for the whole band.

Triste: Do you feel any pressure from the record company to fit into a niche and be marketed a certain way?

Peter Bruntnell: I don't feel any pressure at all. I've only written one new song in the last year similar to the ones on the new record. I don't feel any pressure to even write songs, I don't feel in the mood. When it comes to write the next album I will. I don't know when and I don't know what it'll be like. It'll be countryish because that's where my heart is.

Triste: Slow River picked you up - and you're a rare English talent on a roster of American acts. How did that feel?

Peter Bruntnell: They were all right. They were more concerned with us just touring and building up a following for this record. As far as being on an American label and being the only English person, it doesn't really affect me as I'm over here. I like it really. What it means is that all the bands that are signed to Slow River, when they come over here, they can either play with me or I can play with them. It's nice to hang out. There's a band called Fan Modine who came across to London and I ended up playing pedal steel with them and hanging out with them drinking whisky with them until five in the morning at my house - it's great. They're all really friendly and it's the same with The Willard Grant Conspiracy - they're a good bunch of guys. I don't really feel any pressure. I feel I'm on a really good label with like-minded people who are not competitive. It's like being in a good boxing camp with that feeling of camaraderie. All the bands are different and there aren't that many that are country.

Triste: Going back to the country thing. Do you not feel a bit let down by English audiences. When you get some semi-decent American comes across with a band - the audience think he's brilliant. You play a set at least as good, if not better, but because you're English you don't get the respect acclaimyou're due. You're not from Ohio - you're from South London. So you tend to be a second class citizen English guy because you're playing country music.

Peter Bruntnell: I do. When we were touring in June I almost didn't want to speak, so that people wouldn't know I wasn't American. I felt like people might not be taking this as seriously as they should do as we're English. I did feel that. It did cross my mind. But I thought when I get across to America it might be the opposite.. or it might not. But there's not a lot I can do about that. It doesn't keep me up at night. Most people when they listen to the record think its an American singer anyway, even though I tried to sing it in a kind of non-American way - I haven't gone down south with my accent. A lot of English people end up sounding quite American, unless it's a punk band. I was quite conscious of that. In fact the first album sounds more American with the accent than this one just because I wasn't thinking about it.

Triste: How far back go your influences - A generation ago? 60's? 70's? Or as far back as the Carter Family?

Peter Bruntnell: Yeh they do. I prefer the Hank Williams sound. I've been listening a lot to him over the last couple of years and James has got a really good collection of Louvin Brothers. I really like listening to Gram Parsons stuff still. I haven't got bored with it yet, but I'm sure I will do eventually. I like listening to film music. I can't listen to too much music it sort of exhausts me.

Triste: The song "Vera" reminds me of the doo-wop influenced sections on the later Velvets albums [Velvet Underground and Loaded]. Were they an influence?

Peter Bruntnell: I was probably listening to the V-Roys and I really liked their record. I don't know what inspired that. I know the production was quite Sparklehorse but that actual song was just like a 50's rock and roll song. In fact that's probably my favourite song on the first two albums and I said to the chaps yesterday that I'd love to re-record that song with double bass and make it 50's, but in a different key and maybe perhaps Hammond organ on it and I could add pedal steel to it.

Triste: Talking about songwriting, you mentioned you'd written one song in the last year or so. Can you force a song into existence?

Peter Bruntnell: When it comes to the point where I think we've exhausted this record, I'll get into a different head space and I'll write a batch of songs and that's how it works. If any songs come along in the meantime then...

Triste: Do any songs come from jams with the band members or do you tend to write alone.

Peter Bruntnell: Sometimes I write the songs lyrically when I'm in bed and still sleepy. I write them in the night when I'm trying to sleep, but I keep getting up and turning on the light and adding to it.

Triste: What about melodies? What do you do when a tune comes into your head when you're walking down the street?

Peter Bruntnell: I normally carry a dictaphone. But I've forgotten it tonight. Tandy do really good ones.

Triste: Have you ever resorted to ringing your own answerphone, so that you don't forget a melody line?

Peter Bruntnell: I've done that.

Triste: On stage are you a comfortable performer?

Peter Bruntnell: I like doing it as long as I can hear. It's uncomfortable when you can't hear through the monitors.

Triste: How do you respond to heckles?

Peter Bruntnell: I've got nothing prepared. It's usually "Fuck off!". Or just ignore them. I haven't been heckled for a while.

Triste: Back in early days how difficult was it when you were playing to very few people

Peter Bruntnell: Depends on how you look at it. When you're in a pub like that you're not the main attraction, you're just providing background music and anybody who's listening is a bonus. You're getting paid 50 or 60 at the end of the night for sitting there playing your songs and getting drunk. And that's the way you have to look at it. If you're doing a tour and people are talking through it, well, that's happened on this tour a couple of times. There are lots of people out wanting to have a good time and chatting to their friends, but they're still listening. I don't demand people listen to me. If they want to great, if they don't fine. It's not much fun playing to half empty rooms, but we're not well-enough known, at the moment, to do anything else. Unless we play in London. It's just something we've got to do. There have been enough people on this tour there to make it worth us playing but there haven't been the audiences like we had when suppporting Son Volt. It's just something you have to expect when you're doing your first tour. We're not getting massive radio play.

Triste: The reviews are good in all the papers. I haven't seen a bad one.

Peter Bruntnell: But that's not enough. The only we're going to get through and sell this record is by touring and building audiences. I didn't really expect to turn up and have loads of people all jumping up and down about this record. How can they know us? There's not enough awareness at this point of time. We like touring.

Triste: How big of a market is there in this country for this kind of music? Isn't part of the problem the way the press compartmentalise people and classify music within certian boundaries?

Peter Bruntnell: It depends whether you call it alternative country or songwriting. If you talk about good songwriting - the Waterboys were huge. All the people into, say, Neil Young and The Waterboys appreciate subtle things and not just big sing along anthem choruses. I think the market is definitely there, it's just a question of awareness. But with radio, as a format, being so bland, you don't really get many favours from that, so the only way you get anywhere is by playing and by word of mouth. I like the way it's going. It's the only way to do it I think. There's only one way and that's like the hard way. It's the best way because you build up to it. If you suddenly get on Top Of The Pops it's such a shock and then of course 3 months later where are you?

Triste: On one of your singles you covered Nick Drake's "Black Eyed Dog". It's a bleak, doom-laden song. Why did you do it?

Peter Bruntnell: I just liked it basically. I've liked everything that Nick Drake has ever done. We were going for a slightly overdriven sound and I thought that song translated well. I looked at all of them and that's the one I felt I could do most justice to it.

Triste: What about guitars you're using? The basic guitars are the Epiphone semi-acoustic and the Takamine. Are they your workhorses

Peter Bruntnell: I've also got a Les Paul Special as a back-up in case I break a string with the same P90 pick-ups. I've got a Strat and a Jazzmaster too. For this particular line-up the Epiphone works the best.

Triste: How does James Walbourne fit in with the rest of your band? He seems much younger than the rest of you.

Peter Bruntnell: It's amazing how he fits in with the rest of us. He's incredibly mature - if he wasn't, he'd get the piss taken out of him all the time. Age isn't an issue. we get on really well.

Triste: He's certainly talented.

Peter Bruntnell: He's an awesome guitar player. I don't want him to get any more technical. The nice thing is he can be technical, but he prefers to thrash it - he's got a punk attitude. It would take a long time to find anyone like him again.

Triste: You played "Handful of Stars" on the last tour. What was that about?

Peter Bruntnell: We wrote that in Canada in a cabin and we were alcoholically poisoned and feeling depressed basically. Not terribly depressed, just low and it's a native American story. It's just about feeling low.

Triste: What about "You Won't Find Me"?

Peter Bruntnell: It's a suicide song. Full stop.

Triste: NFB. I know what the phrase "Normal For Bridgwater" means but a friend of mine, who lived near there, wondered how you knew about this local saying.

Peter Bruntnell: A friend of mine lived in Bridgwater and she told me. She was telling me how she didn't like it there and even the doctors diagnose the odd in-bred person as NFB (Normal For Bridgwater) and I just thought what a good little title. My best friend killed himself so a lot of this record is influenced by it and that's another suicide song basically. Or there's three on there which had my friend in mind. It's about disappearing.

Triste: When you sing about the world being "flat" you mean not seen as being round, as opposed to "down" in an emotional sense?

Peter Bruntnell: It's a Leonardo da Vinci quote. This person was very special. When everyone else was thinking of one thing he was thinking of something else.

Triste: In the song "By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix" there's a semi-quote from the Jimmy Webb song of similar title. Did this influence the song?

Peter Bruntnell: Phoenix is where the cryogenic tanks are - the body freezing things. The people in England who want to subscribe to that can't afford to send their bodies, so they cut their heads off.

Triste: So, it's a literal statement then?

Peter Bruntnell: Yes, it's fact.

Triste: What about "Jurassic Parking Lot"

Peter Bruntnell: "Jurassic Parking Lot" is about the Bomax sign in Vancouver it's the biggest neon sign in North America. When I was there they were just about to dismantle it and that was a big landmark and not many people were happy about losing the big signs. I try and write about what I find interesting.

Triste: The last song on the album is like a benediction. Was that a deliberate way to end the album?

Peter Bruntnell: I wrote that with Randy Bachman from Bachman Turner Overdrive and I made it specific to a friend of mine who got busted for growing his own pot. I know Randy might not be too happy about that as he doesn't smoke pot or drink no more, but I really like the song. He came up with the line may the sun always shine which is the pivot of the song. It's like with Bill Ritchie if you find the right person to write with it can be a great help.

Triste: Finally, what are your plans for the future?

Peter Bruntnell: I want to play in America. I don't think about it that much as long as something's happening. I'd love to continue touring, but my immediate plans are to make another record.

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