For the next edition of “The Chicago Low Down”, we talk with Chicago bassist and bandleader Bryan Doherty. Born in Milwaukee, Bryan started playing bass at the age of twelve. Now in his tenth year based in Chicago, Bryan can be heard playing everything from modern jazz to authentic Latin to funk-dripped soul. Bryan’s versatile bass skills and compositions have brought him national recognition and solidified his reputation as one of music’s brightest stars.
Tim: So tell the readers a bit about your background in music and how you came to play the bass.
Bryan: Well, I started playing piano when I was in first grade and I didn’t want to take piano lessons. But to this day I am glad my parents made me do it; it was the right decision. I really wanted to play the guitar, which I eventually started playing in the fourth grade. The orchestra director at my school needed a bass player and she knew that I played piano and guitar, so she asked me to play bass in the orchestra and that was it.
Tim: So you started with more classical and orchestral bass playing?
Bryan: Yes. Then, in fifth grade I started playing the electric bass as well as the trumpet and a bunch of other brass instruments, which I continued to play thru through middle school. The electric bass definitely felt right to me. Around that time I also started playing drums. My dad was a drummer, although not professionally. We had a kit in the house, which I actually still have to this day. It is an awesome, old school Slingerland set.
Tim: Would you say that in high school you started taking the bass seriously and narrowing in on it as your main instrument?
Bryan: Absolutely. During my freshman year I went to Nicolet High School in Glendale, WI. , which is where I am from. They were going through some band director issues, so I decided to transfer to the Milwaukee High School of the Arts for my sophomore year. That was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. I was surrounded by a lot of serious talent and drive there. I also learned that music can be something that you pursue and do for a living.
Tim: What was your introduction to the Chicago music scene?
Bryan: My introduction to the Chicago music scene came via the staff at Roosevelt University, where I attended college for four years. The staff was incredible at the time. It was guys like Tom Garling, John McLean, who taught Guitar and who I started working with my third year there, Tito Carrillo and Scott Mason, who was my Bass teacher. Scott doesn’t play out a ton but was a fantastic bass teacher. At the time when I was there, I had some incredible bass players as my classmates like Tim Lincoln, Patrick Mulcahy, and Matt Ulery. Being there with those guys definitely put a little fire underneath me and made me work.
Tim: Let’s talk about your new album with your band Hood Smoke. The album is called “Laid up in Ordinary” and I gotta say, I love this album. I have been rocking it in my car nonstop and there is definitely a buzz in the Chicago music scene about this band and this album. How did Hood Smoke start?
Bryan: Well, with my first band I was mostly writing instrumental music…
Tim: Like the music on “Rigamarole”, which was your first album on Origin records?
Bryan: Yes, that’s right. The way Hood Smoke actually started was that I got a call from the great saxophonist Doug Rosenberg, and he asked me to perform for a benefit he was helping put together. For the first half of the night he wanted me to do my instrumental stuff but for the second half he wanted more of a party vibe. So, I had a couple of tunes that I had written words to—mostly repetitive chorus type tunes with grooves. It was myself and current Hood Smoke members Rob Clearfield on keyboards and Mike Caskey on drums, but also John McClean on guitar, Javier Saume on percussion, Greg Ward on saxophone, and my girl Allison Orobia and Gracie Lincoln, Tim Lincoln’s sister, on vocals. As time went on I started honing in on where I wanted to go with the music and the band. I decided to write some more structured songs and I started writing more lyrics, and it slowly developed into what it is now which is a five piece band, with Sarah Marie Young on vocals and Dave Miller or Chris Siebold on guitar.
Tim: What were some of the difficulties you faced from being known as having an instrumental group to all of a sudden having a vocal group?
Bryan: Reputation, and the ego thing that goes along with the instrumental scene. You know, I will put on a red, white, and blue headband and some sunglasses and sing, but in school I would have probably thought I was too cool to do that. I think it is important to remember if you are goofy, you are goofy. If you like to have fun, bring it to the stage. I guess before I was just a little too concerned that people wouldn’t take the music seriously if it wasn’t super heady or if it wasn’t intellectual stuff. You know what, fuck that shit. Like I said man, I like having a good time.
Tim: You got to do you.
Bryan: Really, the biggest obstacle was just letting go and saying who gives a shit. I just want to be myself. I think especially if you are also trying to make it professionally as a sideman/bass player you want to keep your reputation cool and be known as pro that will show up and be great at your job. Not some kind of loose cannon. It just took some time for me to realize you really can do both.
Tim: When you are writing do you usually start with the bass line? Many of your bass lines, like on “Two Wrongs” and “Can’t Tell”, are functioning very melodically as well as rhythmically, which is very cool. At some points on “Can’t Tell” your bass line is actually identical to the vocal line.
Bryan: The story behind “Can’t Tell “is, I broke my ankle real bad in 2009, which is where the album title came from. I was literally laid up at my mom’s house for like two months. But that’s where a lot of this music really started. That was also a moment where I was like, shit really sucks right now, and often times I feel situations like that can really inspire people to create and express themselves. I actually had a small Boss Microtrack recorder and played along with one of the stock drumbeats. I have to mention here that I never write like this! I always write ideas down and put them together in my head. But with “Can’t Tell”, I started with a little drumbeat and then started grooving. At the time I was really inspired by David Byrne. One chord grooves, really making every instrument matter and give every instrument a part. So yes, that one started with the bass.
Tim: So you wrote all of the music and lyrics for “Laid up in Ordinary”. Give me a little insight into what the process of writing lyrics is like for you.
Bryan: For me, 99 percent of the time the music comes first. Then melodies will kind of pop up and then syllables start popping up. Often time that is the starting point for me with lyrics. I will be humming and just hearing sounds of words. I generally let that develop but then step back and edit things. Editing is a huge part of the lyric writing process for me. I think it is really important to remember the first thing that you came up with, but 9 times out of 10 the first thing I come up with is rarely what makes it. The idea of the words being a pure creation and in the moment is very important to me, but it’s important to step back and ask myself what do I want to listen to and what do I want to hear.
Tim: I would think it’s got to be difficult especially coming from writing mostly instrumental music… especially, because you are not just sitting down and strumming some chords on a guitar and writing vocals to that.
Bryan: It is definitely not that singer/songwriter type of music.
Tim: Would you say that compositionally you are approaching the music the same as when you were writing instrumental music?
Bryan: Definitely. Without a doubt.
Tim: You don’t want the words to be an afterthought, though. You still want it to be relative to the song and the substance of the song. I guess I mean, trying to attach words to melody as opposed to the words and melody being created at the same time.
Bryan: Yeah, it is really hard for me. I am not very good at telling a story and singing and playing guitar. When I approach writing that way it usually ends up being something super cliché and I hate it. You want it to be you; you don’t want it to be cliché. I don’t think I have ever written words first, like a poem for instance, and then added music. For me, and maybe it’s a problem of mine, the words can’t even exist unless there is a vibe or an emotion or a sound that I am going for first.
Tim: Describe to me the recording process and what you guys did.
Bryan: Two days man. Live band in two days. I kind of worked my people pretty hard and I love them for it. It’s a bunch of “one take jakes” in this band. In fact, a lot of what you hear on the album are first takes. There was some editing involved but not a ton. I really wanted to present the live band vibe on this album. Sarah killed it too. We did the vocals in two days. The mixing was a whole other story. It took forever because of differing opinions between the studio and the label. It was a whole ordeal, but it got out and that is all that matters.
Tim: Speaking of Sarah, what’s the working relationship like between you two when you are trying to explain to her what you want and how you want the melodies and lyrics to sound.
Bryan: Sarah is great to work with. It started with her coming over to my place and me showing her the first crop of tunes. After that I went to her place to show her a couple more tunes. Now it pretty much is me recording the scratch tracks at Caskey’s house and that’s how the band learns the music. I pretty much just send the tunes to her, and she learns it and then tells me if the key is OK. She is a breeze. I think the only thing I have ever told her that was semi-negative was “you pronounce the words too clearly” (laughter)…
Tim: So tell me about your gear?
Bryan: (Laughter)… This is awesome. I suck at gear. The bass I play is an Elrick New Jazz Standard 5 string. I love the bass, it’s a great bass. I use Sadowsky strings. I was using the nickel roundwounds, but they are really hard to find in the city so now I have stainless rounds on it. Which are OK, but I like the nickel ones more. They are warmer and not as harsh as the stainless ones. I feel like you have to work the stainless ones a little longer until you get them to where you want them. I use two Markbass cabs, a 2×10 and a 1×12, which I just got and I love it. The head that I use is a Mesa Walkabout, which pairs great with the Markbass cabs.
Tim: What did you use for the recording?
Bryan: We plugged the bass into the studio’s Ampeg B15. They also took a direct signal from my bass, but we ended up using more of the amp.
Tim: So other than Hood Smoke, what other projects have you been working on?
Bryan: Well, I am actually getting ready to go to England this week with a band called the Ex-Senators, a rock band from Chicago. Clyde Davis is the drummer, Gerey Johnson plays guitar, Kent a.k.a. Van also plays guitar, and Danny a.k.a DMAC is the leader and writes most of the music and lyrics. I also play with a band called Digital Tape Machine, which is a live electronic band. They are kind of big on the jam scene. That band is Kris Meyers and Joel Cummins from Umphrey’s McGee and Elroy Arredondo is the D.J. Those are the big ones right now. Actually, I also just got a call about a show I did back in ’09 at Lincoln Hall with Chuchito Valdes, Ruben Alvarez, and Frankie Ocasio on congas and it is actually being nominated for Best Album in the Latin Grammys this year, which is awesome.
Tim: Well Bryan, thanks for your time. Keep on grooving.