Philip Sayce is one of the most exciting acts in today’s blues rock world. On August 25th, Sayce will release his new album Influence in Europe. His previous album, Steamroller, was voted #5 in Blues Rock Review’s Top 20 Albums of 2012. Last year, Sayce performed at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival after topping over 2,500 bands in Ernie Ball’s Play Crossroads contest. We caught up with Sayce to discuss the new album, his approach to playing guitar, singing, touring, and more.
Where does the title Influence come from?
The title comes from wanting to pay respect to the music that has inspired me to devote my life to creating music. The album is really an album of gratitude to the many musicians that have inspired me and also my friend and producer Dave Cobb. It’s music that comes from all different sources, all different artists, bands, genres of music, and just is an opportunity for us to record some music and say, yeah, we very obviously love Albert Collins, so here’s a tip of the hat to Albert Collins. We very obviously love Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Doyle Bramhall, or Ian Moore, or Eric Gales, or Lightnin’ Hopkins, or all across the board, all kinds of different people, Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Sly and the Family Stone, just trying to get different flavors of that into different songs on here. So that’s really where it came from out of homage to the music that has really inspired us.
I really think the first song and the 13th song really bookend the album. I think that is really the whole idea of the album. This is where roots music comes from. It comes out of the ground, it comes out of human rhythm, it comes out of human experience, happiness and hardship. As you hear on “Tom Devil,” it’s prisoners, essentially slaves working, chopping wood in prison. Why were they in prison? Most likely because of the color of their skin, and so this music is rooted in all kinds of different things, whether its prejudice, racism and all that stuff continues today. So anyways, we weren’t trying to make a big statement about it, but I think it’s more about getting connected to where this music comes from. So when we were hear people on game shows on TV singing blue notes, or people that say this isn’t blues or that’s not jazz or whatever, it’s like who are you to define? Everybody has feelings. For me, it’s a turnoff to define music as one thing. That’s really the intention of the record was to pay respect to where the music comes from and with “Tom Devil” and “Peace in the Valley” we went through the Alan Lomax archives and used some of the recordings he made, and they were extremely supportive of the idea, they really liked it. We wanted to make sure it was done respectfully and they were excited about it. We’re trying to pay respect to our heroes and where the music comes from.
Influence has more covers than your previous albums? Is paying respect what inspired that decision?
Yeah, I think so. We certainly wrote a bunch of songs, too. And some of those are on this record and some of them will go on the next one. I think when “Tom Devil” and “Peace in the Valley” came together in that way it kind of made sense to continue that path. Dave and I talked about it. Why don’t we try a couple songs, but not obvious cover songs, not the same covers that everyone does. So when we tried “Green Power” for instance, it seems to a lot of people when you think of Little Richard they don’t necessarily think of “Green Power” I don’t think. Some people might. So when we tried it on, I thought wow, this fits really well, we like it a lot. Let’s do it. It came out of wanting to honor music and artists that we really admire. We’ve got a bunch of original songs for the next one.
“Better Days” by Graham Nash is one of the standout cover tracks on the album. How did you pick that track?
Obviously Graham Nash I don’t think anyone would argue is one of the great songwriters of the past century. That song… there’s something about the lyrical content in it. And just the musical changes that really resonated with me. And Dave and I talked about it and we tried it on and it fit really well. We recorded it within a couple of takes. We tracked it really quickly. And I think the feeling of the lyrics is really uplifting and I really needed that. There was a lot of dark days leading up to cutting this record to be released and a lot of tough times and not sure how it was gonna go. I think a song like “Better Days” really gave me hope and I certainly connected with it.
“Fade Into You'” seems to be a very personal song. What’s the story behind that?
That was a song about a relationship that was something that took a year out of my life. I was exhausted, emotionally and mentally depleted after the experience and just not really sure where to come from there. This was kind of like lost at sea, what do I do now? And I think just the feeling of heartbreak and hopelessness, so yeah, that song is really deep into that. And the outro is this big guitar solo in a way that’s symbolic of breaking those chains and breaking through the pain and the loneliness, and the darkness, and kind of ripping it open and just sort of letting all of that go. So again, a very heeling song and by the end, very uplifting and empowering type song. So yeah, really a song about going through something really rough and ultimately getting re-energized and refocused and recharged by the outro of the song kind of letting it all of come straight from my heart, just let it go.
Dave Cobb produced the album and helped you write some of the songs. Talk about his influence on the album.
Dave and I have worked together for seven years at least. We’ve known each other a long time, we have a lot of similar musical influences, so we get along really well. We’re both really tone fanatics as well, very particular about the sound of things and also very particular of the spirit and soul of music. So, we kind of hit it off when we first met. He came to see me play at a show in Los Angeles. I was playing with Kenny Aronoff on drums. We were playing at this club and we were just kind of having fun. And he came up to me after the first set and said, “Hey man, I know how to record you.” I was like, “Oh yeah? Cool man.” We talked and he’s like “Yeah, we just gotta go straight and use three microphones. Let’s go for it.” I was like, “Awesome, cool.” And then we started recording and we made tracks that were eventually released in Japan and then later Europe and we continued working from there. So I think Dave in the studio is really great.
I think the same goes for writing. We bounce ideas off each other and he’s someone I really trust in the studio. And I think like any producer you work with, you gotta trust, and he genuinely cares about the music I’m making in this world. So he’s an excellent collaborator and someone I’m proud to call my friend.
In addition to Influence there’s a live album in the works. What’s the status with that?
The live album is done for the most part. 10 or 11 songs there from performances in Europe and North America over these last couple of years. There’s some pretty cool takes there and pretty raw. You know, you’re in the middle of a tour in November, in Germany, it’s cold, but it’s fun. There’s some good, fun, emotional moments on there. There’s also been some shows we’ve had here in Los Angeles. There’s a couple of teasers that we’ve had online for the last year that were recorded at The Mint. One’s called “Aberystwyth,” the other is “A Mystic,” so those are two of the songs that will probably end up on there. It’s done. I think that with Influence being put out now, we’ll put the live record out shortly after this release. And I’ve also been working on other new studio tracks as well, almost halfway through another studio record. I think it’s good. I’m certainly keeping active, trying to keep making music and really hope there is an opportunity to keep releasing it and interacting with people.
Obviously people know you as a great guitar player. How many hours a day did you put into guitar growing up?
I still consider myself a student of the instrument, I consider myself a student of life, a student of music. I’m always practicing, I’m always trying to better or learn what I know. I can always do it better. I try to stay in that mindset. It’s never good enough, but it can always be better. I’d like to keep refining.
So when I was first starting, I would be spending as much of my day as I could on the instrument exploring, learning about why something sounded a certain way on this string and different emotional response from playing the same thing, but just in a different position on the neck. Or why a specific chord seemed to have more power, like a big open E chord to me has a lot more thud and thunder to it than say a C sharp chord. It’s really about just getting to know the instrument and approach it like there are no rules. Like some people say, “You’re doing that wrong.” I don’t really subscribe to that unless you’re hurting yourself physically. But if you have your own approach to playing an instrument and it’s right for you, then do it. Look at Doyle Bramhall, he plays upside down and backwards like Eric Gales, like Albert King and Otis Rush, and so many others, or little Jimmy King. Look at Jeff Healey, he played on his lap with his thumb. There’s nobody playing at that level. When I first learned how to play those were a lot of the players I listened to. Look at Stevie Ray Vaughan, he was using the heaviest strings on the planet and bending them, but it worked for him because he had these unbelievably powerful hands. That was really sort of the root of when I first started learning, it was just like hey, people are gonna tell you how you gotta do it. But my thing was always trying to find what felt comfortable for me and kind of keep growing with that.
How often do you play today? Do you still play for hours every day?
Yeah, if I can. There’s a lot more distractions now with the business side of things. Unfortunately, that doesn’t turn me on. What gets me out of bed is making music, is being creative. If I can, I still play every day and I try to play as long as a I can every day, get some time. Even if it’s late at night and I’m looking around online and I have my guitar and I’m just gonna play for a while. I gotta play. If I don’t play for a while or sing for a while, I start to get a little stressed out or something. One of my favorite things to do is to play. I don’t consider it necessarily practice because for me, practice reminds me of when I was a kid and piano lessons and oh you have to practice now. It’s like, “OK.” It’s a little bit of more of a chore, the word practice. Even though fundamentally the definition of practice is extremely important. I think it’s just perhaps a bit the association of the word. I look at it more as being with the instrument and constantly trying to be more open and be more involved.
Do you ever reach a point where you feel that you’re “guitared” out and have to step away from the instrument?
Not particularly. I think only if you’re feeling physically tired. If you’re a marathon runner and you’ve just run a marathon, I don’t know if you’re gonna run another marathon like 10 minutes later. I think you have to listen to your body sometimes. If you’re playing a lot and your shoulder is sore or your hands are tired, you just gotta listen to that. Go “OK, Cool. I played for four hours today.” That’s a lot of playing. So I think that’s kind of the one thing that’s really important. For me, that’s listening to my body. Like anything, if you’re a singer and your voice is tired, you’re not going to push your voice over the top because you’re going to damage, so I think that’s really the main reason I would say take a day or two off if I’ve been playing a lot or feel sore or even just tired. You’re going to play how you’re feeling. I think that’s something that’s really important that musicians don’t talk about is injuries or fatigue, or anything like that. Whereas in sports, every day we’re hearing about an athlete in their prime and they’ve gotta go get cut because they’ve overdone it. So I think it’s just important to respect the body. That would be the time where I say I’m just gonna pause for a second.
On that note, what sorts of things do you do to work on your voice and warm up your voice?
I did do some work with some vocal teachers and vocal coaches just to learn how to open up my voice, and I’m still working on it. Every time I get in the car and I go for a drive, I’ll be in the car making weird warm up sounds, just trying to get the voice in better shape. It’s a muscle, like anything you gotta practice it, or be in it as opposed to using the word practice.
I did spend time with Seth Riggs, who is the Seth Riggs Method here in Los Angeles, who a well known, well renowned vocal coach. And when I was in Toronto I was also with someone who was teaching that method. And it’s extremely helpful to warm up before a show. And if I’m really being good, it’d be about cooling down after a show (laughs). But usually the cooling down thing you end up talking to friends after a show, I gotta get better at that part of it. But like anything, you’ve got to take care of it.
You get asked this a lot, but what’s going on with touring?
It’s a real conundrum in the industry right now. I think what’s happening is what we’ve seen is a lot of people moving away from going after label deals because there are no label deals, especially if you aren’t making cookie cutter music. And there’s nothing wrong with flavor of the month music, I think it’s great. But if you’re even slightly out of this very, very narrow space that we’re in now for whatever’s defined as mainstream. If you’re making some kind of roots music, it’s a whole parade of gatekeepers. And what we’ve seen is the whole game has changed, especially the last five years. There’s a lot of gatekeepers. So the agent says, “Who’s your label?” Well, we’re not working with a label. “Well, there’s so many people that want us to book them. Give us a call when you get your label in place.” Oh, OK, so then you get on the phone with the label and they say, “We like this. Who’s your agent? When you get the agent and get some live dates going, give us a call and we’ll work something out.” It’s this constant chicken or the egg situation that personally I’ve ran into and when things have become available to me, it’s been with strings attached. And what I mean by that is “Hey man, we’d love to work with you.” Really big agency and now “What’s the pop single?” What do you mean what’s the pop single? This isn’t a pop band, this isn’t a pop act. “Well, you have to sound like Kings of Leon or we can’t really do a whole lot with you.” Or can you make it sound like so and so.
So it’s really been a challenge for me and my band, and my whole team from Dave Cobb to Joel Gottschalk, my bass player to different management. Everyone’s trying to honor what the music is but there’s so much in the industry that’s still operating in this fear based way, which is first and foremost, this has to sound like everything else. If you’re poking out in any way or trying to do something in your own way, it’s a little bit of a longer road, but we’ll be out touring soon.
Any message you’d like to say to your fans?
I’m super, super grateful for the interest and support of people that get behind me and my music. It’s an honor and a privilege. I really hope that the music resonates with them. My intention is to put something good in the world. So I hope that it inspires people to do what they love to do in their own way. I hope that people dig the record.
Interview by Pete Francis
Photos by Austin Hargrove