It’s been over a decade since Scott McKeon released his last solo album, Trouble, in 2010. After an 11 year wait, McKeon is back with New Morning. While it’s been over a decade since releasing albums, McKeon has stayed busy. He’s played with Sir Tom Jones’ Band and has been an in-demand session musician. He also formed the band Rufus Black, whose debut album, Rise Up, was voted #13 on Blues Rock Review’s top 20 albums of 2017.
Blues Rock Review caught up with McKeon to learn more about New Morning, how he’s grown as a solo musician, when we can expect a new album from Rufus Black, and the secret to great guitar tone.
A decade is a long time between albums. Why was now the time to put something new out?
I first started thinking about doing another album in 2018 when I had the chance to play with Eric Clapton, which was an amazing experience, and it was because of that that I wanted to put something out that represented where I was at musically. So that’s when producer Paul Stacey and I first chatted about doing an album. We recorded most of it back then, but it took until last year to finish it. This was mostly due to not having the time due to commitments touring with other artists. For the last five years I’ve been playing in Sir Tom Jones’s band and it’s been quite a busy schedule. I’ve also been touring with John Illsley from Dire Straits, a German act called Schiller, and some shows with Doyle Bramhall II, so when the pandemic happened – after the initial sort of shock of it all – being at home gave me time to finish the album.
Over the last ten years or so I’ve been working a lot with different types of musicians and playing lots of different genres of music, so I like to think that I’ve grown as a musician and as a person. I’ve got to experience life a bit more, which I think can only help widen your palette. Previous to 2011, I was a little bit isolated in the world I was in, so it was good for me to experience playing and learning some other styles that I could incorporate into my own music. I think I fundamentally have the same approach to playing guitar as I’ve always had, but I feel like I’ve found my own voice a little more, and I’m not so hung up on certain things.
New Morning just comes from the idea of a new start, a new day. Those words just seemed to resonate with where I was at in my head, and represent the music.
That track came about from a guitar riff idea that I had, that I was playing on a Danelectro baritone guitar. Out of all the tracks on the album, it was one of the only songs that I’d actually written a verse and a chorus for before we got in the studio. A lot of the other stuff was very free and improvised in its approach. I played the idea to the guys in the studio when we were recording, and I remember Jeremy Stacey really liking the idea. He came up with this really great drum groove and we jammed through the song a few times with Gavin writing lyrics in the room with us and he recorded his vocal live as we were playing. I’m really proud of this tune as I think it happens upon something quite original – it’s got like a bluesyness to it and a groove, yet it also sounds quite modern. Sometimes with stuff, it can be quite hard to balance blues influences but still come up with something that feels fresh and contemporary. I really like people who’ve done that, like The Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr.
We were working remotely throughout the first lockdown on a new album so hopefully, that’ll see the light of day soon.
You’re known for having great guitar tone. What makes great guitar tone to you?
Well, I think the guitar tone really is almost what someone’s voice is, coming through on their instrument. Like certain singers have a great tone, certain drummers, horn players – the tone and the sound is what links it to your soul, so I think the tone originates from inside you to begin with. Of course, specifically with guitar, I guess it comes from your fingers and your hands, and the particular instrument you’re playing. Things like pedals and amps of course make a big difference, but at the end of the day, any guitarist will sound the same playing any guitar through any amp. I could hand my guitar with all my settings through all my gear to someone else and it would sound totally different, but that doesn’t stop me craving gear and wanting to buy all the same equipment that my heroes used, haha. There’s also a constant search for tone and new sounds and for me, I can be happy with my tone for one gig, and then the very next day it feels like you have to start again, so it’s a constant search.
In terms of what makes a great tone, my starting point is always with the clean sound. When I first plug into an amp or a guitar, that’s always my starting point. Then I’ll refine it from there so I might turn the amp up til it breaks up a bit, and add color to the sound with pedals and things like slapback delay or reverb, but I like hearing the sound of the guitar coming through. When I’m playing my old Strat, for example, that guitar has a sound and a tone and a character before you even plug it in, so I only want the amps and any effects I use to accentuate that. Also, mixing the sound of two or three different amps can create a really good palette of sounds. I like having one smaller amp cranked up, and to contrast that another amp that’s cleaner, so when you play them both together on at the same time, certain notes pop out of each amp differently, so the high notes might sound really compressed through the small amp, but then you’ve got the solid bottom end from the bigger amp. The two amps work together to make one sound. In the studio it’s funny, quite often smaller amps can sound bigger mic’d up than really big amps. I have a little Gibson amp from the 50s called a Les Paul Jr. that I think is basically a tiny little Fender Champ, and that can sound huge when it’s mic’d up.
What’s next for you?
Well like everyone I haven’t been able to get out and play much at all over the last year, so I’m very much looking forward to playing live in front of a real audience soon. I’ve got a few shows coming up – I’m doing a livestream gig for Masterlink Sessions (https://www.true-live.com/en/masterlink-london/14-shows-upcoming/37-scott-mckeon) on the 21st May, and a headline gig at Ronnie Scott’s on the 9th July.
I have a live EP that we recorded recently at Real World studios (Peter Gabriel’s place), playing the material from the album, so I’m working on getting that released. It was all filmed so that’ll be coming out too.