If the title of the Robert Cray Band's latest album, "Shoulda Been Home", does anything, it belies the enthusiasm and effort the quartet puts forth nightly while on the road. Recently, Guitar Center caught up with Robert Cray at a tour stop in Southern California to talk about his current release, some of his friends and influences, his choice of instrument, and more. It's apparent from one minute with the affable Cray that, approaching 48 years-old and having been performing for over 25 years, music is a career for him still filled with fun and room to grow.
GC: How do you feel about your latest release, Shoulda Been Home?
Robert Cray: I'm happy about the record. It's our second one for Rykodisc. It's the second time we've worked with (Producer) Steve Jordan on a CD. What I like about it is I think we've gotten to a point where we're not really considering what kind of album we're making. It's always kind of been that way anyway, but I think that it's showing in the writing we're doing, the different kinds of songs that we have on this record. One being "Out of Eden," which has a gospel flavor to it. And, songs with length. That particular song is over nine minutes long. There is another one, "Far Away," that's got kind of a gospel, Curtis Mayfield,/Jimi Hendrix-type feel on it. It's over six minutes long. There's a country tinge in the song "No One Special." There's two Elmore James songs on it. So, it's different and it's a lot of fun.
GC: This incarnation of the Robert Cray Band has been together for nearly a decade, now. What effect, if any, has that had on the songwriting process?
Robert Cray: I write mostly by myself. There've been occasions where we've written songs together as a group. Jim (Pugh, keyboards) writes by himself and sometimes he writes with other people. Kevin (Hayes, drums) does the same thing, although he hasn't really brought anything in more recently. It's encouraged for everybody to write and bring it in. We are a band. Like you said, we've been together (awhile). Kevin and Jim joined the band in '89 and Karl (Sevareid, bass) came in '92, so it's a band. It's a unit. I think that it's really good to work with musicians that you've had an opportunity to gel with. So, when I bring a song in I basically just show them the basics of the song and they just fall right into place. When you're writing you can hear what the guys (will be) doing. Sure enough they're there, or even more so.
GC: Are you writing in-studio, prior to, or on the road?
Robert Cray: We write the songs before going into the studio. We'll have a little time to rehearse them at rehearsal. That's it. We don't take them out on the road to road-test them. I've just always been opposed to that kind of thing, having the audience judge the material before you release it, because you really can't second-guess what the music's going to be like before you record it, or thereafter.
GC: How do feel about the craft of songwriting?
Robert Cray: It's the kind of thing where I don't do it all the time. It's basically when it's necessary. I'll tape or write bits of songs down while I'm on the road, but for me, it's basically like a cram session before going into the studio. I have time off and that's basically when things start to flow. I can take my mind off of being on the road. I'm home, I've gotten comfortable for a little bit, and my mind can concentrate on the ideas that do come to me. I can sit down and actually put them together. It's like that.
GC: After multiple Grammys and a very successful career to this point, you must feel confidence with your ability to turn out songs when you need to.
Robert Cray: I don't think about it that way. It's not easy, you know, when you're working, when you're really stepping on the gas, trying to get the thing going. I'm sure it's like that for other songwriters as well. You're always trying to finish up a lyric to make sure it makes sense while you're at the microphone singing the song. You're always checking things out. I have friends who write all the time. They get up, have their coffee, and sit down with their paper and pen. But, it doesn't work for me that way.
GC: Are you using anything to record your song ideas?
Robert Cray: Just on a little DAT machine. I do the guitar and the voice. Years ago, I had two tape recorders. I sang and played on one. Then, I played that while I turned on another tape recorder, and played drums on that with my hands.
GC: Can you talk about the relationship between voice and guitar and how you determine the dichotomy between the two in your music?
Robert Cray: I like doing both. I think now what I'm finding what works for us is the song. The song takes precedence. There's a story that will be sung. When the guitar is there, it's to back it up. If the song calls for it, there will be a little more expression from the guitar. I like that. I think that's more of a balance and I think that's what makes our sound.
GC: If I go into a record store in this country, chances are I'll find your albums in the "Blues" section. How does the categorization of your music affect you?
Robert Cray: The categorization of music is something that you have to deal with. I love the association with the blues. But, when you just use that as what kind of band we are, you don't touch on all the different things we bring in to what we are. I think that's the same for just about any other band or individual that's out there working. It doesn't limit us. What it does is, it limits them (the audience) in what their perception is of us. I think if we didn't have the categories, people would get more out of a lot of different things.
GC: When you travel abroad, do you see audiences acting differently because they haven't been exposed as much to that same categorization?
Robert Cray: What I hear, when we go abroad, is that when you turn on the radio you are liable to hear just about anything on any particular radio station. That's the thing. Being categorized as one particular band doesn't stop you from getting airplay over there as it does here in America. So, when you do go to play in Europe, it's wide open. A person who's out there that's a blues fan will like listening to Sarah Vaughan or somebody, which is great. That's what it's all about. There are all different kinds of music and you limit yourself if you categorize.
GC: Let's talk about your instruments of choice. Why the Fender Strat?
Robert Cray: I was turned on to the Stratocaster by watching Philip Guy, who is Buddy's brother. I saw him once play a show in Eugene, Oregon in '79. He played a Strat through a Super Reverb and it was the coolest sound I've ever heard. He had just the right amount of reverb on it. It sounded like somebody throwing a coin, like a quarter, against a very thin sheet of ice on a lake. It had that (Robert imitates the sound). The greatest sound I've ever heard. At that point I said, "Man, this is cool." In my younger days I played a different guitar. I played a Gibson. Being young teenagers and stuff, you know, you have your favorite heroes. One guy said, "I like this Gibson (guitar), but I like the Strat because this guy plays a Strat." Well, I liked a guy who plays the Gibson. So, I was a Gibson man and this (other) guy was a Strat man. I kept up that stupid stuff as a young kid until I saw Philip Guy, and that was it. I had to get a Strat. The first Strat I got, luckily, was from this guy who was selling his guitar, in Eugene, where I was living at the time. He sold me his '64 Strat. I've been that way ever since.
GC: So, then how did it feel when Fender wanted to do a Robert Cray signature series Strat?
Robert Cray: I couldn't believe that was coming about. I was approached and we sat down and talked. I still had that '64 Strat and I had acquired a '58 Strat with a maple neck. I liked both the necks, so I talked to them about taking both guitars and come to some kind of agreement on the two necks. Maybe give me the feel of both necks. That's what we went for. I didn't want to change anything else, basically. I just wanted a stop tailpiece. First, we had thin frets and I went back and changed them to wider frets. That's all I wanted. Also, the reason why I went to the Strat is the accessibility. I'm at a microphone and I didn't want to have to turn two volumes, two tones and a five-position switch for stereo. It was easy. I could work it. I could stay at the microphone. I didn't use a whammy bar, so I just wanted a workhorse.
GC: Do you play acoustic at all?
Robert Cray: Around the house. I have a couple of acoustics. I have this one nylon-string guitar that was made by a guy, Steve Davis, up in Seattle. And, I have this old Kramer, this acoustic/electric that I play around the house. It sits on a little stand. (Laughs)
GC: I want to throw a series of names at you, and I'd like you to comment on the influence or impact the person had on you. Al Green?
Robert Cray: In the days before we even started the Robert Cray Band, we had this band. Richard Cousins (bass) was in the band, Richard's brother Butch played drums, and the first harmonica player we had in the original Cray Band- Rocky Manzaneras- played harmonica, but he sang sometimes, too. We were doing songs like "Call Me," and "Love and Happiness." That kind of thing. Even in our earliest days, we were always blues and R&B, so Al Green was huge.
GC: John Lee Hooker?
Robert Cray: He's a great guy. Just Mister Cool. The suits. The hands in his pockets. The deep voice. Young women all around him all the time. Mister Cool. Mister One-take. He likes to do everything on one take. (Robert does John Lee's voice) "Thank you, fellas." (Laughs) He's funny. He's just a beautiful guy.
GC: Marvin Gaye?
Robert Cray: Miss him. I miss Marvin Gaye. The last stuff that he was doing was so far ahead of music at that time. So deep, man. You hear those songs now, walking around a shopping center, and you go, "Man this stuff is heavy." The "Ecology Song (Mercy, Mercy Me)," man, that's so cool. Then, going way back to his earlier stuff with Tammi Terrell and all that stuff. That stuff is boss.
GC: Eric Clapton?
Robert Cray: He's a cool guy. He's cool and to me, for all the respect he commands, he just seems so human. To sit and talk with him, just about anything in the world, he's just so easy-going. A nice guy.
GC: What about yourself? Are you at the point where you're saying what you want to with your music?
Robert Cray: It's a work-in-progress. The thing about it is, it's a whole lot of fun. What's really cool is having the chance to play nightly on a stage, watching and listening to the rest of the guys on the stage, and see where we're going to go with this particular song.
GC: In the movie Animal House, you played the bassist in Otis Day and the Knights' band. If there's an Animal House sequel, will you play guitar this time?
Robert Cray: I hope there isn't (a sequel). It's (Animal House) getting a lot of play, though. Every year it's on TV. The way that came about was the casting person came through Eugene looking for musicians and asked me if I wanted to be in the film. I asked Cousins if I could borrow his bass and he said, "I want to be in the film." (Laughs)
GC: Do you do much shopping at Guitar Center?
Robert Cray: I have, but it's been awhile. The thing is, I go in and I look around, see all the kids playing and everything. I see myself in there. I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable because I see myself there, you know. I see the kids playing all the guitars, playing loud, and I did all that. I don't think I've come to grips with myself being (one of) those particular people in the shop.
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