Chris P. James
Interview; Talks New Album And Staying Home
The Burrito Brothers, formally known as The Flying Burrito Brothers have recently released a new album titled The Notorious Burrito Brothers.
This country-rock group formed in the late 1960s and has featured many great artists including Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman (The Byrds) and Bernie Leadon (The Eagles).
Today, The Burrito Brothers consists of Chris P. James on vocals and keyboards, guitarist Bob Hatter, Tony Paoletta on pedal steel and drummer Peter Young. The band is dedicated to keeping the music and legacy of The Flying Burrito Brothers alive. Gram Parsons once said of the band “The idea'll keep going on. It's not like it's dead or anything. Whether I do it or anybody else does it, it's got to keep going."
We had the chance to speak with Chris P. James about their new album and the legacy of the band.
Greg Drugan: Hey Chris! How are you getting along these days with everything that’s going on?
Chris P. James: We’re doing the isolation bit. We aren’t going anywhere! I have my wife here with me, a dog and two cats. We’re just trying to stay locked down. I just got a couple of weeks of groceries and not looking forward to having to go back out. It’s just so weird, nobody has ever gone through something like this.
GD: Do you think we are going to get a lot of great music since artists are kinda holed up in their homes?
CPJ: I wonder about that. There’s a limitation to that where musicians won’t be interacting with each other in the studio. They can send files to each other and they already do that. But this album we just completed just had s slightly more special quality than if we did it that way. We shared the time together in the studio, feeling each other's groove. For a drummer, to be laying down a groove while I’m playing the piano and singing, that’s far better than playing to a click track or an existing drum track.
To answer your question, it’s hard to say! There might be more people hunkering into their home studio, but not much of what I just described.
GD: That was my next question. You guys just released The Notorious Burrito Brothers. What was that process like in the studio?
CPJ: It was old school in that way. We had conceptualized the entire album. I regard the album as a complete work. It’s not just nine songs that were put together to fill an album. It’s an artistic musical piece. There’s an open introductory song, there’s a finale that ties everything together. There’s a pacing to it and there’s a 10-11 minute suite that has four different pieces of music that’s all tied seamlessly together, which is a very progrssive rock thing to do. We had it all mapped out and then we recorded it.
This group is mislabeled, if anyone calls it Country. It’s rock that’s inventive and incorporates some instrumentation that is more common in Country like the pedal steel guitar. It has country flavors but even the originator of the band, Gram Parsons called it “cosmic American music.”
GD: What’s your favorite song on the new album? I like “Bring It.” That’s a great song to kick off the album.
CPJ: It’s funny, when I’m asked that I say I don’t have a favorite song because I like the experience of the album as a whole. But if people are interested in where to start, (“Bring It”) is as good a place as any. I remember Todd Rundgren used to say that the song that you hoped would be the hit, or radio song should be the first one on the album. “Bring It” is shorter and right to the point. It’s uptempo and punchy.
GD: To me, “Hearts Desire” kinda has a Tom Petty vibe to it, was that what you were going for?
CPJ: Sure, absolutely! I point out that Tom Petty was kinda derivative in the first place. There are many examples that you know who he’s borrowing from. When he first came out a lot of people thought he was very similar to Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. He did kinda like what we’re doing and that is creating a hybrid that tips the hat to our predecessors. Even the greatest group of all time, The Beatles, you could tell where they borrowed from the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and stuff like that.
We don’t feel that we’re stealing from him. He’s not around to do it anymore. That’s part of our whole point of view. We’re carrying forward a musical artform that we don’t want to see pass away. We’re first to acknowledge influences and if we can get people hearing it, then they can go back and hear other people.
GD: Who were some of your influences growing up?
CPJ: Actually, the group that I’m in! I grew up in Wichita, Kansas and the popular rock acts in the late ‘60s and ‘70s had a different tendency than those rootsy American groups or progressive artsy groups. I don’t think I ever heard of the Velvet Underground. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were known because they were so huge, but we were more into the slightly country flavored rock groups like the Burrito Brothers and The Byrds, The Eagles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Poco and that type of thing. Dylan and The Band were doing their thing. There was a slightly more rural leaning in little ol’ Kansas. (laughs) The Beatles were undeniable and because I was in their target age, The Monkees. I’m kinda happy to say that they have stood the test of time. I remember that they were being put down as being phony and fake, but I think that’s been reassessed.
GD: Do you remember the first artist you saw in concert and how did that inspire you?
CPJ: Strangely, I don’t think it had that much impact. First group I saw was Paul Revere and the Raiders. They had those outfits and steps and surely I was impressed. Once I started playing music a few years later, that really wasn’t much into the equation. I remember wanting to be James Taylor. I remember playing “Let It Be” because it was such a simple triad song, that a kid my age could play it.
The second concert I saw which had a little more impact was Eric Burdon and The Animals. That seemed a little more rootsy blues based group. There was a bit too much of a spectacle and show-bizy about Paul Revere. I don’t regard them as invalid, because they also stand the test of time but it was a bit over the top with the outfits and that.
GD: How did you come to be the lead singer in The Burrito Brothers?
CPJ: It’s kinda a long and winding road. I first played with The Burrito Brothers in 1986 as a harmony singing piano player for a Gram Parsons tribute. The Burrito Brothers at that time were only two guys, Gib Guilbeau and John Beland. The promoter (of the tribute) asked every potential backup player to name five Gram Parsons songs or they couldn’t do the gig. I didn’t have any trouble with that at all. From that point on, I was able to put on my resume that I had played with The Burrito Brothers. The following year, I did it again and they recorded it. It came out on an album called Wheels. Then I got to work with people who were involved with that.
There was never an audition for a member of The Burrito Brothers. In this endless parade of people coming and going in The Burrito Brothers, by the time one left, the next guy to come in was a logical choice and it was someone they knew. In 2009, I finally got my turn because I was a guy they knew and had been around. I felt like it was a dream come true.
GD: It is kinda cool how the band has always been fluid. You have some older guys in the band and they bring in newer guys. Then those guys become the older guys and bring in newer guys.
CPJ: It’s funny you should say that because I only just realized that a couple weeks ago. If you look on Wikipedia, the history of The Burrito Brothers, The Flying Burrito Brothers is at the top of the page. Then it goes to The Burrito Brothers, to Burrito Deluxe and back to The Burrito Brothers. There are no two albums in a row with the same lineup. The Burrito Brother and The Flying Burrito Brothers have established a precedent that this group is ever changing in personnel.
GD: Have you ever played with Bernie Leadon or Chris Hillman?
CPJ: Almost. I got to know Bernie a little bit when I was on tour with Billie Jo Spears over in England. We were on the same tour, riding in the same tour busses when he (Leadon) was in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. We had many conversations about the band and Gram Parsons. I’ve run into him a couple of times over the years. I’ve talked to Chris Hillman twice but he probably wouldn’t remember.
GD: I bet you are anxious to hit the road. Do guys have a tour planned this year?
CPJ: Not as bad as most. Our main focus as a group is to make great albums. We look for a short order run of really good gigs. We’re not a bunch of young guys who want to hit the road for two hundred days a year. We are real good at playing live and like to do it. I’m kinda bummed because I was pretty sure with this new album on a major label that we would be able to play some pretty cool stuff. But that is now on hold.
GD: When you guys play live, do you play all aspects from the catalog?
CPJ: Truthfully, it’s more like the earliest stuff and go full circle. The stuff we highly regard is the first three or four albums. We do the favorite songs from the early albums, a couple of deep cuts from intervening years. Hardly any from the Burrito Deluxe period. Then we do our own stuff, the recent stuff. We do two sets, the legacy stuff and then our own stuff.
GD: When things start to settle down, we hope to see you in the Cleveland area!
CPJ: For sure. Hey, pedal steel player, Tony Paoletta is from Cleveland. He laments the Browns. (laughs)
GD: We all do! Chris, thanks so much for taking some time with me today and I wish you the best on the new album and hope to see you soon.
CPJ: I would like people to go to our website, www.burritobrothers.net and go to the blog because you get a song by song, detailed background information on each song. There’s backstories to each song and it kinda adds to your listening pleasure.
GD: That’s great, thank you!
CPJ: Wow, what a pleasure. Thank you for having me, it’s been so nice.
GD: Best of luck and stay healthy!
You can get all the details on The Burrito Brothers latest album The Notorious Burrito Brothers and other information on the band at www.burritobrothers.net.