When Tyler Bryant released his first album with his newly-formed band the Shakedown, he “wanted to make a rock record for kids like me,” the then twenty-two year old Bryant explained in a 2013 interview with me shortly after Wild Child’s release. “I wanted to make a rock & roll record for my generation and we wanted it to sound alive and dirty and raw like four dudes standing in the room together.” That goal was achieved with powerhouse tunes such as “House That Jack Built” and “Fools Gold.” After having spent the past five years on his own, building a reputation as THE up & coming young blues guitar player, something really exciting clicked with drummer Caleb Crosby, bass player Noah Denney and guitarist Graham Whitford. There was energy, synchronicity and chemistry. It was on.
Last week, just a day before the band took off to start the next leg of their tour supporting Billy Gibbons, Whitford called in to talk about his life as a musician. The offspring of Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford, the apple fell close to the tree and the younger Whitford has been garnering quite a reputation for himself as a force to be reckoned with on the six-string. At 24, Graham is amongst the saving graces of a rock & roll future worth listening to.
“I think Graham started to learn how to play and then [younger brother] Harry sort of developed an affinity for it and seemingly in the course of three months they went from playing pretty rudimentary stuff to knowing the entire Jimi Hendrix catalog,” older brother and Aerosmith photographer Zack Whitford said in a 2014 interview with Glide. Although Graham began his music life by playing drums, fate had another instrument in mind for the curly-haired young man. “I kind of steered them in certain directions but they didn’t need a whole lot of help,” Brad admitted when I asked him about the advice he gave his sons when they were starting out. “They’re very studious on the instrument and are incredible players.”
With a new label, Bryant & The Shakedown released the six song EP, The Wayside, last November. Stocked full of experimentation, blues riffs and the musicianship fans have become accustomed to from Bryant and his band, this is just the beginning.
So what is happening in your world at the moment, Graham?
Well, I’ve been on a cruise for about a week and I just got home yesterday or the day before. I can’t even keep track (laughs). And we’re about to go back on the road for three weeks tomorrow morning. We’re opening for Billy Gibbons on his solo tour, Billy Gibbons & The BFG’s. We did about three weeks in late November into December with him and now we’re about to go do the second leg of that tour, which is about another thirteen shows. We’re doing like a broken down acoustic set. I think our normal show might be a little too loud for opening for Billy Gibbons (laughs) although Tyler plays his acoustic through an electric guitar amp so it’s acoustic-ish. Then we’re playing a cruise and then we’re at home for like another week and then I think we’re going to Europe for the first time as a band.
You guys have been a band for a few years now though
Yeah, it’s been a long time but last year was pretty slow for us just because there was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on, trying to get a lot of stuff sorted out. A couple of years ago we got our new manager, Bryan Coleman, who has been a blessing cause he’s just a great guy and really respected in the business. But that took some time to get that going and then we signed a record deal with John Varvatos Records last year, which was super exciting. But we played pretty much no shows last year so it was really slow. I felt like I spent TOO much time at home (laughs).
Was it frustrating sitting at home?
Yeah, there were definitely times where it was, you know. We have so many friends in bands and in the business and you see them out playing and their schedules are full and I’m sitting at home going, “Why aren’t we out playing?” But some things take time. It took us a while to make the last record and figure out how we were going to do it. So some things just took some time.
Tell us why you did an EP instead of a full-length.
It’s like protocol for new bands at the record label. We signed with Republic and John Varvatos Records and with new bands the way the deal works is first the band puts out an EP. That’s just kind of how they do it. We actually recorded a full-length record. We recorded thirteen tunes and we picked six that we thought would be a good first EP but we have like five or six more that are great. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to work in the future but we might do another EP or combine the two and make a full-length. I’m not really sure yet.
Who wanted to do “Mojo Workin” for the EP?
You know what, it was really organic. We never really play much covers as a band, just cause we’ve always had a lot of original material to work with, although I hope to do some more covers in the future. But it just kind of happened accidentally. There was one night where Tyler and I were just kind of hanging at his house jamming and I was playing guitar and Tyler was actually playing drums and we were just kind of goofing around and I started playing this riff, which is basically the riff to the song, the main riff, and we were jamming it and we were like, this is cool. Then of course Caleb, our drummer, he heard us from upstairs and he came downstairs and kicked Tyler off the drums and he started playing. We started jamming it and then Tyler put on his guitar and turned on the PA and he just instinctively started singing the “Mojo Workin’” lyrics over it. It was just kind of an accident but we were like, this is kind of cool, and we recorded it and did like a little demo. Shortly after we signed our deal with John Varvatos, he flew down to Nashville and he came over to our studio at Tyler’s house to listen to a bunch of our songs and get to know each other and hang out and we played him that demo that we had made and he was like, “This has got to be on the EP. You guys have got to do this.” We were like, alright, yeah, this could be cool. So it was a really organic sort of thing. We didn’t really plan on doing it.
What can you tell us about the title track?
That kind of started with this idea I had, a lyrical idea which was like, by the wayside, I don’t want to be kicked by the wayside or something like that. But it actually started different. I went over to Tyler’s one day, and that’s kind of how it starts, like, “Hey man, I have this idea, can I come over?” So I went over to his house and I was like, “I have this song idea, something about the wayside, by the wayside.” And one night we just started jamming it and Tyler was scatting some lyrics and then we just got in this different mood and Tyler started doing it more like a Tom Waits sort of energy. Tyler is a huge Tom Waits fan, so am I.
But me, Tyler and Caleb were just sitting around one night and we started playing that. The funniest bit about that song is that Tyler grew up, when he was a kid in school, he also learned how to play the saxophone a bit and when we demoed this song, Tyler, like as a joke, pulled out his saxophone and put down this saxophone part and it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. We thought it was more like a funny thing but that was one that the label heard and they were like, “This is really cool.” Then we just tried to work it up in a different way.
I think when we wrote it we didn’t even realize how much the lyrics were sort of about the situation that we were in at the time. A lot of time went by, especially before we had the record deal, so you just never know what is going to happen. I love playing with the band because they are like some of my best friends in the world but there’s times where you wonder, Is what we’re doing going to pay off somehow? So that lyric, “Don’t let me fall by the wayside” is sort of where we were at the moment. But that was really a cool one and I’m happy with the way it turned out and it’s funny, most people really like that song the best; probably because it shows a different side of us. We love to rock, we love to play super loud, but sometimes the more like intimate songs are the ones that really gravitate to people, I think.
Has Tyler pulled out his Elvis impersonations on you?
Oh yeah (laughs). Look, when I first joined the band, the first tour I did with the band we did a cover of “Jailhouse Rock” and that was actually really fun when we did that. We haven’t done that in a while.
You’ve talked a lot about you and Tyler jamming things out. When you’re creating new music with him how do you synchronize the guitars together?
You know, we just kind of bounce off each other different ideas. A lot of times I’ll have a part and he might say, “Try it this way” or vice versa. He’ll have something and, “What if you do this there?” A lot of times that’s how it works cause Tyler and I like come from sort of the same place when we play guitar. We both have a similar energy or something when it comes to playing guitar. Between him and I, it’s never like a competition or anything. It’s very humble and friendly and we just really enjoy playing together and I think we push each other, you know. We push each other to be better and stuff like that. But it’s always different. I’ll have an idea or he’ll have an idea and we’ll just kind of make it work.
Do you write a lot of lyrics that you bring in too?
Yeah, you know, it’s always different but sometimes I’ll have, like with “The Wayside,” I just had the idea. A lot of times, Tyler is really good at kind of scatting and stuff just comes out. I have that sometimes but not always. So sometimes I’ll be there to fine tune a little bit or come in with a big idea, like with “The Wayside.” But I do, I write. If I hear something or someone says something that I think is interesting, I’ll write it down in my notes and sometimes it will transform down the road into a song.
Are you one of these guys who has a lot of riffs stored up?
Yes. It’s funny, whenever I pick up the guitar, a lot of times I will just come upon some riff that like comes out of nowhere and I’ll record it. Then a lot of the times I will forget about it and sometimes when I’m bored I will go back through my voice memos on my phone and go, I don’t even remember recording that but that’s cool. It happens a lot like that.
Do you guys prefer to write on the road or back home during a break? Do you have a preference?
Well, I wouldn’t say there’s a preference. A lot of times on the road we’re just really busy and it’s kind of hard to fit it in cause we’re either driving or we’re exhausted back at the hotel or we’re getting ready to play the show. Sometimes if it happens on the road, it’s very spontaneous and it just kind of happens organically. But a lot of times it happens when we’re home cause we’ll just get together and play for a while until something happens. Usually it happens at home.
When you first started learning to play guitar what was the most difficult thing for you to get the hang of?
Initially, I would say I was just really, really fascinated with the idea of playing a guitar solo. I didn’t really understand. I think one of the first things my dad sat me down and showed me was like the most basic riff, which is “Smoke On The Water,” and I started learning that and I learned some Aerosmith songs on guitar early on but I just didn’t understand guitar soloing and that took me a little while to figure out what that was or how to even comprehend it to be able to do that.
Did it help having your dad in the house with you so that you could go and get advice from him whenever you needed it? Did it make it easier that way?
You know, when I really got into guitar was about the time I was about twelve or thirteen. I actually grew up playing the drums as a kid. I got a drum set when I was three and I was obsessed with the drums and I played for years. Then I moved from Massachusetts to New York City with my mom and we lived in an apartment and I couldn’t play drums anymore cause we were in an apartment. But there was a lot of time when I first started learning the guitar, which was when I lived in New York, I wasn’t around my dad a lot. He was living in North Carolina and I would only see him every couple of weeks. So when I was first getting into guitar, I was kind of figuring it out on my own and just listening to a lot of different guitar players and watching a lot of different guitar players and learning at my own pace kind of. But every time I was around my dad, it wasn’t really that he was showing me all that much but just watching him play was like the best lesson. Every time I’d get to just sit around and watch my dad play, I feel like I learned a lot that way.
What guitar were you learning on?
I was learning on a Stratocaster. That was where I sort of cut my teeth was on a Stratocaster. With the Shakedown, I play a Les Paul a lot just because it’s such a big sound. But I really love to play Strats and that’s what I learned on. My first guitar was, and I don’t even remember what kind of guitar it was but it was some off-brand and like a mini-Strat. It was red and really small, like a junior guitar. But nevertheless, it was a Strat.
I know that Tyler plays slide. Is that something you do as well?
Yeah, I do. I’m always trying to learn more about playing slide. The way Tyler plays is amazing. He plays the Resonator and he’s got that down. He does a really good job at that. I don’t play quite that style really as well as he does but I am always learning, always trying to study different players. I love listening to like the Allman Brothers, Duane Allman and Derek Trucks and those guys are just masters. But I feel like I’m always trying to learn more about the slide. But I love to play slide. It’s like one of the coolest things.
You mentioned earlier that you’re doing more of a stripped-down show. What is the biggest challenge of doing an electric set versus doing acoustic sets?
Well, you don’t have like the big, loud, powerful sounds that you have with electric guitars or loud drums. It’s not as hard-hitting. But playing these shows, it’s really interesting playing songs acoustically because you don’t know how the song is going to go over for acoustic and I guess it’s a testament to if it’s like a good song or not if it works acoustically cause you don’t have any extra help from loud guitar amps. But playing acoustically I feel like the response that we’ve gotten from people is like really great and it kind of surprised us, I think.
But I think it’s really transparent playing acoustic. It’s almost a little more centered around the vocals cause sometimes when you’re playing loud electric shows, sometimes the vocals they take a backseat sort of. It’s definitely challenging but it’s also really fun to do it differently. We actually sort of came up with different ways to play the songs so they work acoustically but like the essence of the song is still there. Caleb, the drummer, he has this thing which he calls a gong drum and it’s basically a kick drum on a stand and he’s playing a single drum. The response we’ve gotten from people is like, “I’ve never seen anyone do a set like this. I’ve never seen anyone play an acoustic guitar and make it sound more like an electric guitar and your drummer only plays one drum and I’ve never seen it done that way.” People really think it’s cool because it’s something that hasn’t quite been done the way we’re doing it. It’s kind of unique, which is pretty cool and I think it’s cool that we can do both things, that we can play a live show acoustically and electrically and sort of get the same response.
What has been the hardest song to transfer to that acoustic environment?
I would say the one that took us the longest to figure out but I think we got it at a really cool place now is “Loaded Dice & Buried Money.” We use baritone guitars on that song so it’s like a regular guitar tuned like a regular guitar except the low string is a B instead of an E and then you just tune down like standard tuning so you get this really low growly sound. We actually were like, “We need to get acoustic baritones to even make this work,” but then we started just jamming it and wanted to see what happened if we played it on regular acoustic guitars and we came up with sort of a different way to do it. It’s funny, we started working up some of these songs acoustically and we were thinking, man, this is actually kind of more fun to play it this way (laughs).
You’re also doing stand-alone shows, like with Rival Sons next month. Is that going to be electric?
Yes. All the other shows that we’re going to be doing are going to be electric other than this Billy Gibbons tour.
When you finish a show, how do you usually gauge that it’s been a good one – by feel or by the crowd reaction?
I think to have a great show you just kind of have to have certain ingredients that come together. Like for example, you could have a great crowd and a crappy sound or vice versa – great sound and a boring crowd but most of the time I would say it’s really the crowd. When we feel like they’re really understanding what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do and we get a great response from the crowd, that’s always the most inspiring and exciting thing for me, and I think I can speak for all the other guys. When we’re getting the energy from the crowd, that’s when you know you’ve had a great show.
But it’s always different. Sometimes it’s just the day of the week. Like, sometimes if you play on a Sunday night, everyone has got to get up early and go to work the next day and everyone’s kind of down. But sometimes you play on a Friday night and everyone’s out to party and they’re really going to try to get the full experience out of it and have fun with you. But I would definitely say when the crowd is good and the sound is good and everyone plays great, that’s when you have the best show.
When did you know you and Tyler had a good musical chemistry together and that he was somebody whose band you wanted to be in?
It was really just kind of one of those things that happened organically. I heard about Tyler through a friend, photographer Robert Knight. He’s the reason I’m where I am now, honestly, with Tyler and everyone. I heard about Tyler but I never expected to really play with Tyler. It was just kind of one of those things where I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, if I was going to try and start my own band or whatnot. But I was initially just kind of a fan of Tyler and his music and I just really enjoyed it.
Then I finally got to hang out with Tyler and the whole band and I just remember thinking, man, these are the kind of guys I want to hang out with. That was my first feeling. And then when I went on tour with Tyler for the first time, I didn’t know if I was going to be a permanent member of his band or not – and I didn’t know if I wanted to be, honestly. So for our first tour we took some photos and had some posters that we’d give away and sign at merch and beside my name it said, “Graham Whitford, Special Guest.” It was kind of like, “Hey, we’re not sure if this is going to be a permanent thing but it’ll be fun nonetheless and we’ll see how it goes.” Then I started coming to Nashville, Tennessee, and I fell in love with being here and Tyler and I developed a really great relationship and he’s one of the best guys I know. He’s just a great human and a really talented guy and I became great friends with the band and that was sort of the foundation of everything. Just to be able to go out and tour with your best friends and play music, like I’m onstage sometimes and I just look around and I feel really thankful to be doing what I’m doing.
You mentioned you play a Les Paul onstage. Why is that your guitar of choice?
Well, Tyler mainly plays a Strat, that’s his main thing. My dad plays all kinds of different guitars, he plays Strats and Les Pauls and he never really was tied down to one kind of guitar, but I felt like he always sort of gravitates to the Les Paul. When I joined the band, I initially was playing a Strat and then I had gotten a Les Paul from my dad as a gift and I think I took it to rehearsal one day and it just seemed to work so well against the Stratocaster, like it was that extra tonal compliment to and added an extra element to the sound, just cause it’s a different sound, and I thought it was kind of the perfect thing for the band to have that. And I just love them. They’re amazing guitars.
Other than anyone in Aerosmith, who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Oh my gosh, it’s hard to say just because I was around a lot of them. I’m not exactly sure who the first one was but I would say like one of the most amazing rock stars I got to meet was Jimmy Page. I met him in London at an Aerosmith show. When I first started playing guitar when I was like thirteen, my first inspiration, which was like where my foundation of guitar playing comes from, was learning Zeppelin and learning Jimmy Page songs and it was really awesome to meet Jimmy Page. Tyler and I actually got to play guitar in front of Jimmy Page about a year ago. We played this hotel, the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles, and they were having like a special dinner event for Jimmy Page’s new photo book that came out and we’re friends with Rod Gruendyke, who is the founder of the Marquis, and he reached out to me and said, “You and Tyler should play guitar at this dinner.” So it was really kind of interesting the way we did it. I sort of came up with this medley of Zeppelin songs and a Yardbirds song. There was no singing but Tyler played Robert Plant’s melodies on slide while I played the rhythm parts, like Jimmy Page played, and we played it in front of Jimmy Page and it was the most nerve-wracking thing I have ever done in my whole life. But I’m trying to convince the guys that we should do something with that in our set. I think that’d be cool.
Do you remember which songs you played in the medley?
Let’s see, we did “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Train Kept A Rollin,” “Whole Lotta Love” and we finished with “Stairway To Heaven” (laughs).
Yeah, tell me about it (laughs)
What was your first “I can’t believe I’m here” moment?
It was when I was fifteen and Steven Tyler asked me if I wanted to get up and play with Aerosmith in California. It was some outdoor, not a festival but a fair show or something. When I got onstage with Aerosmith it was definitely my first I can’t believe I’m here doing this and it feels so natural. I remember walking off stage and like the only emotion I had was that I felt like I wanted to cry because I thought, That’s what I want to do with my life. If I can somehow be able to do that, then I’m good.
What is happening with your brother Harrison now? He’s also a musician.
Oh my God, he’s amazing. He’s doing a lot. He’s a brilliant artist, he writes songs every day and he is well on his way, let me tell you. He’s going to be great.
What happens for you after the Billy Gibbons tour ends?
After that, a couple of things. We’re playing on a cruise called the Lebrewski Cruise. We’re doing some solo headline club shows in late February, which the Rival Sons Cannery Ballroom show in Nashville kicks that tour off. In the mix of that we’re doing some radio stuff. We have our single getting played on the radio around the country and it’s like slowly climbing the Active Rock charts. I think we’re like thirty-seven or something but it seems to be moving so we’re going to be doing some radio, go to some radio stations and meet the team and play and perform. Then we’re going to Europe in March for the first time as a band. I’m pretty excited about that. We’ve never played over there but I think we might actually have some fans over there already that will come out to the shows.
Are you doing stand-alone shows over there or playing with some other bands?
I think we’re doing a couple of opening shows with Uriah Heep and then we’re doing some headline club shows, which will be really kind of cool to play some rock clubs in Europe.
You know, Rival Sons took off over there and Black Stone Cherry took off over there before they ever really took off here.
Yeah, I know. I feel like it’s a sort of the classic story you hear. I used to hear about bands like Kings Of Leon, who were like a huge, massive band in Europe, where they couldn’t even walk the streets without being recognized and then they would come over to America and no one would have a clue who they were. So they are a band that broke in Europe too. Do you know Jared James Nichols? He’s a really good friend of ours and he’s like an awesome dude and an amazing guitar player and has a really killer band. We were just hanging out with him in LA a couple of weeks ago and he was like, “Dude, I did all these shows in Europe and you wouldn’t believe how many times people would come up to me after the show and be like, ‘Do you know Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown?’” And he’d be like, “Yeah, those are my friends.” And people would be like, “Please tell them to come over here and play.”
That must be great to hear.
I feel like we’re always trying to push ourselves and Tyler is always sort of reinventing himself, as artists do, but it’s always cool to watch him grow and all the guys in the band grow. We’re just trying to get better every day.
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