Hamish Stuart's Highland Soul

The McCartney sideman and guitarist for the Average White Band talks with Chris Hansen about influences, great rhythm playing, working with Paul, and his new solo album.
Since he first rocketed to fame in the 1970s as the falsetto voice and rhythm guitarist for Scotland's own Average White Band, Glasgow native Hamish Stuart has written for and performed with some of the biggest names in the music industry. Chakka Kahn, George Benson, Aretha Franklin and Paul McCartney are just a few of the artists who have relied upon Stuart's soulful vocal talent and musical versatility. Stuart's latest project, The Hamish Stuart Band, has once again earned him rave reviews from critics and R&B fans alike. Thirty years after he first appeared on the scene Hamish Stuart is still at the forefront of modern R&B. Hamish took some time recently to speak with WholeNote.com member Chris Hansen about his soul drenched career and the music that he loves.

Chris: In your opinion what was the ingredient that defined the Average White Band?

Hamish: We used to have a way of working in the AWB. If we were working on something and somebody went off after something they felt and it worked, well, that was it. We were very much in the moment. I love that about the AWB and the ensemble thing in general. It's more fun to be in the thick of it. It comes quite naturally for me and I fire off of that. It's magic to hear what everybody is playing and to feel all pieces come together. I think great bands are able to be in that moment together.

CH: Like you did in the AWB, you played guitar, bass, and sang in The Paul McCartney Band. How did that gig come about and how did your role develop?

Hamish: Well, Paul was putting a band together and I got a call asking if I was interested in getting together. The first time we rehearsed I went over to Paul's studio and we had Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and Chris Whitten on drums. Not a bad little band. At that point Chris was definitely going to be the drummer. That was the only definite choice that Paul had made. And the four of us spent the afternoon playing around with an idea that involved both of us singing. That gave us a chance play together and also to see how our voices would work together. Things really just started like that. It was all very loose

CH: I guess being able to play bass came in handy.

Hamish: Oh yeah. Being able to play the bass was a big plus obviously. I love to play the bass. That's something that came very naturally as well because in the AWB I played bass about half of the time.

CH: Playing great rhythm guitar requires a strong ability to listen. That can be difficult for younger players. How did you find your groove as a rhythm player?

Hamish: It's all a learning process isn't it? I mean we all go through it. I think some of it has to do with your age. For example, the guy in my band, Adam Phillips, is in his late twenties. He's a fantastic young player and he has just blossomed in the last two years. He's learned a lot just from being in a six-piece band. When you've got drums, percussion, bass, vocals, another guitar and whatever else, you can't step on each other. It's all about supporting each other…It's really great fun working with two guitars. I've done it a lot. But it's so important to compliment each other. For example, if somebody is playing a really chordal, rhythm thing you want to be playing a single note, riff driven part. I think that most of it comes with time and experience

CH: What inspired you to start playing?

Hamish: The Beatles. I started playing guitar by learning Beatles tunes really. With The Beatles was the first album that I really got. I learned a few of the tunes off of that. Obviously on that one there are the tunes like "Money" and "Roll over Beethoven" that were kind of straight ahead. Initially I gravitated towards the ones with the Chuck Berry vibe. I remember that A Hard Day's Night was a really important album as well. It was when that album came out that I really started learning the guitar properly. On that album there were chords that I hadn't heard before. They were exploring at that point and that really opened up new ground for me. I'd get together with a friend from school and we'd sit with two guitars and try to figure things out. That's the way I started really. Then later on we put together a little school band and played in the local church hall on Saturday nights you know. I guess I was about fourteen or fifteen then.

CH: Were you always a singer?

Hamish: Oh definitely. I've always been a singer. That's really what I am. My parents were both singers as well. They sang in the church choir and had little vocal groups that sang show tunes and things like that… When I started playing guitar it was like all of a sudden there was a vehicle for my singing. I thought that if I learned to play guitar then I could have a band and I would be able to do this thing that I really love doing. For me the singing was the main thing. It still is.

CH: Do you feel a strong connection between your vocals and your guitar playing?

Hamish: Not really. I know exactly what you mean but no. I think an aspect of that is that I've never scatted with the guitar. I've always seemed to treat the two quite separately. There's something about the physicality of singing that makes it very first person. Playing guitar is a different thing for me.

CH: Was traditional Scottish music a part of your home life?

Hamish: Not as much as you might think. Traditional music really wasn't a big part of it although my mother and father did sing a few things occasionally. It was more likely that my mom would have her vocal group at my house singing songs from Oklahoma and South pacific. I'd be upstairs in bed listening to them sing songs like 'There's nothing like a Dame". That's not a very traditional Scottish song. (Laughing)

CH: What were other early influences besides Beatles albums?

Hamish: After a while I started to drift towards R&B. All of us in the Average White Band were into that kind of music despite the fact that we grew up in different areas. Motown and Stax had become very popular in Scotland. I saw the Stax Review in 1967. It was amazing. Otis [Redding], Sam and Dave, [Steve] Cropper and Booker T. It was the WHOLE package. It was absolutely amazing. All of that stuff became really important to me. I was also listening to a lot of Dylan during that time as well, but the Motown and Stax tunes were really the main thing for me then. I still did quite a few Beatles tunes but R&B became more and more the focus. The popularity of R&B really influenced the formation of The Average White Band because all of us were ready to do that thing at that time.

CH: There is an extremely tight, precise feeling on Average White Band records. Where did that come from?

Hamish: You know, I think a lot of that came from our drummer, Robbie McIntosh. (no relation to Robbie McIntosh from The Pretenders and the McCartney band ). Robbie had an arranger's mind. He really pulled the whole thing together. And it was quite a shock at first cause I'd never had anybody say "No, don't play there. Don't play with the other guitar." That's when I really started to grow up and really consider the relationships between the two guitars, the drums, bass, keyboards horns and all the rest of it. It was a big starting over for me. The learning curve was pretty steep at that point in time. But Robbie brought a lot of that to the band.

CH: Did you enjoy your role as a sideman?

Hamish: Oh, yeah. I've done it in various incarnations. Obviously playing with Paul was fantastic. And I did two or three tours with Chakka Kahn just playing rhythm guitar and barely singing at all. That was great fun. It's the kind of thing that I can do for a while and really enjoy. But if I do it for too long and I'm not singing enough, I get tired. It's a bit like a busman's holiday. I guess it's just about enjoying being a part of something without having to be out front.

CH: Who are the rhythm players that inspired you?

Hamish: I loved guys like Jimmy Nolen, "Country" Kellum, and all of the other guys who played with James Brown. They were like the school of rhythm guitar. I especially loved the way they played with each other. Those guys did everything right. And then there were guys like Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale who were a big influence as well. And then in the late 70's and early 80's I really admired David Williams who played on all of those Michael Jackson records. David and I worked together with Chakka Kahn. I think he's fantastic. I also love Paul Jackson jr. They're all great players.

CH: It seems like there's a pretty tight circle of musicians in the UK.

Hamish: It's a small pond but it's growing. The depth has come up quite a bit actually. When the Average White Band started the pool of players was really quite small. Then I was out of the scene and touring and all. But I noticed when I came back to England, after I worked with Paul, and I was putting a band together that there's a great pool of musicians here now. It's really encouraging.

Hamish w/Paul

Off The Ground (1993)

Unplugged (1991)
CH: The McCartney gig didn't allow you very much time to work on your own project did it?

Hamish: It was a terrific gig, but no it didn't. It was about six years give or take a month or two here and there. It was particularly busy during the last two years. We recorded the Off the Ground album, did the Unplugged show and then went straight into a world tour.

CH: I love the Unplugged record.

Hamish: I love it too. That was a really fun show. It's one of my favorites. It was weird though. We had rehearsed for about three weeks and everybody felt pretty comfortable, but on the day of the show things got really tense. I guess the fact that it was a TV show rattled us a bit. Things got better around about the middle of the show when we started jamming on "Be- Bop-A-Lula". They actually used that on the television as the opening because it was much more relaxed. From that point on things fell into place and it turned out to be an amazing night.

CH: You sing a great version of "Ain't No Sunshine" on that record.

Hamish: I love that one. That was something that we used to jam on in rehearsals. Paul would get on the drums and be like "ok you sing something" so that's what we did.

CH: So now you finally have the time to work on your own band. How has the experience been so far?

Hamish: The last few years have been full of very intense, high-energy shows. There's no holding back. We go for it every time. And working with the guys I'm working with gives me a kick as well. It's inspiring and It's pushes me to just go for it.

Hamish Stuart Band

Sooner Or Later (2000)
CH: What was it like getting back into more intimate settings?

Hamish: That was a treat. I love when you can see every face in the room there with you and you know how things are working… or not working. That's really what I wanted to get back to. I knew that was what I needed to do in order to develop. I had the songs and I just rehearsed them with the guys and started to play them out. I wanted to see where they could be better and I wanted to let things develop organically.

Honestly, I really didn't know how I was going to do my thing. I'd done demos in a couple of different collaborations and the demos were very different because the two other writers were poles apart. So I was trying to figure out how to pull all of those elements together and make a record that sounded like they all fit. That's where the players came in. We went out and played this place once a month or so and things slowly developed and about eighteen months later we started cutting stuff. But the first lot of sessions just got dumped and we finally started again and put it together in one fell swoop. That's the Sooner or Later album

CH: What's different now?

Hamish: Now I'm the main songwriter and it's a little bit more of a dictatorship.

CH: It's good to be king.

Hamish: It certainly is. I really lean on the players as well. I always want them to give me input. And believe me, they do. I really respect everyone's opinion but now I'm in the position where I want to have the ultimate say because I'm trying artistically to go where I want to go.

CH: Is there a US club tour on the way?

Hamish: I hope so. I'm in the process of trying to put it together right now. I'd like to very much but it depends if it can be put together or not. I've got to find somebody who's willing to book it and who thinks they can sell it. You know how it is. Everybody's got to be happy. Promoters, club owners, the whole lot.

CH: I understand that you've played with Bonnie Raitt recently?

Hamish: Yeah Bonnie came down. She was touring in Europe and she had a night off. We were doing a Monday night at this place called the 606 in Chelsea and she came up and did "Love and Happiness" with us. It was great. Then a couple of weeks later she was performing at the Shepherds Bush Empire and I went up and did a couple of songs with her. She's someone who understands the magic in the music. She listens to everything.

CH: Do you have any advice for players who are just starting out?

Hamish: I think it's very important to follow your instinct and your heart, but you've also got to be open to different kinds of music and the different players who are around you. It's really important to be open on many levels. But, like we said before, when you're a young player you don't really want to take the time to listen. I guess the most important thing is to be curious and have fun.

CH: Who are you listening to these days?

Hamish: Well I'm always looking for new things. I've been listening to a lot of Brazilian music recently. I went to see Joao Gilberto a little while ago in London. There was a big Brazilian festival over the summer. I had seen him before in LA in 1980 at the Roxy and I've always loved his songs and his style. I find that it's very soulful as low key as it is. It's almost conversational. I think that inspires me. This is a guy who can go into a concert hall, sit down and dissolve into guitar and voice. He doesn't say a word. He looks down at his list of songs, decides, and plays. When he's finished he just walks off to monstrous applause. Then he comes back and plays half a dozen more songs. That's just pure and honest.

There's another Brazilian, Caetano Veloso, who's like the next generation after Gilberto. He's more of a late 60's guy. He's a bit of a rebel. He's making fantastic records combining really straight-ahead Brazilian rhythms with 60's, Gill Evans style arrangements with a very light vocal style. It's really interesting stuff…

Some of the new D'Angelo record I love. I like the approach. It's very in your face. I think the songs are stronger on his first album, but rhythmically, on the funk end of it, the new stuff is real cutting edge. It's taken the groove to another place.

CH: What's your take on the state of R&B today?

Hamish: I think it's coming 'round again. What turned me off about it was the machine driven end of it. Not that I'm against machine driven music. I really like some techno things. It's all valid, but R&B has such a rich tradition of playing. R&B and jazz. It's a huge part of American culture. It's a huge part of twentieth century culture. I feel that the more machine driven the music is the more it's taken away from that tradition. The magic of the great, early R&B records for me is the fact that the moment when everybody had sort of half learned the song was the take. I think that's when you get your take really. When everybody's not really settled. They have to kind of wing it a bit. That's when the magic happens. That element is really important. It's important because it's a moment in time that happened the way it happened and it will never be the same again. It's all about those moments. Great performances are defined by those special moments. When all you do is push a button things can only stay the same.

Visit Hamish on the web at www.compassrecords.com