After two years of cat and mouse, Laurence Jones and Brit-boom producer Mike Vernon have delivered an album set to blow the doors off. They told us about the rapid-fire sessions, special guests and the pain behind the triumph…
August 2015. Backstage at the Great British Rhythm & Blues Festival, Laurence Jones has just received an earth-shaking tip-off: “Just before I went on stage,” he remembers, “one of the crew came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘No pressure, but Mike Vernon is in the audience.’ It knocked me back a little bit for a moment.”
Jones wasn’t sure whether to pinch himself or lose it. By that point, the bluesman was no debutante, with three albums and two British Blues Awards under his belt. Still, this was Mike Vernon: the producer who supplied the gunpowder for the 60s boom, helming ‘Beano’ and A Hard Road, coddling Clapton and chivvying Green.
“They’re historic recordings, aren’t they?” nods Jones. “He’s a massive part of that British explosion. That’s the sound. You can’t buy that sound. He is the sound. “Ever since I signed to Ruf Records back in 2014, I wanted Mike to produce one of my albums,” he adds.
“But he’s in very high demand and he only produces people that he wants to, when he feels the time is right. And I guess our timing had never been right before this point…”
Speaking from his home in Spain, Vernon doesn’t deny it: “I do get a lot of offers and I don’t pick up on many of them. Laurence approached me in December 2014, but I wasn’t really in a mental state to take anything on. I’d lost my wife that year. So I told him, ‘Look, I’ve got a situation I need to deal with. Give me a call if you’d like me to work with you on a future project.’”
The younger man took Vernon’s rejection on the chin, co-producing last year’s What’s It Gonna Be with bassist Roger Inniss. Shortly before the R&B festival in Colne, Lancashire, though, he chanced his arm again.
“I got Mike’s number from somewhere. I was determined to get him to do this record. I wasn’t going to let anybody stop that. I just said to him, ‘Let’s just do this record, man. You won’t regret it. What are we messing about at?’”
Nowhere To Hide
“I wouldn’t say he was pleading,” picks up Vernon. “But y’know, this was something he really wanted to do. I had his earlier records. And they were good records, they were solid records, but he hadn’t really matured enough for me to want to get involved seriously.
“I just felt this was a young buck who needed just a little bit of help, perhaps, to get the best record that was possible out of him, which he hadn’t probably achieved thus far.”
Vernon was already headed to Colne with his Mighty Combo. “I caught about 40 minutes of Laurence’s set, and I was very impressed. They created real fire. The crowd absolutely loved it. And, for me, that was the deciding factor, when the decision was taken I was actually going to do it.”
Then came logistics. The producer’s diary was jammed. He could only spare three weeks in January: perhaps another reason why new album Take Me High was mostly recorded live at Cambridge’s Headline Music Studios, with Jones, Inniss, keys man Bob Fridzema and new drummer Phil Wilson laying down the basic tracks (plus guide vocals) in the room.
“Seeing as we had Mike Vernon,” notes the bandleader, “we wanted to do it the old-school way. Everyone does the copy-and-paste thing now, and anyone can record in their bedroom, go on GarageBand or Pro Tools or whatever. Y’know, anyone can make a record now. But I don’t think anyone can make an old-school record, with a proper band and nothing to hide behind.”
“Do live records have something special?” echoes Vernon. “Oh yeah. I’ve always tried to get a live performance out of a band, especially the lead guitarist or whoever is the featured instrument. The energy that people put out on stage is what inspires someone to go and buy the CD. And too many times you buy the CD and think, ‘Well, it doesn’t sound the way it did when I saw them.’ Pure volume does play a part in that. But it’s attitude, too.”
Jones grins: “Did I play as loud as Clapton on the ‘Beano’ album? Yeah, Mike let me turn it up. Definitely.”
Rhythm tracks in the bag, then. But when it came to overdubbing vocals, the precocious road warrior found himself missing the roar of the crowd.
“I was standing there listening to the songs on my headphones. I just couldn’t get into it. Mike stopped me, asked what was wrong.”
Vernon: “I was very keen to improve his vocal work. Because I just felt that his vocals weren’t strong enough. There’s always an element of fear of singing in a studio. So I told him, ‘Just forget about that. Imagine there’s 500 people in the room with you and sing like it’s a gig.’
“That sort of kicked him, y’know, and he really gave it everything. When [label boss] Thomas Ruf got the tracks, the first thing he said was, ‘My God, how did you get him to sing like this? It’s fantastic.’ And it is. He absolutely nailed it. And he also nailed the guitar.”
Let’s talk about the guitar, though. You’ve been up close and personal with God, Green and Taylor. Does Jones’s fretwork still impress you after that? “Yeah, it does,” nods Vernon.
“He’s an outstanding player. I think, for his age, he’s still honing his craft. He knows what he wants to do, but he still has to just clean it up a little bit - and he will. He’s getting better all the time. He’s a very fluid player. He never has to think, ‘What should I play next?’”
Jones: “I used to be the kind of guitarist that’d be like, ‘Let’s put long solos on there, let’s have a mean guitar in there all the time.’
“But one thing my mentors, like Walter Trout and Johnny Winter, have definitely taught me is that you can be a showman - but you’ve got to tell a story.”
“And he works very hard at it,” picks up the producer. “I mean, some solos created a few problems for him. Sometimes, the fluidity sort of suddenly disappeared from him momentarily - and that annoyed him, the fact that he couldn’t actually nail it.
“But he wasn’t going to take second best. He’d rehearse certain licks 20 or 30 times, over and over again. He knows when he’s not happy. Then he’d say, ‘Right, let’s do it.’ And then he’d nail it. And when he’s ready, everybody else better be ready, too. Because he’s the boss.”
And despite his relative youth, he still has that authority? “He knows exactly what he wants,” agrees Vernon. “The relationship he and I built up over the weeks was very good. I expected it to be a bit more difficult, I have to say. I thought he was going to be a bit of a hard taskmaster, a bit awkward, a general pain in the arse. But he wasn’t at all. He was actually great to work with.
“He’s rarely lost for words, or for an idea. Sometimes, the ideas were maybe not up to scratch and we’d have a little discussion, but he comes up with some real crackers. I think Laurence is an extremely good writer. He comes up with some really interesting observations and storylines.”
Perhaps that’s the key point about Take Me High. Thicker and fatter-sounding it might be, but this album is less about sonics, more about the maturing material.
Glad to meet you
“I’m so glad I didn’t work with Mike back in 2014,” admits Laurence. “Because the songs I have now really mean something to me. I get very personal on this album.
“I’ve dedicated a song called Live It Up to a friend that passed away. He had such a positive mentality on life, so I wrote a really upbeat song for him. Then there’s Down & Blue, which is about my Crohn’s disease…”
How does that condition affect day-to- day life as a touring musician?
“It’s not the ideal lifestyle,” Jones concedes. “It’s quite intense on the road. Crohn’s can’t be cured, you can just treat it. And certain things trigger it off, most of all, anything longer than a 12-hour drive. I had an operation last August and I have blood transfusions once a month, when I’m off the road. I take 10 tablets a day. I do all of that to keep me going.
“There have been times I’ve had to ask Roger to do a bass solo, because I’ve had to go backstage in absolute agony and lie down for five minutes, feeling like I’m gonna pass out.
“I guess the blues chose me, rather than me choosing it,” he sighs. “For someone who’s got Crohn’s, this is probably the worst job you could ever do. But my music takes over. It kinda puts me in another world. And then I forget all about my illness.”
Funnily enough, it was Jones’s condition that indirectly sparked the collaboration on Take Me High’s standout track.
“We did a charity show at Cranleigh Arts Centre,” he explains of the backstory to the funk-inflected The Price I Pay.
“Paul Jones organises it every year. We raised £10,000, and at the end of the night, Paul told me he was dedicating the money to my charity [Crohn’s & Colitis UK]. I told him I was doing a new album with Mike Vernon. And he said, ‘I’d love to be a part of that.’
“Mike and Paul are great friends,” he adds, “so when Paul came down to the studio, it was like a reunion. On The Price I Pay, he was holding back on harmonica at first, like, ‘Am I overplaying?’ I said, ‘Paul, there’s no such thing as overplaying.’ So he was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna give it some blow.’ It’s just so melodic and Paul plays with such feeling. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what colour you are. Blues brings all sorts of people together.”
Certainly, all involved with Take Me High agree that it’s a belter.
“It’s a really exciting record,” says Vernon. “And I actually do believe that when you hear it, and then you go and see them live, it’s pretty damn near the same thing.
“Everything about this record seems, to me, far more powerful, far more what he’s about. It’s a real smack in the face when you listen to it. There’s nothing apologetic about it. It’s full-on.”
Jones excuses himself to fetch a copy of the Take Me High inlay card. “Mike actually wrote in the sleevenotes,” he beams, “and this is the bit that really touched me: ‘Laurence Jones has stretched the blues boundaries, and I think Take Me High will be a marker for the future.’ Y’know, one of the first records I ever got was the Bluesbreakers album with Eric Clapton. I always dreamed that one day my album would be recognised like that.”
Inevitably, much of the press around this album is going to take the angle of a baton being passed. Do you really think you can step up to the title of the ‘new Clapton’ - and would you even want to?
“Well, one reason Mike wanted to work with me was because he said he saw me as the future of the blues,” considers Jones.
“It was incredible to hear that. It’s not trying to copy the old blues. I didn’t want to make an old record. I’m a modern guy, playing 21st-century blues. A lot of people copy Stevie Ray Vaughan or try to play like Eric Clapton. But I always think, if Jimi Hendrix was still alive, he’d definitely not be doing the same stuff he was doing in the 60s. And I guess that’s where I’m also different. I want to move with the times…”
Keeping Up With The Jones: Laurence’s Gear
“In the studio I was running two amps - an old 70s Marshall head and a 4x12 cab, which was already in the studio, plus my own amp, which is the Michael Landau Fender Hot Rod Deluxe combo.
“I never just use the Fender’s drive tone on its own, though: I always use the Analog Man King of Tone and the Mad Professor Royal Blue Overdrive, so I have three stages of drive as it were - because the KoT is, basically, a two-in-one overdrive.
“I first heard the KoT when I was touring with Kenny Wayne Shepherd - he was using one and it sounded fantastic. As he put it, ‘When they called it the King of Tone, they weren’t lying!’
“But, yeah, I always leave my Royal Blue on, set up to be just a tiny bit louder than the amp on its own, just to drive the valves a little bit and round off the tone as Fenders can be quite harsh. And if I need a little more boost, just to edge it a bit, I put on the KoT. And if I want to go more crazy, with more sustain, I hit the other side of it.
“My S-type guitar is made by a guy called Damian Probett of Probett Guitars, who are based down in Surrey. And that was handbuilt. It’s got jumbo frets and Bare Knuckle ’63 pickups.”