Written by: Shawn Brown
If you were attending college in the late ’90s/early 2000’s, you undoubtedly crushed a few brews with The Pat McGee Band blaring in the background.
With the rise of Mayer, Matthews, and Hootie, related acts like Vertical Horizon, Sister Hazel, Guster, and PMB were dominating dorm rooms across the country.
Straight out of Richmond VA, PMB’s major-label debut record Shine featured the national singles “Runaway” and “Rebecca.” Several years later, PMB’s classic Save Me record followed. With the success of these releases, PMB became a touring powerhouse, sharing stages with The Who, The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Counting Crows, Rat Dog, Levon Helm and many others along the way. Principal songwriter and bandleader, Pat McGee made his bones creating sing-able tunes featuring strong harmonies and bouncy acoustic guitars.
While PMB isn’t as active these days, Pat McGee hasn’t taken his ball and gone home – far from it.
While he has been constantly touring and turning out strong solo records for years, his newest eponymous release Pat McGee is something altogether different. With the sounds of Jackson Browne’s Laurel Canyon banging around in his head since childhood, McGee went to L.A. and assembled a dream team of players, many of whom actually played on those classic 70’s Laurel Canyon records. McGee’s studio band includes musical legends Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Waddy Wachtel, Danny Kortchmar, and Jeff Pevar. Blues Traveler’s John Popper and Train’s Pat Monahan also make notable contributions.
And the results are spectacular.
It’s basically like falling in singer-songwriter heaven and finding out that your beer is still full.
The band tracked McGee’s songs live in the studio direct to 2-inch tape. By recording this way, McGee made certain that all the warmth of those vintage 70’s records would be well represented. While the players are legends and the recording itself is incendiary, the star of the show is still McGee. His songs have always had a timeless, sing-along quality to them – never more evident than on this record. Tracks like “Overboard,” “Caroline” and “When Did Everything Go Wrong?” are among his very best work.
We’re thrilled that Pat made time to sit down with Stereo Embers to discuss his new record and give us a snapshot into what it was like recording in the studio with some of the most legendary players in rock & roll.
Stereo Embers: Your new album is tremendous! You chose to make this record (thankfully) in a very specific way. You and the fellas played live in the studio together and recorded it all direct to 2-inch tape. Albums like this just aren’t made these days. How did you come to the realization that you wanted to make a record this way?
Pat McGee: First, let me say thank you for your kind remarks about the music–it really is a special album for me and I’m so glad that it’s being well received. Recording to 2 inch tape just seemed like the most authentic way to capture the magic. The entire inspiration for the songwriting, choosing the players and the process of recording and releasing it to both CD and on double vinyl all came from listening to early ’70s records. The sound that I was hearing coming through my speakers was so warm and it just really felt like you were a part of the recording session when you listen to those performances. I was hoping to get just a small bit of that vibe. And boy, did I get a whole lot more!
SE: You essentially put together an all-star band of players (Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Waddy Wachtel, Danny Kortchmar, Jeff Pevar, Paul Barrere, John Popper, Pat Monahan) for this project. How does one go about getting all of these guys together?
PM: Well, Pat and John are old touring comrades of mine and we have kept up over the years. I was honored that they took the time off of their busy schedules to add to this project. Russ Leland Waddy, Danny, Jeff: I’d be lying if I didn’t say this has been the highlight of my career and maybe what is even more of a highlight is that the highlight of my career came 20 years into it. I was searching for Danny and found Jeff–I had reached out to Russ blindly with no luck and then a mutual music business friend connected the two of us. I was blown away by Ross’s willingness to be involved in the project and not only that, but his entire vision and outlook on music was truly inspiring. He was obviously connected with Waddy and Leland, so those guys joined in as well. I felt like the high school kid who took the entire homecoming court to prom by himself. I really still can’t believe that I pulled it off!
SE: What was it like to be in the studio tracking with those guys?
PM: The process of tracking with these legends was invigorating, humbling exciting and inspiring. They requested not to hear the music until the day of recording. So they could be inspired in the moment. I would simply play them my song idea, discuss the lyrical content briefly and we would record the song in 1 to 3 takes, maximum. I felt like I was somehow sitting in on a classic rock recording session and able to witness how some of the most iconic musical moments are created. The most wild thing being the fact that it was actually my record and my songs.
SE: By my estimation, this album contains some of your best ever songwriting. Tracks like “Caroline” and “When Did Everything Go Wrong?” are especially moving. What can you tell us about those songs lyrically?
PM: Thank you so much–I am proud of those two tracks. My wife had mentioned to me how sad songs can really stir people’s emotions and noticed that I don’t generally write melancholy material, although I love it. “Caroline” truly has no light at the end of the tunnel–it’s a story about a woman who knows she needs to leave the man and is making the decision to do so. Even though they both know they might be perfect for each other, it’s just not gonna work out. And the man in the story is a bit too consumed with himself and ultimately about to lose this girl. “When Did Everything Go Wrong?” is the story of a deterioration of a relationship and wondering what a couple could do to fix it. “Too much solitude in this life built for two…”
SE: As the music business continues to re-set itself, genre has become an increasingly flexible concept for both artists and fans. For example, the line between what used to be considered rock is now passing for country in many cases. As a songwriter, how are you experiencing this fluidity in your own work?
PM: Honestly, I have not paid attention to radio or what’s popular, although I am aware that what is now country would have just been classic rock back in the day. It’s funny to me when people say that my music sounds country–I certainly grew up a fan of the country side of Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Allman Brothers, The Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, Little Feat & The Grateful Dead to name a few, but always connected with hard rock bands as well.
SE: In 2004, Pat McGee Band released Save Me on Warner Bros (and later on Kirkland). I can honestly say that this record has never left my rotation. It remains a tremendous listen to this day! Looking back at that project, what stands out most for you?
PM: Oh wow, thank you. That’s another record that ruffles the feathers of the PMB fan base who is always used to hearing more acoustic tunes. That is for sure my “rock record,” even though I wish I could have taken it a little bit further, but at that point I would’ve had to rename the project, otherwise fans would’ve come for my head. I think it might be time for a side project for me so that I can get this guitar-driven rock stuff out of my system. On that album I am very proud of the songwriting, the arrangements and the musicianship of my band, especially my late drummer Chris Williams’s performances on “Annabel,” “Wonderful” and “At It Again.” I recall playing the demo of “At It Again” for Chris and having him leap off the bed and high-five me saying, “Now that’s the kind of song I want to play drums on!” Brian Fechino’s guitar playing on this album is just beautiful. And John Small’s bass work is phenomenal. I very rarely listen to my albums but I did recently pull this one up because I have to pick a set list for a few upcoming shows and wanted to dig a little deeper. It was nice to step back and listen to that album.
SE: The Pat McGee Band was a touring juggernaut for many, many years. How do all those years of hard touring resonate with you in how you now view the difficult balancing act of being an artist and a father?
PM: Well, these are great questions! Yes PMB toured like maniacs for a solid 10 years and all that time continued to pay dividends personally and professionally. It is those fans who continue to support what I do and allow me to continue to make music, which in turn, makes me a better father being able to support my family and showing my daughters and new son that you can accomplish anything if you focus on your passion in life.
SE: Where did the idea for Down the Hatch originally come from? Are your still enjoying it (and can we come to the next one)?
PM: Down the Hatch is really just my way of sharing with fans and the artists who I love, destinations that I find incredible as well as culinary experiences that I’ve enjoyed over the years of touring. I have a passion for travel and really enjoy food, wine and beer–add in music and friends? Easy best time ever. And YES! Come! I’ve also recently started doing them in other places of the country, Ocean State Of Mind, my Rhode Island event is Oct 18-20, check it out!
SE: Have you ever felt like “I just can’t play freakin’ “Runaway” or “Rebecca” one more time?” We jest, but what is it like to have songs like that in your arsenal that are so deeply loved by your fans?
PM: I really thoroughly enjoy playing both those songs on a nightly basis. I wrote them because I was inspired by what other artists had done so I honestly feel like I’m always paying homage to those great writers and players