Interview: Clay Cook of Zac Brown Band talks Bluesfest UK, solo projects, John Mayer and more

American singer/songwriter, producer and multi instrumentalist Clay Cook is best known for being a member of Zac Brown Band. One of the most successful bands in country and beyond, Zac Brown Band have released seven albums, (two of which were independent), won multiple awards, collaborated with artists such as Dave Grohl and Chris Cornell and are just about one of the best live acts you will ever see.

Zac Brown Band have played the UK a number of times now. Starting off at Shepherds Bush Empire in London and supporting Kings Of Leon at Hyde Park, they have then gone on to headline Country 2 Country Festival at the O2 Arena, headline Wembley Arena and are back again this month to headline Bluesfest on Saturday 27th October.

As well as being an integral part of Zac Brown Band, Clay Cook writes and releases his own music. His most recent album Unobstructed View was released last year and is very much worth a listen.

We caught up with Clay to talk Bluesfest, Zac Brown Band, solo projects, being in the Lo Fi Masters with John Mayer at college and more.

Find out more about Clay and his music here http://claycook.com

Purchase tickets to see Zac Brown Band at Bluesfest in London here

Enjoy!


Hi Clay – How are you?

I am well how are you?

Really good. How has your week been?

Last week has been pretty great. Starting the week off pretty nice today. I have a two year old and a two month old so when I am home it is a lot of running around but it is fun because I know that it’s all making great humans.

Haha I understand completely. Well congratulations on the new born.

Thank you!

You will be over for Bluesfest soon – are you excited?

I hate that it has taken us so long to come back. I guess the last show was C2C? We are extremely excited. We wish we could come back a little more often but every time we try to put it on the schedule, something would come up and we wouldn’t be able to make the full commitment. This one we are making a commitment for one show. Usually we try to put three shows all around the area. We did with C2C as you have Dublin and Glasgow as well as London but this one, as it has been so long, we just wanted to make sure that we could get over for at least one show. We love it over there, oh my goodness we love it.

It will be a slightly different crowd too with a mix of country fans but bluesfest goers too. Your music scatters across various genres anyway so you appeal to so many people in general.

Right, right! We are not your typical country band and we are also not your typical band. Hopefully Bluesfest likes us.

Oh they will. But you are a “Live” band. You are all multi instrumentalists and it is the live shows that really showcase that.

How do you guys come up with a set list now as have such a big catalogue?

Well actually we have different rules for overseas because country radio is actually a thing in the United States. There are stations that specifically play country radio. With that we have got hits on their stations. We have been lucky to have 13 or 14 hit singles/number ones so we have to make sure we pull from that list first – we have to make sure there is a good showing of those songs on the set list. With overseas, we can kind of just play what we want, not that we don’t like playing the singles but we are not really beholding to it – especially if we are playing a Bluesfest instead of a country fest. When we are making a set list specifically for a fest like Bluesfest, we do it about 45 minutes before we walk on stage. We just sit around and play acoustic guitars and sing and just try to warm up and during that we make our set list. Sometimes we stick to it and sometimes we don’t. We could be halfway through it on stage and Zac will turn around and say “Let’s play this instead of this”. It is kind of like how we feel the crowds are reacting, how the crowd feels to us. If they are really rowdy or not. It is easier to pick songs for a rowdier crowd than if they are a quiet crowd as that can be tricky. That is a harder room to read when you are playing. There have been times when we have played for a age fifty plus crowd and they are really hard to pick songs for but a rowdy crowd who have been drinking, that’s easy haha!

ZBB are a multi instrumentalist band which I love! The jamming segments of the show are so magical but as a band collectively do you just ignore it when the minority just want songs sung exactly as they are on cd because surely playing a show exactly to the cd defeats the object?

Right! If you ask all about that, they can just sit at home and listen to their cd if that is what they want to hear.

Agreed. Hear hear!

We are going to play the songs to a different style if we feel like it! As far as the jamming, we do know that there are some crowds that don’t want it. Just walking into the venue there are some crowds that you know are going to go well with it and there are some that don’t. If you are playing a country festival then you may be able to get away with one song that has that in it . We are lucky to be headliners at some of these things so we play last and at these outdoor festivals, the fans have been standing in the sun and drinking outside all day so by the time it comes to the end they can be very exhausted. So if you try to play jamming songs say three times in the set people just sit there starring at you and cross their arms. But, if we were to play at a jam band festival, they would love it. You get the bespoke set list, that is the way we look at it, every night is different.

Well I love the showcasing of the band and the instruments, I think it is a real highlight.

Thank you!

The first C2C you played you all dressed up as skeletons for the encore. At Bluesfest you will pretty much be playing on Halloween, so will we see anything this show with Halloween being that week?

Haha I don’t know. Sometimes we want to focus on just the songs. That particular thing (skeletons) we were just being silly you know? That was a fun trick we were doing at the end of the set that tour. I think those costumes are in the Country Music Hall Of Fame now, so they won’t be able to make an appearance this time. Maybe I will talk to Zac and suggest doing something fun for Halloween.

Haha cool!

How long have you been playing music and what was the first instrument you learned to play ?

I have been playing music for 35 years. I started off on the guitar but I always sat at my grandmothers piano and always tried to pick out things. I had no formal training on piano so I would just make up my own little songs as a toddler. My family have always been very encouraging, we are a very artsy family. I picked up guitar at about five or six and it just kind of grew from there. I played in a band when I was 13 with a bunch of 18 year olds. I was playing college parties and that before I could drive. I then went to college for music – Berklee College in Boston and I was there for a couple of years and I haven’t had a regular job since then – this is my job. I have been making music for other people or myself for I guess 22 years now.

Let’s talk about your solo material. How do you find time to concentrate on that as well as being part of ZBB?

There is a lot more room to do both when you don’t have two little kids haha! It is a little bit tough with the babies at home now so I don’t have a lot of time right this minute. There is enough downtime so I can still work for other people here at the house as I have a little studio. Also whatever Zac needs as he has some projects outside of Zac Brown Band. Lately the last couple of years I have been writing in my spare time and it is really nice because every time I get to play a solo show I am a little more energised than I was before. I have been writing my own music for twenty years and when you’re not on the level of Zac Brown Band touring, it can wear on you a little bit to carry all your guitars and do sound check and play these small places. I love playing my music but it is not as easy as doing it for Zac Brown Band.

You have worked with artists such as The Wood Brothers, Clare Bowen and Megan Lindsey on your solo work, tell us a bit about that?

Well on that particular one, I was in a good clip for a while, writing song as well as contributing to the band. I had a pencil left over and my wife and I moved to Georgia and got married. Just before the baby came I had time because at the time she was working as a labour/delivery nurse and she would be gone all day. I was at home off the road so I would just go upstairs and record on my own. I did a couple of days at our studio in Nashville (Southern Ground) where I recorded the drums and loud guitars with other artists but I recorded the rest in my house. I really enjoyed making it, I don’t have a lot of time to do that that much anymore. All of my time music wise goes in Zac Brown Band now.

What is your favourite album that you have been a part of with Zac Brown Band?

Well we are making one right now.

Yay!

You don’t know how much you love an album until it is done and you can step away from it and listen to it after it’s finished. As an artist, I think most artists really love their most recent work. So Welcome Home is still one of my favourite records that we have done. We made it differently to any record that we have made before and it was with producer Dave Cobb. From start to finish that album only took six days to record. I was getting very little sleep at the time as I also had a two month old. That was how old Charlie was when my wife and Charlie were at the hotel when we were recording in Nashville. I would get in around midnight after recording all day and then I would be up all night with the baby changing diapers and would then have to be back at work at 10am. For some reason it yielded some great stuff, I really love that record.

What about playing live? Do you have a favourite song to perform live?

I think my final answer is I Play The Road. The reason that it is so much fun to play is because it is really hard. I feel like I am holding on the side of a bullet train and if I mess up one second I get derailed all together. It is fun because I think we based it on Jessica by The Allman Brothers – well the groove, but it is a lot faster, it is a lot faster than that. I am doing my best Chuck Leavell impression. He is the piano on that album and I am barely holding on for dear life on that one.

ZAC BROWN BAND- Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

Let’s talk Chef Rusty – will we ever get him over to the UK for you all to host a Zamily Reunion over here?

You know, I don’t know. I would hope so. I feel like we have kind of a hit a feeling on how we can service the Zamily in the United States so maybe we will start doing some brainstorming on how we can expand that and then also maybe do it at every gig that we have, like in London, Sydney, anywhere we go. That is the hope, maybe someday.

Yes, bring Chef Rusty with you – his food as you know is delicious.

Definitely, he is very talented. He was in New York this past weekend doing the food festival. Normally we get to see him and we played some hometown show Saturday night and he was not with us and it felt kind of strange. He is becoming famous on his own which is good, it is really good for him and his family.

Any chance of a special reunion of the Lo Fi Masters?

Hahahahaha. You know what maybe, I don’t know. I actually talked to John (Mayer) quite a bit last week. He is doing great. He has had some time off and this will sound weird to some people but he said he is rediscovering the guitar, doing some fun stuff with it. We are still friends. I don’t know how much benefit it makes for him to be able to do a Lo Fi Masters tour or a recording of a song or something like that but maybe some day.

Cool. Well thank you so much for talking today and we are so excited to have you back in the UK.

Thank you so much.

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