If you go out to hear music, chances are you've heard Graham Winchester play drums. He's played for Copper Possum, Mojo Possum, Jack Oblivian, the Sheiks, and the Booker T. & the MGs cover band the Maitre Ds. One wonders how in the world he found the time to make his self-titled solo record. But he did, and the album is evidence of a talent that goes beyond beatkeeping.
"I sit at the piano, and I hear a melody," Winchester says about his songwriting process. "Sometimes, the usual chord that would go there doesn't really bring out the emotion of the lyric I'm trying to write. So I definitely try to transpose the key wherever I can, depending on how I want the feeling to be."
Those key changes, also known as modulations, are what separate great songwriters like Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and the greats of the early 20th century from, say, Grand Funk Railroad. Winchester is on the favorable side of that continuum. His mother plays classical piano and Jesse Winchester was a first cousin once removed. So he naturally comes by his chords.
"The Beatles are obviously a huge influence. I've been listening to a lot of Jesse Winchester, who I dedicated the record to. He's got a lot of key changes. I definitely listen to a lot of Bowie, later Beach Boys stuff. I've been obsessing over Big Star and Dan Penn. Old Memphis stuff and all the Booker T stuff."
While there are some smarts to the harmonies, Winchester kept an earthy vibe to the record by inviting bandmates Clint Wagner (fiddle), Randal Morton (National Bluegrass Banjo Champion), Bill Mard, and Daniel McKee (bass). There is an acoustic feel throughout, even to the electrified instruments.
"I think it's more important when you're using piano and fiddle and instruments like that. I'm into doing lo-fi stuff and all that, but when you're using these stringed instruments, those don't cut through so well when you are chunking it up. You don't want to hear a great grand piano sound distorted or anything like that. I'm a pretty big fan of the Band and of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. In the way that the Band had the Big Pink, and Wilco has their loft in Chicago, I really liked working at High/Low. I really felt nestled down in this nook with these vintage intruments and keyboards. It felt organic."
Like with many initial solo projects, the songs span Winchester's creative life from high school through the present.
"I wrote the fifth song, 'Saenger Creek,' when I was 17. Then 'Walk on the Shore,' the Booker T-ish one, was written a few weeks before we started the recording process in May. That was after we had the Maitre Ds, and it was directly influenced. I wanted, after all these lyrics and all these changes, to just have something kind of soothing and instrumental that speaks for itself to close out the album."
After playing in groups and as a sideman, Winchester was more than ready to take responsibility for the songs and arrangements.
"One thing I like about the record is that usually somebody besides the drummer writes the songs. If it's a record where you start with the drums and then piece on, usually, it's not the drummer who wrote the songs. So I could play by myself on drums envisioning the energies that would be there and the dynamics. It's kind of hard to tell that the record was layered on like that because there are some organic explosive moments."
For those instrumental parts that he didn't do himself, he relied on trusted collaborators who go back even further than do the songs.
"I had friends like Bill Mard, who came and played a majority of the guitar stuff. Then Daniel McKee played bass on everything. They both did a great job. Bill did ukelele, acoustic guitar. Bill was a former bandmate in Copper Possum and Mojo Possum. He's a friend since childhood. Daniel and I also met in fourth grade at Lausanne. We go back to middle school playing in bands together. He was going to play on four or five tunes on bass. I was going to do the rest on a Moog synthesizer bass. But there was a point halfway through the session when Toby Vest looked at me and was like, 'Man this guy is so good, you'd be a fool not to just let him play the album through.' I was totally in agreement. He really just slayed it on this album."
Winchester developed his network of players and his chops with many local bands. But the soul-revival project with the Maitre Ds finds him studying the masters in fine detail and playing with some of the city's finest instrumentalists. Playing a set of Booker T & the MGs material is a pretty bold move in Memphis.
"It's been a real challenge. With me, and with so many other drummers in town, we definitely sing Al Jackson's praises. And touching his body of work — in the same way I'm sure it is for someone doing Cropper or Booker T or Duck Dunn —it's intimidating. Not only are the beats and grooves he's coming up with unique, it's as much about how they are played as what they are. So you get a simple groove like 'Green Onions.' I've heard so many bands cover that song and do this bar-rock shuffle thing. But it's really a specific groove that Al Jackson is doing. Even more specifically, the feel of that simplicity makes the song believable and is that Memphis sound."
In undertaking such a task, Winchester, along with organist Adam Woodard, guitarist Restivo, and bassist Frank McLallen, demonstrates an easy-going confidence and affability that underlie his success. He also works harder than most musicians in town.
"I know there are plenty of drummers in town who are probably more worthy of taking on the project. But, like a lot of things in Memphis, it's kind of down to whoever starts it. Eventually, you've got to have somebody get a band together and rehearse and start playing live shows. I feel like that's the case with every instrument in the band. It seems like a band that a lot of Memphis music nuts would love to start. We finally just did it. It was really cool, right after we started it, getting to play at the mayor's office. He did a speech downtown, and I think John Miller set that up. That's the kind of group we want it to be. We want to be that band for when people are having a very Memphis party. We'd love to be the band that plays that kind of music that nobody really plays. We heard about another band in Austin that's a Booker T tribute band. But they use seven-piece drums sets and a Nord [electronic] keyboard. That's what's really cool is that Adam has actually found a Hammond [organ of the type] that Booker T used on the first two albums. He's got an M organ sawed down in half, so it's portable. So there's definitely a dedication in the band to get the tones right."