Meet the Band // Andy Burton, Keyboardist
PN: To begin with, how long have you played the keys?
Andy: Piano since the age of about four and keyboard since I was 11 or 12. My first piano lesson was probably age five. I went to Manhattan School of Music as a child for about 5 years, you know, as part of their college prep program while I was in school. It was instead of Little League basically. I also had ear training and sang in the choir at Manhattan School of Music. That, plus what I learned from my family, was the beginning of my musical education.
So you picked the piano up on your own, before any lessons?
Yea, I'm talking as a toddler I used to pick things out on the piano. We had a lot of pianos; I think at one point we had three pianos at my house.
Was that influenced by your parents? Did they play?
Yep. I come from a musical family. My mom played piano, violin and bassoon. My sister Amy is an opera singer and my sister Debbie is a professor of music at Boston University. My grandmother was a piano teacher as well. I still have her 1940s Steinway in my living room.
Do you still play it?
I sure do. I record with it in fact. It's a beautiful-sounding piano. It's one of my favorite instruments, for sentimental reasons as well as the fact that it is a beautiful-sounding, amazing instrument.
And you play organ as well? I've seen you playing both at the same time.
Oh yea, we should talk about organ too. The Hammond Organ is one of my favorite instruments as well. My favorite Hammond B3 organ is the one that I have in my studio, Tannery Row recording in Hoboken. John's comes a close second. It's a beautiful instrument and it may be even as good. Each one has it's own personality, just like a piano.
At times you'll be onstage playing the organ and the keyboard at the same time. Is that something that came naturally or does it take a lot of practice being able to work both boards at once?
It's an extension of what you learn as a pianist. Really it begins with working on hand independence. That's one of the things you learn as a pianist. You've got your left and right hands on the piano when you’re playing a classical piece, or even a ragtime piece. Your left and right hands are acting completely independently of one another, so you have to get used to that. I start out with what you might call "rhythmic subdivisions" where I learn each part on its own and then I say, "Okay what happens in this micro-click of time?" I do it really slowly and practice it until it becomes natural. Then I can get it up to the proper speed. That's basically like learning anything on a piano. Now if you have two different keyboards it's a slightly different position and you have different sounds. It's something that becomes second nature after a lot of practice and a lot of experience playing with bands. Almost every band I've been in I've had a two keyboard setup so I'm very used to it. But it has to make musical sense.
Right. It's never arbitrary.
Of course not, it can't be arbitrary. But it can't be over-thought either. One thing you learn is that once you know how to play then you have to know what not to play. I can't put the music into keyboard overload. The more information you throw at people—the more you throw different sounds, different notes, and different textures at people—the less chance they have to absorb it and the less effective you are. It just turns into mush. So the art, the kind of elusive thing that you chase, is trying to play this perfect thing that no one expected. I try to keep it fresh, you know? It has to be something that John wants to hear, but that he didn't necessarily know he wanted to hear. Does that make sense?
How much time did you have to learn the songs for this tour?
I actually didn't get a rehearsal from when I first got the music to when I had to be at the first gig. It was a private gig that was scheduled before the tour rehearsal, so I had to walk in, meet everybody, then get on stage and play. I probably had a couple of weeks. I want to say I had at least three weeks to learn everything from scratch.
So you came into this show before rehearsal and met everybody for the first time. How did you get involved originally?
Well, last year I toured with Rufus Wainwright and the sax player in Rufus' band is named Tim Ries. Tim plays with the Rolling Stones and works alongside Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Stones. Chuck has played with John and was supposed to tour with John last time when the tour got cancelled because of John's vocal problem. When John rescheduled the tour for 2013, the Stones were working and Chuck was unavailable. Basically John asked Chuck if he had any recommendations for keyboard players. Chuck asked Tim Ries if he knew anyone and Tim brought my name forward. I still to this day have not met Chuck, but I have the greatest admiration and gratitude toward him because he recommended me and that was enough for John. And I'm having the best time. I'm having the time of my life on this tour.
What about this tour makes you say that?
Every single level. It's great for me on every single level. John is amazing to work for. Musically he wants me to play my best and to play at my most interesting. He wants me to interact with him and the band members as a team. We're such a team on stage that it's a fantastic experience. He treats us all really well on and off the stage and we've all become really good friends. We get to play our best and to play in front of wonderful, giant, adoring crowds. It's definitely the best gig I've ever had. The other people in the band feel the same way, and that makes me feel good because some of them have had more experience touring than I have.
Given that, this might be a difficult question to answer. Have there been any major challenges on the tour?
Yes: the challenge of not knowing anybody in the band at first. In every other touring situation I've been in, there was someone there that I had a prior connection with. This was a situation that I knew nobody. Then I found out I had to play a gig. I had to meet John and everyone in the band, and meet all of the crew, in one day. Without so much as a rehearsal I had to get up there and play. And the first song was going to be "Queen of California" where I had to play like Chuck Leavell. That was an enormous challenge on every single level for me. I was pretty stressed out leading up to it. I had this sense that it was all riding on that first song, and in fact it was. That was my audition. Since I was recommended I had the gig, but when that happens the first thing you play is your audition. So I flew into LA and the next day practiced keyboard in my room. I just kept practicing in the room; playing that solo over again and trying to improvise on it over and over again, almost to the point of exhaustion. So that was the biggest challenge. I still feel like I have that same challenge when we play that song because it’s often the opening song. I’ve got to come right out of the gate soloing and being at my most inspired. I don't want to play the same thing over and over again. That's something where John said to me, "Take this and tell your own story with this. When you play your solo, tell your story." I don't want to tell the same story every night.
Other than that, being away from home and from my family is a challenge, but that’s true of any touring situation. In this case it works out pretty well because my wife has a flexible enough schedule that she can come out and see me and has made friends with everybody in the band. They have all been so wonderful to her, she feels practically like a band member, you know? Also, when I'm home I can just be home. I'm not thinking, “What am I going to be doing in a couple months.” I feel secure enough that when I'm not on the road I can devote myself more to being home. So I look forward to going home, and then I also look forward to getting back out on tour.
Follow Andy on Twitter: @andyburtonmusic