Interview DEVON ALLMAN
11th of December 2020, by Y. Philippot-Degand
RTJ readers, you are spoiled! We had the opportunity to interview for you Devon Allman, whose musical productions have been chronicled in our columns for years, who graciously gave us his time, accompanied by his dog Franklin, to tell us a little more about him and his band, the Allman Betts Band.
RTJ : Hello Devon, it’s a pleasure to meet you again, as RTJ already interviewed you in 2014, you were with Mike Zito in Royal Southern Brotherhood. It was by mail but now we have the chance to talk together.
Devon : Yeah, the Royal Southern Brotherhood, yeah.
RTJ : First, Devon, I know that you already answered a interview for us, in 2014. At that time you were a member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood, but for this interview, can you present yourself to the Road to Jacksonville readers, which is a webzine dedicated to the Southern Rock. where are you from?
Devon : I grew up in Texas and I’ve been living in the middle of the country in St Louis Missouri for the 20 years and that’s why I’m now at home and hello RTJ, I’m Devon Allman from the Allman Betts Band.
RTJ : When did you start playing the guitar?
Devon : I picked up a guitar when I was 13 years old.
RTJ : Did you try another instrument before ?
Devon (amused) : When I was much younger, I wanna say 9 or 10, I tried violin,
and it sounded like dying cats. (loughing)
RTJ : You know, I play violin... You seem to be left-handed like a lot of members of your family and yet you play right-handed, like a lot of members of your family, although I have seen a cousin of yours able to play both right-handed and left-handed. How did this choice come about? By imitation of other members of your family, or like Joe Perry because you couldn't play left-handed or for some other reason?
Devon : I wasn’t influenced by my family in fact, you know, when I was starting to learn guitar : I had not met my father yet so I didn’t even know about the left-handed being with him and Duane Allman, I didn’t even know, so I was obviously left-handed but I also realised that I could do things with my right hand but I remember having a guitar instructor telling me that « you know, you should try before right-handed and only if it feels really really strange, should you try left-handed because if you can just stay right-handed it’s a lot easier to find really good guitars later on, there’s not as many left-handed guitars available ».
That was this kind of experience that how he justify that. Luckily for me when I picked it up, it felt natural to do it right-handed. And I think it really brings an important thing I was thinking anything yesterday about this, it’s very intersting because when you play the opposite then your dominant hand is the one that makes the notes and does have the touch and your non-dominant hand gives the timing. We try thinking is really be cool because ordinarly it would be your dominant hand has the timing, you know, and your non-dominant hand has the fingering, so i’m kind of glad I worked up the way there and I’m glad you know that I wouldn’t be hitting my bass player in head (loughing) you know what I mean, because he’s on my right, you know, I think Berry Oakley Jr. is very appreciating of that... But yeah, later in life I found out about my Dad, and about Duane, about the same thing and I thought of that
RTJ : And some of your cousins also…
Devon : Yeah
RTJ : We already know that you played with the Royal Southern Brotherhood, but in what other bands did you play before the Allman Betts Band?
Devon : I started my career with my own group called Honeytribe
RTJ : Honeytribe, I have the albums…
Devon : Yeah, yeah… So that came out, I don’t know I think 2006, five or six, we did two albums with that band. I did three solo albums and have had a couple of different solo bands for those albums. And then I did some work with a man out of Spain : Javier Vargas, Vargas Blues Band, I made an album with Javier and a big tour. Beyond that, you know nothing that would have been a kind of on a radar, you know just some kind of bands of my younger years that you know you can have -that’s for you- you can cut your teeth and you tried to get better. So yeah, I’d say Honeytribe was the first you know wanted, started touring the world and put planned records.
RTJ : You told us in 2014 that you were influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Lindsey Buckingham, David Gilmour, Dickey Betts, and Carlos Santana, but which current guitarists can influence you?
Devon : Ooh, I double down on my love for Mark Knopfler, I love the Dire Straits. And Gilmour’s still very much up there, I got to see both of them in the last few years. I saw Gilmour in Chicago and I went saw Mark Knopfler in Texas City, a merry, just amazing show, just amazing. Yeah I mean, I love their work, it’s timeless, it’s really etherial, it’s kind of sexy and exotic but they can also really kind of stab you to with a lot of dynamics. I love a lot of different kind of musics, a lot of different kinds of instrumentsand a lot of differents kind of players prefered. Since then I think that Mark Knopfler I kinda fall more in love with everyday. I also love John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Now he’s back in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which it’s just exciting for me as a fan of that band. Man, I don’t know, I mean there’s a hundred guitar players I love and you know I love that first solo Steve Vai record. I think it’s so cool and weird and it’s a kind of allover the place stylisticly and I love that album I love the playing. I love JJ Cale’s playing, I really am in love with JJ Cale, his touch and his timing. I always loved BB King, I always loved Robert Smith from the Cure. I think his playing is very underrated, he’s still so versatile and really unique and he has his own thing. There’s a feel.
RTJ : Do you know why Mark Knopler plays right-handed ?
Devon : No !
RTJ : Because he first learned violin. So when he had to take a guitar, he took it like the violin.
Devon : So he is left-handed ?
RTJ : He is left-handed, yeah.
Devon : Ah ! I didn’t know that.
RTJ : In 2014, we talked about the fact that at that time you played often on Gibsons, but sometimes with a blue Stratocaster. With the Allman Betts Band, you seem to prefer guitars with P-90 pick-ups. Is it a real choice from you, and can you talk about that ?
Devon : Yeah ! I noticed that in this band, first of all we are three guitar players. (Franklin approves barking) And second of all, both of them play Gibsons with humbuckers. So you know there is Johnny on slide who plays a Gibson SG and Duane plays a Gibson Les Paul. So when I was the only guitar player, I was playing a Gibson Les Paul because it had the thicker tone and I wanna to take up more space, some sonic space. So when I joined this band, I realised oh man, I wanna have to fill in the sonic space without crowding the sonic space, you know, taking out the same frequences so I knew something that had a bite. My first inclination was to go with the Fender Telecaster which I’d used here and there over the years. I got a really great boutique hand made by a friend of mine, and it’s one of the better guitars I own. But you know with the Allman Betts Band and when people think of the Allman name and Betts name, they think Gibson. So I didn’t wanna have a Telecaster so much in the mix and I was : « Ah ! Man, a P-90 Gibson, that would give me the bite ! And would still be a Gibson. » So I head up some of my friends, you know, Charlie Starr from Blackberry Smoke and Lucky Dawson, Ray Wilson also play a Les Paul which has a P-90 and I talked to Charlie about quiet a bit and I talked to some other guitar nerds in our friends and they were like all « Man yeah in that set-up of three guitar players in that band what you need to do it’s a kind of help, bring the sounds together instead of heading for the space a P-90 would be perfect you know. » So I mean there’s a lot of tunes where it’s just the perfect thing. The one great thing about being me in this band is that they stay on that SG and that Les Paul pretty much all night. So I get a kind of trick guitars like paintbrushes. And I know that the Les Paul Jr is gonna sound perfect on « Pale Horse Rider », I know a Strat or a Jazzmaster even would sound perfect on « Down To The River » and I know that I have to play acoustic on some numbers because there it’s a… So I end up on tour in the last two years I take seven guitars and I use a lot and it’s fun I think for the crowd. You know I remember being a kid and going to the concert to go « Oh man, he’s got a Gibson Explorer or he just put on a Strat’. » It’s was exciting to see the changes and I remember that and then also it’s a necessity. So I take a Les Paul Jr. and then I take a 330 Gibson which is also a P-90 pickup but it’s a hollow-body. So that gives me that P-90 Gibson but solo-body/hollow-body, that’s two. I bring an SG if I have to play a long extended lead, I bring a Strat for « Down To The River », I bring an acoustic, that’s five, I play bass on a song now, Berry’s on piano singing as on « The Doctor's Daughter », so I bring a ‘74 Rickenbacker bass and then the wild card is I have a 1966 Fender electric 12 string, that we used on « Magnolia Road » and I played on on « Autumn Breeze » and it just gives this tiny gorgeous sound that totally is different than the Gibson humbuckers. So it’s seven guitars and, you know, we tried to make the not insane like changing after every song so you know I come out of the gate with the Les Paul Jr. and three songs then I put the 12-string electric to two songs of that the acoustic to two or three songs of that back to the Junior, you know. But it’s exciting for the crowd, fun to the crowd, I don’t know how exciting it is but it’s certainly fun and it really gives us different new answers in textures of sounds.
RTJ : What kind of amp do you use with your current band?
Devon : 1965 Fender Super Reverb, and I have a second, a Soldano SLO-30, I can switch to that for a solo.
RTJ : Which brand and string gauge do you prefer?
Devon : I have used D’Addario ten gage for my all carreer and I recently switched from D’Addario Excel to NY Excel it’s like New York Excel I don’t know but they last longer and they sound great and feel great.
RTJ : Do you play with a light or heavy pick?
Devon : I use a .73 mm and then I use a .64 for acoustic, so that’s the yellow, you know, the Tortex, and the orange Tortex by Dunlop.
RTJ : You wanted in this new band to present a triplet of guitarists, a kind of guitar-army like Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Outlaws. You've known Duane for a long time, but how did you go about choosing Johnny for the third guitar?
Duane : Well Johnny was playing in Duane's solo band and I already knew Johnny for many many years, so when I found out Johnny was playing with Duane I said “Oh that's amazing! ". I love Johnny, he's a nice guy, so talented and then when we put together the band it was really obvious, there was never a question, we wanted somebody in the band who could really playing that slide guitar really really well and Duane and I don't do much slide at all so it worked.
RTJ : Likewise, since you must have known each other for a long time, I guess the choice of Berry Oakley Jr. was self-evident. Is this how it happened?
Devon : Well I think you know when we started writing the songs, we knew that he would be the best bass player to play those songs, we just knew it. We know how he plays and we love Berry with older friends for 30 years and it was the obvious choice. So you know it wasn’t that we had to, it was that we really wanna to have them.
RTJ : In the Allman Betts Band, Johnny Stachella plays slide. Have you already tried that technique?
Devon : You know I’ve messed with here and there and I’m not opposed to try and get more in the future but I wanna kind of have somebody in my band they could do it pretty good. So I’ve just kind of never had to, you know, But you know I mean it always fascinated me all pick it up, I’ll pick it up here on air but I never take it on stage or in the studio yet.
RTJ : Every once in a while you do double lead parts with Duane, but not that often. How is that decided?
Devon : You know it’s a… If you put double lead on every song it’s out of special, so when it comes up it has to be a special moment. I think that music dictates that. You know, when writing a song we can hear on the audio line « Oh that’s a good one to double up », you know we know it. So you know you have thirteen songs on a record, you probably have maybe three songs that have that kind of moment.
RTJ : Do you want to develop this aspect so typical of southern music? Do you think that you have the right weight of that in your music ?
Devon : I think it’s part of us, that’s just a part of us. We don’t have to overthink it, we just write a song and... You know, everybody, Duane, myself and Berry, we all grew up in the south so it’s a part of our tradition that’s a part of our religious family, a part of who we are, listeners to a lot of southern artists, lot of soul, lot of blues, country and all that so. Yeah I think it’s just comes out of us, we don’t have to try.
RTJ : So Johnny doesn’t play double lead with you ? Do you and Duane want him to participate in this kind of game as well? Is it just a game between you and Duane ?
Devon : Johnny plays double leads with Duane. He does. Half the time that you hear our band, doing a double lead, it’s Duane and Johnny then half the time it’s Duane and I. So Johnny gets an air gets dirty. (laughing)
RTJ : We’d like to see you live. Perhaps soon in Europe ?
Devon : Yeah ! We were on a meeting today talking about it. I think if everything is still OK we’re gonna be in Europe in July and November.
(There follow some geographical and tourist considerations, in particular on Texas and on Brittany which Devon is curious about ...)
RTJ : How do you compose, what is the songwriting process in the band ?
Devon : It really does depend. We typically just sit around through the date time on tour like on the bus or backstage or in the hotel, and usually one of us has a kind of an idea, a kind of a chugging along and then we pretty much know pretty quick how... if you can sing something over even if you don’t have words. You just sing a little lines and usually we’ve capted by the feel and the melody, and if we like it enough we chase it down and try give it some words and put close on it. I finish it up. I’ve never been that kind of writer that grabs a guitar and sits down everyday to write. I got to go a few months and live some life and observe things and experience things and read things, and kinda feel the ting up and then go to the kind of tap what’s in the ting for well for the part of the idea. I don’t any wrong. If I hear a conversation, I find it a way I put a note on on my phone or something like that. Sometimes I pick up a guitar maybe I haven’t picked up in a year and inspire something... It’s so many different ways, definitely.
RTJ : How do you choose the subjects of your lyrics ? Do you talk about this point in the band ?
Devon : I don’t know. You know that’s a good question because we don’t try to premeditate. We don’t try to say we wanna write a song about this or that. I guess maybe that sometimes... I remember writing a song on the first album called « Good Ol' Days » because I was kinda like saying « Hey guys ! When we were 85 years old, well I kinda look at when we were 22 as the good old days. We gonna looking like great now in our mid-forties with the peak of our abilities but that young pops these write here these were the good old days and I remember thinking « That would make a good song to talk about the importance of now being the good old days later when you look back on ». So once in a while you get an idea but sometimes you just write the first lines or two, and you go « what’s all about ? », and you can follow it.
RTJ : Does the sound and the rhythm of what you chose for the first time of the composition influence you then to chose the words ?
Devon : Everyone’s in the while, sometimes, yes sometimes.
RTJ : What are the southern rock bands that you prefer (I think that Blackberry Smoke is one of them) ?
Devon : Yeah I mean I think they’re cool. You know, I don’t know : I try to listen all the types of music so I think some bands are very great music coming from the south in last ten years. Chris Catena is putting out some incredible records, there’s all types that are really great.
RTJ : How do you see the future of this musical trend?
Devon : I think lately this bends more people listening to Americana, more of this kind of throw-back sound because there is so much music in today’s world in the mainstream that haven’t any sincerity and I think people want the sincerity back and so they search for it and they may find artists like Jason Isbell or our band, any like-minded, Tedeschi Trucks Band... There’s a lot of sincerity, I think that’s the common link between all those artists that sounds so different is that they are very sincere and very in love with making music for people. In a love affair as real, and it’s obvious, it’s not designed to be on the cover of the magazines ot to be a « star ». It’s designed to touch people and I think that’s the difference. So, that’s said : I think that music that touches people with sincerity will last a very very long time. (Laughs)
RTJ : I know that Derek Trucks is really passionated because I had to interview him and the managers gave him twenty minutes and we stayed together three quarter of an hour, talking about guitars and music and so on.
Devon : Nice ! For sure ! I think you need to be in this line of work, that all that we know, that all what we love, and we try to share with people so it all matters.
RTJ : Traditional question in Road to Jacksonville, if you must stay on a desert island, what would be the five records that you would bring with you? I know that you already answered the question in 2014, but perhaps your choices could have change.
Devon : Yeah. So for right now I would say Dire Straits’ Communique, I love that album, I would have to still pick the Rolling Stone Sticky Fingers, I love that album. Coltrane I would probably pick a whole box, so there is like ten records in one, that 1958 box is mind blowing, it’s fantastic. I would have to pick Curtis Mayfields’ debut record and probably Layla (« Layla and other assorted love songs » by Derek and the Dominoes, Editor’s Note). But Santana’s Moonflower James Brown, there would be a lot of things, The Cure : Kiss me kiss me kiss me, one of my favourite records… There is a lot. It’s to few. Horrible ! It is hard. That’s like to take five family members to the island, if you do that it’s not fair. (Laughs)
Three quarters of an hour, a great privileged moment spent in good humor, sincerity and open-mindedness with a true enthusiast and it is already the end. There remains the memory of a very rich interview, from which I cut you off from more personal digressions. Thanks again Devon for a great time, it will be a real pleasure to cross paths and start a new discussion.
Good luck to the Allman Betts Band and may success accompany your musical journey!