It has been a strange few years for Oli Brown. The blues guitarist, who released his debut solo album Open Road in 2008 at the age of 19 and then formed RavenEye in 2014, found himself reevaluating his whole career path as the pandemic bore down. Thankfully, for fans of the Norfolk singer/songwriter/guitarist, things are looking up again.
Interview: Paul Hutchings
In his last interview of the day, Oli is looking lean, healthy, and reflective. It’s an obvious place to start, but checking in on how he is, having not long delivered a show at the Planet Rock Winter’s End event in Porthcawl, seems appropriate. “I’m really good,” he tells me. “I think relieved that the Winter’s End show is finally over with. The stress and the nerves about the whole thing. I can relax now”.
After his EP launch in Newark to a sold-out crowd a couple of days earlier, getting back up on stage must have been a challenge. “Yeah. We did a couple last year. We did Stonedead away day and Heretic Fest, but then I took a breather. I think after that, I just took the rest of the year to kind of figure out, make sure that I really wanted to give everything into it because you can’t do music by halves, can you? Am I ready to get into that world again? I took stock and worked on my other side project.”
We will touch on the side project later in the interview. It seemed appropriate early on to reflect on that musical journey. For any musician, the path is fraught with danger. Nearly two decades after he started, was there a plan back in those early days for world domination?
“I think at that point I thought I was gonna be like a blues superstar,” he laughs. “I think in my head I was like, yeah, this is it. It’s gonna be massive. We’re gonna be like the next Stevie Ray Vaughan. I felt pretty good about myself and confident, and I was ready to kind of take the world by storm.”
Looking back on that first decade, Oli has experienced a few bumps in the road, but also some massive highs. Does he see himself as further down the road than planned or have there been a couple of wrong turns as well?
“I think when it came to the RavenEye peak when things were good, I think I could see it growing, and I could see it potentially being something really big. Unfortunately, just as things were kind of kicking off, some really disappointing and kind of heartbreaking moments happened where it just couldn’t be anymore. So yeah, I think I had moments where I was like, yeah OK, this is really actually happening and it felt a lot clearer with the goal. The last shows we did were 500 capacity rooms, and it was like, yeah, this is really working now, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work out.”
If you experienced RavenEye at their peak around 2016-17, you can probably appreciate some of the challenges Oli faced. I say to Oli that for me, there were times when it appeared that RavenEye was almost a runaway horse in that it got big very quickly. The band were out on support slots to some very heavy hitters, including KISS, Aerosmith and Deep Purple.
All of a sudden, Oli and the band were walking with the big beasts of the rock world. Going into that environment, were there times when he must have pinched himself and wondered, what is going on? He is very honest. “I think to be honest, with my mindset and I think that was something I recognised afterwards as well. I was very much like, this is great, but what’s next? So every time that we got a great opportunity I thought, what do we need to push it?
“The KISS tour was amazing, but I don’t think at any point did I really feel rewarded which was definitely a detriment to my appreciation of the moments. I was thinking, well, we played these gigs but this isn’t our crowd. So how do we convert them to make that our crowds? It can be our tour and really pull it in more. So I think I was hungry, but I think I was unaware of some of those great moments. At that point, I was trying to figure out … it was strangely, quite an expensive tour for us as a band. As great as it was, it is really hard to sell any merch. No one’s buying merch before the show because they don’t know who on earth you are, and it’s a massive venue. No one goes to buy merch in the interval because KISS are about to go on and no one wants to lose their spot.
“Then by the time KISS are finished, no one really wants to go to the merch store because there are 25,000 people trying to get out of an arena. I think we learned some things from it, and it was definitely an amazing tour. I was constantly stressed and pushing, trying to figure out what was next for us.”
It is an interesting and yet sobering thought that you could lose money on a tour with KISS, but Oli makes some valid points. At no point did he come across as ungrateful and I know he wouldn’t have changed most of that experience. We moved on to the energy that Oli and Raveneye put into their live shows. I tell Oli he was the antithesis of a Blues guitarist, one minute jumping off the drum riser, then on someone’s shoulders. Is this the natural extension of how he performed? Is it all natural or was there an element of ‘I’ve got to put on a show as well?’
“I think that the music kind of dictates the style of shows, so I think with RavenEye it’s always been robust and high energy and I think that’s been the goal of the band. To really make it as entertaining but as fun as possible. I think the performance matched the music, so I think for us we weren’t trying to be overbearing and trying to force their energy or force the excitement.
“It was very much about every individual musician being as crazy as possible and that’s kind of part of the wildness of it. And I think, yeah, the wilder we could be the better. I think we were constantly trying to push ourselves as a live band to cause more damage to something or ourselves.
“And I think I think we did a good job and that’s why I ended up building the blue strat that I had with me for all this tour because I kept on breaking my guitars. I was like right I need a guitar that I can just beat the fuck out of and it would totally kind of kick back at me and last these tours.”
The first time I saw RavenEye, they were supporting The Blues Pills at the Globe in Cardiff. Oli reminds me that this was the band’s first tour. The final time (for now) was at Steelhouse Festival in 2021. I check that it was the band’s first show in two years. It was a weird time because we all had to do the LFT tests to get in and there was a lot of uncomfortableness, but also a lot of joy that we were back doing what we loved doing which was watching live music.
For an artist who hadn’t played for two years, what was it like for Oli? Were there nerves? “I was talking about this the other day,” he says. “I don’t get nervous playing shows. I feel like it’s where I’m most comfortable, but on a side note, with The Dead Collective, I’ve been nervous performing these shows and that’s just not me. My drummer Wayne [Proctor] was like, ‘are you alright, mate? You’re not usually a nervous person’, but I think that was one show you could tell the energy was so special, you could really feel it in the air.
“It was just such a surreal moment. I don’t think you’re ever really gonna get that again. A moment like that where everyone’s just grateful and overwhelmed and a bit unsure. There was something special about that gig. We had a bass player fill in, a guy called Michael Blackwell, who’s phenomenal. I mean, he plays guitar for Louis Tomlinson. He’s a huge session dude. It was wicked to have him, but it was an emotional occasion. I was nervous to do it I guess in the sense of RavenEye’s future. I think at that point we weren’t sure whether it was really going to be able to be possible to carry on. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.”
I remind Oli that he had the weather on his side that day, something that is rare at Steelhouse. He laughs, “Yeah, we got lucky. The first time I played there, I think I ended up going down into the pits and putting mud over my face, like getting war paint on! I don’t mind a bit of rain. I feel like it adds to the drama and the atmosphere, but yeah, we were lucky with that heat in 2021.”
Having reminded Oli that rain is not the tog’s friend, we then move on to his side project, Black Feather Design jewellery. Oli explains how it began and the circumstances around it and talks about the new release, Prelude, the debut four-track EP from Oli Brown and The Dead Collective. You can read this in Part Two.