Rock & Roll Matters - The Making of Our Second Album
6:14 pm, Friday, February 5, 2016
Most of us have arrived now, in Water Valley, Mississippi, at the eminent recording studio Dial Back Sound, home to the artists of Fat Possum Records and host to other artists from around the country. Bronson Tew, sound engineer extraordinaire and dexterous backyard skateboarder, informs us that they just wrapped up a session with a band from Minnesota. We are far more local, most of us living within an hour's drive of here.
Our friend Jimbo Mathus, who will produce our endeavor, is here, too, telling us how the session will go down, what we'll be doing, where each of us will be stationed when we begin laying down tracks tomorrow morning. We have elected to record the whole thing live, except keyboards, which we will overdub Sunday. That means that seven of us will try to ride the same horse, musically speaking, for an entire record. We will not be building the songs block-by-block, first drums and bass, then guitars, then other instruments and vocals, as it is commonly done; rather, we will all plug in and play and try, somehow, separated into four different rooms, to all play together. A tall order, for sure, but one we feel necessary if we are to complete this entire project in one weekend.
Upon entering the studio, the first thing we notice is the abundance of wall adornments: pictures and album covers by Fat Possum artists, signs, foam fixtures to catch the sound waves before they spill out—and one vintage guitar after another: Gibsons, Rickenbackers, Fenders, an assortment of flat-tops, a National steel dobro, a mandolin, an electric 4-string mandolin (or would that be a Fender ukulele?). Something that looks like a guitar with an autoharp attached, which Bronson identifies as an electric sitar. Beneath each, and in every corner, one finds a vast array of vintage amplifiers and keyboards, including a Rhodes piano, a Wurlitzer, and of course a Hammond B-3 organ, complete with rotating speaker cabinet. The guitar players in the band wander google-eyed from room to room, entranced, zombily lowering first one axe and then another from the wall, reverently plucking away before moving on to the next. The vibe in this space transcends description, is limited to feel. We feel it, for sure.
We gawk a little while longer, then slowly make our way to the control room where Jimbo opens his notebook, sharpens his pencil, assumes a cross-legged seat in the floor, and a preliminary meeting is informally called to order. Notes are made, agenda items discussed and debated, positions held, concessions made, insight provided. Matters of rock & roll are here dealt with as earnestly as matters of national security or shareholder earnings in more formal settings. We are eager, and anxious; we marvel at the process as it unfolds.
We conclude the proceedings and Jimbo takes his leave. "Go and get some rest tonight," he counsels. "Tomorrow you're gonna be listening through headphones and it's gonna sound like Pink Floyd, and it's gonna be you playing it."
Sounds good to us.
6:15 pm, Saturday, February 6, 2016
We are again congregated in the control room, seated in chairs and on stools and the couch, across the room from and behind Bronson, who is seated at the control panel. We are about to embark on a part of the process that we have greatly anticipated, perhaps even more so than the actual recording: playback,where the hardest part is done, and we can hear what it all sounds like.
We have just completed the basic tracks, everything but keys, percussion, and background vocals, plus any touching-up we might want to do. We will deal with all that tomorrow, during the overdub session. Tonight, we will spend a couple of hours listening and taking notes. Jimbo has departed for the night, to celebrate his wife's birthday. He has assured us that we are in good hands with Bronson, and are ourselves capable of doing what we need to do. So, we listen.
The session earlier in the day went remarkably well. We finished the basic tracks in five hours, not bad for eight songs. Jimbo worked each of the four rooms deftly, kindly, encouraging us, offering input on everything from the instrumentation to begin the songs, to drum accents, to guitar approach. It was quite a sight, to watch the hard work of someone so creatively skilled, who hears things we don’t hear, conceives ideas that never occur to us. At one point he offered our bass player concise, direct instructions that completely changed his approach to his instrument. He will never play the same again. Perhaps none of us will.
With all that behind us now, we listen. The drums sound exquisite. Guitar tone, aided by vintage amps and instruments and solid playing, far surpasses anything we have experienced so far. The vocals are tight, dry, and impeccable. We soak it in, exalted by the way it all sounds, yet discerning about what needs to change, to be added, to be cut out. We are working hard, and we are in heaven.
1:05 pm, Sunday, February 7, 2016
Lunch break. We brought a spread with us: spaghetti, ham-and-bean soup, deli meat, chips. Two homemade blueberry pies. We munch happily, recounting the morning session.
In true rock-star fashion, our organ player, Larry, arrived earlier today in a blaze of glory, getting stuck in a ditch just outside the studio. We pulled him out and had a laugh, then began the hurry-up-and-wait part of the proceedings, various members going in and out of the control room, fix a guitar part here, vocal there, add a tambourine. We have yet to add organ and piano parts; that's next.
We hear milling about in the studio, random piano strokes, the whirring of the organ, and a couple of us make our way up the stairs to the largest of the four rooms. Three or four people are gathered about, watching Larry fiddle around on the piano while Bronson secures a microphone on a boom over the open cabinet of the old upright. Jimbo comes over, leans in and says something to Larry that we can't hear, sets his cup down next to the keys on the organ, and begins to tinker. Larry begins to play, softly, and Jimbo falls in with smooth, meaty fills on the Hammond. Then, Larry throws his head back and begins to sing, an old country song by The Killer, Jerry Lee—who Larry listened to as a a young man---and there they are: Larry, 75 years old and still killin’ it, and Jimbo, nowhere near 75 but possessed of old-soul mojo, and the room falls otherwise dead silent. Church is in session, here in this densely insulated room, with piano and organ humming. The air lightens, the fog lifts, and the room is brighter, cleaner, warmer, as two kindred spirits align, side by side, Larry moaning the country blues, Jimbo bellowing harmony, and words fall far, far short of describing the moment. A couple of us are moved to tears by the spirit of it all. Soon we will move on; we will finish the tedious task of waiting, then filling in what needs to be filled; we will work past the time we had intended, and Bronson will kindly offer to stay late to help us finish; and we will miss most of Super Bowl 50, will get home, each of us, in time to see the end of the game and Peyton Manning being interviewed, proclaiming his indecision over retirement; and Larry will send us a heartfelt text message a couple of days later, thanking us for indulging him as he played with Jimbo, and describing the moment from his vantage point, how he just started playing and Jimbo joined in and it "seemed like at that moment we shared a common link to the past and suddenly it was 1968 again and the music was important again,"; but for now we just enjoy, and soak it in, because it really does matter. Rock and roll still matters. Music still matters. Not our music, necessarily, nor anyone else's for that matter, but music itself, which we are enchanted to still be a part of—to be, at this stage in our lives, still playing.
Signing off.. til next time..Keep The Stomp On!