It’s the Monday morning after recording the songs for the next record. It’s a peculiar feeling sitting here, sipping a coffee, and being reflective. For the past several days, I’ve had to be transmittive (I just made that up. Or did I?).
Hanging out at The Root for my first breakfast in Little Rock this go-around. Indy took this picture when I was sitting back to relax after the flight.
When Jason and I were in LA last year to record the duet with Syd, we met up with some of my friends for drinks and dinner. My friend Jade asked me how I would describe the new (at the time) record. Up until then I didn’t have a good answer. I punted and made Jason answer. He had an interesting response. He said that the first record was more of a singular voice, while the new one was more centered around a band. I’m paraphrasing here because my memory of what was said exactly is poor. Nonetheless, that’s the essence of what I remember from that conversation. It struck me as so obviously true at the time, I felt silly for not knowing that myself.
It’s true. The first record is very much about a single voice. I made a conscious choice to minimize backing vocals, for example. I designed the arrangements to be as sparse as they are on purpose. I campaigned for dryer mixes for production. And so on. Looking back, it all makes sense. I had written a bunch of songs in various states of isolation about various states of isolation. That’s where my head space was, so naturally, that’s what I was going for on that record. I hadn’t played in a band for many years, so I had forgotten what that is. I had the notion of trying to make a vocal-based record, and so that’s what I tried to do.
With the second record, I had gained a bit of confidence in my writing and regained an appreciation and understanding of what it meant to play in (as opposed to “with”) a band. Without being too explicitly conscientious about it, we gravitated toward a live feel. The bones of every song involved the entire band, including me, in one room playing the song. I’m not sure I can articulate the difference between playing in versus with a band, but I definitely rediscovered how much I like playing in a band.
Having Al Gamble in those sessions was a revelation. First of all, he’s an incredibly gifted and thoughtful musician. But more importantly, it set up each and every song very differently than before. The organ parts became an integrated part of the foundation of the song rather than an afterthought. Everything for me changed from that point. I’ve now become very sensitive to hearing songs where parts sound or feel too overdubbed. That’s fine, but if that’s all there is, I don’t like it unless it’s hip-hop or techno, but that’s a different thing to me. I want to hear a band playing together. I want records to transport me into that room with the band. I want to hear moments when the drummer and bassist lock it down, or the emergence of a deep pocket emanating from the band. That’s the rub.
In retrospect, this makes a ton of sense. I have always gravitated toward live records. I want to hear what the band can do as a band, not what they can manufacture in a studio. The extreme for me is NRBQ. To me they were/are the ultimate band. The feature of the Q is the band itself. When I listen to their records, I hear it “backwards.” I hear the band first, and then I figure out that the songs are actually great, too. I don’t think there’s another group for which that happens. To me, that’s their magic. To some extent, that’s the greatness of the Nick Lowe records. His band is really great. You can tell they record it all live on the floor. In contrast to NRBQ, though, Nick is clearly the feature.
So what’s this record about? Now that we have it mostly done, it seems like we have put together a record of music we would want to listen to. That might sound weird, but that’s what’s going on. More than the last record, this one is about the band. Paul Griffith and Al Gamble are back again. We got the great Ron Eoff to play bass. That rhythm section is rock solid. It just so happened that Jesse Aycock was in town playing with the Secret Sisters, so Jason and I wanted to seize that opportunity to have him play guitar, lap, and pedal steel guitars on a few songs. On the other hand, I had lined up Greg Spradlin and Chris Michaels to come in and play guitars, too. We had an embarrassment of riches!
At one point in the session, all three, Jesse, Chris, and Greg, were hanging out in the studio. I campaigned to have them all in the song. I was doing it to be a little silly, but then something happened. With all of these great guitarists playing live on the floor with a bad ass rhythm section, none of them felt obligated to carry things as is often the guitarist’s burden. Each of them carved out small parts that banked off one another. Before that track, Jesse and Greg were in the room together with me playing, too, so that was happening this whole time. Later, Chris and Greg were playing. This approach started off with me basically not knowing how to deny having any one of these great players on the floor to becoming a thing for this record. The only song we used one guitarist for tracking is the extra cover we decided to do at the last minute.
So how did this work? Really well. What it did was give each of the song a finer finish. Instead of having bones for a song that we then do something with, we have the whole song and just have to decide if it needs a little more of this or that. The difference is the feel. I hear all of those guys in the room with me. I’m pretty sure each of us wouldn’t have played what we played if it were us along overdubbing. I like that.
I have a joke I sometimes say in sessions when we listen back or listening to someone play which is “that sounds like a really good stereo.” It’s meant to be a bit of a jab, but all in fun. Now the joke’s on me. While we have been listening back to songs, they sound like a really good stereo. They sound like the kind of music I would want to listen to at home on a really good stereo.