Sunday, April 14, 2013

Two Bands That Matter

The Clash used to advertise themselves as the only band that matters.  A comment on the limp insipidness of most pop music at the time they were active.  They weren't the only band that mattered but not many did in this correspondent's opinion.  Things haven't changed much regarding the nonrelevance of popular music but there are bands that matter and I just worked with two of them.

Jack and the Bear, based out of Michigan and currently embarked on an extensive U.S. tour, stopped in at Prairie Sun to record their first album about three weeks ago.  They are a family affair.  Drummer, Adam Schreiber, and guitarist/vocalist Brandon James are brothers while sister Christina Schreiber plays trumpet and percussion.  They travel with manager Jake Nielsen who is engaged to Christina and works for nothing save the greater glory to come.  The band is rounded out by Reggie Servis on keyboards/accordian/vocals and Evan Close who holds down the bass.  They are young, in their early twenties and idealistic.  Not only unjaded by the travails and travesties of the road but actually having fun at it. 

I'm interested in band names so asked how they came up with Jack and the Bear.  Bear because it's the first initials of the original members - Brandon, Evan, Adam, and Reggie.  Christina whose silence in the name and trumpet playing role symbolically represents the spirit that guides them.  Jack is the name of manager Jake Nielsen's dog.  I didn't ever get it straight how they arrived there but on their Facebook page they say they were: "Named after an inspirational figure in lead singer Brandon James’ life."  They also say that they have their own superhero so I wonder if that dog might be the same one from the Sufi joke. 

 It's the one where a rich lady goes to the big market in Delhi and finds herself at a stall advertising talking animals.  She asks the dog, "what time is it?"  The dog replies in perfect English, " time for you to buy a new menagerie."  She asks a chicken how she's doing and the chicken answers, "eggcellent."  She continues asking questions of all the different animals there and gets a wisecrack answer in the King's English each time.  So she buys the whole lot and takes them home.  An observing bystander approaches the vendor afterwards and asks, "where did you find all those talking animals?"  "Well between you and me," the vendor confides, "only one of them can talk. You see, the dog is a ventriloquist." 

 A talking dog would certainly be an 'inspirational figure'  yet the true identity of the dog they call Jack seems shrouded in mystery.  But seriously, does it matter?

Their name led me to suggest they read The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor one of the best books on music and expanded consciousness out there.  The Bear also conjures the memory of the Grateful Dead sound engineer/alchemist of the same name who once operated a lab across the street from Prairie Sun.

A couple of weeks before their project was to commence I was getting some things out of storage and pulled out a few cds I hadn't heard in awhile.  One of them was Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an album I appreciated for its spatial use of room ambience and natural sound along with the great music. I'd lost track of Springsteen's musical arc after the mega popularity of Born in the U.S.A. but reconnected with the The Seeger Sessions, Bruce's rendition of the folk songs Pete Seeger popularized in his day.  Featuring classics like Jesse James (the melody that Woody Guthrie appropriated for his Jesus Christ labor organizer song), John Henry, Mary Don't You Weep and Froggie Went A-Courtin'.  A great thing about this album is that it has a big, full sound.  Standard drums, bass, guitars, and keys are augmented by banjo, accordian, two fiddles, and a horn section.  Folk songs that rock out in the inimitable Springsteen style.

The music of Jack and the Bear sounds just as big. 

  Jack and the Bear at Prairie Sun

Initially both Adam and Christina told me, separately, that The Seeger Sessions was a big influence on their sound.  The other inspiration they mentioned was Mule Variations by Tom Waits, an album I have some familiarity with.  These references gave me a clear picture for how to record them. 

The Bear ( I'm not sure about Jack, I never met him) were so into The Seeger Sessions  that they flew out Sam Bardfeld the lead fiddle player in the Sessions band to augment their sound.  Jack and the Bear previously had a fiddle player in their band but hadn't found a suitable replacement yet.  Everyone they auditioned was told to play like Sam Bardfeld so when it came time to record someone said lets just call Sam.  Bardfeld was into it and even wrote some string arrangements for a few of the songs along with playing a straight fiddle on many of the others.

 Sam is a real pro.  An inveterate New York studio musician, writer and arranger along with being a member of The Jazz Passengers and Springsteen's Sessions band.  We have mutual friends in guitarist Mark Ribot and horn player Steven Bernstein.  We have also both worked with The Soldier String Quartet.  

When Sam came to the studio for the first time he walked up to me and asked if I would take a mic request, "It's probably the one you already chose," he said.   I replied yes, definitely, because I feel it's important to make the artist comfortable even if it means using a mic that might not be the best one for my tastes.  However, Bardfeld was right, he requested a Neumann U67 which was the mic I'd allotted for the violin.  It's one of the only times I've been able to use the 67 on violin. It's a vintage mic, relatively rare in my experience.  I noted the coincidence.  

The song Jack's Flying Theme (this dog apparently not only talks, it flies) is one with an evocative string arrangement that helps create tension and sets the mood for a song about humanity on the threshold of the next evolutionary step in consciousness, or so I interpret it.

Sam plays a killer solo on The Atrocious Tale.  He also contributed some general production advice including suggesting a tremolo guitar part for Back to Despair which worked out well

Some noted musician, I forget who, once opined that every band has a music boffin, one member who is an expert in music theory and arrangement.  Paul McCartney was the muisc boffin for The Beatles.  Keyboardist Reggie Servis seems to play that role for Jack and the Bear.  He also contributes lead vocals and wrote a few of the songs including Eris.

Eris is the Greek Goddess of chaos, strife and discord and serves as the chief deity for the Discordian religion/anti-religion.  Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge has this to say:

The religion has been likened to Zen, based on similarities with absurdist interpretations of the Rinzai school, as well as Taoist philosophy. Discordianism is centered on the idea that both order and disorder are illusions imposed on the universe by the human nervous system, and that neither of these illusions of apparent order and disorder is any more accurate or objectively true than the other.

Discordianism was most prominently brought to the public eye by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea in their magnum opus The Illuminatus! Trilogy.  As such, it's well known to me.  Servis hadn't heard of Wilson, Shea or Illuminatus!  Another weird coincidence.

Christina Schreiber contributes trumpet parts sometimes reminiscent of the Spanish/Mexican stylings of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  Her tone is very bright and clear.  Her pitch is dead on.

The rhythm section of Adam Schrieber and Evan Close create a solid foundation for the songs to groove upon.  Schrieber also instigated some Tom Waits style found percussion sounds - not that it was ever lost, found percussion means using unusual objects for percussion instruments like banging on walls, sliding screechy doors and scraping on gutted piano harps.  Prairie Sun just happens to possess one of the latter courtesy of Mr. Waits.  The idea to incorporate that came from studio head honcho Mooka Rennick who took a special interest in the band.

I've not seen Jack and the Bear perform live but can tell from his work in the studio that Lead Vocalist/Guitarist Brandon James makes for a compellingly entertaining frontman oozing charisma and soul.  He sings so passionately, putting it all on the line, that you sometimes wonder if he's going to spontaneously combust.  For some of the songs he requested a vocal treatment ala Chocolate Jesus (Mule Variations).

I got the sound they were looking for using lots of natural room ambience, analog tape delays and dark EMT plate reverbs.  It was helped by the fact that we tracked it to 2" analog tape.  At my recommendation, they mastered it with Doug Sax (Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Ray Charles, etc. etc. etc.).  Afterwards, Sax wrote me expressing his appreciation for this record.

This band, Jack and the Bear,  has a bright future.  They are still searching for a name for the album. Perhaps they need to consult with their canine oracle who, I understand, doesn't tour.  I'll let you know when it's released.

Another coincidence I'll note came from discussing other contemporary bands.  The Bear mentioned admiring the production values of an album called Fate by the popular indy band Dr. Dog.  I would imagine Jack would be into them also, same species and all.  This release got mixed by an old student of mine, Bill Moriarty.

 * * * * * *  

100 Watt Mind is the second band that matters I recently enjoyed the pleasure of working with.  They were brought to Prairie Sun by producer Milan Nikolic.  Milan owns a full scale recording studio in Manhatten, AM Studios on 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues that also rents out rehearsal rooms.  He relocated with his family to Southern Oregon a few years back where he met 100 Watt Mind.  

My involvement with 100 Watt Mind almost didn't happen.  I'm extremely glad it did.  Milan became ill the night before we were to work and had to postpone.  They had scheduled 2 days to mix a 7 song ep Milan tracked up in Oregon.  He said that he'd been working with them for the past year.

The sessions were rescheduled to immediately follow the 10 day project with Jack and the Bear.  10 consecutive days of 10 hours a day begins to wear down this biological machine's 53 year old mainframe but I was up to work two more even though I knew nothing about 100 Watt Mind apart from their name.  A couple of days before we were to start I was told I would have to vacate the plush suite Prairie Sun generously provides due to returning indy rock star royalty - Eric Gales, Thomas Pridgen et al.  I was ready to go home and leave the mixing to one of Prairie Sun's extremely competent staff engineers, Matt Wright, Isha Erskine, or Timin Murray.  Fortunately, studio manager Andrew Mastroni had wisely apprised Milan of the situation who had already rented a suite of comparable luxury in Santa Rosa.  The sessions were on!

Milan and the whole band trekked down from Oregon to participate in the mixes.  I asked them if they had any references for their sound and they mentioned Led Zeppelin, particularly Led Zeppelin II.  I had reacquired that cd just two weeks before after not listening to it for years.  It was a top favorite in my High School years.  Yet another coincidence that seemed to suggest we were on the right track.

Like Zeppelin, 100 Watt Mind is a 3 piece rock dynamo, drums, bass, and guitar with a powerful lead vocalist.  Based out of Ashland Oregon, they consist of lead vocalist Brynna Dean, guitarist Skyler Squglio, Nathan Hurlocker on bass, and Robert Morris playing drums.   Dean and Squglio seem to be the main writers.  Their music ranges the gamut from high energy hard rock, funk rock, rockabilly to a softer, more sensitive side.  Other influences include The Cramps, Santana, Johnny Cash, The Doors, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Dire Straits, Hank Williams.

100 Watt Mind

Brynna Dean could very well be Oregon's best kept secret in the rock singer department.  One can hear traces of Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Patti Smith and Robert Plant in her singing combined in a style all her own.  Her voice has a pure quality, like a glacial mountain stream, that sounds cleaner, less raspy than those artists but just as strong and passionate.  She has been modelling and acting from a very young age, experience which no doubt contributes to her undeniable ability to work a crowd judging from the videos I've seen.

Dean also gets deep inside a song and won't be satisfied until it feels completely right.  I found this out when she requested to retrack a lead vocal to a song called Color of Soul.  Both Milan and I thought the vocal she already had sounded great but something about it didn't sit right with her.  As time was of the essence - 7 songs to mix in 2 days cuts it close - Milan told me to only spend a half hour getting a new vocal.  If we didn't have it by then, we would move on.  We didn't tell Brynna this stipulation - no pressure.  

My favorite mic for female vocals, the U67, was in use in another room so I set up an M49 which I thought might be better for her high decibel vocal delivery.  Both are vintage Neumann tube mics, the 49 has a larger diaphram.  I chained it through a vintage Neve mic preamplifier channel strip and an old Urei LA2A tube leveling amplifier, ie a compressor.  

Searching for that missing ingredient in the earlier takes I asked her about the inspiration behind Color of Soul or if there was anything she could think to do to get into the mood for this performance.  She surprised me by saying that Edgar Allen Poe was a huge influence then recited one of his poems from memory:

To Helen

Helen, thy beauty is to me
    Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfum'd sea,
    The weary way-worn wanderer bore
    To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
    Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
    To the beauty of fair Greece,
And the grandeur of old Rome.

Lo ! in that little window-niche
    How statue-like I see thee stand!
    The folded scroll within thy hand —
A Psyche from the regions which
    Are Holy land !

I thought this must be related to the color of her soul.  I didn't know Poe wrote poetry much less a masterpiece like this.  It definitely worked.  Dean sang the song three times straight through.  We did a quick vocal comp (taking the best parts of each take) and ended up with the definitive performance.  Milan was good with it too, and it did only take about a half hour.

Later, I noticed she was wearing a long necklace of greyish stones with an old key on the end.  I asked what the key was to.  She said she didn't know, maybe the Moon.  Then I saw a small moon at the end of the key.  She said the stones were Labradorite and volunteered that her number was 3.  Labradorite denotes good luck according to the book Curious Lore of Precious Stones.

Milan and the band left me alone to mix for the most part.  I would play them the track when I was ready then make any adjustments if they wanted any changes.  For the most part they went with the first playback unaltered, pretty much loving the sounds issuing forth from the speakers.  On one track Skyler arranged a guitar solo that had layered parts.  It came out sounding like something Hendrix might have done.  

Both Milan and 100 Watt Mind felt so good about the Prairie Sun experience that they decided to book more time and expand the original ep into a full length cd.  This time I'll be recording as well as mixing their songs under Nikolic's production guidance.  I'm looking forward to it.

The last strange coincidence to note happened when I checked out of my suite in Santa Rosa.  I noticed an expensive looking truck parked beside my humble blue Subaru with an ornate stylized logo on the side that said ESP Pros.  No idea what company acronym ESP stood for, probably not extra-sensory perception unless I slipstreamed into a Philip K. Dick novel and experienced a future time overlay.  You never know.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Recording Miles

It was about 2:30am sometime in the autumn of 1990 when I got a call from Herbie Hancock's manager Tony Meilandt.  I let the machine pick up it up and listened as Tony, either over-stimulated, tired or both stuttered out: "big show at the Apollo tomorrow for Quincy ... Miles is going to be there ... Herbie,  ...George Duke,  ... Chaka Khan ... lots of people ... I want you to grab Bill's ADAM and record it."  What he was talking about was a planned birthday celebration for Quincy Jones that coincided with the  premiere of a new film about him called Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones to be held at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.  The film was to be screened inside the theater while on a lot outside a stage was set-up underneath a large tent for a live, all-star musical extravaganza after party.

I spent about an hour deciding if I was up for this challenge.  When he said "tomorrow" he really meant the evening of this same day.  Nothing like planning ahead I always say.  Bill was Bill Laswell whom Tony also had business dealings with.  The ADAM was a large, bulky, but still portable 12 track digital recorder that Bill used for field recordings in West Africa and Morroco.  It was what we used to record the Master Musicians of Jajouka.  Needless to say, it's a lot more involved to record something of this nature than grabbing a recorder and showing up at the door.  I called Tony back around 3:30am and told him that.  He told me to get whatever I needed to make it happen.

I stayed up the rest of the night researching the best ways to accomplish this in the short amount of time left to arrange it.  By about 8am I had decided that the only realistic way to pull this off was to bring in the Record Plant's Remote Recording Truck and Mobile On Location Studio which would cost about $5,000 to record the evening.  I called Tony back and told him this and he said "no problem, do it!" 

 A few minutes later I happened to call another engineer, Jerry Gottus, to ask about something.  I first met Jerry when he hired me as an intern at the studio where I "grew up" as they say in the biz.  Told him the situation and he said that he thought the Apollo had a full scale recording studio upstairs with tie lines from the stage.  Called up the Apollo and sure enough they did. They had known about this long in advance and were well prepared.  I often tell people in "this business we call show" as Tom Waits puts it, about how ironic it is that we provide communication services yet our communication with each other often seems quite lacking.

When I got to the Apollo everything audiowise was wired and in place.  Can't get much easier than that.  I did a quick soundcheck with the band and a line check for all the guest mics.  We were recording to two 24 track Studers linked up to give us 48 tracks which was needed for all of the musicians.  It was definitely a stellar line-up.  The back-up group was the Saturday Night Live house band led by G.E. Smith at the time. Arthur Baker was the musical director.   Miles Davis and a jazz group with George Duke and Herbie Hancock were the first performers.  I scrambled to get the levels right.  Miles was playing long ambient tones similar in style to Kind of Blue.  He sounded great but I was really too busy to appreciate it fully.  

A lot of celebrities were reportedly there in the audience, Dustin Hoffman, Mayor David Dinkins, even Michael Jackson was said to be present dressed in drag.  This was during a reclusive period for him, so it 's quite possibly true.  Jackson was in the film but didn't allow himself to be lit so appeared as a mysterious dark shadow.  Quincy Jones, of course, produced his mega hit album Thriller.  

A lot of top tier musicians performed but I can't say who at the moment other than the ones Tony mentioned.  I have a newspaper clipping somewhere .  Can't find anything on the web.  I remember Lesley Gore singing her hit It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want To.  Patti Labelle was there too.  There was also a cadre of then current popular rappers, Flavor Flav is the only one I recall at the moment.  I later worked with Flav on a Public Enemy record.  A very nice if somewhat crazy guy.  When I first met him he went into a whole Wizard of Oz routine: "Oz man, where's my heart, and, and, where's my courage man etc. It's right there, Flav, it's right there..." I replied, getting into the spirit of this ridiculousness.

The recording went well but I never heard it again; don't know who mixed it.  I was told it was just a birthday gift for Quincy and could never be released because all these artists were under contracts to different labels.  Another irony is that I didn't get to meet Miles or any of the musicians then despite recording them.  The performing area and the control room were far apart and isolated from each other.  I did eventually get to meet Miles.

A few months later I was recording overdubs for Bill at Platinum Island, the studio where I grew up.  We were in the smaller room, Studio West.  I forget who the artist was, it might have been The Swans.  Miles was tracking in the bigger room, Studio East, playing as a guest for someone else.  My friend John Herman was the assistant on his session.  I asked him to let me know when Miles was leaving so I could "just  happen" to pass him in the hall.  John let me know.  Miles left with a group of about 4 people, it was kind of a narrow hallway.  The first two people, who I didn't know, just passed by without saying anything like most New Yorkers do.  I was expecting Miles to do the same but he turned, looked directly at me and said in his classic raspy voice, " Hi, how ya doin?"  "Fucking GREAT Miles !!! is what I thought, but just said  "I'm doing good."  He knew I was in that hallway to meet him!  It definitely made my night.