I sat down with Chris Duarte at his hotel when they blew into Colorado for a series of shows back in April. I was anxious to talk to him about the recording of their 4th album, "Romp", due out in August. The album was produced by Dennis Herring, producer of their first album, "Texas Sugar/Strat Magik", and was recorded in Oxford, Mississippi, at Dennis's Sweet Tea Studio from February 12-22. I got to listen to rough mixes of the album (fantastic-o!). The album and the production both are absolutely spectacular. Chris was excited about working with Dennis again and here's what he had to say.
-Craig Keyzer, 4/12/03
Did you rehearse much down in Austin prior to recording this album?
Yeah, we did. We worked out of John Jordan's little studio, his apartment studio, for a good couple of weeks. We spit out a little demo CD and Rounder liked it and Dennis liked it. For awhile there, Dennis kept saying he didn't hear anything. We'd been in contact with him since November and then we sent him something in January and he liked it. So at the end of January I heard through the grapevine that we were going into the studio. I was ecstatic!
Was it Rounder's idea to get Dennis Herring to produce this record?
Rounder wanted Dennis and I wanted Dennis, but I told them that Dennis isn't cheap, his fee is a lot of money, but he also brings a lot of name recognition, too. The budget they were gonna' give us wasn't going to cover Dennis, so I said I would go with some of the other guys they mentioned that would've fit within the budget - but if they wanted Dennis they were gonna' have to cover him. Dennis was my first choice and I'm glad he made it work. We pitched the idea to him and he likes us so much that he was willing to work with us on the cost, and we knew that Dennis could do it fast, too.
One thing that surprised me was how many of these songs I had never heard before and hadn't been done live. When did you write all these new songs?
Since September (2002) I've been writing a lot. September onto about January I pushed out about 5 or 6 songs. John and I had set a goal for ourselves in September, when they were talking about having us go into the studio in February, to have 20-25 songs available by then. We didn't quite reach that goal, but we had about 12 songs.
It'll be interesting to hear how all these new songs sound a year from now after you've taken them on the road. They'll probably have different rhythms and solos, if your past songs are any indication!
Some of that is natural, after you've played it 100 times, 1,000 times, it's gonna' change. And if you're a growing musician, the song is gonna' change, too. I was watching a show on Jimi Hendrix and it showed him playing "Purple Haze" in 1967. It was kind of slow and rough and then they fast-forwarded to 1970 at the Fillmore and it was real fast and he was going for it! Almost all my songs change over time.
Was the first day used for setting up your gear and getting a feel for the studio?
Sweet Tea is a real nice studio, not all fancy like the ones you see in Mix magazine. It's got a nice big window and a big 'ol Neave board, and various outboard stuff. The first day we did pre-production for about half a day. We set up while Dennis was flying in from mastering Buddy Guy's latest album. Dennis arrived around 6 p.m. and we worked 'til about 12 that night. We were just coming up with songs to present to Dennis, just pulling 'em out one after another. Dennis had said, "What else do ya' got?" and I pulled out this old gospel song I had written, "Take It To The Lord", and he immediately latched onto it. That song we originally hadn't planned on doing for the record. Plus there were a couple songs I had planned on recording that slipped my mind when we were there at the studio. "Never Will Change" was one, a fun song to play, sort of like AC/DC, but I didn't remember it until after the session was over. And then we got to work around 12:00 the next day and started recording. We recorded two songs and the day after that we were kind of on a roll and recorded 4 or 5. We only recorded 12 songs in all. There were two songs we recorded that didn't make the final cut - "Do It Again", which we play live, and "Are You For Real?".
Other than Dylan's "One More Cup Of Coffee", were all of these your compositions?
Yeah, except "Do The Romp" which is a Junior Kimbrough tune and "My, My" which was a team effort. The rest are mine.
Which guitars and equipment did you use for this album?
Mainly the strat. In fact, only the strat. There may have been some overdubs on one track using the Les Paul, the green one, but it was all the '63. The '63 and my amps. The two Marshalls for the big amps, the knucklehead, my Fender Vibro-King, my Rivera Chris Duarte model, my JC-900, and my Marshall 2-watt, plus my vintage redhead. The engineer was crazy about the redhead and kept making me offers to sell it! When he was messing with my knucklehead, tweaking the ohms on the back, which nobody had ever changed before, he turned the knob and it all fell apart! So that amp was useless after the second day.
So it was all your gear, no house gear?
Yeah, all my gear just like I normally play. Plus my pedals - the whole shebang.
And that new plexiglass thing that covers your amps?
No, that's just for the live shows. It's so I don't kill the audience and so the soundman can get my vocals right.
And so you don't hurt your hearing, like Pete Townsend?
That too, I want to keep what I got!
Who was the engineer for these sessions?
The engineer that worked on this was out of Jackson, Mississippi. His name was Sean Macke, a real good engineer, real fast. That's what you really need, someone who is fast and can grasp the situation right off the bat. He drove up with his own rack of stuff that he was comfortable with.
How late at night were you recording?
Not too late, the latest was on the last day of recording, the 10th day. We ran until almost 4 o'clock in the morning.
Were you recording on each of those 10 days or were some spent rehearsing?
Actually we had one day off. The rest of it was me pretty much doing vocals and some guitar overdubs for "Mr. Neighbor". I think that was it. I don't think I did guitar overdubs for anything else. I like "Mr. Neighbor", it's this vision I've had in my head for awhile and it's sort of an homage to the Beatles. I was trying to think of something John Lennon might've written about, like on the White album, how sometimes life can be a drag. I've had some strange neighbors in my life, mysterious ones that you never get to know.
Did you record "live", all three at once?
I was in one room and the guys were in another room looking through a glass door between us, so yeah, all the tracks were done live. Most of the time we had headphones on, but it worked out fine. We each had our own little mixers and stuff. We used headphones in John's studio, too. I wore my Buddy Guy's Legends hat over them so they would stay on. That was my biggest problem, I kept shaking the headphones off of my head!
Did you nail any songs on the first take?
"Take It To The Lord" was. Even the vocals are the "scratch" vocals. Those are the vocals you sing as you play that get re-recorded, or scratched, later on. All the other songs I went back in and redid the vocals, but that one Dennis felt that the emotion was right and that we had hit it right there.
I noticed on the CD that there's a code number after each song title. Is that related to what take or date the song was cut?
I believe those codes are edits - what edit, where it is, and the location of it on the disk drive. We put this record together like we did "Texas Sugar," in that parts of one cut would be put together with parts of another cut. Slap this part here, put this part there. Even parts of guitar solos! I know that's what Dennis did on "Bb Blues", I think the first half of the solo on the 2nd take has been mashed onto the 3rd take solo. Some of these final guitar solos are so freaky to me because that's not how I would play it at all naturally, but it's me nonetheless!
Was this album recorded using Pro-Tools, like "Love>Me"?
No, it was done with a Radar system, sort of like Pro-Tools. I thought we'd go analog to tape and then digitally, but it was all digital recording.
Dennis Herring did a great job on this record, it doesn't "sound" digital at all.
Well it's going through that nice Neve board, going through a lot of analog stuff. Going through a Neve board makes a big difference. It's quite a thing, it's like the best board you can get, the warmest sounding board. It was definitely all analog, circa 1972, just a big 'ol Neve board. And "King Tut", that Steve Martin song, was recorded through it! That was recorded at the Aspen Film Institute, out there in Colorado, but it was originally custom built for Oceanway Studios in California. Dennis got the board when he got the studio, when Sweet Tea was located near the square in Oxford. I can't imagine how much that board costs, $100,000 would be my guess. It's a vintage board, but they still make them. You can buy a brand new Neve board. In fact, we mixed down the "Tailspin Headwhack" album on a brand new V2 Neve board.
Speaking of "Tailspin", some of the songs have kind of a "Tailspin Headwhack" feel with unusual rhythms and drum tracks. That song "My, My" would be a great opening song for "The Sopranos" TV show! That one and "Last Night" both, with their dark groove and foreboding lyrics.
That's funny, that's what John thought about "My, My", too! I hope the record company does pitch it, that'd be cool! I love "My, My". The way it was born and came about was when we played a San Angelo gig, at the Steel Penny Pub, and the PA was playing some John Spencer Blues Explosion while we were tearing down. It had all this cacophony of sound and samples and crazy stuff and something started to roll around in my head for about a week. I had this guitar part as we were going into John's studio and I said, "Guys, I got this idea for a song but it's one of those songs we have to build together." And so I played this guitar part and then we did it backwards and then John said he had some generic drum loop sample he had downloaded from somewhere. John was demonstrating how you can take a drum loop and build a solo over it and sort of compose with it. He ended up sending that to Dennis when he asked us for something and Dennis really liked it. Then he wrote some lyrics for it.
No, Dennis actually wrote the lyrics. So that song is the only "group" composition on the CD.
Is Dennis a songwriter or a musician as well as a producer?
Yeah, he's a studio cat and has done work with all kinds of people. I think John said that the scratchy '70s guitar riff on the theme song for "The Love Boat" TV series is Dennis playing!
How have you changed in the studio, from "Texas Sugar" to this 4th album almost ten years later?
I've gotten a little bit more involved and try to observe and learn more about what's going on with the knobs. I've also become a little more wiser, not so naive, as to the way the recording process goes about, the kind of mindset you have to have when you go in and make an album, what processes are involved in getting it down, how you have to respond to the producer's criticisms or cajoling or inspiration to get the best out of you, as well as just working with them. Every producer is different. On the "Tailspin"album, David Z exuded his authority and pretty much took over on some stuff. We'd come in to mix some stuff down only to find he wanted to try a guitar part he had come up with. David was a real wizard in the studio, though. Dennis Herring and Doyle Bramhall were more hands-off producers.
Your vocals are really good on the album. Have you been working on your singing at all?
Not really, I think you just get better at it as you go along. At least you hope to get better at it, but I've got a lot to learn still. I try to hit certain notes better, split it down the middle a bit better.
Well I just love this album. I hope you're proud of it, Chris, because it is a great recording!
I am real proud of this record, it sounds live, like an explosion. I think "The Fire's Gone Out" sounds great, "Last Night" and "Highway 101" are cool. And we did it so fast, we got in there and cranked it out! The mixes I noticed right away. We got the rough mixes first, the ones you listened to. Those are the ones they really work on. It sounds great, I could tell right from the first note how much different it was. This album was a great experience and now I'm ready for the hype machine to get rolling and hope it'll catch a little fire out there. I'm hoping we can move 50,000 units. My goal is small, we'll see how well Rounder pushes it, but I think there's some really good stuff on there. I'm just so pleased with the way "Highway 101" came out, the sonic vibe that thing has is just so cool. Another funny thing on that song is that for months and months I had been telling my guitar tech that the back pickup on my guitar, the bridge pickup, had been sounding funny and he didn't believe me. Well, after the sessions, when we were done and back in Austin, I went to him again and said I was certain something was wrong with the pickup. He put it on a meter and the pickup was dead! So the unique tone you hear on "Highway 101" is because the pickup was dead! But it sounds unique and it will be on the album. My guitar had been in terrible condition, I didn't have the money to get it fixed because the van took it all!
So your guitar limped into the studio?
Yeah! I had to adjust to things. I couldn't play certain chords in certain positions because it would sound out of tune, so I would have to adjust my playing to make it work - a lot!!
Did the humidity in Mississippi affect your guitar at all?
It didn't affect the strat that much, but it did affect the Hamiltone a lot.
Any talk yet of a song off the record being a CD single or promo?
I think maybe "The Fire's Gone Out", but I pretty much leave it up to the record company to decide. I like all the songs. I think it'll be "Do The Romp" or "The Fire's Gone Out", but I don't really care.
Was this Ed Mile's first studio album?
Yep, his first real studio album with international distribution and stuff. And he played it great! Dennis took him outside and told him to just play it straight and that he would make it sound big. Usually when you play live the drummer fills up space, because it's a show, but in the studio it's best to play it straight and let the producer make it sound big. Ed did a great job.
Hearing Ed last night at the Gothic was awesome. Last time I heard him he had been in the band only a week and was still learning the CDG catalog. What a powerful difference!
He's sounding great. Ed's turning out to be one of the best drummers we've ever had and I hope he sticks around for awhile. I've always thought I've given a pretty open environment to my drummers. Even the sound guy last night was saying how a lot of the older tunes sound so different with the new drummer. Ed's turned out to be a great find, I can't believe we found him. He was in Waco at the time when he answered an ad we placed in the Austin Chronicle.
Definitely a good reason to bolt out of Waco!
No doubt! He's great and I like his attitude. Ed's a wonderful person and we all get along very well.
Does he do his fair share of driving, too?
Oh yeah, Ed's a road warrior, when he can get John and I to pry our fingers off the steering wheel!
What do you think about as you're driving long distances between gigs?
I think about all kinds of things - my wife, songs, the venue - it depends on what's going on at the moment.
Are the songs on this album reflective of what's going on in your life now? Were you influenced by what's going on in the world overseas (the TV is showing news from Iraq)?
Somewhat, I'm still a novice songwriter. Some stuff is written from personal experience. I'm stressed by what's going on in the world and I'm stressed at my personal situation. I mean if there was another terrorist attack in the U.S. my livelihood could dry up overnight. I'm worried about it but it is also out of my control. I just gotta' keep playing, playing from my heart, that's what I do.