Sweet Tea Studio, Oxford, Mississippi, February 12-14, 2003

thoughts by bassist John Jordan

 

 

Originally I'd planned to keep a daily journal on the making of our new CD, but my resolution only lasted through the first two days; by the time we actually began recording I was too spent at the end of the day to do anything but sit in my motel room and feel my hands thrum and throb with the day's exertions. Feeling played out like that is a delicious sensation for a musician, but what I'm left with as I try to describe what we did for 10 days in Oxford, Mississippi are the few notes I did manage to write and a rush of memories. What I hope to convey is a sense of what it's like making a record. I won't be very specific about the tunes we played, because I want you to buy the thing when it comes out and form your own impressions!

 

ON THE ROAD TO OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI: FEBRUARY 12, 2003
Just getting to Oxford from Austin, Texas, proved difficult. Chris picked me up first. As we drove north on I-35 to pick up Edward, our revered van with nearly half-a-million miles on her suddenly became very weak. The "Check Engine" light was on, so we immediately decided to turn back and take her to the Ford dealership where a great deal of work had just been done to her. After holding Chris upside down, shaking him by his heels (they were very pleasant about it, I must say), the van was pronounced fit to travel, and 7 hours later than we'd planned, we were on the road, bound for destiny. Chris had taken the first shift, getting us most of the way across northern Louisiana. We crossed the river at Vicksburg, and 4 hours later we arrived in Oxford at 5:00 a.m. and pulled into the parking lot of the Ole Miss Motel, our home for the duration (it's clear it's a favorite among the locals for the occasional romantic tryst: each room number is mounted on a little red heart). Oxford is a small town in Northeastern Mississippi, maybe 30 miles off I-55. It's the home of the University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss and is also the county seat. William Faulkner lived and wrote here and it seems the popular novelist John Grisham lives here, too. The 2000 census shows Oxford with a population of 11,756. The university's student population is 14,500, which gives you an idea about the local economy. The average age is 26, even without factoring in the Ole Miss students. At the heart of this fair community is the Town Square. The Lafayette County Courthouse ("gleefully" burned down by Yankees in 1864, as was City Hall) sits in the center of it all, surrounded by local businesses. Our motel was 2 or 3 blocks east of the square, down the commercial strip. Sweet Tea Studio was an equal distance west, in a more residential and churchy neighborhood that merges into the university.

 

John on his way to ringing the doorbell at Sweet Tea Studio

 

SWEET TEA STUDIO
Sweet Tea Studio consists of two buildings, the studio itself and, across a wide parking lot, the "chill house" with a T.V., stereo, some exercise equipment, fridge, coffeepot, a long table, and the office. The décor in both buildings is American Mojo. As you enter the studio in the hall from the front door - where Chris' amps were later set up - you immediately get the vibe: relaxed, comfortable, yet a place for serious work. The floors are painted concrete with lots of thick rugs strewn about. Parts of the walls in the foyer are sheathed in corrugated tin. In the big room, where Mr. Miles and I were set up later, was more rugs; large, triple paned windows; and the heavy curtains I mentioned earlier. All this looks very cool, but I detect a method: with all these different surfaces come all sorts of different acoustic properties. At the front of the room, bookended by two large Leslie cabinets, there's a plethora (a gaggle? a pride? a convocation?) of cool guitar amplifiers, chosen not by pedigree but tone. Across from that was an altar with a New Orleans feeling with candles that any musician can admire: Money, Fly To Me; True Love; Cops, Stay Away. All the interior doors and windows (including the large control room window) appear to be taken from old buildings. The control room is dominated by the vintage mixing console. I'm not gonna give a big recording gear rundown - somehow that seems personal - but it rocks, okay? If I dreamt up a studio, it would look and feel a lot like this: illuminated by dozens of lamps, you can always see, but you never have to squint. A big, engulfing sofa with speakers pointed at it that'll pin you down (Dennis likes to let you hear what you've done) and an upright piano that is in tune and has a nice, even, slightly mean tone. And when it's time to load out, there's bright overhead flourescent lighting, and a loading dock that'll handle a box truck.

 

The loading dock

 

A plethora of amps greets all who enter

 

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2003 (Load-in and set-up)
Load-in was set for 2:30 in the afternoon. Our producer, Dennis Herring, was still in L.A., overseeing the mastering of Buddy Guy's latest recording for Silvertone (we got to hear some of it, it's unreal - more on that later), and was not scheduled to arrive until 6:00 that evening, so we were met at the studio by Sean Macke, our engineer for these sessions. Sean told us to set up for rehearsal, the plan was to run through material that night for Dennis, and begin recording the next day. Chris' amps were set up in the entrance hallway, and Ed and I set up in the big room. I established my bass base near the familiar territory of the hi hats. My amp was set up across the narrow part of the room behind some thick, fabric-covered foam gobots. Chris was standing in the hall, 10 feet from his amps, looking at us through a glass door. Chris was pretty much using his live rig, the Fender Vibro-King, the Rivera Duarte Special, the Rivera slant combo, and, of course, the Marshall. He brought the black 100-watt and the vintage 50-watt redhead, but it was Red that got the nod. I'm fond of redheads myself. He also brought a Champ he found in Denton, and the guitars you see him with onstage: the '63, the Hamiltone, the Epiphone Les Paul, and the Gibson 175. I'm pretty sure the whole session wound up being played on the strat, though. Ed was recording with his road tested Mapex kit, set up in the corner of the big room on a large sheet of 1/2" plywood, with 4 different snare drums to choose from. Behind the drums, heavy drapes hung down from the high ceiling. My recording set-up was like this: my GK 800RB (the same amp I used on Texas Sugar) running full - range through my Bag End 4x10 cabinet, a separate line running though a Boss DS-1 with the distortion pretty cranked into a '90's reissue of a Fender Champ (bass rolled off so I wouldn't torch the poor lil guy), and a third line running into a direct box.

 

John and Ed getting set up

 

THAT NIGHT WITH PRODUCER DENNIS HERRING
We were excited that Dennis Herring, the producer on our first record, Texas Sugar/Strat Magik, was again at the helm, this time in Sweet Tea, his own studio. Making Texas Sugar with him had been a revelation: not only did he have real vision regarding the record he was helping us make, but he also knew how to take us past what we thought we were capable of. When Dennis got to the studio we were pretty much set up for recording. We played for Dennis the songs we had in mind for the CD that night, while Sean and Andy Hunt (our intrepid assistant engineer) mic-ed things up and performed miraculous feats of engineering arcana. I'd sent Dennis a CD of maybe 10 songs we'd recorded in the spacious expanse of Tana Records Studio (my apartment in Austin). Of those, he'd liked 8 enough to give the project the go-ahead. In addition, there were a few others we hadn't gotten around to recording, and (as it happened on our first outing with Dennis) plus a couple that wound up on the record that we hadn't even thought of recording. Mr. Herring's gears immediately began to mesh - I swear you could almost hear the humming of the machinery. Everyone was fairly whacked from travel, so we quit at about 1:00 a.m. I wanted to stay up for awhile, maybe practice for awhile, but as soon as I eased onto my bed in my room I was gone.

 

Producer Dennis Herring and Chris Duarte

 

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 14th
The next day was Valentine's Day. We were playing alot, individually and …groupally…as they got our sounds together, set up headphones, tweaked tones, thrashed thresholds. We each had our own personal wheeled rack with a mixer and a power amp on it, so we could tailor our headphone mixes to our personal needs without endless back and forth with Sean. As the day went on we realized we were settling in, everyone getting comfortable and ready for the real work ahead. Dennis told me ordinarily he'd have devoted the day before our arrival to many of the tasks at hand, but since Silvertone had forced Dennis into the L.A. mastering session, we were just gonna have to adapt. Being in CDG has always been kinda like being on a SWAT team anyway (our twin mottoes have always been, "Improvise, Overcome, and Adapt," and, "Quit yer cryin'!"), so we didn't feel the least bit put out. It also came out during the course of the day that returning later for overdubs wasn't an option; other sessions were coming to Sweet Tea, so you got 10 days, boys! That night, Chris and I were talking about it, and I said that we play the shit out of 20-30 songs in one evening so we oughtta be able to make a CD in a week and a half! We weren't worried, confidence was high and we had 2 songs in the can that day.

 

The guys behind the knobs, Sean Macke and Dennis Herring

 

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 15th
Saturday, then, was to be our first real day of recording. Everything was working; we had banged and crashed around enough the day before to give our engineers and producer a sense of our extremes of power and delicacy. Lesser engineers, working with unimaginative producers, try to get musicians to basically play at one consistent volume. As an occasional engineer myself, I know that recording is infinitely easier if musicians greatly narrow their range of expression. The inherent fallacy of that approach should be instantly apparent, however. Certainly in this group (and any other I'd care to play in) dynamics are fundamental to expression. To play in CDG, you've got to possess an extreme range, from pppp to ffff …and even beyond. I knew from working with Dennis on Texas Sugar that he wants us to play the way we play. Part of his job is to capture that. We began with one of our new tunes, "The Fire's Gone Out", one we've been playing a lot and are used to "filling up. Our parts are pretty well defined on this tune, and as we ran through it a few times I began to perceive the outlines of our task for this record: achieve a group performance. My prior experience with Dennis should've prepared me for this approach. I wasn't surprised by what Dennis expected of us as much as I was by his commitment to it. At the end of our first day of serious recording, we had 4 more songs done, and we could see our path clearly.

 

RECORDING THE CHRIS DUARTE GROUP
Here's the way a session typically goes: everyone plays, and certainly everyone wants to do their best, but in the back of your mind you're always thinking that what you do doesn't really matter, you can always redo your part, and that what you're really trying to get is a good, happenin' drum part. This is a very common approach to recording, and it makes a certain kind of sense, if you think of the drums as the foundation of the song (as they certainly are in this type of music). You want to concentrate on pouring that ol' slab just right, nice and level, no bubbles, no cracks, 'cuz you're building a HOUSE on that thing! But Dennis, partly based on what he knows about us, was instead pushing us away from the things that are usually done and towards our own real essence. On Texas Sugar we'd aimed for that approach, but there was a back door, an escape hatch…if it really rocked and something was messed up and fixable, we knew we had the option. Almost 10 years later, the same producer, that much wiser, with players he KNEW had been working their asses off the whole time, simply removed the safety net: "Get it right, motherfuckers!" Dennis didn't make a big production about all this; shoot, I may have the underlying theory all wrong, but this is how I interpreted what we were doing. For all I know, Christopher and Edward saw things completely differently. I'm verbalizing now; but then I was just playing. The funny thing is, the knowledge that a big clam on any of our parts could totally derail an otherwise killer take didn't seem to intimidate us in the slightest…it was like, "go for it, dude!" Onstage, playing for people, you're part of a loop, a tribal event as old as humanity itself. Energy goes out, energy comes back, and you're riding a connection. In the studio, that connection is missing, so you've got to find another way of getting to the heart of things. What I was after was the feeling that when we finished each take of each tune that I had meant every single note I'd played. When you approach playing that way, every tiny lapse of concentration becomes huge, every articulation without emotional involvement becomes meaningless, every automatic reaction to what others are playing becomes suspect. The point, then, is to play as truthfully as you can. Mistakes? Oh, yeah, I was making them, alright, especially as we'd get into take 5, take 8 - I would be trying so hard to keep my edge, I would almost forget I had a bass in my hands! My clams were HUGE! BOLD! TERRIBLE! By God, I meant them!

 

 

EDWARD THE GREAT
Edward Sterling Miles is an outstanding drummer, and a man I very much admire. Chris and I are very lucky to have him, and we know it. A band is only as good as its drummer. Led Zeppelin with some no-talent schmuck on drums is Dead Weight. The Count Basie Orchestra with some no-swinging putz is a No-Count Orchestra… of all the drummers we've had in CDG, most excellent, some superb and only a couple that were terrible, I've felt the strongest affinity with Edward. He swings, he rocks, he hips, he hops, he shuffles, he bops. I think such versatility comes from a musicianly desire to give each song what it needs. Ed also plays guitar, bass, and keyboards. He sings and writes and engineers and produces, so he's more interested in how the song comes out than how many cool drummer-things he can slip in. I think Dennis was sorta worried that our hose-'em-down-with-napalm live approach was our only dimension as a rhythm section, but he quickly figured out that everything he said to Ed would be quickly internalized and interpreted with soulful musicality. Believe me, that combination of attitude and ability causes producers to float around, smiling and feeling like geniuses! Because we were going for whole group performances, editing together sections of different takes was likely. If that's going to work, you're going to need a high degree of consistency. To that end, most of the songs were recorded to a click track. It's by no means a given that a musician will be able to play to a click, much less do it in a musical way. I spend a portion of pretty much every day of my life in the company of a metronome, so I'm pretty comfortable in presence of steady thwocking upside my head. Ed is, too, playing with such assured centeredness that most of the time I couldn't even hear the click in my headphone mix. But beyond a steady tempo you'll need emotional consistency, a far more elusive proposition. It doesn't mean playing exactly the same way each and every take, it means finding the right pitch and tenor for all the parts of a song, and then being able to get there, take after take, sometimes after a technical or dinner break, or even the next day. As I worked alongside Ed, I was amazed and inspired by his combination of creativity, receptiveness, and steadiness. Wow!

 

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 16th
Sunday we showed up at the studio with 6 songs basically in the can, thinking, "yeah, we bad!"…and Dennis proceeded to demonstrate his mastery of the peculiar art of record production. I'd spoken to him while he was still in L.A., and he'd mentioned he wanted us to try a Jr. Kimbrough tune called "Do the Romp". Kimbrough is a musician from Northern Mississippi, and, along with Otha Turner, R.L. Burnside, and Fred McDowell (among others), is a representative of strange, gimpy, and unbelievably cool music of the Mississippi Hill Country. Dennis played a couple of versions of it for us, and we'd started to mess around with it, and now we were gonna start reaching for a version of it. We were playing it, but we needed to own it. Sonically, Dennis began searching for other expressions as well. Having gotten all of us off to a good, confident start (and who knows, perhaps himself as well), it was time to dig deeper. Now we found ourselves being challenged in a deeper way, and our progress slowed. We played and played, amps and snare drums switched around, and at the end of a long day there were 2 more songs conditionally done, and we'd begun to get a fix on the Kimbrough song. More importantly, Dennis had imperceptibly moved us beyond our normal modes, and as we played on, he would bring us ideas, or encourage us to develop something we'd come up with. Meanwhile, he had Sean and Andy moving mics, trying out different tonal ideas, while he worked with Chris on tones, different pedals and amp settings. In a way, Sunday felt the least productive, but, looking back, it was arguably the day the most work got done.

 

Dennis and Chris behind the 'ol Neve mixing board

 

THE ENGINEERS
The relationship between engineer and producer in this particular mode of recording is analogous to the director of photography to the director in cinema. His job is to find the sounds, notice the problems - be the left brain so that the producer can concentrate on shaping performances and songs towards a finished product. Sean seemed to fit the role perfectly. A distinguished engineer whose recent credits include the last two Cassandra Wilson projects (you know that's some heavy stuff). We were never particularly aware of being engineered, perhaps the ultimate accolade. I always felt free to just play, and if I needed some nutty thing I knew he had it covered and I wasn't going to freak anyone out. It's easy to feel inhibited in the closed world of a recording studio and Sean had a way of taking whatever we threw at him in his stride. Before we had even recorded a single note, I felt as free as I do in a roadhouse at 1:30 in the morning on a Saturday night. If the engineer is like the director of photography in a movie, then the assistant engineer is sorta like the REST of the credits that roll by. Andy's gig was to cover everything that needed covering: go find some weird doo-dad, change some doo-hickey out, slap the bassist upside his doo-head, WHATEVER! (And "whatever" covers a lot of ground, believe me.) And since we were recording to a hard drive, everything had to be backed up nightly, and that means no sleep for you, mister! One of the tunes we did, "My, My", started with a loop made in my home studio as a goof. I had put it on the end of the demo CD I'd sent Dennis earlier. Much to my surprise, Dennis heard something in it, wrote a lyric and a guitar chop for it, and voilà, a song! To ready it for recording, though, we needed to boink (that's high-tech talk) it into the studio computer. Well, I hadn't made the loop to a click, in fact the drums were assembled from two different sources and I had guessed at the tempo (the tempo turned out to be 74.356 bpm or something equally ridiculous), and had added a backwards guitar part, loosely guesstimating it's placement in the bar, in other words, for the purposes of one computer talking to another, a huge mess. Sorry, Andy!

 

FINAL THOUGHTS
Earlier on I had told Dennis that the Buddy Guy album "Sweet Tea" (that Dennis had produced) was my favorite Buddy record ever. Then Dennis graced us with a listen to some of his work on the latest from Mr. Guy's new album, whereupon I was forced to reconsider my previous opinion: this newest effort is nothing short of fantastic. Sometimes, as we were waiting for one thing or another, we'd be able to talk - swap war stories, tell jokes, philosophize about life and art and parenthood (Dennis and Ed both expecting, Chris and I fathers of teenagers). We were forced by time and budget constraints into being very efficient with our time, but what took shape was all I'd hoped for and more. Our sounds were huge, the playing raw and emotional, the grooves bone-deep. Six people had melded into a record-makin' MACHINE. Personally, I was experiencing severe growth pains as I was pushed and prodded and challenged to be better. And so the session rolled along, like the mighty Mississippi River, except that it wasn't a river, involved little water, and didn't start in Minnesota and end up in the Gulf of Mexico!

 

THE END.

 


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