I may have mentioned this a couple of times before, but I’m currently sitting in a recording studio in Athens, Georgia. It’s not just any studio, though, and it’s not just any session, either. The studio where my ass is presently planted is Chase Park Transduction. Many of alternative rock’s biggest bands have recorded here—including Cracker, R.E.M., Queens of the Stone Age, and Drive By Truckers.
I probably also mentioned the fact that David Lowery, front-man for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, is producing this album for us. I’ve also likely mentioned that Drew Vandenberg, who’s worked with many of the names I just shamelessly dropped, is engineering the record for us.
Okay, now that I’m done bragging about working with these guys (they’re just guys, turns out), I can talk about where we are in the recording process. This, like all Tuesday Tune-Ups, will be devoted to just the musical aspect of what’s happening in Brandonia right now. For details on all of the other craziness I’m dealing with, check out the recent Mantra Monday, Thoughts for Thursday, or Fearless Friday articles.
First… Let me just say, goddamn it’s been a long week. I left my home in Spokane last Sunday evening, August 18th. I had hotel problems in Tacoma and was flat broke in a city that was not my home for three days. Apart from the Lyft I took from Sea-Tac to downtown Tacoma (which depleted half of my funds for that leg of the trip), I took public transportation and walked everywhere I could while I was training for my new job. Hooray for adventure, though, right!?
Finally, last Wednesday I finished my training around 3:00 pm and boarded the bus for Sea-Tac. I waited around in the airport (flying standby) and was lucky enough to get a seat on that night’s red-eye to Atlanta. My flight landed in Atlanta at around 5:30 am EDT. Josh and Jason picked me up, and we drove to our Air B&B in Atlanta where I caught a couple of hours’ sleep.
After we checked out, we drove to Athens and checked into another Air B&B for Thursday night. The lofts in the recording studio weren’t quite ready for us yet. That’s right. We’re staying in lofts above the studio for the duration. That means not only 12-hour days of recording, but also nearly 24 hours a day in the same building. Though, it is very convenient for us to just stay here. Besides, it’s resulted in many nights of impromptu ping-pong, shooting beer cans with a BB gun, and other boredom-fueled activities.
Meeting Up with Mr. Lowery
It turns out our one-night Air B&B was only about two blocks from David’s house. When he found out, he invited us over for a moment before he had class, and then we hung out with his wife, Valena Vego (an Athens music legend in her own right) for a couple of hours listening to stories about David and all kinds of other rock stars. Both Josh and I just about had a fit when we found out that David Lowery co-produced our favorite Counting Crows album, This Desert Life. We happened to find that out, by the way, by noticing the platinum record on the wall.
If Lowery’s accomplishments as a musician weren’t enough—I used to watch on MTV as a teenager for Christsakes—my excitement level kicked up a notch when I found out he helped make one of the most influential albums of my life. In fact, in many ways, that means even more to me. I mean, for all of Lowery’s many accomplishments as a musician, I didn’t come to be a real Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fan until later in life. In fact, Cracker’s biggest album, Kerosene Hat, wasn’t in my collection until after we’d already opened for them.
So, on one hand, I missed out on all of the real “dream-come-true” stuff that I’m sure Jason must be feeling through all of this—after all, he was a big Cracker and Camper fan growing up, and has followed David Lowery’s career very closely since then. On the other hand, I kind of have a very cool experience of my own when it comes to becoming a Cracker fan.
The First Time
The first time we opened for Cracker, I was only familiar with the singles. I’d heard “Low,” and “Teen Angst,” on MTV and the radio while I was growing up. Other than that, I think the only other Cracker song I was familiar with was “Euro-trash Girl.” I had, however, heard that Mr. Lowery had a bit of a reputation for being blunt on social media, so the rest of the band and I were kind of nervous. We’d opened for several national acts by this time, and it had always been great. Still, on the two hour drive to Pasco, WA, we discussed the importance of minding our manners and knowing our place.
What happened next totally defied any of our expectations. I got out and went back to open the trailer. No sooner did I do so than I turned around to see a tall blonde guy with his hand out. He said, “Hi, I’m David. What can I grab?” He and the rest of the band proceeded to grab as much gear as they could and all helped us carry it up the ridiculous stairs to the venue. Then, the rest of the night, they were the most personable of any of the national acts for whom we’ve opened (RCPM and Young Dubliners are both great, too). So whatever you may have heard about David Lowery, I can assure you, in my experience, he’s one of the nicest, most decent human beings I’ve ever been around.
That night, Cracker used our gear, and we talked to them well into the night after the show. So for me, this experience is less about getting to record an album with a “musical hero,” so to speak, as it is about getting to record an album with a guy I really respect as a successful musician, friend, and the producer of one of my favorite albums of all time at the helm.
Oh, Right. Pre-Production…
We have Chase Park booked from Friday (four days ago) through this coming Monday. Ten days in total. Thursday night, though, we’d planned a pre-production meeting with David at a really cool rehearsal space here in Athens called Nuçi’s Space. We met David there at around 5 pm and rehearsed everything for about five or six hours. David gave us a few notes and we made a couple of major changes and a lot of smaller ones.
Nuçi’s Space is a non-profit space for local musicians to rent for rehearsals and support while they try to make their art. If you get a chance, check them out and see if you can support them in any way. One of the great music-history things about it, though, is that it’s right next door to what’s left (the steeple) of the church where R.E.M. played their very first show.
The next day (Friday morning) we got to Chase Park and met up with David and Drew at around 11 am. We worked until around midnight that night tracking the songs live. The next three days were basically rinse, wash, repeat. We’d start working between 11 am and noon. We’d break once or twice during the day for an hour or so—just long enough to get away and have a beer or something—but other than that we were grinding for twelve hours at a time.
We finished tracking the last of the nine songs we’re putting on the album Monday afternoon. Then came the official start of “Brandon Day.”
“Brandon Day” was today (yesterday by the time you read this). Today I finished all of my overdubs. If you’re unfamiliar with how recording works, let me give you a basic rundown.
We spent the first four days getting bass and drums locked in by recording all of the tracks live. Most of Jason’s rhythm guitar and a lot of my rhythm guitar tracks were kept from those takes. However, the goal of the live tracking is to get the bass and drums locked in with each other. If either guitar player makes a mistake, it can just be overdubbed later. Overdubs aren’t only about mistakes, though.
Most of the time you’ll overdub guitar leads and solos. Often this is because the tone you want to use for the lead requires completely different equipment than the tone you have for the rhythms. Sure, you use pedals when recording rhythms, but sometimes you may want to use a different guitar and amp altogether for the solos and leads.
You also overdub vocals in the studio. That’s where we’ll spend most of the rest of our time here.
Leads to End All Leads
That was the expectation handed down on high from Mr. Lowery for today.
I’m not going to get too far into it, tonight (for reasons which should be apparent), but after about eleven hours of take after take, this was the result:
Yeah. It wasn’t easy… but I got the Lowery stamp of approval today. I’m eternally grateful to both him and Drew Vandenberg for pushing me to be the best guitarist I can be today. I feel like they got 100% from me and saved me from myself more than once. If you’ve ever recorded an album, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
For the rest of you, what I’m talking about is this:
Some guitarists go into the studio with their parts all mapped out. I’ve certainly done it. If you’re looking for a really slick production, I highly suggest that you write out every part you plan to play and practice it until you can play it in your sleep while the house is on fire. This isn’t that kind of record, though. We’re not playing to a fucking click track. We tracked everything live and left it volatile. As such, I wanted my guitar solos and lead parts to feel as organic as the rest of the record is going to feel.
So while I did have some lead parts worked out before we got down here, I worked very hard to ignore the solos themselves until today. I mean, of course I had an idea of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with each song, but exactly what that sounded like didn’t get worked out until today. When you do that, it can take a really long time.
I didn’t keep track of takes, but there were multiple songs which required takes well into the double-digits before we got what we needed. Even at the end of the day, as tired and fed-up with playing as I was, I still had to listen to Drew and David when they refused to let me do another take of the final lead part. I would have kept going all night trying to get each and every note to sound exactly the way it did in my head… and I would have failed.
Trust Thy Producer
The reality is, David Lowery and Drew Vandenberg have both been around the block more than a few times. They know what makes a good record, and I trust that they’re both looking out for us. If Lowery says he wants a nine song album, that’s what we’re going to go with. If Vandenberg tells me a take is good enough, who the hell am I to tell him I can do it better? Especially when I’ve already tried 25 times to do it better… At some point, you just have to listen to the producer and the engineer and let them work their magic. After all, it’s never going to sound the way it does in your head.
Another thing to keep in mind is that when you’re recording with a band, the decisions are only partially yours at best. I’ve changed and adapted a lot of parts over the last few days based on suggestions from my band-mates, Drew, and David. You have to let go of your ego. In that respect, I’m very glad I’m recording this album at 41 instead of 14. Or 24. Hell, even at 34 I would have fucked it all up.
For example, if I had tried to pull off a day like today at any of those younger ages, I would have ended up with a bruised ego, despite the amazing things that happened in this studio today.
Back then, my ego would have had a different definition of “Leads to End All Leads.” My ego would have thought that meant play some shit that’s gonna make you look like a guitar god! I get this image of Kirk Hammett during the recording of Metallica’s Black Album. He had to get to the point of utter frustration both with himself and with Bob Rock before he was able to get that amazing solo on “The Unforgiven.” Kirk is only fifteen years older than I am. That means he was in his early thirties when he had that moment.
Of course, “The Unforgiven” demanded an amazing “rock god” guitar solo, so Bob Rock demanded it of Hammett.
This album, however, is not a Metallica album. It’s rock and roll, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not about shredding and technical wizardry. It’s about the sound. 34-year-old Brandon would have tried a bunch of tomfuckery to make himself look like a badass guitarist—even though he would have had nothing to prove to anyone. 41-year-old Brandon, however, had to be talked into keeping a part that was a bit more “shreddy” than he was originally going for. Seriously. I wanted to ax a classic fast pull-off riff that I’d always had in mind for the song because I wanted to do something more simple. Lowery and Vandenberg nearly had to slap the sense into me.
It feels very good to be living this life right now. In a week or so, I’m going to have to start on the next transition as I figure out how I’m going to move out of my ex-girlfriend’s house. I’m also going to have to start a new job. None of that matters right now, though. Right now all that matters is me in Georgia making great art with amazing people. I have a place to sleep, food to eat, astonishing guitars and amps to play through, and some of the best people on Earth around me. Even though everything is in flux, life is great.
I’ll be honest and vulnerable here… Going through this breakup has been harder than I thought it would be. When this album comes out in a couple of months, you’ll hear that in my playing. Even if I hadn’t said anything about the breakup, you’d be able to hear something in my playing that tipped you off about some deep aching in my soul. That’s the power of music. Dogs can smell it when humans are in distress. Cats probably can, too, they just don’t give a fuck. With humans, the best we can do is sing or play about it. That’s why the blues is so powerful.
I know this album is going to be the best we’ve done yet. I know that it will sell more copies than any of our other records. I am confident that it will open some more doors for us that we haven’t even anticipated yet. I know that my new job starts in a matter of days, and I have a lot of planning/prep to do. The money and benefits will be a game-changer for me. Additionally, I get to work with the English education department at EWU this year. Things are getting so much better, but it’s still hard to transition from one life to the next.
Tomorrow I’ll have the day off while Jason does vocals. I’m going to go into town and tear the place up. I believe I’ve earned it. Let’s see what “The Classic City” has in store for me…