Garage Band Americana

When I set out to make this record, I knew I wanted to record away from home.  I’ve made all of my records in the past here in Richmond—and mostly with John Morand at Sound of Music Studio.  John is great to work with and I still love the records that we made.  But this time, I wanted a different experience and a different sounding product.  I wanted to go away to record and be done with it, resisting the temptation to go back in and fix things over and over again.  I wanted this record to be different from my others and different can be risky.  But it can be equally rewarding.

I made a list of places where I knew people—friends and relatives—who lived in other cities and states where I might record.  There is a really cool old church that has been converted into a studio in Asheville, NC that caught my eye.  Some well-known artists have recorded there, but it was a bit pricey.  Asheville is an awesome town, but it was just beyond my financial reach for this record.  I also considered recording in Nashville because, well, it’s Nashville.  After a good bit of research, I contacted a small studio about the project.  I was impressed with the young man who owned the place and with the quality of work that had come out of the studio (mostly lesser known artists like me).  His prices were affordable and he had access to quality session players.

Then there was Dallas.  I have relatives in the Dallas area, but didn’t really know much about the music scene or any studios.  My musical connection with the city was that one of my favorite bands, The Old 97’s, call it home and have made several records there.  I had met their producer, Salim Nourallah, once a few years back.  We literally bumped into each other after an Old 97’s concert where his band had been the opener.  He seemed like a nice person, appeared laid back and friendly, and I knew he had produced some great records.  Those are all good qualities.  The clincher though was that he is also a really good songwriter.  His songs are different than mine.  Though maybe in the same overarching genre—rock and roll, or whatever you want to call it—his songs are a little quirkier and less conventional than mine tend to be, and I thought that it would be an asset working with someone who hears things a little differently than I do.

So, I called Salim one day last summer and asked if he would be interested and available to record my new EP, and if I could afford him.  Happily, the answers were yes.

I’ll skip over the details of the week in April I spent in Dallas for now other than to say that I am very happy with what we accomplished.  Salim lined up some really good musicians to play on the record (John Dufilho, Jason Garner, Paul Slavens, Richard Martin, Camille Cortinas, and Joe Reyes).  Salim even played bass on a few songs and added backing vocals to several songs.  None of these folks had heard the songs prior to coming into the studio.  They just picked up on the feel of the songs and added their interpretations.  Salim provided guidance as they worked through the parts.  I just sat back and listened as they added instruments to complement my acoustic guitar and vocal tracks. There was a time when I would have wanted complete control over all of the decisions about my songs, but as I have gained experience (or gotten older, not sure which is the more prevalent variable), I have learned to give up much of that control.  Think about it for a minute.  These folks have made a lot more records than I have.  And more importantly, they have made good records.  I think it makes sense to benefit from the experiences of others, especially when they have been good experiences.

Sonically, there aren’t too many effects on this record.  It sounds like people playing and singing without much studio gimmickry.  That’s one of the things I like about the way this record is shaping up—it has a raw feel to it.  Not like punk rock raw, but more like the kind of rawness that someone’s first record might have, before they feel like they have to make radio-friendly records.  Call it garage-band Americana.  Whatever it is, I like it, and I think you will too.

Salim is mixing the record in Texas this month and it is being mastered in North Carolina in early July.  Then, I am hitting the road for a short tour through Western NC, GA, and TN.  I hope to be able to mail pre-orders the first week in August.

Studio Day 5

I’ve been in Texas for week and I’m strangely energized. My normal routine has been thrown way off by the rock and roll hours I’ve been keeping lately. Today, for example, I didn’t venture outside until around 2:30 when my stomach told me it was finally time to eat something. So a short walk up to Central Market (it’s like Whole Foods on steroids) on Lovers Lane for some prepared food.

There’s a life-size bronze statue by the entrance to the market of a policeman writing what I thought was parking ticket. A few well placed mouse clicks, however, taught me that it’s actually a disorderly conduct ticket. Being written by a statue cop.

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I know what you’re thinking. You don’t know what to think. Every time I’ve walked by that thing my mind goes completely blank with bewilderment. I think I’m actually stupefied when I see it. Maybe it’s a marketing ploy by the market to make you stupid before entering the store so you’ll buy more, even it you don’t need it. Initially, I wondered if it was a memorial to JD Trippet who was killed by Oswald on Nov 22, 1963. Nope! It’s just a weird statue.

I didn’t go to the studio today at all. There wasn’t anything for me to do there, so I stayed at the condo and practiced my set for the show tonight and took it easy. I didn’t get the Bush Library today either. Seemed like a better use of time to prepare for the show.

Speaking of the show . . . it was really fun! Family from the Dallas area came along with several of their friends. My cousin’s 5th grade daughter was also there. I told her that I was giving her a homework pass tonight and that if any of her teachers gave her grief about it that she should tell them that she did something waaayyyy cooler than homework tonight! Seriously, homework is more likely to make a 5th grader hate school than it is to make them smarter. And I should know . . . I used to be a 5th grader!

Okay, so back to the show. Everyone knows that you should open the set with something that you know really well. I decided to go the other route (because I always make the right moves with my music career) and open with a brand new song that I’ve never played in front of people before. I think it’s a really great song–maybe my best. I wrote it earlier this week and it was one of the songs that we were able to add on to the record. The song is basically about a guy playing guitar in a bar (wonder where that came from??). Anyway, there’s a line in the song about a Miller beer sign and about half way into the song, I noticed a Miller High Life sign on the wall. Funny. To me anyway.

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I wonder if anyone noticed that poster while I was playing?

Seriously, though. It was a really good show and it was good to play some of the new songs and to see my Texas family and make so many new friends!

Tomorrow, I’ll swing by the studio for a bit in the morning and then head to the airport for the trip home. As great as this has been and as good as this record is going to sound, I am really looking forward to getting home.

Rob

p.s. I am playing at MBargo at Rockett’s Landing on Wednesday, May 13. You know, in case you’re in Richmond with nothing to do on a Wednesday night.

Studio Day 4

I’ve rented a place in the SMU area of Dallas while I’m recording, near the corner of Greenville Ave and Lovers Lane. It’s a condo I found on VRBO in a quiet neighborhood that reminds me architecturally very much of Melrose Place. Every time I drive to the studio and cross over Greenville Ave, that line from the Old 97’s song runs through my head,

“What a time we’ll have
Down on Greenville Ave
With the big shots in Big D . . .
I’m living in a state of Texas
And Texas lives in me.”

Well tonight I went to an open mic at a bar called Vagabond down on Greenville Ave and indeed had a big time. I played three songs–two old ones and one newer one–to a wildly enthusiastic crowd. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. Truth is, as always with open mic, most people talked and some people listened. There were enough people listening though to make it a lot of fun. I hung out for a while and heard a variety of good songwriters.

Earlier in the day, Salim and I met for lunch and talked about life, the value of taking chances, and how when I initially called him last summer about recording, he thought he would never hear back from me! He said most people just don’t follow through with plans like that.

After lunch we went back to the studio and he sang back up on some of the songs we’ve done this week, and we started putting together rough mixes. There are a few songs that will remain unfinished when I return home on Thursday. We just can’t decide on the instrumentation on a few of them, so he’s emailed a couple of songs to John Dufilho to see what he can come up with. He’s also sending another to a friend in San Antonio to add slide guitar/pedal steel or something like that.

The songs are in what I consider an adolescent stage at this point. They can be a little awkward, but full of potential. That’s just the nature of rough mixes. It won’t be until Salim sits down with them to mix and EQ/effect them that they’ll sound as good as they’re going to sound.

Tomorrow we’ll take it easy, maybe do a couple of more rough mixes and call it a day. I am playing a show at Opening Bell Coffee downtown tomorrow night and I’ve been so consumed with these eight songs that I need to practice the others that I’ll play as well. Then, Thursday morning, someone named Camille is coming to sing back up on at least one song (hopefully more).

Tonight at Vagabond, someone took a short video of one of my songs. You can see it here

(it takes 10 seconds or so for the video and audio to sync up)

I realized today that I’m staying just a few blocks from the GW Bush presidential library. I may swing by tomorrow and see if there are really any books there.

Thanks again for your support! Talk to you soon.

Studio Day 3

Happy Monday, everyone. Though I think it’s Tuesday by now.

I’ve been in Texas for four days and I’ve noticed a few things. First, Texans are really into high school football. My cousin, Jay, pointed out a high school stadium nearby that seats 18,000. Second, Texans are really into church. There are several around here that seat nearly that many. What I’ve also noticed is that there is an enormous amount of ridiculously talented musicians, and I’ve been lucky to have a few of them play on my record so far!

Anyway, this record is coming along very nicely! Things have moved along quickly enough that my little 6 song EP has turned into 8 songs. I was able to write a song down here called “Sometimes It’s a Song” that may just turn out to the be the best one of the lot. Salim and I also decided to throw a cover into the mix at the last minute. While we were eating lunch and swapping Tommy Stinson stories (his were much better than mine), I also shared the story of the Harvey family tragedy and we decided to add a House of Freaks song to the record. It may also turn out to be one of the better songs we do here.

Once again I am amazed at the talent of the musicians that are playing on this record. Tonight for example, a piano player named Richard Martin came by to play on the brand new song (I finished writing it yesterday I think) and having never heard it before or having a chord chart in front of him, he just listened to it once and played along. He nailed it on the second or third take! Richard captured exactly what I wanted without me even saying anything. Amazing.

By the way, I finally figured out how to get the video off of my phone so you can see a little bit (and it’s really just a little bit) of what we’ve been doing here.The first part is the freakishly talented (and tattooed) Jason Garner playing bass to “Sun Gone Down” right after he played drums to the same song (guitar and vocal were re-recorded later). Then, Paul Slavens adds keys to “Anything But Gone” and Salim Nourallah texts–he tells me that’s an important part of making records. Finally, Paul adds accordion (that’s right, accordion) to “Henry and Maria”.

Enjoy! And thanks again for your support!

Studio Day 2

Hi Everyone!

Another productive day in the studio! We started the afternoon–that’s right the rock’n’roll world doesn’t go to work until noon–recording a couple of additional songs. Jason Garner played drums and bass on both songs and then played bass another that we had recorded yesterday. Jason is a veteran of the Dallas music scene and has played with more bands than I can begin to list. Needless to say, he’s very good!

Jason Bass

Jason Garner added bass to a song that must be played standing up.

Live Room

The live room at Pleasantry Lane in Dallas.  This is where the drummers drum and the singer sings.  Most everything else happens in the control room.

After Jason left, I laid down guitar and vocal tracks on the two songs Jason had played drums on before we took a break. Paul Slavens came by and added piano, organ, and accordion. Every great rock record should have accordion on it. Paul’s piano part on “You’ve Been a Bad Christian” is fantastic . . . and he knew the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” back story to the song.

Tomorrow we’ll record two more songs–one of which I finished writing this morning. The other I hope to finish tonight!

Thanks again for your support on this project! It’s really sounding good so far and I can’t wait to share it with you when it’s finished.

Rob

Studio Day 1

Thank you again for your early support in this project! I really am grateful to have good friends like you who have contributed to this new record.

Today went really well here in Dallas. I showed up at Salim Nourallah’s studio in East Dallas at the same time as Matt, the sound engineer. Salim pulled in behind us followed shortly by drummer John Dufilho. The drums were already set up and it wasn’t long before we dove into the first song.

I had decided that we would start with a relatively simple one. It’s a songs called “Anything But Gone” and is loosely (very loosely) based on the divorce of a more famous singer/songwriter. Anyway, no one in the room had every heard any of my songs prior to our session today, so I thought breaking everyone in with a pretty straight forward one would be a good way to start. Salim played bass during the session while Matt worked the board (Salim, Matt, and I were in the studio’s 60’s-style control room while John played drums in the live room). I played a scratch guitar and vocal track while Salim and John put down the rhythm tracks.

I had intended to write the chords out to the songs on the plane ride out to Texas, but got absorbed in a book and forgot to do it. Anyway, Salim sat on the floor with a Fender bass and picked out the chords and changes as we rehearsed. These guys are really good musicians with terrific instincts. I learned a while back to let go of my songs in the studio and let the really talented people take over. It’s paying off here. I like what we did with the songs today.

The second song we were going to try is a peppy little tune called “Where You Hang Your Heart.” After I ran through it once so they could hear it, Salim suggested that we put that one aside for now because, as he put it, “I’m totally hearing Phillip Peeples on this one.” He texted Phillip to see if he was available to play on the song and we moved on to the next one. No word from Phillip yet. Whether Philip plays on the song or not (if you’re wondering, Phillip is drummer for the Old97’s), I really like what Salim hears in my songs. We talked a bit today about getting just the right person to play certain parts that he thinks would add to a song here and there.

I’m really impressed with both the quantity and quality of what we got done today. I think this could be really good🙂

I took some video today, but the sound quality is horrendous. I’ll try to get something better tomorrow.

Until then,
Rob

Saturday

Salim Nourallah at the board with John Dufilho leaning over.

songer/singwriter

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