As previously announced, this Friday and Saturday, SonicScoop will present two of the AES’ Platinum Series Panels as part of the 131st Convention going on at the Javits Center.
Helping kick off the show, SonicScoop co-founder David Weiss will present the Platinum Producers panel on Friday, October 21 in Room 1E15/16, from 11:45 – 1:45. David will moderate a discussion between acclaimed producers David Kahne (Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor), Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, John Mayer) and Gabe Roth (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Booker T. Jones).
The group will speak on the topic of “The Producer’s Portfolio”, exploring the work of each of these producers and how their own artistic sensibilities and unique perspectives have enabled their careers to flourish
On Saturday, SonicScoop co-founder Janice Brown and contributing writer and engineer/producer Justin Colletti (Trust Me I’m A Scientist) will moderate the Platinum Engineers Panel from 11AM – 1PM, also in Room 1E15/16 at the Javits. This panel will be a conversation about “Creative Engineering – The Studio As An Instrument” with some heroes of the craft including engineer/producers Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, MGMT, Neon Indian), Peter Katis (The National, Jónsi, Interpol), Chris Shaw (Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, Weezer) and Damian Taylor (Björk, The Prodigy, Arcade Fire).
The discussion will be structured around examples of creative work in the studio which helped to define some innovative and influential artists’ sounds, creating lasting impressions on fans as well as other musicians, engineers, and producers.
Don’t miss these panels! They are both in the “Special Events” category of the AES’ technical program, which are accessible to all, including those with exhibits-only badges.
Dave Fridmann, Peter Katis, Gabe Roth, David Kahne & More Featured In SonicScoop-Curated AES Platinum Panels
This year, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) asked SonicScoop to develop its Platinum Panels in Engineering and Production. And we were happy they did!
The 131st Convention comes to NYC October 21-23 at the Javits Center, and the Platinum Panels are still TBD in terms of day/time, but we have lined up some incredible panelists so far. Check it out…
CREATIVE ENGINEERING – THE STUDIO AS AN INSTRUMENT: Co-moderators, Engineer/Producer/Journalist, Justin Colletti and SonicScoop Co-Founder Janice Brown; Platinum Engineer/Producer Panelists - Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, MGMT, Neon Indian); Peter Katis (The National, Jónsi, Interpol); Chris Shaw (Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, Weezer) and Damian Taylor (Bjork, The Prodigy)
Engineers of a particularly creative breed, these multi-faceted audio gurus reflect a singular studio fluency which has inspired and produced some of today’s most sonically expressive, adventurous and influential recordings.
Typically recording, mixing and co-producing entire albums, these craftsman often collaborate with artists whose distinct points-of-view come across not only in the songwriting and playing, but also in the sound of their records. Though they may program, play and/or produce on their projects, these panelists are engineers first, with the skill set to truly play the studio as an instrument.
Participants will discuss the creative recording and mixing techniques they’ve developed, and how they’ve led to great success.
THE PRODUCER’S PORTFOLIO: Moderator David Weiss (co-founder SonicScoop) – Panelists: Gabe Roth (Founder, Daptone Records, Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings), David Kahne (Sublime, Regina Spektor, Paul McCartney), additional panelists TBA.
Everyone agrees the artist hires the producer to serve the band or singer/songwriter and their music. This panel, however, will address the producer’s personal artistic visions, and the growing bodies of work their creative philosophies pilot into reality.
Considered a creative artistic force in their own right, each of these producers collaborates fully with their clients both in pre-production and the studio. Participants will explore the artistic sensibilities they’ve nurtured, how they’ve expressed themselves in their work, and how that self-assurance and unique perspective has enabled their careers to flourish.
Stay tuned for more details…we hope to see you there!
From the beginning of our conversation, engineer Gabe Roth’s tone is decisive: “To me, Booker T. Jones is an institution, man. As an essential part of the MGs he not only backed on, but also wrote and produced hundreds of great recordings. I find records all the time with his name on them in one way or another.”
That’s no overstatement. From 1962 to 1970, Jones served as one of the essential sidemen who helped shape the sound of soul and R&B. As part of Stax’s integrated house band he played back-up for Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, and Sam & Dave. As bandleader for the MGs, he brought instrumentals to the top of the charts with the iconic cut “Green Onions.”
Now, he’s in the spotlight again with The Road From Memphis, his second critically acclaimed record in three years. But even with his name on the cover, Jones maintains the soul of a sideman. His playing is casual, relaxed, almost conversational, as he cooks through a cover of Gnarls Barkley or Lauryn Hill.
Like Jones, Roth ordinarily wears many hats, producing, engineering, writing, and even playing bass at his own Daptone Records. On Memphis, he was sought out as engineer, and brought his minimalist recording methods to an unlikely environment.
Although there are a few names in the “producer” column on this record (Anti Records’ Andy Kaulkin, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Rob Schnapf) Roth contends that each one knew his role, and from his vantage point, it was a relatively seamless process.
“There’s a lot of styles of production. Producing sometimes means that you’re deep in it, really doing everything, and sometimes it means getting out of the way of the artist. I think Booker T is the kind of guy that doesn’t need a lot of heavy-handed production. Questlove, Andy Kaulkin, those guys, they’d definitely knock some good ideas around and try new things, but Booker has a pretty good sense of what he wants to do.”
And “what he wanted to do” was very much in-line with what Roth does best.
While 2009’s GRAMMY–winning Potato Hole played in spots like a hammy rock/funk fusion, Memphis sees a return of Booker T. Jones’ more soulful Stax-era sound.
It’s a sensibility that Roth understands as well as anybody. By his own admission, Daptone owes more to Stax and their independent contemporaries than almost any other force. And he wasn’t the only one to “get it”. In addition to the album’s backing band The Roots, guest performances by seasoned singers like Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Matt Berninger of the National, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket are generally well-delivered and evocative of another age.
Jones calls the Memphis a “360-degree turn and a new beginning,” while to Questlove it’s “a record for the music lover and the hip-hop aficionado.”
The album gives a sense of remembrance and seems like a natural evolution of Jones’ earliest soul sounds, but it stops short of sheer nostalgia. Likewise, Roth’s technical approach is informed by the past and not mired in it. He tends to keep track counts low, preferring a single microphone per sound source, even on instruments like drums and Jones’ Hammond organ, but the effect is never gimmicky. Instead, it emphasizes musicality, demands balanced performances from capable players, and allows each instrument a direct impact that’s uncommon on modern records.
It’s a stripped-down method that matches the music it captures. Roth says “Man, Booker has one of the best senses of discipline when it comes to arrangements. He really knows when to add things and when to take them away.“
The Roots have been at this since ’87, Jones since ’62. Even when they’re cooking through a heavy-hitting passage, the band sounds fresh and effortless.
“As far as takes we probably did two or three per tune, but they were mostly to get the rhythm section worked out, or to work out an arrangement,” says Roth. “Whenever we did another take, it was to try something else out. We never had to do another take because Booker didn’t have the right feel on the organ. I mean that just never happened.”
The sessions took place in the B room of an enormous midtown studio, mostly because of its proximity to the set of the Jimmy Fallon show, where the Roots act as the house band. The studio came equipped with a digital console, something definitely outside of Roth’s comfort zone. The room, normally set up for digital tracking, had to have a late-model tape machine wheeled in to accommodate their session.
For Roth, who’s spent most of his career recording onto a vintage 8-track in a converted two-family house in Bushwick, the multi-million dollar space “wasn’t a fun place to work on a technical level”.
“To be honest, I didn’t really like the studio,” he says. “I enjoyed working on the record because of the people and the music, but I thought the console and the tape machines sounded kind of rotten.
“It was a bit of an uphill battle trying to get decent sounds, but that doesn’t really matter. Musicians are the most important thing, and then your ears. Really, equipment doesn’t really matter that much.
“I really wanted to do it out of Daptone but it just wasn’t convenient. A lot of those guys were trying to squeeze it in after a full day’s work at the Fallon show. Understandably, that extra hour-and-a-half of commuting back and forth to Brooklyn was not really in the cards.”
For those interested in the nuts and bolts of making the record, our conversation below details Roth’s single-mic approach and ears-first attitude.
You said you weren’t a big fan of this big studio’s gear outside of the mic cabinet. Were there any particular mics in there that you were especially happy to see?
You know, I don’t really think that way. I could be making a record with an RCA 77 and think it’s the most amazing sounding mic ever, but if I go to a somebody else’s studio and see they have an RCA 77 it doesn’t make me that excited, because it’s a different microphone. One of them might be the best thing ever, and one of them might lose out to an sm58. So you’ve really got to listen.
The only thing you need is your ears. I save a lot of money thinking that way, by not getting sucked into that stuff too much, you know? [Laughs]
Sure, the overall approach is always more important than any one mic. Can you tell us a little more about that side of things?
When I was first talking to [Anti- Records President] Andy Kaulkin about the project, he wanted something that was very cohesive, where the whole record kind of had a “sound”.
But when we got into the studio every time we got into a song Ahmir would say something like “Oh man! I want the drums to sound like Idris Muhammad playing on a Lou Donaldson record.”
So we’d get a drum sound, and then on the next song he’d come in and say “I want the drums to sound like James Black,” or “Let’s make it sound like it’s a New Orleans record, like it’s Zigaboo or something!” So we’d get a different drum sound and it would go on and on like that. It was pretty amazing.
He has a very sensitive touch and he can really listen. So I might say something like “Alright, if you want it to sound like Idris Muhammad, you’ve got to hit the hi-hat a little bit softer” and he’d get it.
He can play very light, very controlled, and he’s really sensitive to tones and stuff, so that makes it really easy to get sounds. Those are the really important things. What he’s hearing, what I’m hearing, what he’s playing – that’s what is going to make the drum sounds. Equipment is really secondary.
Luckily I get to work with guys like Ahmir who can balance themselves. So much of it is about what they’re hearing and what they’re putting out. That’s why guys like him and Booker T are getting so much work all the time.
That’s always great. But when a drummer is doing so much of that balancing himself, how do you capture it in a way that stays true to the delivery he intended?
Well, I think we did just about all the drums tracks with one mic. They had a little [beyerdynamic] ribbon mic that sounded pretty good.
That’s another great example about mics: They had three of them and the first two we tried kind of sounded like garbage. I almost didn’t even try the third one, but then I said “Why not? I’ve already got it plugged in.” When we pulled up the third one it sounded great. They were the exact same model – The three of them looked identical. So that’s kind of the point: you don’t really know until you hear it.
Not too many people today have the guts to commit to one mic on drums. What do you like about the sound of one mic on the kit?
I don’t know. I guess it sounds like a drum set! The question for me is why would you need extra mics? If you can’t hear the kick drum, then either the guy’s not playing it loud enough or the mic is in the wrong spot. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t hear a kick drum, you know? I feel like it tends to sound a lot more natural if you don’t put a mic right on it.
This space was a lot bigger than the Daptone studio. How did you feel about that? And in a big open room like this, do you find that a different distance from the kit works better?
I actually did like the live room a lot. It was a good sounding room. The most important thing is the musicians getting a good sound, and they were getting a good sound in there.
At Daptone I don’t have a distance that works. I literally mean this, this is not hyperbole: Everytime we record drums I use different mics and I put them in a different place, often a radically different place. And yeah, sometimes you end up coming back to the same spot, and sometimes you don’t.
Just last month I was working on a new Sugarman 3 record, and I had a number of mics that people had lent me, including some really nice Neumann mics and RCA ribbon mics. These were some things I was really excited about borrowing. But the mic we ended up using on the drums was an Audix D6. It’s just a cheap, modern kick drum mic that you’d get in a 5-pack of mics for a couple hundred bucks.
For that session it sounded better than all those other mics. But we didn’t use it on the kick drum. I think on that session we put it behind the drummer’s head. Sometimes it’ll end up next to his left foot [Laughs]. We just move it around until everything sounds right.
And then, sure, there are little tricks. If everything sounds balanced but the hi-hat is too loud, we’ll just stick a little piece of foam in the hi-hat, and then everything is balanced again. If the kit is sounding good, but you’re not getting enough of the low frequencies, you just move the mic a little closer to the floor. Or, you move the whole drumset one foot further into the corner of the room and those frequencies will come out. They’re already there, it’s just bringing them out.
You’ve had a lot of success keeping things minimal and really listening. When you’re not producing, do people sometimes still look at you sideways about your approach?
Luckily, less and less. But I don’t come with this whole attitude of “get out of my way, I know what I’m doing,” because I really don’t. I’m just trying stuff out like everyone else.
I’m not dogmatic about it, either. I remember being at Avatar one time, doing a session where I was just helping get some drum sounds. So I came in, we messed around and got a sound I really like on one channel. The other engineer said “but now I need a kick drum track and I need a this track and a that track.” I said, “Hey, you’ve got all these extra channels. Just print them there. Why would I ever fight him on something like that?
I make enough records where I make all the decisions, so when I come in on someone else’s record, I’m not stepping on toes. It’s not my job to tell them how the record should sound. [When I’m the engineer] I’m there to help them get as close to the sounds they want to hear as I can.
How about with Booker? He’s been playing Hammond since before either of us were born. Does he have a set way of tracking it?
You know, the one thing all these great players and producers and engineers have in common is that if they’re worth their salt, the only thing that matters is whether it sounds good, not how you got there. So if you put 10 mics on the organ and it sounds great, then you did your job right, just like if you used only one.
He really liked his organ sound. I think I just had an sm57 pointed at the Leslie cabinet and that was it. I didn’t do anything clever, because, I didn’t need to. I don’t think I even EQ’d it. I just set the level so that the tape would break up if he really started screaming and that always sounds good on an organ – gives it a little hair. I mean, its Booker T playing, of course it sounded great.
Because you’re so in touch with his early work, I’m guessing you took a mono approach to the organ too?
Yeah, that’s my personal preference. I mean, if they had asked me to put up something stereo, I would have, but it’s a strange sound to me. If you go see an organ player, the sound’s only coming from one place. It’s not spinning around your head like the mothership.
I always think that’s a weird sound, when people put several mics on one instrument. It’s like several different people’s perspective or something. You also get all kinds of phase issues. You start putting two mics on a drum kit, and cymbals immediately sound weird, and the whole mid-range gets really weird right away.
I guess I just don’t understand how people record them like that [Laughs]. Even using XY – it’s just a different sound and it’s something that I’m not used to.
I feel like its more natural when the instrument comes from one place, but, it’s not something that I’m dogmatic about. If there was something they wanted me to put in stereo, I would have done it. But, you know, they didn’t ask for it, so I didn’t mention it either! [Laughs]
What’s coming up next?
I did another project for Anti Records with this singer named Kelly Hogan. Booker T was playing organ and I was playing bass. That was pretty cool. I did one record with Booker as an engineer where I was very outside of the music and very inside of the sound, and then I did another record with him a few months later where I was playing bass and I had nothing to do with the sound.
James Gadsen, one of my favorite drummers of all time was playing on that record too. It was really an honor. Sitting between those two guys and playing bass for a week and making a record was really a dream come true for me.
So is that more fun for you than moving mikes around?
Yeah. I think the short answer is “yeah”. [Laughs]
I was more than a little intimidated playing with those guys. Between the two of them, that’s half my record collection right there. So it was a little intimidating, but once we got into a groove it was a lot of fun. I tried my hardest not to gush, because I know that’s just not productive in a recording environment, but yeah. It was pretty amazing.
Brooklyn correspondent Justin Colletti listens to new releases every day of the week except Sunday. Here, he shares the twelve Spring releases that best broke through the noise and captured his imagination.
1. Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis
From 1962 to 1970, Booker T. served as one of the essential sidemen who helped shape the sound of classic soul and R&B. As part of Stax’s integrated house band he played back-up for Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, and Sam and Dave. As bandleader for the MGs, he brought instrumentals to the top of the charts with the iconic cut “Green Onions.”
Jones’ latest effort, The Road From Memphis is a rootsy hybrid of hip hop, funk, and soul that makes the rock/fusion hybrid of his GRAMMY-winning 2009 release Potato Hole sound gimmicky by comparison.
Even with his name on the cover, Jones maintains the soul of a sideman. His playing is casual, relaxed, almost conversational, as he cooks through a cover of Gnarles’ Barkley’s “Crazy” on the Hammond B3, or supports Sharon Jones on an original tune.
There’s little musical grandstanding on this record, which features an all-star band of ace musicians who stay firmly rooted in-pocket throughout.
The Road From Memphis was produced by ?uestlove of the Roots and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliot Smith). It was recorded by Gabe Roth of Daptone (interviewed here over the winter), and features guest performances from Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Matt Berninger of the National, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
2. Dennis Coffey: Controlled Aggression
Here’s a release that reminds us why we should never look to television or glossy magazines for music recommendations. Although you might not think it by the looks of him, Dennis Coffey will melt your face off with the funk.
When he’s not busy swapping fashion tips with George Costanza or posing to reassure you he’d do a great job adjusting your tax returns, Coffey leads a double life as a former guitarist for Motown, and the man behind the steaming new release Controlled Aggression.
Thanks to the good graces of the internet, this unlikely gem of a record doesn’t have to go undiscovered. Click the link below to hear the track “Space Traveller,” selected as NPR’s song of the day on May 31st.
When listening, don’t be afraid to turn up your speakers. Not only does this cut feature an old-school sensibility when it comes to musicianship, it features a refreshing lack of the aggressive over-mastering that’s had musiophiles up in arms for more than a decade. In a welcome blast from the past, the louder you crank this record, the better it sounds.
3. Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore had a new release last month. This largely acoustic, gracefully orchestrated collection of songs was produced by Beck for Matador Records, and has music geeks across Generations X and Y asking, “Where the hell was this record when I was a teenager?”
In some ways, Demolished Thoughts is Moore’s equivalent to Beck’s Sea Change. Although much of this record is as wizened and reserved as Beck’s navel-gazing opus, the tone of Demolished Thoughts remains notably less melancholy than that easy touchstone.
Arrangements are generally sparse and intimate, with subdued strings that are startlingly pretty and never overwhelming. On the production end, the album’s tone is spacious and milky, unafraid to stay just a little boxy and decidedly natural.
4. Kate Bush: Director’s Cut
If you’re a Kate Bush fan who’s disconcerted by musical revisionism, you may have mixed feelings about Director’s Cut. On this album Bush revisits and revamps songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.
Unlike Brian Wilson’s 2004 revisit of the Smile sessions however, it’s doubtful any of these re-interpretations will be accused of ruining old favorites. Bush’s voice has stayed strong, and some of these cuts improve on the source material, which is largely culled from The Red Shoes, an album generally considered to be one of her weaker efforts.
After years of trying, Bush finally obtained permission to re-appropriate Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from the James Joyce’s novel Ulysses as the lyrics for this album’s opening track. It’s unusual to hear a woman of fifty-three take on some of the overtly sensual themes that drive the opening tracks on this record, but she does so with an effortless, unconcerned grace that belies her age.
So, is it worth listening? For those who are not yet fans, the now-classic 1985 album Hounds of Love is probably still a better place to start. (Like, yesterday.) For the already initiated? It’s definitely something to hear.
5. Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs
Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder has come out with a solo album. It consists exclusively of him playing songs he wrote for the ukulele.
Diehard fans of Vedder’s voice are likely to connect with the album’s intimate and un-ironic delivery. The rest of us could always use good excuse to gawk slack-jawed at our computers for a few minutes, wondering if our eyes are fooling us, so Vedder’s Ukulele Songs occupies slot 5 on our roundup of interesting spring releases.
But, is it good?
For a solo album that almost exclusively consists of Eddie Vedder playing songs he wrote for the ukulele, sure, it’s absolutely the best one I’ve ever heard.
How about compared to the rest of music throughout recorded history?
Well, it’s less weird than you might expect, and features strong, naked performances from a distinctive singer that you probably really love or can’t stand at all.
As for a rating? No matter which camp you fall in, Ukulele Songs is an odd, but well-realized effort that stands somewhere between the transcendent (Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” “Kind of Blue,” the first four Black Sabbath albums) and the laughably mediocre (Bruce Willis’ solo record, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Christmas album, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”).
6. Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
There’s a good chance you heard about it when the Beastie Boys dropped a new album last month. If you missed it, you still have a chance to stream it below.
It’s all too easy to harbor low expectations for any album this far into the band’s career, but once again, the ‘Boys refuse to disappoint: “Hot Sauce Committee” plays out like the Beasties of Check Your Head meeting up with the Beasties of Hello Nasty to compare notes.
Although some disinterest can be expected from early fans whose tastes have changed over the decades, this record is sure to please the ears of anyone still ready for more high-powered and irreverent jams from America’s favorite bratty-New-York-whiteboys-turned-socially-conscious-hip-hop-all-stars.
7. Alfonso Velez: Alfonso Velez
Alfonso Velez is a stunning and rare find: an undiscovered Singer/Songwriter worth watching out for.
Mere moments into “Teddy,” the first cut on Velez’s self-titled LP, I found myself slack-jawed, remarking aloud: “Wow. Dude can sing.” Songs here feel like real performances, unfolding stories that sound refreshingly human and open up over time.
With a production aesthetic that’s informed by The Flaming Lips and Radiohead as much as it is by The Beatles and James Taylor, Marc Alan Goodman’s mixes on Alfonso Velez balance the organic with the epic, the subdued with the sublime.
8. Cults: Cults
Any journalist writing about Brooklyn-based band Cults is obligated to marvel over their “un-googleable name” and (historically) limited presence on social media.
Up until Sony picked up the band in response to the extravagant media buzz that surrounded their debut 7”, the band subsisted with a spare Bandcamp page and a text-only website that listed upcoming shows.
Bloggers marveled over their ability to ignite interest sans Facebook and Myspace, much like the rest of us wonder how we were ever able to meet in public at a pre-designated time before cellphones.
Blog-buzz aside, Cults are easily one of the more compelling new artists to release an album this spring.
Their sound is somewhere between the Ronnettes and Peter Bjorn and John. Co-producer and engineer Shane Stoneback provides giganticlly cloudy, reverb-drenched mixes that complement their casually cultivated air of mystery.
At their best, Cults offer simple, unpretentious, catchy pop tunes with a startlingly retro production aesthetic. After repeated listens there’s some question as to whether there’s a ton of substance behind the style. In the meantime, the style they do have is somewhat substantive in itself and thankfully, it’s of the sonic, rather than visual variety.
9. Sondre Lerche: Sondre Lerche
Vernhes, who’s explored distinctive and sometimes jarring sounds with Dirty Projectors, Black Dice, and Deerhunter, might seem like an unexpected choice for Lerche, an artist best known for his easy charm and earnest pop sensibility.
With Verhnes at the board and Kato Ådland co-producing, Lerche is able to embrace sonic colors in a more raw state than ever before. The new material is mature: both accessible and unusual, friendly to a casual listener, but challenging enough to attract a new kind of audience.
10. Here We Go Magic: The January EP
On this record pillowy textures and contrapuntal rhythms form a blurred bed of sound for Here We Go Magic songwriter Luke Temple’s ephemeral, high-reaching vocals.
From the first plodding bass notes of the opener “Tulip,” Here We Go Magic’s newest release doles out twenty-one minutes of big, fat chamber pop.
It’s dense, atmospheric, ambitious, and invites comparisons to some of the innovative work by Caribou and Grizzly Bear, or the most forward-thinking moments of 60s cult favorites The Zombies.
Like Pigeons before it, The January (covered here in May), stands a far cry from Temple’s sparse solo effort on HWGM’s self-titled debut. The January serves a satisfying soup of sound that asks for repeat listening and suggests an unexpected expanse of space between the speakers.
Listen to “Hands in the Sky” off The January here:HERE
11. Hotels: On The Casino Floor
Since I’ve taken it on to write about the twelve albums this Spring that at least broke through the noise, and at best, captured my imagination, it would be dishonest to leave the Seattle band Hotels off this list, even if I have worked with them on prior releases.
Hotels has a new album On The Casino Floor, and, associations aside, I think you should hear it. They’re easily among my favorite bands playing today.
If band names like Devo, Black Sabbath, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Wipers and New Order randomly strung together in a sentence holds any appeal to you, this is the offbeat, electronic, post-punk, synth-heavy surf-rock band for you.
12. Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Is it just me, or do self-titled releases seem like a growing trend this year? If I had something profound to say about artists declaring their identity in a culture of fleeting interest I would. Until then: Gee. What’s that shiny thing?
Fans of the sleepiest moments of Iron & Wine and TV On The Radio may enjoy Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. This is music that’s sometimes unusual, and perhaps more pleasant than it is engrossing.
Atmospheric, moody, bold-yet-unobtrusive, the laconic Bon Iver is a thoroughly well-realized album, even if it occasionally bores this reviewer to the point where he forgets he’s even listening to it.
Lady Gaga and the Great Race to Cloud Storage
In other news, you may have caught wind that Lady GaGa’s label was so afraid her sophomore album would fail to make waves, they decided to effectively bribe fans into buying it. Hawking the entire record for $0.99 and giving away 40 GB of storage on Amazon’s new cloud server, they managed to sell 1.5 million copies in total, including a reported 750,000 at the $0.99 cheaper-than-free price point.
If you haven’t yet seen the video for the lead single “Born This Way,” don’t worry. You’ll be fine.
GaGa takes post-modern pastiche to a fever pitch of ADD, referencing more often and more directly than Family Guy. The only problem is that it’s rarely funny (at least not on purpose) and she staunchly refuses to admit to her influences, unlike the early post-modern pop-master, Beck.
Fittingly, GaGa’s latest video begins with music that isn’t even hers. The video version of “Born This Way” opens with Bernard Hermann’s classic score to the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo, which she somehow makes sucky by adding some comically pretentious narration and half-baked visual imagery culled from Frank Herbert’s Dune.
To her credit, GaGa has the theater of music down to a certain degree. She’s followed the playbooks of Freddie Mercury, Madonna, and Britney Spears, but forgot the rule about occasionally putting out an inventive song. Even Britney had “Toxic.”
Once the actual music kicks in, the problem is not that it’s awful. Rather, it’s amazingly plain – befuddlingly mediocre. The actual single serves as a remarkably bland backdrop to over-the-top visuals that are generally too racy for children and at times too vapid for self-respecting adults.
Those who maintain that her first record featured a few worthy pop songs obscured by a questionable production aesthetic will be disappointed to find nothing here to approach even that level of “interesting.” When listened to with any seriousness, “Born This Way” makes Cher’s most questionable 80s moments seem hip and current.
For the few who have cast GaGa as a secret champion of counter-culture, this release continues to reframe hers as work that panders to the easily entertained rather than suggesting a shred of the subversive.
At best, GaGa may have been able to achieve a level of insta-kitsch to rival John Waters. Only this time, it’s by accident. – Justin Colletti
Much of America is familiar with Gabe Roth’s authentic heavy-soul sensibilities from his Grammy-winning work behind the glass with Amy Winehouse. Despite this blockbuster success and continued work with major label artists, it’s the homegrown label Daptone Records that may prove to be his most enduring legacy.
Since co-founding Daptone in 2002, Gabe has shaped the label through his indispensable roles as producer, songwriter and player. Favoring techniques and textures that had been largely abandoned for generations, Gabe’s uncompromising vision has helped show there’s plenty of demand in today’s economy for a leaner, localized model of music-making.
Although he instantly won over his interviewers with mellow confidence and genuine humility, make no mistake: Gabe proves unafraid of expressing strongly formed opinions on what’s really important, and what forces drive independent, sustainable success in the world of music.
With Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Budos Band on the road supporting new releases, we caught up with Gabe as he holed up in anticipation of the birth of his second daughter. We took advantage of his bird’s eye view of the entire process to talk business, process and inspiration. This article is a little longer than our standard Q&A, but it’s worth it. Your brain, soul, (and career) will thank you.
Daptone experienced impressive growth while the old guard of major record labels and terrestrial radio were seeing their biggest losses. Although dwindling CD sales and big studio closures have made some of the loudest voices in the industry nervous, you’ve gone on record with some positive statements about the changing music business. Can you tell us more?
Even though you hear a lot about Virgin and Tower closing, or CD sales going down, you’ve never met so many people with so much music! If you talk to independent bands and labels I think you’ll hear they’re having an easier time finding their niche and making a living now than they used to.
Granted, if you’re trying to be the next Justin Timberlake, you’re probably going to have some trouble. But that’s kind of a ridiculous business model anyway, and I don’t know if that’s something anyone should be aspiring to as an artist.
What do you think is behind this shift?
Well, the major labels are having a hard time because people aren’t buying in the millions anymore, they just don’t have the same kind of big hit records. They’ve tried to find plenty of scapegoats, whether it’s illegal file sharing or piracy. They’ve blamed the internet a lot for things like that, but the truth is: people have always taped things from the radio or from records and sent them to their friends. It may be even more prevalent now, but I just don’t think it’s that big a factor.
If you look at the big picture, what’s really changed is that people have a lot more access to music, and it gives them the freedom to be a lot more discerning.
So the prevalence of online communication has allowed for what feels like a pretty vintage business model?
Yeah, if you look back 30 or 40 years ago and before, there was always a strong local music scene. There were local radio stations in every city that played the local bands and the local records. You wouldn’t hear the same songs in Durham that you would in New Orleans; every little city had its own scene. Bands could make an impact playing local music and some of the big national hits.
By the time you got to the 80s and 90s, the major labels and commercial radio stations were so big and swollen up with payola that every radio station would pretty much play the same 10 pop hits the biggest companies paid them to play. It really iced out a lot of the independent local talent and the smaller bands.
It also forced us into this world where musicians were pinning everything on a dream. You really felt like you needed a major record label to give you a deal and get behind you, or you had nothing. There was only this one level of success, a pretty stellar one, which just wasn’t realistic. It’s like when every 13-year-old in the country thinks they’re gonna play in the NBA someday. Sure, that’s cool when you’re 13, but it’s no way to make a living!
Thankfully, a lot of that has broken down. The internet has made it possible for a little band from Bogota or Detroit to sell music directly to a fan in Switzerland. At the same time, a local band has a chance of getting some good press in their own hometown. The amount of access is just unbelievable right now.
That’s true. On the other hand, there’s also a lot of noise out there and it can be an obstacle for new artists who are looking to gain credibility with new fans. What were some of the best routes for people to get hip to Daptone and Sharon Jones in the beginning?
Well, no matter what changes, the biggest thing for us is and has always been touring. I think the strongest asset that Sharon, the Dap Kings, and the whole label has is a great live show.
Whether or not people are blown away by our records, it seems people tend to be blown away by our live show. I think it’s really distinctive in the level of energy, showmanship, musicality and soulfulness you hear. There aren’t a lot of shows like it out there right now. That’s what gets people talking.
I can vouch for that. The first time I saw you guys play was at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, back in 2002 or so. It was a memorable performance, and it was refreshing to see an audience that was so engaged.
Yeah, playing a show like that, you really connect to people in a direct way. When you look at people right in the eye and they’re sweating and dancing and cussing and laughing and shaking right along with you? Those are really important connections.
On a quantity level, we’re connecting with fewer people at a time than say Christina Aguilera does when she shoots a commercial for Pepsi. Someone like that might be connecting with more people, but the connections she makes are very different.
When you show up at a small venue like Maxwell’s or anywhere else, and somebody tells you after the show that his girlfriend just dumped him, but that he had a great time and feels a lot better because Sharon [Jones] danced with him out in the crowd? Those are lifelong connections. They’re not based on what’s on the radio or what’s on your friend’s lunchbox. They’re based on really direct connections between people and the music.
So you believe in the power of making fewer, stronger connections? It’s not surprising that you can build a pretty vocal following that way without a ton of airplay or major media support.
Exactly. Through perseverance, playing shows, and having people tell their friends, you can do a lot.
We’ve played all over the world in little towns. The first time we’d go there’d be twenty people, and then fifty. The next time it would be a hundred, two hundred and five hundred until now when it’s two thousand or more. It’s been very organic, and the strongest thing has always been people talking to people.
There’s definitely been a couple things, promotion-wise that have helped us along the way too. Doing “Fresh Air” with Teri Gross was huge. I think it’s amazing, people really listen to and respect that stuff, so it means a lot.
I know your bands are playing some larger venues now. I wonder if there are any challenges in translating the act to a bigger stage. Are you tempted to go big 70s Motown? Where does it change and where does it stay the same?
There are definitely some changes. We’re adapting our act from what started as a real sweaty club act, and lately most of our shows tend to be in big 1-2,000 seat venues or big festivals. It’s a different type of show, visually. You have to make it a little more spectacular in that way, but at the end of it, Sharon’s energy and the energy of the band tends to fill those spaces up nicely.
We experiment a bit, but for the most part it’s a lot of the same music we’d play at smaller venues. We try to stay true to what got us where we are, which is just directly interacting with the audience and laying down really strong music. There’s definitely been a handful of really big shows where we’ve augmented the band and brought in string sections, tympanis, organs or vibraphones and things like that. When we get to do that it’s been fun and definitely brings the show to another level.
Can you still get sweaty with tympanis and strings on stage?
Yeah! (laughs) Definitely can. There are other ways we can bring up the level too. This year we’re hoping to get some more of the Daptone singers and acts and stuff on the bill to make it more of a Soul Revue and give people a little more for their money.
One of the things I learned that I think is really interesting: Watching these really iconic amazing old James Brown shows, I noticed that he seems does two kinds of songs: these dripping slow ballads, and these burning-fast, killer, up-tempo funk things. A lot of the excitement is in the dynamics. It’s in him jumping back and forth between quiet and loud, slow and fast, and that’s something we’re always working within our show.
One of the challenges for us is that we love playing a lot of these powerful mid-tempo tunes. Since a lot of our songs are kind of in that range and we have to figure out the right way to finesse them into the set to keep things kind of spectacular.
That’s something you seem to have been able to balance on the records well so far: Progressively adding some sheen while staying true to the rawness and process you’ve designed for yourselves. How has the technology and process developed from the first Sharon Jones record, Dap Dippin’ which is very raw, and I Learned the Hard Way which is in the same family of sound, but sounds a bit more dressed up?
On the technical side, they’re both done on 8-track machines. Dap Dippin’ was done on a 1/2″ and I Learned the Hard Way was done on a 1″ machine, but there’s definitely a number of differences elsewhere.
Dap Dippin’ was recorded in a basement, so there’s a lot of frequency stuff on that record that, looking back on it, sounds real cappy and midrangey, but I think had a lot to do with being in a concrete room. There’s only so much of that you can EQ out! The studio is better, and there was a learning curve for me when it came to sound and engineering, but I think some of the biggest differences came from the evolution of the band…
Back then, it wasn’t really a band yet. At that point it was just my little project. The guys kinda just came in, played great and left. When you talk about I Learned the Hard Way, you’re talking about guys who’ve been on the road for 10 or 15 years, playing together every night.
You hear it in the caliber of musicianship, the way the horn section vibrates together, and the way the rhythm section bubbles together. It doesn’t have anything to do with professionalism. It has to do with dudes riding together in a van for years, breathing the same air, laughing at the same jokes and listening to the same mixtapes. There’s something about that that can really make a band gel musically.
The last big difference is that on this last record we made some real strides arrangement-wise. There’s more discipline in it, and more space. There are a lot of songs that were built and arranged from the ground up, way before we even got in to the studio. I think that’s different from the very first records where the approach was kind of just putting parts on top of other parts.
It sounds like you have some reservations about the sound of the earliest records, but I think they still hold up. Is there a particular time when you really hit your stride and developed confidence as a producer, or was it always there?
I think part of any success I’ve had is that I never really had a lot of aspirations as a musician or as a producer, so I didn’t really put a lot of weight on myself when I was starting out.
I mean, Dap Dippin’ was me in a basement, screwing around like a lot of people do, trying to make something we could sell on the road to make some merch money. I think one of the reasons we’ve had success is we haven’t succumbed to any kind of outside pressure telling us whether or not we’re doing a good job. We just kind of stay true to our own ears, you know?
Neil [Sugarman, Daptone co-founder] and me, Nydia [Davila, Daptone's Project & Sales Manager] and Sharon, everyone in the band, we just hash it out and fight to make a record that sounds good to us.
We have a lot of faith and confidence in that process, and I think it’s paid off for us. We’ve never really put out a big pop record of our own or anything, but these last couple albums have broke 100,000 copies, which is huge for an independent record. In a certain way, we take it as a vote of confidence to keep doing what we’re doing. It looks like people are gonna buy the records so we try not to get too hung up on it.
The Daptone label wears its heritage on its sleeve, but I’ve never imagined you as the Quentin Tarantino type, specifically referencing earlier records. How do you feel about the “retro” classification?
I think the ends and means get a little confused there sometimes. A lot of people see what we’re doing in a retro context, and I think people sometimes misunderstand where we’re coming from on that. It’s not that we’re trying to remake records from the 60s, the same way they made them back then, and that’s why they feel good. It’s kind of the opposite: We try to make records that feel good now, and they end up sounding more like the records from the 60s than what’s on the radio now. You know what I mean? (laughs)
You’re also known for using vintage equipment and helping keep pockets of the industry excited about the sound and benefits of recording to tape. How do you feel about being a noted ambassador of old-school technology?
There’s a lot of hype about tube gear and tape machines and stuff, and even analog recording. As much as I tend to get lumped into that school I’m really not that dogmatic about it. If something sounds better or feels better on a computer, go ahead and use a computer!
We do a lot of blind A/B-ing in the studio. You need to do it blind in order to overcome so many biases that you have. If you spent $4,000 on some old microphone, then you really want it to sound good. But if you put it blind up against an SM57, sometimes the SM57′s gonna win, but you’re never gonna know unless you do it blind. So, we do a lot of that, and we do end up using a lot of radio shack mics and common mics too.
It’s definitely interesting when you see a nerdy internet column about what kind of mics they were using on sessions for the Beatles or at Motown or something, because I think it’s really not all that useful. At the end of the day, if you wanna know how they made a John Lennon vocal sound amazing, the answer is that John Lennon was singing! If you want to know why the Motown rhythm section sounds like that, it’s because it’s those dudes playing. We’re pretty in touch with that, so I try not to pay too much attention to that kind of fetishism.
You hear so much about the way to mic a guitar amp. You know: “Put two mics on it, and one mic behind it, and one mic out-of-phase…” But to be honest, I’ve never found anything that has drastically changed the tone of the guitar amp. Changing the amp, that would make a difference. If you have a good guitar player, that’s the number one thing. They have the tone. A good player with a good guitar and a good amp? Who cares what mic you use! I tend to use a SM57, but the point of that is I think there’s a lot of fetishism in recording and most of the time it doesn’t help.
That’s true, so much of production happens before the sound hits a microphone. I know you put most of your emphasis on the music happening in the room, but what about the recording technique side? Do you have any rules or guidelines?
Every time we go in, we a do a lot of experimentation. I don’t think we ever really have it figured out, like “This is the mic for the drums and this is where we put it.” A lot of people ask me: “Where do you put the mic on the drums?” and I say “Man, I don’t know!” On a Tuesday it’ll work one way and on a Wednesday it will work another way. We just try to really listen and move things around until they sound good and kind of trust our ears.
For me as a producer, I’m definitely learning every day. I think the day I think I have it all figured out is the day I’m probably really going downhill.
Of course on the other hand: yes we use tape machines: I splice stuff with a razor blade. We use a lot of ribbon mics and older gear and tube stuff. But, there are transistor amps we use when they have the right sound, and our mixing board is from the 80s. For us, it’s not about the “idea” of any those things. It’s about what they actually sound like from testing blind. Does that make sense?
Definitely. You do seem to have a more principled stance on track count though. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Oh yeah, the 8-track is much more important for the way we do things. What a lot of people see as the limitations of the machine, I see as an advantage.
With an 8-track, you can’t go back later and say “The trumpet’s out of tune, let’s recut it.” The trumpet is on the same microphone and the same track as everybody else! That means the trumpet player has to play it right, and the producer has to stop in the middle of the take to say “Hey man, you’re out of tune, let’s try this again.”
If the blend between the instruments is wrong, or if the arrangement isn’t working, you have to get that when it’s going down. “What if the Bari doesn’t play in the chorus?” You can’t wait for the mix.
The thing about recording with 8 tracks is that it pushes everybody to do a better job. It obliges the musicians and the producer and the arranger to do better work. They’re all decisions that have to be made eventually anyway. I believe in leaving those decisions to the people who should be making them, rather than leaving it to a mixing engineer later on.
That method seems to be pretty central to the way these records feel. Changing gears a bit, let’s talk about some of the content. One of my favorite records from your catalog is the third SJDK album, 100 Days, 100 Nights. It almost feels like the story of one relationship through time. Was there a theme when you were writing this record?
I don’t think there was. When you’re sequencing a record, you’re definitely putting things together in a certain order, maybe picking certain songs that work together lyrically.
What’s it like writing for a female singer?
Sharon’s really great at singing empowered songs. Those are songs that are easy for her to connect with: “You’re gone, but f* you, I’m living my life anyway.” (laughs) That kind of empowerment and strength is something that she’s really good at inspiring in people.
As far as the personal nature of writing for her, remember it’s not like writing for a stranger. I’ve worked with Sharon and written with her for years. We’ve been on the road. I know her stories, and she knows mine. We might write a song about something that happened to the guitar player. We may switch a “he” to a “she,” but she can connect with it because she knows what happened.
Songs that work are the ones people can identify with. There’s something simple and human about them. I don’t want to call our songs great, because the songs we write aren’t genius compositions with brilliant Bob Dylan lyrics. But, I think all the great soul songs are like that. They’re simple, and there’s something human about them. Everybody gets heartbroken, everybody gets hungry. Being able to write about those things, keeping it real, is very satisfying.
When we’re writing about those kinds of things, we’re writing about things we know Sharon is going to connect to. She can’t really phone it in. Whenever she tries to sing about something that she doesn’t really feel, it comes across that way.
You’ve said that you’re trying to make records that feel good now, rather than trying to specifically model older records. What about the business model? Did you look to the example of older local label/studio hybrids, or was it a modern solution to a modern problem?
It’s definitely the latter. Starting a label was the alternative to signing with a label we didn’t want to sign with. So the idea was artists creating the kind of label that feels right.
Business-wise, Motown was like a huge empire, and I think the artists were a much smaller part of it business wise. At Stax I think there was a lot more input and it was a much closer family, but even at the end of that they ended getting ripped off a little bit by Atlantic or Jim Stewart event. For us it was important to try to create a situation that’s going to try to be fair to the artists, something that everybody’s going to feel good about. People are going to feel good making records like that. We just try to keep stuff straight and try to treat all the artists the way we want to be treated as artists.
Do you ever work on non-Daptone artists in your studio?
It’s definitely made for in-house music, but we produce a lot of stuff there for other people. Obviously we did the Amy Winehouse record there, we did the Daniel Merriweather there, we’ve done a lot of Michael Bublé records there, you know, we’ve been hired a lot of times by major labels and artists to do their music for them. We don’t do it a lot but it can be fun sometimes.
But of course, as far as our own stuff, we’ve recorded a lot of things in there that just haven’t come out because we didn’t think they were great. There’s several albums worth of songs, for a lot of our artists that didn’t come out. The Naomi Shelton album — the one that came out — was really the 3rd record we recorded with them. I finally felt like we got it right and made a record I was really proud of, and that’s the one that came out. The other ones are sitting on the shelf, you know?
Sometimes knowing what not to put out is a big part of making good art.
Right. We have a reputation for having a lot of integrity and putting out real high quality records and paying attention to every detail, whether it’s the fadeout on every tune or the spacing between the letters on the cover. We spend a lot of time with these records. It’s all done in house and by hand so because of that we have a lot to lose by putting out anything that isn’t great. There’s a lot of people who will go out and buy the 45s we’re releasing, just because of the name on it.
There’s also stuff we don’t release just because we can’t fit it on the record. There are so many unreleased masters just from the I Learned The Hard Way sessions. We recorded over 20 songs for those sessions and there’s something like 12 on the album. We wanted to make a 40-minute, not 80-minute record, because I just think that’s a little more digestable.
Hopefully we’ll be able to get some of the good stuff out there, and we try to find new ways to do it. For the holiday season we’re doing a box set of the ILHW record that has the whole album as a series of 45s with a photolog of the making of the record. That kind of thing allows us a vehicle to put out some of the stuff we wish we could have.
Tell us a bit about the Budos Band. They’re really impressive musicians with a unique set of influences, but they don’t seem get as much press as some of the other artists on the roster. They’ve got a new album out that’s heavy, daring and has some striking moments on it. Can you tell us some more about them?
They’re a real asset to the label. I think they’re kind of like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’s mischievous little brothers or something. There was recently a great article on them where the reviewer said “If Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are the heart of soul revival, then the Budos Band are the balls.” (laughs) We really liked that one.
They’re coming from a real raw place. They’re steeped in all this afrobeat and funk music they’ve played with us over the years, but a lot of these guys come from a background of loving this really heavy, crazy, demon-guitar stuff. It sounds like a weird combo, but they have something in common with our musical philosophy, which is a certain idea that nobody is playing to prove their worth as a musician.
They’re playing to try to make people dance and try to make people feel something. They’re very in touch with that, and they’re not afraid of playing something stupid if it’s gonna move somebody.
By the time we got to this third record, they kind of had their own sound. They’d been influenced by the Ethiopian stuff, the Nigerian stuff, and Funk, but they put together their own sound and they knew exactly what they wanted to sound like. It made this last record really easy. They recorded the whole album in two days. They worked out the songs and we went in there and cut it all live. No overdubs, nothing, that was it. There may have been one solo we fixed, or a couple of edits where we took out the razorblade to save a beautiful take, but for the most part it was all live.
That’s impressive, but I think it’s important that you qualify that, especially for new bands: How much prep time goes in to those two days? Before the tapes even start to roll?
That’s a good question. It was a lot. They worked out all this music far beforehand. They wanted to record months earlier, but the fact that we pay so much attention to every detail of each album means Daptone can only release a couple of records per year. So they kind of had to wait in line to get this record made.
That can be frustrating for the artists, but because of it they came in very prepared. They had a whole bunch of songs written that they’d been playing on the road, and a few new ones. Even on the arrangements, I didn’t have as much input this time around because they were already so hooked up and together.
And of course it wasn’t just writing those songs that prepared them for making a record like this. It was having a career, and two earlier albums where they had really carved out a sound for themselves.
How has their sound evolved over time?
Sometimes a band will come out with a really strong unique sound, and by the third or fourth record they want to be real geniuses and reinvent themselves in every way. But these guys, to their credit I think, didn’t do that. They stood their ground and made a record that said “This is what we do well and if you didn’t like Budos Band II, you’re going to hate Budos Band III!” (laughs). It came out really strong, and I think it’s their best record yet. - Justin Colletti
Check out Budos Band III, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and the entire Daptones roster over at www.daptonerecords.com. Follow Daptone on Twitter @DaptoneRecords. And catch an upcoming show: Ring in the New Year with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings December 30 and 31 at the Best Buy Theater, Times Square NYC; and see the Budos Band December 3 at The Bowery Ballroom.
Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer and music producer who’s worked with Hotels, DeLeon, Soundpool, Team Genius and Monocle, as well as clients such as Nintendo, JDub and Blue Note Records. Visit him at www.justincolletti.com.