some years back, i did an innocuous session for an artist named amanda penecale at cambridge sound in newtown, under jim salamone. amanda’s drummer (and later, her partner) was erik hischmann, a nice dude and an accomplished bassist and percussionist to boot. i played pedal steel, baritone guitar, and maybe some dobro as well…it’s been a while.
well, in the era of myspace and facebook, you never really fall completely out of touch with people…and i had gotten a note from erik during the winter, asking if i’d be willing to work on a project he was producing (!!) for an artist named luke mitchem – who i’d never heard of, but then there are a lot more artists that i’ve never heard of than there are those that i have. anyway, erik – it appears – has come a long way in a little time. after taking classes at the recording workshop and apprenticing with jim at cambridge for a time, erik made the acquaintance of sam kassirer, an independent producer and sideman in josh ritter‘s band who has amassed an impressive list of clients in the new england singer/songwriter realm – including ritter, mark erelli, kris delmhorst, erin mckeown, allie moss, langhorne slim, and others. erik took amanda’s next project there, and began interning for sam in the interim as well…and ended up becoming a full time assistant at sam’s amazing rural maine studio, the great north sound society.
when you think about records that were made by bands living together in a communal space…records like music from big pink or august and everything after, the place you’re probably picturing in your head would look a lot like GNSS. it’s an old maine farmhouse, built in 1790, sitting just off a curvy rural road in what my wife, the maine native, informs me that the locals refer to as “the willywags”. it’s been modernized only in the essential areas (insulation, electrical service, et cetera) and is absolutely charming…and i don’t mean that in the martha stewart vernacular…the place literally does charm you after you’ve been there a few hours. i think you could pick any cast of one of those awful reality shows that seem to be all the rage on VH1 and places like that and send them to GNSS for a week, and they’d all be knitting and exchanging recipes by the end of the week. something about this place really does amplify whatever good you bring there with you.
to his credit, erik did about as thorough a job of prepping everyone involved for this concentrated block of studio time as anyone i’ve ever worked with. we discussed my involvement during the winter, and he already knew then, roughly, when the sessions would be taking place…within a month or so, he had it nailed down to the week the recording would be taking place and had given me the dates that i should plan on being there. not long after that, i had an email link to a DropBox account with demos of the songs they’d chosen for the album. then, about three weeks before the sessions were scheduled to begin, i had detailed directions to the studio, an itinerary of what would be taking place on which days, full details about accomodations and the like…and a request for anything specific that i might need from a dietary standpoint (which is quite funny if you know me better than erik did at the time, but kudos to the guy for asking, right?)…dude really covered every single bullet point on his agenda, and did so well in advance. an absolute seasoned pro.
i had gotten home from the boris garcia west coast run late monday night, and essentially had tuesday to get myself together, do some laundry, prep the instruments i was taking with me, and get ready to leave for maine. wendy and danny were coming along and would be going to her brothers’ house outside of freeport to spend a few days with him while i was working, so packing the car was going to be the usual adventure…but we pulled it off.
i brought two lap steels (my number one rickenbacker and the national that i got from the BG guys), the new carter pedal steel, a dobro, a weissenborn, mandolin, banjo, baritone guitar, the mandoguitar, and my pedalboard. i was going to bring “the toaster” (my tweed gibson GA20), but i left it at home due to space constraints…and because i was pretty sure they’d have something that would be well within my ballpark at the studio. what i was able to bring certainly covered what i was asked to bring, and then some…so i wasn’t worried. it was tight in the lil’ ol’ Elantra on the way north, but the trip actually went pretty quickly, all things considered. there was actually a bit of daylight left when we crossed the maine border, which i didn’t expect at all.
when we got to the house, the folks who’d already assembled were jamming in the living room when we knocked on the door…luke and erik were there, obviously, but they’d been joined by erik’s friend jordan, who’d played keys on amanda’s record that they cut there, and bevin foley – luke’s friend and fiddle player from colorado. we unloaded the car, walked wendy and danny through the place during introductions, and they went on their way to uncle chris’ house…at which point, i settled into the control room with erik while he took me through the songs in the state they were in as of that point, and we made some notes about instrumentation ideas over a beer or two. all the guitars had been done at that point, as well as drums on everything that would be getting drums…and bass had been cut on some of the tracks, although not everything that had been cut at that point was a keeper – but it was certainly enough to get an idea as to where we should go with what i was bringing to the table. we decided to start the next morning with pedal steel and go from there.
we started with a song called catacomb…they had cut a fiddle figure that erik really liked as a melodic hook that came in at the top of the song, and he wanted me to revisit it with the steel at the point that the drums and bass came in…so we started there and ran through to the point where the drums dropped out again. i ran it a couple of times, to give him some options, and then the damndest thing happened.
he comped the track on the spot!
that’s right…instead of amassing a boatload of garbage to wade through during mixdown, he picked the part that he liked from the second pass and comped the two passes into a single track before we moved on to the next thing…which leads me to believe that he already knew, for the most part, what he wanted from the first and second passes when they were done, and he opted to save the time during mixdown and just getting the two parts into one piece while it was staring him in the face.
as a lot of you know, this whole “comping” process is a bit of a head scratcher for me. i’ve never understood why people would want to put themselves through such torture. when left to my own devices, it never, ever happens. if i don’t get a full pass that i like, i do it again. now, granted, not everyone has the perceived luxury of working that way…but generally speaking, i spend less time getting the one pass that i truly like, start to finish, than i’d have spent running it three, four, or five times to give myself choices later on. but – i do it my way when it’s left up to me, and when it isn’t my call….i do what the client wants. if they want six passes, i’ll give ’em six passes.
so…it set the tone in a refreshing way to get out of the gate the way we did on the first track.
also, because we weren’t working on an hourly basis, it freed erik up to experiment a bit as well…there were a couple of songs where he wanted “slidey stuff” that didn’t necessarily fit into the typical pedal steel fingerprint – one song, omaha lilly, was a good example – it has pedal steel on it, but just three harmonic notes, a la the old NBC chimes. (we overdubbed two different patterns of mandoguitar on that one later.)
so we worked on pedal steel most of the morning of day one, and had wrapped pedal steel by lunchtime. after lunch, they did some fiddle work with bevin, and we worked on baritone guitar and mandoguitar a bit later that afternoon. luke and i were in the control room with erik while bevin was overdubbing a vocal harmony on catacomb, and luke told me, “if she’s in there long enough, she’s going to start asking questions about the lyrics. just wait.”
sure enough, after a couple more passes, a voice comes over the speakers….
“does she have big boobs?”
after exchanging puzzled glances, we asked her, over the talkback, why she would ask such a question.
“well, the river running between two mountains…she’s crying, right? so if the river is running between two mountains, she must have big boobs, right?”
i think i fell in love with bevin a little at that very moment.
needless to say, it only got sillier from that point on, but she turned in a great vocal and we put my first day at GNSS to bed not long after…we had dinner and settled down to watch a movie together before bedtime (the life aquatic, which i never need to see again, thanks very much). we all got a chuckle out of the fact that most of the movies on the top shelf of the library, while none actually WERE adult titles, all had titles that COULD have been porn flicks.
the plan for day two, since bevin had friends in portland who were picking her up that night, was to get through what was left for her early the next day, so there’d be no pressure for her to complete her parts before they paid us a visit that night to pick her up. as such, i woke to the sounds of bev playing fiddle above me in the attic the next morning….which was ok with me. 🙂
when she was ready for a break, i did a lap steel part on man on fire, and later did some banjo and mandolin overdubs.
we also found out that day that levon helm had passed away, a few miles to the south of us.
knowing beforehand how sick he was, i knew the news was coming…but it’s never welcome, whether you’ve had time to prepare for it or not.
later, while luke was putting down vocals, jordan and i were jamming on guitar and mandolin in the living room on the other side of the house. we ran a bunch of old grateful dead songs, and made sure to run up on cripple creek during the jam. i don’t know that i’ve ever heard a somber version of that song, and that would’ve been the perfect opportunity…it’s just a plain and simple expression of joy, and that’s how i’ll remember that afternoon.
i had a handful of great conversations with luke during the sessions as well…i got there knowing almost nothing about him, but he felt like a kid brother by the time we parted ways on saturday. in a lot of ways, he’s new to this whole business…but he’s got three albums under his belt already. he’d been working with an engineer from colorado on his previous records, but wanted this one to have more of an ensemble feel to it, and since he was a fan of josh ritters’ music, he connected a few dots that led us all to GNSS on this particular occasion. we talked about beater cars, about touring, about day gigs, about family…he really is a Good Guy.
before darkness had fallen on the second day of work, both bevin and myself had completed all our parts – bevins’ being fiddle and vocals, mine being lap and pedal steel, baritone guitar, mandoguitar, mandolin and banjo…while it would seem natural to assume that this much work could be covered in the space of two full days in the studio, it honestly didn’t feel as though we worked that diligently – there was a lot of downtime for meals and in between moving from song to song and musician to musician. again, the amount of work that was done can largely be attributed to the manner in which erik ran the ship. while none of us were working constantly during the course of the day, erik was running the ship from the time he rolled out of bed in the morning until we wrapped at the end of the day – he kept everything on the rails and moving forward, and seemed to have near-expert intuition with regard to pacing the lot of us.
bevin’s friends, lauren and jason, got there a little before the sun went down, and we made dinner and enjoyed some adult beverages – then, after dinner, erik set up mics in the live room for a group vocal on one of luke’s songs called charlie, it’s alright – an idea that jordan claimed bragging rights for, having apparently hit erik with it at the moment he got off the plane. erik set up the session in pro-tools, then ran back into the room to participate in the festivities.
after we finished the vocal, another impromptu jam session erupted in the living room with our new friends before we said goodbye to bevin. erik was clearly enjoying himself, and reveling in the sense of accomplishment from having gotten so much work done up to that point…we had a short listening party in the control room for a few of the songs before they left, and he was totally animated while listening to the playbacks…it really put a smile on my face to see everyone so happy with what we’d done.
we walked our departing friends outside, exchanged lots of hugs, and the newly formed boys’ club stood outside as the car was swallowed up in the darkness, listening to the quiet and staring up at the stars much like a manhattan tourist would in the forest of skyscrapers that make up the city. it was just luke and i, erik and jordan…we got to hear some great stories about food fights at erik and jordan’s alma mater (including a story about the launch of an orange that should’ve been the start of a major league pitching career), luke’s encounters with the dogs along the road during his morning runs…and whatever else seemed to pop into our heads at the moment. nothing quite like male bonding under the stars in the middle of a stretch of rural maine access road.
i don’t know what time the rest of the guys woke up on saturday morning, but jordan and erik were working on piano parts to the end of the kingdom when i came to, so i stumbled into the shower and ultimately made my way downstairs, luke was making omelettes for everybody. i had already packed all my gear up and had everything staged when wendy & danny arrived with uncle chris, so i hung out at the kitchen table with luke for a bit while we waited for them to arrive. it was easily the least stressful recording experience i’d ever had, and in talking to luke that morning, the satisfaction that he felt with the way things had gone was palpable. he was clearly over the moon with how things had gone, and i don’t think he really had any barometer for what to have expected…but we were all really excited by what we’d managed to accomplish in our time there.
jordan and erik were putting down wurlitzer tracks for when atlas fell when my ride arrived…they took a break long enough to help me load the car, then more hugs and we were down the road…we stopped at the portland pie company in westbrook for lunch, then back to uncle chris’ house for a moment before heading back home. i’d planned on extending our visit by a couple of days to take on gigs with craig bickhardt in rockport and cambridge, MA that weekend…but i’d been hearing rumblings about some kind of monsoon-like rains that were supposed to start back home – somewhere in the neighborhood of four inches of rain in a 24 hour period – and i knew that i’d have serious, serious problems waiting for me in the basement if that happened and i wasn’t there to temper whatever water might come in through the corner wall. so i curtailed my plans and we drove home directly from uncle chris’ house, arriving somewhere around 1am or so.
it was now the wee hours of sunday the 22nd of april, and since the 9th of april, i had spent exactly one night at home.
quite a whirlwind, this run.