Once upon a time, when multi-tracking and isolation meant something very different in Recording Studio Land than they do today, I spent some time in that particular environment. I’ve been in some world-class studios: Wally Heider Studio C, the Record Plant (Sausalito edition). I have some fond memories, of the making of some legendary albums. Hot Tuna’s “Burgers” is a particular favourite. We're talking about the early seventies, here.
When Jeff Pehrson invited me to observe during the sessions his band, The Fall Risk, is doing for their 6-song EP (all songs are Pherson originals) I was curious but apprehensive. I didn’t want my pretty memories messed with. Heading up to TRI Studios, Bob Weir’s tricked-out state of the art recording facility in Marin County, I was prepared for an emotional disconnect. I haven’t been in a pro studio environment for over thirty years, and the levels at which the tech has moved since then is nearly unimaginable.
I needn’t have worried. The Fall Risk’s eponymous EP is getting the best of both ends of the "that was then, this is now" tech spectrum. Producer and engineer Chris Manning, while utilising the tricks and toys of the Pro Tools that work for what he wants, has gone back to the Seventies sound for this EP, using vintage preamps, vintage mics (Telefunkens and Sennheisers), and, wait for it, reel to reel tape. He’s also going for the “one pass and let’s do it” feel: a hands-on approach, without the deadly over-rehearsing that can turn a good performance sterile, just enough to hit it without having to futz with it too much. From everything I listened to, he’s going to hit every note of this EP at exactly the right pitch. Engineer Chris Manning plays with faders
The result is fabulous. There’s an old-school immediacy to “The Fall Risk”, the kind of thing that puts the listener firmly in the middle of the music. Some productions get too dependent on the fancy candy-store display of high-end toys, and end up streamlining the listener completely out. Listening to playback of the instrumental tracks for “Cross My Heart” and “Hollow”, I realised my memories were safe. The vibe of both the music and the recording session itself are destined to join my clutch of “yes, it’s a recording studio and some things never change and what’s more, they shouldn’t” memories. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. There’s even an Echoplex on the corner.
One difference between the then and the now is the wall of video screens linking the control room to the musicians. Gone are the days of “one big room, all together, someone please find some kind of baffling for the drummer” issues. There are isolation rooms aplenty: Jeff Pehrson's in one room with his acoustic guitars, and lead guitarist Phillip Savell, playing Bob Weir's vintage SG, is in another. The other five band members – drummer Mark Abbott, bassist Mike Sugar, keyboard aces Matt Twain and Sammy Johnston, and slide guitarist Rich Goldstein – are in TRI’s “big” room, playing together.
Sitting in the spacious control room, I watch all three rooms at once. Everyone is linked and talking to each other at need; the wall of screens shows four separate rooms, counting Mission Control where Chris is overseeing the tech and the vibe, but they might as well be onstage together, feeding off each other’s energy, making it happen, keeping it real.
Laying down the initial instrumental tracks for “Cry Baby Cry”, Chris listens to playback and talks to the band. Mike the bassist gets the first feedback: "Can you get a little more greasy on the bass?” Mike obliges, sliding a third. Chris talks to the entire band: “Play it all together guys, more of an 'I’m on holiday’ vibe.”
Piano, warm and shimmering, works its way through the guitars and rhythm section. There’s organ in there too, interweaving with no hesitation and no fumbling. The track is there, coming together with heart and feeling and it’s just what the doctor ordered. For a few perfect poignant minutes, time collapses in on itself and I’m sitting in Studio C at Wally Heider in San Francisco, watching Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen listening to the playback on “Water Song”.
Chris gathers the band in the control room for a group listen. Matt crouches on the floor and gets his shoulders rubbed; Jeff concentrates, swaying from foot to foot. Conversation eddies, a few tweaks come up (The guitars sounded like the Stones in the headphones, but Phil’s isn’t translatin, might be mic placement, Jeff, try it with the flat side of the pick). The talk is technical, but Chris, helming the whole shebang, knows what he’s after: he’s after magic. And the band is delivering.
With the band used to me being there, I get to TRI a little. They’ve worked out the first five songs for the EP, with tracks recorded and ready. Now they’re starting the final track, a charming piece of Americana called “LeClaire”, after the own in Iowa, upriver from Davenport. I settle in on the control room sofa while the band’s in mid-take. Chris listens intently as the piece winds down, and offers his input: the feel on the chorus is wrong. The band, in their three separate rooms, runs the chorus again. Chris has an issue with the drum sound for this one: the high-hat’s sound is too closed, grab the cymbal so it doesn’t break over. Mark listens, tries a different touch, and the band swings back into the chorus. I don’t know, I’m kind of hearing a cowbell in there, maybe? Mark’s response – a predictable if cheerful I’m going to kill you – has me biting back a snort of laughter.
More memories, as comforting as a favourite bathrobe. This is the individual noodling, the small touches on each band member’s integral contribution. If you’re unfamiliar with the way studios work, you’d probably find this boring. As a musician myself, I know just what they’re talking about, even if my ear isn’t in the same class as Chris Manning’s. Great engineers and/or producers – Glyn Johns, Jimmy Iovine, Quincy Jones, Bob Clearmountain, Simon Tassano – is worth their weight in gold, or at least in gold records.
Of course, it helps when the band doing the work is committed. The Fall Risk is. I’ve seen cases where individual ego slow a session down or kill the recording entirely; it’s really nice to know that isn’t happening here. Ten minutes of conversation between engineer and drummer, nailing down just which cymbal hit works best in the chorus, doesn’t slow the band down at all. They’re absorbing, listening, integrating the input and the output.
This is their last day at TRI. They’re moving over to Chris Manning’s studio shortly, for mixdowns, vocals, overdubs and more. But yesterday’s session was so productive that having wrapped “LeClaire” early, they have time to do some tracking. Jeff in his isolation room opts for trying an edited Fall Risk-specific version of “HBWA”, a song recorded by Jeff’s former band, Box Set.
Before they get started, everyone takes the five pm dinner break, and my trip down memory lane is complete. Oh, man, the joy of those breaks; “dinner break” can happen at three in the morning, and “dinner” can consist of pretzels and tequila and a huge array of pointless crunchy carbohydrates. The talk ranges through joyful ridiculous inconsequential loops and backroads that have nothing to do with the session presently being worked out. Sitting in TRI’s kitchen, the discussion went from comparing precious gems to swimming with dolphins to guitarists with multiple sclerosis (a club of which I am a reluctant member) to kayaking in open water to South by Southwest. There’s Mexican takeout and salads and bourbon and good dark coffee. The only thing that’s changed, after nearly four decades away, are the names and the bands. Once a musician, it seems, always a musician. I wouldn't have it any other way.
A closing note: I've been lucky in my life, for having known a list of legendary photographers. Photos, printed and given to me as gifts and signed by such brilliant capturers of the light as Jim Marshall, Jon Sievert and Ed Perlstein, hang on my walls. I've spent a significant portion of my life in music. The presence of great photographers is a notable side benefit.
All the photographs here were taken by an astonishing young talent, Dylan Carney. I'm not exaggerating when I say that his eye for that elusive shadow, for the momentary flash of light that illuminates not just the room but the people in it from the soul outwards, through the walls and into the viewer's eye, puts him right there in that line of greats. He has that rare ability: to make a photo intimate without any sense of intrusiveness. I'm beyond delighted at his graciousness in allowing me to use his work for this article. See his work at http://dylancarney.com/
---Deborah Grabien, TRI Studios, Marin County, CA, March 2013