Eric Ambel – Lord of the Lakeside
In the last few years, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel has produced a number of alternative country’s brighter hopes. Whether his work epitomizes that sound, or whether it’s just good old rock ‘n’ roll, is difficult to say. The Bottle Rockets, Go To Blazes, Blue Mountain, Cheri Knight and Mojo Nixon are probably not too worried about what people call their music, especially when Ambel is working on their records.
For Ambel, the question is not new. “People are calling it this or that; I survived the roots-rock scare of 1984 and I’m leery of any name,” he says. “Most of these songs are written on the acoustic guitar, so it starts to fall into that sound. The reason I’m here is because the guitar plays such an important role in this music.”
As a former member of both Joan Jett’s Blackhearts and the Del-Lords, Ambel brings almost two decades of hard-earned experience as a guitarist into the studio. His production trademark is a clean, concise sound that favors an elemental rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic.
Ambel spoke to me in a not-so-quiet corner of Lakeside Lounge, the East Village bar he co-owns with New York radio DJ, The Hound. Examining the Lakeside Lounge’s jukebox gives some insight into Ambel’s musical values. Old R&B, jazz, country, early punk and rock ‘n’ roll records predominate. This is American music.
Ambel draws a succinct analogy between his success in the studio and the maintenance of his tavern. “Just eliminate all the things you can’t stand,” he says. “People can try all the crazy ideas, but sometimes it comes back to the most basic. By virtue of getting rid of all the crap, you’ve got something wonderful. Weed out a couple of songs or cut a guitar solo in half.”
He contemplates his objectives as the beer flows. “I’m the rock ‘n’ roll enabler guy,” he says. “It frees people up. The producer should go through the songs, help with the arrangements and make sure each guy in the band is in the spot they need to be to do their best job.
“The philosophy is that I’m a fan and there are things to be fixed. I can help, and the end result is realized for the fan. If you can pick the right songs and get the band to have fun doing it at the same time, it’s easier than working on it all year with a scalpel.”
A Manhattan resident since the early 1980s, Ambel often produces records with his old friends at Coyote Studios in Brooklyn. “It used to be the Del-Lords rehearsal space. [Del-Lord] Manny Caiati’s brothers, Albert and Michael, would take care of it and rent it out to other bands. The place became theirs, and they moved it out to Brooklyn almost ten years ago. We’ve grown together, from half-inch eight-track to two-inch twenty-four track and lots of automation.
“My whole thing was to have a place where a band could track live and not have to redo something because of the bleed. On the new Mojo Nixon album we had eight guys playing at once and it worked fine. The place is really for bands, all the way down to the lounge. You don’t have to worry if you spill a beer.”
Ambel prefers working live in the studio when recording and strives to avoid the potential overdoses of overdubs. This is for convenience’s sake as much as it is for inspiration: “It’s easier both technically and musically to work everything out if you have everybody playing at the same time,” he says.
“If Cary [Hudson, of Blue Mountain] hears the other guitar when he goes into his solo, it is a lot easier than imagining it,” he continues. “The arrangement, right or wrong, will show itself much quicker than if we have to wait another week for the mandolin guy to show up. It’s simpler as you start taking things out and you’re dealing with a two-guitar sound. I find an elegance to a small band. Simplicity is the idea.”
Despite his less-is-more mentality, Ambel is not afraid to pursue the more ambitious goals of his clients. He describes an example. “Tom Hayden [Go To Blazes] called me up after this European tour and said that they really wanted to have this grand vision, an artistic statement that would go beyond what they’d been doing. Waiting Around For The Crash was much more than just the sound of the music; the subject matter was there. It’s about the cycle of an alcoholic binge that doesn’t stop, a 24-hour period that starts itself over every day. That’s the bottom of a shot glass on the cover.”