Eric Ambel – Lord of the Lakeside
Though pragmatic in his approach, Ambel underscores the sense of the passion necessary in making a good record, and how to maximize those elusive moments of glory. “Brian Henneman [of the Bottle Rockets, for whom Ambel is presently producing a new album] writes a song about a guy sitting on his ass and stuck in a rut. He’s screaming and playing the guitar. The best time to get him to sing that song [in the studio] is as soon as he finishes playing that guitar,” Ambel suggests. “The conventional wisdom is to build the record and have the singer singing on the finished record. I say, ‘This is the finished record, sing it while you’re on it.’ Otherwise you have guys worrying about their vocals for a week. I went through that as a singer and it was a mess. My fingers were worn out from playing pinball while waiting to sing.”
Ambel still does a fair amount of backup singing these days, though his primary role as a musician is as a guitarist. Most recently he’s been moonlighting with the Yayhoos, a roots-rock supergroup of sorts led by Dan Baird. He ventured out from behind the board frequently to play on such albums as Cheri Knight’s The Knitter and the Bottle Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side.
And then there’s his solo career, most recently documented on the 1995 East Side Digital release Loud and Lonesome . Ambel also produced the album, but he confides that he would have preferred someone else in the director’s chair. “I know how hard I work on other people’s records; I would really like to have someone working that hard for me,” he explained. “At the time, I didn’t have the dough to do it. [Self-production] is too hard. A band needs help because they already have their own little dysfunction going on. It’s easier with someone else in charge.”
Ambel’s experience in the studio has provided him with some hard fast rules. One particular preference is that the artists not make any demos for their album. “If a band has been together for a while, people already know what they sound like. I believe it’s really dangerous when you try to record a song the second or third time. It’s like ski racing, where you have these deep ruts in the snow and all you can do is follow the ruts. I like it if I’ve got a tape with just one guy playing and singing.”
As one who has listened closely to a great number of records, Ambel has strong opinions about production and sees the process as an art unto itself. “I’m a lot more into the way records are sounding nowadays, the no-reverb sound. Reverb is usually a coward’s tool,” he says. Albums and groups are touched on as reference points, and classics are often discussed. The Band and Little Feat’s second records, the first Montrose record, Jerry Jeff Walker’s recent live album. When prodded, he admits that at some point he’d be up for producing Steve Earle, Guy Clark and the band Grover. “I’d love to have a crack at remixing Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power album,” he adds.
He also expresses his admiration for Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night — which leads us to Ambel’s big break in production. In 1992, a friend at Rykodisc suggested him as a possible producer for Nils Lofgren. Ambel was initially skeptical that he was being considered. “I said, ‘Fuck you, get me a beer.’ It just didn’t seem like a reality.” But it was, and the resulting album, Crooked Line, was Lofgren’s best effort in over a decade, established Ambel’s reputation as a guitar player’s producer. “We put together a great band and we had time to do a great job,” he recalls. “I got to do some stuff that I always wanted to do.”
One of those things he got to do was to work with Young. Ambel still describes the meeting with delight and disbelief. “We’re down in Nils’ basement rehearsing this song, and I said, ‘What we need is a Neil Young kind of harmonica solo.’ It went from me suggesting that to less than a month later I’m at Neil Young’s ranch with my finger on the talk-back button saying, ‘Could you do that again, Neil?’ ”