My Mouth Shut, My Ears Open
Q: When cutting a record in the studio and you have other musicians playing with you, do you walk in with all of those other parts already written/ prepared?
A: No, for the most part I just play the song to the players in the control room right before we record it. This is one of my favorite parts of the process. Hearing what great players come up with on the spot is a wonderful experience. Songs will vary in how specific I’ll be in terms of guidance but most of that job is completed simply by casting the recording.
It works like this: Paul Griffith plays drums with a certain kind of wobbly feel that is simple and yet has incredible groove. He tends to lean way back on the beat so his parts feel loose and solid and the same time. His feel is very relaxed and yet he has a grasp of quirky off time fills that have a sort of sense of playfulness about them and he can inject them at will. To my ears Paul sounds best and the most like himself when he’s unrehearsed and flying by the seat of his pants. He’s a gloriously skanky drummer with a sort of odd New Orleans feel in his playing somehow. So when you cast Paul Griffith as your drummer these are the flavors he’s bringing with him. He can play straight as an arrow if you want him to. He can go in any direction you want him to go but the tones and feel he naturally brings are what make him the player he is. So you cast Paul Griffith as your drummer and he brings his particular drum language.
Now you want to add your bass player so you start thinking about who plays well with Paul. You might want Paul Slivka who has a snaky slippery approach. He plays all over the neck of the bass. When you analyze what he’s doing you might think he’s moving too much but he’s not. He’s orchestrating the bass part. He’s making choices of where the bass line goes that play against the melody and rhythm.
So now you have a your rhythm section and you are adding to that. So maybe for a guitar player you want someone who tends to play with wide swaths of tone. Someone who lets notes ring out and plays pieces of chords as opposed to someone who plays lots of notes. Maybe Joe McMahan…
So you see as you cast the session you are making decisions about what the recording is going to sound like. It’s not just that you want great players. There is something more subtle and nuanced going on. You are also bringing the force of a player’s personality to the project and that for me is marvel of recording with great players.
When we were recording All The Broken Parts for the new album we asked Dave Coleman to play a second guitar part against the descending chord progression. What he played knocked us all out. He picked up an acoustic guitar and played a slide guitar melody based on the melody I was singing but with a completely different phrasing. If he had asked me I would have said, “just play the melody” and we would have missed out on this beautiful moment.
I’ve learned over the years that when you get smart talented people people in the room you should just let them be smart and talented. In spite of being the guy who wrote the song, in the moment of putting a song to tape, the best possible thing I can do is keep my mouth shut and my ears open.