Nick Lowe and Richard ThompsonAGING GRACEFULLY 8/01/2007 8:00 AM Eastern
Indies are not just for kids. Once upon a time, it seemed that independent rock labels were mainly an outlet for upstart bands who were too new or too out-there to fit the major-label mold.
More and more, though, the indies are signing older, established artists; the best-known example was probably Johnny Cash, who enjoyed a great career resurgence on Rick Rubin's American Recording label. There are many more: Dwight Yoakam, Rickie Lee Jones, Solomon Burke, Porter Wagoner, Paul Weller, Alice Cooper — all stars who have happily downsized to indie-label homes. It's a great deal all around: For the labels, it means solid sales and the caché of name artists on their rosters. For the artists, the freedom to record on their own terms without the pressure to sound and sell like the majors. Two of these mature artists, Nick Lowe and Richard Thompson, have released new albums this summer, and you couldn't find better evidence of the way indies allow such musicians to age gracefully.
Lowe's release, At My Age, is his fourth full-length CD for U.S. indie Yeproc (he's on Proper Records in the UK), which boasts an eclectic roster of Americana and rock 'n' roll bands of all ages. Since signing with Yeproc in 1994, Lowe's music has followed a gradual path from his pub-rock/new wave days to his current signature blend of pop, jazz and country. The tracks don't rock like Lowe's '70s hits (“Cruel to be Kind,” “Switchboard Susan”), but they do swing, and Lowe's writing is still smart, his voice still magical and his production sense still totally authentic.
For years, Lowe used a method of writing and pre-production where he rehearses in solitude before even letting his longtime band hear a tune. Then in the studio, he very quickly plays the song(s) for the musicians, and they begin to record. “One thing that informs this recording,” says Lowe's longtime engineer/co-producer Neil Brockbank, “is that when he says to us, ‘Get the boys together; I'm coming into the studio to record a song,’ you know that he's got a fantastic thing on the go, and he sounds fantastic on take 1. There's no question as to whether he's figured out the second verse or the phrasing or how many bars for a solo. He's ready.”
This method also works because the bandmembers are all so in-sync. “As far as the musicians are concerned, they're all vintage models,” Brockbank quips. “That means they sound better than some of the more modern ones, but, of course, you have to be careful if you leave them turned on for too long! But they're so simpatico, these players. They absolutely understand what Nick's looking for, and in a sense they play what they perceive he would play if he was able, whether it's piano or the guitar or the drums. It's completely the opposite of hiring the kind of personality session musician. Geraint [Watkins'] piano chords, his choice of inversions, for example, are absolutely designed to make it easier to sing the next line. It's an old form of accompaniment.”
Production of At My Age began at RAK studios in London, a facility that Lowe and Brockbank have enjoyed in the past. “So many of the old studios have closed,” Lowe says, “and the ones that are left are really high end, which I'm not keen on. RAK is great; they've got tons of well-maintained gear.”
But even an excellent mid-level facility like RAK can eat up an indie budget fairly quickly, and given the shortage of suitable studios, Brockbank did something part-way through this project that he'd never imagined he'd attempt: He opened his own studio. The new facility is built into a former dairy, and Brockbank calls it Gold Top, after the old-fashioned cream-on-top milk.
“A fantastic location came up, right on the strip in Camden in London, just near the Roundhouse Theatre,” Brockbank says “It's right in the hub of London. At first, I thought this is going to be brilliant because after we've done our tracking at RAK, we can come back here and do our hand claps and our backing vocals — the minimal overdubbing that's required on Nick's records. However, once we got going, we found that we liked this place for cutting, too.”
Gold Top is a single-room, 500-square-foot facility, and Brockbank says he doesn't miss having a separate control room. “I'll never go back to that,” he says. “This is so fantastic in terms of communication. In my role, because I'm doing the engineering and being a co-producer, it means I can just wander over and talk to people. And we've got everything we need right here. Bobby Trehern, Nick's drummer, is a partner in the studio, so his drums are here. We've got a grand piano, Hammond organ. So when we get the call from Nick, we don't have to hire anything.”
Brockbank records to RADAR, as he has since making Lowe's 2001 release. The Convincer. “I like the sound very much,” he says of the RADAR. “The other thing I like is that I can operate it without looking at the screen. That's not a technophobe thing; I find that with a DAW, they tend to dominate production flow and they tend to determine what you do and when you do it.”
Brockbank's processing tools, however, are analog: EMT 140 plate reverb, Summit, dbx, UREI compression. He monitors on Tannoy Little Reds. “Digital recording and analog mixing, with a classic analog outboard set,” he explains. “I bought most of these things cheaply a long time ago, but I didn't yet have a studio, so I lent things to people. I also had Audio Kinetics acoustic screens and lent them to somebody. I wasn't sure I'd ever need them, but now they come in very handy!”
Brockbank says Lowe and company usually record a song a day, and, “You're in fantastic shape at the end of that first day. You've got the real lead vocal and the rhythm track. On some songs, that'll be enough; there won't be anything left to do. On other ones, there will be some backing vocals, extra keyboards, depending on whether Geraint does the piano or organ on the track. He usually adds the opposite during overdubs. By the time it gets to 5 o'clock, you've got a record. You play the song maybe 12 times in the course of an afternoon, and you've either got a record or you haven't. If you haven't, it's because there was something fundamentally wrong with our approach to the song and we need to come back to it later and have another go. We're recording live. There's no point in just keeping the bass drum.”
As Lowe likes to track live in one room, Brockbank's got to be careful in his mic choices. For example: “You can't use an RCA 77 [for Lowe's vocal] because the pickup's too wide,” he says. “We tend to use a Neumann KMS 105, which is their sort of P.A. mic; it's a handheld condenser, and we find that gives good balance of rejection and poshness.
“The mixing process comes together over the course of the production,” Brockbank continues. “There's no point at which we sit down and say, ‘Now we're mixing.’ Sometimes everybody goes home at 6 o'clock and I spend a couple of hours pushing faders around until I've got something that I can play them the day after. Those often end up being the mixes on the record. Those are the ones Nick likes, the ones that are slightly unfussy, have the spirit of the song, but haven't got tons of fairy dust on them.”
Typically unfussy, Lowe observes, “When people record live now, they make a big song and dance about it, but it does make you play in a different way, so you almost stand a chance of getting something unusual. It has a real handmade quality.”
Thompson's first album for Shout Factory, Sweet Warrior, finds the singer/songwriter/guitarist in full-band mode after making the solo acoustic Front Parlour Ballads in his home studio. Thompson has recorded for a rash of various majors and indies over the years, but one element to his career has remained the same for ages: Simon Tassano has been Thompson's live engineer and tour manager since 1982.
“We're still working together and having a good time,” Tassano says. “The last record we did, I co-produced and mixed that here in my own little room in Austin, Rumiville Music. This new record I co-produced with Richard at House of Blues [Encino, Calif.] and mixed it at Rumiville, as well.”
For Thompson's fans, Sweet Warrior is simply another fantastic collection of soaring, well-crafted originals from an artist whose soulful singing and virtuosic playing have never quite received their due. For Tassano, this album is his first full-scale “producer” job, but having a new title posed few challenges for the engineer who is so perfectly in tune with Thompson's sound. “I think Richard asked me to produce because we have a great relationship, and we know what each other means without words. And the fact of my having a room here where I can mix takes the pressure off as far as the money. There is always cross-pollination of music ideas and sound ideas, but basically we worked in the studio the same way we work live: Richard takes care of the music, and I take care of everything else.”
Tassano worked with the studio's house engineer, Doug Tyo, recording to Pro Tools and laying down basic tracks and a scratch vocal live. “Richard records a live vocal with every track, with a Shure SM7. But we replace most of those with overdubbed vocals using a C-12, which has a natural sound for his voice. His vocal has a very strong midrange and a lot of sibilance, and the C-12 doesn't over-accentuate either of those areas.”
Thompson's electric guitar was captured using a setup that combined Tassano and Tyo's ideas: an SM57 and a Royer ribbon mic on the amp, and a U87 or U67 six or seven feet away to capture the room. “I was the one to push for the room mic,” says Tassano. “The room really helped, and no effects were required at all. If you have a nice-sounding room — and this one is — let's capture it, because that's what we're paying for!”
On acoustic guitars, they used a coincident pair of Neumann KM84s. “Simon wanted to try that, and it worked really well,” Tyo says. “I hadn't used those mics that way before, but it was cool.”
The album was recorded in two batches: half with electric bass and half with upright acoustic played by Danny Thompson (no relation to Richard Thompson). During that second half, Danny Thompson played in the vocal booth and Richard Thompson had to be moved into a corner of the main room. “We had to put him in there with the drummer,” Tyo says. “We did get some bleed, but Richard's so good at playing we didn't have to overdub any of his parts.”
Tassano is a MOTU Digital Performer user so Tyo used Digi Translator to convert the files for the mix in Austin. “My chain for Richard's vocal in the mix was a [UA] plug-in Fairchild compressor into a [UA plug-in] Neve 1082. I am amazed by how it sounded like the actual model. I was very impressed by the way it interacted with the voices.”
The first song to be released from Sweet Warrior is an edgy political rock song called “Dad's Gonna Kill Me”; “Dad” equals Baghdad, and that about says it all. After 40-plus years in the business, Thompson may not be the kind of artist who's going to get snapped up by Universal, but he still makes beautiful albums, and he's still got loads to say.
“He keeps getting better,” Tassano says. “I don't know how he does it or where it comes from, but he does. I'm still a huge fan, and I look forward to every gig.”