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Benjamin Booker: Explosive Debut for a Newcomer With an Old Soul

Blues rocker Benjamin Booker is on the road spreading the word about his eponymous debut—sometimes playing his own club dates, other times serving as Jack White’s opening act, even joining a few summer festivals, as well.

Photo: Max Norton

Blues rocker Benjamin Booker is on the road spreading the word about his eponymous debut—sometimes playing his own club dates, other times serving as Jack White’s opening act, even joining a few summer festivals, as well. After his appearance at last month’s Lollapalooza in Chicago (where a bluesman is certainly preaching to the choir), Rolling Stone’s festival review said: “The young, New Orleans-based singer and guitar slinger has found a curiously cool cross between indie-rock distortion, grunge mumble and classic blues-rock that is best experienced live and turned up to 11.”

Well, Booker’s album is pretty great, too. His unusual gravelly, emotional voice has already been compared to Howlin’ Wolf’s because of its strange beauty (or beautiful strangeness). And this artist’s guitar work is riveting—dynamic, distorted, masterful.

Booker made his album in engineer/producer Andrija Tokic’s all-analog Bomb Shelter (East Nashville), where the young artist arrived last winter, bringing along just some of his well-written tunes and his only bandmate, drummer Max Norton.

“It was just the two of them at that point, and the studio is still a relatively new experience for them, so I didn’t want to overwhelm them with adjustments,” Tokic says. “So we kept it safe at the beginning. We just set up vocals, guitar, and drums and started there, recording just the two of them live.”

Tokic, whose recent credits also include Hurray for the Riff Raff and Alabama Shakes, set up Norton’s kit and Booker’s amps in his live room, and put Booker in a booth with sightlines into the main studio. Artist and producer experimented with various amps and instruments to suit the sound of each song. The main two guitars were a ’60s hollow-body Super Lynx Deluxe Vox, and an ’80s Ibanez Matsumoku Roadster.

“A buddy of mine runs a company called Philltone in Baltimore,” Tokic says. “He has a thing for making cheap guitars really cool, and he put in high-end wiring, replaced the bridge with graphite parts. It has these old Strat single-coil pickups and a ’70s Schaller Humbucker in it; it just sounds as ratty as it gets.

“We also used my Harmony amp and a Danelectro Calendar, which is basically a 15-inch speaker and a whole bunch of tubes,” Tokic continues. “They’re good amps for rock ’n’ roll because they’re refined enough to get a really solid tone, but if you push them, they break up with a lot of aggression. I think there was a Bassman 100 at one point, too; I disconnected a couple of those power tubes so it was easier to get it to break up.”

Andrija Tokic

Tracking to his MCI JH16 2-inch machine, Tokic placed one RCA overhead on Norton’s kit, a Neumann U 87 on kick, and a Shure 57 on snare. Booker’s vocal chain usually included a Neumann U 67 with an Altec tube preamp and a UA 175 compressor, but nothing was set in stone.

“At one point, I had him just sitting on the floor with a Sennheiser 441 a few feet away from him, picking up his voice and guitar on one channel,” Tokic says. “That was for an acoustic thing. Or sometimes I would pair the U 67 with a dynamic mic and blend them together. With Benjamin, separating his guitar from his singing was a weird concept, so we did keep a good bit of the live vocals and reinforced them with overdubs.”

With the “band” tracks recorded, Tokic started bringing in bass players (Jem Cohen, Eduardo DuQuesne, Ben Trimble) and keyboardists (Mitch Jones, Peter Keys) to flesh out the recordings. “All the guys we used play different basses,” Tokic says. “Jem Cohen plays a cool teardrop hollow-body Vox bass—it’s got a really wild old tone to it. Ben Trimble plays a regular Fender Jazz bass. On some songs, you want the bass to be more straightforward—not to grab so much attention to it. But being able to switch to the Vox on songs where we wanted the bass to be really plucky and stand out was great, too.

“It was the same with the organs,” he continues. “I have a Hammond A from the late 1930s, and an A100 from the late ‘50s, and the two guys I had, I knew had unique voices that would serve the songs well. In Nashville, there’s just a sea of incredible musicians, and there’s a like-mindedness that you find when you’re recording exclusively analog. You tend to meet the same people and get a similar vibe.”

Tokic mixed Benjamin Booker on his MCI JH600 console. When he says his studio is all analog, he means it. “We don’t do anything digital here at all,” he says. “I have an EMT plate reverb, a Lawson plate, AKG springs, Orban springs, two different Space Echoes—an echo and a chorus echo. Some of these songs are very traditional rock ’n’ roll, and it was just a matter of getting the right kind of slap and ’verb, and riding your levels to get the song to stand up enough to keep that performance feel alive.

“But on others, we did all kinds of heavy effecting. We had one track where the song ends and then it comes back as a huge psychedelic reprise. We literally printed half the song to half-inch, and then made a submix mono to a tape track, then remixed all the channels. We remixed the whole outro of the song through a flanging delay and brought up the original submix and the entire new mix, and then blended them together and panned them hard left and right. That was a pretty heavy move!

“One thing that helped through the entire process was, because the experience was so new to him, Benjamin was really open-minded and flexible about trying anything I suggested,” Tokic says. “He might have no idea of what I’m doing technically, but he knew a lot of the other music that came out of this studio, and there was a lot of trusting on his part that what he was going to hear back would be rad.”