One of the hottest tickets in town during March and April was Henry Rollins' sold out spoken-word series at Luna Park. I caught the show one week, and a few days later I found myself over at Cherokee Studios on a Saturday afternoon, where Rollins is recording his next album of music with engineer Cliff Norrell and assistant engineer Sander Dejong. Sitting in front of the vintage Trident A-range console in Cherokee's Studio One, Rollins, coffee cup in hand, held forth on his spoken-word career, his new record and the current state of music.
Rollins doesn't care for the term "spoken word," and he dislikes the word "poetry" even more. "I just get up there and kind of let it rip," he says. "Is it comedy? Yeah, it's kind of funny, as life is for the most part. All I know is it's one thing I'm able to do 50 to 80 nights a year all over the world, and I enjoy these performances a lot. It comes easily-it's no problem for me to go up and talk my ass off for two hours."
He is similarly elusive when questioned about the kind of album he's currently making for the Dreamworks label. He's no longer working with the musicians who made up The Rollins Band for the past ten years. "I love them dearly," Rollins says, "and I hate to cite musical differences, but they've moved in a direction where I can't keep up with them-an avant jazz thing and some really complicated music. I'm very limited capacity-wise vocally, and I think I'd be holding those guys back. And it goes both ways-I don't want to be contained either. On the last record, I felt a little restrained with the amount of notes and time signatures.
"I really like hard rock music," he continues. "My favorite musical icons, besides John Coltrane, are in the rock world. I'm in awe of people like Monk and Mingus...I've got every Duke record ever seen, and I like Lennon/McCartney, Hendrix, whatever, but for me, Thin Lizzy's Jailbreak is a desert island record. Robin Trower, Van Halen with Dave-that stuff is what I listen to a lot...Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains..."
In light of that, Rollins has hooked up with local rockers Mother Superior, who've become the band on this recording. Instrumentation is simple-drums, bass, guitar and vocal, with piano, keyboards and saxophone making brief appearances. "These guys and I are on the same page musically," Rollins says. "Years ago they gave me their first album called Right in a Row...I did liner notes for the second album and mastered it for them, and on the fourth album, Deep, I produced. After we were done I said, 'Want to do some music with me?' We rented some rehearsal time just for the hell of it-figuring at the worst we'll kick some blues jams and have a laugh. But we wrote three songs the first night. So we practiced for five days, then came in here for four and recorded ten songs.
"I've seen a lot, and I'm a very harsh critic," Rollins says. "To me most contemporary bands suck. I have no respect-they can't kick it live, they have no sense of musical context or history. They're not familiar with Muscle Shoals, Stax, Motown, Robert Johnson...they have a record collection of maybe 40 records.
"On the other hand, there's people like John Fogerty, Neil Young, Dylan, who comes out of nowhere with Time Out of Mind in his 35th year of recording! He means it. Miles Davis, he always meant it-and that to me is lacking in a lot of records that come out today. See, music is pure; the only thing that screws up music is people. Music is waiting in the air for someone to channel it through without stepping on it. Coltrane did not get in the way of music; he was humble before it. Besides being outrageously talented, he did not go, 'I'm the man.' He went, 'The music is the man.'
"I'm not an elitist," Rollins adds. "I'm just this guy out there in the world waiting for somebody in a band to turn me on. That's why I bought the record, because I'm hoping you're going to get me off, and I really, really need it-I want a new favorite band.
"I got lucky with Mother Superior," he says. "This is a band that can't wait to go to practice. They'll play all night if you let them-all they want to do is play or talk about playing. The music for this project was conceived quickly in the spirit of the real deal and we didn't agonize over it-you mix too much you can turn a fresh peach into a can of peaches. The lyrics are good, we got good sounds on tape, and it's a band that knows their instruments. I guess my hope with this record is that people get what a good time we were having making it and enjoy it as much as we did."
Cherokee co-owner Dee Robb filled us in on other happenings at the facility, where recent projects have included Meredith Brooks with David Darling producing and Brian Reeves engineering, The Beach Boys with Al Jardine producing, and Dave Navarro with producer Danny Saber and engineer John X.
Equipmentwise, there's a lot of news. Studio 5 has been a beta test site for Otari's 96-channel Advanta digital console, and according to Robb, the experience has been a good one. "It's been very different for us," he observes. "My brothers and I are audiophiles-I hate to say analog guys, because we use a lot of digital processing gear when we mix-but in general I've usually found that the things I don't like in the digital domain are equalizers and compressors. But we were really intrigued by this console. One of the things I liked, when we saw it set up in a showroom, was that I sat down at it and without anybody really telling me anything, I could make it do something. I was really pleased with the basic ergonomics and the user-friendliness. We were also pretty impressed with the way it sounded there, and when we got it over here and we put up some of our own program, we were very impressed. So our plan is to keep the Advanta; the only thing that isn't sure is if it will stay in Studio 5 or go into Studio 2, which is a much bigger mix room."
Studio 2, at the time we spoke with Robb, was being fitted with a new Otari Elite plus console, a digitally controlled analog desk with 96 automated faders. "We're testing the water," he continues. "Both of these consoles are a pretty different approach from what we've normally done. We like the sound of the Elite Plus, and we also like the idea that it was designed by the two circuit designers of the 550 API equalizer and the API mic pre's. It's a very flexible console, and everything is pretty much resettable. We're going to have both rooms up with 5 and 7.1 surround capabilities, and then we'll decide which one has the DSP console."
There's more-those Trident A-ranges in Studios 1 and 3 are being expanded with the addition of two Flying Fader-automated Neve 4876 sidecars. The 4876 modules have, according to Robb, virtually the same circuitry as 10 Series Neves, but with a smaller footprint that makes the sidecars work better logistically.
"In the past we hadn't automated Studio 1," Robb says "because of the way our plant here is laid out. We have a big tracking room, a smaller tracking room and then the other rooms are basically overdub and mix rooms. We tried to keep people getting the tracking done in Studio 1, then moving on to the other rooms to keep the flow of business going. However, in this day and age you have to do everything everywhere. Now, we're going to automate these two sidecars and then you'll be able to plug one or both into either of the Trident consoles."
Continuing the flexibility theme, Cherokee has also purchased two Otari RADAR II hard disk recording systems and has available a 32-channel Pro Tools system. "For us right now," Robb concludes, "it comes down to not just going in one direction or the other but to making intelligent decisions and choosing combinations of equipment that make sense."