Billy Bob Thornton (with guitar) and engineer Jim Mitchell in Thornton’s The Cave home studio.
The joint is jumpin' when I descend a flight of stairs that leads to The Cave, a bona fide tracking room situated in the basement of Billy Bob Thornton's sprawling Beverly Hills home. Guitar cases cover the floor and lean against the walls of the main room, and the road crew is moving double-time to load gear into the truck that will haul everything over to CenterStaging in Burbank (see June 2007 Mix for a profile on CenterStaging) for several days of rehearsals. In the midst of the activity is Thornton, hands on his hips, a black baseball cap pulled down over his eyes and a boyish, Christmas-morning grin on his 51-year-old face. It's obvious that this cat is just itching to get on the road behind his new album, Beautiful Door.
Back in 2000, when the news spread that Thornton was recording an album, a lot of people figured it was just another case of a movie star tossing off a vanity project. Seven years and four LPs later — two of them certified Gold — the actor/screenwriter/director has provided ample proof that his creative resources extend to writing, singing and playing music. Beautiful Door, his first self-produced effort, marks an impressive evolutionary step in what now has to be considered a parallel career for the restless Thornton. In recent months, he's also produced projects for Mike Shipp, his former bandmate in '80s ZZ Top tribute band Tres Hombres and The Boxmasters, a “hillbilly punk” combo put together by Thornton and guitarist J.D. Andrew, who also happens to be the assistant engineer.
“I grew up as a musician and songwriter,” says Thornton, “so instead of a movie star making records, I'm actually a musician who's making movies. What happened was when I came to L.A., after years of struggle I started to make some kind of living as an actor, and I kind of had to go with what kept me alive. Then it took off, and there wasn't a whole helluva lot of time for music until I got to the point where I could choose when to work in terms of movies.”
Each of Thornton's four LPs was recorded here at The Cave and engineered and mixed by Jim Mitchell — who “came with the house” when Thornton bought it from Slash in 1999 — and mastered by Joe Gastwirt.
Like Hobo (2005), the new record has a small, dedicated cast. The principals this time are guitarist Brad Davis, bassist Lee Sklar and keyboard player Teddy Andreadis, with Thornton behind the drum kit. (He started drumming at the age of 9.) Davis, a Nashville-based Dallas native who was playing with Marty Stuart when the latter produced Thornton's first album, Private Radio (Lost Highway, 2000), is also Thornton's secret weapon, co-writing all 12 songs, co-producing and providing the album with its central textural element via his expressive use of the Gretsch guitar. “The Gretsch is a theme that cruises through the whole record, the way Brad weaves it around Billy's voice,” says Mitchell.
The Gretsch's rich, creamy tone suits the material — which Thornton says deals with “life and death on a personal level and on a global level, as well” — while providing a delectable textural contrast to Thornton's commanding, emotive baritone.
The record's songwriting process went down in intensive chunks of a week or two, whenever Davis' schedule of playing solo shows and conducting guitar clinics permits. “The way Brad and I do it is, we write a song, record it that night and finish it,” Thornton explains. “I have OCD, so I can't leave something unfinished. We don't usually even start recording until 7 or 8 o'clock, and we'll go till dawn usually. I'm kind of a night owl anyway. And then, when J.D. started working for us, I discovered, ‘Oh, here's a guy who doesn't want to do anything except be in the studio.’ So if I'm not doing a movie, we're doing something every night.”
Once Thornton and Davis had a song ready to go, they'd put up a click and Thornton would sing a scratch vocal while Davis played a scratch acoustic, laying drums and bass over that guide immediately thereafter. Then the overdubbing — acoustic guitars, lead vocals, harmonies and lead guitars — after which Andreadis added keys and Sklar replaced Davis' bass lines.
Mitchell recorded everything into the Pro Tools HD3 system through a Trident 80B console that also came with the house. Slash got it because he loved the Trident Series 80 board at Rumbo, where Guns N' Roses cut Appetite for Destruction, which Mitchell worked on with producer Mike Clink. There are racks of Neve 1073s, API mic pre's and other analog gear. The vocal chain connects a Neumann M149 mic through a 1073 and a UA 1176 and then into Pro Tools.
“We use the usual cool, old classic stuff in tracking,” says Mitchell, “and I build the rough mixes in Pro Tools as we overdub. When we mix, I break all the tracks out on the Trident, so I'm not actually mixing inside the box, and I essentially mirror the roughs with my panning and all the other stuff, 'cause as we go we try to get the song where we're happy with it, and once I break it out into the Trident, the whole thing just opens up — and the studio has this sound that's so rich. It's a really cool process — Billy loves it when we break it out into the Trident. And because I have a lot of my rides already done in Pro Tools, it comes together really fast. We mix to 1-inch 2-track +3, 30 ips, no noise reduction, with GP9 on a modified APR 102 that we rent from Design Effects.”
“Billy's a musician first and foremost,” says Mitchell, “and it's contagious being around him. He's got an amazing work ethic and he's so dedicated — he takes his music really seriously. His writing is truly from his heart and soul. I hope more and more people get to experience it.”
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