The control room of Cobb's 1974 studio
When Shooter Jennings called Dave Cobb, his longtime studio collaborator, two summers ago to enlist his services in making “a wild record,” the producer's initial surprise soon gave way to excitement. True to his late father Waylon's maverick spirit, Shooter wanted to tear down the fences that existed between the kinds of music that had influenced him growing up — ranging from Pink Floyd to Nine Inch Nails, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to the soundtracks of early Nintendo games — to make a concept album that would push sonic and stylistic envelopes. The fact that Cobb shared those influences and desires was the icing on the cake.
“We were rebelling against being in a box,” says Cobb, a rock dude who has made his mark primarily with amped-up country records like Jennings' and Jamey Johnson's. “By ‘wild record,’ I think Shooter meant anything but what we'd done before. It turned out to be a culmination of all those influences — really classic rock, but also not being scared to digitally manipulate sounds.”
At the time, Jennings had written just one keeper — “Black Ribbons,” which would provide the album with its title and emotional thrust. But he did have a broad concept in his head inspired by the sociopolitical unrest and economic tumult that were threatening to knock the world off its axis, along with the big changes in his own life, starting with the birth of Alabama, his daughter with actress Drea DeMatteo, and his split with Universal South Records. “I went into the studio with a blank slate and the intention of creating an audio movie,” Jennings recalls.
The two collaborators spent 10 months holed up in Cobb's basement studio — which bears the name “1974” after the year the producer was born — and proceeded to build Black Ribbons from the ground up. They started by recording drums to tape, cutting them up and using the results as samples. “It was more about messing up the sounds than trying to get a natural representation of the sounds,” Cobb explains. They used Reason to MIDI-track most of the keyboards in creating the complex sonic architecture, “but we used a lot of real instruments too,” Cobb points out. “We both played a ton of guitars, a lot of them with fuzz boxes directly into the console [a Neve 8068]. Him and I are kinda hack engineers, so it was whatever came out. Some of it was good and some of it wasn't. But we kept the worst parts and made a great record out of it.”
“Dave's the analog dude; I'm the digital dude — that's our running joke,” Jennings says. “He's got all the vintage gear; I've got the synthesizers and the programming knowledge. We were breaking new ground left and right, doing things we'd never done, and things we'd never even heard of being done. It was an exploration for us.”
“The way we made the record was very mad scientist,” Cobb says. “The previous records we'd done were all old-school; this one was very much the opposite. This one was, ‘Let's abuse technology.’ Shooter, surprisingly, is a computer genius. He knows how to get into a sampler like nobody's business. So I was primarily the analog engineer and he was the digital operator and programmer. But we also called in Greg Gordon, who started out with Rick Rubin back in New York, to do the band tracking towards the end and then mix the record — he was a big part of it as well.”
When the digitally constructed tracks were complete, they brought in bass player Ted Russell Kamp and drummer Brian Keeling to replace and in some cases play on top of the programmed grooves. In those cases, says Cobb, “We recorded digitally to Pro Tools, but we bounced the real drums and the digital drums to a stereo pair on the analog machine.” They also served as the rhythm section for the songs designated for live-off-the-floor treatment, joined here and there by Shooter's buddy Jonathan Wilson, who jammed over the passages that called for six-string intensity. Shooter's mom, Jessi Colter, and sister, Jennifer Davis, sang backing vocals on the title cut. Near the end of the project, Kamp came up with “When the Radio Goes Dead,” which serves as the album's thematic climax.
One key piece of gear was the Avedis MA5 mic-pre Jennings used to record his vocals at home, singing into an AKG D19. They also used a pair of Avedis E27s on the stereo bus. “We put the whole mix through those, and they rocked everything,” says Cobb. Additionally, they made use of Cobb's UREI 1176s, Fairchild 660 and EMI RS124.
But there was still one crucial bit of unfinished business. After months of failed attempts, Jennings finally got word to novelist Stephen King, who agreed to provide the voice of the album's narrator, the late-night talk-radio host Will o' the Wisp. Jennings sent King the finished tracks and the monologue he'd written, and a few weeks later he received a recording of the author's performance.
“He took what I'd done, doctored it and made it his own,” Jennings says. “He threw in some awesome lines, like ‘Killing for peace is like fucking for chastity.’ That made me feel vindicated for any frustration I'd felt. It told me I really was on the right path. Not that it should matter, but for any human being there's always an element of doubt, and that experience shut those demons up for me, so that I was able to finish this record and put the passion into it that it deserved. I'm super-proud of this record, and making it was one of the best times of my life. In a way, I'm the man I am now because of it.”
The 70-minute opus Black Ribbons hits March 2 on the Rocket Science label.
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