Many bands relish the opportunity to re-invent themselves in the studio, while others are happy to keep refining the essence of what they recognize as their own sound. As Blues Traveler celebrates its 30th anniversary, its members not only know their sound, but they are also aware of how to function as a cohesive unit and churn out a great record. For their 13th album, entitled Hurry Up & Hang Around, Blues Traveler took that smoldering, bluesy psychedelia to new places, working at Nashville’s Sound Emporium alongside producer Matt Rollings. Pro Sound News spoke to keyboard player Ben Wilson about hanging around and recording with Blues Traveler.
On Recording Intervals
It’s one of those things. Ever since the beginning, we’ve been sort of a “once every couple of years” band when we do a record. We knew we needed to get going on one with new material, since the last two records had a lot of co-writing on them. Suzie Cracks the Whip was maybe 70 percent co-written by others and Blow Up the Moon was about 50 percent co-written. Those records entailed a different process, but after having done them, we just felt like we were in a position to do something else with all this backlog of music we had and some new ideas that John [Popper, Blues Traveler frontman] had. We rented a house in Nashville, got together for about two and a half weeks to write songs, then we met with our producer, Matt Rollings, and went into the studio. It was awesome, and having all that fresh material made the process so much quicker and easier. It was especially great knowing that Rollings was going to come in and put the finishing touches on all our arrangements and ideas.
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On Studio Selection
We had a little bit more of a struggle finding good rooms to record in for the last couple of albums, mainly because we were doing so much traveling around. This time, it was great having Matt at the helm—he had a line on a couple of studios, and Sound Emporium was where we ended up recording. It was perfect because both John and I have huge rigs, and they really came through in accommodating everything. Once we got in there, it was kind of like falling off a log. There was, of course, a little trepidation in getting to know the producer, what they are going to like, what they are going to dislike, and how they want to process stuff. It is also a challenge for the producer to understand and respect that we’ve been a band for 30 years. There is a process that we go through, and it is pretty obvious when we are stuck—when no ideas are flowing and nothing is coming out. A lot of times, a producer just has to point us in the right direction and let us know if a certain transition isn’t working. This gives us something to work toward.
On Staying Open Minded
The great thing about this band is that everyone is comfortable giving their opinion. It is pretty open, and we have a mutual respect that if somebody has a strong idea about something, we try it. It is so much quicker to try everyone’s idea than to argue about it before you’ve even had a chance to give it a go. So often it is so obvious what the right chord is once you actually play it. That said, it is tricky to know which path is the freshest and most interesting to pursue. Aside from having a good respect for each other, very often we all have different opinions. Something that I think is really cool, Chan [Kinchla, guitar] and Brendan [Hill, drums] might not, so there is an understanding of what Blues Traveler is, and we don’t cut corners. You also have to rely on your producer so you don’t start fetching far afield. Even if I don’t love a song we are working on too much, I still try to give it my best ideas. It is a dynamic process and you have to keep trying to really fill out the songs and make them better.
On Recording Guitars
For every song, once we had the drums together, there was a long decision-making process about which amps to use, which mics we should use on which amps and how far away the mic should be. In the guitar room, we had about six amps, and a lot of the time the coolest sounding amps would be these little tiny old ones. They break up just right; they can give you plenty of volume, but you don’t need as much because you aren’t trying to play over anything. One of the things we were excited about was the variety of amps that were available because of [engineer] David Leonard securing them and knowing how to mic and EQ them before they ever hit the board.
On Staying Focused
When we are in the middle of it all, I tend to focus in hard on the songs. I listen to the mixes, and then when the final mixes come in, I listen to them a few times, then put it away until we start working on the songs for the live shows. You get bored if you do it any other way. You inevitably end up changing the arrangements a little bit and come up with different parts to let the songs breathe and turn into whatever they are going to be. But on this record, I feel like we did some good stuff and I’m super proud of it. It feels good.
Jacques Sonyieux is a devout explorer of recording studios and the artists who occasionally inhabit them. Please send any tips or feedback to Jacques at [email protected].