I've always been a hardcore geek for revved-up Anglo pop/rock. I'm probably one of the only Cheap Trick fans to like their noisy, Jack Douglas — produced, self-titled debut better than their more successful follow-up. I'll gladly put The Raspberries' “Tonight” or Badfinger's “No Matter What,” as well as any early Kinks, The Yardbirds or The Who single and Big Star's should've-been-a-hit “Back of a Car” at the top of the playlists of the perfect guitar pop/rock radio station in Heaven. One of my favorite bands at the end of the '60s and through the early '70s was The Move. Over the years, I'm certain I played their albums more than a thousand times, particularly Shazam. That album is such a perfectly realized blend of playfully audacious heavy rock, psychedelia and beautifully sung melodies and harmonies that it is no surprise that The Move's enduring artistic album statement became the name of a band who have embraced the same commitment to inspired creative lunacy and great memorable songs. Ever since I heard “Let's Away” and “Oh No” from The Shazam's 1997 self-titled debut, I was immediately hooked by this Nashville-based quartet.
Seated in the House of David are (L-R): chief engineer Richard McLaurin, Hans Rotenberry, Jeremy Asbrock. Standing behind Asbrock: assistant engineer Adam Bednarik. Behind the console (L-R): R.S. Field, Scott Ballew, Mike Vargo.
Even though The Shazam (singer/songwriter/guitarist Hans Rotenberry, drummer Mike Vargo, bassist/singer Jeremy Asbrock and singer/guitarist Scott Ballew) sometimes seemed too much of a well-kept secret in town, their melodic, big rawk guitar rave-ups have caught some ears that matter, including former Jam frontman Paul Weller, who invited The Shazam to play a show in front of 20,000 people at Earls Court, the UK's biggest indoor arena. The Shazam was also one of only two U.S. acts invited by the BBC to play at Music Live, and for their performance, they were joined by members of The Move (Carl Wayne and Bev Bevan) for a live broadcast from Abbey Road's Studio One.
It's been a while since The Shazam's 2002 album, the fabulous Not Lame release Tomorrow the World. That album was produced by the exceptionally talented Brad Jones. A friend of mine, Mike Vargo, who played with a cool alt-country rock band called The Magills, is now playing bass for The Shazam, and he let me know that they were currently in the studio cutting their next album with another one of my favorite producers in town, R.S. Field.
Field never seems limited by genre and achieves authenticity no matter whom he's producing. A few of his lengthy credits include Allison Moorer, Todd Snider, Phil Keaggy and Webb Wilder, as well as Grammy-nominated albums by Sonny Landreth and John Mayall.
Field took the band to record at House of David, a favorite studio venue in Nashville. “I just about always use House of David because of staff, gear and price,” he says. “I share an affinity for gear with the studio's manager and head engineer Richard McLaurin. Richard is the main engineer I work with. He's also an accomplished musician and record producer. He knows what I like, what I worry about, et cetera. Mixing is a lot of fun with him. Also, whenever possible, I only work with friends. Life's too short.
“The studio has a really well-maintained API console with VCA-less automation; an Otari MX-90 24-track and an MCI 16 track; a lot of Universal Audio signal processing; and a smart little boutique of other stuff like a Stay Level, Tube-Tech, Telefunken and so on,” he continues. “Plus, we usually rent eight channels of vintage Neve pre's from Jeremy at Rack and Roll. We mix through Richard's Apogees to the ubiquitous Masterlink. Good mics, a great second engineer who can also do the ‘top-knob’ duties [Adam Bednarik] — all for a good rate. A studio doesn't have to be a museum to offer classic equipment at a great rate; you just have to know what you want and need.”
“We tried to find the perfect blend of live rock that Field was seeking and the ear candy/harmony arrangement that The Shazam is famous for,” Asbrock notes. “There is a lot of space in the arrangements, especially the guitars in ‘So Awesome.’ We cut 12 basic tracks live in three days. Having the basement to rehearse and record in helped. We kept a lot of scratch vocals and did no Auto-Tuning. Quick decisions had to be made to conserve tracks, ping-ponging harmonies and such. It's amazing how limiting your options helps to make real progress.”
On past Shazam albums, Rotenberry notes he handled the majority of the guitars and vocals, but this outing was a real performance-driven group effort. “It's a real band sound,” he enthuses. “This time, we did it with more of a two-guitars approach. This is the first record we've done with Jeremy actually in the band, and he gets to wail. Mike Vargo joined, like, four days before we started recording, and he plays and sings great, so we just said, ‘Go, go, go!’ We love it now more than ever. And we're really only doing it because we feel that it needs to be done.”
One development of note: After 25 years of working in Nashville, Field has relocated back to his hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., and is planning to work more out of the Austin area, possibly forming a label with Texas music industry veteran Mike Crowley. Some projects in the works, besides The Shazam, are young Texas duo the Ded Ringers, Memphis-based guitar player/singer/songwriter John Paul Keith, country music poet Butch Primm, some independent film soundtrack work and recording his own songs.
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