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Q&A With Dwight Yoakam

Mix’s September issue includes a feature on recording Dwight Yoakam’s 3 Pears (Warner Bros.), the country star’s first studio album of (mostly) new material since 2005. The self-produced release was created in a handful of L.A.-area studios with a little help from songwriting collaborators Ashley Monroe and Kid Rock; from Beck, who co-produced two tracks; and from several engineers, including Marc DeSisto, who did the lion’s share of the recording and mixed three songs. Yoakam had a lot more to say than we had room to print. Here’s our complete interview.

Dwight Yoakam

Photo: Randee St. Nicolas

Mix’s September issue includes a feature on recording Dwight Yoakam’s 3 Pears (Warner Bros.), the country star’s first studio album of (mostly) new material since 2005. The self-produced release was created in a handful of L.A.-area studios with a little help from songwriting collaborators Ashley Monroe and Kid Rock; from Beck, who co-produced two tracks; and from several engineers, including Marc DeSisto, who did the lion’s share of the recording and mixed three songs. Yoakam had a lot more to say than we had room to print. Here’s our complete interview.

Congratulations on finishing a great new album.

It was in no small part thanks to someone like [engineer] Marc [DeSisto] who Joe Chiccarelli handed to me. Joe worked on a track or two, but his schedule wasn’t going to permit him going deep into this. I owe Joe a call of great thanks, because Marc stayed with me through the rest of the project. He and I babysat this thing till the wee hours at various studios all over the city. Then Marc ended up mixing three tracks, too. He mixed “Trying,” “Dim Lights,” and “Ring of Fire.”

But a lot of other people worked on this, too. The reason I was late for this interview is I was handed the booklet copy to read right before this and told I needed to look at it right away. I am going track-by-track and individually saying who played what, and who recorded, who assisted. My creative director on the project said that, because of this, giving a little breathing room to the lyrics was a bit of a horror. But this record is about the recording of it I think, because of the way it came together.

How is it being back at Warner Bros. after a dozen years?

Lenny Waronker executive produced it with me, but I almost never went into the building in Burbank. The only time we went in, Marc and I brought a drive over there to sit and listen to the mixes and do the final sequence. Lenny and I did everything else in my car actually. Every couple, three weeks I would go over and I’d pull up in front and say, “Can you come down?” We’d sit in the car at the curb in front of the Warner building. It was sort of a relived adolescence, just out there thumping away in the car.

But this one time, Marc and I went into the basement. They have a couple different mastering rooms in the bowels of the building, and so there we were in the famous Warner Records/Reprise building on Warner Boulevard in Burbank, the building with the palm trees like you see on the records, and we glanced over and pick up a box that’s just laying there, and it’s Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.” I guess the house engineers had been doing something with it, and because of the sonics on my record, it was ironic to find it there. On the song “Rock It All the Way,” there’s an homage to Tommy James in the breakdown. The melodic stuff on this record has a lot of influence of that kind of guitar rock.

But we were chasing ghosts all over L.A., it felt like, at times. We started recording in EastWest, which was the old United Western studios where [The Beach Boys’] “Pet Sounds” was predominantly recorded, and the Mamas and the Papas worked. And I cut some things over at Sunset Sound, where the Stones did “Exile.”

And you cut one song at Paramount, right?

Yeah, we cut “Waterfall” there, which was one of the gifts on the record as far as finding a moment in the studio and pulling something together that you hadn’t imagined when you walked in that day. There was some famous stuff cut there, too, of course; the Jackson 5 cut there. And then we also worked at Henson, which is the old A&M studios where Marc worked for years. He did things on U2 there; I believe he cut “Desire” with them there in Studio D. I worked in the front room, Studio B, where Carole King did “Tapestry” and some of the Carpenters’ stuff was done. We worked all over among the ghosts of L.A. recording, and hopefully some of the molecular echo return of that shows up and haunts us on the record.

Tell me what it was like working with Marc at Henson. He says working there is as comfortable as putting on a pair of old sneakers. Had you worked there before?

I cut one previous thing, one or two. I did a vocal for Michelle Branch’s album, but that’s all I’d ever done previously.

Marc was great because he knew where everything was hidden up in the old storage attic of analog equipment. He’d go up there and start rummaging around, and we’d come back from dinner, and he’d go, “Look at this. They got a Cooper Time Cube. We gotta use this!”

When they rebuilt A&M in the late ‘80s Marc had been one of the staff engineers there that rewired it. So it was fascinating to make a record with someone who had such a breadth and width of understanding—a deep, resonant understanding of the historic legacy of the rooms.

And you did end up using the Time Cube, right?

We did. The Cooper Time Cube is a coiled up garden hose in a box. You can hear us hit it. Kevin [Mills], who was the assistant engineer when we were overdubbing on Missing Heart, actually hit it to get a crashing roar kind of sound effect on that track.

Marc said he had the effect on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in mind.

Right. Kevin is actually a former drummer; he would reach down with his hand and hit it. Actually, two or three of the assistant engineers on this were former drummers, so that was interesting. I always find it’s great when the technical guys—the guys who work behind the board—are former musicians or musicians. It brings immediacy of understanding. It allows for shorthand and a gestalt to the final result.

Tell about how you and Marc developed the guitar sounds on the album.

This album is probably one of the first, if not the first, times in my career that I’ve played electric rhythm. But we were fighting a little bit with the sound. At one point, we were trying to replicate something from the day before, but it wasn’t happening. I’m using a Vox AC30 and also a Fender Super Reverb throughout the album, and the lead guitarist, Eddie Perez, played through two reissue black-face Fender Deluxes. All of them have been hotrodded—with reworked tubes and transformers.

Anyway, we walked out in the room one day at EastWest, and I said, “What’s that mic up there that you’ve got for ambience in the room?” And he said, “We could pull that,” and we ended up yanking down these Coles ribbon mics and putting them on the guitars. We had played with a couple of different mics previously. You know, there’s a standard procedure for miking guitar amps that people have been doing for a long time, but Marc was willing to explore other ideas.

We took the Coles mics as a cue from The Beatles. When you look at some of the Recording the Beatles pictures, they use these mics; they look like an old radiator. From then on, that became the sound, exclusively.

I also want to mention that Robert Dixon [of Amphole] reworks our amplifiers for us. He has done wonders with my Vox, all my Deluxe reverbs, and he’s worked with us for years; he is sort of a well-known secret weapon in the amp business. He takes them to where they can go and then says, “Okay, that’s it we need to leave the amp be. Let it live there.”

On the Deluxe reverbs, I think we go for probably 20 watts rms and it ends up at about 34 or 35, but it still breaks up nicely. Same thing with the AC30 and my Super Reverb.

I heard that you introduced the original songs on the record to the bandmembers in the studio on the tracking dates. Was this deliberate—a decision to capture songs while they were really fresh?

No, it wasn’t deliberate; it was just the nature of how we were working on this album. But it did lead to finding different approaches. The song “Waterfall” is a great example. I showed them the basic song, and they sort of played along, and I said, “Well, now you’re just playing along with me. Find something else.”

So we kept trying different things, and then Jonathan Clark on bass did a little choked kind of gliss—just a two-note like a pulse, half fooling around with it. It was just a root, and I said, “That’s cool. Just do that. Stay on it.” That became the bed of the verse.

Then I turned to Mitch [Marine], who was sitting over there on drums, and said, “What would you play for a Beatle-like sound?” And he actually did something that was very tribal, and I said, “Hey, we stole a little bit from the Beatles, let’s steal more. Let’s put towels over the drums.” So we covered the drums. That’s the old Abbey Road trick on “Come Together”: to go beyond dead with the drum sound. So we covered the drums with towels, and that’s how we cut the verses. Then on the chorus, it releases: He pulled the towel off the snare drum and played it wide open on the back beat. I was in the adjacent iso booth at Paramount, and I was playing the electric guitar, but then I stopped and just instinctively went: I need to just sing it with those two. The first verse ended up just having little kind of accent moments of electric guitar—very subtle, just below the radar, not being played with any intent.

And all that led to a wonderfully happy magic garden to explore. By the second verse, there’s an organ pad that Brian Whelan’s playing underneath—really a growl—and then on the B section, he comes in with that kind of lullaby piano answer.

“Trying” is another example. On that, I sang a bass melody over the mic when I was sitting, just playing down the arrangement—playing the stack of the song down to them—and I said, “What if you went like this [hums a line similar to the intro to “My Girl”], and so [Jonathan Clark] started playing a variation on what I just sang, and it was great. I said, “I like that. Do that. Can you repeat and invert it?” With a live band, they become your fingers on the piano. They realize your direction. That’s what’s good about having musicians who are capable enough to let go of the orthodox approach.

Is arranging normally this collaborative for you?

Yeah. It’s just the nature of it. You don’t know till the day; you only have a blueprint. In previous albums, my former producer, Pete Anderson, and I would be very specific. We’d tell everybody exactly what we wanted: “On the second half of that verse, the dobro starts here.” It was more like an architectural rendering, whereas this was a more of a thesis treatment on arrangement.

How did you end up doing the writing collaborations on this album?

On track one, “Take Hold of My Hand,” I had the basic chorus and that opening laying around unfinished for 20 years. I came up with it originally in ‘90 or ‘91. Then Kid Rock and I had threatened to do something together for a while, and he lives out here on the West Coast some of the time. He was here for a few days, and he said, “You want to come out?” And I said, “Sure I got something.” Well, I happened to find this, and I went,”I haven’t thought about that thing in years.” All I had was: [sings] “Take hold of my hand/And I’ll do what I can/And make everything right/At least for tonight.” And I think I had the beginning of the second A section, too: “Press your lips against mine/And I promise to find/A way out of the pain/Someplace safe from the rain.” But we had to figure out what the rest of the song is about. That’s what we did that night.”

On “Never Alright,” Ashley Monroe came to my office and she had this idea that was just that: the words “never alright,” and a melody that went up; it ascended. I listened, and I said, “I think that’s one I might be able to saddle up and ride, but would you consider letting me shift the melody, maybe make it descend? And she liked it, so I said, “Okay, what if we go over to E minor instead of C [like she had it], and I liked that because there’s more of a melancholy moment to it. The song led us the rest of the way. We stared it down, and about four hours later we had the song.

Are you just always writing songs—is it a constant part of your life, even when you’re not working on an album project?

Yes, it’s been that for me for a long time. I feel like somebody with wool socks, wool pants and a wool jacket walking through a briar patch. Always collecting song ideas.

You had several mixers work on this record, which is maybe more common in the R&B or pop world than in country music.

Yes, we listened to some different mixes of some of the songs. Marc and I would listen, and sometimes Lenny would be the deciding vote if I wasn’t sure where something should land. In the end, Chris Lord-Alge mixed some things. David Leonard mixed the title track. I’d never done that before, where I’ve had, in this case, four different mixers, but it leant itself to the emotional journey of each track. Each guy would mix in a different way. You would have a different fingerprint, and in some cases you end up with something that sounds more raw, or has more air in it, more aggressive. There’s space that might not be there where some of the others would mix.

Also, I don’t think we would have gotten “Waterfall” mixed without Chris. He just nailed it. He got it. It was an interesting bit of an education for me in, again, being open to allowing others to translate or interpret my material.

Barbara Schultz is a contributing editor to Mix.