Various self-help books suggest that one has to hit “rockbottom” before one can reform. Alt-country artist Ryan Adamsdidn’t crash and burn, per se, but he did experience noticeablesymptoms of burnout and frustration after turning in the melancholicLove Is Hell (Lost Highway), released first as a pair of EPs andlater as a double 10-inch vinyl. Nothing that a little Black Flagcouldn’t cure, though.
To recover from his malaise, the 29-year-old songwriter spent a fewmonths underground — literally — at a tiny rehearsal spaceunder the East Village bar Hi-Fi, where he jammed and listened to punkrock with drummer/bar owner Johnny T. Yerington. Revitalized andcreatively recharged, Adams resurfaced with the beginnings of Rock NRoll, an upbeat, free-spirited, guitar-soaked rawk albumthat not only marks a stylistic U-turn for the Jacksonville, N.C.,native, but also follows the philosophy that some of the most memorablerock ‘n’ roll albums are the ones recorded on the fly, with no time (orbudget) for second-guessing or endless editing.
No more than two weeks after Adams asked producer James Barber tooversee his new album, the two joined engineer Jamie Candiloro at NewYork’s Stratosphere Sound and recorded and mixed 19 songs in 23 days.“If we were going to release this record in 2003, we couldn’tscrew around,” says Barber, producer of Courtney Love’s newalbum. “We had to go in every day and be incrediblyfocused.”
Barber used Led Zeppelin’s classic IV album as a model for what theywanted to accomplish in the studio. “It’s full of mistakes in itsperfection,” he explains, “and also records like the DreamSyndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses; they were made for like$800 in two days, and they hold up over time because they’re aboutemotion, performance, knowing what songs to record and knowing whatmistakes will make things better.”
Once Adams emerged with his new set of basement demos, he and Barberrearranged, added bridges and even co-wrote a few new songs for therecord. “It was easy in some ways, because he’s so proficient asa player and a singer,” Barber says. “And to think thathe’s not even 30 yet — to think that only now is he entering hismost creative and productive phase.”
Barber also encouraged the prolific artist to incorporate thealternative and punk music he’d grown up with into his music ratherthan limit himself to penning more of the rootsy, melancholic fare thathelped him become a poster boy for 21st-century alt-country.“Ryan had always made records with guys who were great players,but they were usually a lot older than he was,” explains Barber.“He never made a record that sounded like his own generation. AndI was like, ‘Ryan, why don’t we make a record based on theserecords that you love?’ We talked a lot about Black Flag and TheSmiths, but we also talked about ’80s bands like R.E.M. and the GunClub, bands that — when he was 13 and 14 years old and was alittle punk rock skateboard kid — really changed hislife.”
Indeed, Rock N Roll melds together late-’70s, early-’80s punkand new wave with contemporary pop and rock into one swaggering hybrid.Adams channels Bono on the debut single, “So Alive,” mimicsThe Strokes on “This Is It,” and breaks out thick,fist-pumping, T. Rex-like guitar riffs on songs such as“1974” and “Note to Self: Don’t Die.” Howeverderivative, the album has put Adams in front of entirely new audiences.“Ryan does depressed as well as anybody, but we wanted to makesomething that was really life-affirming and celebratory,” saysBarber. “Something that people in both small southern towns andbig cities can blast in their car and get this sense of release andfreedom.”
The majority of the album — with the exception of a few basictracks recorded at Globe Studios — was tracked and mixed inStratosphere’s Studio A, home to a 32-bus Neve 8068 console with GMLAutomation, Studer A827 24-track and a Genelec monitor system.“To me, it’s one of the best-sounding control roomsanywhere,” Barber emphasizes. “We mixed in the same roombecause we knew how little time we had; we were making decisions as werecorded. By the time it came to mix, we were doing two-and-a-halfsongs a day.”
Pro Tools|HD, used sparingly, helped Barber and Candiloro workefficiently without losing the album’s inherent messiness. “Wehad our HD rig running at all times,” Barber says. “Eventhough we were recording and mixing on 2-inch, everything went into ProTools. It was absolutely an integral part of the process.
“The whole experience of having to make decisions in themoment and move on was interesting,” he adds. “Adding ProTools to the mix gives you infinite options. You can take a lot moretime to make a record, but when you’re just using Pro Tools as yourrazor blade for editing, it speeds things up even more. So we were ableto work really quickly and then go back and revisit things.”
Certainly not a polished record, but not a primitive 8-track homejob either, Rock N Roll features a retro Juno synthesizer andclassic guitar tones recorded with analog gear, but maintains a clarityon par with today’s modern rock heavyweights. “I wanted a recordthat’s going to sound good next to Staind and next to Led ZeppelinIV at the same time,” says Barber, former VP of A&R forGeffen Records. “I think making something the same way TheBeatles did is a lot of fun, but it’s more archaeology thanrecord-making. The bands that Ryan’s competing with out there use a lotof modern technology, so you can’t make something that soundsexactly like what Andy Johns was doing in 1975, even though whatAndy Johns did in ’75 informs every single minute of every piece ofwork I do in the studio.”
Barber admits to a few sampled drums on the record, but assures,“Every drum sound was made in the room, on the drums, by thedrummer. We had a strict rule: We wanted to make a record that trulyreflects what went on at Stratosphere.”
Very few people, however, were privy to what went on at the Chelseadistrict facility, which is owned by alt-rock musician/producers JamesIha (Smashing Pumpkins), Adam Schlesinger (Ivy, Fountains of Wayne) andAndy Chase (Ivy). In fact, the only musicians present were Adams— who plays all guitars and most of the bass and keyboard parts— Johnny T. and guest players such as Green Day frontman BillieJoe Armstrong, ex-Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur and actress ParkerPosey, who contributes backing vocals to “Note to Self: Don’tDie.”
Candiloro used Neumann U47s on all vocals, including Posey’ssurprisingly strong set of pipes. A UREI 1176 reissue providednecessary compression for Adams’ dynamic lead. For guitars, Candiloro“always settles” on two Shure SM57s, positioned on the amp“right where the cone and paper meet.” For bass, theL.A.-based engineer miked an Ampeg B15 cabinet with a Sennheiser 421.Drums were miked with a combination of an AKG D112 (kick), an SM57(snare), AKG 414s (toms), Neumann KM84s (overheads) and various Colesribbon mics. “They suck a bunch of great stuff out of the drumkit,” he says of the Coles. “I also had a [Shure] 58 goingthrough a Distressor loose in the room. That was featured on sometracks just as a gnarly rock sound.”
Candiloro also used an API Lunch Box, which included two 560 and two550 EQs, on guitars, which were kept at the forefront of the mix.“I wanted to make this a f*** you guitar record,” he says.“Just undeniable guitar sounds. Ryan’s got great savvy forgetting around his pedals and knowing what pickups to use. Everyoneknows you can make a kickin’ snare sound really big if it’s loud, but Iwanted [that effect] with the guitars, and the 550s were a big part ofthat.”
With Johnny T. positioned in the main room behind the drum kit andAdams in an adjoining iso booth, the two watched each other and playedas if they were still holed up in their tiny basement rehearsal space.Candiloro kept all of the mics up all the time to capture anyspontaneous, stream-of-consciousness jams. “My thing is to makethe recording process transparent to the art that’s happening,”he says. “I don’t want the red light to be a big deal. I want theartist to feel like they can just show up, put their coffee down, putthat song on and go for it.”
Staying in the moment was apparently crucial on this project, as thechameleon-like Adams can change genres and moods faster than he canwrite a song, which can happen in a matter of minutes. “Hedoesn’t have a lot of patience,” Barber says. “He getsbored. And if you spend too long dawdling over something, you’re goingto lose him.”
Even if his attention wavers, Adams produces ingenious work —and lots of it. He had four albums’ worth of material written for his2001 release, Gold, some of which ended up on his third album,Demolition. Rock N Roll was culled from yet another batch ofrapidly composed songs, not perfect by any means, but flawed and sloppyin a way that can only be allowed in, well, rock ‘n’ roll. Becausequite simply, Barber believes, “Rock music is all about justbreaking stuff.”