Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
When you’re recording live in the studio, how do you make the tonal transitions from rhythm to lead?
All my effects run through a Bob Bradshaw switching system, so they’re bypassed when I’m not using them. It’s set up so I can use three different amps, all simultaneously or separately. In this case, I had a Homestead red head amp [a 100-watt head stocked with optional 6550 power tubes], which replaced my old Cesar Diaz. Homestead is a continuation of Diaz—it’s the same people. That’s my cleaner sound, which is not clean, but dirtied up like a really loud Fender. In the second spot, what I call the “big head” position, I run either my Soldano SLO-100—which has been drastically modified by Mike Soldano—or one of my Marshalls. And then I always use a small amp of some sort. Recently, I’ve been using an Alessandro recording amp, which only has a volume and tone control. I usually have it blended in with any other amps I’m using. Occasionally, I’ll even use it by itself, but most of the sounds are the Homestead or the Soldano with the Alessandro—or all three.
Do you use the same configuration live?
Live, it’s the two big heads, but I never use them at the same time. I haven’t yet used the small amp live, but I may because it’s such a cool sound. I know Stevie Ray Vaughan used to have an amp in the truck or downstairs in another room that was being miked, but so far I haven’t gone there.
Are all the amps isolated from one another?
I had the Alessandro right by me so I could feel it. It’s almost like a little monitor. It’s in the room, but it’s not loud enough to worry about bleeding into the drum mics, and there’s a gobo between it and the drums. The two 4x12 cabinets, which are being driven by the 100-watt heads, are in a separate room, next to each other, but with a little separation. Because they were in a big room, we could use both close and distance mics for the big amps. It gives us a lot of possible combinations.
On many solos, your overdrive has a rich vocal quality. Is that all from the amps or are you using pedals?
It’s usually from the amp. The Homestead has a midrange boost, and sometimes I’ll use that to get the sound you’re talking about. But sometimes I just turn the tone knobs down on my guitar. On “Revolution Come, Revolution Go,” I’m playing an SG with both pickups on, and one of the tone controls is almost all the way down.
Does having the small amp in the room help you get the touch you want on the guitar?
Absolutely. Even if you have a 100-watt amp turned up super loud, if you’re in another room with headphones, you’re not getting what it does when you’re standing next to it. So this helps recreate that without all the leakage problems.
I’m not a fan of recording with headphones, so having something I can feel and hear near me makes a big difference. I’ve done the last few records with a small amp. Before I started using the Alessandro, it was a Fender Pro Junior. I would even set it at my feet like a monitor. That way I can get feedback if I need it, and it feels more like a live performance.
Do you go into the studio with clear ideas about the guitar sounds or do you experiment once you’re in there?
Usually, we think about what worked on the last record and use that as a place to start. And of course, Gordie Johnson, whom I’ve worked with a lot, is really great in that department. We did five days of pre-production with Gordie, and I’d rely on him for input. While I was concentrating more on the arrangements, he’d be listening for what guitar and amp combinations worked, and he kept a log.
When you’re recording live as a band, do you need a lot of takes to get the keeper?
On “Stone Cold Rage,” we did maybe five takes because the song was new and it kept changing. I think we used a lot of the first take. Typically, the arrangement will be different from take to take. With some songs, we might go back and say “the intro up to the bridge was great on this take, but the solo’s better on the other take” and then put them together. We have no aversion to doing that.
The song “Sarah, Surrender” is quite a contrast sonically and emotionally to everything else on the record. How did it evolve?
It was the only song that was not recorded in Austin [at Arlyn Studios]. I wrote it after we were finished with the Austin sessions. We were all together in New York for the Beacon [Theater] shows, so I said, “Let’s go find a studio and see what happens.”
We set up, figured out the arrangement, learned it, got sounds, recorded it, added the background singers and percussion—all over the course of one long day. I was concentrating on singing, so I could drive the band with the vocal. The first thing that happened was Matt changed his original drum pattern and started playing this Al Green kind of thing. And that made me sing differently, which made what everyone was playing change, too. Since I was concentrating on singing, I played less guitar. And I realized that the beginning of the song and the second verse sounded really cool with just bass and drums and vocals. So I played a little bit of the intro, sang, and came back for certain sections. The organ was really driving the song. When it was done, I wanted to get a jazzy sound, so I overdubbed the solo using a 1958 Gretsch hollowbody jazz guitar that was a recent gift.
You’re celebrated for your lead work, but your rhythm playing is equally important to the band’s sound. How do you approach those parts?
It’s mostly based off what feels good while I’m singing. If I write a song with a rhythm guitar part that I think is cool but can’t play and sing at the same time, I usually try to modify the guitar part in a way that allows me to sing. In the long run, that’s usually better because if you can’t sing it and play it, it’s probably interfering with the vocal anyway. But that’s not always the case. In bands that I love, there’s often really cool rhythm guitar playing behind the singer that couldn’t coexist in one person—Jimi Hendrix being the rare exception. I love that, too.
Another contrast to the album’s main vibe is “Dreams & Songs.” What was the emotional point of departure on that one?
I wrote that song in Europe and I was at a really weird place emotionally. I’d found out I needed to have my gall bladder removed. So I got off the plane and went into the hospital. Although I wound up forgoing the surgery until I got home, it meant a day of absolute misery and then having to eat the blandest of bland food for the rest of the trip until I could get back and have the operation. I knew it was an easy procedure and I’d feel better after it was over, but I was in pain and I had not slept. I found myself writing, and “Dreams & Songs” was one of the pieces that came out of that. It’s a very reflective song written at an extremely emotional period.
It’s all positive now, because when I went back and looked at the lyric in the light of day—the part at the end about my son and about the future—it just all felt complete and organic. I wasn’t sure whether to save it for my next solo record or if it would be something for Gov’t Mule to interpret. When I showed it to the band, they were excited about putting their stamp on it. And then when [producer] Don Was got involved, he pulled a cool, emotional take out of us—which, incidentally, was the first take.