Maybe Believe was recorded at Echo Mountain Recording with the same crew that was on the group’s previous album, Lost at Last. Left to right: Stickley, violinist Lyndsay Pruett, engineer Julian Dryer, producer Dave King, and drummer Patrick Armitage. Photo by Ken Voltz
The fact that you brought in a drummer to help the drums fit in makes total sense.
I think we wanted the drums to be more of an element. Not just guitar and violin playing along to a groove, even though Patrick is a groove-oriented drummer. We wanted it to be more dynamic and make sure the drums have as much of a presence and personality of the other two instruments. One of the things I love so much about Pat is that he keeps the foundation so strong.
On “Jewels,” your touch with harmonics is so spot-on. How did you develop that technique?
That’s a sound that I really like to make when I’m just noodling around. I don’t do as much of the Lenny Breau-style of harmonics. The natural harmonics at the 5th, 7th, and 12th frets can be played louder because you can pick it really hard with your right hand and just mute with your left hand. I focus on those spots. You can make a nice pentatonic melody with those. Once I figured out how to fret notes around that, I focused more on that technique.
“Jewels” is such a delicate song and an unexpected choice for an opener.
It wasn’t the original plan, but it made sense once I started to work on the track listing. Dave came up with the idea of opening with that. It’s the most chill song on Lost at Last and I just wasn’t ready for that yet. It’s funny, if you listen to a lot of Bad Plus albums, they often start with a very slow, calm song and then go into something faster. “Jewels” was planned as an interlude between two songs, but when the track list took shape, I heard it more as a short, calming opener that could draw you in a little bit.
“Playpeople” evokes the classic sound of the trio with danceable beats, big riffs, and plenty of fiddle. How did you craft that arrangement?
That is one of those tunes where there are a few different parts done a few different ways—a few different times. That’s another one I wrote based on the drumbeat, and I got the idea for that beat from the new Blink-182 record. It was one of those amazing Travis Barker beats, and the opening drone bassline reminded me of “She” from Green Day’s Dookie. It’s kind of a tribute to that. It also demonstrated the next step in the trio and the next step in my writing, where I’m thinking more about the arrangement while I’m making the demo. They listen to it and we get together and come up with a working arrangement, which usually takes us two or three hours. Everyone really has a hand in the song even though I usually come up with the basic melody and idea.
So there’s no real chart writing? Is it all done aurally?
Definitely. I did recently get a whiteboard and some markers that we used to make our little diagram of the song when we rehearse. Other than that, we just do it by ear. A lot of times I use the mandolin to come up with the idea of a potential fiddle part. I just like to do as much work ahead of time as possible. Sometimes Lyndsey will play that exact thing and other times it’s completely different.
Did you use your old Martin on the album?
I did. It’s a ’56 D-18 and it’s getting pretty worn. I’m working on finding a replacement so I don’t have to bring it on the road all the time.
With another vintage Martin?
No. I want something that I don’t have to worry about as much. There’s a company in Hillsboro, North Carolina, called Pre-War Guitars and they are making relic’d copies of pre-war Martins. One of the other things they do is make a replica. I’m entertaining the idea of making a replica of my ’56. They look amazing and you can pick the level of relic’ing. Maybe some people would get upset about it for some reason, but I think it’s awesome. To me, looks matter. I don’t want a crystal-clean white Adirondack spruce top on my guitar. Traveling with those guitars is scary.
What is your pedal situation like?
We cut the record with only our “bass” pedals. I’ve got the [Electro-Harmonix] MicroPOG, and Lyndsay uses the POG2. The POG2 is cool for her because she can drop it down two octaves and get this enormous bass sound from this tiny, little high-pitched violin. The Micro is good for me because it’s very simple and just drops me down an octave. That’s really the effect that we lean on the most. Live, all I have other than that is a Boss Digital Delay, [Electro-Harmonix] Holy Grail Reverb, and a [TC Electronic] Ditto Looper. I don’t use the Ditto for any in-time looping, but I use it to make soundscape transitions between songs. We used just the studio’s reverb on the album and then a real Echoplex for some of the crazy stuff.
What amps did you use in the studio?
I was using a vintage Supro and Lyndsay plugged into a cranked Hiwatt half stack. She also uses the [Electro-Harmonix] Soul Food overdrive and loves it. I’m thinking about getting one, too. I used to use the overdrive out of my amp and it sounded horrible. That Soul Food is so smooth and warm. I can’t remember what we used for Lost at Last, but she didn’t use the Hiwatt. I might have used the same Supro amp. It was cool walking into that amp room and hearing her wail through that Hiwatt. When we recorded, we sent out three signals: stereo mics on the instruments in the room, a direct line, and a line from the amp. For each tune, we had three sounds and we would lean a little heavier on different ones for different songs.
“Jerusalem Ridge” sounds like the album’s traditional bluegrass homage.
We were, very intentionally, looking for a traditional bluegrass homage. Lyndsey was the one who thought “Jerusalem Ridge” would be cool. I thought if it resonated with her, then it sounds good to me. I’ve never loved the song that much, but I thought in the long form it would give us a chance to arrange it and make it exciting and new. It’s got a little bit of that death-metal shred vibe, too.
The Aphex Twin song, “Avril 14th,” was a complete surprise.
In a way, it’s maybe a small little tribute to Dave King, because they [the Bad Plus] did that Aphex tune, “Flim.” That’s always been one of my favorite Bad Plus covers. This might sound a little contrived, but we were looking for a cross-genre cover that we could do to maybe bring in some more ears and connect to an element of music that we all listen to that is not very bluegrass.
Was “Cecil” another song that started from the groove?
That was one of the very loosely arranged ideas that we came into the studio with. The drums on the album are completely different and reworked from the demo. It was more of like a techno-dance beat instead of this sludgy half-time thing. Dave King said it sounded like a bar mitzvah soundtrack from My Big Fat Greek Wedding or something. He didn’t say it in a cutting way, but he said we should switch it up. Dave suggested playing this Bad Brains-style, insanely fast punk beat over it. He actually came in and played the beat with Lyndsay and I and that was extremely fun. Then Patrick got back in there and tried it, but that type of beat is something that he would never do. He’s not a punk drummer. Then Dave came in and suggested something slower in a more John Bonham style, and Pat jumped all over that.
Do you write on the road or do you need to devote specific time to writing?
I would love to do a writing retreat someday, where you go on a vacation in a cabin. But I just can’t seem to get away to do that—yet. For me, songs don’t just pop out of my head. It’s like little homework assignments for me. I will go away into a room on tour and use my iPad because it’s so simple. You can see why kids love it so much. You just touch things with your finger and it works. I don’t have to type keys and the technology doesn’t interfere with the process as much.
Are you just using GarageBand for demos?
Yeah, just GarageBand. I make tracks and demos based on little audio notes from my phone. I make notes on my phone when I have ideas and then, when I have the space to sit down and try to write a song, I’ll go back and listen to those clips. You know that song, “Mt. Sandia Swing?” We were in Albuquerque and we just hiked Mt. Sandia and Julianne [Stickley, Jon’s wife] was like, “Jon, you need to write a song and y’all need to practice it and learn it today.” I went into the room and started to go through the audio files and that song was based on a drumbeat that I had recorded Patrick playing at soundcheck. Of course, I had forgotten about it, but I found it on my phone. I recreated that beat with the fingerstyle drum set in GarageBand and just started jamming out to it.
It’s interesting, because it’s not really a “swing” tune.
Right, but it does have that cymbal thing, though. That’s why I love that beat so much: because it’s so weird and cool. It’s like this death-metal-meets-swing thing.
Almost like bluegrass blast beats.
Dave King said that song sounded like the Violent Femmes playing jazz. It was a first take and it just had this wild energy. We didn’t get a chance to really overthink what we were going to play on that. I didn’t need to put a Charlie Parker lick in there.
In this hour-long set from the Kennedy Center in August 2016, Stickley’s trio hits all the bases: uptempo dance beats, intricate guitar/violin melodies, and plenty of newgrass soul.