"The Double Drum Trio" has just come out, my first release since 2001. We play live all the time, 3-4-5 times a week, so it's not like we haven't been working.
Why then did I decide to bite the bullet and get back in the studio after all these years? Answer - the trio is a blast to play in, with Ricardo Amaya and Erik Hickerson on percussion, and me on guitar, sarod, oud and ruan. I've been wanting to capture the fun on tape.
But recording to me is for the most part a pain in the ass. Most studios have all the character of operating rooms, or storage sheds, the last place you'd ever go to make music. I've been itching to get the new trio recorded, but have been putting it off because I haven't forgotten what absolute painstaking, mind numbing drudgery the process can turn into.
An event that took place at one of these playing jobs late summer was the catalyst to get me back into the studio. It was a wild night at the High Desert Brewing Co in Las Cruces, NM, the Rasta Girls were dancing a good part of the night, and some friends had come by to listen, and to sit in.
With a group of friends was Tony Rancich, owner of Sonic Ranch, a recording studio in Tornillo, TX, southeast of El Paso nestled amongst the pecan groves along the Rio Grande. At the end of the evening, Tony took me aside and said, "You guys need to record. I work on tons of projects at the studio, listen to bands from all over the world, and none of them have taken me on a journey like you guys did tonight."
I was a little overwhelmed by what he said but also thinking, "Oh, he's just being nice to get me out to the studio." I'm a salesman myself.
I paid a visit to Sonic Ranch a few days later, and it's an impressive facility; five studios and nice places for the bands to stay, meals included. Early on the tour I stuck my head into a session with a rock band painstakingly going over a drum track. It brought back all the bad memories of recording; bar by bar, fill by fill, clinically dissecting; it's the stuff I have absolutely no patience for. It brought back bad memories. It didn't look like fun.
Then we got to Tony's most recent addition, a mile away from the main compound, it's an old adobe building converted into a studio. I walked in and immediately felt comfortable. Our sound is dependant on a live, freewheeling, improvising feel, and that room has the vibe, the perfect atmosphere to get you playing at your best. Also, we could stay at a house a hundred feet from the studio. Sold!
Tony and I went over how we would record the band, basically set up and play, and discussed money and dates. For the first time in recent memory, I was excited about a recording session. Ricardo told me at a gig, "Yeah, it should be quite an experience", which is Ricardo speak for, "Wow man, I'm so excited I can't think straight. I better have a glass of wine and calm down."
The dates were booked, Sept 7 and 8 in the adobe studio. The plan was to record for a day, stay the night, then continue in the studio all the next day.
We're a working band, when someone rattles on to me about their latest "project", my eyes glaze over and my brain goes on standby. I don't care, I care about musicians that get out and play. All my heroes were players, Wes Montgomery, Duane Allman, Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Coltrane, Baden Powell, all made their names dragging it to the gig and wailing away.
So why record? In fact, that very question has kept me from doing so for close to a decade. The recording industry, or what's left of it, has been in upheaval for that long. File sharing, downloading individual songs, spend a wad on recording an hour-long release but will you make any of it back?
Wait. I wouldn't know about Duane or Trane had someone not documented what they were doing. That fact, along with some advice from my wife and from Tony, and an increasing number of people at gigs asking about recordings, put us on the road to Sonic Ranch.
Two hours into the sessions and sixteen mic placements later (yes, we needed that many for all the percussion instruments) and we were ready to record. But first, lunch. The dining room table at Sonic Ranch is where everyone working there shows up in the morning and afternoon for meals. You meet the most interesting music folks, a band from Italy, a producer from Argentina, players and industry types from all over the globe.
At breakfast on the second day, an engineer asked how the first day had gone. When I told him we'd done five tunes he said, "You mean the backing tracks?"
I told him, "No, the whole songs."
Our engineer Justin Leeah chimed in, "Yeah they're fast."
Ricardo and Erik, myself and Justin spent two intense days at work in the adobe studio. We completed a dozen tunes.
We set up and played live, working through the takes to get the best interplay and arrangement down. Our last take of each tune was always the best. Erik and Ricardo came up with a lot of great ideas for the drum parts, they had to, I sprung a handful of newly written pieces on them at the sessions.
I hadn't recorded any sarod, ruan or oud pieces before, and to hear the sound of those instruments recorded so well by Justin inspired us to even greater heights. Justin had never recorded any of them before, but his ear told him what to do, and the results - we couldn't have asked for better.
The Ranch is in a wonderful setting. The morning of the second day I borrowed a bicycle and road for an hour down to the river and along the dirt paths through the trees before breakfast.
The setting, the staff, the facilities, and us being ready allowed for some magic to happen during the sessions.
I explained that to Tony and he came back with, "Yeah, that seems to happen quite often around here."
I was absolutely spent when we were done. I got home late the night of the second day, and laid around like a slug the whole next day, mentally and physically spent. Mixing, mastering, getting the artwork together was yet to come. Then, promoting. Next time.