Reverend Horton Heat has been pushing the rockabilly envelope since 1985. Lead singer and guitarist Jim Heath is certainly the focal point, but his pal, Jimbo Wallace, has been slapping the upright bass alongside him for most of the ride. The album Whole New Life had just come out when I dropped in at Portland's Doug Fir Lounge to meet Jim before the (excellent) show to talk about almost 30 years of making records.
With Reverend Horton Heat, you're not trying to totally imitate the past with your recordings, but you're trying to maintain the energy of that kind of era. How do you see it?
Right. Well, you know, this is kind of a funny thing. When I was younger, everybody in Texas wanted to be Jimmie Vaughan, but a lot of us were slicking our hair back and playing that old '50s style; trying to cop some of that instead. Stevie Ray Vaughan, his brother, kind of flipped it. He took the blues and made it more aggressive and turned up. That was kind of my thing about rockabilly. Let's use it as a platform.
Your first record was done live to 2-track after previously tracking it multitrack in the studio?
Well, the thing is the liner notes on that album were actually done before they figured all of that out. A couple of songs that weren't recorded straight to 2-track got on the album. We had done most of the songs so many times that finally we just went straight to DAT. But it was a really good studio called Crystal Clear Sound in Dallas. They're kind of an unsung studio, but man, for some reason that studio always got the best sounds. It was crystal clear, just like the name! We worked a lot with Ed Stasium [Tape Op #98]. I learned a lot about recording from him. He's very helpful.
What kinds of things did he bring to the table that you learned from?
One of his tricks is that he listens very close to the toms and the snare drum tuning before every song. I'd never seen anybody do it. He'd tune the toms and the drums to the pitch of the song. If you're paying that much attention to all of the things, it adds up to being something really great. We did one session with him in three takes. It was 24-track 2-inch tape. It was one of those drum things. Scott [Churilla (drums)] and him got together – they wanted the drums to be perfect. Ed's splicing the tape, and he has the studio engineer running 50 yards down the hall with this tape. Ed's slicing it, and then he's putting it in. The next thing you know, 15 minutes later the first part of the third take is the first part of the song. The middle part of the song is the second take middle, and the last part is the first. It took him 15 minutes. Quicker than you can do it on Pro Tools.
And examining all the options.
Yeah, that's right. That's probably one of the big problems with Pro Tools; you've got too many options. The way I approach my Pro Tools is that I only have so many options. I leave in guitar flubs. Some of them I'm getting good at fixing, but I do it more like the old-style tape splice thing. Sometimes I'll do the take of the whole band, and I'll do a "tape" splice. I'm actually starting to like that sound.
You can hear something change? Ambient cymbals cut off?
Yeah. That's kind of one thing about the '50s – they did a lot. People have this misconception about the '50s, like, "Oh, they just went in and did one take all together in the room." Well, kind of; but they would bounce and redo the vocals to make sure the vocal was good. I love my Pro Tools rig, and what I really love is my Universal Audio interfaces. I hate to sell you something here, but the plug-ins are great. They're getting better and better. The thing the average public doesn't realize is that when you talk about tape versus digital, tape is a million different things. Those Studer decks sound so good! My thing for going for tape is that I have Pro Tools. I don't need a Studer tape deck. What I need is an old Ampex. So I have two old Ampex machines. I'm trying to work with them now, but that's hard.
Parts, repair, maintenance, and calibration.
I'm slowly learning how to get the calibration up to speed on that. My MRL test tapes and my tones. Ed told me that they do that every day at those major studios. So that's what I'm up against if I'm going to keep the tape thing alive. In some ways what I want out of a tape sound is for it to sound kind of screwed up. I'm looking for that little warble that those old motors had, and I'm looking for that distortion. A little bit of that sound, whatever it is.
The last few Reverend Horton Heat records have been self-produced and self-recorded?
Yeah, the last couple. More or less. We used a studio called Modern Electric Sound Recorders in Dallas. He's [owner Jeffrey Saenz] got a lot of nice vintage gear in there. The new record was going to be completely done by me, with the drums and everything. A bunch of the record before that was that way, but our drummer quit right when we were about to take the time to work up a new album. We just cannot take three months off all the time. We've gotta plan three years ahead of that slot. Instead of spending three months to record, we were getting a new drummer. We got RJ [Arjuna "RJ" Contreras], and RJ is a North Texas State guy. He charted the demos. I didn't want to ask RJ to come into my ratty little place and record the drums. We had to work quick, too. He charted out the songs, and we went and recorded basic tracks at Modern Electric. Jimbo did great. We only re-did one or two of his bass parts from that session. We did ten songs in two days with RJ, and there's the record. I went to my little studio and started doing the guitars, and the voice, and whatever.
Were you tracking with live keyboards on those songs?
No, the keyboards Matt [Jordan] did his parts at his house. He sent the file to me, and I just put it in. Isn't that funny?
You've been in the band with an upright bassist for decades. I'll tell you, as a recording guy, it's a difficult instrument to capture.
It's so difficult.
Especially with slap bass. You've got boom downstairs and clicks up top. You're trying to capture midrange articulation; but also, when that slap comes in, it's going to be a different level. What have you learned to help you capture and present it the right way?
Well, I have to work with Jimbo with what he wants to do. Sometimes he wants to have a little amp with him in the room. The direct signal sounds kind of farty or something. Then they put a good Neumann microphone right there by the bridge. It's beautiful. It's crazy how much low-end comes off it.
I put my ear up against it just trying to see where, listening around the F-hole and the bridge to see what's going on. You hear that. It's a monster.
Yeah, it's amazing. In a lot of the old pictures from the '60s, you see an Altec "birdcage," the 639, right there where the bridge does that. A lot of times that was live in the room. That's one of the things about this new record. They didn't have iso booths there, so they had these big gobos around Jimbo, but the mic on the bass is still picking up a lot of the drums. The room with the drums is pretty dang beautiful.
Does it work well in that space?
It worked real well. It can be really okay. On a lot of old records, that's how they did bass. A friend of mine, Danny Baker – [known as] Unknown Hinson – his dad was a studio guy back in the '50s. He played guitar and bass. He did a session in New York City where it was a full orchestra pit with a real orchestra, a really high ceiling. They had a scaffolding built up like 20-feet with the microphone up there. He climbed up there; they used a pulley and got his upright bass up on this scaffolding, way up high. That's genius! That's the way they isolated that mic to get enough low end on the recording.
Well, don't tell Jimbo. He's going to want to be the highest guy in the room now!
We'll have to tour with Jim way up there.
On a pedestal! You also deal with the issue of the bass moving. In the studio it's like, "Can you hold it still?"
Yeah. The closer the mic is, the more any little movement is going to matter. If you can back it up a few, it doesn't matter as much. So you have that leeway. In a real-world good recording, you really should have the bass in an iso booth. We did that for a long time. But it always amazed me. I'll tell the guys, "Get a direct signal; mic his amp. But put a Neumann, or some nice mic, on the bridge." I think it's a little bit simpler than what people think. But now, with Pro Tools, I'll do the options. I'll record three tracks. One direct, one amp, one mic; but the main sound is the mic. I just started going to the "birdcage" on his bass recently. It's pretty neat. It's got more low-end than you ever imagined. But I've got some pretty good people helping me. John Peluso [Peluso Microphone Lab, Tape Op #96] – those mics are beautiful. I use the Peluso P-67 on Jimbo's bass quite a bit. Most of those sessions on this album and the last, that's what was on the bass.
What kind of process do you follow through with, as far as mixing on the last couple of records?
Well, it's probably pretty easy. I usually try to make it so that I don't have that many tracks. Like I said, I'll leave guitar flubs in there. But my mixing process, since I don't have that many tracks, pretty much starts as soon as we finish the take. As the band is in there listening back, I'll create a master fader and throw on the Universal Audio Ampex [tape] modeler plug-in – and maybe a light compressor on it. So it's already starting as we're going through there. That's what's great about Pro Tools is the recall. I really like the sound of the '50s. The goofiness of it, in a way. They only had one take, so a lot of times you could hear the engineer turning that knob to make it louder. "Oh, here's the solo!" All of a sudden, it just fades in quick. I like to do goofy fades with Pro Tools. I'll program it in there.
Like a guy pushing the fader up?
Yeah. Sometimes I'll make it kind of screwed up to sound like that! It's a lot of fun, really. I like on Pro Tools how you can do a fade by drawing it in there at the end of the track. I like to do the quick fades like they did in the '50s. End of song. They're fading down before the guy's done singing.
Oh, yeah. It's crazy sometimes how fast some of those are on the masters.
They were trying to save space on the 45 and trying to save time to get it on the air for more chance of airplay. If it was too long, they wouldn't play it.
That's true. One of the things I found interesting on the recent records is your use of stereo. The drums are very stereo, the ride cymbals are over on the right, and there's kind of a spread. But sometimes the ride cymbal feels close, and there's a room sound on the drums, so you get front to back, as well as a little width.
Well, I'll usually mic all the drums, and then I have a big boom stand with an overhead that I put up. I built my own [AKG] C12 clones. I don't even really know what you call it, like an X-Y maybe? I don't know if that's what it's called, where there're two stereo.
If they're kind of pointing towards each other?
They're kind of pointed towards each other, but away.
There're a lot of different variations; but yeah, X-Y typically.
That gives me a really good spread. But sometimes I can't remember what I did on all that. That's kind of my go-to thing. My room where we record at is not really that little. I have a control room separate from the live room. But it's very dry. I know the best studios are the ones that have the best-sounding rooms. At the same time, I like working with a bunch of vintage-sounding spring reverbs. A lot of times when I cut the vocal, I'll cut tracks. There will be the vocal, and then there's a spring reverb I have rigged up. I'm getting that effect right when I cut it. That's not ever going to be a plug-in.
Is it going into your headphones too so you can hear it?
I can do it if I wanted to, or I can adjust that however I want it. I usually like to sing a little bit dry. I pull one side off so I can hear my voice more in the room.
Some of your mixes, on some songs the vocals are very dry and right up front. Really clear and present.
Right; well good, excellent! That's a compliment. Us rockabilly guys, we put slapback echo on everything. It's like, "Well, don't put it on there now, because I'm going to put it on the whole damn mix later."
What kind of echoes do you like using for slapback?
Well, I'm about to start rigging up one of my Ampex machines to see if I can make that happen, but I hate to have those things running all day.
I know. I've done those records where you have to keep going in and rewinding the echo deck.
Right. I want to have that sound to tape to mix to. That's the main reason I really have the tape machines going now is to mix to. I can just mix real quick, bounce it back in, and then I don't have to wear that machine out.
That makes sense.
But those Ampex machines are pretty bulletproof. They're military-grade. But my main one now that I use most is the Universal Audio Echoplex plug-in. I set it at about 160 ms; one slap. That gets an approximation of what the Ampex is doing, whatever Sam Phillips was doing with the Ampex thing. Another thing that's really been good for me with Universal Audio is the Ocean Way Studios [room reverb plug-in].
Isn't that amazing?
It's very amazing. For a guy like me, I can record in my really dry room, and then add the sound of Ocean Way Studios and Bill Putnam. It's a lot of the sounds of the old records that I like. The room sound is what they were getting. A lot of times the snare drum sounded so good because it was away from the vocal mic, and the vocal mic was picking that up.
I was looking through all the people you've worked with and places you've recorded before. There's a flexibility to what you're doing. Like you said earlier, it's not super rigid or conformed to an old style.
Right. We recorded with Al Jourgensen and Gibby Haynes. That was crazy.
How does Al Jourgensen make sense to work with Reverend Horton Heat? I love that.
He and Gibby Haynes were friends. Gibby Haynes produced the album before that. Our next album was a co-deal between Interscope and Sub Pop. It was really Interscope's baby. They dumped a lot of money into it. Al showed up at one of our shows in Chicago and said, "I want to produce you guys." We said, "Okay!" The session got a little bit out of control. It got to a point where it was completely out of my hands. It was all Al being in there for nine days in a row.
He spent days and days and days flying around a steel guitar part on one of the songs. That was in the early days of digital. At the end of the day, we ended up remixing some, but we did keep some of his mixes. I appreciate that Al brought what he does to the band. It's something different.
Was he using sequencing or anything really different for you guys?
Oh, yeah; I don't know what he was doing! He was always going, "Okay, quantize!" I'm thinking, "Oh, okay, I'm leaving now because I don't want to be here listening to this." It was a different session, but I appreciate him bringing his thing to the band. Thom Panunzio was good to work with. He was a really, really nice man. He had so many great stories. It was a great experience. We worked really well with him.
Was he more of an overview producer, like arranging?
He was more of an overview type thing. It's funny. A dear friend of mine, who just passed away almost two years ago, is a guy named Tim Alexander. Not from Primus, but he played piano with Asleep at the Wheel and won a bunch of Grammys for arranging.
He played on a lot of your songs.
He was one of my best friends. I could just call him and say, "Hey man, come on over and help me arrange this song." He was a beautiful guy. He'd go over to Jimbo and say, "You know, Jimbo, on this particular type of turnaround you could do this on the bass." Jimbo would be like, "Oh, wow; thanks a lot!" But his approach with all of us was so nice. He helped arrange a lot of my songs over the years and taught me so much. Yeah, I think most producers used to be more arrangers and into that. Now they're like sound or audio guys, it seems like.
Right. Do you feel like someone like Ed Stasium was in between that? He's a great musician too.
Yeah, Stasium; he's a great singer and a great musician too. He had some great ideas for the arranging thing too. Yep, he was a good one at that. We've worked with so many people, in so many studios.
I know, I was writing names down.
I don't remember all their names!
Paul and Stuart. They got a little fed up with me. That was the early days of Pro Tools. In the old days of the Studer decks, the 24-track, you'd punch in. "Okay, let's punch you in on that." You could make it sound pretty natural, but it still was never quite right. Now, with Pro Tools, you can have three continuous performances and comp them. To me it's much more natural-sounding than the punch in. With Paul and Stuart, I found out, "Oh, all I've got to do is sing it three times and go play golf? All right, man. I'm going to go play golf, and you guys can be in here doing this." I think they got a little bit perturbed with me on that aspect. But listen; both of those guys are very good. Very, very good. I'd love to work with Stuart and Paul again.
Yeah. Stuart's recordings always sound really good to me.
Stuart Sullivan is very good at what he does. Paul is great at what he does too. They were tag-teaming on the whole sound and arrangement type of deal.
What was it like working with Gibby Haynes? We think of him as the frontman for the Butthole Surfers.
He's a Dallas guy. I got to know him over the years. "How about you produce our new album?" It was funny. They had a little ratty demo studio, and we went in there with him and Paul and did the demos for that album. The demos sounded pretty good. We were saying, "Well, this is going to be something!" Then Gibby wanted to do it in Memphis, so we did it in Memphis at Ardent Studios [Tape Op #58]. Ardent gets a great sound. It's a great room. So, that was a real fun vibe. It was a lot of fun working with Gibb. He's a very fun person. He brought some cool ideas to the table that I wouldn't have thought to do.
Did you ever really butt heads with anyone who was producing the band with you?
I did butt heads with Al a little bit. I want to git 'er done. I don't want this all-day-for-nine-days-straight thing. Al knows what he does, and he was trying to lend that to us. I really appreciate him doing that, because he was trying to give us what he knew to get the sound that he wants to make. He was helping us to get that. So, I appreciate it. But no, the worst session I ever did, which I was totally unprepared for, is when we were on tour. They called me up and said, "Hey, Brian Setzer wants you to come in and do 'The House is Rockin'' with him. Maybe sing a background harmony, and maybe play a solo in there." I said, "Wow, that would be great. When?" They said, "Well, tomorrow!" We'd been on tour. I was dog tired. I was not prepared for the session. When you're not prepared, it's like a nightmare. If you're not prepared for a session, and you walk in, and it's Allen Sides [Tape Op #106] and Phil Ramone [#50]… I was sitting there going, "Uh-oh!" I hadn't really even had a chance to rehearse the song. It was a nightmare. The only good thing that came out of it was that I got to hang around with Phil Ramone and Allen Sides!
Yeah, a brilliant engineer.
Yeah. The old guys have some great stories.
You mentioned earlier that you built a C12 mic clone?
I've built several of those CAPI API clone preamp kits and they sound great. They're so much fun. I had to learn to test it and all that. Then I started modifying those mics from MicParts.com. You know, modifying cheap mics. They sound really great. That led me to building these tube mic clones. I've built two C12 clones, and it's a lot of fun. It feels really good when you put one of those on somebody, and they say, "Wow, that's the best sound I've ever heard on my voice."
"I built it."
I've built those, as well as some other pieces of equipment. Just getting into the whole maintenance thing, too. The cool thing about getting better at soldering is that I can build my own cables. If you're a project studio, you've got to have those Mogami Quad cables to eliminate noise. Those are so expensive, so I make them for a lot cheaper. That's been a real plus.
Have you ever made your own guitar cables?
Oh, yeah. It saves a lot of money, if you want to use nice cables. And I do. But yeah, there's some other DIY projects too. I've built re-amp boxes. It's fun. But at the end of the day, man, those cables saved me a fortune.