Waylon Albright Jennings, known as “Shooter,” is the child of famed “outlaw country” luminaries Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. But how did he end up producing artists like Brandi Carlile, Marilyn Manson, Duff McKagan, and Tanya Tucker, plus winning Grammys along the way? And how in the world does being a Nine Inch Nails fan factor into this? We had to track him down!
You’re from a musical family, but at what point did you realize, “I like the recording aspect”?
As a kid, I loved going to the studio with my dad. I was young, but I remember that I loved how the board and all the gear looked. I remember going to Chips Moman’s studio [American Sound Studio] in Nashville when I was probably four or five years old. He had a poker machine in the front, and I thought that was the coolest. A lot of people get bored with the studio process, but I remember loving it and trying to understand it. Recording was what I got into about music before anything. I didn’t have a desire to play on stage; I still don’t. As much as I love playing shows, and have loved that part of my life, the touring and getting up and performing in front of people was never something that I had a knack at. When I was about 13 or 14, I discovered Nine Inch Nails. That was the musical catalyst that made me decide I wanted to play music. Even though I come from this family, and have a lot of experiences from that, it was that band. I was captured by the fact that this dude [Trent Reznor] was doing all this by himself. It wasn’t a live band. These were records that were constructed. Nine Inch Nails was the first time that I got into a band and said, “I want to make music like this.” I found out he used this product called Studio Vision Pro by a company named Opcode, so I saved up money and I bought that program. Any time I saved up allowance I would go to Sam’s Music in Nashville and buy a different MIDI brain. A “drum” brain or a “sounds” brain. I still couldn’t afford a recording method, but Studio Vision Pro allowed two or four channels of real audio, so I would play guitar and then I could do a vocal. The rest of it was all live-triggering MIDI. I finally was able to afford ADAT, and I remember feeling, “The floodgates have opened. I have eight tracks of audio that I can record and sync with all of this MIDI.” Instead of going to college, I asked my parents for a Pro Tools unit, and they got me one that was good enough for home recording. After that, I moved to L.A. and took my Pro Tools rig with me. To answer your question, I was probably 13 or 14 years old was when I started with the recording side and getting into it.
When your dad made records, I’m guessing he didn’t make them using MIDI!
Yeah. It was a necessity for me, because I wasn’t cool in school. I had two buddies who were guitar players, and they would play on stuff because I couldn’t play guitar. I didn’t hang out with a group of dudes and decide to form a band; I was alone. This offered a way to make music without other people being involved.
It’s interesting to transition from being somebody who learned the craft on their own, to becoming a producer, which is such a people job.
You’re right, it is a people job. It’s also a “streamlining of communication” job. When I work with artists, they end up trusting that I’m going to steer this ship and know the right and wrong decision. That I know which way to go, and I can see ahead of the curve a little bit. That’s part of the job. I did Marilyn Manson’s We Are Chaos record, and we were talking about Trent Reznor. Trent always had a guy who was programming with him – whether it be Chris Vrenna or Atticus Ross – and I didn’t realize that. I’d always thought he did it all by himself, so I was training myself to do it all by myself, like him. He’s really an organizer. I work with an artist as a hands-on project, in which I’m going to be involved in a lot of aspects. [I treat it] like I’m doing one of my own records. It feels like I’m joining the band and we’re making a new record as a band, more than I’m in some position of “executive producing,” like somebody who doesn’t even show up to the studio!
How much engineering are you doing on these records you’re producing?
Some here and there. I do a lot after the fact; some of them I mix. But I have two engineers in L.A. who I’ve worked with for years and who I love to work with. Mark Rains I met on my first record with Dave Cobb [Tape Op #122] years ago. He mixed and engineered my first two records. He opened [Station House Studio] here. I’ve done 20 records, maybe 30, in that studio. We did the BCR Media projects, Duff McKagan [Tenderness], and The White Buffalo [On The Widow’s Walk]. I’ve done three records at Sunset Sound. In the case of the Tanya Tucker record [While I’m Livin’], I brought Mark, because he has a sound that was appropriate for that record as an engineer. The other engineer I use is David Spreng. He mixed my Countach (For Giorgio) record, and he’s mixed a lot of other projects for me as well. He’s a fantastic engineer. I found him through [producer] George Drakoulias, who’s been very helpful to me over the years. I can always ask George and he’ll point me in the right direction, no questions asked. I started using David initially as just a mixer, but then I realized how amazing he is and I used him as an engineer for the first time on the Marilyn Manson record. Those guys are a big part of it for me. They know me, and we have a communication path that’s very good. In some cases, the two of them would work together. That’s why I always want to do a record here in L.A. If I’m working with an artist who wants to go somewhere else, I’m like, “We can go to Ardent [Tape Op #58], but if you come to L.A., I have this dialed in here.”
I like the idea of collaboration and letting somebody focus on one part of the job while letting the producer “join the band.”
Yeah. I’ve got to conduct a little bit. I pace back and forth the entire session; I never sit down. I do some engineering. With Tanya, Mark couldn’t do the last two days, so I engineered and that was fun. David Spreng is an edit master, but if there’s something I want done I’ll get onto Pro Tools, and I’ll also comp all the vocals myself. It goes quicker with me, because I have a system. Otherwise they run the ship. I know it’s going to move fast and efficiently. We know how to turn this into a finished record, and what it’s going to sound like when it’s over, even if the band doesn’t.
There’s a variety of projects you’ve done. A country record with Tanya Tucker, Marilyn Manson, Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You, your Countach (For Giorgio), and the Black Ribbons concept album [with Shooter’s band, Hierophant, featuring narration by Stephen King] are all very different.
For me, that’s where it lies. I do a radio show on SiriusXM [Electric Rodeo, on Sirius’s Outlaw Country station], and I play everything from Manson to old Hank Williams. I’m a musicologist, to use a cringeworthy word! When I was a kid, I loved music of my dad’s, but I wasn’t into country music. I knew him, Johnny Cash, and The Highwaymen guys, and I loved all that, but I was into rock ‘n’ roll. That’s how I fell in love with music first; I was an MTV kid. Anything that happened in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s made me who I am. Nine Inch Nails turned me onto David Bowie, which turned me onto The Beatles. When I was 17, the four or five records I would listen to all the time were The Downward Spiral, Ziggy Stardust, The Wall, “White Album”, and Antichrist Superstar. The ones I went to bed at night to; all these concept records. As true to my younger self as I can possibly get is doing this Marilyn Manson record. That is a part of me. I was a huge fan. Now I’m close friends with him, and I love him. He’s exactly what I hoped he would be; the real deal. He is like this too. We’ll be working on a song and he’ll say, “Pull up ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ by Roxy Music, and we’ll listen to it. I got into all this music and I absorbed rock ‘n’ roll. I dug deep. I was getting into Wishbone Ash, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and all these psychedelic bands. I was into electronic music when I was even younger, like when Bowie did Earthling. My dad died when I was 22, and it was around the same time I started falling in love with country music. It wasn’t necessarily because of that, because it was starting to happen already, but I’m sure it kickstarted it even more. I was into Hank Williams Jr., then I got into Hank Williams Sr. I went in deep and fell in love with all these corners and crevices. I loved music so much that I loved all these different sides. When I was doing my first records, like Put the “O” Back in Country and Electric Rodeo, the goal was, “Why can’t these be mixed together? Why can’t it sound cool and still be country music? Why can’t it have big drums or psychedelic rock guitars?” That felt so barren in country music in the early-2000s. Music’s one flavor for me, which is that the diversity is the key to it. Now I get to do that with artists like Manson. It’s also much like Black Ribbons, the way it was created. We built it from scratch together and used all the tools in the toolbox. There’s steel guitar and fiddle on that record, but there’s also heavy industrial sounds combined with synthesizers. Brandi Carlile is another extension of that. Brandi’s ideas and visions of songs leant to it sounding the way that it did. With the Tanya album, [co-producer] Brandi and I assembled the band based on what we wanted it to sound like and figured out the songs we felt were the best songs for the record. Tanya didn’t really even like the songs, at first. Once she heard herself in this picture, she understood it and loved it. I used a [Yamaha] DX7 for synthesizer in the Tanya record; it’s completely borderless.
How did the Tanya Tucker record, While I’m Livin’, come about?
This is such a weird story; all of it is with this record! I was producing a record, Pinball, with Hellbound Glory. On that record Leroy Virgil, the lead singer, does this great version of “Delta Dawn.” He and I had a mutual friend we’ve known for about ten years named Adam Sheets. Pinball came out and Adam said, “For Record Store Day, you should do a 7-inch of Hellbound Glory “Delta Dawn” on one side, and then have Tanya Tucker sing their song, “You Better Hope You Die Young” on the other side.” Because of Adam Sheets’ idea, I reached out to Tanya. She said that she would do it, but she wanted to sing it as a duet. I think that she thought it was me singing, even though I told her that it was Hellbound Glory and not me. But she came into the studio in L.A. and sang it with Leroy as a duet. We put it out for Record Store Day, and we shot a video that my friend, Bob Wayne, directed. When she was leaving the studio that day, I told her I would love to do a record with her. In that moment I heard how great her voice was and how efficiently she worked. She would write these notes down and nail the song in a performance. I thought she sounded so good. I had been wanting to do a record with an older country artist, because I loved all these records. I listen to all these new records and I think, “Why can’t they make a good-sounding record?” They always sound [too] polished. I love the Stones, The Beatles, and David Bowie records. I love Tony Visconti’s sound [Tape Op #29] so much. I told her I wanted to make a record with her, and I think she thought I was crazy. But she said, “Okay, all right.” I took that and ran with it. I flew to New York to play on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert with Brandi. I told her I’d just recorded Tanya Tucker, and she flipped out, “I love Tanya Tucker!” I said, “I told her I want to produce a record with her. You should do it with me.” She loved that idea and went and wrote a bunch of songs; her and the twins who write with her, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who are amazing writers. They researched her life, used Brandi’s guidance and lens, and wrote these songs. In the meantime, I was finding songs that I liked. Then we started communicating with Tanya. There was a year of work between me and Brandi, of us texting. She’d say, “We wrote this song ‘Wheels of Laredo.’ If it’s not right for Tanya, we’ll do it with The Highwomen, but I think it’ll be great.” We got it all together and sent it to Tanya. It was radio silence and then she started coming back, “I don’t like this! I don’t think these are good songs.” I kept saying, “Trust me. If you get here this could completely change, or you could do this record and throw it in the garbage, but please trust me and try it.” We were set to record on January 10th of 2019, and on Christmas Eve she said, “I don’t think I can do this.” I called Brandi, and she was about to lose hope over it. We were supposed to fly to Vegas to see her, and that was the day we got all the Grammy nominations [for Brandi’s By the Way, I Forgive You]. Brandi had to stay behind. I went and met and hung with Tanya’s daughter. There was a lot of convincing, but it wasn’t until the night before we started recording that Tanya came over to my house. She had not met Brandi yet. We drank and listened to music, and I talked to her about a lot of things. I said, “Come on, just try it.” Then, once she walked into the studio, she was like, “Awesome.” She loved it, but at the same time she still thought we were fucking crazy. The minute we left that studio, it got sent to Trina Shoemaker and she mixed it in a period of about a week. We finished the album, mastered it, and then played it for Tanya. That’s when she said, “Wow.” Once we got in the studio, me and Brandi found our lanes together. We work so well together. She was writing down the vocal comps, sitting in the room with her, getting her to say certain lines a different way. She oversaw Tanya’s performance on the record. I was kind of in charge of the music, the band, the arrangements, and how we were going to do it. I played piano. We had this mish-mosh of friends as a band, and we did it in ten days. I was engineering the last couple of days, I comped all the vocals, and then we sent it to Trina. It was fun, man. I told the band going in, “This is going to be art in motion. If you think about it that way, it’ll be completely painless.”
It takes a lot of nerve on your part after she said “no” several times.
I know, but I know Brandi, and I believed in Tanya. Between the two of them, that is where the nerve came from. I knew that once this happened, it was going to be special, and it had to happen. I knew it was going to be good. When we won Grammys for Best Country Album and Best Country Song, Tanya was like, “Well, I guess I’m happy I trusted you guys.” [laughter]
On the Brandi record that you co-produced, By the Way, I Forgive You, one of the tracks, “Hold Out Your Hand,” stuck out to me, in terms of its sonics. It’s all blown out and distorted.
The album sequence is a big deal for me. Brandi trusts my sequencing because of this, but when we got done there were songs on that record we cut. Two ended up on the Tanya record. I said, “I’m gonna send you two versions of this record. There’s the 40-minute record and the 35-minute record. I think that the 35-minute record is a perfect record.” It was the exact same order except that “Hold Out Your Hand” was not on it. Brandi said, “No, my fans are gonna love this song. This song is important to my fanbase, and they know it already.” She was right; the crowd sings the whole song live. I felt it was a vibe that’s cool; but maybe the exposition was presented in a way that didn’t have to happen, because it had happened on previous records. Brandi insisted, “I’m sticking by this song.” I’m glad she did, but it has a totally different vibe to it. I think it’s my aversion to the “train beat.” I like it better when it’s got a groove, but Dave [Cobb, co-producer] made it have a groove. The ending of that song, that was Dave. He’s good at coming up with that Beatles-meets-Bowie kind of sound. That ended up being one of my favorite moments on the record. But it’s funny you say that. If you heard that song and the other three songs I cut, they all had a dirtier vibe to them! That song stands out because it didn’t have a buddy on the record like the rest of the songs.
It’s distorted. It sounds like an Overstayer Stereo Voltage Control!
Yeah. Dave’s a gearhead. It’s funny you say that. Dave Cobb is very much an Abbey Road fundamentalist. On the record we’d record the drums in-the-box, and then he’d send it off to a 1/4-inch tape reel-to-reel that was very old, or he’d bring out the Chandler gear and run the buses through that. He likes to produce everything, [and end up with] six to eight tracks total; stereo drums and stereo guitars. A great way to mix, but he likes to do that in the recording process. A lot of times he’ll hit the channels pretty hard, depending on the song.
You’re not afraid to have some pretty serious reverb and echoes happening.
Yeah, that’s like the Visconti stuff. I’ll apply that to anything, because that’s my favorite sound. I got one of those Eventide H910s during the Manson records. He said, “First thing you’re doing is buying an H910.” I fell in love with that, for all kinds of reasons. I’m not afraid to put the echoes on, for sure. I think people also over-slap vocals these days. I like a good crisp, clear vocal. I’m not afraid to put ‘verb on it, I just don’t like when ‘verb bunches up in the middle. That can be an issue. With ‘verbs and effects, it might be a country song, but I’ll hear an element of a Bowie song in that country song. That will send me down the hole of trying to bring a little more of that out. When I’m mixing, I’m cutting off all the low end with high-pass filters so that it doesn’t get in the way. I bought these dual Overstayer Imperial Channels, because I saw Spike Stent using them when he mixed the Manson record. It’s that high-mid; he makes it cut through with it. It was interesting getting back the stems from Spike Stent on the Manson album. I was doing some alternative versions of the mixes, and I got to hear what he does with EQs. He makes it cut through so harshly that it can be very low volume and you can hear it. All across the board: synthesizers, acoustics, and everything has this lack of midrange and attacking high-end that can be quiet and cut through, yet not get in the way and bunch up in the middle range. You can do so much with compression and EQ. I have a whole mixing and recording rig here. We did much of the Manson record here, and I’ve mixed several projects here.
Are you taking some of what you’ve learned about stem mixing and putting that to practice, or are you still mixing more traditionally?
Oh no, for sure. Everything I’ve learned from Stent, I used. He’s a master at grouping and breaking down sections. When a section is going to go into another section that needs to hit hard, but all the instruments are going, he’s got amazing, subtle moves that make everything hit when it’s supposed to hit hard.
Are you satisfied with what you’re handing off for mixing and then pleasantly surprised when you get it back?
On all records but Manson, I totally know what’s going to happen before I hand it over. With the Manson record, we spent a year and a half writing and recording the songs. They started one way – he had vocals on them, then we would change them and put in a live band. We’d come back and revamp a whole middle section and write a different part, or change it all around. It was a year and a half of that. Endless hours. Of course, we’re writing it from scratch, so it’s not going to be a ten-day project. By the time Spike got it, there were almost four or five iterations of the same song all in the same session. It was like, “No, it goes to the other drums here. We want to get rid of that part and turn it up. Go back to my original programmed drums on the demo, mute all the live drums, and let’s use those drums with samples from the live drummer for this part.” There was a lot of work on the mix to make it what we wanted from where we were. We had built these songs out in so many ways that it took a lot of taming to get them where we needed it to be. Spike was definitely the man for the job and did it so well. It was so much fun. We ended up going over to his studio at EastWest Studios for five or six nights at the very end of it. In some of those cases I re-cut guitars on a song, or Manson re-cut a vocal for a song. We did our last-minute patches to the quilt, and then it was done.
There’s no one way to make a record, and it’s
Totally, man. That’s what it is, at the end of the day, for people who love music. It’s about crafting a piece of art – something magical and special – and it being the best it can be. I think some people just do it as a job. But there are certain people, and every one of the people I play with in my band, they’re my kind of people, like you and I talking about all the different types of music and gear. That’s Brandi and Manson. But there are people out there who just do it as a job, and those people need not apply.