I was told this interview would never happen. Apparently T Bone is a busy man, producing records, overseeing film soundtracks, recording solo albums and touring the world. Burnett has been involved with music for over 40 years, and producing records seems to be something he naturally gravitated towards. Artists like Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Sam Phillips, Counting Crows, Bruce Cockburn, the Wallflowers, Marshall Crenshaw, Cassandra Wilson, Ralph Stanley, Roy Orbison, Tony Bennett, k.d. lang and even Spinal Tap have created some of their best work under his guidance. Movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line have benefited from his music choices and production. As if this isn't enough, he's determined to make the record business an artist-friendly one with the creation of XOE, pronounced "code", a music delivery service that releases albums as 24/96 k files on DVD with several other playback formats included. T Bone's new solo album, Tooth of Crime, was recently released and makes for an intense listen. Yes, a busy man. Luckily this interview did happen when I caught T Bone in New York City. He was kind enough to take time out from playing guitar and directing the band on the Raising Sand tour — the stellar album he produced for Alison Krauss and Robert Plant in 2007. This is one of my most favorite interviews I've been involved in, and I'm happy to share it with everyone.
You were talking about how you and your engineer, Mike Piersante, check out equipment. Or how he does. How does that impact your process of making records?
Well, I don't really like recordings, you know. And I don't particularly like processing. What I really like is hearing a musician play in a room, or a group of musicians play in a room. That's what I fell in love with first. When I was a kid, about 14 or 15, I started going to the Skyliner Ballroom in Fort Worth, Texas. It was owned by Jack Ruby. I saw The Band when I was a kid and they talk about it [the venue] in the movie, The Last Waltz. It was the most beautiful sounding room. The music I heard in that room had a profound effect on me. And years later, Daryl Leonard, a friend of mine whom I've worked with since the mid-1960's, brought over a recording we had done in '65 or '67. We put it on and it sounds exactly like what I am doing today. It started me thinking. I remembered that Ike and Tina Turner had played a show at the Skyliner Ballroom in the mid- 1960s. They had recorded it and I wondered if I could buy that record. I went online and I got the record and I put it on. It too sounded like everything I've done my whole life and I realized that everything I've been trying to do from the beginning was to recreate this excitement of sound that I heard from the Skyliner Ballroom from when I was a kid. I love recording but I don't usually love recordings. I hardly ever say, "Wow! That's a great recording." I say, "That's an incredible song or incredible piece of music." But the times I do feel that it's been a great recording is where I find a real sense of place. I find the most important part of the listening experience is the sense of place. Mike Piersante, Emile Kelman, Jason Wormer, Gavin Lurssen and Lisa Surber are my team. We stay very much on top of all the technological developments in recording so we never hear the recording. [laughter] I cannot stand processing. I love the sound of an instrument bouncing off a wall and into a room when you hear that pure, deep sound.
Your recordings always seem to bring in the feel of a space. Obviously it's a conscious thing trying to replicate some of that, I assume.
Yeah, I think we've gotten pretty good at it at this point. Mikey and I have been working together for ten years solid. All those guys have learned to hear with my ears, essentially. Everyone who's in the room affects the listening experience a little bit. The music can only sound as good as the worst listener in the audience. They break down the curve. [laughter] We use very few microphones, we don't close-mic anything. We use no transistors. Surfaces are everything in recording; we only hear by reflected sound. The surfaces of the room are crucial. I made a record I really loved a few years ago with Freedy Johnston in Studio A at Village Recorders. He was standing right in the middle of the room with a [Neumann] U47 microphone and Jim Keltner was just to the left of him playing drums. His band was circled around the room. We started mixing it and I couldn't get anything right. Usually when I mix, the first thing I do is put up the vocal, so I just stripped it back down and put up the vocal. I realized, "Oh, there's the mix right there! That's it." So, the whole album is mixed off the vocal mic. That's happened to me on a number of occasions. One of my favorite recordings is the song, "Pass You By" by Gillian Welch on one of her records [Revival]. Roy Husky Jr. was playing bass. He was standing probably about five-feet behind her with a screen behind him, in this big wooden room. A huge room. She was playing electric guitar, but her guitar amp was in an isolation booth. We did the take — first of all, I think it's one of the most ferocious bass recordings of all time. Rick Will engineered it and I don't think anyone's ever recorded a rockabilly bass as powerful as that, ever. Roy died a few years ago. One of the reasons there's no bass on Tooth of Crime was because I was grieving for Roy. I couldn't stand to have another bass player.
I was wondering about that. I could feel that.
Yeah. I wanted that grief for Roy in that music; that hole. That ended up the same way [Gillian's album]. We came in to listen. Roy was playing so powerfully; he was playing slap bass, so he was playing bass and drums. Gillian was playing on a little Les Paul Jr. and on a U 47 [singing]. The only other mic we had up was his bass mic. Her guitar mic was in isolation. But when we put up the vocal, we couldn't put up the bass and I realized, "Let's just take the bass out." And the bass you hear on that record is the bass that was coming through her vocal mic, which was four or six feet away from her. But it was also compressing the whole room. He was such a powerful musician that he was compressing this room with a fifteen to eighteen-foot ceiling. He filled the whole room. After the take, I remember him putting his bass down and saying, "I gotta go outside for awhile." And he just put his bass down and walked outside. He walked around for about fifteen minutes — he'd put out so much.
In cases like that, you're kind of dealing with an element of luck and surprise.
It's all luck.
Are there situations where you find yourself trying to find something like that?
Like trying to put up extra mics, spending a little too long...?
Never. Maybe I did that forty years ago. [laughter] But seriously, I got over that. There were a lot of things I got over very early in my life as a record producer, and one of them was telling anybody what to play. When I started out, I would give the musicians every note to play. And very quickly I started working with such good musicians that I began to say, "Why am I not just letting them play? Because that's what they do." And I got better and better results that way. I realized, "I already know my own ideas. If I want to do that, I can just do that myself." If you're going to bring in other people, just let them go.
Do you find yourself picking musicians for the way they are going to play?
And how they're going to respond to what they hear?
That's right. And I never tell anybody what to play. If a guitarist comes in, I mean, usually the first thing a musician plays is the best thing he's going to come up with. So, if a guitarist comes in and the thing he's doing isn't working — I just say, "Thank you. Fantastic. Thank you very much. We'll see you later." We just keep their part and hold it. Sometimes parts that didn't work in the moment, you were recording them because of everything else they were listening to. A week or two later, when things have changed, suddenly it makes complete sense. So I don't torture musicians. I take what they give me and I'm very grateful for it. When it comes time to mix, either it works or it doesn't.
In a case of bringing in people like that, I assume you're happy working with someone like Mike. You're also expecting him to work really quickly and have things ready to capture in that moment.
Yeah, that's right. There's a great Thelonious Monk documentary called, Straight, No Chaser. He's in the studio playing piano, and they're way deep in some tune. I can't remember what tune they're playing. He's incredible. It's so beautiful. He finishes the tune, it's a good long piece. The producer walks into the room and says, "Okay. You wanna do one?" And Monk turns to the producer and says, "Man! We just did one." And I thought, "I never want to be that guy!" That's like Cardinal Rule Number One. Don't be that guy. I don't even know who it is, but I'm sure he's a renowned producer and it was just that moment.
Someone was setting levels.
That's it. I remember coming into the studio; I forget who the engineer was, but the engineer said, "Okay. Would you hit the drums?" to the drummer. I said, "No, wait. Why are you wasting your time with that? What's going on here?" [laughter] All of the guys — Jason, Mikey, Emile — everybody knows that tape is rolling all the time. There's no reason not to record. What is the reason not to record something?
You started getting some of your more known successes in the '80's. That's a time of very overdone studio sessions, click-tracks, MIDI and a lot of travesties in my mind — and probably yours as well. [laughter] Did you find yourself, as an artist, being pushed in directions early on that you really resented? Did it kind of form how you work now?
Only one time. Only once did I do that. It was on a record called Proof Through The Night where there was some echo unit that the producer and engineer loved. They used it all over the record. It just went on and on. I didn't like it. You know, I've played with MIDI and all that stuff. I found some uses for things. I like gates — gated things. I like triggering gates from one instrument to another instrument. So, we played with the technology that was available at the time. Except, you know, none of it was as powerful as what George Martin had done when he cut up tape and spliced it back together randomly. The restrictions of analog lead to all sorts of wild creativity. There are people who are doing some interesting things, and have been for some years, in the hip-hop world. Inventive, really fun, interesting stuff with the technology. I enjoy that. We can do all that stuff. At some point it runs out of interest quickly for me — I feel like I have a job. I much prefer things I can't control. I greatly admire Jackson Pollock, for instance, as a painter. If I were a painter, I would aspire to be Jackson Pollock. And sonically, that's what we try to do. Some people really don't like it. Some people get offended by the stuff we do.
In what way? What kind of feedback have you had?
Too much bass. The vocals are distorted. And by the way, there's not too much bass and the vocals aren't distorted. There are certain devices and certain environments that you can play back so it sounds like that. The way we make music, it's alive. We make living music. If you use a computer or a synthesizer, it just gives you a sine wave. It gives you one pure tone, one pure sine wave. If you hit a note on a piano, it has every other note in the piano in that note at some volume.
It has some resonance.
Resonance. Exactly. So, what I'm interested in is, if you hit this note and this note — these two resonances create this note. And not only this note really, but this array of notes that then start beating against each other and set up their own melody and rhythm. Just hitting two notes, you've already written a song — if you've hit the right two notes, the right way in the right room, on the right piano. You've written an overtone structure, an overtone series. I know composers who compose purely in overtones who can hear seven overtone series. Now that is serious listening! So, we're making music that, depending on the room you're in and the volume you're listening to, is going to change dramatically. Something we'll talk about later in great depth is that we've started a company to deal with all the ramifications of the collapse and quality control among the recording industry. In 1954, the Recording Industry and Association of America published a curve — an RIAA curve. It standardized all recordings for over thirty years. Before that, every manufacturer had had it's own set of standards. The reason there are tone and volume controls on record players is because the broadcasters and the listeners were constantly having to adjust their listening devices, almost having to guess, what the artist intended. So, starting in 1954, everybody started speaking the same language. Everyone had two speakers, an amplifier and a turntable. The audience got really good at listening. If you think about the musical culture that developed between 1950 and 1980, it's profound. It completely and utterly changed the world. Four hillbilly kids from south nowhere — Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee [Lewis] and Carl Perkins — as well as Sam Phillips, the superstar. They completely changed the world — they really did. They brought down the Iron Curtain. People want to give [President Ronald] Reagan credit for bringing down the Iron Curtain; I want to give Sam Phillips credit for bringing down the Iron Curtain.
How can you provide that for the listeners now?
It wasn't just them, it was The Beatles and everything else that came after them. With the advent of digital sound, all standards are out the window. Now it's a complete free-for-all. We have people making after-market devices to make the devices you buy sound better.
iPods with tubes.
Yeah! [laughter] It's just madness out there right now. We've developed a system for releasing records called XOE (CODE). We're gonna release all our records in XOE. It's a system for the production, manufacture and distribution of records in this age.
It's a digital distribution system?
It's a lot of things. It's a flexible music company. The old record companies adjusted the dial to the needs of the company. In this model that we've developed, all the dials are adjusted to the needs of the artist. I'm sixty years old and I've been doing this for forty years. I've been working way too hard and way too long to allow my music — the music I work on, care about and put my life-blood into — to come out in the way it does. Once it leaves my hands, it can go through ten or fifteen different stations, through people I don't even know that do unknown amounts of work to it. I get CDs back, that sound nothing like the CD I sent in. The record companies are in decline. They've thrown their hands up for quality control. They don't know what they're doing. I'm just taking it over myself and we're going to control every single aspect for production, manufacturing and distribution. We're not going to put DRM [Digital Rights Management] in anything. We're not going to cause people to have to copy files, because we're going to make files for them. We're going to make the highest quality files in every medium that they could possibly want.
So, if you buy a record, you get different ways to listen to it? I can put it on my iPhone and I can go and listen to it on my studio monitors?
Yeah. We're gonna offer records in three forms: high- resolution vinyl, which is the way vinyl used to be made back in the old days — right directly from the master tape. We're gonna make high-res digital discs and were gonna make high-res files — 24 bit / 96 kHz files. If you buy any one of those three, we'll just give you anything else that you want. We'll make copies for every other device and every other environment that you can just have. You can go on the World Wide Web and download it for free. It's the only way. When you were asking, "How do you deal with this lack of standards?" — we've developed a set of standards that all adhere and relate to one essential standard. We have a curve developed for computer speakers that we'll put that through. It will give it the same mix that the master mix has. In digitizing through all of these new devices; it's not merely changing the quality of the experience, it's changing the actual mix. Instruments disappear. The things with tremendous amount of attack get louder, the things with less attack get softer. All of that kind of stuff.
Oh, yeah. Compression formats are going to steal information.
When you go from analog to 16-bit, you throw out as much as a third of the information that you've recorded. That may be a high number, but I'm not really sure it is. When you consider how far up the scale you go with everything we've thrown out, from 80 kHz down to 15 Hz.
Don't you feel that we're spoiled though, because we get to hear 1/2- inch master tapes on good monitors?
I'm completely spoiled. But, you know what? For thirty years all of us were spoiled. That's the point. It's an artist-driven initiative; it has nothing to do with record companies or anything else. We are going to begin releasing music in a way that attempts to democratize high fidelity, in essence — the way it was in the '50's.
What artists have you found that are excited about this concept?
I can't tell you all of them, but the first release is going to be John Mellencamp's record [Life, Death, Love and Freedom].
And of course, Robert [Plant] and Alison's [Krauss] next record. But you know, everyone we've talked to just says, "Yes!" immediately because it's a solution. It's a clear solution to a problem we're all having. Because what's the point of spending $5,000 dollars on a guitar if it's essentially going to be coming out the speaker of a Hallmark greeting card? [laughter] Because that's what digital sound is, no matter what.
I would also counter that all your recordings are so distinctive. Even listening to an MP3, your work still has a distinctive feel. If you put Raising Sand on an iPod, it still sounds pretty damn good.
Well, I'll tell you this: with this new system, we can make MP3s that sound better than current CDs do.
Yeah. We've figured some stuff out.
I'll be waiting! [laughter]
We want to make the world sound like a better place. Hopefully we'll prevail.
Speaking of Raising Sand... this is a case where you're dealing with two artists who came together with no initial pre-plan. How did you get involved with that?
Well, Alison called me and asked if I wanted to do it. I said, "Yeah!" Alison and I have had a tremendous — I've been following Alison for twenty-something years. I've thought, from a very early age, that she was the one. The same way I felt Ray Charles was the one. The Beatles were the one. There are certain people that come along that you just say, "There it is. Right there." I hoped to someday even meet her. I never really expected that I'd get to work with her. But over time she began to trust me enough to let me make records with her. And we've had an incredible amount of luck and fun. Two or three years ago Robert was going to do a Honeydrippers record [a sequel to his 1984 EP]. We talked about doing that,
so it was a natural when they called. Also, both those voices have a similar blood-chilling effect. They have a visceral effect. I got involved with that by both of them being so kind as to invite me.
Was there a level of trust that you had to earn in the beginning, as far as picking songs and guiding the project?
Probably, yeah. I never look at it that way.
You're not gonna beg for it. [laughter]
No, no. If you think you're going to earn it, it just starts feeling like manipulation or something. I don't want to charm or manipulate somebody into doing something. I just want to help them do the thing that they want to do. Seriously. I have no agenda on any of these records that I go into, other than make the very best record of the problem we're facing.
In that case, there must have been meetings to discuss how it was going to go and how many songs to pick.
Yeah, there were conference calls. We were always in three different continents.
I bet! [laughter]
For the first conference call I was in Vancouver at the salmon hatchery [Capilano River Regional Park] up there in the most extraordinary country — steep granite, or shale, cliffs. Salmon jumping ten to fifteen feet through the water, waterfalls and huge trees. And Alison was in Nashville, I think. And Robert was in Bali, or somewhere. Who knows where Robert was! But we started talking.
One thing you mentioned earlier was tape. I could hear tape on Raising Sand and on your new solo record. I swear I could hear some hiss.
Oh, yeah. I only work on tape. I haven't changed anything I do in forty years. I do exactly the same thing I do now as I did forty years ago. I use the same equipment. I just got a new guitar from Gretsch, a Black Falcon. When I was a kid, I always wanted one of those White Falcons, except I didn't want it because it was white. I thought, "You know, if they ever make a black one of those..." We were rehearsing in Nashville. I walked into a guitar shop and there was a black guitar sitting there. I pulled it out and it was a Black Falcon. It's the first new guitar, out of the box, that I've bought. I've been playing it onstage and it just rips. But, you know, all the same things I used when I first started — except for a lathe. I used to record straight to [a cutting] lathe, and we don't do that that much anymore.
There are people doing it though. [laughter]
Oh, no. I've got a small, portable kind of lathe. I might use it for loops and stuff like that.
Yeah, that would be fun.
But I don't record a live session to a lathe. We used to do direct-to-disc recording, but I actually like the sound of tape better myself. I think tape is the best sounding — unless you go way back. You have to go way back to beat tape, I think, to those old 78s. If you get a really old, great Edison player with an emerald needle — because, you know, that's what he used to make the needles with.
Really? A tiny piece of emerald?
Yep. They would never die. That's still the best sound. But just in the last few years, we've begun using Pro Tools.
In what way?
The reason we began using it was because the converters began to get good enough to actually use them. Everything that was digitized between 1980 — whenever they started and now — everything is going to have to be re-digitized because the converters were such junk in the beginning. They weren't even consumer-level electronics, in my opinion. They were just — I don't know who came up with the program and decided, "This is good enough." — but they weren't musicians. I don't know how those decisions were made.
Well, consider how expensive a 32-track digital machine was back in the day. Someone is going to drop a couple hundred thousand dollars on this when they could just roll two tape decks in?
All of that stuff, yeah.
I never could figure it out.
It's been a huge mess. I don't blame people for not buying CDs anymore because they're not as valuable as records were and they cost a lot more. Records were valuable because they sounded better. We're in a position now where, if you go to a show and you hear a band and you buy the CD or MP3 — it's like going to a museum, seeing a painting and then somebody takes a photograph of the painting and then somebody takes a Polaroid of that and then somebody makes a Xerox of that and then somebody's trying to sell it to you. It's not valuable. I understand that sense of, you go buy a record, there's one good song on it, the record sounds like hell — quality has gone to hell in the music business. People don't want to pay for it.
Awhile back someone said , "There's less music being sold, but there's more people listening to music than ever."
Than ever, yes.
That's a really curious thought.
Well, it's interesting that people will pay three dollars for a cup of coffee, but won't pay one dollar for a song. [laughter] A song they could have with them for a hundred years, while this cup of coffee they'll only have with them for a couple hours. Going back to digital for a minute, because I want to finish that thought. We can digress on any one of these topics!
Sorry, I think about this all day too.
Me too. Just in the last four or five years, we've started using Pro Tools because the converters, getting it from tape into Pro Tools, sounds good enough that it doesn't make me sick. The first time I put on a CD in a recording studio I could barely get through two songs before my ears started hurting, my head started hurting — physically, literally. CDs are a dead medium. We started working when 24 bit / 96 kHz Pro Tools recorders came out. We started using them, especially in the film business, primarily for editing. It's an incredibly useful tool for editing. Once we get an ultra-solid transfer into Pro Tools, we'll mix from that because it's fast. Any last minute edits are moving things. We do a lot of movement, just groove and things like that.
Is that a typical process that Raising Sand or your solo record would have gone through?
Not so much. More for movies and stuff. The guys I work with are so good, there's just nothing to do. Just turn on the mic and shut up. [laughter] Say, "That's good."
But say, when you're working on O Brother Where Art Thou? or something like that?
Yeah, then there's ramifications to everything.
Or especially on Walk the Line.
Yeah, there was a lot of work on that. But I'll tell you, Joaquin Phoenix did 98% of the work on that. The song, "I Walk The Line", is in five keys. It changes keys every verse. He sang that version, that's on the record and in the film, on the first take all the way through, live.
Had he been working, practicing?
Yeah. We practiced for months and months. But he got there, he just got to that point. But, at any rate, we mix back to tape. Everything's kept on tape, everything's stored on tape.
That's probably safe. So, if you do a session, you put everything into Pro Tools? You move them around, you edit stuff. Do you print that off of Pro Tools onto new reels?
It depends. We did a three-day record with Elvis [Costello]. We did sixteen songs in three days. Because we went so fast, there may be some things to fix. He might have missed a note or somebody might have done something. I don't know what's in there — I haven't had a chance to listen to it. We'll probably take some things off, go into Pro Tools, fix them and reprint them back to tape — and then mix from tape to tape.
A three-day record?
Yeah. And there will be minimal editing, but the editing will be done in Pro Tools. But you know, it's a funny thing. Because digital is sampling, because you're only catching part of the sound, it's pointillism.
Yeah, yeah. [laugher]
It's the audio version of pointillism. Your ear is constantly filling in the holes between the points. Once you go back to tape, it somehow weaves it back together. It puts it back into waveform. It becomes less harsh and more pleasing again. Digital sound is harsh; it's jagged. A ten thousand cycle tone on a piece of tape, when you look at it, looks about like a sine wave. Overnight, even? It will settle and round off. All of those peaks and spikes were mitigated in analog sound. In digital sound, the one thing that digital can absolutely handle well is an attack, a spike.
It stays the same.
It never mitigates. But the spikes — you know, people are listening with earphones right by their ears with these heavy, heavy spikes and it's making people deaf. It's gotta be changed. We have to change this — musicians have to change this. For musicians to make people deaf is the equivalent of cobblers cutting people's feet off. It's a terrible, terrible outcome.
No one ever mentions Pro Tools because it sounds good. You mention other things, like editing convenience and so on.
That's right. At best, it's transparent. The very best thing that could happen with digital sound is that it be a clone, which it never is even though they've said that. But at least it's transparent.
I wonder about how you perceive low- end frequencies. Because of the delivery format on a CD, you can have more low-end than vinyl. How do you work with that?
Well, all of the interesting — not all of it — but most of the interesting elements of sound are in the lower ranges, where the big waves — like, a 100 cycle tone probably takes fifteen feet to develop. If you hit a bass drum with a hundred cycle tone and then you hit one here [hands clapping], you've got two tones developing at once. Those two curves are creating an infinite amount of overtones and overtone series — just those two. So then you just keep adding those up. You're creating an extraordinarily complex sound picture and you're creating a tremendous amount of depth. What we've been experimenting with is creating volume by depth rather than by peaks and spikes. Not dB volume, but size volume. One of the great attributes that was trumpeted of digital sound in the beginning was that there was no surface noise. We didn't have to deal with signal to noise ratio. We had an extraordinarily wide dynamic range. And yet, the inertia of the record business for the last forty years, where everything was brighter and louder trying to overcome surface noise, continued into the digital age to the point now where we're only — and when I say "we" I mean producers, engineers, manufacturers and all of that — are using the top 5% of the dynamic range of the CD. Everything's brick- wall limited up to the very top. And you're completely leaving out this other 95% of the great attributes of CDs. You don't have the problem of the needle jumping out of the groove because there's so much bottom. So you can explore that whole 95%. It's a question of finding how much low tone you can put on, at what volume, and at what relationship to the high tones. Because the high tones don't have to be very loud to be heard.
They come through.
If you've ever been to football stadium and heard a marching band; if you sit up at the top there can twenty-five tubas blowing their brains out, but at the top all you can hear is the one guy playing a triangle. Those triangle sounds go fast. In the time it takes a single 100 cycle tone to complete, 100 ten cycle tones have completed. [finger snaps] So it's zoom, the high sounds go. You can put them way, way back there and they're still effective. It's a question of now, in this new medium, of looking for the new balance. What makes sense in this medium as a balance? We're experimenting all the time — it's all completely experimental.
I'm sure that leads into the mastering and working with Gavin [Lurssen, mastering engineer] these days. Do you get a lot of feedback from him about how the mixes are gonna work and how he can help tailor it different ways?
A lot. We work with him all the way through the process.
Really? Do you send him mixes as you're going and say, "What do you think of our direction?"
Yeah. He and Mikey stay in close touch. It's not like that anymore because we've developed such communication and we sort of know where we're going. But at some points we'll take it to him. We are now mixing through every possible, conceivable device. We've got the top twenty selling devices in the world that we're considering listening on, that we're monitoring through, for our mixes.
What kind of things? Like computer speakers?
Yeah, I don't know the names of any of them.
Earbuds, for sure. Extension speakers for sure. I don't know. I'm completely non-technical.
In a way though, do you feel that's an asset?
Being non-technical. And also, one of the things I see you doing is assembling teams: musicians, engineers, etc.
Yeah. It's good to be able to stay outside of it. But Mikey will tell me when something goes wrong. I usually know what's going wrong even though I don't know technically why; I've been doing it for so long I'm able to say, "Oh, that's this." And then they'll go, "Oh, okay."
Don't you think it's also a process of divorcing yourself from thinking something is supposed to happen because an action's been taken? Making sure that you're really listening?
That's right too.
I mean, because a lot of people get into, "I put the compressor on that. It should be good." And maybe they plugged it into the wrong inserts.
And they think they've got the compressor on. That can happen. There's all that psycho-acoustic lunacy. I try to stay outside of it. Most of the time I don't play on records when I'm producing for that very reason. I don't really want to learn the song.
You just want to hear the results. [laughter]
Yeah. I just want to hear the music.
I had some of our readers post online questions for you.
I had this one, "Apparently he judges good takes on the phone. If it catches his ear, then the band is really on to something."
Oh! [laughter] Well, I'd say that's probably referring to me just kind of roaming around the house when things are going on. Now, when the band is playing and the singer is singing and all of that, I'm sitting right there listening with full-force. That's the part that's exciting to me. When the live thing is happening on the floor, I'm right there. And most of the time I'm sitting in the room with the musicians. I recently finished a B.B. King record. Mac Rebennack [Dr. John], B.B. and Jay Bellerose were right there. And I was sitting with no earphones, just listening. I knew if I could hear Mac and if I could hear B.B. — I knew if they were good, that was a take. Because I knew none of these other cats were gonna screw anything up. And I could hear the drums; Keltner was also there. So I didn't have to even think about that or sweat it. I can just sit there as a listener and listen to Mac and B.B. play live. If they got it, I could say "Yeah. Let's go." I just don't have the patience to do overdubs anymore. I've been doing it too long. So, I'm just kind of around the house. But I might be on a phone call and the singer in the other room starts singing and I have to put down the phone and go in and say, "Okay, that's it. You just got it. Don't do anymore."
When you say you're working in your house, what is the set-up? Is it a home studio that you have or is it a house that you use as studio?
I have a house that I use as a studio and offices. It used to be a house with a little studio in one corner and then the studio took it over.
It's easy to do! [laughter]
Yeah. And we do everything in there now. We do all our mixing.
And does that have a small-ish live area for performing?
It's got five or six live areas.
Different sounds in them?
And when you go to do a record like say, Raising Sand, are there certain criteria that you use to remember rooms that you know would feel really good for this?
Well, you know a room is just a box. It's just like the body of a guitar. It's just a box that resonates. I've found a few of those rooms — I know certain rooms work really well for certain kinds of instruments. The room at Village that I use most of the time, I use because the surfaces are all dark wood. The whole thing is dark wood and it gets a very, very dark sound. It really does. I'm very careful about surfaces in the studio. There's a minimal amount of glass, there's just enough glass to sort of brighten things up if you want them to be. But almost everything is wood. With Raising Sand, we wanted to go into the studio that ["Cowboy"] Jack Clement built, called Sound Emporium, where we also cut O Brother, Where Art Thou? because it's a lot of barn wood. It's not as dark a sound as you get at Village Recorders, but it's still like playing up in the hollers. You know, there's a reason why regions used to have sounds. The reason people used the say the music coming out of Nashville sounded so nasal is because the Indians called the valley that Nashville's in "The Valley of the Fevers". There's so much pollen and everyone has fevers all the time, so everyone's noses are stopped up all the time. So it does get twangy. There's a reason why. Also, another part of it is the cicadas are so loud that when you're playing music you're always having to blend with the cicadas. That creates a certain kind of tone. Like, if you're hitting a mandolin, you're having to blend with this other tone. Fiddles, everything. Everything is blending with that drone. It affects your tone because that tone is already taken up. You can't play in that tone because you can't hear it. It would be eradicated by the crickets. Or you take someone like Ralph Stanley, who grew up in a holler, in a canyon in Virginia. The trees in the holler — the density of the trees, the type of trees — all affected the way he spoke, sang, everything — because you're reflecting off all these different surfaces.
You talk about the surfaces in a room. One thing I heard is that you don't allow road cases in the live room.
Yeah, because they're vinyl. I don't allow plastic drum heads either. I don't allow any synthetic surfaces.
Yeah. I don't allow any synthetic surfaces anywhere around. I don't like modern guitars because they're laminated. If you get an old-time guitar from the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s or even '60s — you can scrape the lacquer off like nothing. The new guitars are laminated, so you're already in a plastic age. You're already in an age of controlled sound, rather than an age of raw, free sound. And that's everything. You can take a plastic head and process it for nine million years and it will never sound as good as if you had just gotten a calfskin head and hit it once.
But certainly you favor processing at the amp. Like say on, the guitar sound on "Fortune Teller" or something like that.
The only processing on "Fortune Teller" is a tremolo.
Do you ever demo songs before a session?
No. The thing you hear is the demo.
But for yourself as a writer, to capture things?
I play it until I remember it. That's the only way I can write a song is to keep playing it until I remember it. If I record it, then I'll forget it and I'll never get back to it.
Do you feel that songs you would initially forget weren't strong enough anyway?
Yes! Sometimes I feel like I've had the greatest songs in the world and I'm too blasted to remember them. But maybe I was so blasted that it wasn't that great an idea to begin with! [laughter]
Yeah, there's always that theory! One of the things that Robert Plant and Alison have talked about is that you've created a magical environment. Talking about vibe, beyond picking the room and all the things. Do you look at lighting, do you look at things you bring to put in the room?
Yes, all that stuff. Environment. I always set up the studio as if it is a living room.
Like table lamps, floor lamps?
Yes, couches and chairs; stuff like that. I set it up so that we can sit around in the living room and play and record that too. The living room area is mic'ed because a lot of times the casual thing that you're doing when you're running the song down is actually the thing. I sort of mic the whole room. The lighting is crucial. Having a comfortable environment, instead of a sterile environment where it's all about recording. It's more like, "Okay, we're here now. Let's be comfortable." So much of it is getting people to relax. And you know what the other part of it is, really? I don't mean to sound mawkish in any way, but really the magic is love. It's loving the people and hopefully them loving you. You know, the disappointment is where the people don't love you.
When it doesn't come back? When it's not reciprocal?
Yeah. At some point, you just pull back and you don't love. Then it's a bummer.
Do you ever have situations where there are people involved and you've gotta be like, "This person is not conducive to what we're working on." I know you've got your own engineering team, but are there times when other people intrude in some way to create a problem?
No. I never have that happen.
Well, you've been lucky! [laughter]
I think it's evident that I've been lucky! [laughter] There are people in the past. I can remember a record many years ago where the artist wanted to hire an engineer and I said to the engineer, "Okay, I'll hire you. Just no digital echo." I had heard some of his records and it was all digital echo. I said, "You can come mix this record, but no digital echo." I walked in the first day and the first twenty faders were all digital echoes. That was kind of it for me.
What ended up happening in that scenario?
Well, in that particular scenario, that was one of those artists that didn't love me. [laughter] At that point I said, "I have to withdraw from this record because I can't stand the way it sounds. I'm sorry to say, but if this is the way you want it to sound, I cannot put my name on it. I've been working my whole life not to sound like this." So that's what happened in that case.
Do you think you would ever do something completely different for you, like say, a hip-hop record?
I'd love to! I've done some hip-hop records.
I did two or three hip-hop pieces to the soundtrack on The Lady Killers, which is actually one of my favorite records I've ever worked on.
We took some old gospel tunes and sampled them and hip-hopped them.
You have faith in your life, with Christianity. It seems to come out in your music. Does it come out with the people you work with? Does it ever hinder or help?
It only helps. I have to say I've had no plan. But it does seem more and more that almost every record I do is a gospel record. Strangely, O Brother was a gospel album — a lot of gospel music was on there. "Down to the River to Pray", for example. I just finished a record with Robert Randolph that's certainly a gospel record. I look at my own records as gospel records, whether they are or not. I don't really care. It's what I call gospel.
Your new album, Tooth of Crime, could be pushing the limits of that! [laughter]
Well, the new one is written from not my point of view. It's written from the characters.
It feels like character studies inspired the songs. As a writer, that's always fun to play with.
Yeah, it's very freeing.
Certainly someone could listen to it and think, "Wow! That guy's twisted!" [laughter]
Yeah! "What's wrong with this guy?" [laughter]
"Oh, I thought he was happy!"
Yeah. "Why isn't he happy? What's wrong with him?"
I know you took about fourteen years off between albums of your own material. Does having a focus like that — a play to write for or extrapolate from — help you write?
Yeah. The thing that's the most difficult these days is finding a frame. Everything's come unbundled, as they say. In the old days, when you'd buy a single, it would have an A and a B-side. So you'd be buying two songs, instead of one song. Now it's just song by song by song. The audience, rightfully, became so dis- enamored with the idea of an album. They'd go spend $15 or more on an album and there would be one good song on it. So, everything came apart. The important thing to do is create a frame so people can say, "Oh, yeah. This actually is an album." I love the medium of an album, of multiple songs that tell a whole story, that leads you from one place to another. I believe in albums. The key part is to give it an identity so that each song relates to each other song in some important way so it's not just a collection of songs. You know, singer-songwriters back in the old days would be like, "Okay. Now here's my funk song, my folk song and my country song."
Yeah, to fill a niche. [laughter]
"Yeah, I've got one of everything." Instead, with Alison and Robert, we were able to put this frame around it of "post-genre" music.
Do you think that's part of its success?
I do. I think people have been segmented to the point that they're all disgusted with the very notion of it. You're either a Republican or a Democrat. And if you're a Republican, you believe these three things and if you're a Democrat you believe these three things. I think most of us don't believe any of them! [laughter]
You walk into a record store sometimes and it's kind of limiting to be in a certain section. Or you look on iTunes and see categories. I don't know what category something I like is going to fall into.
Their categories are usually useless. They were useful in the old days because audiences were being segmented by corporations through radio to drive people from one radio station to another. "We want these people from this age group."
Yeah. They're able to sell advertising for more money if they have a concentrated audience of the exact people they want to reach. That's where that grew out of. For an artist it's death and at very best a complete waste of time.
I think even now, especially, audiences find things in such various ways because of the Internet and media.
Yeah. It's much more fun that way. Without having it put down your throat.
With O Brother and Raising Sand as top sellers compared to what else is in the charts, it seems kind of shocking. Do you have a sense of accomplishment there?
Yeah, yeah. I've got so much more to accomplish in that regard. I feel that I'm fighting a completely losing battle at the same time. [laugher] I feel personally, as an individual record maker, I am in a much better position than these huge, wealthy, funded record companies that have seemed so monolithic. I've been doing battle with them for thirty or forty years. They are less and less well funded all the time. They have no credibility left. No one will believe a thing they say anymore.
No. It all starts to look pretty ridiculous at this point. It's too bad. One thing that could get lost is back catalogues and things like that. Think of all the back catalogues that never came out on CD.
Right. That will all be remedied.
It seems like it could.
No, it will. It will definitely all be remedied. In the next twenty years, that will all be taken care of — maybe even sooner. It depends on how fast things move. Things are gonna be put back in shape. Things have to be put back in shape. The record companies, for all the horrible things I said about them today, also did an incredibly important thing for 100 years, which was to record all this culture and even create a great deal of culture — that is a national treasure and it needs to be preserved. And it needs to be preserved with great respect and care. r
Thanks to Ken Weinstein for making this interview possible and understanding why.