Remembering Jay Bennett: working his craft

PART TWO OF TWO
see yesterday’s post for the background on The Viper and His Famous Orchestra’s recording sessions with Jay Bennett for our Everything for Everyone CD. Scroll down to the end of this post to see Edward Burch’s unedited comments.

Jay Bennett mixes Everything for Everyone while The Viper and His Famous Orchestra look off.
Jay Bennett mixes Everything for Everyone while The Viper and His Famous Orchestra look on. Photo taken by Edward Burch.

Before we had a chance to do anything with the tapes from the studio recordings that Jay engineered and produced in 2000, I took a teaching job in Ankara, Turkey. It wasn’t until I was visiting the Midwest on a research trip the following summer that we had a chance to get together again with Jay to mix and pre-master the tracks, this time at the Chicago loft where Jay’s band, Wilco, rehearsed and kept their stuff. You can get a pretty good look at the layout of the place in Sam Jones 2002 documentary about that band, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. It should be noted that the summer of 2001 was a strange time for Wilco.


MIXING

THE VIPER: So how about the mixing sessions we did with Jay in Chicago. What do you remember about the space?

ROB HENN: At least in my memory, the Wilco loft was this huge place, ragged blonde wooden floors that covered the whole of a rectangular room, and an impossible number of guitars stacked on a giant two-tiered rack that stretched far into the back of the loft.

RILEY BROACH: I remember thinking: Jay has an insane amount of guitars! There were shelves upon shelves upon shelves of guitars. I asked Jay, have you played every single one of these guitars? He responded something to the tune of, “yeah, some of them for only one song.” To which I responded, “why?” And he responded, matter-of-factly, “no other guitar makes that sound.”

RH: I remember seeing that every member of Wilco had a desk. Jeff Tweedy’s desk was notable in particular for the large number of books piled on the wall next to it; they were surprisingly literary and obscure, and for some reason I remember that a number of items were from Grove Press. I particularly remember you looking at this stack and remarking with mock-anxiety, “Oh no! Jeff Tweedy might be even more hip than I am!” You said nothing of the sort when a little while later Tweedy came into the loft briefly and we all met him.

TV: What I remember about the dynamic there was that everyone who used the place (Wilco band members included) was supposed to leave everything looking exactly as it had when they’d come in. In retrospect, that might have been an indication of a band having trouble. But at the time, this very much appealed to the anal retentive side of me, and I thought: hey! great idea.

OVERDUBS

What do you remember what we did there? I know we did at least of couple of last minute overdubs: some percussion for “Randolph St.,” some marching on a wooden equipment cart for “I Love a Girl in Moscow,” and Jay’s VERY last minute 8 bars of organ on “Pretty Is as Pretty Does.”

RB:  I’m not sure who thought of the idea to record the marching Red Army, but I remember searching through that enormous loft for something with a good “marching” sound. We tried out various objects, comparing the resonance, and settled upon the wooden crate/cart. Our process seemed almost scientific. I wonder if people listening to the recording actually think a Red Army is marching. Why did we include the marching in the first place? Why are they marching?

RH: For the organ on “Pretty Is,” I only remember that he did it quite quickly, as a lark almost. It was, I gather, typical Jay: a brilliant improvisation that added a lovely layer to the song, using one of the many instruments he could have chosen from. He remarked that he was drawing upon this particular organ in order to suggest an old time soap-opera sound, one that was perfect for that particular song’s (melo-) drama.

RB: It makes me think, old-timey theater. I know it was said that it sounded like a sappy soap opera theme. I suppose both interpretations capture that drama.

TV: I remember us standing around while he did his organ bit. I’m pretty sure this was literally the last thing we did on the whole record. And I’m still amazed, in retrospect, at the time and effort Jay put into this project. The organ bit is a good example. As quickly as he did it, he actually did about 4 takes where we thought 1 would have been fine, and then he mixed bits and pieces of the 4 takes into 1 on the spot. The rest of us were late for some dinner appointment (maybe even for playing a show that night?) and getting kind of antsy about getting out of there. But he wanted this backing bit for 8 bars of this track buried in the middle of this very local record to sound right!

AFTER

RH: My chief memory of Jay from mixing was an argument we got into. Oy, it was frustrating! I can’t remember the content of the “dispute” at this late date, but only that I had said some idea about the recording that Jay heard wrong, and thence thought was a stupid idea; I then spent the next five minutes or so trying to clarify what I had said, but Jay was having none of it, and continued to be contemptuous of my supposed idea. He would not brook stupidity in the recording process! We were quite prickly with each other, and Ed made a nervous joke about it. Later in our time at the loft, Jay found his trump card: he heard and then played back, at length, this snippet of my vocal mic in isolation during some backup singing. I clearly couldn’t have heard myself at all in this part of the recording — it was a melody that was too low for me, and hence I was singing softly — and the mic revealed that consequently I was horribly, embarrassingly off-pitch. Jay just kept that part playing for a while, for everyone else in the band to hear and laugh at. Me included, though a bit more nervously than everyone else. Well-played, Jay, well-played.

I had thought that Jay and I had gotten off to a truly bad start, then. But within a year or so (I think), I went to see him and Edward play at a record store in St. Louis when they were just beginning their tour in support of The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part 1). I was standing next to a CD rack in the crowded store, and accidentally jostled a few CDs in those long plastic trays. The CD trays came clattering down in the midst of some of Ed and Jay’s banter between songs. Jay stopped what he was saying and singled me out: “Nice going, ROB!” he said. “Way to ruin the show, man.” Or something to that effect.

This may sound like another attempt to embarrass me, and it was, but it was more like razzing from a big brother than anything else. He used my name with an affectionate tone, and was clearly marking me out to the crowd as a friend of the band. It was a gesture of kindness and welcoming at an embarrassing moment. Whatever he had thought of my stupid ideas previously, he now seemed to recognize me as a friendly acquaintance, someone he could kid around with in public. Thereafter, at every show I ever saw him, he would say hi as if we were the oldest of friends.

…AND, THE PHOTO

TV: We all like this picture at the top of this post a lot. Though I have to say that most of our commentary on it over the years has been about “smoldering passion shared by Ryan and Riley” or the two rubber ducks in the upper left corner. But what do you think Jay is thinking about in this picture?

RB: Perhaps, we were listening to an adjustment that Jay had just made and were thinking (in our giddiness of recording with Jay) that it sounded magnificent. You can tell by our perfectly timed smiles which was probably timed with a magical moment in the music. Whoever took that picture has impeccable timing. [That would be Rachel Leibowitz.] Jay, on the other hand, is probably thinking to himself, “ooo, that sounds terrible.” You can see his mouth in the “ooo” shape.

VICTOR CORTEZ: “Needs more toy piano…”

RH: I want to say something clever here, but honestly all I can imagine is the most mundane answer. I suspect it’s true, too: in this photo Jay is passionately, manically [maniacally?] puzzling through some kink in the mixing process, working his craft, trying to perfect even a small detail of sound for a tiny and unknown band from east central Illinois, as if it were as important to him as Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Nothing is stopping his concentration, and he’ll get the result that he wants, the result that is right and necessary for the music. He’s out of focus in this shot. But oh, it’s a picture of him, definitely.


And, as promised, here’s the unedited text of Edward Burch’s comments.

Jay agreed to do our CD because I had dirt on him, so it was a total hush deal. Actually, it was because he found what we were doing (and by “we” I mean you orchestrating the orchestrations of the Orchestra) to be so inspiring that he wanted to do whatever he could to help get the music recorded. It didn’t take much convincing. I thought his production on Everything was very Rubin-like, in the sense that it was an attempt to capture, as unmediated as possible, what the band sounded like in the room. I remember it was Jay’s idea to leave the false starts and tails on some songs, although it could have been Adam [Schmitt] and me who decided during the mastering to leave them in. (Sorry ’bout that.) Those are among the few points on the record that the mode of production draws attention to itself. So, depending on what you consider the role of the producer to be, Jay was doing most of it — got us the room at Private Studios, picked the engineer (that is to say, himself). He couldn’t have picked a better engineer, because Jay’s knowledge of the choice and placement of microphones were, I think, very key to the album sounding as good and as “natural” as it does. For me, it was certainly a treat to work with him on Everything for Everyone in a context where Jay and I were not working on our own material, just to have him guiding the session, such that he was freed from having to be concerned about the recorded output as “his” record (as he often did with Wilco or with Bennett-Burch material), but instead could focus his energies purely on someone else’s work. He often liked to comment to folks with whom he worked, “See, you really could have done this without me.” But truthfully, there’s no way we could have made the album we did without him.

6 thoughts on “Remembering Jay Bennett: working his craft”

  1. If you note who is missing from the photo, I think I can be fairly certain that I was the one who took that photo. I’ll check with Rachel, as she tends to have a decent memory of photos that she took. But if I had to bet, I’m gonna say it’s mine.

  2. Rob’s experience of being (semi-)publicly shamed by what we often termed in the studio “the isolation party” (the practice of listening to a track or sub-mix in isolation from the rest of the recording for the sake of a laugh regarding its, uh, limitations) was not unique. I’d seen it happen with all the guys in Wilco, with me, and certainly with Jay himself–pretty much anyone who recorded with Jay would get this treatment at some point.

    Check out my bvox on the song “California” (from P4AM)–in particular the soaring oohs and ahhs on the choruses. They sound good now, but they didn’t always. We did a lot of work on them, but before we did, they were excruciatingly unpleasant.

    1. Glad to know it, Ed. The context of the earlier squabble made this “isolation party” seem more purposeful to me than it was, I’m sure.

      I also think it might have been you taking the photo here. You’ve been consistent about this, at the least: in September of 2008 you claimed authorship rights on the photo when it was being discussed on my FB page.

  3. I would agree with Edward; he took the photograph. I think he was using his Pentax K-1000, which has since done broke. I photographed the initial recording of the tracks at Private in Urbana, and have some great shots of Jay behind the board, and all of you playing, and a typical shot of Jay on his cell phone out in the snow, which was a common scene–he was always on the phone. Although I’ve been to the Chicago loft many times, I don’t think I was there at all while you guys were working on this.

  4. RLBW, if you still have those shots of the recording dates at Private, you should scan them in and post ’em somewhere. I’d be interested to see…

    Ryan, so the Bible says — but it still is news. It’s weird how the Bible’s got stuff about the Pentax K-1000, isn’t it?

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