Category Archives: those that have just broken a flower vase

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.

It’s the new shmoo

You’ll notice a slightly different set up to this space, one that aims at pretending this is simply a blog, but a proper web site for a working band, with a simple above-the-fold homepage and everything.

I make no apologies for this nod to crass commercial realities and only hope you’ll realize the Viper is the same self-centered, logorrheic amateur he’s always been.

Hanukkah with the Viper, pt. 4

So now you’ve got everything you need to enjoy Hanukkah with some “Heyse Latke Kalte Latke”: a recording by the Paint Branch Ramblers, a cheat sheet for singing and playing along, and even the lead sheet if you want to play the melody. What’s next?

Well, for the fourth night of Hanukkah, I’m posting a scratch track that I made very simply (recorded straight into the computer’s built-in mic) for the Ramblers to be able to hear and practice with when we were learning it. This is a slightly older version of the melody with one phrase that turns a different direction in the 7th bar than we do it now (see yesterday’s post for the details).

download

The instrument you’re hearing is the skin-head banjo ukulele I picked up some years ago at an antique shop in Kewaskum, Wisconsin.

In fact, the song was written not for the mandolin/violin tuning I use on the cümbüş, but for the basic D ukulele tuning (A – D – F# – B) of the 1927 Regal tiple that I used to have. A tiple – at least the early-20th-century American instrument that was called that – is a 10-string ukulele (four courses of 2 – 3 – 3- 2 strings each) that sounds like something halfway between a mandolin and a 12-string guitar. I’d found the instrument on e-bay and arranged to meet the seller in person on his way through Effingham, Illinois at a Cracker Barrel restaurant (his idea). So, like the banjo ukulele, and like the vast majority of every instrument I’ve ever owned, I bought it without ever playing it first. I’ve had pretty good luck with that, actually.

The melody of “Heyse Latke” falls very nicely into the ukulele tuning, and I’d written the song for the set I was going to play at my office holiday party, probably in 2005 or 2006. At that time, it was just an instrumental. But while I was in another room socializing, I heard the the tiple, which I just had propped up against a wall, falling to the floor with a sickening sound. When I went in, I saw that the headstock – as heavy in relation to the body as you’d imagine a headstock on a 10-string ukulele-sized instrument would have to be – had very cleanly snapped off in just such a way that no one was ever going to be able to fix it.

So “Heyse Latke” had to wait for the Ramblers to come along to get a public hearing. (From the set list notes we keep on our band’s wiki, it looks like the first performance of it may have been on July 31, 2008 at the Riverdale Park farmers market. Nothing like Hanukkah in July)