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The acclaimed Austin guitarist and producer (Blaze Foley, Lucinda Williams, Slaid Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard) is also fast becoming known—on the basis of his 2007 album, Diamonds to Dust (Blue Corn), and this month’s Last Exit to Happyland (Rootball)—as a songwriter.
So how are things going?
I haven’t had a day off since October. Seriously. I mean, I worked Thanksgiving.
You mean it’s been a grind finishing up this record for February, or have you been on the road a lot?
All of it. I’m finishing up on the record, and in November I went and did a Fred Eaglesmith train trip up to Hudson Bay. I looked at the polar bears and was hoping to club some baby seals, but—well, that didn’t work out [laughs]. That was incredible, and then I went back to Winnipeg, where the train left from, and I spent three weeks there producing a record. Then I got back here and started on another record. Well, I’m working on two records now, so I’m in the middle of both of them.
What are you working on right now?
Betty Soo and Porterdavis.
Both in your home studio?
It’s getting to be a busy little place.
Right now, yeah. I could use a day off.
A lot of people don’t know much about your career before you moved to Austin. I assume you played music when you were younger and living in New York?
Yep. I started when I was fourteen or so; my first gig was probably when I was fifteen. And I never looked back. That’s what I was going to do. I knew that from the time I was about seven. Once I had the taste of playing a live show, there was no stopping me. That’s all I’ve ever done.
Did you lead any bands, or were you pretty much a guitar player?
I was always the side guy.
So when you got down to Austin, how did you meet Blaze Foley?
I was playing in a band called the Goats of Arabia, and we were playing at the Hole in the Wall—this was probably 1976 or so—and Blaze was driving down Guadalupe in someone’s car that he had borrowed. He saw “The Goats of Arabia” on the marquee, and he said, “I gotta find out who that is.” So he went to where he was staying and woke up the guy whose car it was and said, “There’s this band called the Goats of Arabia, we’ve gotta go check it out.” He walked in and introduced himself. We hit it off; he kind of attached himself to me right then.
ou played with him until you moved to Los Angeles, right?
Yeah, well, I started playing with Blaze really around 1978, and we both moved to Houston at that time. I played with him until 1981, which is when I moved out to Los Angeles.
Why did you move to Houston? Was there more work there?
Yes, Houston was booming at that point. The scene in the Montrose area was incredible, and you could play thirty nights a month in all these Montrose clubs that were full of people who had money. And you could walk to all your gigs! My amplifier stayed at one club for more than two years. I mean, I’d play there 24 times a month. It was incredible.
What happened to precipitate your move to Los Angeles?
Well, I needed more opportunity. I remember looking for a bass player in Austin, and there were only about ten to choose from. If I moved out to Los Angeles, there’d be a hundred of them. And then if none of those hundred ended up working, then there’d be another list of a hundred. I just needed to do that.
So you went to L.A. Did you move there with the intent of playing your own music?
Yeah, I had a band in Austin that really didn’t play many gigs, but we did play original music. I wasn’t the singer, but I was writing some of the songs. I moved out to Los Angeles to start a band and find more opportunities.
And instead you met Lucinda Williams. How did that happen?
She had just come out there. She was living in Austin, and she came out for a week or so to do a show. My friend Michael Bannister was going to be the drummer on this show, and I think maybe David Grissom was her guitar player then? Well, somebody was flying out from Austin to do the show but couldn’t do the rehearsals, so I just ended up doing the rehearsals as a favor. I sort of fell into her band that way. She ended up moving out there, and I ended up being first her bass player and then her guitar player.
ou spent eleven years playing with and producing for Lucinda, leaving during the Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sessions. Were those sessions really as bad as everyone’s reported?
Uh, yeah. Probably worse.
There was always a balance of the music versus the rest of it. And then the scales tipped. You know, I could always walk away when it got crazy. And then all of a sudden I couldn’t. So I quit.
That was more than ten years ago. Have you reconciled?
No, I haven’t spoken to her.
Was 1988’s classic Lucinda Williams the first record you ever produced?
Yes. I was playing these shows with Lucinda around Hollywood, and we had a cool band and she had great songs, but we were making $8 or $10 a night—for the whole band. It was too much work for too little pay. I was trying to think of a way to tell her that I was going to quit when she called me up and said, “We have a record deal. Who’s going to produce it?” And I said, “I will!”
What made you think you could do it?
I’d always been the guy in the band with the tape recorder. I knew the records I liked, and I knew how to make things sound that way.
You’re known as a musician’s musician, but in a way, you’re an anti-musician. You’re not about flash or having a lot of gear.
My approach is basically simplicity. I’m not wired to hear a lot of notes. I see a record like a painting or a flower arrangement: Everything’s got its place. You start with a great song and a great singer and some great musicians, and then your job is just to not screw that up.
I heard a story that Jerry Wexler once wrote a letter to Ray Wylie Hubbard about one of your productions. Is that true?
He did. It was a postcard, and I’ve got a blowup of it in my studio. It says, “Dear Ray,”—it’s handwritten—“Delirium knocked me out”—he means Delirium Tremolos—“Dynamite in all respects: rhythm, execution, material, vocals, plus a really great mix.” “Great” is underlined. It also says, “Pianist Dick Hyman laid this on me: When in doubt, tremolo. Jerry Wexler.” If I ever have moments of self-doubt, I look at that. That’s all I need to see.
Do you have those moments in the studio?
Usually with every project, there’s one where I think, “Oh, man, I’m f—ing up here.” Big time. But it goes away fast. I’ve done so many records now that I pretty much know what I’m doing.
ou didn’t make your first solo album until 2000, yet you’d been writing songs since the seventies.
Yeah, I was writing songs all the while, but they weren’t any good.
So what made you feel you were actually ready to do it?
Digital recording made it a lot easier to have a home studio. And then my friend Buddy Miller made a record around that time, and I was kind of goaded into it. Once I put the studio in my house and started making records for other people, I thought, “Well, maybe I should do my own record.”
Then came Diamonds to Dust, which was the work of a focused songwriter. How did that come about?
I think maybe I got nodes or something [laughs]. I found my voice as a songwriter, and I found my voice as a singer. What happened was that friends of mine started dying, and I wrote about that. It was sort of a big step.
So you feel the serious subject matter brought some gravitas to the music?
Yes. I had all these songs, and I didn’t really know what the album was about until I sat back and listened to it. And there it was. It all came together at the right moment.
What songwriters do you really admire?
All of the people that I’ve worked with: Ray Wylie, Slaid Cleaves, Mary Gauthier, Lucinda, Tom Russell. I’m going to forget some here. Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Blaze Foley. All of those great songwriters.
And now the new album. Do you feel you’ve had a creative songwriting burst?
I write whenever the songs show up, which is usually when I’m going to bed. I’ve learned that it’s really hard to write a good song. It’s not hard to write something that rhymes and doesn’t sound stupid, but it has to be better than that if it’s going to be compelling. Mary Gauthier told me once that she’ll rewrite a song dozens of times and spend a year or two on it if it’s not right, until she gets every syllable the way she wants it. I finally realized that that was what I needed to be doing.
A few of your songs on the new record really stood out to me. What can you tell us about “Drums From New Orleans”? You have a couple of New Orleans songs on the record.
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and there was a disc jockey there named George “Hound Dog” Lorenz, who when I was just starting to become aware of music, I would hear on the radio. He was playing fifties R&B, and it was incredible. I actually found him online recently and listened to some of those shows. He was playing Little Richard, and it was incredible. I could hear New Orleans music. I wrote that song with my friend George Carver, who also grew up in Buffalo. We started talking about how we’d be up at night under the covers, just twelve years old, and listening to the radio.
The song “Voice of Midnight” is about your friend Ian McLagan and his wife, Kim, who died in an auto accident.
Yeah, that song came to me late one night. I didn’t sit down to write a song about Kim. I just had that line in my head, “voice of midnight”; that’s all it was. When I got it all written down and I played it, the hair was standing up on the back of my neck, and I was like, “F—, that’s about Kim and Mac.” I’d had no idea at that point. It sort of freaked me out. I tried to play it again, and I couldn’t. That moment was pretty powerful.
“Hard Road” feels like one of the album’s centerpieces. It’s kind of an epic song.
It is kind of an epic. I don’t know how I wrote this one. I know that as I was trying to make it perfect in my mind, it kept getting longer and longer. Somebody that I respect a lot at one point said, “That song’s too long!” And I thought about it, and then I added another verse.
Only a drummer and a backing vocalist are credited on the album. You played all the other instruments?
Well, I couldn’t afford to hire anybody. I love Rick Richards’s drumming.
As someone who is so conscientious about production, it must be difficult to have your studio be in your home, because the temptation is probably to work all the time.
I do work all the time. I’m not a workaholic, but if I’m working on a project, like the ones I’m doing now, I’m on a schedule and going in as often as I can.
Is your studio separate enough to where the rest of your home life doesn’t intrude on it?
Well, the spare bedroom downstairs is the control room, and the drums are at the end of the living room. Then there’s the guest room, where I put the singers in. And the office—I have some guitar amps in there. But the studio doesn’t really take over; it’s all kind of unobtrusive. Unless there’s a drummer playing.