Interview: T Bone Burnett

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson


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In the Two-Plus Years since our last “Mix Interview” with T Bone Burnett (July 2006), the producer/musician has been working nearly nonstop — as usual — and churning out some of the best music of his career. Julie Taymor's film Across the Universe, for which he served as an arranger and co-producer of the music, brought the music of The Beatles to a new generation in a fresh and exciting way. The marvelous Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album Raising Sand, which he produced and played on, was a surprise smash hit (Mix, December 2007) that also spawned one of the coolest tours — complete with Burnett on guitar — of 2008 (August 2008).

He produced what is unquestionably B.B. King's best album in decades — One Kind Favor — and John Mellencamp's deep, soulful and revelatory Life Death Love and Freedom. The latter is the first album featuring a new sound innovation developed by Burnett, his trusty chief engineer Mike Piersante and others called CODE, which purports to deliver true high-definition audio to DVD, MP3 and other delivery formats. It's all still slightly mysterious, involving certain proprietary pieces of gear and techniques, but hey, if it sounds good, we're all for it!

Burnett was selected to be this year's recipient of the TEC Hall of Fame Award before CODE was made public — purely on the basis of an amazing career that stretches back to Bob Dylan's ramshackle Rolling Thunder Revue. Highlights include a handful of intelligent and provocative records with the Alpha Band and solo; an array of brilliant albums he's produced for the likes of Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, The Wallflowers, Roy Orbison, Counting Crows, Gillian Welch, Cassandra Wilson and, yes, even Spinal Tap; and creative soundtrack work for films ranging from the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Cold Mountain to The Ladykillers.

We caught up with Burnett at his ElectroMagnetic Studio in L.A. in early September as he was finishing up work on a new album by longtime pal Elvis Costello. Our conversation this time centered around his recent projects.

So what's the story with this new Elvis record?

It's a really cool group of songs, a couple we've written — we've been writing things for movies here and there, so there are a couple of those — a few songs he wrote for this opera on Hans Christian Anderson.

Did Hans Christian Anderson have an opera-worthy life?

I think so! [Laughs] You know, Elvis does so many things at once it's hard for me to keep track. But there are a few songs that are from a sort of more serious place, and then there are a lot of songs he's had around that he hadn't put anywhere, and things we felt like doing in the studio. But it's essentially a string band record, and then I'm playing really loud electric guitar. [Laughs] But he's singing really loud rock 'n' roll music.

It's got some great people on it: Mike Compton, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou [Harris]. There's no drums at all.

That's a twist from your recent productions, most of which seem to have a couple of drummers going most of the time and percussionists.

Right, as many drums as possible! [Laughs] Well, there are no traps on the Elvis record, let's put it that way. Mandolin is a great drum.

On the B.B. King album, I noticed how you use maracas or shakers, and thought, “Who uses maracas these days?” I associate it with folks like Bo Diddley or Johnny Otis. It adds a lot.

I agree. You know, I don't like hi-hats. I don't like things that proscribe time very strictly. The way I hear hi-hats is, it's the drummer saying, ‘Here's where the beat is’ — ti-ti-ti-ti — and everyone sort of follows that and it can make the beat stiff; accurate perhaps, but stiff. So we don't use hi-hats, and all the things that would play those notes — the quarter-notes or eighth-notes — are these big shakers; not just one or a pair of maracas, but like 10 or 15 different gourds with beads in them or nuts, and they go shh-flooosshh! [Laughs] So it expands and broadens the beat.

Last time we spoke, your solo album True False Identity had just come out and you were about to tour. How was your experience of the tour and putting out the record in this business climate?

The tour was the best and most expensive vacation I've ever been on. [Laughs] I loved doing the shows, and it was as good a band as I could dream of.

By “expensive vacation,” do you mean you had to pay for the tour because Columbia doesn't do that anymore?

[Laughs] That's right!

Things have changed, as your buddy Bob Dylan once sang.

I'll say. I could probably buy Columbia now. [Laughs] And if we go much longer, they might just give it to me. Be sure to mention that was a joke!

T Bone/BMG. That has a nice ring to it.

[Laughs] The music business gets stranger and stranger. But touring again was fun. I've been working with Sam Shepard in the theater for about 10 years now, and I've gotten more comfortable in the live environment — and the live experience has become more important to me.

As a kid, I fell in love with sound and I sequestered myself in the studio for most of 40 years and created my own universe and my own world, and came out [to play live] hesitantly because you can make a mistake in the studio and nobody knows it and things are private and calm and much more controllable. Going out live is a whole other animal and experience.

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