Jackie Greene

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



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Greene is committed to touring with Lesh's band through the end of 2008, squeezing jaunts by his own band in between. But the first collision of his two musical worlds came this past summer when he and Berlin decided to get serious about completing the new album. “The problem was that Jackie was now doing the Phil tour and Los Lobos were on tour with John Mellencamp,” the producer recalls, “so we were looking at our calendars, and we realized that if the record was even going to have a prayer of coming out in March or April [of 2008], we were really going to have to not just bust our ass, but be in two places at once. So I mapped out the next four or five months and there were enough little windows to get it done.”

Before the Lesh and Los Lobos tours started, Greene and his band went into Mission Bells for a week and cut basics for a handful of new tunes, with Oz Fritz engineering. A one-time protégé of New York producer/musician Bill Laswell, Fritz moved to California in the early '90s and is perhaps best-known for engineering three albums by Tom Waits, who just happens to be a god to Greene. “I'm like a Tom Waits freak,” Greene says with a smile. “I like everything he ever does. I like the weird shit; I like the normal shit. I like the pre-gravelly voice, I like the gravelly voice. He can do no wrong to me.”

Of course, Greene pumped Fritz for info about Waits' famously unorthodox recording techniques, and Berlin already had inclinations in those directions, having worked with Tchad Blake on some of Los Lobos' greatest albums. So it's no surprise that the sessions for Giving Up the Ghost often featured unusual sonic choices, whether it was using extraordinary amounts of compression for distortion “or going into studios and picking up a guitar you've never seen and an amp you've never heard, and just going for it,” Greene says. Or recording to Greene's old Otari MX-70 1-inch 16-track, which has two broken channels. “You only have 14 tracks to work with,” he says, “so everything counts. I like to commit things to tape. Committing yourself to a certain thing, like a reverb or effect, is helpful because then you build around that initial color.”

“It's limiting having not that many tracks,” Fritz agrees, “but it becomes a parameter in how you do stuff, so it becomes a part of the equation. I didn't feel constrained. It just meant maybe I couldn't have stereo room mics; I'd just have mono.”

As for the overall sonic approach to the album, “Steve and Jackie just wanted to be really creative; don't worry about trying to go for a commercial sound,” Fritz responds. “Go for interesting textures and atmospheres. Don't be afraid to experiment. So every time I did a session with live drums, there would be one mic that I would totally experiment with; maybe mess it up with extreme compression, run it into a mic pre and overdrive it — just see what happened. I did that with vocals, too. I'd always have a clean track and a parallel track that I'd process in different ways. That's something I developed working with Tom Waits.”

When I ask Greene how he squares his drive to create a unique-sounding, consciously lo-fi work, with his professed desire to also create a radio-friendly album, he chuckles, and says, “I can't! I guess that's the weirdness of me. Certainly I want to have successful records — who doesn't — but I'm not willing to make anything other than what I want to make it sound like. If this is not considered commercially viable, so be it. But if there's a song on this record that for whatever reason ends up catching the public's attention, I'm totally for it.”

And most likely it will be one of the catchy tunes Greene recorded with Jackshit at Sonora Recorders in L.A., the week after the Mission Bells sessions — the infectious rockin' soul tune “Like a Ball and Chain,” the ethereal album opener, “Shaken,” or the accordion-driven “Love Gone Bad.” “That's a great studio,” Fritz comments, “with a really nice-sounding board [an API], a great-sounding live room, some really good mics. I fell in love with one of their RCA 77 ribbon mics. And obviously those [Jackshit] guys can really play; they have great chemistry.”

Once the tracking sessions were completed, the action shifted to the road, with Greene and Berlin fitting in sessions in between shows on the fall 2007 Phil Lesh tour. “The way the Phil tour works,” Berlin explains, “is he goes to a place and stays four or five days, so I was able, between my schedule and his schedule, to be in those places when Jackie was there. So, for instance, he goes to Chicago for five days and Oz and I show up and we record for four of those five days at CRC [Chicago Recording Company]. The tour goes to New York, and I show up for five or six days. Jackie worked at Brooklyn Recording there. We even did a Phil bass overdub for a song backstage at one of their shows on a [Digidesign] Mbox right before they went onstage in New York. Somehow or another, with this insane workload we were able to put the record together in bits and pieces all over the country.” Additionally, Val McCallum continued recording various guitar parts in L.A. and sending those along to be added to the stew. Then Fritz would compile it all on a master hard drive.

“It was like being in touring mode while recording,” Greene comments, “so when I listen to it there's a certain sense of restlessness, like you're not at home.”

Because of budget limitations, Berlin asked “four of my favorite engineers to do a couple of tracks each for the pittance we had. Much to my delight, they all agreed.” And so Michael Brauer mixed four tunes at Quad in New York City, Tchad Blake did four at his base in Bath, UK, Mike Fraser handled three songs at The Warehouse in Vancouver and Ross Hogarth one track at Boogie Motel in L.A. With Greene and Berlin on separate tours by this time, they had to keep track of the mixes long distance (in Brauer's case they were able to hear some of his mixes in real time through a piece of broadcast software called Nicecast), conferring over the phone or Internet.

But in the end it all came together and Greene says he is thrilled with the final album, which is filled with a typically eclectic mix of Americana styles, plenty of insightful lyrics about the human condition and relationships, and enough strong hooks to make radio programmers happy. Could Giving Up the Ghost be Greene's long-predicted breakthrough? Don't bet against it. But either way, Greene has definitely arrived.

PLAY: Must Play
Like a Ball and Chain

PLAY: Must Play
Prayer for a Spanish Harlem

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