Music: Buddy and Julie Miller

Apr 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Barbara Schultz

"WRITTEN IN CHALK": HOME-COOKED AMERICANA

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The first single off Written in Chalk — whatever “single” means on an indie Americana release these days — is the only song on the album that husband and wife wrote together this time out: “Gasoline and Matches.” It's an awesome, rocking blues song with super-rhythmic electric guitars and clever percussion that at times sounds like conventional drums and sometimes mimics fists pounding on a door (“I'm gonna keep on knockin' till the door unlatches/You and me are gasoline and matches”).

“That's Brian Owings [on drums],” Buddy Miller says. “He's been playing with me for 10 years at least. That song took a few different takes, but I really liked it and I didn't want to give up on it. We recorded it with a drum set and we had a few different versions of that, but they never felt right. Late one night, I invited Brian and Chris [Donohue], the bass player, over, and I warned Brian — because you have to warn a drummer about these changes — that I just didn't think I wanted a drum set on it. I said, ‘Let's take the drum set apart and lay them on the floor on their backs kind of, so you'd sit down on the floor and play them, and bring some stuff that makes noise but doesn't sound like a drum necessarily.’

“And we have stuff around the house that we bang on when we play. Most of our trashcans are pretty banged-up looking. So he threw a lot of stuff on the floor and played it, and as soon as I heard it, I knew that's how I wanted it to sound. That's how it went down, live with my vocal, but Julie's vocal went on later because the words weren't done, which is how we work, I'm ashamed to say!”

No apologies necessary, as spontaneity is clearly such an essential ingredient in the Millers' music. Buddy Miller's duet with Plant is another example: “We were still on the road [on the Plant and Krauss tour] last year when I met with [label] New West about putting out this record. Robert asked me, ‘How'd it go with the record,’ and I said, ‘Oh, they're great folks, but it won't come out this year, and he said, ‘Hey, if you need me for anything, just let me know.’ I think he was just being polite; he's a super-nice guy. I thought, ‘I shouldn't bother him,’ but I just thought that for about half a second because I'd be nuts not to!

“So the next leg of the tour, I brought an M-Audio rig, and waited till we had a dressing room that was big enough to set up eight mics, and I begged the guys to come play after soundcheck and before dinner. That's a tough time for musicians; you can't keep a room full of guys from their food. I brought my rig out and set it up before soundcheck so they wouldn't have to wait for me, and my friend Gurf [Morlix] just happened to be at this gig in Toronto, so I gave him a lap steel and we set up and recorded the track live in the dressing room. We played it twice and that was it. The vocals and everything went down live.

“At home when I'm working on something, even when I'm just doing a guitar overdub, I'll agonize over which pre should I use for this — go back and forth — and which mic placed where, and I didn't have time for that with this track,” Buddy Miller continues. “I had 30 minutes to set up mics and cables, and I had one M-Audio interface with eight preamps in it, and I just put stuff up and got some levels, and it sounded great. It's one of my favorite tracks that I've ever recorded. I just loved it. I mean, that probably has a lot to do with Robert Plant singing on it, but it sounds really cool. It just captures the performance. I want to do my whole next record backstage.”






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