Sunday, August 18, 2013

Rooster Revisited

Charlie Parr: "Those songs on Rooster, most of them were written around the time that most of King Earl was written, which was over a period of time from about 1997-2004. I had tried to write a short story which had turned into a short novel and I passed it to a friend who was also a very good writer and an honest man and he told me that it wasn’t very good although it had its moments. So I took those moments and made songs out of them. “Cheap Wine”, “Gone”, “Public Record Rag”, “Samuel Grady”, “Dead Cat on the Line”, and “One Eyed-Jack” are all from that bad little book, which might explain why they all feel related, at least to me. The little book focused in on a neighborhood and a pretty unsavory shut-in named Eddie who narrates the action from his window, making up a good part of the story that he can’t really see but feels qualified to make conjectures about. So it’s a series of digressions that start from a simple event but by the end of the story you’re left kind of wondering if the initial event wasn’t the only real thing in the whole story. Anyway it was a bad idea and the digressions ended up being better songs in any case.

My favorite song on the record is “Bethlehem” and that had to do with a dream (nightmare) I had about my Dad after he’d passed on. When I woke up, trying to remember the dream and figure it out (all I can see from it now is my Dad lying in a giant kidney-shaped pan in a hospital corridor and me yelling up and down the halls for help but there was no one around) for some reason I started thinking about Herod. I thought about what kind of horror it must be for any parent in any time to lose a child because of some greed for power or money or nonsense like that. Then the song showed up.

The traditional songs on the record are “Samson & Delilah”, taken from both Blind Willie Johnson (who was arrested for singing it in front of a local government building) and Reverend Gary Davis; and “Wild Bill Jones”, an old murder ballad that was covered by the great Dock Boggs and had a powerful effect on me and my relationship to the banjo.

It was a great time, recording this record. Tom Herbers brought up all sorts of cool old gear including the largest ribbon mic that ever lived, we had a bunch of good friends stop by including Molly Maher and Dave Carroll, Karl Anderson played bass and my friend Christian McShane brought a thing called a “Ukelin” over, which we decided must be satan’s favorite instrument (at least his particular one, which made us all cringe). Mikkel and I lined up behind the giant microphone and we just played, like we always played, and made it work. Not much changes around here."

Tom Herbers: "Rooster was all recorded live to analog tape, using one microphone. No mixers or compressors or equalizers were involved in the recording. The "mixing" of Charlie's voice, guitar etc. was accomplished by moving the microphone around until the proper balance was achieved. This is true for all the guest players as well. Players and instruments were moved around the room in relation to Charlie and the microphone. This is a classic technique that was used in the early days of music recording. We were all set up in one room at the school, so we would record some, listen to a playback through a single studio monitor speaker, make adjustments as needed and then record again. That was the basic process. The microphone we used was a beautifully restored RCA 77A ribbon, circa 1932. (Special thanks to Wes Schuck at Two Fish Studios in Mankato for loaning us the microphone for the sessions.) The microphone was plugged into a vacuum tube Ampex MX10 mic preamp and from there, straight into one channel of an Ampex ATR-102 half inch 2 track recorder. Glorious mono sound."

Mikkel Beckmen (washboard/percussion): "Coming off of the immensely well-received King Earl Record, which Charlie and i recorded live in about 3 minutes, the success of which i think puzzled Parr, Rooster required a bit more science as we were using a huge, ancient microphone that took two people to lift and which, like some Galilean solar system rendering, required us all to orbit around its central location in an old boxing studio somewhere in downtown Duluth, measured off at different lengths depending on the loudness of the instrument being played. I, like Pluto or Neptune, or some Gospodorian roadside monument, floated furthest out, around the 15 foot mark. It was June 2005 and people everywhere had been on the march in Seattle, in Genoa and Cancun, demanding an end to globalization, and what Subcommandante Marcos called a global machine that devours flesh and defecates money, while ever mellow Duluth stayed cool by the lake. We also stayed cool in the dusty, dormant gymnasium, methodically and professionally creating a backdrop of sounds to accompany Charlie's take on the human condition and collection of stories - of farmers driven from their land to the bar, of oppressed women in the madhouse, cheap wine drinkers, desperate workers. Well prepared as always, and working efficiently, Charlie led us through the songs, and after 1 or 2 takes we moved through the process with ease. It seemed at the time that all of us were tired fathers of toddlers or infants. That, coupled with the almost church-like and serious atmosphere of a sparring gym, where everyone whispered a lot and went about as if in a museum, created, i think, an intensity that is clearly heard in Cheap Wine, Bethlehem, Ellen Mayhem and indeed the entire thing. I may have driven up to Duluth and home again to Minneapolis in a single day, enriched and filled with quiet satisfaction. That session was 8 years ago and now I am sitting here in Oregon waiting to play a show with Charlie and we will play some of those songs and they will be new all over again."

Dave Carroll (banjo/"Rooster"): "When Charlie asked if I would record a tune with him for his Rooster album I was thrilled. I had been a fan of Charlie for a few years so I was also pretty nervous. The studio space was huge, and so was the mic we recorded with. It was as big as a football. Charlie played the song once while I figured out my own part, and then we recorded it. I think it took us 2 takes. The whole experience was awesome. I was really new at recording, as well as playing, and Charlie made it easy on me. I'll never forget it."

Molly Maher (slide guitar/"Cheap Wine"): "When Charlie asked me to play on "Cheap Wine", I think I asked him, "Why?" I was living in a studio above Third Ear, where he recorded it. I remember coming down stairs, walking into the studio and saw 2 mics set up. One for him and one for me. Really my knees were shaking. I had just realized we were tracking live together. I'm not a strong lead player, hell, I'm not a strong guitar player in general. Once Charlie started singing though, I was swept up in the story. Swept up in the melody. I'm still haunted by his phrasing. I can hear him singing the word "I". I remember the way it came out from his mouth, the way he sang it, the story he was telling.

A while later, I got to play the song with him at the Turf for the release of the record. It felt so good to be back inside the story with Charlie. Here's a photo from that night."

Karl Anderson (upright bass): "The remarkable thing about recording Rooster was the marriage between Charlie’s production style and the recording equipment he used. Any other modern studio session involves a lot of “punching in” with recording software to correct bad notes, adjust vocal and instrumental intonation issues, add harmonies or other backing instruments, etc. Charlie didn’t want the manufactured sound, and the vintage equipment he found didn’t allow for that kind of editing. We all played acoustically into one giant old ribbon mic, so once the tape started rolling there was no going back to change what happened. As a result, when you listen to Rooster you hear exactly what you would have heard if you were with us in the studio instead of the illusion you get from other albums."

Christian McShane (Ukelin, guitar, cello): "Those days were some of the best times I've ever had in my life, musically speaking. I also haven't laughed as hard since. At the time, Charlie and I were working together a great deal on a side project called "Devil's Flying Machine". In the end, I think we accidentally influenced each other a little without trying. At that time, Rooster ended up being broader and expansive (like if thousands). A large chunk of if thousands' album released at around the same time (i have nothing) ended up being largely acoustic (like everything Charlie does). To this day, I continue to accent more on acoustic instruments over electronica in if thousands, and it seems like Charlie has at least one drony, intense song on all his albums. It's just one of those nice things that happens when musicians collaborate in the right way. Or maybe I'm just full of it."

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