"IT'S ALL OVER THE PLACE, AT SOME POINT": PART II
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): One of the things that made me think of the Slim Harpo connection was "Shakin' Hips." With your last three records (FUGITIVES FROM THE LAUGHING HOUSE, EARLY NOTHING, NECESSARY ILLUSION), there's always little quotes from well-known R&B stuff throughout the songs.
RICK SHAFFER (RS) (laughs): Yeah, you're one of the first people to pick that up.
CR: Yes. On EARLY NOTHING, you've got a mention of “Bright Lights, Big City,” and I smiled when I heard it – I said, “Eh, I don't think that's a coincidence.”
RS: It's a weird thing -- I like to put it in as a tribute to my heroes kind of thing. On "Diggin' It," I make a reference to Sonny Boy [Williamson] -- because I just think what those guys have done is so important to our music. It just means a lot to me, and any time I can get it out there about these people, is just important to me.
CR: Sure. Exactly. You can follow the thin red line from Sonny Boy, and he works with the Yardbirds -- the next thing you know, they're the biggest thing that's coming. You've got this whole British blues scene, everybody dipping into each other's pockets.
RS: Yeah. And I guess it's like the thing you mentioned to me last week -- really, I think you hit it on the head with the primeval Stones kind of thing. I mean, that's really what I wanted to get back to -- a lot of the stuff, I recorded with the tape and the old tambourine [attached] to my foot, then laying it down with the guitar and the vocal, and putting everything else on top of it.
CR: Right. Because you get the basic rhythm, the basic beat, and then you can pretty much go from there.
RS: Yeah. And it keeps it, like, where it's in that hoppin' kind of thing -- that kind of groove, like Slim Harpo, or even that early Stones stuff. I mean, if you get analytical about it, it's all over the place, at some point.
CR: Well, to give you an idea of what I don't like -- I did a session about 15 years ago...the first thing that he [the engineer] made us do was work with a click track.
RS: Ah, that's the worst. I've met so many young guys who'll talk to you about that, and say, "Oh, I had to do this"...guys that are into that slick kind of scene, or they're on a major label. And they say, "Why doesn't your stuff sound like this? It sounds so great, it's rough”...because they don't do any of that stuff.
CR: Well, why do they [producers] insist on that much, you think?
RS: They're looking for perfection. When I worked with [Mike] Thorne, he sat there, at one point -- for a week, he had him and another person tuning my voice.
CR: Tuning your voice?
RS: Yeah. Every single word, every syllable, and I was disgusted: "You know, I understand what you're doing, but the stuff I like has nothing to do with that." But, you know, they're just into this thing of trying to make a perfect record.
CR: And yet, it's kind of funny -- I think it was John Peel who once said, he preferred somebody who could play the same three chords honestly, as opposed to 39 chords perfectly.
RS: Right. Going back to the Joe Meek part of it, I used all old vintage stuff for my gear -- for the bass stuff, it's funny, I picked it up from a guy [Greg Cohen] who'd played with Tom Waits, a Billy Wyman 1964 Framus bass. I used that bass for the whole record, because I wanted that kind of sound for it. And I used these old '60s reverberation units, made by Premier, that people like DIck Dale, and that whole crew -- Duane Eddy -- used. Just that kind of stuff.
CR: So, basically, what does working with that kind of gear give you, that the modern stuff can't give you?
RS: It seems like it has a warmth to it. In the case of those fuzztones, I picked up a 1967 Tonebender. Mick Ronson used one, and Jimmy Page used one in the early Zeppelin [era], first two albums, and [during] the end of the Yardbirds. To get those tones, you've gotta use that stuff, if you want that [sound].
CR: Tell me your favorite tracks on NECESSARY ILLUSION, and what inspired them. Give me two or three.
RS: Well, the title track, I like it, because it reminds me of something off DECEMBER'S CHILDREN, or ENGLAND'S NEWEST HITMAKERS [by the Rolling Stones], in that it's like a simple song.. Yet I wanted to incorporate the fuzz hooks, like the Joe Meek kind of stuff he would use in some of those records...and then, the tremolo kind of things from that era...just have a concise song with a good hook, and a nice groove in it.
I watched this really huge documentary with Noam Chomsky -- that's one of his big concepts that he's putting out there, and I said, "Wow, this is a great idea for a song.” And then I just got into laying it down with a reverb track, and then the tambourine on the foot, and started putting everything on top of it.
CR: OK, that's one, give me another.
RS: Well, "Lucky Day" is just the hill country kind of groove -- the "Boom-bah, boom-bah," [R.L.] Burnside kind of thing. But then, I wanted to tie that aspect of hill country into the Yardbirds kind of thing. And that was the whole idea -- again, keeping it simple, but tying it to the garage thing, marrying that with the hill country kind of groove, and putting the two of them together.
CR: And that's what you get. OK, give me one more.
RS: I like the atmosphere in "Open Your Eyes" -- it's a dark track, but I just like the atmosphere of it. On that one, in particular, I went back to what I would consider a huge influence -- Magic Sam, putting that West Side soul kind of thing that he had going on in his records, before he passed away...just that real bite-y, kind of reverb, ethereal kind of thing in the background there, lurking around in this piece.
CR: From the lyrical standpoint, you captured a lot of that feeling you were after..."My woman done me wrong, the world done me wrong, everybody done me wrong..."
RS: Yeah, it was definitely to incorporate that, and maybe paint it a little broader -- it's actually within all the blues songs, the tragedy, the misfortune, and the redemption, in a lot of cases.
CR: Yeah, well, as evidenced by somebody like R.L. Burnside coming into his own, late in life --
RS: Really, at the end of his life...
CR: At the end of his life, which -- in the pop music industry -- really isn't allowed to happen, as we both know.
RS: Yeah. I don't know if I ever mentioned it to you before. It really blew me away, and I didn't know, at the time -- Robert Palmer used to write about us all the time. And he really, really liked the band. When that first [Reds] album came out, he was writing for the [NY] TIMES -- he gave it, “one of the best albums of the year” [mention]. And he used to review us live.
And he did this huge thing in PENTHOUSE one time, where he took all the New Wave bands, and did a review of every single one of them. Then he picked out our album, and said, "To me, these guys are the best of the batch, and I'm gonna tell you why." He said, "They play it the way it's supposed to be played, real and red hot, all the time."
But the thing I never knew is what a blues enthusiast he was. I found out, much later. It was after he passed away -- after he did that whole DEEP BLUES thing, the book, the movie, and all. And then I thought, "OK, I can see why he liked this stuff." He had that element in him.
PART III: "IT JUST BECOMES THE THING OF DOING THE WORK"
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): It's that idea of unlikely connections coming through -- unlikely tastes, or associations -- and, from that, you get great things.
RS: Yeah: the very last song, “Why Do Ya,” I got into that. I've been reading Charles Bukowski stuff. One night, I was reading one of the pieces, listening to [Captain Beefheart's] MIRROR MAN – and later on, I got into doing that track, just laying it down with the slide.
CR: Well, MIRROR MAN's interesting as an album, because it's basically built around jamming, and free association.
RS: Yeah. I just laid it down with the one guitar, with the slide thing – put it down that way, with the vocal. On a couple tracks, I just did the vocals and guitars as is, and kept 'em that way. I didn't want to punch it in, I just wanted to do it straight up.
CR: For EARLY NOTHING, the [Reds'] trademark sound is there, the keyboards are back up again...you and Bruce are almost having little duels in those songs, I think.
RS: It's funny – that record keeps gaining momentum, where people get into it, buy it, and download it...I said to Bruce [during the recording], “Yeah, this is one of those records, where it's going to take people awhile to get into it, I think.” But I like a lot of the concepts, the things we did in it – like the one track that gets tremendous play in Europe, “A Few Dollars More”...
CR: So where did that particular inspiration come from, 'cause you're talking about betrayal, and being let down?
RS: Well, I saw this documentary by Amy Berg [DELIVER US FROM EVIL] about the whole thing within the Catholic religion of moving the guys [priests] around, the whole pedophile thing – it was an absolutely brilliant documentary. And it was just so well-done, it just moved me. Bruce had this electronic piece, and I started working on the vocal part of it, laid that down. Then I started working on the guitar stuff over it.
CR: And so, it just kind of grew from that.
RS: Yeah, I like doing stuff that way. We're talking about starting an album in 2012, and we came to a conclusion. Bruce called me up one night, after I'd sent him a copy of NECESSRY ILLUSION. He said, “I'm riding around in my car listening to this, and I think we should go back to the approach of the first three albums...where we lay down the rhythm tracks, the heavy guitar sound, and then I add after that, rather than building this up, [as] in the last two records.” I was like, “Yeah, I've been thinking that, too – to hit it less effortlessly.” So I think that's probably the way we're gonna go with that.
CR: That's cool. In “Laying Low,” you have an interesting little instrumental bridge going on...
RS: Yeah, I really wanted to give a little nod to Mick Ronson, that Bowie sound that he was doing in ZIGGY, and ALADDIN SANE – that kind of era.
CR: Well, it would have been very easy to add a few extra lyrics – just for the sake of it – but you didn't do that. You just let the guitar do all the talking, as it were.
RS: Yeah I like that break in that, too – I like to think we based the maracas over it. It's a heavy piece. It gets a lot of play on [the] Pandora [Internet radio station].
CR: How about “Endless,” with the little bass pulse, and doomy-gloomy stuff that Bruce brings to it – where did something like that come from?
RS [laughs]: That was like our “Riders On The Storm”. If you think about it, you could get into that end section – maybe a little bit darker than “Riders On The Storm” [laughs], but...
CR: So if you're not doing another Reds record till 2012, what's going to keep you guys busy until then?
RS: Well, Bruce just signed to Rope-A-Dope. It's a hiphop jazz label. He started, about seven months ago, an organ trio based on Tony Williams' Lifetime, and '70s Miles Davis [music]: ON THE CORNER, [and] BITCHES BREW. He started working with these two guys, really great musicians in South Beach, developing this sound.
This guy heard 'em, and said, “This label I know would really be into what you guys are doing.” The label heard the stuff, and they did an album. It came out at the same time as NECESSARY ILLUSION...it's called Big Fun 3, that's name of the band and the album. There's a couple things where it sounds like King Crimson goes insane, like on some of those early recordings – where it's just so heavy, but then goes into a funk groove. It's a cool sound they've come up with.
CR: So how are you going to stay busy?
RS: I'm already starting another record. I'm real work-oriented. I work every day. I'm always writing...we've been lucky, too. There's one little movie we got involved with, “Dirty Step Upstage.” We did two things on the soundtrack, two instrumentals. The soundtrack got one of those Maverick awards, an indie award, and the film was in Cannes. She's [director Amber Moelter] real interesting, she does all kind of things.
CR: Just one of the many people that you cross paths with...
RS: Yeah, and there's always little side things. Theresa's put together a thing with a company – it's one of those phone app things – and they licensed “The Signal,” off our second album, an instrumental.
CR: So, suffice to say, that staying busy's not going to be a problem for you.
RS: No, thankfully.
CR: It could very easily have gone the other way, couldn't it? Because there was that period – [where] you're doing the Stony Plain stuff, playing every night, everybody's getting burned out, you're not really getting much of anything...
RS: No, you're just running a huge deficit all the time.
CR: You're running up a big bill, you're not getting any real acclaim, so to speak. Had you not hooked up with Michael Mann, you might have probably stayed in that spot.
RS: I probably would have ended up doing the studio thing, because that seemed to work for me real well. It's a really good living, and it's real easy. But I don't really like it, to be honest with you.
CR: Well, I imagine it gets like what [Jimmy] Page ran into, at the end of his session period – a real assembly line mentality, right?
RS: Absolutely. It is. It is. I would come in: “OK, here it is, run it down, let me hear the sound, OK, do you know what you're gonna do? OK, let's go, let's record it.” And that's it. “Why'd you do this? No, no, that's it, that's fine.”
CR: Right, they won't let you do it [again] – because of that whole equation, “Time is money,” I suppose.
RS: That's the thing I like about having control. And it goes back to what you want to do – it's nice to know, you can just do this stuff the way you want it, and present it the way you want it, because it's really what you're trying to do. That's what the artistic part of it's about.
CR: There's nothing more frustrating when you run into somebody who won't let you do that.
RS: It's terrible! You know, when I read the Danny [Gatton] book, it points some of the same things that he would get into – I found myself following down the same path, and thankfully, I was able to pull myself out of it, because it gets real dark, when you get like that...
CR: And you get into that psychic corner...
RS: Yeah. Where the light really went on was when I went back to being around these blues people, because they don't care about any of that stuff. They just don't care about it.
Once you put that whole thing out of the mind, it just becomes the thing of doing the work. And that was the thing that [Michael] Mann always would be into with me – “Oh, don't fuckin' worry about who you're gonna work with, or where you're gonna do it, just do it.” That's a big part of it. Once you get into that mindset, then that's what you do.
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