Q&A: John Ralston on Lo-Fi, New Orleans and Not Trying to Make a Springsteen Record
Photo by Monica McGivern
Those of you who read this week's print piece regarding John Ralston only scratched the surface of what's going on with the Lake Worth master songwriter. In the raw, exclusive Q&A that follows, there's a ton more regarding Ralston's sessions in New Orleans with Michael Seaman and David Vandervelde. Also, read about that strain of Peter Gabriel running through a record that might owe more to the Traveling Wilburys than anyone else, and some real talk about lo-fi and the cutthroat record business.
Whether you read this (admittedly long) interview before his evening performance at the SW 3rd Ave Music Festival tonight at Green Room, or sit back with a copy of Shadows of the Summertime sometime this weekend, it's a rewarding, in-depth read.
New Times: How did you pick out the songs that ended up on Shadows of the Summertime?
John Ralston: Well, this record there wasn't any thinking. It was like, go to New Orleans, two five-day sessions, I think one in June, one in August-September, and then the first five-day session was just like let's record a couple songs and we end up recording eight. Songs we had demoed, written. Basically I brought 50 songs on a couple CD-Rs. We sat in the studio, I played them on a computer, and then Dave was like let's do this one. So we did the first one which I think was "Gas and Matches." So we went back through once we finished "Gas and Matches," and we were like let's do another one, "Bedroom Walls." We did "Bedroom Walls." And then that's how it worked, you know. We obviously didn't make it through all 50 songs, but we probably listened to the first 35, and by then we had an album. Out of that 35.
Are these the ones that were the strongest or just a collection that fits together?
I left a lot of that to David and Michael. For the other two albums I did, I was really hands-on and when you get too into something you can't see the forest for the trees. So that's why I brought a big batch of demos. Some of them I thought were shit, some I thought were good. In the end, I probably could have picked six or seven that are on the record as being in my top ten.
That makes for three or four big surprises for you.
Yeah, like "This Summer," which probably ended up being my favorite track on the record, I think it's track three. That one, they listened to it and were like "we're doing this one." There was no acoustic guitar like there is now, Dave has that really cool, and I don't know how he tuned it, like an open tuning and a Neil Young-type of open tuning. That acoustic guitar sort of drove the song.
That one has some cool organ on it.
Yeah, some organ and mellotron in the choruses. And a pretty insane bass line on that one too that Dave played. That one and "Oh Lord," which is the real sludge-rocker toward the end, I think it's song nine. That one on the way to New Orleans for the second time, I was kind of finishing the lyrics for in my head and at the time it was an Invisible Music song. So we got there, plugged in and Dave was playing drums, I was playing guitar, and that was the first take. The first time he had ever heard that song, and it was so sloppy but still good, that we decided to keep that one take and do the bass and vocal over it. That one I wouldn't have picked because I was working on Invisible Music, but we kind of just wanted to play something loud.
Where were you doing these recordings?
It was like an old strip-mall church that had failed or gone under. It was right off the street car line, right near Rendon Street. Kind of in the hood. So Michael got this investor, and the plan was Michael was going to build a big studio, like a place where strings could be scored for films and with the clouds that come up and down, a lot of money. They ended up - I think the investor kind of flaked on him - and so he has this giant open building that's still got the pulpit and carpet in the whole place. Just ugly, there's nothing aesthetically pleasing about it at all, and so we set up the console right where the pulpit would be, and there's amps all around the room, and next door through these double swinging doors is a giant -- not a gymnasium, but the size of a gymnasium -- open concrete room. All the reverb is not plug-ins. It's reverb from that room. It's its own echo chamber. The big room reverbs you hear is that room. Despite the zero aesthetics of that room, it had a huge part of the recording because you get a room like that and it informs the rest of your choices.
How did New Orleans inspire the results?
Maybe in sentiment and feeling, but nothing directly. I had written a song around that time called "A Marigny Christmas" about the Marigny section of New Orleans and spending some time there, but that song didn't make the record. It's more of a down-and-out drinking song. I don't know what to say about the positivity of the record, it's almost like a feel-good record. Definitely not what I set out to make, it definitely wasn't the best time in my personal life or anybody's life that was recording, but it was like we had a lot of fun. I remember being home and coming home from tour and making a choice. I'm probably going to stay home for a long time, get a job, I work in construction, and then it's good I made these choices on my own, but then you feel like you've lived at sea and came home and you miss that movement of the ocean or the water. You come home and you're not moving. It's a difficult adjustment. And so, about a year and a half into this, you start to reflect on what were the best parts.
There's tons of great parts of the touring and being in that machine. You follow the bands that are selling records and stuff. One of the best parts was recording with David at Jay Bennett's place. Me and Dave totally hit it off, and Mike toured with me for a year before Secretly Canadian picked up his records, and has done really great stuff since then. So one late night, I just called Dave up and said "I don't have any budget or money, but do you want to make a record together, and do you think I could talk Michael into hanging out in New Orleans for a week?" So that's how thinking about something really positive in the past and reaching out basically, is how we made the record. Maybe it was the fun we had, or me not picking the songs, is why we had a positive vibe throughout. I think it would be good if you were a skater or a surfer. It would be a good record to listen to if you were doing those things. In that gymnasium room we were skateboarding while listening to the record. I'm not a skateboarder, I almost busted my ass. [Laughter]
But those guys are?
No, but there were skateboards there so as we were listening, we were just skateboarding around in a circle like at the rolling rink, you know? I did some of the vocals back here. If I can self-analyze myself, I'd say the background vocals are really good. The harmonies I've chosen I feel really strong about. The lead vocal, it's ok, on the first two albums. They're good and I wouldn't change them, but I'm not the best singer in the world. So, the music was sounding so good in New Orleans and I tracked the lead vocals there, but they weren't good enough for the record. I wasn't satisfied with them, especially because there was nothing to hide behind. David's plan and Michael's too was, let's write this record like a band can play it like a four-piece band can play it. So that's what we did and there really wasn't anything to hide behind so I took the tracks back here and tried to come up with a vocal that would match up with the music.
Was that process for you typical of what you had done in the past?
To really break down the lead vocals was new to me because I've always been more concerned with this song and the production of the song and less concerned with the lead vocal. I had all this music done, and so I only had one thing to focus on, so that was new to me, just focusing on the lead vocal. Mark helped a lot. My "S" semblance is off the charts, so Mark had me going into the universal audio into the distressor into the stay level. So, the way he did it was the distressor acted like an EQ, chopping that "S" off and the stay level was doing the compression. Less compression than normal than I'd normally use. I'd even practice when I speak, over thought it, but I think we got it.
That's wildly technical. Has that always been your approach to recording?
From Sorry Vampire on, yeah. With Needle Bed, it was six days when Michael lived in Knoxville and just me and Jeff Snow drove up to Knoxville and recorded what ended up being the record. If I have my timeframe right, it was all recorded there. I'm nearly positive about that. So anyway, mixed that record with Charles Dye, and really tried to keep up mentally. Charles Dye is one of the best ever, best mixing engineers ever. When we recorded Sorry Vampire, it was two years, tons of tracking, throwing songs away and starting over, and that's when I really paid attention and tried to learn how to record and became the engineer I am now. In theory, I can record your band. The immediacy of having a home studio is pretty cool. This week I actually just posted a free download from my room. So, I'm enjoying that. I don't know plug-ins very well, I use the outboards, and so the next thing I'm going to try to do is just use the console from front to back. That's my next challenge, learning the insides and outs of running a board because that's totally different.
"Pretty Little Heart" jumps out, do you see that song any differently than any other in that collection?
No, the way I view songs is they're out here. If there was a guitar in my hands or a keyboard in front of me, we'd just write it real quick. So, with rare exception do I get really attached to a song. Like "This Summer." That song I got really attached to in the studio because there was one lyric I didn't like in the second verse, and Ben Roberts, who helped engineer on Sorry Vampire, and since has become a really close friend of mine. He's from Knoxville, and goes in this Southern drawl, "what about 'just a good ole' friend to help me find my way.'" In a way I wish you could hear how he says it cause it's so charming when he says it.
Any time I think about music, talk about music, play music, it's always from the lens of community involvement. If that community is three people in a room making up a band or it's a large community of bands that are always playing together or whatever, I don't like doing things by myself in general, I don't like going to movies or lunch by myself, I like to go with a couple of people, so it's the same way with music, it's all about music to me. It's all about the interaction with people and creating something together, not just by myself because that's boring to me. Like when Ben came up with that line, "just a good ole' friend to help me find my way," it's not poetic or anything, it's just right. I wouldn't have found that line without him, and he wouldn't have written that line if the song wasn't there. That's how I get attached to songs in the way they were recorded, rarely just from writing.
What brought out this aesthetic of this album?
Some of the choices that made the record what they are, are calling David. David is like a one-man band. And he happens to be one of my favorite recording artists right now so it's like who you gonna call? If you can call somebody that you really admire that's a really close friend, I knew that was going to inform the sound of the record. I think one time he said, "if the lead guitar is playing lead you can't play the organ -- the guitar player is the organist." That was the vibe. With Michael, from the engineering to the sound sampling, he was really into making hits. His idea was to make songs that could be on the radio, the idea that we could make these great sounding recordings on our own in a band in a church. I really did sit back. I didn't touch any knobs, I didn't place any microphones on this record, that influenced the sound. It probably made the sound better because of it. I let Michael do his job, so Michael did his job and David did his with making choices and it was much more fun, no stress. No agonizing decisions -- just show up and play your part, you know? It was cool, which is why we decided to do a second week and make a record, not just a couple of songs. It was more like a vacation than a session.
But it wasn't a vacation, you worked pretty hard, you weren't sightseeing when this was going on.
Yeah, with "This Summer," we were all super stoked, looked at the time, it was like 7 in the morning, we worked all through the night, so we take the remaining tall boys and go to Michael's house and realize we should probably get some coffee, so me and David walked to the French Quarter. So, we were two miles from the French Quarter to answer that early question. So, we got coffee and that was our sightseeing. Going to Café Du Monde at like 7 or 8 in the morning after an all-nighter.
Here are a couple of artists I thought about when listening to the album: Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty, some Wilco aesthetic, Neil Young. Are these all musicians you know really well?
Yeah. The record is more straight-ahead. Like Tom Petty, Wilburys, you know, one thought we had was like McCartney doing an American rock record. It has some of that early British rock stuff. But, it's distinctly an American record. Somewhere along the way we just had this weird world music vibe, we haven't put our finger on exactly what it is. Like oboes or Graceland, or Peter Gabriel weirdness going on, but that's the thought we had while making it. What you expect is this rehashing of Americana guys wearing flannel shirts and lap steel all over the place. Like "Gas and Matches" or "Bedroom Walls," those could be Petty tunes. "Love Will Come Around," that could be a Petty tune. But because we didn't set out to make an Americana record, it doesn't come off as a direct allusion. Like Legends of Rodeo. When we got actually money for a budget, and we signed up for a "major label deal," we tried to make a Bruce Springsteen record. My voice sounds horrible, it's not me. I was really bad at it. So, when we made this record and I listened back to it, it was so natural. You don't try to do something, you just do something.
So how self-critical are you about your earlier recordings?
I mean, Steve and Nathan and Jeff are, with Dan Bonebrake, are my best friends in the world. We hang out together on weekends -- they're like family to me. We have different feelings on the Legends of Rodeo catalog. I can't listen to it.
You guys were like 20 at the time, right?
Yeah, it's not as horrible as I'm making it out -- but to me, I hear my voice. I can not stand it. But anyways, with my records, I think that's why it's taken me a long time to make the records I've actually ended up releasing and stuff is because I really wanted to make sure I didn't feel bad about it. I wanted to make sure I could be proud of going forward of the catalog. Like Needle Bed, Sorry Vampire, White Spiders, "Marigny Christmas," the "Jesus Christ" single I did, these are all things that I did that I can stand by. If they did put it out here after Incubus or whatever, I wouldn't feel awkward about it.
A lot of it is about timing. If you're a band that's touring, putting out records on labels, stuff like that, you have to put out something almost quarterly. Even if it's just a digital single, you have to keep your name in the hat so to speak. If you put out a record a year, one every two years, when you're submitting for tours, people are like who's that? We haven't heard this name lately, so I think a lot of shit gets put out there. I love lo-fi. I'm a big fan of lo-fi music. But there is some awful shit out there right now. People that don't give a shit about how their music sounds. And they don't know how to write a tune. But there is some really great stuff out of that whole thing. The problem is when people see that oh lo-fi is popular, then they say well I can do that. Really, you can't. That shitty sound which is so great for some bands, makes other bands sound like they can surf in that stream for a minute.
How has it felt to have a break in the touring action?
I talked to a couple other people who were like "road dogs" that toured constantly, and it took like two years to get over the cease of motion. I dealt with crazy anxiety that I had never dealt with before. Two years of working in construction walking into Home Depot feeling your lungs constrict going "oh my God how am I going to make it at Home Depot without vomiting." I really had to do some self-evaluation and keeping my head on straight and adjusting to being home, and I guess that's part of why I didn't do anything for a couple of years. That and I didn't have to deal with Vagrant anymore. If I don't have people I'm working with, then I don't do anything. Then it's not fun for me so I don't do it.
The Invisible Music thing was the start for recording again and playing music. Working with other people is what makes me want to make music. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and realized there were people who I could make music with and it became fun again. I have all these tunes hanging out, and that's why I did this digital thing because it wasn't because I wanted to just put something out, I'll probably do it till I have 12 songs, I have these hard drives of music that some of these songs didn't make it past the demo stage. Demo-itis or whatever you call it, I'd love to hear someone else record these songs that could come to it from a different perspective. I have no perspective on these songs other than the demo. My guidelines are if I listen to it and I can't think of another way to record it, it's going to be on that for free.
So there's 40 demoed songs lying around?
Easily. Maybe at the end they'll be four volumes of Wildlands recordings. That's kind of the idea because those three years I feel like I wasted a lot of time. I could've released tunes, I could've put out a record, but I didn't. I let the "you gave up, you quit" get to me. That's the music business. They don't give a shit about you. I follow what's going on locally with all this great music coming out of here, and I wish them all the success in the world these bands, but I really hope they can keep their mindset and be aware of watching their back. You'd hope the people you're in bed with aren't going to fuck you over. If you're young in a group of dudes, just go.
With Legends it was before the internet, so we were calling people who knew other people and writing letters, and getting gigs the hard way. Totally grinding it out. I found an old ledger sheet from tour and in it was 30 bucks. 50 bucks. 200 bucks. That was like a big night. 20 bucks. 75 bucks. How did we do it? I don't understand not trying. Touring can beat you up, but at least I've seen that kind of shit. The best days of my life, don't mean to sound like an old man but, you know? If I tour again I want to make sure I'm with the right group of people. If you're not with the right people you're better off anywhere else.
SW 3rd Ave Music Festival's New Times Stage. With John
Ralston, the Dewars, Plains, the New, Lavola, and more. 5 p.m. Friday,
May 6, at the Green Room, 109 SW Second Ave., Fort Lauderdale. No Cover.
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