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As an engineer and producer, do you ever try to get the sound that you got on older equipment? "If and When," on that first dB's single, I know it was recorded on a Teac four-track. One of my favorite songs of yours is "Something Came Over Me," and that sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom.
Yeah, it was in a big empty room. With "Something Came Over Me," I would have preferred it to sound like I sounded in the room. Like, you know, in movies, there's a love scene on the corner of a street in New York, and you can't really record the dialogue; you have to dub it in afterward. So no, I don't choose lo-fi.
One problem with digital recording and with modern records is that everything is wide spectrum—it's not realistic to put mikes close to everything and keep all those high frequencies and low frequencies. It's not the way you'd hear it in a room, and the fact that digital is wide open makes it so that we have these grating high frequencies on everything. So you have to have sense about it. But would I go in and have the Sneakers record sound like that? No, I would've come back to sing the next day when I didn't have a cold; we wouldn't have recorded it in a girlfriend's bedroom when we had to leave the club we were in because they had to mop the floor. There were things I would have done differently.
It's like the drummer in my band, Janet [Bean], we'll record something in practice, and it's like . . . It seems we're always trying to recapture some of what made those recordings—the magic part of them—it's always trying to get that when you're in the studio.
My advice is don't demo. Figure it out in a room but don't record; that way you're not fighting it. I think so much of what ends up being the problem with demo-itis is that when you're in the studio, the tempo is a little off or the monitoring headphones are just not set up right. I think it's not actually the sonics, but things that—if you're really careful about what was good about those demos, you can do them again. Trying to think about the dB's records, so many things were—I think we made the new record a little bit like I've read the Beatles made records. In that we brought in songs, we'd show them to each other, and we'd play them until they coalesced. There wasn't preproduction.
And is that typically how you guys have always worked?
No. I'm not sure I'd say that generally the dB's were overprepared for recording, but for Repercussion we worked with Scott Litt in New York for weeks and also had plenty of time in England. For the first record, it was just like, "How many quarters have we saved up? Let's run it in the studio."
I think the most time we ever spent was five weeks. It was fun because we did it at Sorceror in New York, so I was glad to be there for five weeks. But I could never see how bands took months to do a record.
The dB's new record certainly was nothing like that. We met for a day or two at a time, spread over several years. We definitely didn't have time to get tired of the local pizza.
The new songs are great. Like any dB's, I can immediately tell who wrote what. It just seems like you guys have these distinctive styles.
Well, I think we do. Peter tends to resolve off a II chord a lot of times. That's something I kind of learned from him—he does have certain harmonic places he goes that are great and surprising to me.
I think these are up there with the best you guys have done. A lot of the bands from the early-80s indie era, like Mission of Burma, are still writing great songs; it's just that they're older. Do you think you still have game?
I'm not sure that—you're saying that we do, and then you're asking the question!
Well, I think you do! I think they are as good. I'm just saying, do you think that you're still—we've done like 13 records, and I always think that my newest stuff is the best.
Personally, I'm back to writing on paper. I'm writing for kind of chamber-music groups and it's very invigorating. I did it a little bit in music school, but when I was doing it then, it was in the era of—there was still very complicated serialist music going on and also very avant-garde pouring-milk-on-balloons-inside-a-grand-piano kind of writing. For me, my juices are really flowing now after writing the string arrangements for some of the dB's stuff. I've kept on that path while writing the horns for "The Wonder of Love" or whatever. I'm very interested in what orchestral players can do.
But this is not, you know—we're trying to talk about the dB's overall, and that's not so much the tendency of the band. But I have a new solo record; you could probably get a copy. It's out in February. As far as me feeling creative, this is a great time. As far as me judging whether it's as good as before, I mean, I don't think that I was in a great creative—I don't think I was writing great songs when I was in the dB's. I think Peter was, and I think I was a help, productionwise, but I don't think—if you actually look at the songs I wrote on that first dB's record, they are not my best. I like the record, but my writing . . .
So when you put out It's a Wonderful Life, did you have a bunch of things saved up, or did you just hit a creative stride? I love those songs.
"Depth of Field" was played by the dB's and was cut from Repercussion. I don't think anything else on that record. There's a song called "Excitement" the dB's also played, and in fact still play occasionally.
[Drummer] Will [Rigby] has got his first song on the new dB's record, right? "Write Back," that's like a hit.
The first song on the record is "That Time Is Gone." Oh, Will has his first song—right!
"That Time Is Gone" is the perfect way to lead off. Peter is a great songwriter, and he always has something extremely catchy on your records—and he's got it again. "World to Cry" is great.
I think that even before Peter moved to New Orleans for a decade, he had that rhythmic thing going on. I think that when you look at his writing, you've got to not just look at the chords and the words, but just the way he grooves. It's great to play with him, on any instrument. He's got—you're tapping your foot and shaking your head.
Well, I imagine that when you guys get together, it's pretty easy to get back into playing together—the chemistry is really evident there.
[Bassist] Gene [Holder] and Will are—it's like nobody in the dB's really plays straight down the middle of the beat, is my theory. Gene and Will have this thing going on where they dance around it. Gene comes out of kind of a very soulful, Motown, Muscle Shoals kind of bass playing, and he's very fleet. Will can play all kinds of things; he loves country music and old rock 'n' roll. We all used to go see NRBQ all the time, and they're a great example of finding the rhythm in the crevices around the straight downbeat. So when we think about the dB's, we think of little dancing molecules of rhythm more than lyrics of longing.
Yeah, it's always been a fun band. You have a sense of humor, and that goes a long way in music. Is there anything else you want to bring up specifically for this interview, for the sake of the reader?
I guess we would be open to suggestions for songs to play, if people want to post on the band's Facebook page. I'm not saying we will, but we're open to reading them, because there are a lot of songs! We're traveling with Brett Harris, who's a great songwriter and singer, so there will be five of us onstage, and we're excited about being able to dig in for two nights. We used to play a weekend in a row at CBGB's or the Knitting Factory, and that's really more the way it should be. We're hoping people will come both nights, because we don't think that they'll be the same. v