So I had some songs that I had when I was writing and all of my work went to Wide Mouth Mason there were some songs that were sort of acoustic songs that we would try and shoehorn into the band. Our second record Where I Started kinda had the most acoustic stuff on it but on the rest of the record it just feels really good to play through a really loud amp and be a dirty progressive blues rock trio with Wide Mouth Mason and some of those songs didn’t have a home and I’d amassed enough of them that when I knew there was an opportunity to tour with my friend Wil that maybe it was time to take all the songs that were daring me to keep them stripped down and put them all on a record. So it sort of happened naturally like that and our original bass player did the same thing. He was the lead singer when I first met him and he kinda wanted to step away from it and focus on bass playing so I became the lead singer of the band and he always had some songs that he’d been working on in his back pocket that kinda didn’t fit the band and would fit his thing on his own. So I think we all just kind of looked at it as an opportunity to do that but as sort of a parallel world to go down all the while doing stuff with the band. And at that point we were also looking around and seeing that radio wasn’t playing a lot of stuff like us that was kinda the real high end of the rap rock era and boy band era and we were this blues rock trio so we kinda stepped back from that side of it and relied on the part that’s always been the most important part to us which was going on the road and do tours and connect with people that way. And when it was time to release a new record let’s sort of ease people back in so we released Live at Montreux Jazz Festival and in doing so we listened to how it sounded when the band just went for it and played live and so that’s how we wanted to make No Bad Days and then as it happens our original bassist decided to leave the band to focus on his side project and we were already working with Gordie on those songs and we got the opportunity to tour with ZZ Top which you don’t say no to but we didn’t have a bassist so he said “Bass was actually my original instrument, I’d be happy to fill-in on this tour.”
SM: So that’s what I wanted to ask about as well, around that whole timing. So the ZZ Top tour was in 2010 and Earl had already stepped away from the band at that point?
SV: He had, right before, basically right that tour came up.
SM: Was that an official thing? Or he kinda thought, kinda like the way you were doing your solo stuff, that at some point he would just come back? I guess, did he know he was being replaced or how did that separation happen?
SV: Yeah, he knew it was a definite decision on his part that he wanted to leave the band to focus on his other band. There was starting to be some timing issues and different commitment levels “Ok, well we have these dates this summer” “Well I can’t do that because I’m playing with my other band” “Oh I guess we’re at a fork in the road where you need to make a decision”.
SM: So I’ve got a follow-up to that we’ll get back to…, So at that point you had already started working on No Bad Days, I presume you write all the songs?
SV: Most of the start with me and some of the are totally my compositions
I think that I’ve always looked at it in a broader sense sometimes I’ll send out a bunch of little embryos to Saf and Gordie and just go “Here’s two verses and a chorus do we dig where this is going?” and they’ll write back either “Yes, totally, we gotta work that one out” or “Well yeah it’s cool but I don’t know if it’s us necessarily”. So then we get in a room together and just start playing them and flesh them out together and the finishing of them will often be all of us working on them or it could be Gordie just saying “Hey man, watch these Youtube videos, these are really cool. And you’re mining a rich vein of something right now, I don’t really need to get my hands in it, you finish what you’re doing and then bring those back in.”
That being said there are some songs that we all sit down with a blank page and stare at each other and go “Alright, what’s the first word going to be, what are the chords going to be?”
SM: You first started working with Gordie on an album, I guess, was Stew? I know you toured with him before that obviously, was that the only previous album that he was the producer on? I know he didn’t do Shot Down Satellites, right? So did you self produce Rained Out Parade… what about that one?
SV: Rained Out Parade we worked on with Todd Birk who was the engineer. On Where I Started on that one we wanted an outside set of ears.
SM: So that follow-up question is you mentioned about Earl having conflicts, if Earl had conflicts I can’t imagine how that situation is going to be better with Gordie (note: as well as playing bass for Wide Mouth Mason, fronting Big Sugar, Johnson’s other projects are Grady and Sit Down, Servant! and producing)
SV: You’re right. It’s the kind of thing where you really need to communicate in advance and you need to be clear about what areas of the calendar you’re going to focus on with the certain projects. And if you’re able to do that it can actually be the best all around scenario for everybody. Because if you’re a band that is mostly focused on one continent with occasional trips off of that continent that are every once in a while, you can only tour as Wide Mouth Mason so many times in a year. You can only go through a city so many times before it’s not an event anymore and you kinda wear out your audience. Same with Big Sugar and Grady and Sit Down, Servant! and solo stuff and any of those things. So I think it really works to our advantage, it’s like people say, if you want something done, talk to a busy person.
So for us it’s worked out really well, we have been able to share a lot of things. Like the Big and Wide tour was a great opportunity for us to get in front of each other’s audience and obviously the Big Sugar audience is bigger and they hadn’t been around for a while so there was this fever pitch of excitement around them playing again and it worked out nicely in recession era economics for two bands to share a bus and crew and all these things.
SM: And complementary audiences as well right? Anyone that’s a Big Sugar fan is probably going to be a Wide Mouth Mason fan as well, if they aren’t already…
: Yeah and we also like walking into situations where people either haven’t of the band or aren’t fans or don’t know there’s been a member change or we kinda get off on those situations as well. It’s just like putting on a comfortable, old pair of jeans to go back on the road with Big Sugar after doing so many shows together in the 90’s or the early 2000’s.
|Wide Mouth Mason
SM: Cool. So, No Bad Days isn’t exactly a new album anymore, it came out over a year ago but how would you describe that album, since it’s the most recent obviously. You seem to have gone through various stages. Your debut was pretty bluesy in flavour, it kind of evolved and changed over the years it came back to that with Rained Out Parade and Shot Down Satellites which were a little heavier and harder than Stew which was more of a pop sound?
SV: Yeah. You know my favourite artists have always been shape shifters and trying on those different outfits they eventually hit on a hybrid that becomes their own thing. I love that every Prince record he didn’t just sound different and play a different guitar, he had a different haircut and it was almost like a different personality. But you always knew that it was him, you could never get away from his voice or his musical choices even when he pushed himself way outside of that. And that always appealed to us. Especially when you’re a trio, there’s only so much you can do with the instrumentation that why not try to push your own boundaries of what you can do. So I think that sometimes we’ve gone so far out of those boundaries that the next record would be a reaction to that.
In that way No Bad Days
is a reaction overall to the way that records are being made for the most part right now by almost everyone where you can someone to come in and recite the alphabet and a producer can take that and turn it into words and everything is very post production oriented (note: here’s proof
). And like you know, spill a little ink on the page and shape that.
It was when we were on the AC/DC tour where we had a couple days off because of how strenuous it is to sing all that stuff for Brian Johnson and we went to all the great classic American studios that were within a day’s drive of us. We went to Sun and Motown and Stax and found all these pretty nondescript pile of rectangular not acoustically perfect rooms with even for their times, pretty primitive gear and thought what is it that made these recordings crackle? What gave them that vibe? Well it’s these people playing in a room staring at each other, probably only doing a couple takes of each song with a couple microphones in the room and they had this swagger and the attitude to back it up and they knew that if there was something imperfect but the vibe was there that they would leave it, that that was the take.
And so, we went into No Bad Days having played a bunch of those songs on the ZZ Top tour and then we booked ourselves into a bunch of little clubs in Vancouver and Saskatoon and we’d meet for three or four days beforehand with some of those sketches that I sent the guys and songs that were little bits of things and we would work them up into songs and play them live in front of people immediately and there’s that sweet spot where you’re just getting to know it but you don’t know exactly what they’re going to do yet and you kinda worked out where in your range the song fits and what the shape and trajectory is going to be and then we got in really shape as players playing together going on these sort of long jams and really figuring out who the band is going to be. The beauty of it is by the time we got to Pedernales (recording studio in Spicewood, Texas), we set up really nice microphones in really nice sounding rooms and the toughest part of every day would be deciding barbecue or Mexican food because we knew what we were going to do. We knew we would count it off and play the songs a couple times and would pick our favourite take of the song and that was what was going on the record.
A lot of times in our past we thought we were going to do that and we’d go in and play but then we’d listen and go “You know I’m just going to add another… or fix that vocal” and “I’m just going to add another guitar here” and this time we stuck fast to the rule of this is what was happening when we played it and that’s what the record’s going to be. And we recorded and mixed it and there was a storm there that added an extra day and it took us twelve or thirteen days to record and mix the entire thing.
SM: Amazing. Just going back to what you said before, just so I can put a date to it, you said you were on tour with AC/DC. When was that?
SV: That was actually earlier on in our career, that was in 2001 or 2002.
So that had always stuck in our head, you know when you start thinking about what haven’t we done I think as you learn your guitar or your voice, you also learn you also learn [inaudible] .
So when someone’s learning guitar for instance at first you can’t do anything then you learn how to do some things, then you want to do them all the time to show that you worked so hard to learn how to do them, and then you learn what to do when and then at a certain point you just want it not to be a factor.
I think we followed that path in the studio where our first record was us doing what we did when we played live and we didn’t really know too much about and were lucky to learn from people about how to layer things and how to make it a real performance.
And then Where I Stared was kinda like the kitchen sink, OK let’s figure out how to use all this stuff in layers and textures and I don’t know if I need to emulate Stevie Ray Vaughan on this record I more kinda want to make a thin layered thing and have acoustics and electrics and slide.
Then like you said, Stew was when Gordie got involved and was like “Man, I seen you guys play and there’s this real Stevie Wonder, you know, kind of Detroit, kind of Philadelphia soul thing that I haven’t heard on a record”, so let’s listen to a bunch of meters and bunch of different stuff and dig into how to chop up the rhythm section and the lead stuff so they’re all playing different roles and make the funkiest record we’ve ever made.
And then as a reaction to that I think I discovered a bunch of open tunings and really for the first time started delving into slide guitar in earnest. And the next couple of records were as you say a lot heavier, a lot more riff based pushing the playing [inaudible].
By the time we got to No Bad Days it was sort of wanting it, you know, not being a factor except for the vibe. But really it was all about not even just creating what we were doing live though but really being in the moment. it was a documentary not a big production. In a nutshell that is our recorded history.
SM: Thank you very very much for this!
: Hey, my pleasure!
Thanks again to Shaun for this, what was intended to be a brief 5 or 10 minutes chat went far longer than that.