The Tom Maxwell interview, part 2 of 3...
JB: Where'd you guys record this?
TM: A couple of songs, really a couple of songs, in North Carolina and then the rest in New Orleans at Kingsway. Cuz, you know, that's the place. It's phenomenal, if not predictable. I think it sounds terrific. We employed a lot of the lessons that we learned, or that I learned, through the Zippers' recordings.
JB: Yeah a lot of it sounds 'vintage.'
TM: Some of it I think is a fuckin' triumph. Many of the songs were cut live, like, straight-up live. Not all of them, but many of them.
JB: I was talking to Kenny about Mike [Napolitano] and how he's almost like the George Martin of old music, where he can take all this music and make it sound like it was recorded seventy years ago. He can take a room full of music and make it sound like a bunch of different tracks.
TM: He has an open mind. We were all complete ignoramuses when we did Hot. We knew what we wanted to get but we didn't know how to get it. The rest of it was a learning curve. He didn't know anymore about this than we did. When we came upon something, like the RCA 44 ribbon mic through a 76 tube pre-amp as the golden combination, that kind of shit, we'd just file it away in our minds.
The rest of it is the musicians themselves and the rooms in Kingsway, which are all personality. I didn't intentionally make anything sound "old," at least as far as limited audio response.
JB: Well I mean, not really old, but "authentic."
TM: Yeah, authentic. Authenticity to me means a couple of things. One of them is the sound of a band performing. Even though the Beatles were all over the board in terms of shit they plunked on their records, all of their backing tracks are cut live. You can tell! You can tell the way the room sounds. Especially for the kind of acoustic music I did on this record. When you start shovin' mics in front of somebody, or have them in a room by themselves, you don't get the room sounds. On a couple of those songs we actually put a mic in the hallway!
JB: And recorded it from there?
TM: Well, recorded it ambiently from there. There were mics in the room but we
recorded an ambient track just to give it that personality. You can't fake that. That's the technology side of authenticity for me.
The other side, for me, is how much heart the musicians are putting into their performance. When you separate guys and their job is to clinically give the note-perfect part, you start to lose your heart.
JB: Yeah, they're not playing off each other.
TM: No, not playing off each other. You're just in a darkened room with headphones on going "Oh God I hope I don't screw this up!" And I don't really care if people screw it up.
JB: Well it instantly adds personality to the song.
TM: Sure. I mean there's some tempo discrepancies and there might be a little tuning problem, but I can say I've gotten a lot better in that area than I used to be. Laughs There might be a clang or two, but that never bothers me.
JB: What kind of gear are you using?
TM: I used all my favorite instruments on this thing. I didn't use Epiphone on this. I used Epiphone on the road cuz I can beat the shit out of 'em and they can take it. In the studio I brought in the more precious gear. The only acoustic guitar that appears on the record is a 1928 Gibson L4, which is the best guitar I've ever played. Phenomenal.
JB: Is it stock or is it custom?
TM: It's straight-up stock. Original case, looks five years old, completely lucked into it one time in New Orleans. It's the acoustic guitar, there's no other acoustic guitar on the record.
The electric guitars- there's only a couple- one of them was a '59 Epiphone that a buddy of mine had in North Carolina. Some long-necked jobber, I couldn't tell you the specifics. Kenny has a fabulous Gibson 145. It's a ¾-sized, hollow-body, single pickup electric. That's on "Don't Give me the Runaround" and "If I Had You." That guitar is fuckin' great.
The tenor I played was my Selmer Super-Balanced Action '53. It's a phenomenal instrument. I've got some old Selmer clarinets. I really wasn't playing a lot of electric instruments on the record.
JB: That's another thing that keeps it real.
TM: Yeah, I love a good electric guitar sound though. The only amp that was used was an old Fender Champ. They sound great; you can really crank the shit out of them things. There were no effects, just plugged the guitar into the amp.
Kingsway has a 20's Steinway grand piano, which is on most of the record, which is perfect. We borrowed the pipe organ from a church. We went in and recorded the pipe organ there, which is some German job from the 20's. Massive machine, sounded great.
JB: Yeah it did. When you hear that sound it takes the album in a new direction right away.
TM: When you talk about authenticity, that motherfucking thing comes on like gangbusters. There is no other instrument that has half as much authority as a pipe organ. I've always been really into the pipe organ sides to what Fats Waller cut in the 20's.
JB: Yeah, I was waiting for you to do something with that.
TM: Man, I did it! And when I wrote that song I knew that's what it was gonna be. I knew this was the pipe organ song.
JB: You've got a good voice for that, too. You've got the booming baritone going on…
TM: Yeah that's nice. Whatever. I'm not going to argue with that. Chuckles
JB: You've got a unique voice.
TM: Oh yes. Laughs I wouldn't wish it on anybody!
JB: What about your song writing process? Do you come up with music then lyrics, or lyrics then music?
TM: Oh, it's strange. It's all over the place. Some songs pop into my head. "Can't Sleep," like "Put a Lid on It," popped into my head and I couldn't get rid of it so it had to be written. It was already written, I just had to put it on paper.
Other songs, I almost always write the music first. The music is usually a cool set of changes and I'll improvise melodies over it and I pick one that I think is the best. Very often there will be a phrase involved…there'll be a few words that will be a chorus or something. "You always get what's comin'" pops into my head as a phrase, and so I built a song around that. Sometimes I just challenge myself, it's almost like an exercise- here's a really cool chord or I want this song to embody this that or the other- and if it comes out sounding sincere, then good. If it's valid and not just some kind of clinical study then that's cool too.
JB: Do you hear the instruments and the voices coming together?
TM: Yeah I do. That's funny because I demoed all this stuff before I went and recorded it. So I would play it for my wife and friends and say "okay this is a pipe organ, here's the trombone solo over these eight bars and here's where the trumpet comes in." Later, my wife goes "I'm glad you can hear all that stuff because I just hear an acoustic guitar and your voice." Laughs
Yeah, I hear a lot of this stuff in my head. I knew right away which songs I wanted Holly to sing. Mostly because it's not that I couldn't sing them but it seemed to me that the female voice was more of what I was thinking of, was more appropriate to the thing. So we pitched the key for her. And she has an astonishing range. She has an amazing instrument, actually. She's gifted. She sang fuckin' Chinese opera for God's sake!
JB: I was going to ask you about that song ["Some Born Singing"]…
TM: Yeah that's a fragment of Chinese opera that I used to have on a cassette tape. I used to play it for the band when we were drivin' around in a van, drive everyone insane. They would scream at me to shut it off. Actually, the percussion into to "The Kraken" is the percussion intro to that piece.
JB: So it's not yours?
TM: No it's Chinese opera, man! It's 400 years old! I've always wanted to do it, so I wrote lyrics for it using I guess what is called "transliteration." I wrote down what it sounded like the person was saying. They were singing in Cantonese but I wrote down phonetically what it sounded like they were saying in English, and thought "there's probably a theme here." Sure enough there was, and I finished.
JB: Is that the only Chinese opera you're interested in?
TM: Oh yeah, I've never heard any other.
JB: So is this a sort of "prequel" so "The Kraken"?
TM: No, no it isn't. It's basically about Stacy [Guess], the lyrics, about my inability to understand. Because the song is totally linear, the structure is not at all Western. It doesn't go "verse/chorus/verse/chorus" it just starts at point A and ends up at point G and that's it. It's very interesting to me, so I really wanted to internalize it as much as I could and reproduce it in a way without mimicking it or making a joke or parody of it. When you hear people makin' a parody of Chinese music it's all very two-dimensional. When you hear the real thing, you can learn a lot from it. Quite a bit.
JB: What kind of instrument is Dave Rosser playing on it?
TM: It's an er-hu.
JB: That's a stringed instrument, right?
TM: It's a two-stringed, bowed instrument with no frets. There's a small, sort of round skin-covered resonating chamber and a bamboo stick comin' off it with two strings that cross each other with the bow in the middle of it. The strings cross on the bow, with one on the top the other on the bottom. You have to play it completely by ear; there are no frets on it at all.
Dave's a guitarist. He's some dude that I became friends with down there [in New Orleans] who saw it in a Chinese store and bought it and taught himself how to play it because he's an amazing musician. He will just pick stuff up and play it like most of the people I know. Like Ken, who played flute on that song and had only taught himself a couple months before. It was torturous for him to eke his part out but he did it.
JB: What's the sona that you play on the first song?
TM: That too is a Chinese instrument. It's sort of like a Chinese oboe. It's double-reeded, straight, has a big brass bell on the bottom. It has finger holes and is basically set up like a major scale. Loud as shit. It's very difficult to play because you can change the pitch on that thing a step or two steps just with your mouth. It's not like a clarinet or a saxophone where when you play a D you get a D. This thing is like "What do you want, an A? An F? Whatever!"
It's freakishly difficult. I killed myself one day on my dining room table playing that thing. That was actually the demo that we put on the record.
JB: How'd you pick it up?
TM: I bought it in Chinatown in San Francisco, and I had bought a shanai at the HORDE festival and the neck broke, so I bought a sona and said "This is cool, I'm gonna play it." Only an idiot would do something like that, and that's how I try to retain some sort of idiocy.
JB: Does that all tie in with the whole idea of "Samsara" then, with the Asian elements?
TM: Well…perhaps. Sure. It's an interesting sound. It works as the first song on the record in that it seems very portentous. Something is going to happen, no doubt about it. When those things are wailin' you're thinkin' "I better get ready for something. I don't know what it is!" I couldn't tell you why, but I just wanted to bookend the record and I already had a title track which is a song I wrote way back in '92 as a What Peggy Wants song with John Ensslin.