Q&A: John Ralston on Lo-Fi, New Orleans and Not Trying to Make a Springsteen Record
|Photo by Monica McGivern|
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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.