When Grammy–award winning producer Liam Watson met country–folk singer Pete Molinari, they discovered a shared love of '50s country music, and decided to make an album that would hark back to the glory days of Nashville recording.
For the past 15 years or so, Liam Watson has been refining and perfecting the way he likes to make records. In tandem with the stacks of vintage analogue equipment that fill his East London studio, Toe Rag, is a recording ethos that echoes those of the pre–multitrack–era producers Liam admires. Although the way Liam opts to make a particular record will always depend on the singer or band he is working with, there are occasions when a job comes along for which he is able to bring fully into play the encyclopaedic knowledge and fervent passion he has for classic records made during the '50s and '60s. A Virtual Landslide, by up and coming English singer–songwriter Pete Molinari, has been one such opportunity.
For Watson, there were four reasons why recordings coming out of Nashville, London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere during that golden era were so great: the quality of the songwriting, the talent of the artist, the skills of session guys, such as the famed 'A–team' of Nashville musicians, and the way the songs were recorded almost completely live, in as few takes as possible. A Virtual Landslide brings to mind those classic recordings from the '50s and '60s, particularly those produced by Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins in Nashville.
Liam Watson and Pete Molinari first met back in late 2006 at the What's Cookin' club in Leyton, East London. "I wasn't really expecting much," admits Liam. "In fact, usually when I see a singer–songwriter I expect the worst — it's not my favourite genre — but then Pete came on and he was fucking brilliant! He just had such a distinctive, unusual voice, for a start, and I liked his songs, and it was sincere and there was something I really liked about it. I was quite taken aback, actually, because I thought it was the best new thing I'd heard for years!"
After Pete Molinari's performance, Liam introduced himself and the rest, as they say, was history. Liam told Pete he really liked what he was doing and that he'd be interested in making a record with him. A few weeks later, Liam invited Molinari to Toe Rag to run through his repertoire and lay down some quarter–inch demos.
"The more and more we talked about music the more I realised that we were kindred spirits in a way," says Pete, "We talked about all those old records made in Nashville and New York and in England. All of the things we loved were pretty similar, and it's weird, because Liam's got all that history of punk rock stuff he's done, but he's got this vast knowledge of rock & roll and country and blues and how those records were made, so it certainly clicked that I was working with the right person."
It's also at this point that Liam began seriously thinking about how the album should be put together. Rather than recording Pete solo, as had been the case on his debut Childish–produced outing, Walking Off The Map, Liam asked Pete how he would feel about being backed by some top session musicians, as on those classic Nashville records they share such a passion for.
"I'm really into the American country music that was done during that classic Nashville period," says Liam, "and when I met Pete, I must admit I was going through a really heavy Nashville thing, listening to it a lot. I'd been researching the recordings and I did know quite a lot about how those records were made. We were talking about Patsy Cline and then Loretta Lynn and how those records were made, with Owen Bradley and the 'A–team', the musicians in Nashville. It was very rare that anything was overdubbed on those records, everything was in the same room at the same time. Pete was really into this idea and I said 'You know what? We could do that!' I told him that the reason they sound so good really is because of the players, and I told him I could get a good team together. Pete was really into it so that's what we did!"
Once Liam and Pete had agreed on the approach and a suitable budget had been secured from Damaged Goods, Liam began to assemble the right guys for the job — not the 'A–team' but the 'Ape team', as Liam went on to name them. On electric guitar he chose to use Ed Turner, who, as well as being a Toe Rag engineer and sometime producer, also happens to be "a fantastic musician". On string bass, Liam roped in Matt Radford, who had recorded at Toe Rag many times and "can play a bass part like a machine". For drums, Watson called on Rupert Brown of the Motion Pictures, "possibly the best drummer I've ever worked with". And because Liam wanted both Hammond and piano on the record, he brought in multi–instrumentalist Carwin Ellis who, as well as being a "brilliant" keyboard player and guitarist, could also offer backing vocals. The only other musician involved was legendary pedal steel player BJ Cole, who attended one day of the Toe Rag sessions.
And so with the 'Ape team' secured to back Molinari, Liam fired out CDs of Pete's album demos to each of them and booked five days at Toe Rag. Pete didn't even get to meet, let alone rehearse with, his backing band before the first day of recording. "I still remember him saying 'We're booking the studio to record on this day and the session musicians will be there,'" laughs Pete. "And I remember saying to him 'I need a day with them at least for rehearsing!' and he was like 'No, don't worry, these musicians are class!'"
It was the first test of the faith Pete was putting in Liam as producer of the album. "Liam was steering the ship, and I'd said that to him from day one," says Pete. "I told him 'I want you to produce this record,' because I think a lot of people treat him as an engineer and they go in and they feel like they're producers themselves, but I said, 'No, I want you to take complete control of this.'"
When it came to positioning Pete and the band in the room and placing microphones, Liam Watson's main concern was ensuring that acoustic instruments like Pete's acoustic guitar, the piano and the string bass could sit up in the mix without suffering adversely from too much spill from the drums and electric guitar. There is a low–ceilinged space just off the main Toe Rag live room where the piano usually resides. However, for the Virtual Landslide sessions, Watson put the drums out there, moving the piano to a position just below the control–room window, where it sat alongside the Hammond.
"Whilst I didn't want absolute separation, what I will say is that sometimes if you've got the drum kit too near the acoustic piano and he's playing quite loud, the overspill on the piano can sometimes be not what I want," says Liam. "It can work with some things but for this, I preferred to keep the piano and drums separate, so I moved the drums into that little booth, purely because I didn't want too much of the drums on the piano mic."
Pete Molinari himself sat on a stool in the front right corner of the studio, where the drums are usually positioned, so that he could face all the other musicians. And behind Pete was string bassist Matt Radford, sheltered by a high acoustic screen, with a smaller screen sitting between guitarist Ed Turner and the bass mic.
"I put a screen there because I like to try and keep a little bit of separation on the acoustic bass mic," explains Liam. "If you have electric instruments or drums in the room and it's a quiet bass line, sometimes that can spill onto the bass mic a little bit too much, and sometimes you end up with more of the other instruments."
Watson also ensured that everyone in the room could hear main man Pete over and above everything else, just as it should be when a session group are backing up the main artist. Liam did not want to use headphones, as he felt it could kill the live vibe flowing through the room. He even split the feed coming from Pete's microphone into a foldback speaker in front of the drum kit, so that drummer Rupert Brown could hear Pete just the same as everybody else.
As far as microphone selection goes, Liam Watson firstly opted to use a bunch of Calrec CN–series condenser mics, mostly cardioids and a couple of omnis. He had two at the back of the drum kit, one at the front and a couple he moved around the kit depending on the track. There was also a condenser on Ed Turner's guitar amp, just by the speaker, and one that was moved between the piano and organ, depending on which Carwin Ellis was playing at the time. The microphone he used on the string bass, behind the screen, was an STC ribbon. For Molinari, Liam used an AKG C12 for the vocal and a Shure 545 dynamic mic on acoustic guitar. He also had a 545 that he moved around the room on a boom.
"The Shure 545 on the boom stand was for when I wanted to put echo or reverb on something," says Liam, "I would use that as the send to the echo or reverb, so if I wanted a bit more echo on the drums, I'd put the mic over by the drums, or if I wanted it on the piano, I'd move it near the piano. And the only reason I used a dynamic mic on the acoustic guitar and not a condenser was because I wanted to get a little bit less of the other instruments. I wanted to get as much acoustic on that mic as possible without the other stuff bleeding through onto it too much."
When it came to arranging Pete Molinari's songs, which had previously only been performed solo on acoustic guitar or piano, it was very much down to the here and now of the recording sessions. Liam Watson had sent each session guy a CD with not only Pete's acoustic demos, but also some old Nashville tracks he thought might be "interesting to think about". A few run–throughs allowed the band to get a feel for the songs and Liam to point out anything in the arrangement he wasn't happy with. Then it was time to lay down the tracks.
"The arrangements came together very organically," says Pete. "Liam would come in and control the ship and say 'That's a bit too much guitar going on there, a bit too much of this, a bit too much of that,' then we would work it out into a cut. It would only take a few run–throughs of each song and then we were onto the cut — keeping that energy alive, keeping that spontaneity. Once you've rehearsed something to death, you've lost it!"
Across the 12 tracks that make up A Virtual Landslide, the norm was for Liam to record about three takes, sometimes only for safety reasons. "What happens sometimes when I'm mixing live is that it's the heat of the moment and it's exciting and everything sounds good," explains Liam. "But I may come back to it in the cold light of day and say 'Oh, there's a bloody bum note there on the intro,' or 'Someone's dropped a beat here that I didn't notice.' But usually it's OK on the other take, so when you get into the mixing stage, you just cut in with a razor blade. That happened a few times — it just covers your tracks in case there's something you miss."
Recording to four–track, Watson had Pete's vocal on its own track, and everything else on another, leaving two tracks free for any possible overdubs that he felt were needed. Some tracks, such as 'There She Still Remains', were recorded completely live, with no overdubs, and where there were overdubs it was quite often the case that Liam would get several players recording new parts at the same time. For example, on one of the album's real highlights, 'Dear Angelina', almost every musician in the studio is contributing to a "group overdub" — BJ Cole is playing a Dobro guitar, Rupert and Ed are playing percussion, while Carwin is both singing a harmony vocal and playing what Liam describes as "the Pugwashy organ".
A Virtual Landslide gave Liam Watson the rare opportunity to make a record in exactly the way he enjoys, but he's the first to admit that this was only made possible because of the skills of Pete and the 'Ape team'. "If we've got the players and we've got the material and we've got the talent, it is possible for me to make a record that, for my tastes sonically, has the edge," says Liam. "But at the same time, if you don't have the players, if you don't have the material and if you don't have the talent, whether it's better to record like this I don't know. In some ways I think it could be worse if, for instance, the chemistry's not right with the artist, or people aren't comfortable in the studio."
Pete Molinari himself is really proud of the record and just hopes that more and more people will prick up their ears and take notice. A Virtual Landslide is surely just the beginning of a long and fruitful career for another great young British singer–songwriter. "I'm not one of these elitists," says Pete. "If my music could reach every person in the world I'd be pleased about it. If 10 people like it or if a million people like it, you've still made a good record but it is always nice when a million people like it!"
Since Toe Rag Studios was last featured in SOS, back in October 2003 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct03/articles/toeragstudios.htm), Liam Watson has initiated a number of changes to the setup in his control room. Some represent the fulfilment of long–term plans going back to that era, while some are simply a result of Watson's constant quest to perfect the sounds he produces. One change has been to ditch the Studer A80 two–inch 16–track tape machine that he had just purchased in 2003 and replace it with another Studer A80, a one–inch four–track.
"I wanted to give the 16–track a go because I was interested to see what it was like, and also I thought that it would maybe be quite good for some of the artists I was working with," says Liam. "But it didn't really work out. I think I did two or three records with it, which were pretty good, but I wasn't getting anything out of the extra tracks. I much prefer having a maximum of eight tracks. It works better for me and makes recording more enjoyable."
While Toe Rag also boasts an eight–track A80 machine, Watson, where possible, prefers to make records using the four–track, to maintain the energy and live feel of the studio. But it does require a certain type of artist, such as Pete Molinari.
"It depends on the project, obviously," says Liam. "Making a record on four–track, there's less options for individual overdubs of individual instruments. Basically, you want to try and do as much live recording as possible, which was the good thing with Pete. Because we did do most of the recording live, you don't need a great deal of tracks, because your individual tracks are on the mixing desk, which is where the microphones are plugged in, and you're mixing as you go along. You do need a lot of co–operation and you need people to be really believing in the project to pull that off. Sometimes the idea that whatever they do is locked in cement with whatever everyone else is doing is difficult to understand for bands. Some people aren't confident enough to do that, so I still keep the eight–track."
Another major change for Liam since 2003 has been a change of mixing desk. He sold his Calrec desk (to ex–Darkness guitarist Dan Hawkins) to make way for the EMI REDD.17 desk that had been undergoing a seven–year refurbishment programme. This two–bus desk, dating back to the mid–'50s, is one of only four REDD desks known to be in existence, and was originally from Abbey Road, although it spent the majority of its life at EMI as a mobile recording console. Watson does feel that the REDD.17 has certain advantages over the Calrec.
"When I first tried a session on it, I really, really liked the quality that it was giving me," says Liam. "There was something in the details of the extremities like the upper, the high end and the detail in the bass in the low end that was a lot clearer to me than the Calrec — which I must say was a very, very good desk that I liked a lot. But what I found was, when it came to mixing on the Calrec, I would use EQ to open things out and get some details in the high and low end. Sometimes that was hard to do, but when I did my first REDD session, it became quite apparent that all that was already there. On the Calrec, it would take me a lot of EQ'ing to get it to sound like that, but it never sounds quite as good when you have to use EQ to achieve those things. So then I knew, basically, for the sake of quality, I would have to go with the REDD!"
Because of the fact that the REDD.17 was built before the era of multitracking, Liam has purchased a 19–inch rackmountable Raindirk line mixer to provide the required multitrack monitoring facilities. He also uses vintage Vortexion and Altec panel mixers to provide more grouping facilities.