David Spelman is a classically-trained musician who has built guitars, launched music festivals, and produced albums and film soundtracks. His work has taken him literally around the world, but he’s happiest when he’s at home in Ocean Grove. We recently caught up with him to discuss the making of Rick Barry’s soon-to-be-released album, “Curses, Maledictions and Harsh Reiterations.”
How did you meet Rick and get to know his music?
I’m not sure where Rick and I first met, but it was likely at The Saint. I seem to remember that he had a handlebar mustache, a bow tie, and rather garish sneakers. He definitely made an impression. We kept running into each other around Asbury Park, and I eventually had a chance to hear him play a few gigs. Mostly short acoustic sets, opening for other artists, but also a few times with a band.
Last December I invited him to come with me to a holiday party at Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s loft. In my car, driving to the city, we first got to really talking about his musical hopes and dreams.
The following Sunday afternoon I invited him to stop by and play me some of his newer material, which is where the conversation began to focus on what we might do together. That day he recorded a half-dozen or so tunes, and nearly every one of them made a strong impression on me. In fact, one of those casual demos – field recordings, really– I later took to Brooklyn and had Tony Scherr add upright bass and electric guitar overdubs. Tony is a tremendous musician, and has recorded with Bill Frisell, Norah Jones, and Ani DiFranco. I didn’t tell Rick I was doing this, but when he heard the results he seemed very pleased. He even released the track, Tim’s Song, on his Bandcamp site.
What was the production concept behind “Curses, Maledictions and Harsh Reiterations”?
Rick didn’t want to make another rock record, so we listened together to records by various singer-songwriters he admired. Vic Chestnut, David Bazan, Bright Eyes, and others. The record he most admired, in terms of instrumentation and vibe, was Damien Rice’s “O.” It was very acoustic, with cello and other strings, and very little in the way of drums. After listening a bunch to Damien Rice, I began to get ideas for what musicians in my rolodex could help us achieve the sound and feel Rick was drawn to.
Who were some of the musicians you brought in?
Rick plays with some talented local musicians, but they are for the most part rooted in rock music. I felt we needed musicians with a broader palette of techniques and styles. One of the first calls I made was to Larry Campbell. Larry is a multi-instrumentalist who played in Bob Dylan’s band for many years, and produced the last several Levon Helm albums. For this project we mostly had him playing pedal steel guitar, but he also contributed terrific fiddle, dobro and mandolin parts.
For the French horn, trumpet, flugelhorn and keyboard parts, I enlisted C.J. Camerieri. C.J. is a Juilliard grad who plays in the classical ensemble Y Music, and has worked a bunch with Sufjan Stevens. He’s recently been touring as a member of Bon Iver and we were lucky to get him when he had a few days off from that tour.
While the album is mostly acoustic, I wanted Grey McMurray to contribute some subtle ambient touches. He’s one half of the electronica duo itsnotyouitsme, and has worked with Gil Scott-Heron and Tyondai Braxton. You have to listen carefully to hear his parts, but if you removed them you’d immediately notice that something very special was missing.
For backing vocals, we had Allie Moss and Nicole Atkins. Both local, both old friends of Rick’s, and both hugely talented. Upright bass parts were by Chris Kuffner, who is in Ingrid Michaelson’s band and has recorded with Regina Spektor. And while there aren’t a lot of drums on the record, we had Sim Cain on a few songs. Sim is brilliant, and while he’s maybe best known for his many years in the Rollins Band, he frequently plays local shows these days with String Bean and the Stalkers.
Can you talk about the production process involved in recording the album?
When Rick told me what his budget was, I realized that this album was going to have to be DIY. Having heard Rick play solo and also with bands, I noticed that his singing really stood out more when there were not so many instruments being played. So while the spartan, unpolished approach of recording him in my living room was due to financial constraints, it’s an intensely personal sound, which I think matches the nature of these songs. It’s a raw record, and if you listen carefully you can hears birds singing, trucks driving by, and even my upstairs neighbor’s footsteps.
Did you guys do any work in traditional studios?
Yeah, after we got the basic tracks done with Rick’s voice and guitar playing we did overdubbing sessions with the other musicians at Asbury Park’s Lakehouse Music, as well as at some studios in Manhattan and Brooklyn, including Excello Recording. The upright bass tracks were done in Chris Kuffner’s home studio, a pretty cool spot in Windsor Terrace.
Digital or analogue?
The basic vocal and guitar tracks were captured with a matched pair of tube condenser mics designed by David Royer, run through Universal Audio all-tube preamps. From there everything went to Logic Pro on my laptop. A nice balance of warm, vintage gear and the convenience of a digital-audio workstation.
What sort of guitars did Rick play?
Rick owns some fine guitars, mostly modern instruments like Taylors. After listening to him play some of the instruments lying around my place, we decided that the most interesting sounds were coming from him playing a beat up nylon-string guitar or mine. We also used some steel string instruments, including a Santa Cruz parlor guitar, and a 1960s Martin 00-21 New Yorker, but I thought the effect was more distinctive when he played on nylon. It was a more mellow sound, and famed his voice nicely.
How did you learn your way around studios and who were your mentors?
Back in high school I bought a second-hand TEAC multitrack recorder– it was from the 70s, and recorded four tracks on 1/4 inch tape. That and a few Shure microphones was the core of a bedroom studio where first learned the basics of recording music. In college, one of my work-study jobs was in the school’s recording studio. There I got to learn about mic placement, editing techniques and such. I never got to work full-time in a studio, and to this day consider myself really just a novice engineer.
In the late-90s, however, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a few days in a studio with the producer/engineer Andy Wallace. Andy’s worked with a who’s who of musicians, from Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine to Jeff Buckley and Springsteen. The owner of the studio was a friend of mine, and thought I could use some mentoring – “to get my ears tuned”– and arranged the whole thing. At the time I didn’t realize just how lucky I was.
Around 2004, through my work with the New York Guitar Festival, I became friends with Daniel Lanois. Over time I got to visit his studios in Toronto and Los Angeles, both of which were basically in his living rooms. I even had the opportunity once to record him doing an acoustic session that was released in iTunes. Dan is an instinctual and inspiring musician/producer, and his studios are somewhat unconventional. He taught me that great performances override any production or sonic ideas one might have, and to always be prepared for magic moments.
Will you be mixing the album?
No, we decided to go with a talented young engineer and musician named Erik Kase Romero. He’s one of the staff engineers at Lakehouse Music in Asbury Park, and he impressed us with his musical and technical skills as well as a positive, enthusiastic personality.
How will the album get released?
As for a label getting involved for marketing and distribution, I really don’t know what the plan is for that. My work here is pretty much done, so it’s up to Rick and his agent.
Any plans to work with Rick again?
I’d love to, but that’s really up to him.
Other local artists you’d like to work with?
I’m really not all that plugged into the local scene. I like what I’ve heard from Gedeon Luke, Wreaths, Out Like Lambs, George Wirth and some others, but the truth is I really need to get exposed to more of this area’s homegrown music.
Photo at top: Daniel Lanois (left) and David Spelman at Bellavista in Los Angeles, credit: Adam Samuels