Dave Alvin Page 2

Alvin: Well, yeah—and there were different levels of record stores, right? There were the ones where you knew the guys knew their stuff, so they knew if you put the record you wanted over in Easy Listening. You knew they'd figure it out within an hour. [laughs]

But there were a couple record stores—Licorice Pizza [in Long Beach, California] being one of them—where you knew the people working there had no idea, so you could take the blues or jazz or country record you wanted and put it over behind Mantovani or whatever. You knew they were never gonna look for it over there.

Mettler: I bet you might have done this too—if you saw somebody you knew "hide" a record, you went to see what it was after they left. You thought, "Okay, what did he put over there? What did he think was so cool that he would do the same thing I do?"

Alvin: Right! I did that too. [laughs heartily]

Photo by Todd Wolfson

Mettler: Getting back to the equipment: Did you eventually graduate to better-grade turntables and speakers as the years went by?

Alvin: At first, when I'd go to the stereo store, there would be an $800 turntable, or a $75 one. Guess which one I got? [chuckles] But it was about 25 or maybe 30 years ago when I started buying decent stuff. Johnny Bazz, the bass player in the Blasters, was always into high-end stereo, and I began thinking, "You know, I should probably have some really nice gear to play this music on." Now I have all this British NAD stuff (footnote 5).

After you spend enough time in recording studios, you get to thinking, "Why doesn't my stereo at home sound as good as this?" In the Blasters, we worked with Mark Linett, a great engineer (footnote 6), and he used to have—and I imagine he still does—he used to have what he called "the awful tones." When he was mixing, he'd go from the big speakers down to the quality speakers, the ones you tended to mix everything on. You'd hear the mix and go, "Okay, that sounds pretty good. Now let's hear it on the awful tones." [laughs]

Mettler: What's the secret behind the sense of space I'm hearing on Eleven Eleven's opening track, "Harlan County Line"?

Alvin: Well, I wanted to have a certain openness to the track. There's a tendency among musicians where a lot of Blasters songs were just like, "1, 2, 3—everybody play now!" But on a more abstract blues track like "Harlan County Line," I told the musicians who played on it, "Make it cinematic. Just leave it open, and I'll try not to play too much." And then I took that take out to my car and listened to it, and I was like, "Okay, we got lots of nice space—but it's missing something, and I don't know what." (footnote 7) We finally figured out it was how to handle Bob Glaub's bass. Bob's bass and the late Don Heffington's drums are what's holding the track together—but on the other hand, I did want it to reflect my mental concept of openness.

After listening to it in the car, I figured, "Okay, we need to turn the bass down here and take out this guitar fill." I came back into the studio and said to Craig Parker Adams, the engineer, "We're just missing one bit of magic—and I don't know what it is." While we were sitting there, I saw Craig had these little metal tubes—almost like something you'd see on an old train, where the porter would walk down the aisle and go [makes a three-note whistling noise]. It was sitting there in the studio, and I just hit it. If you listen to the beginning of "Harlan County Line," you'll hear this tube.

Mettler: What a great "found sound" that is. I've heard that track many times, and I never knew what it was.

Photo by Chip Duden

Alvin: I've never really had the budgets to where I could make what I call "top-end" recordings. Those are the ones where you can really hear the room or the studio, like with old Broadway recordings, operas, or on Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. The only thing I can do is make records where I try to be competitive sonically. If my record comes on after, say, a Pink Floyd record, it doesn't sound out of place. I can't beat Pink Floyd sonically, but I can at least try to stand head and shoulders with them.

Gavin Lurssen, the brilliant mastering engineer, he did this thing I wish more mastering guys would do. He mastered the second album I did with my brother Phil, Lost Time (footnote 8). While he was working on our record, he was also mastering a couple of high-end artists, and he would play 30 seconds of their records for us. First, it would be a hip-hop thing, then an urban/R&B vocalist, followed by an Eric Clapton record he'd just done—and then he'd play ours. He was like, "Okay, how do we make this record that cost 1% of what these other records cost sound competitive?" And I said, "Thank you for thinking that way about what we're going up against!" I've been trying to get mastering guys to do that for years—and I've worked with some really great mastering guys.

I'm still learning. That's fun for me. When I was getting ready to record the Ashgrove album [2004], Greg Leisz (footnote 9) said to me, "I found your engineer. His name is Craig Parker Adams. Don't be put off by the studio. It's a little beat up. It's a little small. But you're gonna like it." The room was about the size of Sun Studio. It was an old, beat-up Foley room from the 1930s with a gigantic ceiling—like 20, 25 feet—and the room itself was small.

Craig, who's a brilliant hard rock guitar player and a brilliant melodic musician, he knew exactly where to have the drums and the guitar amp so we could all be in the same room, looking at each other, in the same way Sam Phillips knew where to put the drums and the piano at Sun Studio.

The first day we were working on Ashgrove, it was like, "Well, let's get a feel for this." We did a take, and I turned to Craig and said, "Hey man, is it okay if I turn up my amp?" And Craig said, "Sure, turn it up! I can handle it." After years of having engineers tell me over and over to turn it down—and then turn it down some more—that's when I said, "You are my engineer!"

Through a combination of all the things I learned from Greg Leisz, Craig Parker Adams, Mark Linett, Joe Gastwirt, Don Gehman, and various other engineers over the years, my brain grew.

With the Blasters' first few albums, we were a blues/R&B band that could play other stuff. I could write songs that weren't quite straight blues, but our attitude was still a Chicago blues band attitude, and you'd just get these monolithic sounds out of us.

On the last album I did with the Blasters, Hard Line, we mostly worked with a great producer named Jeff Eyrich (footnote 10). We'd gone to high school with Jeff, so we trusted him. We were working over at what was called Ocean Way Recording in those days. With that record, I started learning, "Oh—we're getting that greatest hits of Broadway sound on a couple of the tracks here!" Mostly, it was the typical "everybody into the pool!" Blasters—but there were other songs on there that weren't like that intentionally, and that opened me up to different styles of recording.

Mettler: Who has custody of all those LPs and 78s, you or Phil? Whatever happened to them?

Alvin: When we were leaving the mothership of Downey, we went our separate ways. We split it up where I got most of the LPs with a few exceptions, and Phil got all the 78s—and then we split the 45s.

At that point—again, with it being all about the music—most of the stuff we had on 78 I had on LP by then. I had all the great Yazoo and Origin Jazz Library LPs, and all that. If I wanted to hear Charley Patton, well—I got it.

But I have to say, I do have regrets. Over the years, sadly, a lot of the 78s my brother and I had collected are gone. They got stolen by people who had passed in and out of his life. They're all gone. The guys who took 'em knew what he had, and it really is a shame.

There was a long period of time where Phil and I didn't speak. When we started speaking again, one of the things we remembered we had shared together was that we had some great records. We had some great 78s. We had the first Cajun record ever made, by Joe Falcon. We had the great Crying Sam Collins on red lacquer. I asked Phil, "Do you still have those?" "No." That's sort of the drawback to 78 collecting.

But now, I have to start thinking about who should get my collection once I'm gone. After dealing the past three years with cancer, I started making the will. Some people are getting guitars [laughs], but the albums [takes slight pause]—I don't know yet.

Footnote 5: Though founded in London in 1972, NAD was acquired by Danish firm AudioNord in 1991, then sold in 1999 to the Lenbrook Group of Pickering, Ontario, Canada.

Footnote 6: Mark Linett co-produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the Blasters' 2002 live release, Trouble Bound.

Footnote 7: Like many musicians of that era, Dave would check mixes on the stereo system in his car because he trusted the sound he was hearing in it would be akin to what listeners who bought the finished album would hear.

Footnote 8: Lost Time was released in 2015 on Yep Roc.

Footnote 9: A noted lap-steel and pedal-steel player who spent many years working and touring with k.d. lang, Leisz first began working with Dave Alvin in 1987.

Footnote 10: Around the same time, Eyrich was also working with T Bone Burnett. Hard Line was released in 1985. Eyrich produced all but two tracks on the album.


MFK's picture

Mr. Alvin is a musical treasure: outstanding songwriting and musicianship. Plus, he's a very nice man. Have been fortunate to see many live shows in diverse configurations. A killer every time. Thank you so much and long live DA!

Glotz's picture

I remember playing it for a party at our home in the 80's while she was visiting. I was prepping the sound, and despite her age in the 80's, she came running down the stairs to exclaim "Oooh, I LIKE that SONG, Jeffy! Who IS THAT??" Lol..

I've seen The Blasters and Dave a few times and they always please.