The Hold Steady studio diary - Stay Positive - #7
It’s always fun watching band members disappear during the overdub phase of a record. There’s nothing like sitting and listening to the same guitar part or vocal line over and over that will send other musical types running for the local bar. With four more days at Water Music and plenty of overdubs to do, we needed to make sure we used the big room to it utmost. That means picking the overdubs more suited for the space we were in.
We needed to finish any Franz overdubs using the grand piano and Hammond B-3 organ. Tad had some guitar parts ready and I wanted to get a bunch of his stuff down also. And Craig was really sounding good in his vocal booth, so I wanted him to sing a bunch more.
Even while we were tracking, I wanted Craig to get into a rhythm for singing. So when we cut certain songs, I had him go into his booth and sing to the track we picked as the master. Maybe have him run over the song three or four times. This satisfied two needs for me. First, it got him used to the tempo of the song and second, it got him to hear his lyrics and melodies back and we could discuss any improvements. Sometimes it’s better to do that before you’re in the studio going for real takes. The other benefit is that your singer gets into the singing head and hopefully is in full stride when it is time for master takes.
As I mentioned earlier, it was really important for Craig to move forward on this record as a singer. He delivered so well on Boys and Girls In America that I wanted to make sure we topped the last record. At one point I thought it might help him if he saw a vocal coach for the purpose of giving him advice on breathing and warming up, etc. I was a bit apprehensive about asking him about it. I certainly did not want him to take my request the wrong way.
In December, I scheduled a lunch with Craig before a particular rehearsal. I figured we’d sit and talk about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to say on this record. And then I’d pop the question. As the day grew closer, I grew more apprehensive about his reaction.
We met at this cool lunch joint in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, called Brooklyn Label. I had never been there before rehearsing on Stay Positive, but it quickly became a go-to place for me. Anyway, Craig showed up and we started catching up about baseball and life and everything else between. I was finally ready to ask him the question before even getting to talk about the record. My heart was beating faster and I thought about how I would react to his reaction.
“So Craig, I’ve been wondering if you have any interest in going for vocal lessons or going to see a vocal coach before we start this record. It might be a good way to prepare to do vocals and you might get some tips you can use from now on. And if it doesn’t help, no big loss.”
“That’s great, John. I’ve thought about that too. Find me a person and I’ll do it.”
Done and done. Easier than I thought and better than I expected. Craig was pretty clear that he felt like this record was an opportunity for him to grow and was willing to put in any effort to make that happen. With the lunch tab paid, we walked over to rehearsal.
Fast-forward to Water Music with much recording left to be done.
We quickly got through Franz’s overdubs and cut him loose. It turns out that he had some prior commitments the next day or so, so getting his keys done was a good plan. Various organ on “Slapped Actress” and “Both Crosses” really added color to the already dense tracks and a few more things and he would be done for now. He would actually come back on our last day of tracking and be joined by some friends who would help us with “whoas” on “Slapped Actress.”
The next day we did some tag-teaming between Tad and Craig. Tad started it off by doing secondary guitars on “Sequestered” and “Constructive Summer.” We also spent a little time beefing up the bridges in “One For The Cutters.” And then Craig went to work. We started him singing the eventual b-side, “Cheyenne Sunrise.” Just to get him into the groove. Craig was sounding so great on that song, that everyone in the control room, including the band’s lawyer, George Regis, was over the moon about it. Craig would go on to sing a few more songs at Water Music. Those songs included “Magazines” and “Slapped Actress.” Even though “Slapped” was a newer song for Craig, we had to get it done so we could experiment with the group backgrounds in the big room at Water Music.
A quick description of the Water Music big room is in order here. It is a huge room with really high ceilings. In various parts of the room, there are floated clouds that deaden the ambience. Anything placed in the middle of the room is ambient like a motherfucker. And the sound of the room is beautiful. The room also makes a great echo chamber. Set up a PA in the room and send any sound into it and you have beautiful reverb. There are certain spots in the room that are more controllable and that’s where we put the drums. The studio also has a few great sounding isolation room so we can separate guitars, bass and piano. I could geek out on more details, but I think you get the point.
Back in December, while rehearsing with the band, I had asked Tad if he could come up with another acoustic song that was short and bouncy, not unlike the vein of “Citrus” from the last record. Asking Tad to write a riff or a song is like asking an oilman to do some drilling. He was on it and came up with a great riff. It was unfinished at rehearsal, but Tad and Bobby took a couple of hours in the big room to work it out. They came up with a good basic track as a sketch and we figured we’d just finish it when we had done a bunch of the priority material.
When it was time for the group vocals, we placed a big, beautiful tube vocal microphone in the middle of the most ambient section of studio and brought a group of people in to do the "whoas" on “Slapped Actress.” All we knew for sure was that the group vocals would ride out the song. So we laid down many different takes of them in many different groups. A few with just the guys, a few with just the girls and a few with everyone.
With some disagreement on whether the “whoas” should be in the previous choruses, we put them there anyway and left them to be decided later. Normally, I would insist on making the decision on the spot, but in this case, it didn’t hurt to wait until mixing to decide.
With many bottles of wine and brown liquor bought for the background singers, and our overdubs at Water Music done. It was time to celebrate the end of our stay. We toasted good times and laughed our asses off about everything. Spirits were high and we were looking at four days off. I was going to spend some time with my family and the band was going to fly to Tampa to play a one off show on Saturday.
We were on or ahead of schedule and the band was working on all cylinders. I felt like we had gotten great performances out of the band and a great collection of songs. I was feeling really good going into the weekend. All the gear was being moved to Wild Arctic, our next destination. And we would start with vocals sometime Monday afternoon, after I got all the gear and mics set up.
Things were looking good.