Production Notes: Ethan Johns/Ryan Adams

For Ryan Adams, Ethans Johns is THE FACILITATOR

Music Features Ethan Johns
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Ryan Adams (pictured above) ended 2005 by releasing a dramatic reminder of his gift—the musically sublime, deeply disturbing and stunningly expressive 29. What the most recent album has in common with his first two—the sublime Heartbreaker and the ambitious, if polarizing, Gold—is producer/player Ethan Johns, who’s been able to focus the mercurial artist like no one else.

Johns, son of legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns, spent his childhood watching his dad make records in the traditional manner, and he manifests his purist methodology on every record he makes, but never more artfully than when he collaborates with Adams, from playing the drums on basic tracks and overdubbing numerous additional parts to making tape edits with a razor (see sidebar).

The producer acknowledges he doesn’t know what motivated Adams to make the sometimes puzzling choices he has between Gold and 29, although the two friends have continued to stay in touch over the years, mostly by e-mail. “Ryan has really specific ideas about the way he wants to approach material,” Johns says, “and that may be why we haven’t worked on some records in the past—because I wasn’t the guy who was gonna give him a satisfactory answer at a key point during the session. I couldn’t have made Rock N Roll if I’d had a gun pointed at me; it was just not my kind of record. I’ve had that side of Ryan presented to me numerous times during the making of other records, and it’s something that I don’t relate to.”

Johns says he was on call to renew their collaboration whenever Adams “had the material, or was willing to write the material, that was gonna get me excited about doing another record. And he showed up one day with a guitar player, J.P. [Bowersock], and we started recording, and two weeks later there it was. It was a great session.”

Cut during the first half of August 2004 (prior to the Cardinals LPs) at Three Crows, Johns’ North Hollywood, Calif., studio, 29 found the collaborators in familiar roles. “The way it works with Ryan, he’ll play you something on the guitar, and we’ll talk about it a little bit,” Johns explains. “Then he stands up in front of the microphones and I sit down behind the drum kit, put the headphones on, press ‘record’ and we just play it. So it’s a very immediate connection, musically; you just have to get to that point of immediate inspiration. That’s probably why I enjoy working with Ryan so much, because we communicate musically with each other really well, and we really listen to each other.”

Johns reckons Adams had two songs—“Night Birds” and “Elizabeth, you were born to play that part”—nailed down when he walked into Three Crows. The rest of the material came into focus during the sessions, but that doesn’t mean he was making stuff up on the spot. “The amount of verse this guy has at his fingertips is astounding, particularly when, at any given moment, 90 percent of it hasn’t been written down,” Johns marvels. “There were anything from kernels of ideas to almost-done stuff that he would pull out and finish off here right before we recorded it. The same with the three records we’d done previously, including the Whiskeytown record [2001’s Pneumonia, which marked the first time they worked together]. Some of my favorite things are the ones that he writes in the middle of a session, very, very quickly. The opening track on Pneumonia is one of those songs, and ‘Damn, Sam’ on Heartbreaker, which I happen to love. There’s some really good stuff on Gold. He’s putting his experiences straight into the material.”

It’s the material—and the discussions it triggers—that has always dictated the sound. “You have to be able to talk about what kind of album you want to make,” Johns says. For this album, Johns felt the songs called for a certain kind of muted mood lighting, so he overdubbed what he calls “effects,” using analog synths and a Memory Man delay unit.

Several songs on 29 were nailed the first time they were played, following a familiar pattern in the partnership; indeed, nine of Gold’s 16 tracks were first takes. “So you’re really listening to the first time a complete run-through of the song has ever been performed,” Johns points out, “which is why I think the performances on that record are so tangible.”

The conversation keeps returning to Gold, and despite the fact that Johns has made 30-some-odd records since, he remains connected to it, protective even. “When Gold came out, it was a four- or five-star record, and then, eight months later, it became very uncool to like it, for whatever reason,” he recalls. “I’ve heard people talk about it like it’s a Pro Tools record, and it’s absurd that you could listen to that record and not get that it was cut live. We cut and mixed 26 songs in six weeks. When you’re working at that kind of pace, you just do it. Time’s up—there it is.

“So that record is just kind of written off. But it’s a perfect portrait of a guy who has arrived at the place he always dreamt about arriving at. But the beauty of it is, he looks around and sees that it’s all movie sets—there’s nothing substantial anywhere. But the thing he dreamed about when he was 12 years old is finally literally sitting in his lap. ‘Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd.,’ ‘Nobody Girl,’ ‘Sylvia Plath,’ ‘La Cienega Just Smiled’—it’s all there.”

Johns views 29 as another career highlight for Adams, but he has no problem with any of the choices Adams has made. “What makes Ryan interesting,” the producer says, “is that he’s not afraid to fail. Most artists today forget that you’ve got to be willing to fail to do good stuff.”

Sidebar: THE RAZOR’S EDGE

The term “capturing the moment” may sound like a cliché, but that’s literally what Johns has done on albums like his three with Adams, the pair from Kings of Leon and Ray LaMontagne’s revelatory Trouble (the subject of the very first Production Notes in issue #7).

There are no computers in Johns’ studio, an open, high-ceilinged space in a funky section of North Hollywood. A custom recording console—retro-hip in flat black and chrome trim—sits imposingly in the middle of the recording area, as if it were another instrument, which in Johns’ mind it is. In this producer’s world, things happen up close and personal, in real time, and they’re documented on two-inch, 16-track tape.

“I’ve tried using Pro Tools,” Johns acknowledges, “but I can’t get a balance with digital noise, and it doesn’t sound good to my ears. For me there’s no reason to use it, because it doesn’t do anything as a tool that tape doesn’t.”

Although his best-case outcome is a complete performance, Johns says he does a lot of editing. “People talk about Pro Tools as being the best editor,” he says, “but because I don’t like to alter musicians’ performances, I don’t have a use for that side of the tool. But if we hit something with Ryan, for instance, and it’s the first run-through, and somebody doesn’t make the bridge, or Ryan wants to change the lyric, or we just happen to get a particularly great outro on one take, then I’ll cut that into the multitrack with a razorblade and cut the takes together. Tape helps me get the sound I want to get. It’s like having another member of the band, almost, or another engineer. And digital doesn’t allow me to do that, so I don’t use it.”

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