The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow recording begins with the rhythm
Two high-profile guest musicians and a big technical malfunction - all in the first week of recording
DALTON — For much of the time he spent recording bass parts for The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow's first full-length album, Pat Sansone sat with a Sharpie tucked between his fingers. As each of the Americana band's members presented their songs to the Wilco guitarist and The Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, Sansone would mark a sheet, documenting chord progressions and other information while sitting with a bass or behind a piano. Once comfortable he had learned a particular tune, Sansone would offer feedback and assist audio engineer Grant Wicks with some Pro Tools adjustments. These weren't acts of generosity; making albums is what Sansone does.
"I've kind of been a studio rat all my life," he said at the end of the week.
But when producer and longtime friend Johnny Irion approached him about recording with a band consisting of five singer-songwriters — Tory Hanna, Billy Keane, Chris Merenda, Greg Smith and David Tanklefsky — Sansone was a tad concerned about the group's composition.
"I was like, 'That's a little bit daunting,'" he recalled.
Undeterred, the Nashville resident still made the trip to the Berkshires, where Wilco has hosted the Solid Sound Festival since 2010. On a frigid Monday in mid-November, he, Irion and Gorman joined the band at The Stationery Factory a few minutes after noon. Some of the group's members had been there for over an hour.
"I couldn't sleep," Hanna said atop the building's third-floor landing shortly before 11, the day's scheduled start time. Bags of groceries were packed in a corner behind him. He was chatting with Tanklefsky while waiting for Wicks to unlock the doors leading to where the Roadshow would be recording the bulk of the album. For the next five days, this floor would be their second home.
The band had been preparing for weeks to make this tracking period an efficient one. They had written songs, hired Irion, arranged and rearranged tunes at Irion's Washington home, built a studio at the former Crane & Co. building and rehearsed in various group configurations as members juggled their different day-jobs and family obligations. But plans were far from concrete, and they hadn't met Sansone or Gorman yet.
"I wonder what song we'll start with," Wicks said upon entering the recording space.
"That is the question," Hanna said.
Ultimately, Smith's "Rock 'n' Roll Deja-Vu" got the nod. It was a tune several of the group's members had worked on the previous day and one Smith had workshopped extensively with Irion. After introductions to the band ("Should we do nametags?" Hanna quipped), the guest artists quickly settled in. Gorman tested a Ludwig drum kit surrounded by baffles. Sansone inspected the early 1980s 24-track Studer A80 tape machine that the album would be recorded on before strolling over to Smith.
"So, what's the vibe of this first tune?" Sansone asked him.
As was often the case during conversations among the artists throughout the week, Smith used musical allusion to explain his song's sound, mentioning the Eagles, among others.
"Classic rock," Smith said.
Sansone sat down at Irion's piano and began trying to learn the song as the producer tested a microphone.
"Check one-two, Dillon Fence, check one-two," he said, looking in Gorman's direction.
Irion met Gorman in the mid-1990s when his band, Dillon Fence, was touring with The Black Crowes. They hadn't played together, though, until teaming up for a Nashville gig in September.
"While he was there, he goes, `Hey man, I might be working with some guys. Would you mind coming and playing a session?'" Gorman recalled.
Gorman typically records with different groups in Nashville but was excited to visit the Berkshires after a "busy" year.
"I went, 'I'm coming, yes, and I'm going to rent a cabin with a fireplace and no TV and no radio,'" he said.
Irion had sent him some links to the band's music, but Gorman wanted to hear the group in person first.
"I don't want preconceived notions," he said.
At 12:45 p.m., the group began its first rendition of "Rock 'n' Roll Deja-Vu." In the initial, unrecorded passes of a song, many band members would play parts with various instruments — electric and acoustic guitars, a resonator, a banjo, a trumpet. The goal was to generate a song's "vibe," allowing Sansone and Gorman to grow acquainted with it before offering their input on its arrangement. As the takes increased, the musicians often decreased, reducing the potential for sound "bleed" into the bass and drum channels. By the time the Studer started taping, Gorman, Sansone and the song's lead singer were often the only ones left playing. Other parts could be recorded after Gorman and Sansone returned to Nashville.
During "Rock 'n' Roll Deja-Vu" run-throughs, the group was debating how many times to repeat a line from the chorus — "I'm just glad to be here now" — toward the end of the song. Smith was singing it twice before its ensuing line, "singing loud with you."
"It needed one more," Gorman said, later adding that Smith should embrace the line's "bigness."
"That was the first thing I thought," Sansone said.
Smith tried repeating the line three times.
"That's classic," Irion said.
"Pretty hip," Gorman said.
Smith, whom Irion describes as an "artist's artist," wasn't certain it was the right call.
"I'm still not confident, but I'm willing to try," he said.
Later, after the group had completed a handful of tape takes and gathered around the Studer each time to listen to them, Smith expressed his appreciation for the talent in the room.
"I don't know if I've ever been in a position where I'm as open to people's suggestions," said Smith, who eventually opted to keep the extra repetition.
The group had spent more than three hours refining the song. A few members had done a fair amount of spectating, drinking beer and sampling the curry and kale salad lunch provided by Hearty Eats. The Shelburne Falls restaurant was one of several vendors keeping the group nourished. Shire Breu-Hous gave the band dinner vouchers in exchange for a Thursday night performance. Currency Coffee kept refilling a coffee carafe at a station near the Studer. Hudson Whiskey bottles and more than a few joints also fueled the cause. During days that often stretched past 9 p.m., it was important to stay occupied.
"There's a lot of sittin' around," said Gorman, who entertained Roadshow members with one-liners and stories from life on the road with The Black Crowes as the week progressed.
"Cross My Land" was up next, followed by "Pass the Peace." Keane sang the latter. The song explores his desire to pursue artistic interests while balancing practical responsibilities.
"I've been carrying this weight for so long / pass me over that peace you've been dragging on," the chorus goes.
Gorman, who had been subdued for much of the first day, was moved by Keane's soulful singing.
"That was heart. That was f------ heart," he said after the second take.
They did a third take as a safety, wrapping up around 9:30 p.m.
"What a good day," Hanna said.
That sentiment lasted for a couple of hours. As the band enjoyed dinner and retired for the night, Wicks ensured that everything taped was preserved digitally. During that time, he noticed that the Studer had started to malfunction, producing a smell, according to Hanna.
"It was a nightmare," Wicks said.
He didn't lose any of the taped material but would now have to make subsequent digital takes sound like analog ones.
"This is like a complete crash course in —"
"Life," Hanna said, finishing Wicks' sentence.
The broken Studer had tempered Hanna's standard ebullience.
"Time is of the essence," Hanna said.
The group would have to record its second-day tracks digitally, forgoing the analog sound and approach that Irion had deemed important enough to transport the 30-plus-year-old machine from California for the occasion. The producer showed up late, considerably less energetic than the previous day. The room was dark as Merenda worked on his song "I Bet the World." Waterfall Perry, Keane's wife, stopped by during a particularly mellow moment.
"We need the lights," she said, flicking them on.
Irion sat cross-legged on the floor, his eyes closed, his head circling. Beyond the usual stress of being an album's producer, Irion had the added burden of playing host for the week; ensuring that his pals Gorman and Sansone had a positive experience with the band was not only a professional responsibility but a personal one. And the Studer problems were a setback.
Technician Dave Locke soon began working on them, hustling toward the machine and lying underneath it.
"It looks like the doctor has arrived," Sansone said.
Meanwhile, Merenda and Tanklefsky maintained the musical momentum. Tanklefsky's "Keep on Laughing" was unanimously applauded.
"That's a deep groove," Merenda said.
Tanklefsky had worked out the song with Irion and others while sitting on the couch that afternoon.
"All that stayed is the melody," he said of the song's structure.
For defensive types, watching musicians casually shift and discard parts of their songs can be disorienting given that, if the song really works, they will be playing it that way for years, even decades. But Tanklefsky and other band members celebrate that openness.
"When you really trust someone like these guys, when he's like, 'Hear me out, I'm thinking it goes like this instead,' you're more apt to be like, 'OK,'" Tanklefsky said after the group listened to his final take.
Merenda followed with a foot-stomper, "Perfect Day," that further lifted the group's spirits.
"I'm rockin' digital, Johnny!" Merenda told Irion.
The producer motioned toward Sansone and Gorman.
"These guys are a tape machine!" he said.
They wouldn't have to be for long. The group learned that the Studer merely had a bad capacitor and could be used again the next day, which opened with Keane singing "Hey Lady."
"Hey lady / take what you need / don't give up the fight / I'm on your side," he sang.
"That felt great," Sansone said after the first take.
Irion was a tad skeptical.
"You sure it's not too slow?" Irion said.
To speed or slow songs' tempo, the musicians often decided to listen to a click track set to a certain amount of beats per minute as they played.
"Let's try this at 82," Gorman said.
By the fifth take, Irion was pleased with its sound.
"Hell yes!" he said.
The next day-and-a-half acquired a machine-like efficiency, with the six songs tracked following a similar, repeated process: song run-through, rearrangements, tape, listen to take.
Irion remained intense, at times growing frustrated if a song needed several takes. Conversely, the guest artists were loosening up.
"Put some honey on that," Gorman said after one successful take.
During listen-backs, Sansone was often dancing. He was impressed by the band's distinct voices and support for one another.
"It's not very common," he said.
On Friday, Irion told four of the Roadshow members (Tanklefsky had returned to his Boston home by Thursday morning) that he wanted his friends to leave on a high note.
"Today, I feel like it should be gimmes," he said before Gorman and Sansone arrived.
They cruised through four more tracks, bringing their total to 16 for the week. They were split fairly evenly among the songwriters with one exception: Tanklefsky only had one song recorded.
"I hate that Dave wasn't here. I tried to tell him to call in sick," Irion said.
The last track was Merenda's "I Don't Mind the Feeling." When the final take ended, Gorman revealed that he had broken the kick drum's head during the song's concluding four beats.
"Went out with a bang!" Irion said.
The producer looked rejuvenated. He had a gig that night with Sansone at Pittsfield's Whitney Center for the Arts, and though he had been fighting stress all week, he had successfully pushed the band to record rhythm parts for more than enough songs to fill an album even before they began exploring acoustic material. He had also achieved a sense of musical camaraderie that had eluded him since moving to the Berkshires.
"Everybody has such different characteristics when they're doing their songs," he told the Roadshow. "This whole process, I've made new friends that I didn't think I could make. Thank you."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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