Another Cup of Coffee with Jeff Powell

If you don’t know Jeff Powell’s name, you know his work.  As an engineer and producer at Ardent Studios, he’s worked with Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, Afghan Wigs, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Big Star, Tonic, and BB King.  He’s worked alongside studio legends Tom Dowd, Jim Dickinson, Rob Fraboni, and John Hampton.  Since he began his career in 1989, he’s worked on several platinum-selling and Grammy-winning projects.  He’s also the Chairman of the Memphis chapter of NARAS’s Producing/Engineering wing.

As an artist and a fan of Ardent, I knew Jeff Powell before I knew him.  Last September, I had a meeting at the Grammy’s Memphis chapter.  I mentioned that I’d like to get in the studio soon.  An hour later, I had an email from Jeff Powell saying he’d been to my site, heard my music, and wanted to talk.  I thought I was being Punk’d.

We met at Otherlands on an insanely hot afternoon.  Jeff’s been an engineer for 22 years.  He’s got a wealth of expertise, and he’s got stories for days.  But above all, he’s someone who clearly still lives and breathes music.  I capped the interview at an hour, but I could’ve listened all evening.  Enjoy…

Another Cup of Coffee with Jeff Powell!

[Before I can start the recorder, Jeff mentions he’s been cutting vinyl for a new project all day.]

I don’t own a record player, but they say more and more people my generation are either buying mp3’s or vinyl.  CDs are getting phased out.

Well, it’s both.  What I’m seeing is that almost everybody’s making vinyl.  I was on a panel on vinyl recently and one of the questions I asked the crowd was, “how many of you are buying vinyl?”  Almost everybody raised their hand.  Then I go, “how many of you are buying vinyl and not listening to it?”  And about half of them raised their hand.  But they’re collectors’ items.

It’s a more visceral experience.  My parents had records and the thing I remember most is the smell.

Absolutely, there’s a smell.  The artwork is a square foot.  And it sounds so much better.  Half of it is the aesthetic of…it’s just a whole other listening experience.  You have to lift the needle and put it down and it requires more of an investment from the listener.  The first time I cut vinyl myself and listened back, I thought, “what the fuck have we been listening to for the last twenty years?”  It blew my mind open.

Are you from Memphis originally?

I’m from Bowling Green, Missouri.  Bowling Green’s a little town of about 3,000 people.  Small town life, all the way.  I went to University of Missouri thinking I wanted to be a recording engineer, but few places had a real recording program.  Missouri said, “double major in music and electrical engineering, then transfer to a recording school the last year.”  I took all these friggin’ hours, then I had to wait two years before I could get in-state tuition at University of Memphis’s program.  In that layoff, I forgot lots of the music theory proficiency they wanted me to remember.  So I had to go back and take it all again.  The good thing is, it really did drill it into my head.

Why Memphis?  Just because there were so few programs at that time?

Yeah, there was University of Miami, which was very expensive and prestigious in terms of…you had to be proficient on an instrument.  I’m a hack on guitar and piano and stuff.

All producers say that.  Then you get them playing and go, “oh, you’re a badass too.”

I’m certainly not badass, but I can play.  I can read music and play.  It was something ingrained in me that helps me produce.  Even in my early days, working with Tom Dowd, he always had a score.  Even if it was Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers, he had a score.  A blank staff page in front of him, treble clef, bass clef, and he’d have measures numbered.  All through the song, his big giant hands would follow measure for measure.  He knew right where he was.  And when they’d stop, he’d go, “on the eighth bar in the chorus…”  He really did like to orchestrate.

How did that happen?  How’d you go from college student to working with one of the most legendary producers of all time, Tom Dowd?

I was a staff guy at Ardent.  Back then, I was just starting to engineer, but I was mostly assisting.    Tom Dowd came in, looked around, and said, “I’m going to bring the Allman Brothers, and Skynyrd, and other folks down here, but this room’s too dead.  You need to liven it up, and I’ll need another isolation booth, too.”  So they built all that for Tom, and put in a new Neve console for him, which is what’s there now.

It was December 1990, and nobody had used that new board yet.  A band called the Holy Cows from Michigan came in, and Ken told them that I’d be their producer, sold them on the idea.  I’d never produced anything.  The idea was for me to work in that room and learn the new console backwards and forwards, get all the kinks out it.  That’s what I did.  I lived in that room.

So, John Hampton was the engineer on the Skynyrd record and I was the second [engineer].  But I’d worked with that new console the most, so I was always the guy pulling us out of a ditch.  And I was always there early, you know.  So, I think Dowd took a shine to me.  He’d quiz me, ask me theoretical questions, silly stuff like panning and how to read meters, things like that.

The Readers Digest version is this: the Allman Brothers came in right after Skynyrd.  They brought in two outside engineers: one guy did the whole band and the tracking stuff, and one guy came just for Gregg’s parts.  Well, Gregg fell off the wagon while he was here.  Found him one Sunday morning on Beale Street, sitting in with somebody.  We bring him back, and I’m there running the tape machine.  He comes in, a girl on both arms, rosy-faced and smiling.  Dickie said, “Jeff, turn off the tape machine for a second, I want everybody to hear this.”

Dickie turned to Gregg and started cussing him like a dog.  Gregg was four hours late, and Dickie was pissed.  It escalated.  Then, Gregg’s personal engineer, this guy Bud, was also his AA buddy.  Well, he’d fallen off the wagon as well.  He’s hammered and getting coffee.  By now, Dickie and Gregg are yelling and screaming, poking each other in the chest.  Bud steps in and goes, “why do you guys gotta fight, you guys are brothers, man!”  Dickie pulls one out of the hip pocket [pantomimes throwing a haymaker]–BAM!  Broke his glasses, broke his nose, blood everywhere, he goes flying into the Coke machine.  I jump on Gregg and pull him away, another guy pulls Dickie away.  I bring Gregg into the control room and he’s all, “you just witnessed the fourth breakup of the Allman Brothers Band!”

Later, Dickie wants to talk to Gregg.  We ask both of them, “you gonna be cool?”  “Yeah, we’ll be cool.”  We listen outside the door to make sure they’re not killing each other.  Forty-five minutes later, they come out with their arms around each other, laughing and smiling.  And Gregg says, “where’s Bud?  I feel like singing.”  Well, Bud’s in the hospital getting his nose fixed.  He turns to me and says, “you know how to run all this shit?”  I said, “yeah.”  “Well, let’s work brother-man.”  I started cutting his vocals.

Bud quit and went home, and Tom Dowd put me in the engineer chair for the rest of that record.  Later, when he brought in Primal Scream, he gave me my first major label record.

That’s amazing!  How many times did you end up working with Dowd?

I think I did six records with him.

What other producers did you learn from in those early years?

Certainly [Jim] Dickinson.  Certainly [John] Hampton.  Joe Hardy was a guy that kicked around here for years, a staff guy at Ardent who was doing a lot of big records at the time.  It got to where, after Dowd started using me as an engineer, these other guys still wanted to use me as the second.  They could leave early, and then let me sit in the engineer chair and do stuff.  So they kinda fought over me a little bit, which was a nice position to be in.  But I really did work myself into the ground, I really wore myself out.  I was still trying to go to school, and eventually did quit.  I think I had 237 undergraduate hours and no degree.

I went back two years ago and finished it.

That’s great, congratulations.  You rarely hear that.

Yeah, Mom was happy.

What else did you learn from other producers as you were coming through the ranks?

I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to be like.  Mainly, the control-freak kinda guys.  Those guys: if anything happened when they weren’t in the room, it wasn’t good.  Which is the exact opposite of what Dickinson told me once.

I caught him in the hallway once and he said, “I’m achieving the highest form of the art of production right now.”  What do you mean?  “I’m talking to you right now, and you hear that music coming through the doors of Studio A?  I’m out here talking to you and I’m producing that in there.  They’re in there trying because they know I’m going to listen to it.  Producing in absentia is the highest form of the art.”

I’m that way in the studio.  I trust other peoples’ work more if it happens when I’m not around.  If I’m there, I get in the nuts and bolts, and I get critical, and it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.  But if take an hour off and the bass gets tracked, I come in and just go, “sounds great, what’s next.”

It works both ways.  Some people are geniuses at getting into all those details and detangling everything.  But other people just listen only for what’s wrong.  Learning how to listen is the most important thing you can learn as an engineer, producer, or as an artist.  Because I think it’s ingrained in you, especially when you’re starting.  I used to think, “I can’t let that out of tune note stay in there, because people will hear it and think ‘God, the producer didn’t catch that?’”  I couldn’t be further from that now.

I just went into Sun Studios last week.  I’m working with Delta Joe Sanders on a record, and there’s this out-of-tune piano on there.  It’s exactly the sound I wanted.  So I went back in just to record that piano–it’s perfect for the song.

What other projects are you working on right now?

I got a bunch of stuff going on, as usual.  That’s the way it is nowadays, at least for me.  Most people don’t have big budgets to say, “I’m coming in on this date and I’m coming out with a record.”  So it’s gotten to the point where we might do four days here, then stuff in my living room or wherever.

More piecemeal, as the budget allows.  That living room came up last month with Cory Branan.  Is that the same living room where you cut some of The Hell You Say?

Yeah.  I call it Humongous Studios.  It’s a joke.  I’ve toned it down over there because we have dogs.  I can’t bear the thought of them ruining a special take.  It’s not sound-isolated, so after 10 o’clock at night, the FedEx planes are going.  The teenage boys next door bounce basketballs and scream.  I used to give them a few dollars to be quiet, and they started playing me for that–”I think he’s got musicians over there–get the basketballs!”

Last time we talked, you said you get to pick your projects now, which is a great spot to be in.  What do you look for in a project, or an artist, to make you sign on?

Stuff that I like.  Stuff that I respond to.

Any one genre?

No, pretty much across the board.  I try to listen for songs.  I try not to be snobby, but I also don’t want to waste anyone’s time.  I just tell people, “I didn’t really respond to it–I think someone else would do a better job on this.”

Right.  From the artist’s side, we want a producer who’s as excited about the record as we are.

Yeah.  I have before worked with bands where I probably should’ve said “no.”  But I did it because the money was good.  I haven’t done that in a long time.  And you learn your lesson pretty fast.  Those usually end up being the ones where the problems get magnified anyway.  The insecure lead singer who’s never satisfied.  The drummer who wants to grid every hit.  Stuff that I don’t like doing anyway, because it takes away from the music.  You end up paying for it.

You like to keep recording organic.

I’m very much an organic guy.  I’ll do machine stuff, too.  But when I do that, I’ll usually find a guy who does that.

How was your experience on [Big Star’s 2005 album] In Space?

It was great.  We really had a blast.  It was Alex [Chilton, original songwriter and singer] and Jody [Stephens, originally drummer] and the two guys from the Posies.  It was Alex’s call completely that I do the album.  I was thrilled to death.  Alex was great, but he could be a little cantankerous.

One time, Alex wanted to fix a vocal on one song.  We tracked it originally in an isolation booth.  He said, “I want to fix a line, I want to change the lyric.”  We were working that day on the floor, not in the iso booth.  I said, “for consistency’s sake, do you want me to put the mic back in the booth, so it sounds the same?”  He blew smoke in my face and goes “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”  I thought, “you asshole.”  But what he was saying is, “don’t get hung up on little details.  I just want to do it, and do it quickly.”

I told that story to Cory [Branan] once, and he said that’s a quote from somebody.

[It’s Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The original quote is: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”]

The thing Alex and I always had was I could make him laugh really hard.  There was a lot of that.  We had a great time in the studio.  We both had a weird sense of humor.

What other cities and studios have you recorded in?  Is there a favorite?

I’ve been lucky.  I worked in most of the big Seattle studios when Seattle was happening.  I did the second Afghan Wigs album up there.  LA, I’ve worked in most of the major studios out there.  Studio City is great.  Ocean Way is fantastic.  I should mention New York and London, too.  And Ardent, yeah.  Ardent’s my favorite in the world.  It’s my home.

Any others?

Kings Way in New Orleans, Daniel Lanois’ studio.  I was there for the third Afghan Wigs album that I did.  They told me beforehand: there’s no control room.  So I’m right there in the middle of the room with them, and that’s a loud band.  I’m in the middle of the roar, on headphones, no speakers of course.  When you’re done, you listen back, see what you got.  You have to use your instincts to adapt and change the sound from there.

Like a pilot flying without his instruments.

Yeah.  It’s a lot like that.  It’s terrifying in a way, but it’s exciting to do that.  I’ve done this for so many years, I don’t like to do it the same way every time.  I have starting points, and certain microphones I like to use.  But that’s one reason I like going to different studios.  If I did everything at one, it’d be easy to get in a rut.

That’s a big distinction.  Some producers have “their sound” regardless of the project, and some producers adapt their sound to whatever the record might need.

Right.  Like, you know a T-Bone Burnett record.  He gets that certain thing.  There’s a lot of guys like that, even Daniel Lanois to an extent.  A band that’s interested in working with me asked if I would send them a reel.  I looked at my discography and thought, “this is going to scare the shit out of them.”  Nothing sounds the same.  I tend not to go back too much.  I’ve heard it said, “what kind of author goes back and reads their own books?”

It sounds like there are a lot of stories from the studio of bands getting in fights and breaking up.  I know a lot of my friends have had that experience.  What is it about the studio that creates so much conflict?

Yeah, everything’s amplified–literally!  Bands can be in the practice room for a year not hearing the other guy’s guitar parts.  “What are you playing?”  “What I always play!”  “It sucks, change it.”  Hurt feelings, insecurities, it all comes out.  It’s magnifies everything.  I’ve got stories of fights and stuff, but not most of the time.

I was wondering if there’s something else, too.  Once an idea starts becoming a real thing, some artists hit that “self-destruct” button.  They finally get in the studio, and they’ll sabotage the album.  Or a band finally gets a record deal, then breaks up.

Yeah.  One of my best friends has a saying: “some of these guys want to wear the uniform but they don’t wanna get in the game.”

What makes Memphis’s music community unique?

The musicians.  The quality of the musicians.  Honestly, man I’ve been all over the place.  But you can walk into a Holiday Inn here and the house band is better than the band I’ll get dragged out to see in LA: “come hear this awesome blues band!”  It’s drunker here.  It’s hotter here.  It’s greasier.  It’s behind the beat.  It’s all those things that make it real.  And all of that’s a second nature to most of the musicians.  And I think it rubs off on people who move here from somewhere else.

It’s something that keeps coming up in these interviews.  I’m from here, I’ve lived in Nashville, I’ve lived in New York, and I’ve toured all over.  There are great musicians everywhere, but it really is special here.  It’s something else.

Absolutely.  And, historically, something people don’t think too much about is air conditioning.  Some of our favorite records were made without air conditioning.  That not only affects the thickness of the air and how sound waves travel, but it also affects the mood.

That’s a great point.

Heat can make their fingers slip off a string.  Or it can fatigue you: “let’s get this fucking thing done and go home.”  That has its own energy.  Or what type of day do you work: “let’s wait til night when it cools off and we’ve had a few already.”  All because it’s so fucking hot.

That’s how we did my last album, Up.  Little home studio, dog days of August, and we had to shut off the AC between takes.

I love that part in Hustle & Flow: “cut the fan.”

I’ve talked to a lot of folks who say the local scene’s on an upward trend.

Yeah, I really don’t know.  There seems to be a lot of the same guys in four or five different bands.  Part of that’s maybe out of necessity.  I like it when there’s a new group, or a new singer/songwriter like yourself, who walks in and makes me go, “wow–who’s that?”

What’s your favorite bar in Memphis?  Or most-frequented bar?

Blue Monkey Midtown.  Because it’s two doors down from Ardent.

[The Blue Monkey was also featured in a past Another Cup of Coffee here.]

You have one meal left in Memphis.  What is it?

Oh, I got one: Edo.  Sushi place out on Summer.

Who are some of your favorite local artists right now?

Star & Micey is one of my favorites.

One of the things I’m most excited about is the Opus One project.  I’ve been recording all those, since Susan [Marshall, also Jeff’s wife] did her first one.  Also Harlan T. Bobo, Amy LaVere.  Looks like I’ll be continuing to do it.  For next season we’ve already got Al KaponeLucero’s going to do one next year, too, I think.  They’re another one of my favorite Memphis bands.  I love them.

I’d be remiss not to mention some more locals I’ve been working with: David Cousar, Rob Junklas.  And it would be silly not to mention Cory [Branan].

He mentioned that you had a hand in his new album, too.

Yeah, I ended up doing all the vocals on that.  He kinda got stuck.  I told him, “get your ass back to Memphis and we’ll figure it out.”

Someone’s making a Memphis music mix, you get to pick one song for the playlist.  Name that song.

Susan Marshall, “Even If It Takes a Lifetime.”

Memphis is…?

Hot.

Damn right.  I’m out of battery, I think, so that’ll do it.  Thanks again, Jeff.  See you soon.

Thanks, Chris.

[Note: To read all the past Another Cups of Coffee, click here.  To visit my blog, click here.  And to listen to our Another Cup Memphis playlist, click the links below:

The Another Cup playlist so far:

1) “Loose Diamond,” Jack-O & the Tennesssee Tearjerkers (Jeremy Stanfill’s pick)

2) “Happy” by Snowglobe (Cindy Cogbill’s pick)

3) “My Shadow,” by Jay Reatard (Cameron Mann’s pick)

4)   “As Long,” by Reigning Sound (Will Odom’s pick)

5)   To Be Determined Song off Andy Grooms’ solo record (Cory Branan’s pick)

6) “Even If It Takes a Lifetime,” Susan Marshall (Jeff Powell’s pick)

 

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  • M. L. M.

    Really enjoyed the interview. It’s one of the “best cups of coffee” yet.

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