Back to the future of vintage music – It’s Big J and the H Bombs
“I tend to think of music in the same way people who like old cars and antiques do. I feel like anything from about 1980 onward is “contemporary music” because it is not more than 45 to 50 years old.”– Jeff Hess
Born in rural Northern California and raised on country, honky-tonk, and bluegrass music, our latest featured artist describes himself as a “sucker for rock-n-roll” and all that the golden era of the late 1940s to early 1960s had to offer. Jeff Hess, or ‘Big J and the H-Bombs,’ pays homage to the music and musicians from the atomic age and has a penchant for all things vintage, and whilst he does appreciate some modern music, his interpretation of what constitutes ‘modern’ or contemporary may differ to that of others.
Much like a good cheese or a bottle of vintage wine, Jeff feels that music needs a good half-century to age in order to see how it sticks to multiple generations before being regarded as ‘vintage’ or ‘old school” and as we’ll soon begin to understand through one of his most recent tracks, he sees himself as somewhat of a ‘late adopter’ when it comes to discovering some of the more ‘present day’ music.
So Jeff… tell us how you came up with the name ‘Big J and the H Bombs?’
It’s just a way for me to pay a small tribute to the music and style I love from the atomic age. It’s firstly a play on the “JH” initials for my name, but I suppose the earliest concept was as a teenager when I made some homemade hot sauce using peppers from our family garden. I put a label on it and called it “Jeff’s H-Bomb Sauce.” I think the idea of “Big J” came a bit later. I was probably about 26 or 27 and had a boss from Louisiana who would call me “Big J.” I always got a kick out of hearing him in an accent that reminded me of someone like Wilson Picket or Otis Redding. He’d answer the phone when I’d call and say, “Talk to me big J!” I am also 6’ 4” and generally just a big guy. When speaking to clothiers or airline ticketing agents, I refer to myself as “man-sized.” So, the name “Big-J” certainly fits. I also really admire the music and work of Robert Williams (AKA “Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys”) so I suppose there is a bit of a nod there too.
Where are you from, and what does life look like where you are?
I was born and raised in rural Northern California. My parents bought several acres in Herald, California in 1965. I was born in 1970 and grew up in a large Catholic family. We all helped our parents on our small family ranch. We had chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, goats, milk and beef cattle, a large garden, acres of oat hay, and my uncle kept his horses on our land. Besides working the ranch, my dad worked full time in a printshop in Sacramento, my mom wrote for several area newspapers, both were active members of the local volunteer fire department, our church community activities, our scholastic and extracurricular activities (band, 4H, FFA, drama), and both moonlighted as janitorial staff at the now-defunct Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant that we lived next to. The latter was an experience the whole family helped with. At 5 years old, I was helping empty waste cans there.
Despite all this activity, my folks still found time to celebrate and entertain at home. It seems like we had big parties all the time. Whether it was a holiday, someone’s birthday, or just a bonfire to burn off old, accumulated farm debris, good food, and live music was a big part of my early memories. I moved from Herald to Sacramento when I became a student at CSU Sacramento and have lived here since.
Sacramento has an interesting history of music and musicians. When my parents moved here in 1950, it was known for the nightclub “Wills Point” owned by Country Western swing star Bob Wills. My parents told me stories about it growing up. Interestingly, my Father-in-law’s family had just moved to Sacramento and was staying in a motel across the street the night Wills Point burned down.
The ’60s and ’70s in Sacramento saw some historic moments too. Keith Richards being shocked unconscious on stage during a Stones concert at our Memorial Auditorium is a story often told. The Beach Boys album “Live in Sacramento 1964” was recorded at the same Memorial Auditorium, and the international music store known as Tower Records was founded here in Sacramento.
As a teenager and young adult in the 80’s and ‘90s, it seemed there was quite an active Sacramento scene of local and traveling bands playing everything from rock, punk, rockabilly, funk, swing, metal, ska, and just all-around good music. There were a few local promotors who worked very hard to make this happen in the pre-internet age of photocopying and distributing fliers and posters. One club in particular, The Cattle Club right next to CSU Sacramento was at the center of that scene. You could stand in a small, packed club face to face with major label bands, or catch great local acts.
I’ve admittedly been away from the local music scene for a long time, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find how active the local Sacramento musician scene is again. I’m particularly pleased to be learning more about the people who are performing in the western swing, country, and rockabilly genres.
Your interest in Country, Bluegrass, and Honky-Tonk; has that been a big influence on the music that you typically create yourself?
I enjoy all music that has soul, heart, and maybe a bit of sass, but I am a sucker for Rock & Roll. Specifically, I default to the golden era of the late 1940s to early 1960s. I do also love a lot of classic and hard rock from the late ’60s to the late ’80s. Other likes include vintage Motown, Stax/Volt, Western Swing & Honky-Tonk, and yeah, I like Broadway musicals too.
The retro-sounding tracks that you’re producing, and keeping alive, are quite different to a lot of the music that’s being pushed out by many artists these days. Would you say there’s a gap in the market for vintage?
I find it very challenging to find people in the U.S. who are also into these styles. There seem to be quite a few in Europe and I’ve recently learned there is a major fan base of vintage music in the Netherlands. One of my favorite bands from Sweden is The Country Side of Harmonica Sam.
The younger “rockers” I’m connected with tend to like metal and what I call “hard rock” instead of the 1940s to 1960s vintage rock & roll stuff I like. The younger country musicians I tend to connect with either like outlaw country or modern pop-country. Some of it even has what I would consider a rap/hip hop vibe. I suppose that’s great because it keeps things new and fresh. However, with rare the exception, these are not really genre’s that are at my core “source.”
My goal is never to really be “original” sounding. It’s to sound authentically like the style or musician I’m trying to pay tribute to. I know that some of the “real” musicians I know might also find that to be strange as they focus so much on sounding or doing something “new” and “unique.” I guess I’ve just found peace with knowing the sound I like and the way I write.
There seems to be a trend with artists we’ve been speaking to where their interest in music is, in some way, nurtured by having other musicians in the family. Is that true for you also?
My dad loved to sing, and my uncle and cousins played in a country band, and I did get to play a washtub bass with him at a couple bluegrass festivals. To this day, the sound of my uncle’s Fender Twin amp reverb is etched in my soul. I also had older siblings who listened to music from before my generation that might have influenced me. I grew up with live Country, Honky-Tonk, and Bluegrass music.
What is it about the ‘golden era of the late 1940s to early 1960’s’ that holds such great appeal for you?
I think about that quite a bit. There is a part of me that has always found it hard to believe that when pressed, any person could do anything but admit they like this era of music and style better than anything contemporary. For example, I find it hard to believe someone would prefer the design of a modern car over that of say, a 1941 Ford Super Deluxe Business Coupe. The rational side of me knows though, we all love the things we were exposed to during times of happiness at an early age. Familiarity is comfort. When we associate that familiarity with happiness, it becomes the building block of a culture. Although I’m a Gen X kid who loves his 1980’s music, my parents were older than the parents of my friends. A lot of my friends’ parents listened to the same 1960’s and 1970’s music some of my older siblings listened to. My parents listened to music that was older still. The photos of my parents as young people looked like the photos of my friends’ grandparents as young people. I also used to watch a lot of old TV programs growing up. When you grow up out in the country, TV can be like a fantasy window into the big world where people have fancy things like sidewalks, lawns, and tall buildings. Watching reruns of Leave It To Beaver, The Twilight Zone, and The Rifleman often gave me small glimpses of style and traditions that were echoed in the photos of my parents when they were young and the stories they told me.
My mom grew up during the 1930s Depression-era in a log cabin in rural Northern Michigan. She and her sister used to listen to cowboy radio shows and dream about ranches in California. My dad was a city kid from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He loved big-band music and then later, early ‘50’s rock and 1960’s & 1970’s country. I suppose it would be easy for someone to dismiss my fascination with the past as being nostalgic or fantasizing about an idealized past that never really existed. I know too that it’s not good for a person’s mental health to stay stagnant in ways of thinking, traditions, or culture. We must experience loss and pain and learn new things to experience growth and truly be alive. In that spirit, I embrace my desire to learn more about the past. I believe by doing so honestly and taking in both the bad and the good, we can learn and find human connections. I love the promise of the future and I love the technology of the present that allows me to connect with people in articles like this one. But ultimately, I have never learned anything from the future. The past has much to teach us and more lessons are added to it every moment.
Looking back to the past for a moment then, what sticks out as a pivotal moment for you regards your journey in music?
The first few bands I was in were punk bands where I was the drummer. I accidentally burned down our studio (horse barn) and we all got new gear thanks to my dad’s insurance. We built a new studio and a formed new band after that. It was around then that I formed my love for writing and recording and went on to get a degree in recording arts.
Ok hold on, Jeff… how exactly do you ‘accidentally’ burn down a barn?
Golly, this is sort of an epic story that marked a turning point for me and a lot of my bandmates. I don’t remember the year, but it was the late 80’s early 90s. There’s that lyric in the old Chicago song “I think it was the 4th of July.” Well, I know it was the 4th of July because my stupidity with fireworks is what caused the fire.
Earlier in the day, we had finished up band practice. We had a couple punk bands at the time and we practiced in a very makeshift and very flammable studio. The building was a corrugated metal horse barn. Technically, it wasn’t even a barn, but what is known as a “run in shed.” Think of a structure with a lean-to style roof with an open front. We ran electrical to the shed via Romex line off the breaker box on my parents’ house. My dad liked that feature because he could shut off the breaker when we were making noise past midnight, and he often did. We made floors on the dirt ground out of old wooden pallets covered with carpet remnants. We sealed the front of the shed with whatever scrap lumber we could find and added a door. To try and insulate ourselves against the 110-degree summer heat, the rain leaks, and cool of winter, we did a lot of crazy things.
The front wall had been lined with an old sleeping bag we nailed to the wall, plastic sheeting, and then a second insulating “wall” made of office drop ceiling tiles was put on the interior. As I recall, we also filled that wall and other cavities with dried weeds and other farm debris. We also lined the top roof outside with large white sheets of cardstock paper (from my dad’s print shop) in hopes of deflecting the heat of the sun. That was kind of the icing on our tinderbox cake.
On that fateful day, the other band members had left for an afternoon of fun and drinking at the local lake. My parents did not mind underage (17- to 20-year-old kids) drinking, provided it wasn’t done to excess and that it was done while we were at home. As such, my younger brother and I were not allowed to go off with the rest of the band. Instead, he and I went up on the roof of the shed and began playing with fireworks. These weren’t “Illegal” fireworks, just the average “Safe and Sane” types so many Americans use on Independence Day on their suburban streets and sidewalks. However, an angled roof amidst a dead dry field of weeds is neither a safe nor sane use for fireworks of any kind.
I was lighting what are known as “Ground Flowers” or “Ground Bloom Flowers” and their smaller counterparts “Camellia Flowers.” Both spin on the ground emitting sparks. In this case, they spun on the roof and down off the side of the shed. As they fell off the roof, I would jump down to make sure to stomp out any smoldering weed flare-ups with my boots. One would think that when I had to stomp out about a 6’ x 6’ patch of weeds, I would have learned my lesson, but no. I climbed back up and continued, only to jump down again to stomp out another blaze. I thought I had that blaze under control but noticed smoke coming from an old mattress box spring that was leaning against the back of the shed. As I pulled the box spring away from the wall and exposed it to more air, a blast of fire and smoke came at my face. I realized the fire had entered the wall of our studio. My brother and I frantically tried to get hoses stretched out from the main house, but it was too late. I ran to tell my parents who called the fire department and then came running to help us with hoses. My brother, dad, and I tried to pull as much gear as possible from the studio while my mom manned the garden hose. When I saw the flames above me on the roof and rafters, I knew it was all over and my dad made sure we did not go back inside. The fire department arrived quickly and stopped the fire from spreading elsewhere on the property, but the shed was a fully engulfed, flaming, noxious mess. Once the roof gave, the gap from the wooden pallet floor drew in air from underneath like a blast furnace, and our little punk rock studio in the country was gone.
Not gone forever though, right? You said you managed to start over and build it up again?
We lost our collection of gear and instruments that were decades old and a lot of DIY handmade stuff. About a week later my dad had an insurance adjuster review the mess. Besides building materials, the adjuster gave us a list to fill in of the items we had lost. The result was a lot of new gear. I remember going into town to the music store for what must have been a nice commission for the employees that rang us up. One of my friends asked, “can I try out this bass?” The guy from the store answered, “Dude, you can try anything you want in here.”
We built an entirely new studio space on my parents’ property. It was not really a professional design, but it was awesome to us. I think the new gear and the space made us all much more serious about music. We formed a new band called “Skeleton Kiss” and we played a much more pop rock-oriented style. The band was me on vocals, my brother Jason on guitar, our friend Jeff Redden (RIP) on bass, and our friend Mike Couloures on drums. Jeff Redden and I wrote 80 to 90% of the lyrics and music. It was at this time I really started to develop an interest in recording having purchased my first 4 track cassette recorder and recording in multitrack soon became my primary method of writing music.
So you’ve been a drummer and a vocalist in bands – what other instruments do you play and to what level of proficiency?
I stink at performing live. I play drums, bass, guitar, and can tap out a few things on keys. However, all of these I do just well enough to record, then edit so it sounds like I know what I’m doing. I do enjoy singing and might be best at that. Real vocalists know what it’s like to work at their craft and get that professional voice. I’m not that, but I try hard. My best skill is actually editing waveforms. I suppose if I were a better musician, I would not take as long as I do to record new projects, but I really, really enjoy the editing and engineering too, so there you go.
In terms of engineering and editing, you mentioned earlier that you studied in the Recording Arts, tell us a bit about that, and how you’re applying what you’d learned to your recordings today.
I went to a Junior College in Pittsburg, California called “Los Medanos College.” At that time, there were no programs like this in the Sacramento area, so I commuted from my parent’s house about 1 hour and 45 minutes each way. The teachers were Grammy Award winners and nominees, and I was able to visit places like Skywalker Ranch and Dolby Labs. I also worked as a student helper for the first Audio Engineering Society conference in San Francisco. It was at that AES convention where I heard George Martin speak about his work with the Beatles. I suppose the biggest thing I took from my experience at LMC in relation to my music production today was the need for structure and discipline. I tend to be rather scatterbrained in my attention span sometimes and jump from one idea or project to another leaving things unfinished.
My time at LMC was the first time I ever really learned how to be a good student and follow through. I had always been about a “C” or “B” student at best. I believe that’s somewhere between lower and upper second class in the UK. At LMC I was always in the group with the best grades making the Honor roll (AKA the Dean’s List) every year. My improved academics certainly stemmed from being passionate about my major, but also because I discovered how to turn that passion into discipline. Fear of disappointing my dad too may have played a part because he helped me get an academic scholarship through his Union. But, to this day, I still compose my music as if I were carefully crafting a logical composition or troubleshooting audio signal flow. I think I really learned how to force myself not to move on to the next step until the first part is completed.
The other life-changing thing I feel I gained was more of an appreciation for science and the connectivity of the universe. It was in an astronomy class while studying light frequency spectrums that I realized the connection between light, radio, and sound frequencies. My audio engineering classes and science classes suddenly connected for a great “aha” moment. That might be why connectivity and commonality are also something I am passionate about. I often try to express those ideas in my writing. I do have songs that are angry and sarcastic, but I try hard to write more about things that unite people. In fact, I think my angry songs tend to be about frustration with people and things that attempt to separate us from each other.
My desire to find connection may also be why I love good pop music and pop culture. As commercial and cliched as pop music and culture can be to many more artistic and experimental types, these mediums are also vehicles for shared societal experience and connection. So, yes. I’d say a signal-flow-centric way of thinking and ability to find connection are the best traits I gained at LMC.
In your photo, it looks like you’re sporting the ‘Rockabilly’ look – can you describe what that is and what it means to you? Is it more to do with fashion choice or lifestyle choice?
“Rockabilly” was originally seen as a music sub-genre in the early-mid 1950s. The most iconic artists associated with the style would, of course, be Elvis Presley. Carl Perkins and a long line of contemporaries and predecessors to Elvis deserve even more credit, but Elvis became the commercial poster boy. At the time, as I understand it the term “rockabilly” was coined more as an elitist pejorative against such musicians to associate them with the poor working class of the deep South from where the music was routed. Today rockabilly music is generally considered as a combination of rock and roll and hillbilly (country) music. There is a style associated with the music as well. Much of the style is based in 1950’s pop fashion, but the style is also routed in several other cultures ranging from jazz, surf, biker, punk, UK Teddy-boys, vintage pin-up/burlesque, country, and western.
I would definitely not consider myself strictly rockabilly, but I do love the style. I first learned about the style and genre in high school from 1980s bands like The Stray Cats, The Blasters, the Polecats, Los Lobos, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. A good friend of mine made me a mixtape of several bands and cut my hair and taught me how to wear it in a retro-pompadour style. I realize now I also latched onto that style because of the music and background of my parents and how I was brought up. At the time, I did not really think a lot about it. I just thought it was cool.
At the end of high school, I just let my hair grow out because I did not see my friend who cut my hair as much. At that time too, I really started getting a lot more into music that was either later 1960s and early 1970’s rock, or a modern retro version of that style. I listened to a lot of Zeppelin, Stones, Skynyrd, The Who, Cream, ZZ Top, and early AC/DC and Van Halen on our local Sacramento rock station K-ZAP. At the same time, I was hearing a lot of punk music from my younger brother and our friends. The Dead Kennedys were a big influence on all of us and I had several friends who introduced me to bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, and Agent Orange. My brother and fellow bandmates could tell you a lot more bands because that was and still is more their thing. We formed a few different bands trying our best to replicate those punk sounds with our homemade and hacked-together gear and our sheer will to teach ourselves how to play.
I later got back into my rockabilly roots after I cut my hair that had grown down to my butt. I needed to cut it for a job. I was reluctant to do it, but from a practical point of view, I was glad I did. It was always getting in the way and when it got hot, made me feel dirty and sweaty all the time. Going back to the music style at the time might have also been more of a pragmatic decision. Finding music I liked on the radio was getting to be harder and harder so I just started listening to the oldies station. Music that was considered “oldies” back in the early 1990s was basically from the 1930s to late 1950s.
I suppose that “practical and pragmatic” sums up my feeling about the rockabilly/vintage style I gravitate towards. I don’t actively stay on top of the current rockabilly scene. I don’t go to shows or big festivals. If new music and bands come to my attention, I always listen and give kudos, but I’m no aficionado on what’s new and hot in this or ANY genre or scene. The music and style is just something I find very down-to-earth and sensible. I find values such as hard work, authenticity, respect, honesty, and long-term commitment to be hard-wired hallmarks of vintage and rockabilly culture. The vintage style might just be a practical comfort to me, but it is also one that echoes principles that I try to live by.
I think the rockabilly genre, especially in terms of the culture has gotten a bit of unwarranted criticism in the past few years. Specifically, the notion that the genre is somehow rooted in hatred or racism because of the prominence of the rebel flag and because of the deep southern roots of the culture. In the UK too, I know the Teddy Boy gangs were often involved in race riots and other mayhem. Personally, I believe the musicians and devotees of this genre and culture have been, and are some of the most diverse, complex, and open-minded people in pop music. We love and celebrate Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry with eyes wide open about how they and others were treated unjustly, and at times even risked their lives due to ignorant prejudice. We adore Etta James, Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline, and Janis Martin while simultaneously knowing the atomic age did not look favorably on strong independent women.
To me, throwing out any era, genre, or culture as being “inherently” or “systematically” broken, foolish, or wrong seems a bit arrogant at best, and downright ignorant at worst. Sure, big V-8 engine cars of the past caused pollution, but they were designed to last and made for the average owner to be able to service. Average garage mechanic kids of this era went on with the can-do attitude to become engineers and scientists for NASA and their grandchildren are designing today’s low emission vehicles. Sure, there was widespread racism, segregation, and sexism in the atomic age. It can also be argued that exposure to different cultures through pop music also made people more aware of these problems and brought about dramatic changes for the better. As I said before, the past has much to teach us, but if we ignore it, whitewash it, or throw it all away in favor of more popular or less offensive notions, we will not learn. We won’t grow. We’ll stagnate and become as homogenized and prefab as some of those “foolish” ideas from the past.
Speaking of V-8 Engines, hard work, and can-do attitudes, are you speaking from experience there? I couldn’t help but notice the old car in your photograph and was quite fascinated by it.
That’s my 1950 Ford Tudor. I bought this car sometime in either 1994 or 1995. I used to see it with a “For Sale” sign on it on my way to work. I really just loved the way it looked and eventually worked up the nerve to stop by and talk to the owner. I did not have the cash he wanted and believe it or not, I got a used car loan to buy it. It was an odd process of getting a vintage car appraisal for the bank and it’s funny now to think the bank approved it, but those were different times. It has the original flathead engine that has been bored and stroked. I have done some rebuild work myself on the valves, cooling, and transmission. I drove it much more when I was younger, but the car now just sits in our garage and has not run in some time. It will fire up, but it needs a lot more work, time, and money than I have. I’d really love to get it fixed up and drive it a bit more before I sell it and make my wife happy to have the garage for our car, but who knows. I suppose ultimately the car is a great big monument to my love of history, my stubbornness, my tendency to procrastinate, and my sentimentality.
Let’s talk a little about your recording set-up; what instruments and equipment are you using to produce your tracks?
I use Cakewalk as my recording software, run off my work MacBook using Bootcamp and interface via a Behringer U-Phoria I was given. I know Bootcamp is not the ideal way to run a DAW and I do have some latency issues because of this. However, I came to the free Cakewalk format from using SONAR for Windows software that I got as a birthday present years ago. For that same birthday present, I got an older Audio-Technica large-diaphragm condenser mic for my vocals and acoustic guitar.
Both my acoustic guitars were given to me as presents, my Ibanez from my wife and an Epiphone from my brother. For electric guitar, I use a Stratocaster knock-off that was given to me by my Father-in-law. I do have a bass, but it needs some repairs, so for almost all my bass lines, I play them on my electric guitar. I then pitch the notes down 12 steps in Cakewalk.
My drums are always built-in MIDI drums in Cakewalk. I use pre-set patterns and then manually add or remove beats to get what I’m looking for. On some of my tracks, I also play a lap steel that belongs to my wife. She bought it years ago and never learned to play it. I took it out of the closet last year, looked up how to tune it on YouTube, and studied enough to play a few licks.
To get more of a pedal steel high octave sound, I duplicate the lap steel track and pitch it up 12 steps. Other times I add in another octave lower with a track that is pitched down 12 steps. It takes a lot of EQ and mixing to make sure the notes don’t phase or create resonances with undesired results.
Sounds like you’ve got some really generous friends and family members Jeff.. all that free gear?
It’s an intentional point I want to make. Writing music has always been a hobby for me at not a profession. I enjoy it very much, but I have come to realize, I am not what I consider a “real musician.” I admire real musicians very much, those being people who perform for live audiences or in studio with other musicians. I have pretty bad stage fright and mediocre guitar skills. I believe my strengths lie in writing, producing, arranging, and engineering. Ultimately, my entire purpose for recently being more sharing and open with my music is the hope that someone will want to use my songs and hopefully sell it.
So your ideal would be to find success in commercial songwriting?
My dream come true would be to hear what I call a “real” musician or performer (young or old) sing a song I wrote or hear someone perform a collaborated version of something I wrote. When I first heard Dash Rendar https://www.bandlab.com/dashrendar sing my song “Slide To Power On.” I literally could not control the smile on my face. It was one of those rare times when a smile hurts your face muscles. Not only did he kill it, I just felt so happy to hear someone else singing something I wrote. It was sort of proof to me of the power of connection through lyrics and music. If I made a few pennies to buy nicer gear, I’d consider myself to be a real success. I am extremely grateful for the gear people have gifted me. I enjoy using it and finding creative ways to make my gear do more than it may have been designed for, but I would love to earn my way to a better setup. Again, I’d call that being a success.
Aside from the commercial aspect and potential to fund a ‘better set up’, are there any other motivating factors when it comes to creating?
I mainly write to get my thoughts, observations, and emotions down somewhere… somewhere I feel like I can tangibly interact with them. They often come out harsh and judgmental at first and then get revised into something that I hope is less angry and hopefully more universal. I like songs that multiple people from completely different backgrounds can enjoy and interpret in their own way. I know this is the secret to good pop music and a lot of my musician friends (especially old punkers) might hate the idea of being too “pop,” but I actually find something rather profound in pop music and pop culture. I suppose I feel the best pop music and culture transcends the commercial world and has the ability to spark many other wonderful things.
Talk us through your creative process when it comes to writing music. What’s the most time-consuming part of the recording process for you?
It would probably be either vocals or guitar solos primarily, then mixing. I suppose if I were a real musician the first two might come more easily. I do have to admit though, editing to make my poor skills sound more listenable gives me a lot of happiness and inner peace.
My process is typically to write lyrics first; they come to me often when driving, traveling for work, or just doing yard work. I write them on my phone and save them for later. I then get inspired by the music I like to listen to and think “I’d love to write a song in that style!” and see which of my lyrics might work for the style.
I practice the song on my acoustic guitar, then I compose the song in Cakewalk building the song with drums first, then bass or acoustic, then electric guitar, then vocals and other midi instruments (keys, strings, horns, other rhythm) last.
I record scratch vocals first so I can listen to them while driving to and from work. From doing that I can hear my need for better enunciation, pitch, and overall confidence. I also typically play versions without vocals while driving so I can practice memorizing the lines. Once the lines are memorized, I always sing more confidently.
Guitar solos too are time-consuming for me. Everything you hear for my guitar solos is a massive series of stitched-together licks. Again, I’m not really a musician. I can make the sounds I want on an instrument, but I can’t change from one part to the next quickly or accurately. I hear what I want a solo to do in my head, and play it a section at a time, recording it repeatedly until I get that lick, then I move on to each new section until the solo is completed. In the same way, Les Paul was able to use recording technology to get speeds and tones out of a guitar that he could not normally do in real-time; I create guitar solos which I lack the skill to play by tapping into my recording skills. If you have an ear for it, you can tell when I’ve done things like stretched, pitched up, or sped up notes via editing.
I want people to know this about my music writing because I feel somewhat like it’s cheating to make people believe otherwise. There are folks out there shredding guitar every day, singing their hearts out, and perfecting their craft as performers. My work does not hold a candle to their level of dedication. I know that I have a talent, and it makes me very happy. My talent is just in writing and engineering, not musicianship.
The other area that takes a lot of time for me is in mixing, especially effects. In my quest to make my newer gear sound more vintage, two of the sounds I try hardest to create are the sounds folks in the “golden era” got from ribbon mics on analog tape and the haunting sounds of plate reverb units. I’ve recently taken to adding slight distortion effects to my vocals to give that “saturated” tape and slightly over-driven pre-amp feel you get on a lot of old recordings. Think of Little Richard screaming “Wooooo!” on “Lucile” for a dramatic example. The distortion I use does not really recreate this sound, but maybe it’s a close similarity.
For the plate verb sound, I simply use a mono reverb that is a legacy SONAR and Cakewalk patch. Keeping the verb on a separate aux track at 100% wet and no dry mix helped me quite a bit with overall control of the verb. The real key is equalization though. I listen to hours and hours of old recordings to try and replicate the frequency. I even tried looking up old schematics to see what the frequency response was of some of the tube mics and pre-amps. The key for me finally came in rolling off almost all the lows and a significant portion of the highs. Having the reverb aux channel EQ’d to ditch almost everything before 1K and after 4K was the key. For any readers, if you are working with reverb, even if you’re not trying to get a vintage sound, rolling off the low end will help you remove that “muddy” sound too much reverb can give. Now, if I could just sell enough hit songs to make a real soundproof studio, I could also give my wife some peace!
If you could travel back in time and play with any of the musicians that have influenced you from that era, who would it be and what type of venue would you want to be playing at?
I would not want to perform with a group from the past because of my terrible stage fright, I just can’t do live performing. But I’d love to be an assistant in the studio, witnessing the techniques and gear used and to study the band’s techniques as well. There are several I have in mind throughout history:
- Little Richard recording “Lucille” and/or “The Girl Can’t Help It”
- Faron Young recording “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)” and/or “That’s Where My Baby Feels at Home.”
- Ray Charles recording “Busted” and/or “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
- The Beatles recording “Please Please Me,” “I’ll Get You,” “You Can’t Do That,” “Every Little Thing,” “The Night Before,” or really anything with George Martin.
- Wilson Picket at Stax/Volt doing “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)”
- The Funk Brothers and the Four Tops doing anything at Motown Records 1965-1967
- Buck Owens and His Buckeroos during the taping of the Buck Owens’ Ranch Show.
- ZZ Top recording their first Album
- The Rolling Stones recording “Exile On Main Street.”
- Van Halen recording Van Halen 1
Let’s get into some of your music Jeff. Tell us about some of the pieces you’ve been working on recently.
Ya Come A Dog
The title of this song is an expression my mom used to say in her fake country drawl when we might see a stray dog, a neighbor’s dog, or even one of our dogs. I think she might have heard someone say this long ago and it struck her as funny. Although written in a silly, cheeky way, the song also has a bit of deeper meaning relating to the tough, gruff personalities and lonely, desolate places and the good, beautiful, and meaningful things that can be found in such folks and places if you look for it. I originally wrote this song thinking it would be sort of a Waylon Jennings style song, but it was pointed out to me that what I wrote had more of a trucker rockabilly style like Dave Dudley With that in mind, I put the hammer down and went all in for that style.
At first listen, I suppose it might seem like this song is me revolting against everything new. It’s not. I love the modern conveniences we have today. I love being able to be more connected to family and friends. I love being able to record music on my computer and phone. I love being able to instantly learn new things. What I don’t like is cheap, poorly made, and overpriced products that seem to be everywhere today. I don’t like the way social media and modern marketing techniques thrive on magnifying differences in people instead of similarities, and I don’t like when people don’t view new fads with healthy skepticism. I think I got these viewpoints from my dad, especially the idea of being skeptical. My dad was a man of few words and he had one word for things he did not believe in or have any interest in taking part in. That word was “nope!” I think that word sums up the feelings I’m trying to communicate in this song
If We Disagree
This song is about two people who once were close but are no longer because one of them is so angry all the time about world events. It’s also somewhat of a renunciation of social media as a vehicle for people to share their point of view with the world. I cherish free speech and freedom of expression. I also cherish privacy. I feel the world has gotten away from cherishing privacy. I believe there are certain things people should not feel entitled to know about other people, and I believe there are things that are just tactless to share in public. This song also touches on my feelings about celebrating things that unite us instead of digging the scabs of the wounds that divide us. I’m actually still working on the fade-out for this song because it’s not quite what I want. The song is longer than a lot of my more recent songs so the fade-out is somewhat to offset that, but the long fade-out has an artistic rationale too. I wanted the fade out to say that this problem continues to divide people and the voice that is trying to find connection instead of division seems to be fading. The style of the song is heavily inspired by “Rocks Off” by the Rolling Stones. If you listen, you may even hear some of the same chord progressions in places
I wrote the lyrics to this song after constantly seeing so many polls in some of the music pages I follow. The polls often ask things like “Is this song/band better OR is that song/band better?” My thought is often “I need both depending on my mood.” I suppose I also don’t like the idea of being pigeonholed into any one style, taste, or way of thinking and this song is a reflection on that. I wrote the piano line to the song about 7 to 10 years ago and dusted it off as the foundation of the song. I would like to redo the vocals at some point because I can hear my confidence waning toward the end of the song, but I do like the way I have mixed it. A final note about this song. I’m a big fan of vintage Sesame Street from the 1960s and ‘70s. There were some great songs and animation bits back then and I can totally see a video for this song being done in that style. I’m imagining a hand-drawn cartoon cowboy similar to the Sesame Street “Cowboy X” cartoon holding up the word “AND” with all the things I’m singing about. If there are any animators out there that would be interested in this, please reach out for a great collaboration!
Little Ol’ Kiss
This song was the first one I broke out the lap steel guitar for. I looked up how to tune it and saw a few folks play it on YouTube. I was just determined to figure out how to make a pedal steel sound similar to western swing songs I had been listening to by The Country Side of Harmonica Sam. Again, the sound is not the same as a pedal steel so I added duplicate tracks for octave sounds in some places to try and fake the sound. It’s still not the same, but it did the job. I’m also not proficient enough to do a solo with the lap steel yet, or even fake one like I do with my guitar solos. As such, all solos are via guitar. I kind of feel that although this song is written in a western swing style, the guitar solos, the tempo, and the handclaps give the song a bit more of a contemporary pop sound. I kind of like that about this song. The lyrics of the song were not one of my wife’s favorites. She hated hearing me sing “Hey girl!” over and over as I tried to get the recording correct. However, I wrote this during my furlough and it was about being depressed and fed up, but that something as simple as a kiss, or just creating memories by simply being together often helped to chase away the blues.
Are you working on anything new at the moment that you’d like to mention?
I have a rather long-form project, “Slide to Power On.” The concept was originally inspired by seeing my iPhone state, “Slide to Power Off” and I thought, “Heck no! Let’s slide to “Power On!”. I was teaching myself how to play slide guitar riffs at the time as well as a lap steel guitar. The project is meant to go through the musical genres and decades that I love. The first is a late ’40s early ’50s style (doing my best to sound like an early Big Joe Turner). The next is a mid-’60’s Motown/Stax-Volt style. Most recently, I collaborated with one of my favorite Bandlab Artists, Dash Rendar on a 1970’s rock style version of the song (sort of early Aerosmith or Brownsville Station kinda thing).
After that, I would love to do something from the ’80s like a Beastie Boys style and then maybe go back for a slower acoustic, kind of country feel version of the song.
What do you do in your spare time when not making music?
Oh, are there other choices? Seriously, my first love is spending as much time as possible with my best friend, my wife, Krissy. For decades, I’ve been working full time in the live event production industry and my work often takes me away for extended periods. We truly value the time we do spend together whether that means travel/vacation, cooking dinner together, having silly conversations, or just being in close proximity while she reads and I write music. Krissy and I met as English Majors at CSU Sacramento so her love of reading and my writing are also a very good match. She reads about 150 books a year and there is a lot of knowledge that I pick up vicariously from her. When I write, I often have her proof my work. Krissy also has similar, but also quite different musical taste to mine so having her input in my music is extremely valuable.
We’ve all been pretty hard hit by the pandemic which obviously put paid to live performances. How have you coped and what opportunities have you pursued during these challenging times?
I was actually furloughed for a while last year because of all the shutdowns and lack of event business. During that time I did create a lot of music, but it also gave Krissy and I a chance to get even closer. We’ve always known we are blessed to have each other, but it’s been nice to have this reinforced when times are tough. I have a few songs that are written about Krissy including “Glasses Girl” on my country album, and “You’re a Keeper” on my rock album.
Aside from spending time with Krissy or making music, some things I enjoy include yard work, 1950’s TV Westerns and old TV shows in general, an occasional cigar, grilling outdoors, learning about the foods, music, and style of different cultures, Broadway musicals, BBC programs (especially literary productions or history programs), learning history of any kind, talking with old friends, and meeting and learning more about new friends.
Many thanks Jeff, for your time and for sharing your story with us and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
If you’re interested in hearing more of Jeff’s work, you can follow him on Bandlab here.