June 12, 2008 | Author: Greg Phillips
The phrase Half Seas Over has origins in the 1500s. Its definition is ambiguous, sometimes a description of being ‘halfway across the sea’ or ‘halfway through a matter’, but in general its connotations are of a state of drunkeness. Internationally acclaimed Australian blues/roots performer Jeff Lang added that it can also be construed as ‘barely keeping it together’. Whatever the real definition, Lang thought it was evocative enough to be the title of his new album. It also suited the flavour of many of the tracks he had written for this project. While the recording features Lang’s trademark virtuostic fretted instrument skills, it also showcases a real story telling element highlighted by the inclusion of a couple of traditional folk songs. Half Seas Over is coloured by an amazing array of instruments and character-enhancing gear. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips recently spoke to Jeff Lang about the recording of the album.
You’ve included a couple of traditional folk songs on the album. Tell me about those.
‘My Mother Always Talked to Me’ was from a Revenant records collection put together by John Fahey of early pre-war records. It was a banjo player doing it on that, but just like ‘The House Carpenter’, the story grabbed me. I started playing it at shows then those two songs, because I had been playing them live, I felt like they just sat well with these bunch of new songs. In fact, ‘The House Carpenter’, because I have been playing it so long and is a known quantity, a very old song, the other songs I have written kind of clump and gravitate to that song.
Do you think the art of storytelling in songs is disappearing?
Not in the sort of records I listen to. Maybe in the mainstream things are moving in different ways, but I don’t honestly spend any time worrying about it. The mainstream is not going to change. There will always be a huge amount of songs that are extremely popular for a short amount of time. People always hark back and say remember when The Beatles were on top of the charts, but who was in positions two to ten? Pat Boone and things like that. Maybe it’s harder to find songs.Well it is and it isn’t harder actually. It’s easier to find a lot of music but wading through this incredible glut of stuff to find what’s going to be there for you, it takes some diligence and time. If you’re interested, there is some great music being made, you just have to find it.
Folk music is a bit of a dirty word these days, how would you describe it?
I have my own thoughts of what construes folk music to me. I guess it is traditional music, linked to a tradition. I guess in the same way the term roots music gets corrupted when it becomes a known thing. That happened to folk music a long time ago and it ends up getting diluted to the point where people think of folky as ‘nice’ music. Whereas the stuff I listen to, the Harry Smith anthology, people like Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb… it’s not nice music. It’s quite scary music, very intense, dark, compelling and supernatural. That’s the stuff I think of when you say folk music. I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily a folkie record because that has a connotation to it that wouldn’t fit.
Let’s talk about the track ‘Copper Mine’. You say on the CD on the sleeve you use a funny fretless nylon string Canadian instrument?
It’s called a Glissentar. It’s like a hybrid between a guitar’s scaling and an oud, the egyptian lute. So its fretless. It has nylon strings in unison pairs in octaves like a 12 string, then the bass string is just on its own. It’s designed to be a hybrid between those two things. It has a longer neck. An oud has a short neck. Short neck with bowl shaped body. It’s a comfortable instrument to play. It’s got a unique sound not really the same as an oud, it has different body, depth and projection. This thing is a bastardised instrument so a bastardised player can feel at home on it!
With an instrument like that, do you need to mic it differently when recording?
That one does need to. It’s got a hollow body but it is shallow. It’s got a pick up in the bridge but I also stuck a contact mic inside on the top. I did mic it up like I did all the guitars on the album but I also ran the contact mic through a big tube DI and also the pick up was driving a clean speaker in another room with a mic on that, just to get a bit more depth and richness. If you just record the direct sound, it is a little bit too up front and dry. So there was a certain approach to get as much as possible out of that instrument. It sounds really cool but if you just recorded the pick up, it would sound a bit disappointing. I’ve used it live and know what works live. A lot of it with that instrument is assigning certain parts of the sound to EQ, having the microphone flat and wide open and using the contact microphone to bring out the mid range and using the bridge pick up to give it some low end.
On the song ‘Five Letters’, you play a clarinet. How much clarinet experience have you had?
That was my first instrument. I just wanted to have some kind of droning bed. I like making that type of thing out of a instrument because it fills the same place in a sound as perhaps a pad on a keyboard would do, but building it up one part at a time as I did with the clarinet. Then the timbre of the instrument gives it a different flavour. It was fun to pull that out and use it.
We were talking about the traditional songs before, tell me about the loops you used on ‘The House Carpenter’.
That was something I started experimenting with live. I played that song a few times, just playing and singing it. The way I run the sound live is that I like to get a big, larger than life acoustic sound. Like what you can get in the studio where you listen to the close mic stereo imaging acoustic guitar, especially with a solo record. It’s almost like you have been shrunken and put inside the instrument. It feels real but ‘larger’ than real. So I wanted to go for that kind of sound and then mess with that, almost running that guitar through an electric guitar amp, so it’s distorted. I have the looping thing set up just on the distorted part of it. So whatever you record, it’s only what you send to the amplifier that you can loop. So I started experimenting around making this rippling thing to run through it, just to see if it sounded any good. Those sort of things can be an on-stage, on-the-fly experiment. See if it works, if it doesn’t, do something different next time or drop that idea, and this seemed to work. That sort of things doesn’t necessarily need to be there to make the song work, but if you use it right, that type of effect can be very evocative.
Do you see yourself as a gear nut? Do you often seek out new bits ad pieces of gear?
I’m always thinking about sound, especially with the gigs and even with recording. You become a bit of a student of records and how they are made … why certain sounds get to you and others irritate you. There’s a certain kind of sound with an acoustic guitar that is very trebly, high endy, that I really don’t like. In the studio I use ribbon mics on guitars and kind of roll off a bit of that top end naturally, so it’s not even there when you’ve recorded it. It’s better to record things right in the first place I think.
Another song … ‘Moon Coin’. You use a 12 string on that?
Yeah, that’s one of the guitars made by David Churchill from Ballarat. I met him through a buddy of mine, Dom who was playing his guitar at a trade show at Prahran Town Hall. First thing I thought was, wow, listen to Dom play guitar. He sounds fantastic. Then I thought that guitar sounds really, really good. Dom can make anything sound good. So I had a play of this guitar and it just sounded fantastic. It was the first time I played a guitar and thought to myself, this is the sound I want a guitar to make in my hands. Before, you’d just make it work. You can make anything work, but this was an inspiring sound and it was the first time I’d had that. Dave has made guitars for me since then . It’s a great instrument. I didn’t even re-string it before we did that song. Again it can give too much high end if you restring just before recording. I pulled it out of its case, hadn’t restrung for about two years and thought .. oh yeah it’s slightly dead but it sounds good.
‘Ghost on My Mind’ has a great guitar solo sound on it, is that a Strat?
It’s not a Strat. It’s a Starcaster. Fender’s kind of white elephant. They didn’t sell very many of them. It was like their idea of a 335. Looks like a 335 that has melted or something.
It reminds me of a Stephen Stills guitar sound.
I was thinking Roy Buchanan. He was someone I really liked a lot when I was growing up. My dad had some of his records. He was a Telecaster player. It’s just a Fender Deluxe Reverb turned up full. I remember Phil Manning telling me … Phil toured with Roy Buchanan. He said Roy had a Fender Vibroverb with two tens and would just turn everything up full. So that what I did with that track. Good on ya Roy!
On ‘Night Draws In’ you’re using an acoustic guitar but what have you done to it?
That’s that trip where it is miked up but also running through an amplifier as well. It’s something I have been doing for a long time with the acoustic guitar to get both sides out of it. With that song I had the amp going the whole time with a little tremolo. It’s a little Kalamazoo acoustic guitar with a DeArmond pick up. I was running the DeArmond pick up through tremolo and through a Fender amp and then for the solo, I kicked on a Z Vex Fuzz factory, which is this over the top outrageous effect that this guy makes in Minneapolis. It can sound like your battery is dying or your amp is about to blow up.
You give Grant Cummerford a co-credit on the album …
We’ve been doing a lot of gigs in that two piece format. When I wrote these songs they seemed to go well with something we had been doing live for some time. There is virtually just the two of us on the whole thing. It feels like it is a duo record really.
How far back do you go with Grant?
He’s played on a lot of my records. First one was Cedar Grove back in 1998 but I’d known him for a while before that. We’d cross paths at shows and hook up for a meal on the road. Grant is a very intuitive player. He gets a great sound. Doesn’t matter if he is playing electric bass or upright or that funny fretless acoustic bass he used at the Point Nepean festival where you saw us play. It’s an Echo, an italian thing. It’s a great instrument, almost sounds like an upright bass. Grant always gets a great tone, rich and round. But with us, it’s not jazz music but it’s almost like having a jazz approach where you can improvise and converse in the song. So it’s like the songs becomes a topic for conversation. Which is not a new idea for anyone who plays jazz because that is what they do, but that’s the approach which is important to me, so that you’re not doing exactly the same thing night to night. It works better for some songs than others. Like ‘Five letters’ is not really an improvisation vehicle as much whereas ‘Copper Mine’, you can drift along between lines and verses.
The set up with just Grant and yourself… is that something you want to carry on for a long time?
Well we can always do that. Just like playing solo, I can always do that. I like playing with other musicians to get their input and have that freshness, sponteneity and someone else’s ideas. Rather than me sit down and say ‘Grant, the song goes like this and you play this bass line’, the right player is going to come up with something that is more interesting than anything I could have told them to do. It will also have that surprise factor where all of a sudden the song has been elevated to a different area by someone else’s input. So that’s a very important thing for me to have. Otherwise you may as well just play solo if it’s going to be all your ideas and using a couple of guys as puppets. It just doesn’t sound like much fun.
We’ve mentioned David Churchill. You also use instruments by a couple of other local luthiers, Greg Beeton and Tim Kill.
The instrumental on the album ‘Vaults of Lattanzio’ was recorded at my house on an instrument that Tim made. It’s like a Weisenbaum but with a dobro cone in it, a hybrid instrument that he loaned me for a little while. That piece was just me sitting around playing. I thought it sounded interesting so I got some mics together and recorded it and used it as it was. Greg Beeton is a great guitar maker too. I used his tri-cone on ‘The Savannah Way’. It’s great to have a few different sounding guitars around just to give each song a textural difference.
Jeff Lang began a national tour in May which winds up at the end of June. The album ‘Half Seas Over’ is available now