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John Paul Jones Discusses Project With Uncle Earl


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John Paul Jones interview regarding Uncle Earl

Can you enlighten us as to your awakening to American bluegrass and stringband music? Has it always been a passion of yours?

I had bought a mandolin in Evansville, Indiana, whilst touring with Led Zeppelin in 1970. We were listening a lot to an English folk band called Fairport Convention that played mainly traditional music updated with rock arrangements, but also had fiddle and mandolin. I also liked the idea of traveling around with a small acoustic instrument! I met some friends in New York who gave me a Dillards album Backporch Bluegrass and was much taken by the energy and drive of the music. The harmonies, too, reminded me of all the Everly Brothers records I used to sing along to in my teenage years. Latterly I came across Alison Krauss and Union Station on British radio, which re-awakened my interest. I then caught concerts by Del McCoury, Nickel Creek, Tim O'Brien, and Gillian Welch and gradually sought out more and more traditional music. I have now just started on old-time fiddle!

How and where did you first come to meet the members of Uncle Earl?

I decided to go to a bluegrass festival in 2004 after producing a rock band and chose Merlefest. I was going with my wife into the green room just before the midnight jam, and peering around the door we saw three fiddlers sitting alone in a circle playing the most mesmerizing old-time music I had ever heard. They turned out to be Darol Anger, Bruce Molsky, and Rayna Gellert. Rayna told me later that she was showing them a North Carolina fiddle tune. I also met up with Béla Fleck, we had been on the same show in Italy a few years before, and he introduced me to Abby. Later that summer I toured in a band called "The Mutual Admiration Society," which was basically Nickel Creek, bass and drums, with Glen Phillips singing! Just before the tour we went up to Rockygrass in Lyons, Colorado, and there I met the rest of the G'Earls. I even ended up playing mandolin with them and Chris Thile at a dance club. After that I was jamming with Rayna and Mark Schatz learning the first tunes of my (new) old-time repertoire.

What was your initial reaction when asked to produce their new album?

Surprise! I had just decided to look at Rayna's website out of the blue, and the next day I bought Uncle Earl's She Waits for Night. Two days later I received an email from Rayna asking if I would produce their next album!

What did you hear in their first album that you wanted to them to expand upon or develop further?

I just loved the mix of traditional and original material and really wanted to do more of the same whilst keeping the balance right.

Tell us about the pre-production process...it sounds like you worked closely with the band before you even set foot in the studio...

With every album I have produced regardless of style or genre I always like to have at least 80 percent of the material in good shape before entering the studio – studios can be very expensive places to write songs! I like to have song routines and arrangements pretty well worked out in pre-production. It also gives us a good chance to get to know each other and to find out what we all want from the record. We spent about a week in pre-production staying at Béla Fleck's house, which he was kind enough to loan to us.

Once in the studio, how did you keep the ramshackle energy and drive of their music while still delivering focused, sharpley-honed performances?

Experience! Having been a studio musician, arranger and a band member myself I have extensive knowledge of what it is like to perform in a recording studio and it's not the most conducive place for music making. I try and make the band comfortable. We all stay at or near the studio, have very few visitors, and just live and breathe the record.

Did you introduce any recording or production techniques that were new to the band? How did they react to them?

We had an extraordinary recording engineer in Dave Sinko, who brought all sorts of great mics and pre-amps, plus a wealth of experience in recording acoustic music. The band used head-phones but sat in a circle to record, so they could all see and hear each other pretty well and maintain good sonic separation. I think they might have been expecting to have to sit in isolation booths so perhaps I introduced a mixture of new and old techniques!

Any pleasant surprises in the studio? The kind of happy accidents that change the course of a song?

They were playing through "The Last Goodbye" in the studio control room and I was thinking that it needed a percussion element. We had decided that any guests on the album should be female (apart from me!) and I remembered that Gillian Welch played drums, so we asked her and she came along and recorded the track live with all of the band (no overdub). "Streak o' Lean Streak o' Fat" was an old fiddle tune they wanted to do, and we were wondering how to approach it, as they had an early recording which had a running commentary going right over it. We decided that Abby should do the voice-over, but in Chinese! It's also the first time I've played old-time piano.

Overall, how did you find the experience, from beginning to end?

It was definitely one of the most enjoyable productions that I have ever been involved with, we pretty much laughed for a month. The band brought tremendous grace, humor, and musicianship to the project not to mention a lot of hard work. Their focus and energy were everything that I could have wished for, and for myself I'm very proud of this record and my association with Uncle Earl.

How does recording old-tyme music differ from the other styles of music you've been associated with? Any similarities?

Making a record of any style of music is all about performance at the time of recording. It requires dedication, commitment, discipline, patience, all in equal measures, but it has to be enjoyable and fun otherwise the music doesn't breathe. This record just sings out aloud.


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