Wednesday, August 05, 2009

John The Revelator

Kurt from the beginning wanted to use the song John The Revelator. Funny, when we were prepping the pilot, long before FX had ordered a season’s worth of episode, I was immersing myself in music that I might think relevant to the show. I was formulating my musical palette (without having scene a single frame of footage... we had yet to begun filming.) Among the artists I’d been listening to was Son House. His version of “Death Letter” has always been a harrowing recording that moves the dead. And I had reacquainted myself with his version of John The Revelator as well. I pulled them both into my Sons Of Anarchy iTunes playlist that I was compiling. (Today, the list is 500 recordings strong.)

Cut to last October.

The finale (“Revelator”) was shot and it was time to put music to picture. Kurt wanted score to underly the entirety of ACT IV. Six plus minutes of music with some specific emotional touch points that I would need to respect. (As watchers of SoA can gather, we don’t ‘score’ the show in a traditional way, looking to incorporate stabs and stings at those moments where the gun goes of or the bikes rev up.) So this was going to be something new for me. How to score a long passage without it sounding like score...

I brought out my Collings D-3 acoustic guitar and tuned it to an open chord. (I believe it was D but it might be G.) And then I watched the picture and started to play. Luckily, the microphone was in the right place as I watched the picture. My intention was to create a tonal sense of what could/would work with picture. It was a sketch at best. Certainly nothing that I anticipated would be usable. Anyway, I did one solid pass of guitar playing up to the point where Kurt said he wanted the song John The Revelator to come in. I sent my musical musings off to Kurt and he dug it. He dug it so much that it was THE version that stuck in the actual episode. (I often find myself trying to improve on my ‘sketches/demos’ and the results are never as good. Lessons #1 right there!)

Now - the main course. Recording John The Revelator. I knew that Curtis Stigers was the voice! No doubt about that. He sings the main title theme so brilliantly, I think of him as a cast member sometimes. I enlisted some of my favorite musicians to meet up at The Pass in LA, Dave Way’s awesome studio. Dave would also engineer. He confided that he was a bit anxious as he’d not recorded drums in his studio in a while. (Most of his work is mixing and producing with a deep passion for garage-type recordings at his awesome home studio. 3 mics on the drums. MAX.)

Brian Macleod, my fave drummer and another perennial in my SoA arsenal, played with my guitar accompaniment. He watched me through the glass as I signaled dynamic changes. I love it when the process is this organic and unrehearsed. (On a musical note, what I love about this show is that it requires a certain spontaneity that you just don’t want to rehearse much. It’s about feeling.)

So Brian is rocking it and Greg Leisz (string master most extrraordinaire) is playing lap steel, punctuating lines with his unique tonal shifts and transitions. Greg is ridiculously good; no mistake why he is as valued as he is by so many artists and producers. (Check him out on for a peak at an amazing career.) Greg finished his lap steel part and then proceeded to mandolin. Fantastic....

Davey Faragher, my favorite bass player in the world, was ready to play but as the song unfolded I just motioned to him to lay out. I was looking for the right entrance. It just felt like he should enter for the final tag. This came when Piney tells Jax that it is “time for a change...” The deep ringing sentiment of that line, what could underscore the profound foreboding of those words? I didn’t want to make a BIG deal out of it musically, but by the same token, it needed some power. It felt like those deep bass notes from Davey were all that was needed.

My friends Gia Ciambotti and Kim Yarborough added this haunting and powerful background vocal line that explodes. I love their sound. Been looking for a section like that for a very long time....

So all that was needed - Curtis’ vocal. As I said, I knew his was the voice to sing this song. Curtis gets Son House. He gets B.B. King too. Frank Sinatra. Shaw Colvin. Van Morrison. He has great taste and he’s got his own sound. (Have I stressed how IMPORTANT that is?) Needless to say, he pretty much killed it (in the best possible way.)

Ed Cherney mixed it. Ed FUCKING Cherney!!! This guy is Hall Of Fame brilliant! By the way, Ed asked, “Who recorded these drums? They sound fantastic.”) Dave Way! 5 microphones. Nice Dave. A Grammy winning engineer paying you the supreme compliment.

I guess the subtext of all this is that I am really good at getting a bunch of incredibly talented people together to make me look like a genius....

No comments: