First, congrats on Blue Rider Songs. It is such a great record. It’s been on repeat at Cream Puff headquarters.
Thanks so much.
So let’s cut to the chase: what is the best J.J. Cale album?
[Laughs] I’d have to say all of them. They’re all good. I haven’t found a bad one yet.
How many records did he release?
There’s a lot. I don’t know, but there’s maybe fifteen or more full length records. Honestly, every time I find one, whether I own it or not, I buy it. It’s getting more and more expensive these days. They used to be in the dollar bins. But I really love all his records. Talk about a life dedicated to his craft. He really did it. And all his records are very consistent. RIP.
I love JJ Cale, but I haven’t gone all that deep. I know the radio songs, the covers by other bands, the hits. But digging deep into his discography is something I haven’t done yet.
He’s definitely a certain flavor, but from the moment I heard it, his music just really stuck with me.
In 2015, you moved from Brooklyn to Ojai, CA to open Echo Magic Studio. What was that move like? Was it difficult to transition from the East Coast back to the West Coast?
It was less difficult than I thought it was going to be. I have some deep family roots in New York. I was actually born there, so I felt at home. Even in the super hectic city life. But when my wife and I had our daughter, we wanted to complicate things a little bit less. At first I was resistant to moving, and I was afraid to make the change. I was worried that I’d miss out on what the city has to offer. But when we made the move, it was pretty clear right away that life was going to be more full and complete without the city. I prefer visiting the city now than having to deal with it every day. So the move was actually a really good one for us.
What made it more full and complete?
It was just letting go of that crazy energy that surrounds you when you live in New York. Knowing that it’s there for you when you go back but you don’t have to take part in it all the time.
I’d never heard of Ojai until I started doing some research for this interview? How did you choose it? What is the town like? And more importantly, how does the setting affect the vibe of your studio?
It’s a really cool little town. It’s about an hour and half north of L.A., so again ,the city energy is just right there. But it’s outside enough that it feels pretty country. There’s horses and mountains. The town is in a valley between two mountain ranges.
My wife’s mom lives in Ojai, so we’ve been visiting here for a quite a while. We’d come here for holidays and always loved the vibe and the feeling here. We always had it in our minds that Ojai was the escape hatch to get out of the city. And we finally pulled the trigger due to the family connection.
And once you have a little one, you need all the help you can get. So I’m sure that was a draw.
Yeah that was a big part of it too. But the first time I came to Ojai is kind of a funny story. It was a pretty magical experience. It was before I met my wife, and Mike Taylor and I came down here from San Francisco (where we were living) to master a record for our band at the time The Court and Spark. We had spent our entire record budget to work with this legendary mastering engineer named Doug Sax. His credits are insane and too long to list. He mastered a lot of the classic Pink Floyd records, including The Wall. Obscured By Clouds is another one, a record we were super obsessed with at the time.
This was the first record that I had engineered, so I was nervous to work with him. But we rolled into Ojai and immediately felt better, like this place was pretty neat. And Doug had escaped here too, getting away from L.A. Doug was so kind and such a gentleman, and he really helped the record. We had an amazing time with him. I had a standing lunch date with him when I moved here, but sadly he passed away about a year ago.
But that was the first time I came here, so Ojai has always had a special place in my heart. It informs all the work I do here, and I’ve got great memories here.
I’ve read that it’s got an artistic flair.
California is an interesting state in that there are a lot of little, vibey towns. And Ojai has a good community that is into interesting stuff. There’s definitely a New Age-y feel here. Lots of yoga and quite a few crystal shops, which actually isn’t that unusual for a small California town. But there’s also a working class side of it, unlike Santa Barbara which is nearby and much wealthier.
There’s a lot of amazing musicians that live here too. Ex-East Coasters. I spend a lot of time with and make a lot of music with Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco. He lives here in town. So does Orpheo McCord, the drummer for Edward Sharpe. They both are frequent visitors to the studio, which is really nice.
In the same year you opened Echo Magic, you also recorded Golden Gunn, a Record
Store Day collaboration with Mike Taylor and Steve Gunn released by Three Lobed Recordings. But the real star of the record was Dickie Silk. I was wondering if you could give us a status update on that guy?
[Laughs] He’s still working on those ringtones in his studio basement. That’s the last I heard.
Any further comment? Do you care to elaborate any more?
[Laughs] I think we should just leave it at that.
Those sessions seem to be the spark that led to Blue Rider Songs. Can you talk about how one led to the other? Was there anything in particular about Golden Gunn that pushed you to make your first solo record?
It had a lot to do with it, honestly. Working on that record inspired me. For Golden Gunn, I didn’t really have songs. They were just genre exercises and jams that I’d come up with. But with the help of Steve and Mike, I was able to turn them into songs. And seeing them work with my music really inspired me to write more songs. So I started writing more lyrics. It’s something I hadn’t really done since I was in high school punk bands, music that’s not just instrumental. So I did it. And Blue Rider Songs is my first crack at doing that. I learned a lot along the way.
And I’m jazzed to be working on a new record following that experience.
Oh nice. Can you share any of the details?
I don’t work at the fastest pace, because I’m usually busy doing other stuff. But I horde as much time as I can. I’m really happy with the songs as they’re coming along.
I saw on Instagram that William Tyler visited you in the studio. Is that just coincidental or is he helping you out with the record.
He is helping and I got him to play on some stuff. But he was here to do another project with Mikael Jorgensen. So hopefully that will all see the light of day one day. But that was really awesome. We’ve been operating under an old school mentality of just letting the tape roll, but it’s turning out to be some great stuff. I love it when people come to Ojai. It’s a lot of fun.
Blue Rider Songs is one of several recent records about the road. Other current albums - by Steve Gunn, William Tyler, and Hiss Golden Messenger – share themes about life on the road. Is that a coincidence or is it because you all are spending more time on tour? Musicians have always had to make part of their living on the road, but do you think the requirements today are more demanding than they were for your predecessors?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence. We just spend a lot of time on the road right now. For some us, it’s become the way we’re living. Some people have given up having a home base for a while. For me it’s a little different, but I still have been spending a lot of time on the road. There’s a lot of evocative stuff on the road that is fodder to write about. Especially right now, the way the country is. A lot of it is reminiscent of past times. Blue Highways is a book about that, about road a trip, and it informs a lot of my record. You write what your life is about, and the road is what a lot of our lives have been about for the past, say, ten years.
As for your other question, I think it’s kind of like what’s going on in the rest of the country. There’s a vanishing middle class, and it’s the same for music. There’s the top 1% who make most of the money, and then there’s the bands that are trying to make ends meet. It’s pretty rare to have a band that’s able to create music under their own timeline and musical freedom. So they jump on a pretty insane touring cycle. That’s a good way to keep it going. But it also prevents some of the creativity that people want from bands. I think it’s hard to write while you’re on the road, but you have to be out there. So I give props to anyone who can figure out how to do it all at once.
That’s a common theme I see with musicians and bands that I follow. It just seems like a very hard way to make a living and pursue your passion and your craft. But at the same time, it seems like the people who’ve devoted their life to it, they don’t really have a choice. It’s their calling. It’s a cosmic motivation.
Don’t get me wrong. We say this all the time: we feel lucky to be able to wake up every morning and play music. Because it’s so powerful and so important. At the same time, it doesn’t come free and there’s a lot of sacrifice.
At times, life on the road can be pretty special. What kind of emotions does the hash tag #Hisstour conjure for you? It seems that the tour in late 2016 was a truly epic experience, shared by a band that resembles a family. Do you have any favorite memories or defining moments from it?
We all try to keep it like a family and we get along great. We’ve been having a great time out on the road. It was a really powerful and emotional tour. For one thing, it took place during this election cycle. And soon as the election happened, the shows turned from being celebratory to being a little more intense. In a good way. We asked ourselves, “What do we do now?” And the answer is “Keep playing music.” That’s our purpose. Maybe it’s to take people’s mind of the situation. Maybe it’s to empower people.
But that’s our motivation, and it rang true in terms of the quality of the shows. You know, touring is a lot of waiting around and waiting for those two hours when you’re on stage. And during this tour, the band was motivated to manage the waiting so that we could get to that two hours and put everything out there on the line. It’s been a happy, amazing time, but it’s been intense in a good way. It feels like there’s been a lot of purpose behind this tour. It’s also great because the fans and the crowd have been so supportive. That’s not always the case on tour, so we’re feeling lucky and happy to keep on cruising.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience at Cat’s Cradle this past fall for the Hiss homecoming show. When Mike introduced you to the audience, he said something to the tune of “Scott and I have been together for all of life’s major experiences.” What did he mean by that?
We’ve been playing music together since we were teenagers. We’re old now. [Laughs.] We’re getting up there. But we’ve been privy to all major relationships. Births of children. Major world events. We witnessed 9/11 together from a rooftop in New York when we were in town for a show that night. We witnesses Trump’s election from a hotel room in Detroit. All these things. All this growing up. Through the lens of music. It’s all very significant, but I’m probably too close to it to even say how. But hopefully it comes out in the music that we play.
What does Mike bring to the partnership that makes you better?
I really look up to him as a songwriter. As someone who has really curated and worked really hard to improve his craft. I find that inspiring in my own work. It’s different in some ways from him, but it’s inspiring to see someone work so hard on his art.
You’re about to embark on the second leg of the Hiss tour in support of Heart Like a Levee. Will y’all be making any changes to the set list or band lineup? How will this leg compare to the last one?
We’ll probably change the set a little bit, but the band’s the same. It’s a super strong band and I feel like we can accomplish anything with this lineup. But we always like to mix it up a little bit, and I’m sure we’ll some new songs from Levee and whatever else we think of a long the way.
Any JJ Cale songs?
[Laughs.] Maybe. We’ve done some before. We’ll probably do a fun cover. I think we’ll mix it up for the Pinhook shows, since there’s two shows in one night. We don’t want to play the same set twice. We’ve been playing more songs per night than we ever have. It’s great. It’s really fun to play a lot more songs.
The other difference on this tour is that we’re playing some smaller towns. I’m really excited about that. As fun as it is to play New York and L.A., it’s more fun to play the places that are little more out of the way. I think we all enjoy it a little more.
But it will be the same lineup. Darren Jessee, Ryan Gustafson. Phil Cook. What about Tift Merritt?
No unfortunately. She can’t make it this time. She’s got her own tour going.
For the last question, I thought I’d mix it up a little. You have also worked extensively in film. Coincidentally, the Oscar nominations were just announced today, so I thought I’d end the interview with a movie question. What is the best one you’ve seen in the past year? Do you have a favorite among the ones getting the buzz and award nominations.
Honestly, I haven’t seen a lot of those movies yet. But I have worked on several films that are more of the independent varierty. Two of them just premiered at Sundance, so maybe I can just plug those instead?
The first is a film by Dustin Defa called Person to Person. I edited the sound effects for that one. It’s a really great movie. And I also sound designed and mixed a really amazing science fiction short film called Toru. Directed by Jonathan Minard and Scott Rashap. Go check those movies out.