October/November 2013

by Sam Browne

On Foreign Soil: Black River Drive

by Sam Browne

On Foreign Soil: Black River Drive

When Anna Schlotjes did a Fresh Talent piece on Auckland band Black River Drive back in NZM’’s Dec/Jan 2011 issue she described them as a band ‘earmarked for success’. 2013 has seen BRD spending months in Nashville, recording a follow up to their locally recorded debut album ‘‘Perfect Flaws’’, working with highly rated U.S. producer Toby Wright (centre above) and generally having the time of their lives. Guitarist and singer Sam Browne (second from right) kindly provided NZM with this delightful account of their Nashville experiences to date.
We’’re a month into recording our second album in Nashville, Tennessee. Willie Nelson’’s bus has just pulled into the parking lot at the studio we’re working at. There are Taylor Swift and Robert Plant plaques on the wall for 1M+ sales of albums recorded here. We’’ve partied at the house of the singer from Live (though he wasn’’t home at the time). We met Ron Jeremy, possibly the most famous porn star in the world, and definitely the hairiest.

Our producer tells us stories about Slayer, Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss and Alice in Chains, all of whom he has made albums with. We’’ve seen some of the greatest musicians alive in the world today, and they’’re playing for tips at bars scattered all across the city. We’’ve been inside Elvis’’ home, Graceland, and visited Stax Records. We’’ve crossed the Mississippi River. We watched Iron Maiden from our studio’’s corporate box at Nashville’’s Arena then met Janick Gers at a Muse gig the next night – he was sitting in the box next to us on his own, eating fried chicken.

But let me start from the start. About seven months ago, after hearing from our friends the Tattletale Saints about a wonderful musical mecca called Nashville, we decided, pretty much on a whim, that WE would go to Nashville. We had read how Jack White, Kings of Leon and the Black Keys were in the vanguard of a flourishing rock scene in what was (and still is) the centre of country music for the entire planet.

We wanted to be immersed in its incredible music scene, to establish contacts in a city where some of the biggest songs are written, to see the many top session guns playing out all over the city, to be taken completely out of our familiar, comfortable existence in Auckland and to be in a place where we could pour everything into our band. So, without a clue how it was going to come together, who we’d work with, or if it was even feasible for us financially, we committed to going to Nashville.

About a week later, my friend Zorran mentioned that the guys from The Rock radio station had been in touch with him to see if he knew of any bands that might want to work with a producer named Toby Wright. I had never heard of Toby, but it turned out he had a simply incredible resume of indisputably the biggest rock and metal bands on the planet. Slayer, Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice in Chains, Metallica, Stone Sour, Korn, Tantric, Primus, Soulfly, Taproot, Sevendust – even producing one of these bands would be impressive, but with over 250 albums to his credit, his credentials are overwhelming. I called the station and found he was visiting Auckland with his Kiwi friend Michelle Bakker. A few Facebook messages later and a meeting with Toby was booked.

We met at a Fort Lane bar and immediately hit it off. Toby had checked out our debut album through our Youtube clips and was very complimentary about the band. Without beating around the bush, he told me he would love to produce us, either in his home city in the US, or in Auckland. Where was he based, I asked?

So, there it was. I’’m really not a big believer in fate, but this was ridiculous. Of course I immediately said, ‘‘Yes’’, and within a week, we’’d booked our flights and the studio. It was happening.

L.A. – August 29
Seven months later we departed Auckland at some ungodly hour, luggage in one hand and a guitar each in the other. We arrived in LA and settled into our classic LA motel – two stories high, all rooms with a view of the pool in the centre. A day or so to adjust to the time difference was what we’’d allowed ourselves before flying on to Nashville, so we changed into our togs and grabbed a position by the pool.

Ron Jeremy showed up later that day, a couple of ridiculously beautiful L.A. women accompanying him. He couldn’’t have been friendlier. He was hanging out with his friends from a band and we made plans to hang out later that night (unfortunately this didn’’t come to fruition as he was too tired later on… maybe a hard day at work?)

Nashville – August 31
After 48 hours in LA we flew on to Nashville. Literally within minutes of arriving, you know it’’s somewhere unlike the rest of the world. There were guitars displayed in glass cases all over the place, top notch Martins and Taylors advertised to probably the highest guitar playing population per capita in the world. Rocking chairs are offered for taking a load off and country music stars welcome ‘y’’all” to Nashville’ over the intercom. I’’m really not joking.

We grab our guitars from the fragile section (which takes a while as there are about 20 different guitars off our flight alone – it seems we’’re not the only musicians to arrive here today) and meet up with our host. Thad is a friend of the Tattletale Saints’’ producer Tim O’’Brien and we’’ve rented his house for the duration of our stay in Nashville.

We head out that night for what will be the first of many forays into downtown Nashville. The place is like a musical Las Vegas – dozens upon dozens of bars offering live bands, Southern-style BBQ and cheap liquor. At a guess there might be 100 bands playing in this part of Nashville alone, every night of the week.

We get into the studio the next day. We’’ve had to hire all of our equipment apart from one guitar each, so there are large red road cases holding our gear – Marshalls, Mesas, a Twin, an AC30, a Bogner, an Ampeg rig for Rusty our bassist, and a beautiful tuned DW kit for drummer Mike.

Black river drive drums nzm151 The studio itself, The Sound Emporium, is gorgeous. One of the great things about Nashville teeming with musicians is that there are dozens of recording studios all over town and hiring them is extremely economical. Ours is just $400 a day for a space, desk and outboard gear that would be comparable with anything in NZ. We’’re in the ‘B’ studio of The Sound Emporium, but it would be an A room anywhere else! The A room has been used by the likes of Taylor Swift and Robert Plant, and is used by Willie Nelson while we’re recording next door! We’’re fine with the B room, then…

And so it begins. The first week is a couple of days of laying down scratch tracks to a click. This means recording the entire band performing the songs together. These recordings will then be used as the foundation upon which the songs are built. Because of this, the form of the songs needs to be pretty much set in stone and Toby makes a lot of quick decisions as he listens to us play through them. He’’s heard our demos prior to our arrival in the US but it’’s only now that we’re actually discussing parts and trying things out.

If our budget had allowed it would have been great to do a week of pre-production to make these decisions, but the band and I are completely happy with his changes – almost without exception they are parts we weren’’t 100% on and the changes make them feel right. Where we are not sure, we record and listen back to multiple versions and pick the one that feels the best upon listening. This works really well and we have our 10 songs roughly recorded.

After two days of that we begin tracking drums, the scratch tracks used by our drummer to give him some vibe and context as to where he is in the song. Unfortunately for him the pressure to perform and physical demands of repeatedly singing the songs (some of which are right in the top of my range) takes its toll and I pretty much sound terrible, so he is forced to listen to some truly painful scratch tracks, on repeat, for the rest of the week.

Inspite of this, he gets through the tracks fairly quickly and the drums are sounding great. The drums are tracked with the front skin removed with one mic close to the beater and another just outside the kick, but apart from that it’s fairly standard stuff.

The room itself is similar in size to Roundhead and sounds great. We intend to track 10 songs but only have six completed including the lyrics, so there’’s four spaces for songs that are either partially incomplete or have no lyrics at all. Lyrics are always the hardest part of songwriting for me, by far, so I tend to procrastinate a lot where they are concerned. Regardless, the band decides our final 10 based on the songs that have the most promise (without vocal parts), and it’’s now on me to write lyrics for the remaining four over the next week or two, before we start tracking vocals.

From drums, we shift to tracking bass, for which we’’ve hired a beautiful Ampeg SVT and 8 x 10 (as you do). Tracks are recorded miking the bass cab plus a clean DI, giving plenty of options for mixing.

Between recording sessions we are trying to make the most of Nashville. We get out whenever we can to check out some live music, and whether it’’s a Saturday night or a Tuesday, you can be assured of seeing a kick ass band almost anywhere you go. You would rightly expect that live bands form a big part of the nightlife in Nashville, but it’s difficult to actually conceive of just how big until you are here. Put it this way, it’s far more likely that a bar will have a live band playing than not. And there are a LOT of bars.

Broadway, the main strip, has about 40, all with music pouring out of them from 11am till 2am every day, and then many of the side streets off Broadway will have 5-to-10 apiece. Music is everywhere. The players are generally somewhere between ‘good’ and basically Steve Vai playing country. Guitarists especially are just ridiculously talented, and with a town that is overloaded with musicians, there’s no shortage of supply for the bars to draw on. With this in mind, most musicians get paid a grand total of around $40 each for a night of playing at the bar, and then rely on tips for the rest.

Thankfully, tipping is a huge part of American hospitality and audiences are receptive to paying great bands. Nowhere is this more apparent than our favourite Nashville venue, Robert’’s Western World. We have been four or five nights to this honky tonk and every time our minds are blown in a whole new way.

The reputation of the place is that it is where the best in town play, and this repeatedly seems to be the case. Guitar and fiddle solos are just ridiculous – note perfect and technically as demanding as anything I’’ve ever heard, but played clean, with no distortion or wah pedals to obscure or assist with the playing. It’’s both fantastic entertainment and a stark reminder that in the grand scheme of guitarists, I pretty much suck. Ah well!