Saturday May 13, 2023
MEPH INVADES 'BAMA
Records Landmark Fourth Album at Legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Sessions Filmed for Feature Documentary Expected in 2024
SHEFFIELD, Alabama — There was excitement palpable in the stubby, yellow Church Bus as Mephiskapheles rolled through scenic Tennessee, toward the rural enclave of Sheffield, Alabama and the legendary studio located there, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The band had been on tour for almost a week, and had been peppering its live sets with up to five new songs a night, in anticipation of recording them at the storied studio. (It always helps to play a song "live" as much as possible before recording it.) The band was aiming to capture 14 songs, at least the horns and rhythm section parts. Although Andre planned to sing along as the band played live in the studio, it was not assumed that his parts would be kept. A separate vocal session would have to be booked, after the initial sessions; final vocals would require more time than the three days the band had available in the middle of its tour.
After checking into a large and comfortable AirBnB house in Sheffield, the members of Mephiskapheles made sure to coordinate their impending arrival at the studio with the two-man, documentary camera crew of Anthony Q. Artis and Eric Van't Zelfden.
Having agreed to lead the Mephiskapheles documentary project, just days before the tour started, Artis quickly enlisted Van't Zelfden as his lieutenant and by the end of the three-day shoot in Alabama had promoted him to full co-director of the documentary. Van't Zelfden, a longtime East Coast ska fan originally from Wayne, New Jersey, had been following Mephiskapheles since the 1990s and was active as a guitar player himself. He had understanding and awareness of the musical and social milieux from which the band emerged. Given that his credentials as a videographer and still photographer were second to none, that made Van't Zelfden, in Artis's words, "The perfect knowledgeable partner to help me bring this documentary project and vision to fruition."
But while Artis's and Vant Zelfden's arrival by plane from New Jersey, and transportation to the semi-rural studio site, with all their camera gear, had gone like clockwork, the band's arrival wasn't quite as smooth. When the Church Bus finally got to the studio, after driving several hours from a gig in Kentucky, it missed the turn-off and so the band's arrival had to be repeated for the cameras!
Adam X on guitar, ready to record. Photo by Greg Robinson.
Andre A. Worrell checking a vocal level at Muscle Shoals. Photo by G.R.
Let's take a moment to recall what Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was, and is. As a go-to production studio for Atlantic Records, among others, in the 1970s and 1980s, Muscle Shoals was the source of some of the greatest hit records of all time. Practically any big rock act you could think of wanted to record there, and many did, from Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Rolling Stones, to Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Bob Seger. Not to mention the studio's elite clientele from the world of rhythm-and-blues, including Millie Jackson, The Staple Singers and even Jamaican ska and reggae great Jimmy Cliff, who recorded part of the "Harder They Come" soundtrack at Muscle Shoals. The studio was founded in 1969 by the members of its house band, The Swampers, partly in rebellion against their former employer, FAME Studios.
Although sometimes overshadowed by the more famous L.A. Wrecking Crew or even Booker T and the MGs (also known as the Stax Rhythm Section), if you go strictly by the charts, then the Swampers' sound is responsible for a huge number of hits. Many of those hits were quite sophisticated, too, owing to the genius of the Swampers' less-is-more approach.
The studio eventually fell into disuse and disrepair, having become outmoded in its day by more sophisticated recording rooms. But the humble music space, with the ambiance you can't put a price on, was brought back online in the 2010s, helped by a generous donation from the rap music producer Dr. Dre. Amazingly, the occupants of the space during the years it wasn't a studio made no changes to the interior, so the control room and recording booths were intact, and they even hung onto all the funky, late-1960s vinyl-upholstered furniture. Even more incredible: the original baby grand piano heard on so many hit records was found and returned to the space. The studio received its first Grammy in many years, in 2022, for Country Song of the Year, for the song "Cold" by Chris Stapleton. The studio operates as a museum for tourists during the day, which is why Meph's sessions were scheduled for three straight nights, starting at 5pm and going until the wee hours.
When Mephiskapheles arrived, and all the members had clambered out of the yellow bus and done the requisite photo op in front of the building with the documentary crew, the band was welcomed into the studio sanctum itself by engineer Chase Brandon. After looking around at the museum photos and historic instruments, getting a hint of the spirit of the place, most of the band headed down to the basement lounge for a reception banquet complete with deli trays, chicken wings and prosecco, put on by friends and family of the band. There was even a big birthday cake for Andre, whose birthday was the following day, April 26th.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the drum booth, studio engineer Chase and Mephiskapheles drummer Wayne Dunton were wrangling drums and microphones, and when they got those all set up, they came down to the basement to enjoy the party too. All in all, having a mini-fiesta, right off the bat, while things were getting set up, was a great way to start off the sessions. It gave the band and studio personnel a chance to mingle and relax before the pressure of that red recording light!
YOU WON'T GO TO HELL,
WE GUARANTEE IT!
Eric Molina, Greg LaPine and Greg Robinson in the horn booth at Muscle Shoals. Photo by Greg Robinson.
Mephiskapheles posed for a band photo on the iconic Old Railroad Bridge. Photo by Eric Van't Zelfden.
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Filmmaker Anthony Q. Artis preparing to shoot Meph's performance on April 20 in NYC. Photo by G.R.
Mephiskapheles at Muscle Shoals: In the Booth, Pt. 1
Engineer Chase Brandon (left) plays back a take for the saxophonists while Anthony Artis films. Photo by G.R.
Mephiskapheles and engineer Chase Brandon at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, April 27, 2023. Photo by E.V.Z.
SHEFFIELD, Alabama — The members of Mephiskapheles entered the studio on April 25th with a mission. After keeping it a secret for more than a month that they were booked into the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, finally the cat could be let out of the bag.
Studio engineer Chase Brandon brought exactly the right attitude to the sessions. Almost as soon as the band arrived, he pulled Greg Robinson aside for a discussion of microphones and recording strategy.
"I listened to some of the earlier stuff," he began. "I heard the heavy guitars and it made me think about putting a whole bunch of mics on the drums," he began, "but then I had another idea, and I think it's a better idea, so let me see what you think."
"I was in my car, listening to your current demos, and I had this thought," Chase continued. "What if, instead of using every microphone in the place and recording you guys like you were Deep Purple or Weather Report or somebody, what if I recorded you guys the same way we used to record the Swampers in here — only, this time, when people listen back to the record, it won't be the Swampers playing on the track, it'll be you guys, playing your new music!"
Following a brief consultation between Chase, Greg, Wayne Dunton, Mike Bitz and Andre Worrell, all agreed that it made sense to record the band using a method consistent with tradition and the sound that made the studio famous. After all, Mephiskapheles is functionally a very traditional band. Although its members strive to make music that pushes the tradition forward rather than just paying tribute to what came before, Mephiskapheles' music is designed to be played live, in real time, by real musicians schooled in traditional music, upholding traditional musical values (for the most part). There are no programmed beats or sample triggers involved. The closest Meph has come to modern technology infiltrating its music was having a hip-hop DJ scratching on the 1997 song "Break Your Ankle Punk." The band's music, historically, has been most successfully recorded when using old-school, live-recording techniques, considered by many to be outdated.
Fans will be interested to note that all the Mephiskapheles albums and EPs except for Might-Ay White-Ay were recorded essentially live. That is to say, with the entire band playing at once. That doesn't mean every song was recorded note-perfect in the first take. But recording this way — with the drums in one booth, the horns in a second booth, and the vocalist in a third booth, the guitar amp isolated in a soundproof closet and the bass going direct into the board (in this case, a vintage 16-channel API, made in Farmingdale, Long Island, and once owned by Chet Atkins) — allows the whole band to record at one time. Using this method, any tracks that don't come out well can be treated as "scratch tracks" and edited or redone. As long as the rhythm section is happy with their take, then you have something you can work with.
To Be Continued in the next issue....
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