Across the Road
I’ve been thinking about making my own record for quite some time. It just always seemed like I had an excuse not to do it: either being too busy, or too broke or too uninspired. But the thought has always been in my head.
During the recording of Richmond Fontaine’s “Thirteen Cities” in Tucson during January of 2006 I really began to think seriously about the idea. The band was booked into Wavelab Studios for almost a month. Needless to say, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I would ride my bike around Tucson, and formulate ideas in my head about recording my own record. I had a bunch of songs that I have been stockpiling for years. I just needed something to spring me into action. So I gave myself a deadline. I’m the sort of person who needs deadlines. I gave myself one year to prepare for the start of recording.
When I got back to Portland I did some recording with my old friend Kirk. Kirk and I have been friends since we met at college in Michigan. The first real band I was in was with Kirk, along with our friend Skip. Kirk kicked my ass back then to practice my guitar and work out songs with him. He also pushed me to get up onstage and perform in front of an audience. I was very shy in those days.
We started out playing open mic nights as a trio; Kirk and I on guitar, and Skip on cello. I don’t know if the results were that great, but it gave me confidence to get up in front of a crowd of people. It also inspired us to find a drummer and put a band together.
The first time our band, Uncle Fester, played at a club is a night I’ll never forget. We had a great night rocking out our tunes to an enthusiastic crowd. Beautiful women were dancing to our music and smiling at us. The bar was giving us free drinks. And to my total amazement, at the end of the night I was paid $100. I hadn’t even thought about getting paid. What a great bonus. Little did I know it was the most money I would make from playing music for a long time!
After the band was together a year or so, we added a keyboard player. Todd Scherer was a force to be reckoned with. He had long black hair and a long black beard to match. And eyes made of gemstones. Back in those days he was a big fan of Pigpen from the Grateful Dead. That came across in his growling, blues and gospel-influenced music and also in his lifestyle: he was the first guy I knew with a love for bourbon. We were all beer drinkers and pot smokers in those days, but Todd loved his whiskey as well. He was also quite a carouser, always with a big, mischievous smile on his face. There was honesty to Todd like I had never felt in another person. He told you what he thought, and called things the way he saw them. He cut to the core. He had more life in him than anyone I knew.
He also told me that I was the best songwriter he knew. It was always great when he told me that, as I have always been insecure about my songwriting. Todd would cover some of my songs in some of the other bands that he played in. That was always a great feeling, knowing that he was playing my songs.
We had some great times. We’d play at local bars around East Lansing, and at a ton of parties. The band’s repertoire was split up 50/50: half the songs were covers by the likes of The Who, Rolling Stones, Dead, Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, and the other half were songs written by Kirk, Skip, Todd or myself. There was always a good chance at one of our shows that at least one of the band members was psychedelisized. There was always something fun going on back in those days, and Todd always seemed to be in the thick of it. We were in it mostly for the good times, and the joy of playing together.
After a couple of years, the band broke up. Kirk, Skip and I eventually ended up in Portland. Todd stayed in Michigan, where he married April and they bought a house out in the country. He also managed a popular Mexican restaurant in East Lansing, and continued to play music with his friends.
In September of 1995, Todd was killed in a tragic fire at his home in Portland, Michigan. All of his friends were shaken. I flew to his funeral in Indiana, where Kirk, Skip, our old friend Jeff and I performed a version of one of Todd’s favorite songs, “I Know You Rider”, at his burial. Todd was 27 years old when he died.
At Kirk’s home studio, in the spring of 2006, we worked on a version of a song Todd had written, “Across The Road”. Kirk, Skip, and I continue to perform music together every so often, and we always try to include “Across The Road” in the set, as a tribute to our friend, and because it is such a great song.
Kirk had worked up a backing track, and wanted me to add some lead guitar and lead vocals to the track. He also mentioned the idea of having Willy from Richmond Fontaine sing on the track, as Kirk thought that Willy’s voice might be a good match for the song.
Shortly after this session, I started coming up with a plan. What if I focused my solo record around “Across The Road” and other songs that I used to play with Todd back in the old days. I could probably even use this version of “Across The Road” on the record.
I began to amass a group of songs together that I thought would be a fitting tribute to my friend. They included several original songs that we used to play together, and a few songs of mine which he used to cover, (like “Brand New Shotgun”), and also songs that I wrote for Todd after he died.
During this time I also came up with a new arrangement for “Across The Road”. Using the same chorus as Todd had written it, I came up with a new chord sequence for the verse to give it some new energy. I also played around with Kirk’s idea of having Willy sing on the song.
Well, my one year deadline was up, so it was time to record. I knew the perfect place to go. Mike Coykendall had worked with Richmond Fontaine on several records, and had also toured with us. Besides his solo work and his band the Old Joe Clarks, Mike has worked and toured with M. Ward and Fernando. And most importantly, he is a super nice and funny guy, with a great knowledge of music and recording. Plus, I love his studio, which is built into his Victorian style house in southeast Portland. The band records in the living room, while the recording deck is upstairs. I love the feeling of playing in his living room. It makes me feel comfortable, playing in a natural setting like that. That’s where we all started playing music, right? In the living room.
Mike’s idea was to make my record sound as natural as possible, without too many over dubs. “Like ‘The Basement Tapes’” he said. See why I like him so much!
Well, I had a lot of fun making the record. I really focused and gave it my all. It was such an exciting, grueling, and capricious experience.
Sean from Richmond Fontaine played all the drums. Scott Hampton, from Mike’s band, played some amazing guitar. Willy recommended him. I had never heard Scott play before the session, and all I could think after I heard him was ‘Richard Thompson’. Which is as good as it gets in my book. It seemed like Scott knew perfectly what I wanted on the songs. Incredible. My old friend Skip, from Uncle Fester, played some beautiful cello. You’ve heard him on some Richmond Fontaine records, as well as a million other things that he has done. Kirk sang backup vocals, as did the wonderful Michael Jodell. And Willy sang lead vocals on “Across The Road”, alternating verses with me. Mike sang some backups and played some amazing harmonica on the opening song, “Western Wind”. And I played rhythm guitar, bass guitar and sang all the lead vocals.
One of my favorite memories of the sessions was hanging out upstairs, mixing the record with Mike. I was reading the Geoff Emerick book “Here, There, and Everywhere”, which is all about his experiences of working with The Beatles in the studio. I couldn’t think of anything greater that I could be doing. I was reading about my favorite band, as I was working on my first record, getting to hang out with a great guy like Mike. It doesn’t get much better for me.
So now the recording (which is called “Across The Road”, by the way!) and the artwork (which features as the cover shot a photograph taken of me by Dan Eccles in Tucson, of all places) are all wrapped up. The next decision is what the hell am I going to do with it! I really have no desire to go out and try to get on a label and push this record. I have always shied away from the business side of music. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of the record. But the making of it was the highlight for me. I just want people to appreciate it for what it is.
I think people will like this record, so I will sell it at Richmond Fontaine shows and on our website. If there is any label interest, I will surely be happy about that, but I am not going to seek it out.
I’m just happy that I finally got it done, and that it came out way better than I could have imagined. And also that I got to hang out and play music with all the amazing musicians who played on the record.
Now it is time to start thinking about recording the next record. Where’d I put my guitar?