From the beginning of our conversation, engineer Gabe Roth’s tone is decisive: “To me, Booker T. Jones is an institution, man. As an essential part of the MGs he not only backed on, but also wrote and produced hundreds of great recordings. I find records all the time with his name on them in one way or another.”
That’s no overstatement. From 1962 to 1970, Jones served as one of the essential sidemen who helped shape the sound of soul and R&B. As part of Stax’s integrated house band he played back-up for Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, and Sam & Dave. As bandleader for the MGs, he brought instrumentals to the top of the charts with the iconic cut “Green Onions.”
Now, he’s in the spotlight again with The Road From Memphis, his second critically acclaimed record in three years. But even with his name on the cover, Jones maintains the soul of a sideman. His playing is casual, relaxed, almost conversational, as he cooks through a cover of Gnarls Barkley or Lauryn Hill.
Like Jones, Roth ordinarily wears many hats, producing, engineering, writing, and even playing bass at his own Daptone Records. On Memphis, he was sought out as engineer, and brought his minimalist recording methods to an unlikely environment.
Although there are a few names in the “producer” column on this record (Anti Records’ Andy Kaulkin, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Rob Schnapf) Roth contends that each one knew his role, and from his vantage point, it was a relatively seamless process.
“There’s a lot of styles of production. Producing sometimes means that you’re deep in it, really doing everything, and sometimes it means getting out of the way of the artist. I think Booker T is the kind of guy that doesn’t need a lot of heavy-handed production. Questlove, Andy Kaulkin, those guys, they’d definitely knock some good ideas around and try new things, but Booker has a pretty good sense of what he wants to do.”
While 2009’s GRAMMY–winning Potato Hole played in spots like a hammy rock/funk fusion, Memphis sees a return of Booker T. Jones’ more soulful Stax-era sound.
It’s a sensibility that Roth understands as well as anybody. By his own admission, Daptone owes more to Stax and their independent contemporaries than almost any other force. And he wasn’t the only one to “get it”. In addition to the album’s backing band The Roots, guest performances by seasoned singers like Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Matt Berninger of the National, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket are generally well-delivered and evocative of another age.
Jones calls the Memphis a “360-degree turn and a new beginning,” while to Questlove it’s “a record for the music lover and the hip-hop aficionado.”
The album gives a sense of remembrance and seems like a natural evolution of Jones’ earliest soul sounds, but it stops short of sheer nostalgia. Likewise, Roth’s technical approach is informed by the past and not mired in it. He tends to keep track counts low, preferring a single microphone per sound source, even on instruments like drums and Jones’ Hammond organ, but the effect is never gimmicky. Instead, it emphasizes musicality, demands balanced performances from capable players, and allows each instrument a direct impact that’s uncommon on modern records.
It’s a stripped-down method that matches the music it captures. Roth says “Man, Booker has one of the best senses of discipline when it comes to arrangements. He really knows when to add things and when to take them away.“
The Roots have been at this since ’87, Jones since ’62. Even when they’re cooking through a heavy-hitting passage, the band sounds fresh and effortless.
“As far as takes we probably did two or three per tune, but they were mostly to get the rhythm section worked out, or to work out an arrangement,” says Roth. “Whenever we did another take, it was to try something else out. We never had to do another take because Booker didn’t have the right feel on the organ. I mean that just never happened.”
The sessions took place in the B room of an enormous midtown studio, mostly because of its proximity to the set of the Jimmy Fallon show, where the Roots act as the house band. The studio came equipped with a digital console, something definitely outside of Roth’s comfort zone. The room, normally set up for digital tracking, had to have a late-model tape machine wheeled in to accommodate their session.
For Roth, who’s spent most of his career recording onto a vintage 8-track in a converted two-family house in Bushwick, the multi-million dollar space “wasn’t a fun place to work on a technical level”.
“To be honest, I didn’t really like the studio,” he says. “I enjoyed working on the record because of the people and the music, but I thought the console and the tape machines sounded kind of rotten.
“It was a bit of an uphill battle trying to get decent sounds, but that doesn’t really matter. Musicians are the most important thing, and then your ears. Really, equipment doesn’t really matter that much.
“I really wanted to do it out of Daptone but it just wasn’t convenient. A lot of those guys were trying to squeeze it in after a full day’s work at the Fallon show. Understandably, that extra hour-and-a-half of commuting back and forth to Brooklyn was not really in the cards.”
For those interested in the nuts and bolts of making the record, our conversation below details Roth’s single-mic approach and ears-first attitude.
You said you weren’t a big fan of this big studio’s gear outside of the mic cabinet. Were there any particular mics in there that you were especially happy to see?
You know, I don’t really think that way. I could be making a record with an RCA 77 and think it’s the most amazing sounding mic ever, but if I go to a somebody else’s studio and see they have an RCA 77 it doesn’t make me that excited, because it’s a different microphone. One of them might be the best thing ever, and one of them might lose out to an sm58. So you’ve really got to listen.
The only thing you need is your ears. I save a lot of money thinking that way, by not getting sucked into that stuff too much, you know? [Laughs]
Sure, the overall approach is always more important than any one mic. Can you tell us a little more about that side of things?
When I was first talking to [Anti- Records President] Andy Kaulkin about the project, he wanted something that was very cohesive, where the whole record kind of had a “sound”.
But when we got into the studio every time we got into a song Ahmir would say something like “Oh man! I want the drums to sound like Idris Muhammad playing on a Lou Donaldson record.”
So we’d get a drum sound, and then on the next song he’d come in and say “I want the drums to sound like James Black,” or “Let’s make it sound like it’s a New Orleans record, like it’s Zigaboo or something!” So we’d get a different drum sound and it would go on and on like that. It was pretty amazing…