Interview with Mark & Ralph (re: Reunion CD)

We thought it might be nice to get Ralph & Mark to answer a few questions about their contribution to the Reunion Show CD for the newsletter and it turned out so nice we thought we’d upload it here for all to read.

Mark, I realise you wrote a very nice update mail during the process, when people were still waiting to receive the CD, but that only went out to the people on the special mailing list we set up for the CD release (as opposed to this all-inclusive mailing list) so maybe it’s an idea to start the interview with you both introducing yourselves and giving people a very brief account of your own musical history.

M: The music-bug bit me at the early age of three and I was mesmerised by Elvis Presley. Even though I didn’t know what the lyrics meant, from that age on I started to sing along with every Elvis record I bought. When I was nine years old, my dad bought me my first guitar and arranged for some lessons. Ralph and I wound up studying classical and jazz-type stuff for about six years, go figure… We first hit the stage when I was twelve (we’re talking 1988 here folks), me having various roles as singer, keyboard guy, bass player, drummer and guitarist from then until now.

As a blues-rock trio called “Blueprint” (with me on drums) we actually managed to make a name for ourselves back in the nineties and even picked up a couple of band-contest-like-awards. By the way, if the name “Blueprint” reminds you of a Rory Gallagher record, you’re right.

Blueprint disbanded in 2001. A new creative direction toward pop/rock had left us with an almost non-existent fan base and I am sad to say we played our share of empty clubs. Perhaps the most frustrating thing was: Ralph and I were also two of the founding members of an Elvis-tribute-band, which successfully toured the country and played huge festivals, while our only “serious” band was playing dives with unappreciative audiences. After nearly two more years of struggling, I simply gave up.

This actually gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I had been doing over the past decade and where I was going, or better yet: where I wanted to go. The only thing I really wanted to do was to make “THE ALBUM”. You know, the one where you say “this is it; this is the best I got”. This is when the idea of our current band “Mufkin Tass” was born.

It’s funny but if you don’t have a band to write songs for then your compositions tend to become more diverse. You don’t have to keep the band’s “image” or whatever in mind. Also the way we tend to play our songs is more “out there” than it used to be. Working with ace-session musicians Kenny Aronoff, Jerry Scheff, James Burton and Rusty Young for the “Mufkin Tass” record has taught me that. (Pop) music shouldn’t be just about the lead vocal, the entire accompaniment should be exciting as well. Otherwise you’ll sound like any other band or artist…

In regards to Albatross, we go way back with Barry and the guys. I believe it was at a show in 1993 where Ralph handed Barry one of our demos with a note asking him his professional opinion on our music. Shortly after, we received a kind hand-written letter by Barry in which he praised Ralph’s (slide) guitar playing and our harmony vocals. We kept in touch and eventually our band opened a couple of shows for Albatross in 1994 and 1995 (including one at “de Gouden Leeuw” in Dongen, where the reunion show was held last October). Later that year Ralph joined Albatross’ line-up as a second guitarist for a short while, filled in for Rudy for one gig in France and Barry was our “special guest” for a couple of shows in the late nineties.

R: As a kid I was more into country music and old rock ‘n roll until I picked up the guitar myself at age 14. Then I discovered Rory Gallagher, whose playing has been my main influence ever since. Unlike some of the more famous musical brothers, Mark and I have managed to keep working together for all these years on various musical projects. And it still amazes me the things we can pull off together, like the reunion show CD, or the 2010 European tour we did with James Burton. Somehow if we put our minds to it we can make it work, whether it’s mastering a certain musical style, or songwriting, producing, engineering, or session work. When we started writing the Mufkin Tass album, we also got serious about recording and producing it ourselves, out of necessity really. The record we wanted to make would take a major label budget and we obviously didn’t have that. But today’s technology made it possible for both of us to set up our own Pro Tools-based home studio and take it from there and make it work.

OK, let’s get right into the first time you saw Albatross play live and what your first impression of the band was?

R: The first time I saw them was at a festival in Noorderligt, Tilburg. For me, they blew every other act off the stage. At the time I didn’t know what it was but looking back I realise it was the energy and the chemistry between them. It was just right on, everything clicked. That show made me want to get up there and rock too. So we decided to form a band of our own and here we are, 20+ years later … Also, Albatross was the first “famous” band that was approachable for the young aspiring musicians we were, you know? We could just walk up to them and say, look, here’s what we do, what do you think? Barry gave us our first break by offering advice and a couple of opening slots so it’s nice to return the favour now.

M: Oh yeah. Back in the day, Ralph and I went to see Albatross pretty much every time they were in the vicinity. The Bluesrockfestival in Tegelen 1991, the Messin’ With The Blues-festival in Tilburg 1991 and a double-bill with Dave Hole at the Noorderligt-club in Tilburg 1993 immediately come to mind. I vividly remember those shows being full of energy and attitude; a couple of young punks working really hard to follow in The Master Rory Gallagher’s footsteps.

They say first impression last forever. If this is true, do you think that first impression coloured how you wanted the Reunion Show CD to sound/turn out?

R: Honestly, I didn’t have any idea about how I wanted it to sound, because when I got home after the show and put up the tracks from the show, I was actually quite disappointed at the technical quality of the recording. So, I worried about how to technically get a mix together for Barry, Rudy, Cedric and Bas to listen to and actually enjoy. And that was the initial purpose of the recording. But the rough recordings were really … well … rough: lots of feedback, mics dropping out, distortion, you name it. Then when Mark said “let’s make an actual album out of this”, I worried even more, because I didn’t think I’d be able to create a sound that would be fit for release at all. So it was really a challenge and basically it’s all Mark’s fault 🙂

So the main focus when it came to my job was on what blew me away at that first show way back when: the chemistry and energy and I trusted Mark’s instinct that there was a great record to be found in there. After I’d made the rough mixes from the songs we’d recorded, I didn’t listen to it until Mark had finished editing out the rough stuff and handed me the tracks to mix.

M: Yes, definitely. However at first, the idea was just to record the reunion show for historic purposes. It wasn’t the intention to create a new album. Ralph created a rough mix which I played a lot in my car. What struck me was that the performances were strong and high-spirited. I must have listened to the tracks for a month or two before I started fiddling with the tracks in my home-studio. I played one of the tracks to a friend, whose enthusiasm sort of spurred me on to dive in and create the album that I was hearing “in my head”.

Did you have a clear vision already of what you wanted or did your target change as the project unfolded?

M: Yeah, like I said, I was already hearing the album in my head long before I was able to hear it in mixing. It was just a matter keeping at it until I did hear what I wanted to hear.

R: Well, once I started mixing, I worked on Prisoners Of Conscience for a couple of days, just to find out what was there. I experimented quite a bit, trying to find a sweet spot where there’s balance, clarity, room and loudness. When I did find it then that became the benchmark sound for the album. Also, I felt I needed to mix quickly. Usually, you spend 8 to 10 hours per song. I did every song in less than three hours. It was a way to force myself not to think too much and not worry about the little things too much. So that was the vision, I guess, guerrilla-mixing: get in, get the job done and get out fast!

OK, so obviously you had some ideas as to how you wanted the album to sound. Did you have any specific goals you wanted to reach and if so why were they important for you?

M: The main goal was to make the record sound as “ruthless” as I recall the band being back in the day (there’s that first impression again!). However with very little time to set up the recording at the show and a…well….not so up-to-date mixing board at the venue to tap the microphone-signals from, we had to create some new guidelines along the way, like “take out all of that bad stuff and still be able to maintain a certain level of credibility with what is left”.

R: It’s only after I heard the edited tracks Mark gave me, I really got a clear idea of what I wanted: a raw, loud, in-your-face type sound, with a lot of focus on the lead vocal, which I think is most important, even in guitar-driven blues-rock. I think the singer should grab the attention of the listener and in order to do that, you should be able to clearly hear the vocal and every possible nuance in it. So I actually started every mix with just the lead vocal, get it to sound loud and crisp and then build the rest around that. Usually a mix starts by working on the drums and the bass, then guitars and other stuff and put the lead vocal in last. I worked the other way around.

Was this the first live album you ever recorded?
R: We did do a couple of live albums over the years, but this one was definitely the hardest (and most rewarding). If you plan to do a live album, you need to set up your recording environment at the venue a certain way. You need to be able to hear what’s going on, so I’ll usually bring a couple of monitor speakers, or at least headphones and a mixing desk. Then you’ll be able to hear if there’s something wrong (bad cable or microphone) and fix it. Also, you might want to experiment a bit with the placement of the microphones, in order to get everything to sound right on tape. In other words, you’ve got to be prepared for anything that can go wrong. And in rock ‘n roll, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong in the most horrible way imaginable :-). For this show, we didn’t have all that, because we didn’t plan to record and release it, the only plan was to record it and not interfere with the live show too much. So during the sound-check I hooked up the recorder, checked the levels, hit “record” a couple of times and we got what we got.

One comment we’ve heard over and over from the people who have the CD is how ‘live’ it sounds (should hardly be surprising for a live album, but there you go). Was it your intention to keep the sound as live as possible?
M: There are bands/acts out there that re-record pretty much everything in the studio and present THAT as a “live”-album. I never got that. The “spirit” of a live-recording is what makes a live-recording cool in my book. Both Elvis and Rory excelled at recording live, which – to me – made them the great performers that they are. So YES, there was definitely the desire to make the record sound as “live” as possible. Technical flaws in the source tape required some heavy editing on my part, so there’s always a risk of losing the “live” vibe. We were lucky and fortunately that didn’t happen.

R: Mark’s pretty bad-ass when it comes to editing. It’s not luck. To me, the beauty of live music is interplay – interplay between the musicians and interplay between the musicians and their audience. I don’t have any problems with fixing or adding stuff afterwards, but the main focus should always be on the emotion the music evokes. All the stuff you do afterwards needs to enhance that emotion.

Technically, there’s basically two ways to approach mixing a live performance. One is treating it like you would a studio recording and try to make every instrument sound as clean as it can be. That usually means that the original room sound has to be sacrificed and an artificial “audience” is added afterwards. And that takes out the original “vibe”. Or, and that’s what we did, you just don’t worry about the individual instruments too much and make everything sound cool with everything else, as much as possible. That way, the original vibe is still there. You’d be surprised to find how much of the sound of the album is made up by the two mics that were hanging in the room, above the audience. Quite a lot!

And the other thing is you have to know what needs fixin’ and what doesn’t. For example, at a live show, there’s a lot of stuff that goes wrong, either musically or technically. But in the live situation, it’s just a moment in time. It’s there, and then it’s gone and most of the time the audience doesn’t even notice “the wrong” because of the volume, or the vibe, or whatever. But when it’s recorded for posterity, “the wrong” gets put under a microscope and it becomes an issue. And nowadays, with modern technology, we’re able to fix any “wrong”. You want Britney Spears to actually sing in tune? No problem. Turn the knob and she sings pitch-perfect. But right there, the moment you fix “the wrong”, the emotion gets compromised. So in our view, “the wrongs” need to be there. To us, the beauty of a vocal performance is not so much nailing every note pitch-perfect, it’s singing one note slightly flat, and making up for that in the next note. That’s where the emotion lives. It’s okay to fix things that distract from the original intent or emotion, but we also need to hear the bum notes, because they make a performance complete. There’s no good without the bad.

OK, for the technical buffs, maybe you could go into detail a little bit as to what equipment you used and what was easy/difficult to work on in regard to what you had on ‘tape’.
M: From an editing point of view, the most difficult trick was to get rid of some ear drum rupturing feedbacks on “Fine, Fine, Fine” and “Nadine”. The feedback during the first chorus of “Nadine” wasn’t all that long (just a few seconds I guess), but it took me a couple of hours to get rid of it!

R: Our setup’s all digital. The entire album was edited, mixed and mastered “in the box” as they call it, which means it was all done on the computer, using software which emulates real (vintage) equipment. I actually tore down my “bedroom-studio” a couple of months before we started mixing this, so this was the first project in my new studio, which is actually my living room. For monitoring, I used Beyerdynamic headphones and my old computer speakers. I don’t have room anymore for my trusted JBL nearfield monitors. Most mixes came together in the first try. Only two or three needed more attempts. Looking back on it: Mark’s job was the difficult part, mine was actually quite easy and fun!

Were some tracks easier to work on than others and was this from a technical point-of-view or from a musical point-of-view? For example, did you want the guitar to have a particular sound in one song or the vocal to sound a certain way in another song? What were your reasons for that?
R: Well, I had some difficulties to find a decent balance on “Full Moon”. After two tries, the guitar still seemed to be too loud. Or it sounded that way, anyway. So I took down the guitar a bit, but that sounded awkward, because then it sounded like a turned-down loud guitar. So I ended up doing exactly the opposite: I turned the room mics up a bit and that’s what fixed it. Also “Keep a-Knockin'” was a bit difficult, because one of the overhead mics on the drums kept dropping out. So that was a challenge, because it was actually the mic that was pointed at the ride cymbal that was the one we couldn’t use. But ultimately, it worked.

Like I said, I spent a lot of time finding the right in-your-face vocal sound, but it’s pretty much the same all through the album. Sound-wise the guitar was easy. There were two amps on stage, an old Ampeg Reverbrocket and an old Vox stack (AC50, is it?). Toon de Quant, the house engineer had brought an extra condenser mic for the Ampeg. I ended up using a blend of the SM57 and the condenser on the Ampeg for most of the album, with just a bit of delay. That’s it. For Prisoners Of Conscience I had to switch to the Vox, which had a mellower, more boomy sound, because the Ampeg was making all kinds of strange noises that weren’t guitar sounds at that point – which turned out to be a happy accident because the mellower Vox sound actually suited the song better. Same with the harp, it’s just the amp, with a bit of EQ and compression and slightly more delay than on the guitar. And it’s pretty much the same throughout the album. The only sounds that change from song to song are the drums and bass. Actually, the bass takes up a lot of the sonic spectrum. It not only adds bottom but sometimes it doubles as kind of an extra rhythm guitar too. And it’s pretty loud, too.

The thing is, at a live show, if you’re there, there are two extra dimensions: one is the actual sound pressure, two is you can actually see the performance. And somehow, when mixing a live album, you gotta compensate for the loss of those two dimensions by adding some stuff. Make the bass guitar wide. Make it sound loud, if that’s the intent of the music. We actually achieved the “loud” feel by mixing the bass drum and bass guitar slightly louder than you would on a studio recording. Just to make it sound a little less controlled and more brutal. Because that’s what it’s like in the club, that’s part of the excitement. And I think we managed to reproduce that.

After I did the mixes, I had Mark come in (he was the one with the “fresh ears”) and we did some little touch-ups here and there. After that, there’s the mastering stage, which means putting the songs in running order and decide how long the gaps between the songs are going to be and shape the overall sound of the album. We did that in one (long) evening on the big speakers in my living room. Sorry, neighbours!!!

Ralph, as a guitarist yourself was it strange to be working on guitar parts in songs you more or less knew from a distance prior to these recordings? Mark, did the same apply to you as regards the drum parts (you being a former drummer yourself)?

R: Well, actually no. From a guitarist’s point of view, I’m obviously quite familiar with your playing and you’ve obviously got great tone, which comes from the heart and fingers and not as much from the equipment used as one might think. And it’s nice to hear all those little twists and turns and how they make a great part.

M: I think it helped me more than it hindered me. The more I’m familiar with the things I’m working on, the wider my perspective gets on the material. So in a way it enabled me to listen beyond technical stuff and focus more on the heart of the drums. What is the defining element in Cedric’s playing? Then try to make that element the strongest in the mix. To me, that is way more important than asking “how the heck do I get the guitar to stop bleeding into the bass drum signal?” There’s always a solution to technical problems…

R: That’s also why there’s no point in soloing the bass drum and working on it for hours to get it sounding “right”. It needs to sound right with everything around it, so you gotta look for balance and find the sweet spot. Work with it, not fight it. And enjoy. I mean, listen to the opening chords of “Nadine”…that’s your rock ‘n roll right there, the attitude of the thing. I did a lot of smiling while mixing!

Unfortunately we didn’t have the complete show to work from due to some technical problems that occurred during the first 20/30 minutes of the show. We’d re-arranged some of the songs so it was a real pity we couldn’t use them and I have to admit that at first I was a bit worried that we would be putting a lot of tracks on the Reunion Show CD that had been recorded live before. You guys however seen this in a different light and I’m glad you did (note: Mark, you mentioned that even though they were ‘old’ songs we’d give them a ‘new’ coat). This proved to be one area where it was really important to have someone outside the band working on this. Do you think being musicians yourselves (as well as fans of the music) helped you hear/see things from a wider perspective?
M: Yeah, I would have loved to include the performance of “Someone I Used To Know”, “High-school Queenie” (a personal favourite) and “Feel So Good”, but those were either heavily distorted, or incomplete because the machine switched off, or (in most cases) both. So the songs that are on the record is actually all that was recorded in its entirety. Anyway, the cool thing about live-recordings is that every performance is unique in a way, so to me the “old” tracks sounded “new” as well. If I compare them to the versions that are already out there, I’d say they’ve lost some of their “punk”-edge from when you guys recorded them way back when. But they have gained a lot of maturity and technical skill and that’s what makes them sound “new”. I think being a fan of live-recordings (more than being a musician) made me look at this record from that angle. But also: it’s a reunion show, so the buyer is bound to get some of the old songs again. And as a fan I think I’d feel ripped off if I DIDN’T get to hear some of the old songs…

R: Right on. And it’s a matter of trying to make the best of what’s there, instead of whining about what’s not there.

Another area where it proved useful to have someone outside the band making the decisions was in the track listing for the CD. Again, I have to be honest and say that would not have been the track listing I’d have chosen initially but in hindsight I bow to your superior vision!! lol What made you decide to put each song in the place you did?
M: Well, my approach was “if the show was just these 11 songs, what would that set list look like if I were to compile it?” It’s a reunion show, so you need to start off with a kick-in-the-face-song people already know to get them into “Albatross-mode” immediately. As for the familiar songs, I had the choice between “Fine, Fine, Fine”, “Move It On Over”, “Talk To Your Daughter”, “Full Moon On Main Street”, “Some Kind Of Wonderful” and “Prisoners of Conscience”. “Fine, Fine, Fine” was the obvious choice because it’s fast (unlike “Talk To Your Daughter”) and kicks in right away (unlike “Move It On Over”). Furthermore “Full Moon On Main Street”, “Some Kind Of Wonderful” and “Prisoners of Conscience” were – to me – the closing of the show. “Full Moon On Main Street” is the centrepiece of the set because of the brilliant build up and solos. Close the set with “Some Kind Of Wonderful” (what else is there to close with?) and “Prisoners of Conscience” as an encore to quieten the crowd down a little and let them know “this is the final song, folks”. Even though “Full Moon On Main Street” is a slow blues I wouldn’t consider it a ballad that gives the listener some breathing room intensity-wise. “Honest I Do” and “Talk To Your Daughter” were the obvious choice to do just that, because they’re acoustic tracks (plus: there were no ballads left anyway). So tracks 1, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 were set. I wanted another kick-in-the-face-song to close the set before the “unplugged” part. “Keep A-Knockin’” was just that, because of its ferocious pace. After that it was just a matter of filling the gaps. “Nadine” is an intense rocker that belongs with the opening of the record, but in the same key as “Fine, Fine, Fine”. So having another track between them would be better. I didn’t want to use “Move It On Over” for that, because a familiar song was already used to open the record. Couldn’t use “Long Grey Mare”, because of the drum and bass solos. Weird  to use such a track at the beginning of the track list. Better place that one before “Keep A-Knockin’”. “Caroline” was perfect in the #2 spot, because it’s in a different key and a little slower than “Fine, Fine, Fine” and a bit faster than “Nadine”. Get a different groove with “Move It On Over” in the #4 spot (the only spot left).

Wow, writing this down actually took a lot longer than compiling the set list did!

R: What can I say: Mark did the tracklisting and he’s obviously quite good at it. I think it’s also a good thing for a musician to not be involved in every aspect of the process. For instance, we produced and recorded the Mufkin Tass album ourselves, but people outside the band mixed and mastered it. It’s a way to preserve some freshness of a project and an objective view.

Well thanks again guys for all your help and input. I am so, so glad you made your very generous offer to record the show otherwise this CD could never have happened. What’s next on the horizon as regards your own musical ambitions?
M: Thank you for having the faith in us to give us free range in making the album!

What’s next… Well, because of some personnel changes in “Mufkin Tass”, we’ll be relaunching the album later this year or early 2012. We’ll be videotaping one of our live shows in October, for promotional use only. And hopefully we’ll be touring some more with James Burton in 2012. If we get to do his festival in Shreveport next year, we’ll probably be doing some Mufkin Tass gigs in the States as well. We’ll see…

R: Yes. We had a lot of fun doing this project and we wanna say ‘thank you’ to each and every one of you for your patience and kind words and now it’s off to the next project…whatever that’s gonna be!

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