by W. Kim Heron
We headed off to see a big-deal record producer on Sunday, even though it was Don Was, who comes across as the antithesis of a big-deal, big-ego anything. There he was, sitting cross-legged on the studio floor, next to one band after another. He has an off-white Panama hat on his head, shoulder-length dreadlocks spilling out. He has his headphone tucked up under his chin, giving an appearance not unlike a doctor with a stethoscope. And his head keeps bouncing to the beat, a smile constantly on his face. And he’s literally looking up at the musicians, rather than the other way around.
What brought Don – whose production credits include the Stones, Dylan and Bonnie Raitt – back to Detroit is mydamnchannel.com. The site is a platform for such comedians as Harry Shearer and Andy Milonakis, among others, with Don as the site’s musical pioneer, hosting what he calls the Wasmopolitan Cavalcade of Recorded Music on the Don Was Channel. So far, that means things like an interview with Ozzy Osbourne and a handful of live performance musical videos, including former Detroit R&B singer Sweet Pea Atkinson and folk singer Jill Sobule. (The performances are posted for both online listening and downloading.)
So, this trip back to Detroit, where Don got his start and co-founded the band Was (Not Was), was a one-stop opportunity to put down tracks by musicians who reflect his own musical breadth. And on Saturday, Ann Arbor alt-country singer Loretta Lucas came to Studio 54 in Ferndale to get things started. The contemporary classic rock of the Go kicked off Sunday’s activities, followed by the consciousness-style hip hop of Black Bottom Collective and the '60s-style kinda rock/kinda funk/kinda blues of Black Merda, all of which we caught. Later, they’ll be followed by the neo-Afrobeat of Nommo and the funk-emulsified jazz of David Murray. The Ramrods, the Muldoons and Louis Resto were all slated for Monday. The idea here is to go fast. A run-through, a couple of takes, some overdubs, some playback and discussion of the final mixes. All of which is accomplished in as little as an hour or so. Next band?
While we hung around, there was a constant chatter of technical details. Can someone put a second microphone down at the end of the hall to get another sound out of the Go’s guitar amp (which is cranked up in exile in the hall outside the studio with one mic already kissing it)? How good was the isolation of that vocal track? Let’s hear it again. Can we get a tambourine for the chorus? No cowbell – tambourine. How about more bass in the guitarist’s monitor?
But mostly it sounds like a gathering of music fans, with Don as No. 1 among them — fans who just happen to be making records rather just collecting and playing them. So, from his time with the Stones, Don passes onto the Go what he heard from Ron Wood about playing in the round to get the right vibe for Every Picture Tells a Story. (After which Go guitarist James McConnell asks rhetorically whether his sound is sufficiently in the “Ronnie Wood” vein.) Don asks the members of Black Merda about their experience getting back together after a long layoff: Black Merda had a hiatus on the order of 20 years until they regrouped in the ‘90s. Similarly, Was(Not Was) has its first disc in 16 years coming out in March.
Despite the seeming nonchalance, Don conducts everything as surely as a maestro with a baton. He just has his own unique way of doing it. After an excited take by the Go, Don eggs them on, suggesting “one more to see if we can beat it.” When a playback of vocals for Black Merda seems not quite right, he says, “I like the live feel, but you can get too much live feel.” So they wind up cutting just the vocals a little later to the sound in their headphones, rather than shouting over the sonic blast that was filling the room.
“It’s good for the soul,” Don tells Black Merda guitarist VC Veasey, explaining the Detroit sessions in the scheme of the Web project.
“Get back to your roots,” says Veasey.
“Yeah,” says Don.
And all the time, two camera guys are rolling tape, while another fixed camera peers down on the drummers in their isolation booth. Meanwhile, a monitor shows shots from the building’s security camera that will also be cut in – for extra verité in the cinema of the final product.
During a break between bands, Don explains that he could, in theory, get these tracks mixed and up on the Web within two days. The only problem is that he’s recorded so much that he’s already got a backlog of material – so it might take all of two weeks to start posting these new songs. Maybe he’ll start with the Black Merda piece they just cut. And then the Ramrods and Loretta Lucas — three “really different styles” that get at the range of what he’s captured in the Motor City. Maybe he’ll have all three debut at the same time.
But it isn’t just about putting the music out there, Don adds. He’s trying to figure out what this project can grow into – especially now, when the music industry is in such disarray. And what’ll make it work? How do you introduce the musical acts? How do get someone to click for what they’ve never heard before and, better still, click again and again. There’s no Web model to copy, so he’s thinking in terms of a museum but with contemporary sounds instead of physical antiquities.
Standing in front of a laptop computer in the control booth, he points to the logo on the Wasmopolitan Calvalcade page, noting with wise-guy pride that it’s the logo of the Metropolitan Museum turned upside down.
Dr. Was working in Ferndale this past weekend.