Harper Simon Ups the Guitars on His Sophomore Release

January 30, 2014
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Harper Simon may be Paul Simon's son, but he doesn't attempt to capitalize on it. In fact, you’d have to dig several pages into his press kit to find any mention of his father at all. Of course, it’s not as if the younger Simon has been standing in the shadows, either. He has appeared on nearly all the big late-night television talk shows, performed regularly with Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band and Sean Lennon, appeared in several films (including cameos in two by Martin Scorsese), and played numerous festivals and hundreds of other gigs as both a solo artist and with wellknown bands, covering a stylistic range from folk to pop to rock to world music. His debut album, 2010’s Harper Simon, was an alt-country outing produced by Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen) and featured stunning array of supporting artists, including guitarist Charlie McCoy and other members of the “Nashville A-Team.”

In contrast, Simon’s sophomore release, Division Street [PIAS], pushes his guitar playing front and center, and tacks decidedly into rockier territory, while still being loaded with memorable hooks and melodies. With help from sonic guru Matt Chait, he and producer Tom Rothrock (who helmed career albums for Elliott Smith, Simon’s most obvious influence here) crafted an abundance of compelling guitar tones, from brightly shimmering to darkly ominous. “We used lots of guitars and amps,” says Chait. “And almost all of the guitars went into an Empress Effects compressor and a vintage MXR Six Band Graphic Equalizer, which lets me selectively drive small tube amps into breakup without muddying the low end. For Harper, we used it to get that honky, nasal sound he likes so much on some Velvet Underground and Rolling Stones records.”

Drummer Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and bassist Nikolai Fraiture (the Strokes) are among the artists that accompanied Simon on Division Street.

Unlike on your previous album, the songs on Division Street are centered on your guitar playing. What led to the change?
When I first went down to Nashville to work with Bob Johnston, in my mind we were just going to do what was to be a side project for down the line, but the tracks ended up being part of my debut album, which sort of set the tone in a way that I hadn’t expected. The album wound up becoming about all these old Nashville cats, great players, who I met through Bob, and then some other New York and L.A. players came on. Among them were guitarists Charlie McCoy and Marc Ribot. I had such great guitarists that I wasn’t really looking to step out front so much with my guitar playing and the songs didn’t lend themselves to that either. But guitar playing is one of my strengths, so I wanted the new album to be more about that. And I wanted it to be about the kind of guitar playing that I did in my formative years, which I hadn’t successfully captured on tape before.

There are lots of cool guitar tones on the record. Were you going for something specific when you started out?
I’ve never been satisfied with the guitar tones I’ve gotten on recordings in the past, so this time I thought I’d better focus on that. Tom Rothrock is a great producer, and I loved his work on all of the Elliott Smith records, which always had great guitar tones. I particularly loved the sound of the acoustic guitars—but all the production and all the tones were great. In the end, however, the tones we got and the production style sounded nothing like those records. My album took on its own life.

What guitars did you use and how were they recorded?
The acoustic guitars were mostly just recorded in Tom’s living room, though I can’t tell you what microphones he used. They were old Gibson jumbos, from the ’40s I believe, and although at one point I thought they might be a little too lo-fi sounding and not crisp enough, they had lots of soul, so I went with them anyway.

What about the electric guitars?
The guitars I used most for basic tracking in the studio were a ’50s Fender Esquire, a ’60s Gibson ES-330, a large Gibson archtop with a white P-90, and an old Silvertone hollowbody—but we tried lots of guitars and amps. We got some of the more aggressive tones with my Epiphone Coronet, Tom’s black ’74 Les Paul, and a badass-looking 3-pickup solidbody Supro that I used to get a Brian Jones sort of sound for the solo on “Division Street.” I also played Matt Chait’s ’54 Harmony Stratotone to get some of the fuzzier, heavier tones, and there were some Gretsch Roc-Jet and Tennessean parts in there too. Of course, not everything we tried made it onto the album.

What were some of the amps?
Tom had a roomful of amps and he’d go in there and patch in stuff while I was sitting in the control room, so I wasn’t always sure what I was playing through. A lot of the time the guitar was split dual mono into a Silvertone 1482 and either a blackface Fender Super Reverb or an Ampeg Gemini IV. Some of the crunchier overdubs were done with a brownface Fender Princeton Reverb, and some Watkins Dominator and tweed Fender Deluxe stuff may also have made it through. I think the amp I used with the Silvertone hollowbody was an old Gibson combo that we rented. I liked that combination so much that I wound up re-cutting a bunch of parts with it.

Did you get the overdriven and distorted tones directly from the amps, or were any pedals involved?
I mostly prefer to overdrive an amp, but we did use a Lovepedal Amp Eleven and a VFE The Scream! on some tracks. We also just plugged directly into a mic pre on the mixer to get some sounds. I’m not a big pedal person generally, but we did use an Empress Tap Tremolo, and the delays were done with either a Strymon El Capistan or a vintage Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay. We also ran the guitar through a Leslie 122 cabinet. And Noah Georgeson added other effects during the mixing stage

Were there any “happy accidents” that occurred while you were recording?
At the end of the last song, “Leaves of Golden Brown,” there’s a little hook that may not have come out very distinctly in the final mix. I had a guitar going direct into the board, no amp, through some kind of fuzz pedal, and it was really feeding back a lot. I was trying to get a Pete Townshend, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” toggle-feedback sound and when I toggled the pickup switch it produced this little musical hook completely by chance, so I incorporated it into the song almost like a melody.

Your vocals are mixed a little low on some of the songs. Are you uncomfortable with the sound of your voice?
Listening to the record now I do wish that we had made my voice—and the guitar solos—a little louder in the mix on a few pieces. But what can you do? You learn a lot every time you go through this process. I think a lot of singers feel that way though. I know Jimi Hendrix hated his voice, as did John Lennon. I’m trying to get better about it.

Your music and your guitar playing don’t sound very much like your father’s. Were you concerned about differentiating yourself as you were getting your own thing together?
Not particularly. I have a lot of different influences. I think as an artist you just have to find out what works best for you, which also involves understanding your limitations. My voice has a certain sound, and my guitar playing also sounds a certain way, so finding my own style was more a matter of arriving at something that was comfortable for me and felt natural.

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