Jeff Bridges and Chris Pelonis on Forging the Abiders' Live Sound

April 13, 2015

I’ve seen a lot soundchecks, but I’ve seldom witnessed a soundcheck like the one Jeff Bridges and his musical director Chris Pelonis unleashed on their band before it performed at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall last fall. With no sense of hard work at all—just joy—the musicians ran through the entire set they would be playing for the audience later that night probably two and a half times. Bridges was scrupulous about getting a good monitor mix, and, during the second run-through, he even asked the club to set the house lights as they would when the show was actually on, rather than leave them bright and full up as they are for most soundchecks. These guys rehearse like demons to ensure the fans get a well-oiled and great-sounding performance.

Part of this may be due to Pelonis, who in addition to being a crack guitar player is also a noted recording-studio designer and audio technician, but a lot of it is Bridges, too, because it’s obvious he loves playing, loves his band, wants everyone to shine. All of this is evident on last year’s Jeff Bridges & the Abiders aptly named live album, Live [Mailboat Records]. While it should be no surprise that the Abiders recorded every show on their tour, the album tracks came down to two performances at the Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Here, Bridges and Pelonis share some of the elements of how they strive to wow audiences.

Jeff, it appears you’re still playing the “Bad Blake” guitar from your film Crazy Heart.

Bridges: One of the things that was instrumental in making Crazy Heart an authentic movie about a guy like Bad Blake was picking the guitar. That was so important. And Scott Cooper—who wrote the script and directed the movie—was tight with Merle Haggard, I think, and he asked him, “If you could have any guitar, what would you want?” And Merle said, “A Country Gentleman.” So we went to Gretsch, and we got this beautiful Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, and that’s my guitar. We also looked at Telecasters, actually, but we settled on the Gretsch.

Pelonis: I’m using a TV Jones Spectra Sonic Supreme. I have Gretsches and all that, and I love that stuff, but I found I can do everything with this one guitar.

What about amps?

Pelonis: A couple of tours ago, I was a using hand-wired, 15-watt Blackstar 2x12 combo, and Jeff has a Blackstar amp, too. Now, I’m using a Richard Goodsell Super 17 Mark II—that’s also the amp on the Live album. You can’t have too many guitars or amps, right? I just discovered the new, hand-wired 18-watt Marshall the other day, and I have to have it. I didn’t think I was going to like it, but I was trying out those new hollowbody Les Pauls, and I thought, “I’ll just plug it into this Marshall because that’s kind of a generic sound.” But it wasn’t really that kind of sound at all [laughs]. It was very intriguing—very authentic. Should we talk about the Abiderator?

Bridges: Oh, yeah.

Pelonis: One thing about the Goodsell amp is that the tremolo and reverb are second to none. I fell in love with them. The reverb has this little bit of pre-delay that lets you drench your guitar in reverb, but you can still hear every note. It’s very articulate. And the tremolo is marvelous. So I asked if Goodsell could make a preamp, and I have the prototype. He designed it with my direction and input from Jeff and [producer] T-Bone Burnett. It’s pretty fantastic, and we all got excited about it. It’s all tube, and he also added a great EQ with really powerful center frequencies, a Gain, and a Master Volume. You can put it in front of your amp, or use the line out to run directly to a mixer. Our pet name for it is the “Abiderator.”

With you, Chris, and pedal-steel/guitarist Bill Flores playing simultaneous parts, it was interesting that there is still a lot of clarity and space in the guitars on Live.

Pelonis: First, I want to say that Jeff ’s guitar is an integral part of the rhythm section, and it’s because he is countering Bill and me with little lines and melodies and things. So his guitar is big and present, but it’s not overbearing at all. Sometimes, guys play with a touch where it’s impossible to get anything else through—it’s like a big fog bank. And then guys like Bill and me or whoever are trying to figure out parts that can somehow power through that. But this isn’t the case in the Abiders. We all listen to each other, and none of our parts are conflicting. So we can bring up the guitars where they are clear and present without clashing with any of the other instruments or the vocals.

Bridges: One of the pluses of the Abiders is having Chris as our musical director, and what he brings to the party. He’s an incredible guitarist, but he also has all of this technical knowledge. For example, I don’t think of myself as a guy who sits there working with the amps, trying to get the exact sound. I hadn’t put that kind of time in. But Chris—that’s what he does. He tweaks my guitar sound, and I’m loving what he comes up with.

How do you “sell” yourself live? Do you like to just play your songs and let them do the talking, or do you actively utilize your acting chops to bring the audience on a journey?

Bridges: I consider myself pretty green at this…

Pelonis: Let me just say that you’re about to hear some bullsh*t. Carry on…

Bridges: I don’t feel as experienced as a musician as I do in acting. You always talk about the inner show and the inner experience, but, ultimately, it gets down to opinion—who’s digging the show, and who’s not digging the show. I mean, it seems to me that it’s kind of a natural thing to bring my acting experiences into the music, because, creatively, I don’t see too much of a difference between those two things—or anything creative for that matter. I approach all creative activities in a similar way. So when I’m performing, it’s a bit of—the acting language, you’d call it—an improvisation. I look at the show as an improvisation that I’m doing with this cast, and the audience is part of it as well.

Pelonis: In other words, we wing it a lot.

Bridges: Yeah. You don’t know quite how it’s going to go. Weird things happen onstage, and you kind of go with it. We just try to make those things enhance the show, rather than let ourselves be thrown by them. For example, one of the struggles for me, initially, was the monitor thing. You’re in the rehearsal space, and everything is sounding so great and dialed in. And then you get to the soundcheck at the venue, and everything is sounding real sh*tty. That really threw me. I wasn’t having fun, because nothing was sounding good. Then, I talked to John Mellencamp about it, and he told me, “Oh, I know your problem. Don’t think about it. It’s never going to sound good!” That was interesting, but it helped me quite a bit.

Pelonis: Now, we have these really good Tannoy wedges that are totally dialed in. No matter where you stand, the low and high frequencies are in phase.

You bring your own monitor system?

Pelonis: We bring our own everything.

So how live was Live?

Pelonis: We didn’t change a thing. There aren’t any overdubs or fixes or cuts or anything of that stuff. Well, I can’t lie—I fixed one wrong note I played by borrowing it from the show the night before. Other than that, everything is how he sang it, and how we played it.

When you were listening to all the recorded shows, how did you guys know which performances were “the ones”?

Bridges: It’s the groove a lot, and the spirit of the thing—how it makes you feel.

Pelonis: Jeff has real ears, and he listened to the tracks really critically, and he knew exactly how to articulate what he wanted. It was really a team effort to choose what we ultimately released as Live, which was great, because we recorded the entire tour, and we listened to hundreds of shows before we settled on the Red Rock performances. It was the toughest mixing assignment I’ve ever had.

You guys obviously take the Abiders extremely seriously, but do you feel some people might still feel the band is a film star’s little side project?

Pelonis: Most of the people already know it’s a real band now. Way back when we first started playing, they’d come to see the movie star play music, but now they’re coming to hear the band, and the songs, and Jeff’s singing. The fact that the music has broken through is testimony that there’s substance there.

Bridges: Music has always been bubbling on the back burner for me, and then it moves to the front burner. So—Chris hates it when I say this—the greenness I feel as a musician is giving me this fresh feeling at a late date in my life. It’s an odd thing: all of this youthful excitement coming out of an older, more mature body. It’s nice. This is kind of my garage band. I’m 65 years old in a garage band! How cool is that?

FATHER-DAUGHTER ACT

JEFF BRIDGES’ DAUGHTER, JESSIE, OPENS her father’s shows from time to time, and often steps onstage with him to sing a song or two. To date, she has released a self-titled EP, an album (Let It Breathe), and several singles. Her guitar is a Taylor 914-CE—a gift from her parents when she graduated from college in 2006. And as the proud papa will be happy to tell you if you meet him, Jessie is not only a fine singer and songwriter, but she also designed some pretty bitchin’ handmade tour t-shirts for him.

Who are your main songwriting influences?

The Beatles. I pretty much grew up listening to them. For my ninth birthday, my parents gave me the entire Beatles CD collection, so it was hard to get away from that influence. But I’m also a big fan of Jackson Browne, Wilco, and Jenny Lewis.

What was the trigger for you to turn pro, so to speak?

Actually, I was working with my dad on movies. I was his assistant for three years. And I realized that I didn’t want to do movies. It was a wonderful experience, but my passion was my music. So it was kind of like, you learn what you don’t want to do to learn what you do want to do. That was my experience. I did worry for a while that if I pursued music professionally, it would take away all the joy and creativity. That didn’t happen, thank goodness, and the more I do this, the more I realize how much I love performing.

Your dad sure has a lot of fun playing music—and he obviously adores you—but it still must be kind of strange opening shows for him as his daughter.

When he asks me to open for him, it’s a huge deal, and I do not take it lightly. But at the same time, I want it to be fun. I don’t want to get sidetracked by people’s expectations of me—people who don’t know anything about me, except who my dad is. I’m sure some of them are thinking I’m getting a free ride, so I’ve got so much more to prove, because there’s already pressure on me. I feel that pressure, but I’ve got to go out there and be myself.

Do you feel you are moving towards developing a unique songwriting voice?

That’s a challenging question. I do feel unique sometimes, but then I also feel like I am no different from any other songwriter. I’m trying to challenge myself by collaborating more, and I kind of unconsciously look for surprising chord changes or melodies—that’s my Beatles influence, I guess. But I have to write. In fact, it used to piss me off when I found out some artists weren’t writing their own songs. I was like, “What do you mean? You’re just a voice? You have no claim to that song?” I never understood that, because it’s so important for me to express myself through my songs. I know there are like a million people all trying to do the same thing, but I can only hope that something I write strikes a chord in someone else.

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