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Robben Ford Gets Lean and Clean

January 30, 2014
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I initially wanted to do something simple, with a guitar sound that was like Lonnie Johnson’s,” says Robben Ford about his latest album Bringing It Back Home [Mascot]. “He was a straight-up blues player with a kind of jazzy sophistication in his playing, and I wanted that sound to be consistent throughout the entire record—one guitar, one pickup, and the volume never changing much.”

The jazz leanings are apparent in the clean guitar tones, as well as the underpinnings of acoustic bass, Hammond organ, and even trombone. However, the choices of songs—including covers of Dr. John’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” and Big Joe Williams’ “Bird’s Nest Bound”—steer things in a swampy, New Orleans-by way-of-Chicago direction, all with a cool improvisational feel courtesy of Ford’s own indelible stamp.

Saying that the album turned out a little differently than he’d expected, Ford compared it to the sort of spontaneous approach that led to one of his most acclaimed albums, Talk to Your Daughter. “That record was done in the same kind of spirit as Bringing It Back Home, which was all about what do you do when you pick up an instrument and just start playing with people,” he explains. “This is more about the ease of making music. It doesn’t have to be a monumental undertaking, where you feel like you have to rock the world to get anyone to pay attention to you. It takes some courage to make a record like this, but I’m so glad I did it.”

How did you choose the songs for this album?

I went looking in places I never looked before. I have a bass player friend named Andy Hess who listens to a ton of R&B, and he sent me about 100 songs on five CDs. I found two that I liked and felt that I might be able to pull off— “Fair Child” by Willie West and “Trick Bag” by Earl King. Then I found the song “Bird’s Nest Bound” by Big Joe Williams on some compilation CD that I didn’t even know I had. “Fool’s Paradise” is something I picked up from Mose Allison when I was 15. I always thought I might record it one day, and this wound up being the perfect setting for it.

What was the advantage of doing mostly covers?

I was looking for a certain old feeling, and you just can’t write songs like “Fair Child” or “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.” It’s just not going to happen. But I did want to write something for the record, and that was “Oh Virginia.” I listened to The Band’s album Music from Big Pink for some inspiration, and the song “Tears of Rage” kind of influenced the writing of that song.

What was the origin of the only other original tune, “Traveler’s Waltz?”

That was a poem that my wife Ann wrote about me, and my life on the road. At the time I was working with Michael McDonald, and I took it to him and asked what he thought of it. He read it and started playing some chords on the piano, and just proceeded to write the music for the song.

How did you put the band together for this album?

As I started finding these songs it became apparent that I really needed the support of a keyboard, and I immediately thought of Larry Goldings. I think he’s the most incredible musician I’ve met in the last 20 years, and we’ve also recorded together in the past. Then my tour manager, who has worked a lot with Fourplay, recommended that I use Harvey Mason on drums. Harvey really set a beautiful tone for the record. And Toss Panos, who has played drums with me for the last several years, recommended David Piltch on bass, and sure enough he wound up being absolutely the perfect guy.

The bass sound on this record is very different from anything I’ve heard on your past albums. Since you’re the producer, was that intentional?

I love it that you picked out the bass, because that’s the last thing people usually focus on. But you hear that guy talking, right? It’s his voice and not my version of it, and to me that’s what making music is really about. Whenever you make a record, you’re putting yourself in the hands of other people—I mean they’re the ones playing the instruments. I like to let musicians bring everything they have to the table, and this record is just as much Harvey Mason’s or Larry Golding’s as it is mine.

Did you record live in the studio?

At least 80 percent of the record is exactly what happened in the studio on the day it was recorded. We redid the vocals, of course, and I added acoustic guitar to “Traveler’s Waltz,” which originally was cut with a B3. I also redid two guitar solos, and I overdubbed the riffing that occurs on “Fair Child.” I just couldn’t be doing that part while I was singing the song in the studio.

When you’re playing live, is it difficult to keep that chord-melody thing together while you’re singing?

Quite frankly, it’s very difficult. If you watch me, you’ll notice that my eyes are open but I’m looking straight ahead so I don’t lose concentration. There’s so much going on when I’m performing, and I needed to make it easier on myself. So now I’ve added the organ, and I can just not even play if I don’t want to. That allows me to open up and concentrate more on delivering the song.

What guitar did you end up using on this album?

A ’65 or ’66 Epiphone Riviera, and I just used the rhythm pickup. I put it though my Dumble Overdrive Special driving a single-12 open-back cabinet. I never used any overdrive, and I never cranked the guitar up except for once on “Trick Bag.” I overdubbed the guitar solo in the middle of that song, but the solo at the end is the one that was recorded live at the session, and that’s the same sound that runs through the whole record.

Most of your solos are very clean sounding. Did you have to fight the urge to go for a more overdriven tone?

No, and that was a little gift I gave to myself to make it as effortless as possible. I love to play like that. There’s no stress or strain, it’s just very natural.

How did you come to start playing an SG live?

Ken Daniels, who owns Truetone Music in Santa Monica, recommended the SG to me. I was looking at some vintage instruments and he showed me this ’64 SG that had been all chopped up and was quite inexpensive. Nothing was original except for the neck and body, the pickguard, and maybe the controls. The bridge had been replaced and even the headstock had been changed. The pickups were from the ’70s, though it was unclear what they were. But the guitar was just cool. It was light and it sounded great, so I started using it on the older material instead of pulling out a Les Paul like I normally would. That led to me buying a beautiful vintage 1963 SG, which cost big bucks, and that’s what I use now when I’m cranking it up. But the Riviera is the sound of the new album, and I’m definitely leaning on it in our live performances.

What is currently on your pedalboard?

I have a TC Electronic Hall of Fame reverb, and I also have a wah and a volume pedal, but I hardly ever touch them anymore. There’s also a booster made by Vertex, and I have a Lovepedal COT 50 for overdrive. But all I’m really using right now is the Hall of Fame and the Dumble boost, which isn’t an overdrive— it just bypasses the controls on the amplifier. Even my Strymon delay I’m not so sure about anymore. I’m really enjoying the clean sound of the guitar, so it’s becoming a full-circle adventure for me. I’ve come back to where it all started, which is basically B.B. King. A guitar through a good amp with a little bit of reverb, a little gain boost when I need it, and I’m good to go.

Do you have a practice routine?

I don’t really practice so much as I play, I write, and I kind of look around on the fretboard. I try to expand where I’m at, but I don’t try to find different ways of playing a II-V-I progression or practice my back-and-forth picking. I do encourage learning chords and expanding your harmonic knowledge, but it’s really all about what you do with that harmonic information, because you can write a song with one chord—you don’t have to know 50 chords and all the inversions.

How do you explain your Renegade Creation project?

It was conceived to be a rock band, and we didn’t have to invest ourselves any more than we wanted to. There were no expectations from the record company—it was just a one-off: Write some songs, do a record, make a little money, and go home. But it opened a door for me to write in a way that I really hadn’t in the past. I’m very proud of the second Renegade Creation record, which is called Bullet. I’m actually more proud of the writing on it than most things that I’ve done—just in terms of the ambition of the writing, not the style, per se.

Can you expand on that?

I’ve learned how to say more things and how to express things better. I’m even writing politically on that record, and that’s dangerous territory. Also, I’ve never been very good at storytelling. I’ve always written more from my personal experience, but things just started to evolve and I found myself able to write more things and have something to say on a variety of subjects. Concurrently I was writing with Mike McDonald so I just went though this period of writing for about two years, and I must have written upwards of 20 songs, which for me is a lot. Mike and I recorded about 14 songs between California and Nashville, and I wrote five for Renegade and one for this album. It’s been a very creative period for me, so it’s kind of interesting that my new album is mostly cover songs.

Do you ever consider what your fans want to hear when you’re contemplating a recording project?

No, and I think because I haven’t paid much attention to that it has kind of confused people—particularly from the point of view of the record company. It’s like, who are you? Are you a blues or jazz or rock artist? Are you a singer-songwriter or are you a guitarist? I’ve been told time and again that this makes it difficult to sell my records, so I have become a little more aware of it. But on this record I took the exact opposite approach. I’m glad that I still have some nerve, though, because that’s what it takes to survive.

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