By Peter Chaikin
Composer / producer CJ Vanston’s diverse credits include projects with Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, ‘NSync, Julio Iglesias, Ringo Starr, B.B. King, and Celine Dion and Spinal Tap. Vanston produced and is co-writer on Steve Lukather's new album, All’s Well That Ends Well, and is currently forming a label, Moodah Music, with Phil Collen of Def Leppard. JBL’s Peter Chaikin interviewed CJ Vanston about his collaboration with Jeff Baxter on their forthcoming album, “Skunk.”
When did you and Jeff Baxter first work together?
I met Jeff in the late 80’s, when I was a studio musician in Chicago and Jeff came in to play as a celebrity ringer. I’d always been a huge fan of his. We worked for a producer named Bobby Whiteside, who on one gig simply told us to free-form together, “ just come up with something…” and Jeff and I just clicked. It was instant and that was it. That was the basis of our friendship, when we realized how well we played together.
How did your collaboration with Jeff come about?
When I moved to Los Angeles a couple of years later, I called Jeff, went over to his house, got the axes out and we started playing together. We ended up working on an instructional video. We made stuff up and had a great time. And he said “you know, I’ve never done a solo record and I want to do it with you.” Through the years, we both got extremely busy but we kept saying to each other “one of these days…. one of these days…” Well about three years ago we said OK. Let’s seriously start putting stuff together—so we just started writing when we could, and getting together when we could. It wasn’t a concentrated thing where we had a budget or a label or anything like that, it was a day here and a day there, and we eventually got 15 or 20 things that we really liked and elaborated on those. Right when we were getting close to releasing the tracks as an instrumental record, Jeff said to me “hey my friend Michael McDonald wants to do something with us.” So Michael came over. We wrote a song called "Place In The Sun"—it’s just awesome—and that got us thinking, wait a minute, we know so many artists in this industry maybe we should do some more vocal tunes. So that kind of stalled the record, and it turned into a completely different animal. So we thought “let’s call some people and see if they’d be interested in playing on this,” and of course almost everybody said yes, because they are all such huge Skunk fans I mean who isn’t ya know? We were just going to do this boutique instrumental record together and just do really off the wall stuff, and then as it started to grow it kind of got serious. The record’s going to be exciting. We wrote with Clint Black last week and we came up with a killer song. Clint was a joy to work with. He’s the real deal.
What makes the collaboration work? What does each of you bring to the party?
We usually build around a groove. This is pretty groove-based stuff. We just get up a beat and we just start kind of jamming like two kids in the basement. We always have the system in record, and then we go back and listen and say, hey wait, that little pattern there, what’s that? Let’s make that kind of a verse thing. Some of it is us actually improvising and that’s what’s on tape (laughs) I mean that’s what we record. It’s very organic, not thought out, just going for it. And you know, our personalities, we are like brothers and we get along so great and I think a lot of that comes through in the playing.
When you hear Jeff playing does it call back memories of old classics tracks he played?
I think at first when I worked with him, it did. But now I’m past that. I was a little star-struck when we started working together. Now it’s more, knowing him, I just hear HIM. He’s kind of transcended. He’s beyond Steely Dan, beyond the Doobie Brothers and beyond all those classics to me. He’s JEFF. He’s got such a signature sound.
What would you say about Jeff as a musician?
Well, he is the complete opposite of the studied, write-the-chart-for-the-guy, here’s your notes musician - what you’d think of as a studio musician - because he is one of the most recorded studio musicians of all time. He is pure feel—one hundred-percent feel! And a lot of times I won’t write a chart, because he just hears this stuff and responds in such a natural way. It’s amazing how fast he picks up things. It’s very organic
What is your recording system? How are you recording his sounds?
He uses an old Roland ME10 box—he swears by it. On this project he doesn’t bring an amp over. We’re using Apple Logic, with a great mic pre/limiter. He has his clean sound he’s used for years and this combination brings it out. And we have a library of “Skunk” sounds in Logic we’ve been using. It’s a great way to work. Our speakers are JBL LSR6300 series studio monitors. Those speakers sound so good. I never think about them, I just work. It’s not a variable I need to concern myself with. I don’t have A/B speakers. I don’t need to check the mix on small speakers. On many of my projects, the mastering guys call and say “I didn’t have to touch your mixes.” No EQ. I mean it’s bizarre. Unbelievable. The speakers have nice sheen on the top without ear fatigue. Awesome. We’re using Lexicon reverbs—love the whole plug-in suite, the chambers and plates, everything. Casey Young at Lexicon has been a friend for years—he’s the one who turned me on to the Lexicon plug-ins. You know, I used to hoard equipment and have lots of it around. These days, we rely on a few things that work well. It’s a sign the stuff is really good. It lets us be less technical, and more just “making music.”
Jeff’s got a Strat that he built himself and everyone that picks it up says it’s the most incredible guitar they’ve ever touched. A lot of people don’t know but he is a very hands-on guitar guy. He can build a guitar from scratch. He used to wind his own pickups. His guitar has BASS frets in it. He’s a genius at setting up guitars. And I’ve never seen him use a tuner. He tunes by tension (laughs.) He never is out of tune. Definitely has a “Rain Man” thing with that. It’s unbelievable—it blows me away. I mean he has a “Rain Man” thing anyway. You pull up a track and hit record and he’s just in the groove and he’s in the chords and arguably one of the greatest rhythm players in the history of music. I have a ton of old vintage stuff. I remember one time I got some new Boss Dr. Rhythm or something, and I pulled this thing out one day and it had all these kind of rave beats—at like 180 BPM and I set that thing up for 180 BPM and we got into a funk groove. I think we played for an hour and a half on one chord—at one hundred and eighty beats a minute, just LAUGHING. Laughing hysterically. And that’s the joy that this album is coming from. There’s no agenda. We’re not going out to try to make money, we’re not trying to sell X amount of records or get on this chart or whatever. That may happen, but this record is just out of the joy of music. Jeff has a HUGE joy of music. And I have to say I’ve seen a few times, guys his age at his level have kind of gotten bored. Jeff is still like a 13-year-old—crazy. A huge part of who he is, is the joy of what comes out of that guitar. Sometimes we’re laughing so hard we are crying. Like that 180 BPM thing. Again, back to the 13-year-olds in the basement. Come over some time when we’re doing it and have a coffee with us.
That would be awesome! When is the record coming out?
It’s coming out in the fall. I should ad we’re gonna do some live dates later this summer, with some surprise musicians, and kind of work this up and then early 2012 we’re going to Europe with a kind of an ALL-STAR band that’s going to blow people’s minds.