Do you remember what prompted you to pick up an instrument?
I’d say about 90 percent of it came from not wanting to be bored. Where I grew up, there wasn’t a lot to do. We had a piano in the house and an old guitar, and I’d listen to records and see if I could figure out how to play certain songs. I was touched by the music bug at a pretty young age, and music held my attention longer than anything else.
What were you listening to for inspiration?
In those days, a lot of Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and classic-rock records that I fished out of my parents’ basement. The first time I heard Ray Charles, I was a sophomore in high school, and I didn’t get into Bob Dylan until community college. In terms of songwriting, if I had to mention a single person, it would be Tom Waits. He’s so great. I first heard him right after high school, and I thought, “Who is this voice?” I ended up buying every album he had ever made. Small Change was the first one, and, to this day, it’s my favorite.
These days, where do you go for inspiration?
I get inspired by the oddest things—and not just what surrounds me. A big part of songwriting is your imagination. You need to be able to make stuff up in your head and go with it. I think of my songs as vignettes. For example, “Hollywood” obviously takes place in Southern California, and each verse is about a different character—a transvestite, a socialite, and so on. It packs a lot of information about these personalities in a four-minute song. Most of my songs have a narrative structure. I didn’t set out to do that, but when I heard the songs back on tape, that was what was coming out. There are a few obligatory love songs, too.
How do you capture ideas?
When we’re on the road, I’ll keep a notebook. But, most of the time, when I have an idea, I’ll keep it in my head until I get home. I just let it grow inside my brain before I try to work it out.
Do you consider yourself a prolific writer?
I’m not as prolific as I used to be. I used to write all the time. I actually used to bring a guitar into my hotel room every night, and sit down and write. But now, I’d rather just watch The Simpsons, or something like that. I’m tired.
Are your songs fully realized when you begin the recording process?
When I gave the demos to the band and the producer, they were pretty close to what the record sounds like—in terms of the arrangements. We may decide to change the key or the tempo. On some of the songs, I played piano instead of guitar. But, for the most part, they were pretty much done—which is not to take away from the band. They really made the songs sound great by adding little nuances and guitar licks. Val is incredible. He’s a very creative guitar player.
Whose choice was Steve Berlin as producer?
I’ve known Steve for about three years. We met when I opened for Los Lobos, and we hung out and developed a friendship. We talked about working together, so when it came down to choosing a producer, he had the gig before it was even offered.
Where was the record tracked?
The core band and I tracked most of the record live at Sage & Sound in Hollywood over the course of about eight days. We added horns, pedal-steel, and accordion at Sonora Recorders down the road, and we finished up some stuff at Red Star—which is a friend’s basement studio, so we didn’t have to spend the big money. Overall, the recording process took about four weeks.
How involved are you with getting a good guitar sound in the studio?
I’m definitely interested in it. When I’m listening back, I have my suggestions as far as tone, but it really has more to do with how the guitar fits in the song. To me, the strength of a song is not how good the guitar sounds. I don’t listen to a song, and go, “Wow that’s a great guitar solo.” I just want to hear a great song. And if it has a great guitar solo in it—cool.
Tell me about the guitars you used on the record.
I used a lot of Gibson acoustics. I have about 11, and I love all of them. I used a Gibson J-185, a ’50s Gibson LG1, a Gibson Custom Shop Nick Lucas J-45, and also a Martin D18. They all sound really different, so it’s cool to have a bunch to choose from in order to deliver exactly what the song needs. The J-45 has a Headway bridge pickup, and the others have the stock Fishman pickups they came with. I don’t have a pickup in the Martin or the LG1.
What about strings?
I use medium or light gauge—whatever’s on sale!
Do you use traditional tunings, or do you experiment with alternative ones?
About half of the songs are in non-standard tunings, and a lot of them are tuned down a whole step. I’ve been writing a lot by tuning all the guitars down, and trying to get my voice to be more relaxed. It was just an experiment, but I ended up liking how it sounded.
Unquestionably, the epic track on the album is “Supersede,” which layers acoustic guitar and mandolin with pedal-steel. Is it risky business putting a ten-minute song on a record?
It’s definitely risky business putting a long song on a rock record. Nobody at the label wanted to put it on, but I was very adamant about it being on the record in that spot. I knew it was never going to get played on the radio, but I didn’t care. It’s great when a listener buys a record, and they find a little gem on it, and this is the gem. It actually was a 20-minute song, and I cut out half of it. It now has the bare minimum of verses!
What’s the significance of the album’s title?
I was thinking that if the record was a movie, and each song was a scene, what would the movie be called? To me, the characters on this CD are Americans trying to decipher what it’s like to be an American. For all purposes—good, bad, and ugly—it’s about what it’s like to live in this country today.