Studio Savvy

Dan Hicks might be the best-kept secret in the music business. After getting his start with the Charlatans in the mid ’60s, he formed Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, with whom he still tours all over the world. Despite a career that is entering its fifth decade—and a loyal fan base that includes Elvis Costello, Bette Midler, Brian Setzer, and Tom Waits—Hicks remains cooly underground, like that impossibly hip neighborhood bar that doesn’t need to advertise.

When it came time to make his latest record of folk/jazz/country/roots ditties, Selected Shorts [Surf Dog], Hicks and co-guitarist Dave Bell went to Los Angeles and laid down tracks with the world-beating rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier (Bob Dylan) and drummer Jim Keltner (Dylan, Lennon, Clapton, and too many others to mention).

“When a project is coming up,” says Hicks, “I always look to my most recent songs—those are always contenders. But some of the songs for this album went back decades. I wrote the first few lines to ‘Mama’s Boy Blues’ in the late ’60s, but I didn’t get around to finishing it until a couple of years ago. ‘One More Cowboy,’ which I did as a duet with Willie Nelson, was a Bunky and Jake song I had wanted to do since I first heard it in the ’70s. I called Jake himself and he taught me that song over the phone.”

Once Hicks had decided on a song list, he began work on the arrangements, which entailed a unique rhythm guitar approach. “The basis of the sound of this record comes from the two rhythm guitars,” says Hicks. “When the two guitars sound good and right, everything else falls into place more easily.”

“Dan’s guitar is definitely the driving force in these tunes,” continues Bell, “For this record, he envisioned a second, interlocking rhythm part to complement his. I went to his place and we worked out the parts in preproduction. He had this grand scheme that I didn’t get at first. In ‘One More Cowboy,’ he’s playing a swing part and I was supposed to nail the downbeats, which seemed almost anti-swing to me. Once we locked it in, though, I got it. It really reinforced the rhythm.”

The preproduction involved Hicks tracking the guitar, vocals, and drum parts at home on his Teac 8-track cassette machine. His elaborate demos reflect the finished product fairly accurately, even down to the fills played on violin, flute, or cello. “I’m not good at solo instruments,” says Hicks, “but I can give the idea. If I want fills from the violin, guitar, or whatever, I’ll sing the instrumental melodies, and my friend Paul Robinson will transcribe them so the players can read them. Most of the lines going through these songs were sung by me on the demos.” Bell can attest to the level of detail on Hicks’ demos: “Dan could do a record like that—just singing all the lines. His demos sound that good.”

Once Bell and Hicks got to the sessions, they were joined by producer Tim Hauser of Manhatten Transfer fame. He set up the musicians in the same room, with baffles separating them, and recorded the basics for Selected Shorts. “We all tracked at once and I did some singing as a guide,” recalls Hicks. “I would have preferred to just play, but Keltner and Tony thought the vocal would help them know where they were. I played my Guild F50 acoustic that I’ve had since my 1971 record, Where’s the Money? It was miked, but I wanted to add some of the Baggs pickup to the sound, although I don’t know how much of the pickup ended up on the record. I think the pickup adds body to the sound. And because we were all in the same room, there was leakage and I thought the direct sound of the guitar would help with that.”

The leakage from the mics actually necessitated some changes in the recording process. “They were using these nice Coles ribbon mics,” says Bell, “and they just picked up too much of the room, which was a shame because they sounded so rich. They switched the mic on my Taylor 314ce to an inexpensive Marshall MXL 603S condenser, which did the job fine and ended up sounding great. They didn’t do any crazy miking techniques—just pointed it at the 12th fret.”

Although both Hicks and Bell have worked with heavy hitters in the past, the musicians on Selected Shorts took the star power up a notch. The cameos by Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, and Van Dyke Parks were primarily done as overdubs, occasionally in different cities. Keltner and Garnier, however, were present during basics, adding to the excitement and sometimes the pressure of the situation. “Having Jim Keltner there didn’t really affect how I approached my parts,” says Hicks. “I pretty much knew how I wanted to sound. I was a little skeptical about Keltner at first. Even though he’s a renowned rock drummer, I didn’t know if he’d be the guy for this record. I wanted more of a jazz approach, like Shelly Manne. But Jim did a great job, especially on the brush stuff. I started on drums and I still have a little technique left. So I would sit down at his kit before we tracked and give him an idea of what I thought was good for the song. But it wasn’t like he played my parts—no way! He did his thing and he did it great.”

“It was both exciting and nerve wracking for me to track with those guys,” explains Bell. “At first, the engineer had my guitar jacked way up in the cans and it was a much different mix than the demo. It was kind of throwing Keltner’s groove until we got it worked out. Thankfully I had rehearsed my parts a lot so I was comfortable with the music. That helped ease the pressure when the red light went on, and once I relaxed it was thrilling. I loved hearing them tell stories about Dylan and the other incredible stuff they’ve done.”

Although it’s tough for Hicks to be completely satisfied with a recording, he is aware that he captured a little bit of magic on this record. “Originally, I was supposed to redo all my guitar parts after the basics were done,” he says, “but I never did. I even think some of those scratch vocals might have made it to the album. It’s funny—sometimes when you’re not thinking about a part as you play it, it comes out really good.”