“They don’t write ’em like that anymore.”
If you think Greg Kihn’s words are as true today as when he penned them back in 1981, take heart. Michael Shaw, of the very descriptively named band An Intimate Evening with Michael Shaw, does indeed write ’em like that on his independently released debut, This Is It. If, of course, by “like that” you mean tunes with clever changes, big choruses, interesting parts for all the instruments, and melodies… gobs and gobs of beautiful melodies, counterpoint, harmonies, and more melodies. And, like the records that were created in the days of yore, AIEWMS did it without a click. That bears repeating: without a click! Who does that? Michael Shaw does, and that lack of a clock lends a glorious, unfettered freedom to his tunes (although, to be honest, the time is Ringo-rock solid throughout). Lest you think he does all this at the expense of the guitar, don’t sweat it. Shaw is a great rock guitarist with a knack for Townshend-style power chords, Lizzy-esque harmonized lines, and Brit-pop jangle. But here’s the catch: He doesn’t play any guitar whatsoever on this guitar-iffic release. He’s more than content to leave the 6-string duties to co-producer and bandmate Eli Nelson, whose instrumental offering, Atomic, was reviewed in the 3/13 issue of GP. Nelson proves to be the perfect foil for Shaw, providing gorgeous clean sounds, singing single- note lines, swirling Leslie tones, and soaring Gilmour-style outro solos on tunes that recall everything that is cool about the Beatles and everyone who was ever influenced by the Beatles, which is kind of all of us. If you’re a fan of pop-inflected rock and want to be reminded why you love the music that you love, take a listen to This Is It.
Michael, you’re a great guitarist. Why don’t you play any guitar on this record?
Shaw: When I was first prodded to create this band, I was very reluctant to do it initially, but I knew I didn’t want to play guitar in it. The first guy that came to mind was Eli. I said to myself, “If I can get Eli on guitar, I’ll consider doing this.” Amazingly, Eli said yes, and I sent him some little demos.
When you first heard these tunes, could you instantly hear yourself on them?
Nelson: Yeah. I liked them immediately. I think I heard “Leave Me Alone” and maybe “Hey.” I knew they were well-crafted songs and that it would be really fun to play on this stuff. It seemed absolutely natural to be able to chime in and support the music.
What had you heard in Eli’s playing that made you think, “This is the guy that I want to play guitar on these tunes”?
Shaw: There was definitely his technical chops, which I have lost a little bit over the years because I started to play piano a lot more and I don’t really practice guitar. But I had also heard him in a cover band, and I knew that he understood pop music and the art of the hook, and that sometimes simplicity is the best way to go. I was a little worried that Eli might overplay a bit, but he’s a serious musician and I just figured that it would all work out.
Nelson: My instrumental guitar record, Atomic, is sort of shred based, and that was by design. For these tunes, Michael definitely had a hand in influencing what I played. He had demoed some of the stuff on guitar, so I could hear his ideas and where he was going with it. I could hear places where I might stretch out or try different voicings or different tonal ideas.
Talk about the writing process. You holed up in some place in Ireland and just wrote for a week?
Shaw: Sort of. I mean, I definitely did go to Ireland and I rented a little cottage for seven days right by the Giant’s Causeway and four miles from the Bushmills Distillery. I rented a car and went out there with my laptop and a MIDI keyboard and a microphone, and I just worked on songs. I’d drink whiskey, stoke the fire, and work. It was great. One of the best things I’ve ever done.
How far along were the progressions when you arrived in Ireland?
Shaw: There were a few that I already had rough ideas for. “Floating Away” was written from the ground up out there. I always laugh when people ask Paul McCartney about the songwriting process and he says, “Oh, you just muck about a little bit.” But that’s basically what you do. You just kind of go until you hear something that you like. I still have ideas for songs that I wrote out there that I haven’t brought to the band yet.
What were the recording sessions like?
Nelson: Early on, Michael talked about us co-producing this thing. I suggested we record at this place called Panoramic House in Stinson Beach. I was really interested in the idea that we would not use a click. I kept reminding everyone that all of our favorite music wasn’t done with a click in most cases, so why don’t we try to do a record that way? We can ebb and flow and we should be a good enough band that we can track without a click. We went in there and did all the basics live: piano, bass, drums, and guitar.
How much separation were you going for sonically?
Nelson: Guitar amps were in an iso box. Drums were miked close and far so we could make choices around the design of the sound. Bass was tracked both direct and through a medium-size Ampeg combo in a hallway, which really sounds great. Piano was miked, so if we used the acoustic piano there would be some bleed onto it. In some cases we replaced the guitar and piano tracks, but we tried to keep them whenever we could.
How much overdubbing did you do for guitars? Did you double rhythms?
Nelson: We decided that it was a good idea to double a lot of the rhythm parts, for that chorus-y glassy sound—a little thicker, a little prettier. I did a lot of layering on some tunes. On “Wise Words,” Michael asked me to do my best Brian May, so we kept adding tracks and I would come up with an idea and then a responding harmony or a counterpoint. That song had like eight guitar parts by the time we were done with it just for that solo.
Shaw: Then when we mixed it, we pulled a lot out and adjusted the levels of what we left in.
What was your rig for the recording?
Nelson: I brought three combo amps into the studio. I had a Hughes & Kettner Puretone, which consists of one gain knob and bass, middle, and treble. It’s 25 watts, EL34s, and a 1x12, but it’s got a really well-built cabinet so it has this 4x12-style warmth to the bottom end. I also had a Bogner Duende, which is sort of their version of a Princeton—15 watts, 6V6s. It’s got a channel mixing feature so you can have clean and dirty simultaneously, which is really fun. I brought an old Supro Thunderbolt from the ’60s as another amp. I think there was one moment where we had all three amps running, with a center dry and a left and right effected, but the majority of the record is the Bogner Duende, with maybe 30 to 40 percent Hughes & Kettner. I used the Strymon Timeline for most of the delays, and I used the Electro-Harmonix HOG2 on a few special moments.
For guitars, I used a late-’60s Gibson lapsteel for slide parts, a Trussart Steel Top set neck, and a reissue goldtop Les Paul Deluxe that I used on a ton of stuff because the mini ’buckers were just so great. They really nail that area that’s somewhere between a Fender and a Gibson in the way they cut. I used an old Strat of mine on “Gooseberry Fool” and a Jerry Jones sitar on a couple of tracks.
How did you get the clean tones on “Raincloud”?
Nelson: That was a Rickenbacker 610 12-string that I used for a lot of the strummy chord stuff. I also have an old Ibanez Les Paul Special-style guitar that I used for some of the other clean stuff. That was straight into the Hughes & Kettner with just a little bit of heat on the gain so that it broke up a tiny bit, miked with a Royer 121 and the Shure 57. For the distorted single-note lines it was my Trussart into a TC Electronic Vintage Pre-Drive.
You get a lot of little “character” tones—different and unique sounds for not just each tune but for each section of each tune.
Nelson: Yeah. You don’t really want to hear the same guitar tone over and over again, unless you’re Satriani or Santana, and even they change it up. It’s not about the guitar, it’s about the songs. Each event should be like a different piece of candy or a different flavor so the listener has more of an interesting journey. Then, if I come back to a sound, I want to be sure I’ve been away from it long enough so it makes sense to return to it.
What are your plans for this record?
Shaw: We’ll see. I would love to take this on the road, but I’m not sure that’s feasible. I believed in the music enough to pay for everything myself—I wasn’t going to wait around for anybody else to get onboard. We’ve got a small army behind us, but it needs to get a little bit bigger to do bigger and better things. I tried to write the kind of music that I would want to listen to, and we’re able to pull it off live. When we’re on our game we’re definitely a force. When people hear the music, they generally get it, so I really hope more people can hear it.