Jim Scott began his career in record production nearly 40 years ago; starting as a go-fer, and steadily climbing each rung of the ladder, eventually becoming a Grammy-winning engineer in 1995 for Tom Petty’s Wildflowers. His vast experience working with some of the industry’s heavyweights- from the Rolling Stones and Red Hot Chili Peppers to Sting and Santana- eventually motivated Scott to open his own PLYRZ recording studio, away from the crowded concrete of Los Angeles, in the quieter, mountainside city of Santa Clarita, California. There, as a producer, Scott has worked on several Grammy-winning efforts, including the debut album for Tedeschi Trucks Band, as well as acclaimed releases by Wilco and Robert Randolph. The seven-time Grammy winner also had a longtime professional and personal connection with the late Neal Casal. This past summer, Casal and his band, Circles Around the Sun, were recording at PLYRZ, working on their third LP. In late August, Casal committed suicide. Just a few weeks following the tragic event, Scott spoke from his studio about Casal, his creative relationships with artists, and getting the best performances on the record.
Tell me about your relationship with Neal Casal.
I love Neal Casal. I’d known him for a really, really long time. I met him in the early ‘90s; maybe ’91 or ’92. I did some of his very first demos with him. Those demos led to him getting a publishing deal and then a record deal. Then, I made his first record, and made his third record, parts of other records, and I was with him a couple of days before he died, at the studio making what’s going to be his last record with Circles Around the Sun.
It must have been a shock.
It’s shocking and it’s crushing and it’s sad. It’s bewildering. I feel guilty of not seeing something in Neal that I could’ve talked to him about. Every picture of us together he’s smiling, and laughing, and playing guitar. Through the years it all just seemed so good. He was a traveling man. He got in a lot of amazing bands, did a lot of hard work, wrote a lot of amazing songs. He became everybody’s go-to guy; everybody’s right-hand man. It seemed like things were golden. I’m really depressed and sad about him giving up the fight.
As a producer do you welcome a personal relationship with an artist, guard against it, or do you just act according to whatever develops naturally?
There’s certainly no plan for that. Artists are traveling people. Most of the time artists come in and you spend an intense amount of time working on something that is very personal to them. And, you get in and do a lot of work, and spend way more time with them in a short period of time than you do with your family and your other close friends. It’s intense: you have to have eye contact; tell the truth. It’s pretty real. Some of those relationships become friendships. Some stay professional with a certain dose of friendship involved. That’s if you are lucky enough to have them come back again and again and do more work. There’s not a bowling league where we can all get together and hang out. (Once) they finish the record they start their (tour) cycle.
Is it safe to say your relationship with Neal was an exception?
Neal was an exception. Neal was a friend. He stayed at my house. I lent him my car for a while. I hired him to play on dozens of records. He was definitely in my life more than just a guy who played guitar and sang.
When you are working, is the closeness an asset or do you have to detach from that?
Closeness is more about trust. When people reach out to me wanting to work together, or send me songs, or even in a conversation before I hear the music, they may have 15 or so songs to ultimately choose the nine or ten to make an album. The quickest way for me to get to the bottom of the whole dance is to carefully listen to those songs, make notes, and get ideas. And when I get them I on the phone I say, “I’ll go first. Here are the songs I want to work on because I think these are the best.” I give them my A-list. Take it for what’s it’s worth.
Typically, how accepting is the artist when you give them that initial feedback?
Most of the time they take it really well. But, also, they want to ask about a song that wasn’t picked. That’s when you have to start having conversations. You can’t fake it. You have to something (thoughtful) to say about something that is important to them, and to me, too. You have to get right in there with the truth. I do try to give affirmation of the good part without criticizing the bad part too much. Not everything everyone sings and plays is good. You have to be encouraging while you are delivering the bad.
You talk about nine or ten songs being an album. That seems to recall the era of vinyl LPs, rather than the CD or download era when there is the potential for much more.
For those artists fortunate enough to make vinyl, it’s a fantastic medium that can only take about ten songs, depending, obviously, on the length of each song. So, four or five a side. Anything more than that and you risk sacrificing quality for length; or you sacrifice the money it costs to put out a double-disc- with three songs per side, and really wide grooves, and it sounds amazing. I know on the last Tedeschi Trucks Band album (Signs), we had three sides of music and a fourth side with a fantastic etching- a picture- you can look at, which is cool.
The effect of an album being , basically, ten songs still means something to you, then?
Albums are still important to me and I feel like ten songs is an album. You can sequence like an album: there’s a rise and a fall. You start with one and end with one. Somewhere in the middle you build it up, then let it back down, then build it up again. There’s still that flow.
Does the destination matter to you- whether it’s for vinyl, CD, digital?
Not at all. I concentrate on making things sound like a record, as fast as I possibly can. The record will reveal itself pretty quickly if you allow it. It’s hard enough getting things to sound generally good if not great. I don’t have the knowledge to do something (differently) if an artist says it’s only for an iTunes release or something.
Lately, I see a lot of reissues on digital making an effort to revert back to the mix and/or mastering of the original vinyl release. It seems like the medium is looking backwards instead of forward.
Before we had CDs, mastering an album was a really big deal. See, the digital medium will take just about anything you throw at it. That’s sort of the good news and really bad news. With vinyl, there’s a limitation. So, the mastering engineers who cut vinyl- these guys were geniuses. They really listened. They really did amazing things.
How do you know when you’ve got a “done” take?
It’s just my experience for all the years of doing it. I have a better handle on why someone would want to listen to this song right now. I work until I’m satisfied. I go through all the stuff that listeners don’t care about but as a record producer, a record maker, an engineer, I am responsible for. It should sound good. It should be right. I have to believe that when I think it’s right, everyone will think it’s right. I feel I try to act boldly; record boldly. I’ve always loved loud things popping out. It’s exciting to have loud tom-toms every once in a while. Just listen to an Elton John record. The Beatles’ records are awesome; stuff comes in so loud. No one would ever remix Beatles’ records to make them calmer.
Saying “it should be right,” you are talking about the feel of the performance rather than whether or not it’s perfect in a technical sense, yes?
Around here, it’s 100% performance-based. I don’t spend any time looking at music on a screen. I spend all my time listening. For me, it’s by the seat of my pants. If it isn’t in my groove, it’s not going to be in anybody’s groove. My groove might be wider than others who are more precise. Music shouldn’t be precise. It’s emotional. Things don’t have to be perfect. They just have to groove. I call it “the rocking chair.” If I can get in the rocking chair and stay there for the whole song- that is a take.
What about when you are working with a large ensemble like the 12-piece Tedeschi Trucks Band?
Tedeschi Trucks Band is a leviathan; a giant. They’re so much fun, and not even hard to record because they are so good. The hard part is resisting taking the first take or two and saying that it can’t be better. You have to dig a little deeper. Honestly, with them, it’s getting better and better. I wish there was a way for them to play all their new songs out on the road before we go in to record them, but you can’t do that these days because everyone has a cell phone. The record would (end up) out there online – the live versions- before you recorded the album.
You talked about working with Neal and Circles Around the Sun- another band known for strong live performances. I would imagine you prefer recording live in the studio if you can.
Mike Campbell (Tom Petty) once said to me, ‘I’ve never heard five guys playing good sound bad.’ I think about that all the time. It shouldn’t be that mysterious. It shouldn’t be that hard. If people have to struggle to get through a four-minute song, they are not ready to record it.
Because a performance is subjective- whether or not it was a “great take”- I can imagine you hearing something and thinking it can be better, and an artist hearing the same take and thinking it’s “the one.” Or vice-versa. Who wins that debate?
I never win. It’s not my job to be that guy. I’m not a musician. I have one man’s humble opinion. Their fans love them; they don’t love me. I always defer to the artist. It’s never going to say “vocals by Jim Scott” anywhere on the record.