So Jimmy, tell us about the new album then? Interview.
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
I sent a possible reviewer a streaming link. They seemed interested, so I was contacted about doing an online chatroom interview. There was no payment, but they sent me a list of questions and I could reply to these and tell them anything else I felt I wanted to say and they would then add the appropriate questions. I'd get to approve the interview before it was published. They wanted an exclusive without paying for it. I said no. So this is 21st Century post-lockdown rock'n'roll! I haven't heard back from them. Anyway.....
I looked at the questions made myself a cup of tea and sat down at my MacPro to answer them.
Q. This is your fifth album. What made you decide to write and record this one and what was your motivation for the title, Rattlesnake Love?
JTD. Yes it is. The first one I recorded, Jimmy The Dog, was in 2013 followed by New Tricks in 2014, Runnin' With The Pack in 2016 and Jimmy The Dog's Shuffle'n'Swing in 2018. Since the last album I'd been writing and recording a lot of short acoustic guitar pieces and electronic tension cues to be used in TV and Film. That stopped when I moved back to west London as my (then) dayjob became quite time demanding and then when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I was on holiday in Spain. I had no dayjob to come back to and when everyone went into lockdown, it became apparent that the pandemic wasn't going to disappear after a couple of weeks. So, faced with the prospect of being home all day long I thought, time for another album. Also, Neil and I as the Jimmy The Dog live act had all our gigs cancelled - just like all live performers. One of our cancelled gigs was supporting Dr. Feelgood over the May Bank Holiday, so we were bummed about that. On previous albums, I'd had a few decent players and it wasn't just me on my own. This time, seems that any remote players that I knew and I approached by internet or email either didn't have the facility to record their part, didn't know how to record it to a decent enough level or had the skills and the tools but were, like me, busy using the pandemic to record their own projects. I'd have to rely on my own skills or go to commercial players I didn't know but had studios and would charge accordingly. So I decided I would be on my own for this one - 'solo solo', all vocals, all instruments, programming, recording engineering, producing. That meant me having to re-acquaint myself with instrument styles I don't normally play, such as slide guitar and harmonica. Plus, goes without saying I'd have to make it at home. So, as I considered my skills and available equipment I thought about doing a retro-style rock album, heavily blues-based and keep it upbeat. I'd already recorded loads of ideas and had some material I could work from, so I wasn't always starting from scratch. I wrote a song called Rattlesnake Love a few years ago and I thought it'd be a good title for an album too. The fallout from a recent what-was-going-to-be-a long-term serious romantic relationship also provided a basis for the lyrical content of many of the tracks. So Rattlesnake Love, in the end, became more than just a good title. You get lulled into a false sense of security, then bitten, but it's hypnotic and if you're really stupid, you'll go back for more. Not me though! Haha! However, as this crap was on my mind it did provide me with a theme and so the theme throughout became 'Love', but looked at from many different angles and definitely not cheesy!
Q. Rattlesnake Love is quite a different album to your last album, Jimmy The Dog's Shuffle'n'Swing. What made you decide to go with a different style for Rattlesnake Love?
JTD, Well, partly because of the fact that the last album was a departure from the previous style and this new one reverts more to the style I was doing before. Also, unlike being the complete solo effort Rattlesnake Love is, I used London session players on much of Shuffle'n'Swing, although I played all the guitars, bass, piano and keyboards and did all the drum and percussion programming. Max Fagandini played trumpet and trombone, Dom Thatcher played alto sax and female vocals were provided by the fabulous Louisa Minas. Shuffle'n'Swing was an album I'd always wanted to make, a jazz-swing-pop creation; I play jazz, but don't consider myself to be a jazz player, if you know what I mean. But I've always loved the swing thing so that album has a kind of Michael Bublé/Bobby Darin overtone. We had great fun making it!
Q. On Rattlesnake Love, there are 13 album tracks. How many of them were as a result of your period of self-isolation?
JTD. All but two of them. Rattlesnake Love and Hard For You were initially recorded in 2018 ideally waiting for Neil (who plays with me in the live act) to come in and overlay a harmonica track on each. However, for this project these tracks were about 50% re-recorded and done without additional player input. The others were all brand new. Well, a few only existed as maybe a drum sample and a bass track, maybe acoustic guitar only, just as previously tracked ideas, but nothing was in any sense developed. No, apart from the two tracks mentioned, it's all been new since the start of the pandemic.
Q. What was your writing process?
JTD. Generally, I'd come up with a guitar riff or a fingerpick and develop a track on whatever way I felt on the day. Sometimes as I changed the sound, the idea would change. Eventually, a specific style would emerge and I'd lay down guide tracks; generally guitar to a drum sample and I would play about with the timing until I was satisfied it had the right movement. That would maybe suggest a working title for the track and a theme. I'd then lay down a bass track, then some keys, percussion and perhaps some harmonica. As I was working on ideas without a specific lyric in mind, the guide vocal was always last, often with the melody suggested from within the harmonic structure of the instrumental track. Occasionally an idea would metamorphose quite quickly and and I'd work right through it, other times I'd have to revisit the track on numerous occasions, rewriting various parts, adding middle 8's where necessary, changing choruses etc. On one track (Little Miss) I even decided to completely re-record it in a different key as I couldn't handle the pitch of the vocals on the first recording. I don't have expensive Autotune software and anyway, you need to really know how to use it to get the best results. With my vocals, I'd be spending years on the Autotune! So I write in keys and construct melodies that my singing voice can just about handle and that includes harmonies. My voice is baritone and almost all chest and no head, if you know what I mean, so I seem to have to belt-out the really high notes! I know my limits!
Q. As you didn't record in a commercial studio, what were the limitations and features of recording at home?
JTD. Well, first off you don't have the conditioned environment for acoustic recording or the types and scope of equipment you'd have available in a commercial studio. You've got what you've got and you have to use that. That means you have to see what you can produce is possible yet can still be of a decent quality. Writing good solid songs is very important especially in this case as a good song can often stand on its own with a lesser or should I say more simpler production quality than an expensively-produced song which doesn't cut the
mustard writing-wise. You've got to know what you've got and how to use it. I've been on audio recording and production courses both online and in the US and getting the basics right is the same deal as it was when, say in the early 1950's, there was no multi-track recording, no overdubbing and position of the placement of the single microphone was everything. Modern digital recording makes it easier, but the principles still stand. A lot of what is professionally recorded can be done on a laptop these days but acoustically, they really start at the room level. I'm sure I'm not the only one to have recorded an "isolation album" during this COVID-19 crisis; the pop artist Charlie XCX has recently released one she recorded on her laptop but when all your sounds come from 'inside the box' you don't need to bother about the 'bedroom' environment until you come to record vocals. DJ's don't have to bother about it at all for instrumental remixes. A home studio won't have the quality and efficacy of sound insulation that the vocal booth of a commercial studio will have. As I've moved house a number of times in the last three years, I don't even have a home studio anymore. I have a living room in an apartment which fortunately is in a very quiet block and I have good, tolerant neighbours. Plus, I live alone now, so I can do this more easily than most. I don't have acoustic room treatments, although I do have my living room set up so that I can work as effectively as possible. The downside of this is that you risk external noise leakage into the recording and also you'll always have that room's acoustic qualities embedded in the vocal or acoustic guitar tracks. However the flip side is that this can be a good thing if you have a quiet environment and you know how to use it to your room to your advantage. You've got to use common sense for acoustic recording like for instance taking clocks out of the room or staying way from squeaky floorboards and recording when it's quiet outside. Also you want to chose the best position in the room for your mic and keep it there as a change in mic position will result in a change in the perceived room dynamics. Chose your spot and stick to it. The next thing is you don't have the professional level recording hardware or even the range of software available in a commercial studio. But if you know how to use your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, sometimes referred to as 'ProTools' regardless who makes it), some decent plug-ins and whatever else you've got and keep it simple with good songs, there's a good chance you can produce something people will want to listen to. Plus good MIDI keyboard sounds make life so much easier than it used to be!
Q. If you're limited to what you've got in your home studio, what equipment did you have available and what did you use?
JTD. I used the same MacPro computer with Ableton Live 9 Suite software and Yamaha MSP 5 monitors that I used on the previous two albums. I've got some nice mics and pre-amps in storage, but this time I used an Apogee One combined USB interface and pre-amp with built-in microphone which, although it's not in the same league as a Neumann, is pretty damned good for all kinds of acoustic recording, including vocals. Ableton has the advantage of being a one-stop shop for sounds and components and I used its MIDI sounds for keyboard pianos, organs and percussion. I used a Drumcore Plug-in for drum programming, but mainly using the Ableton MIDI drum sounds and I used techniques I've learned about how to make MIDI drums sound a lot more real. For MIDI work and keyboards I use a Novation 61SL MKII midi controller keyboard, top end stuff and very good to work with. The bass guitar I used was my 4-string Samick Artist Series refitted with DiMarzio split-P pick-ups. Guitars I used were my Takamine EF-300 acoustic, Yamaha FG 340 acoustic (from 1981), Cort Earth 12-string acoustic, Fender Nashville Deluxe Telecaster, Fender TC-90 (a custom limited-run Telecaster, which I've since sold), Yamaha AES 800, G&L Comanche and G&L ASAT Classic. I also used a couple of Hohner Blues Harps for the harmonica tracks. As I've sold most of my amps and anyway doing a "Spinal Tap" and 'turning up to eleven' would be more than frowned upon in my block, my electric guitar tracks used a Line 6 TonePort interface for 'silent' recording. Line 6 allows you to change or experiment with the actual electric guitar sound on the original recording. I'd use this facility a lot when recording. I'd do acoustic recording when I knew it was pretty much going to be quiet outside. The room response happened to be quite good, so I tended use that and not to apply additional software reverb and delay unnecessarily. Ableton has great in-built compressors, EQ, limiters and other processors and it's easy to use once you get used to it not being like actual ProTools in its presentation. Also, since I recorded the first JTD album years ago, I've learned more about audio engineering techniques and practices and I put this to good use. I know the basics quite well.
Q. Do you do your own mastering?
JTD. Yes, in this case. I wouldn't normally recommend you do your own mastering as it's often better to have an independent unbiased pair of ears doing your post-production and mastering is a black art in its own right anyway. However, out of necessity and for simplicity and economy I did it myself using a T-Racks Custom Shop mastering plug-in which has some great presets and makes your tracks really sit up and at a volume consistent with modern album noise levels and quality. I found the trick was not to spend too much time on it and to give your ears a good rest between tracks.
Q. Tell us about your lyric writing. You mentioned that the vocal was the last thing you'd record and this was because the lyrics would be written after the track was laid down. How did you go about writing the lyrics for this album and where do your ideas come from?
JTD. The lyrics for Rattlesnake Love and Hard For You were already written before I started the project. I often start with a title and work around that. Previously I've written lyrics and then fitted a melody to the lyric, but this time because a lot of it was riff-based, I decided to finish a track to get the feel and the sound of it although this can make lyric-writing more challenging. I'd play about with words suggested by the tone and feel of the track. I'd do a lot of word-linking on an A4 notebook page and sometimes a sentence or phrase would fall out. I'd write down whatever came out, even if it was complete nonsense. I'd construct a lyric to more or less fit the meter of each line or phrase. Soon I was coming up with words, phrases leading me to choruses and verses. Also, this time I decided that I'd complete a lyric in a day; I'd start on it in the morning and have something ready for review by the day's end. This might go through a few revisions before becoming the final lyric, especially if the song structure was to change during the writing process. Sometimes, the title wouldn't be apparent until the song was nearly finished, as was the case with 'Needle In A Haystack'. As far as ideas go, I have a book where over a number of years I have written down a bunch of interesting phrases from newspaper or TV sources, films, radio interviews or just things that people have said to me, especially if they're funny or have an internal contrast. For instance, in the track 'Bourbon and Rye', the lines " it took a lot of money to make her look that cheap" and "without your high double standards, you'd have no standards at all" come from a Dolly Parton interview from a few years ago. The rest of that track, well I guess I just channeled Tom Waits! In the case of 'Needle in a Haystack', I wanted to say "shot them to death" in an interesting, more graphic way which would fit the meter of the musical phrase and after playing around with words and phrases came up with "lullabied them in a lead farewell" which seems to say a lot more. Eventually, the melodies for each track would come from the suggested meter of the lyric within the harmonic structure of the recorded track.
Q. Your lyrics have a common theme of disappointed or dysfunctional love. The album almost seems like a concept album. Was this intentional?
JTD. No, not at all. In fact, it wasn't until I was more than half-way through the album I realised that there seemed to be a subconscious connection between the songs through the lyrics. Although it's not a concept album per se I can see how this might be perceived. However, it just seemed to come out this way. The theme of love which runs through it is strong but exhibited in different ways. The tracks demonstrate this;
Rattlesnake Love - obsessive love, lust, uncontrollable and the only way is down!
Long Way Down - greed, love of money, we're all going to Hell!
Hard For You - obvious sexual double entendre
The Devil Takes Care Of His Own - the love of being told what you want to hear. Subsequently you're being used, not loved, taken for a fool, come on down to Hell!
Backbeat - crush love on old flame and common love of music. Solid. Reliable.
Little Miss - vapid self-love and love of adulation causing eventual downfall
Lovin' The Old Skool Way - the title says it all
Love Long Gone - when you realise the love of your life is never coming back
Bourbon and Rye - dealing with marital infidelity through alcohol
Race to Win - love of success
Sunrise - love in the sense of self-respect
Needle in a Haystack - lies, cheating, love spurned and mortal revenge
Johnson - we all know what Johnson is the euphemism for (and it's got nothing to do with Boris in this case)! Love in the sense of lust, a one-night stand with an unfaithful woman and love of self-preservation as the huge husband approaches to threaten your life!
So in the end I thought the title I'd chosen for the album was on the money!
Q. Can you tell us about your musical influences for this album?
JTD. Ah, yes. More than a few. Well, Rattlesnake Love has a sense of urgency you'd hear in a lot of classic punk band's music but I when I wrote it I was thinking of the Breaking Bad TV series and I wanted a more Outlaw Country or Desert Rock sound. Long Way Down is a nod to ZZ Top and Hard For You is a general 6/8 time electric blues. The Devil Takes Care of His Own has a strong 70's Deep Purple influence, Backbeat is as if the Beatles or The Kinks did Motown, Little Miss is American Punk a la Good Charlotte, Blink 182, Sum 41 etc. Love Long Gone is country rock perhaps as Vince Gill or Kenny Chesney, Lovin' The Old Skool Way is a nod to 50's and 60's rock'n'roll. Race to Win is hard rock, perhaps early Whitesnake or UFO and Sunrise has Tom Petty and Eddie Vedder in there. Needle in a Haystack has a lot of Steve Earle and perhaps Chis Isaak. Bourbon and Rye is pure Tom Waits and was intentionally written so. Tom Waits is probably the best lyricist the world has ever seen. Did I miss any?
Q. Who designed the album cover?
JTD. It's actually a stock vector illustration I licensed for album use. I added the orthography to the vector. I tend not to focus too much on art and design!
Q. Do you ever collaborate and write with others?
JTD. No. Well, rarely. However, that said, I never rule out a collaboration. It's just that, in the way I work, I generally get things done by myself. The ideas normally come into full form without anybody external input. However, if I get stuck, I'll reach out.
Q. Where is the Rattlesnake Love going to be available from and when?
JTD. It'll be available to buy from this website plus you'll be able to stream it or buy it from a bunch of online stores including Apple Music, Amazon, Google Play, Spotify, Tidal and some others I don't really know. I use Distrokid as the upload service. For the independent artist it's fairly simple to use, but you have to get everything right first time for a successful upload! However, it's usually in download stores by the artist-defined release date. I'll do a limited run of CD's too. There'll be a Facebook Live launch soon after the album being available in stores.
Q. What's your next project?
JTD. Right now after this, updating the websites, social links and promoting the new album, then more tension cues and electronic tracks for TV and film. I've also got a few acoustic folk tracks I could master and release as an EP. I've been thinking it would be fun to do a latin-pop album too in the future, all upbeat dance numbers. There'd be a lot of outsourcing on that one!