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Mark Howard

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Listen Up!

Listen Up!

Recording Music with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2, R.E.M., The Tragically Hip, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Waits...
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Chapter 25




In January of 2002 Andy Kaulkin, the head of Anti Records called me. He was a big fan of the Lucinda Williams album, and he’d pitched my name to Tom Waits for his next record. I was thrilled: I’d been a big fan of Tom’s “Bone Machine” album.

Andy wasn’t sure when Tom wanted to start, but said that Tom would call me. A year passed and I assumed they must have recorded with someone else. But in February of 2003 Tom finally called.

“Hey Mark,” he said in his low, gravelly voice. “I was wondering if you would be available to make my next record.”

I agreed right away.

“I understand that you produce a lot of records,” he continued. “I have the producing part covered by my wife Kathleen and me. Would it be possible for you to separate the production and the engineering part, then record and mix my record?”

I told him I actually did that a lot. I also told him where I was working—at The Paramour—and that we could record there if he liked. Tom said that although it sounded great, he liked to work close to home so he was with family. The studio that was closest to his home was more than two hours away and it would be a battle going back and forth every day. I suggested I do a studio installation somewhere nearer.

“Hmm … now that could be interesting,” he said.

He told me about an old schoolhouse that people rented for events. I flew into Oakland, rented a car, and drove up to a little town called Valley Ford, just north of San Francisco. It was about a twenty minute drive past Petaluma, and the town a short drive past Bodega Bay where Alfred Hitchcock had filmed his 1963 horror film The Birds. What a creepy little fishing village that was: driving in I felt a chill in the air; it was windy and disturbing because the birds really do swarm there.

Tom was to meet me there at 2:00. There was just a little general store with a wooden porch and I imagined Tom showing up in a rusted out 50s pick-up. Cars came and went but not Tom. I was sitting on the wooden bench out front of the general store when a woman driving a black Audi with tinted windows pulled up. It sat there for a good fifteen minutes before the woman got out and walked over to the store. Just as she entered the building she looked over at me and asked, “You’re not Mark, are you?”

I told her I was but she continued on into the store, which I thought strange. When she came back out she said, “Tom said he wanted to talk to you.”

I explained that I had been waiting for him for an hour but he hadn’t shown up. She told me to come over to the car and so I walked with her. She opened the back door and there he was. I hadn’t been able to see him because of the blackened windows.

Tom Waits climbed out, dressed entirely in denim--what we in Canada call “The Canadian tuxedo.”

“Hey, Mark, it’s me, Tom. Sorry I’m late, I was working on a ‘preparation.’”

I didn’t know what that meant but told him it was fine.

We drove around the corner to the schoolhouse, a long wooden building with steps that led up to two double doors. There was a big old barn beside it and a big dirt parking lot in front. We walked in and it was still intact, complete with chalk boards and the alphabet hanging above them. It was just one big classroom, with girls’ and boys’ bathrooms. With the wooden flooring and fluorescent lighting and was all a bit stark. It did have windows along the front, and the possibility of good natural light.

I’d brought a few pieces of test gear like always: a voltage meter and the other a little cassette blaster that I hooked up to an acoustic guitar pickup to check the magnetic field. The voltage was 220 and the magnetic field was near perfect. Tom asked if I thought it would work, and I said I did. It was exactly the same size room as The Paramour. He said he’d talk to the custodian and to see if he could rent it for a couple months.

He wanted to play me some songs he’d been working on but had no way to play them because they were on a Tascam 4 track cassette machine. I suggested he come to L.A. for a day so we could listen to the songs, and I told him that would be able to mix them down so he could listen to them on a CD in his car.

He was enthusiastic. “Wow! That’s what I need.”

Tom and his wife Kathleen came to L.A. to work with me at The Paramour in March of 2003. I walked them around the property and they couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Tom pulled out his 4 track cassette recorder and I plugged it in. They were recordings that he had done in the bathroom of his house, late at night while everyone was sleeping. It sounded so animalistic--he had grunted into the mic and although it was distorted, the recording featured a nice overdrive. He had done beats with his mouth and then over dubbed pots and pans on top of them, boom chic clang. It was so bizarre -- but it was also great!

“When we make the record we will re-record it to get a bigger sound,” I said.

I mixed it all down so he had a reference, but they were mainly ideas for rhythm tracks, with no lyrics.

Tom had worked out a deal to work at the schoolhouse and we planned to start in April. He only wanted to work weekdays. I packed up all the studio gear, all the rugs and couches and loaded them into a 24-foot U-haul. I also took a Harley with me—a little 883 Sportster—so I would have a way to get around. The truck was packed to the gills, with the Harley-Sportster stuffed in the back so the door just closed. I left The Paramour at 5 am to beat traffic. It took a lot longer to get there because the truck would only go 55 mph and going through ‘The Grapevine,’ a 40-mile stretch of the Golden State Freeway, was incredibly slow. There is a gradual climb to the road and it’s famous for overheating cars and blowing head gaskets. I arrived in the early evening and Tom and his kids were there to help me unload the truck. I backed it up to the front entrance of the schoolhouse and pulled out the ramp. It only took an hour to unload everything. Tom said that we could start bringing over some of his instruments the next day.

They had booked me into a bed and breakfast just up the street, a musty old Victorian house. My room felt like it belonged in a doll house, with lots of frilly curtains and old wooden wardrobes. There was no TV or internet and the bathroom was up the hall. Being totally exhausted from the drive I crashed right away, but I woke up at four o’clock in the morning, and being wide awake with nothing to do I headed over to the schoolhouse to start the installation.

I had brought a Moroccan tent with me which I set up over the control room area and hung the walls of the tent over the front windows so no one could see inside. It was purple silk and combined with the rugs it felt like a Moroccan palace. I had everything all set up by nine that morning so I went back to the Bed and Breakfast to eat.

Tom arrived at the schoolhouse at noon. “Wow! I would have never imagined it to be this cool,” he exclaimed at the doorway. He called Kathleen and told her she needed to come over so he could show her.

Later on Tom said we needed to go to his house and pick up his gear while we had the big truck. There were green rolling hills out where he lived and it felt a little like being in Ireland. We arrived at a little treed area and then carried on down a winding road that led to a set of gates. They were like a metal sculpture with gardening tools welded to it, old shovels, garden scissors, and a pitch fork. Once the gates opened we drove down the lane to the house which looked more like a modern barn that had been converted into a house. There was a swimming pool that looked like a lagoon and a trampoline with cargo netting around it. The outside area was like an army training camp, with ropes that hung from the trees with more cargo netting for climbing, and old tire tubes stacked to climb through—it was definitely a kid’s paradise.

We went into Tom’s storage locker, which was bigger than a garage and looked like a half-finished studio. It was packed to the ceiling with all kinds of exotic instruments, old pianos, a steam Calliope, a wooden Marimba, African Kalimbas, and a double key Chamberlin. I was floored by the incredible things he had, and on the walls were black and white photos of him and Keith Richards. Tom said that Keith and James Brown were his heroes. We loaded the truck with all kinds of musical toys and went back to the schoolhouse to unload.

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