INSIDE THE JOINT: John Singer Sergeant

Inside the recording of the erstwhile
Deathray Davies frontman’s eponymous debut. Not to be confused with the
early-20th century painter, of course…

 

BY JOHN
DUFILHO

 

I love
recording. I could lock myself in a studio, not come out for months, and be
happy. I’ve made some friends when I’m outside – really talented people.

 

Fortunately
I’ve discovered that most musicians are generous. It’s amazing what people will
do if you just ask. This applies to most things in life.

 

Although I
sing all the time, I don’t really consider myself a singer. I write songs, I
play a few instruments. I was curious: What would they sound like with friends
of mine singing them? Would anyone want to? Do I have any business playing and
recording instruments that I really don’t know how to play? Do I care?

 

The answers,
so far – I’ve found to be: Good, yes, yes, and no.

 

I had a dream
that the cook leaned and shook his fist over the balcony and said yes to
the people. This is a quote from Bob Dylan. I’ll give you ten bucks if you can
tell me where it’s from. A lot of people thought/think he can’t sing. I think
he’s one of the best ever. Truly gifted. It’s all in the expression.

 

I like to play
and record instruments I’ve never picked up before. I want to do everything:
 write, record, mix, master. The only thing I don’t want to do right now
is sing. I don’t hate my voice; we’re just not on good terms.

 

Will Johnson
came in and got right to work. He’s got a good left-hook – keeps his head down
… after two takes, he offers to “try again.” No! We’ve got it. I can’t
believe what a natural he is, inspiring and aggravating all at once. He sings a
harmony line or two and we’re set. At the time he was singing to an acoustic
guitar and a piano. Much later I added drums, bass, tambourines, and a sound I
found that drowns you like you’re smoking opium on a roller coaster.

 

Ben Kweller
sang “Mountains, Oceans, Elephants” at the Magic Shop in NYC. He sent me the
tracks. I loved it so much I had to redo the song, stretch it out a bit, give
it a little room to move around and shake. Ben was born interesting.

 

Robert
Schneider also sent vocal tracks, his came from Lexington, KY. All
the out-of-towners get two stereo mixes from me: an instrumental track for each
singer to sing along with, and another mix with me singing to show
how the melody/words/cadence goes. Also included: instructions to torch the second
mix. You never know what kind of trouble an unintentional vocal take might get
you in. Robert is the only singer who changed my words. I don’t mind, I love
Robert. I have no idea what he’s singing about though, so I printed my words on
the inside of the CD.

 

I met Sir Earl
Toon at a party once. He’s the greatest singer ever, total badass. He was
mentored by a guy named Otis Blackwell, another badass who wrote hit songs
for people like Elvis. I’d like to be mentored by Sir Toon; this lineage thing
seems to be working. He brought his friend Phil along who played the scorching
keyboard lines on “Dizzy Joy.” I can’t wrap my head around how much talent
these two have; it’s staggering.

 

I recorded
Rhett Miller over at Salim Nourallah’s studio. They are much taller and funnier
than people realize. They will be writing and singing songs until their last
melodic breath. I love this about them – lifers. Rhett also sang to an acoustic
guitar and piano track. Later I added a drum beat that I’m proud of; it makes
me feel like Tom Waits would like me.

 

Marcus
Striplin has a much, much lower voice than I do. He turned “Married to the Sea”
into something more interesting than I could have imagined. He tells the story.
It’s a good story – you should listen to him. Marcus can grow a mustache and
still look cool, not ironic cool, just cool. I think I hate him.

 

Sarah Jaffe
was fearless in the studio, willing to try anything. I can’t describe how
amazing this is to witness. Most of us have safety zones built around us like
we’re stuck in an elevator. Not her.

 

“Birdy Num Num”
is a line from a Peter Sellers movie. I love Peter Sellers. I saw Being
There
and then walked around for the next two weeks pretending I was Chance
the gardener. It didn’t work. People thought I’d been hit by a car.

 

My wife,
Danette, is also fearless. I asked her and our artist friend, Letty, to sing
“Birdy Num Num.” Neither of them are singers. “Okay – get us some wine first!” It
was complete reckless fun and went by far too quickly.

 

Brandon Carr
used to sing for a band called The Earlies. He and Dylan Silvers sang, “Why
Does Your Moog Effect Me So?” They stuck around the studio a bit and helped
with the mix. More horns! More phase guitar! Brandon played bass on the song, until I
re-cut it with a 60’s harmony bass. Sorry Brandon.

 

“Kick Your
Feet Up High” is an instruction manual for children. CJ Davis came over to
sing, and in one take, improved the song 100%. He’s got a way of delivering
lines like “you’ll fly like birds” that makes me want to put on a robe and join
the Polyphonic Spree (a band he was once in). He’s an artist as well. He
also beats out everyone in the interesting dept.,
Ben Kweller included. Sorry, Ben.

 

I recorded “Lazy
Days are Good” with Erik Sanden at 9 a.m. one morning in San Antonio. He’d just woken up, I was
splitting town and asked him if we could record something right then and there.
I played guitar, he sang, and we recorded it on a small digital recorder. Later
I added piano, drums, some bells. He sounds like Ira Kaplan meets Ray Davies – two
of my fave singers. Erik’s also one of those guys that truly understands punk
rock.

 

I sent off “Gone
in a Second” to my friend Tony Miller, another musician I know in Lexington, KY. “Gone…” is my version of
what would happen if Burt Bacharach and Getz/Gilberto had a baby. Tony and
Sarah J nailed it + now a lady in NYC named Alice renewed my faith in humanity by making
a video that fits the song perfectly. It’s rare when this happens; it makes me
feel like we’re not so far apart.

 

Chris Walla
and Rachel Demy sang along to a completely different version of “Normal Sounds
Weird.” I’d recorded that song three times, trying to get it
right. Ridiculous. They sent their vocals along with a guitar part Chris
played from above, and I knew I had to get started on version #4. I love the
floor tom. In my head, Mo Tucker and I are best friends.

 

Spyche came in
and recorded “It’s Hard to Run Uphill on Stilts.” It’s the only song on the CD
that’s been recorded before. My band The Deathray Davies put it on a record
called The Day of the Ray. Originally it was supposed to sound like Teenage
Fanclub, but that never happened. Drag. So Spyche says, “I’m gonna sing this,
and if I can get through all the way to the ending, then that’s the one we
keep!” She can pull this kind of thing off.

 

I’m in the
mood to do something punk rock now. Maybe guest drummers with just one fuzz
guitar? It would have to be friends of mine who don’t know how to play the
drums. Much betters that way. Any takers? John Drummer Sergeant has a ring to
it…

 

 

 

“Inside The
Joint” is part of BLURT’s artist-penned series of behind-the-scenes stories.
John Singer Sergeant’s self-titled debut is out now on Kirtland Records.
www.kirtlandrecords.com

 

 

JOHN SINGER
SERGEANT (WITH SARAH JAFFE) – “GONE IN A SECOND”

 

 

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