James Lee Stanley is a musician that clearly considers and explores music in extremely unique ways. His musical curiosity is fully evident in his latest project with Cliff Eberhardt, All Wood and Doors, an acoustic-guitar exploration of classic Doors songs. The 12-song project, which was released this month by Beachwood Recordings, has support and involvement from two Doors members (John Densmore and Robby Krieger). The release (described at Stanley’s website as “an amazing collection of Doors tunes played on acoustic guitars and laden with soulful vocals and joyous harmonies”) also has the involvement of numerous, talented musicians including Peter Tork, Timothy B. Schmit, Laurence Juber, Paul Barrere and Chad Watson. Stanley was kind enough to discuss this project with me, as well as his new solo release (Backstage at the Resurrection) in the following email interview.
While John Densmore and Robby Krieger were complimentary of the project and expressed interest in working with you two on this Doors collection, I am wondering if there was part of you that was intimidated by the prospect of working with them?
I was certainly thrilled to have not only their blessings, but also their contributions; however I don’t recall feeling any intimidation. After playing music all my life and recording 25 other CDs and producing many other artists, soundtracks, scoring TV shows, writing musicals, performing, and session work, it just seemed like more musicians coming together for the sake of the music. And they were both congenial, professional and just fun to hang with. I was not only honored to be with them, but had a great time.
You have a great amount of experience as a musician, and in fact you were breaking into the music scene a few years after The Doors. Have you always had a healthy respect for the band’s music, or was this an appreciation you gained in recent years?
I loved The Doors from the first time I heard them. My pal, Ray Thole, and I were driving a VW bug somewhere south of San Francisco when “Light My Fire” came on the radio and we literally had to pull over to listen to it. We couldn’t drive the car and listen to that music simultaneously. It was just too powerful…and I don’t think the opium had anything to do with it.
The lineup of talent that contributes to this collection includes Peter Tork (Monkees), Timothy B Schmit (Eagles), Laurence Juber (Paul McCartney & Wings), Paul Barrere (Little Feat), Scott Breadman (Rippingtons, Lindsey Buckingham), and Chad Watson (David Arkenstone, Janis Ian). How did you go about deciding which musicians were best suited for particular songs?
All of the players you’ve mentioned have worked with me through the years and I’ve been in the audience, the studio and the living room with all of them. I know what they do and their prodigious gifts simply led the way. I knew from the moment we had a basic track who I wanted to have play on it. I knew what songs I wanted Timothy to be on. Most of the time I just felt, ah, this is the person for this tune. And in some instances, I was wrong.
In the Motown/Steely Dan tradition, I sometimes had several people (including me) play on a song until I heard the solo that I wanted. I had a vision for each song and I could tell when that vision was being served and when it wasn’t. That’s not to say I told anyone what I wanted them to play. I don’t like to do that. If I want to hear something specific, I’ll just play it myself. I wanted the contribution of others and I didn’t want to influence it in any way, unless it was just going in a direction I felt was counterproductive to the sonic vision I had. I like to bring in the best people and then get out of their way. Even though I frequently play everything myself on a basic track; sketching out the entire arrangement, I don’t show it to the musicians or refer to it until mixing time. Then I listen to see if I stumbled upon something worth keeping; incorporating it into what has evolved, or ignoring it completely.
Compare the creative process with this project versus your last project of this kind from 2005, All Wood and Stones (reinterpreting the music of The Rolling Stones): were there production lessons you took away from your last project that you were able to put to good use in this new project?
Because the material is so very different, I don’t believe that I brought anything conscious to the process, though I must have because I hadn’t done a project before like All Wood and Stones and I suppose that John [Batdorf] and I ironed out the kinks on that one.
I do know that in both instances there was simply no ego involved. We didn’t argue over who sang what. We took a whack at the songs that resonated for us and in most instances that’s the vocalist that was on that cut.
I do know that we had more background parts in All Wood and Stones than we did in All Wood and Doors, but that was because of the music. I put background vocals on several things that I ended up not using as they sounded both superfluous and cheesy. On other cuts, there are tons of harmonies.
This recording is much more a guitarist’s CD as there are so many different soloists and layers of guitars. But that’s what I felt it needed…to counterbalance the absence of Manzarek’s amazingly atmospheric organ.
As usual, I’m just trying to serve the song, the arrangement and the recording. I like to make CDs that I actually enjoy listening to. I have read many interviews with artists who claim that they never listen to their CDs after they record them, but I spend an enormous amount of time making these recordings sound just like I want with musical evolution, and when I’m done I like to hear it. I listen to the whole gamut, and that gamut includes what I myself do.
Can you single out certain nuances and strengths of The Doors’ songs that came out more with your reinterpretations, thanks to the acoustic guitar dynamics? Also, which songs benefited the most from vocal harmonies?
I think that The Doors created amazingly original and atmospheric recordings. They sounded great the day they came out and they still do all these years later. I don’t believe that anything more came out, unless you are talking about just something different coming out.
I believe that an artist must interpret a song when they sing it, and an arranger must bring something new to the arrangement. Otherwise you simply have reiteration, and what’s the point of that on a recording? You can do that live and it’s thrilling to hear a recording reproduced on stage, but to go in and re-record something, you must bring something else to the party. Otherwise, why bother? We’ve already heard that arrangement.
We kept the melodies intact, I believe, but the chord structure underneath is, in most instances, completely different than the original. And we also even changed a time signature. “Take it As it Comes” is a simple four-four, but we changed it to five-four in the verses and three-four in the choruses. And we didn’t do that for any other reason than that’s exactly what happened when I started playing it. I didn’t think about it at all. It just showed up, fully formed. Channeling Dave Brubeck while he was sleeping, perhaps.
Harmony-wise, we tried lots of stuff that didn’t work and some things that just exploded with joy. On the original Doors recordings, there is no harmony whatsoever, just some double tracking. So as soon as you put harmony on something you are going someplace else.
I happen to be in love with harmonies (check out Backstage At The Resurrection as there are harmonies all over my latest solo effort) and applied them wherever I thought they would work. “Soul Kitchen” knocks me out. When Timothy and Cliff sang that high part in the chorus, I got bumps on my arms. And Batdorf and Cliff and I doing those harmonies on “Touch Me” are just thrilling for me. On “Light My Fire,” I put some harmonies behind the solo but none on the vocal (that I used, I tried stuff, but I didn’t like it). “Moonlight Drive” has some fun stuff on the chorus we stuck in there (“Down, down, down, by the ocean side”). And “The End” was originally going to be a Gregorian chant, but I just didn’t feel it was coming off, even though I am knocked out by the harmonies Cliff and I did. So I added those guitars as an afterthought and then it came together.
Were there songs that you had to do several takes on before finding the right approach when recording it?
No, the process precluded that. We would sit in the studio on either side of one mic on stereo and just play a song. When it fell together, we recorded it just like that and that became the template for the actual recording. Some of the songs didn’t seem to benefit from our treatment, so we didn’t record them. We only recorded the songs that we thought not only worked but showed a different and valid ambience; a musical identity that was both a natural evolution from the original, and therefore familiar, and a valid musical departure from the original. I like the idea of familiar and fresh at the same time, coupled with a tremendous respect for the original.
When collaborating with someone like Cliff Eberhardt, what qualities about his musicianship do you admire the most—and are there musical lessons you take away from the collaboration?
I remember the first time that we saw Cliff perform live. My wife said, “He’s the best I’ve ever seen.” I said, “Better than me?” And she said, “Oh yeah!” Ouch!
But I also thought he was fantastic. So good I went right home and wrote a review of his show and posted it on datamusicata, a free resource blog I created for musicians (and we’ve had almost a million hits, so I know it’s helping someone).
But to get back to Cliff, I remember when my wife came in the studio after Cliff and gone back to Massachusetts and listened to his vocals. “Wow,” she said, “you certainly have your work cut out for you now.” She felt his singing was so great that I’d have to bust my chops to even get in the ballpark with him.
He has so much musicality in him and so much heart that I was truly excited and thrilled to be collaborating with him, and he would come up with such wonderful suggestions as we listened to something.
I remember on one song (“Break on Through”) when he said, “Wait, we need to Beatle up this tune.” And he came up with that fantastic take on the bridge all at once, as if it were already written. Great.
Playing with him? It was natural from the get-go. There was no awkwardness. He came in the studio and sat down and we started playing like we had done it together all our lives. And interestingly enough, he is from a town literally three miles from where I grew up, but we never knew each other. Weird. As to lessons, you listen to Cliff sing, you are getting a singing lesson. You listen to the songs he writes and you get a lesson in how to write a song. He’s terrific, all the way around.
I was surprised to learn that the bulk of recording that you and Cliff did took five days in May and six days in July. Were you equally surprised as well how quickly that aspect came together?
I was surprised but at the same time, we didn’t have much choice. He came out for five days in May and we figured out the arrangements for all twelve songs, and then after the stereo guide track I mentioned earlier, we put down his guitar and lead vocals. Then he left and, listening to what had evolved on the guide track, I put my guitar and lead vocals.
Then I called in that stellar bass and drum unit, Scott Breadman and Chad Watson. They laid down the bottom and I started calling on all the guitarists I know.
When Cliff came back in July, we fixed anything that we were unhappy with and then added our harmonies, but I was working on the CD every day that he was gone and for the next six months after he left.
Incorporating all the guitars and the performances by John Densmore and Robby Krieger and then the slow mixing process, I kept going out on the road and then coming back and listening with fresh ears. When you produce yourself it is important to get some distance periodically. It’s not unlike a painter stepping back from his work and looking at the overall picture and then going back into it, up close and personal, and making those decisions that an artist must make.
After all the recording was done, you noted, “The time consuming work was going through all the tracks, listening to everything that everyone contributed and then choosing the cream from the cream.” While the album includes the cream of the crop, were there one or two songs that you wish could have worked onto the CD, but could not?
No, every song we chose for the recording is on the recording. There is nothing in the can. I was referring to the numerous tracks that I recorded on everyone. For instance, there were at least three complete and different passes at each song by the bass and percussion (which I recorded simultaneously, as that’s the way I like bass and drums to work, as a unit completely aware of each other).
After all the recording I had to listen to each and every note by both of them, learn what they had done on each pass and then choose what I thought was the most wonderful and, at the same time, the most true to the vision of the song. It takes a while to learn all the licks to each part of each pass by each musician. That did take some serious time.
We took a total of 415 hours to record and produce All Wood and Doors. Only about ten weeks and two days of regular eight-hour-a-day work, so it really went quickly for this kind of project. By the same token, The Beatles recorded their first album in one day. But that was after eight months of playing eight hours a day in Germany. Somewhere along the line someone has to do the time. That’s all there is to that.
Anything else (though this is more than enough) on the creative horizon for you in 2012?
I am working my solo CD, Backstage at the Resurrection, at radio even as we speak. It is charting and getting five-star reviews by everyone. Quite a thrill for me.
Backstage at the Resurrection is a completely different-sounding project than All Wood and Doors and I wrote all the songs, so it’s different that way as well.
The intention of Cliff and I is to focus on this CD and play everywhere we can to bring it to the attention of the world. My feeling is (he said humbly) that these two CDs are two of the best CDs anyone has ever made and we want to make certain that everyone has a chance to hear them. People don’t have to like them, but I would at least like everyone to hear them and make up their own mind.
Anything to discuss that I neglected to broach in my questions?
I would like to invite everyone to visit the sites, leave a comment and come to a show, and when you do please come up and say hello. Thanks for the time and the interest and we’ll see you down one of these roads.