On Stone Rollin’, Raphael Saadiq moves away from a Motown sound to pay homage to broad influences ranging from Sly Stone to Johnny Cash
by Jack Britton
Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Raphael Saadiq is living a pretty good life right now. On a cold Thursday night in January, we find Saadiq and his quintet (guitar, bass, drums, two singers) sitting on stools under a dimly lit crystal chandelier in a spacious suite on the 16th floor of San Francisco’s classy Clift Hotel, breezily running through a few tunes from his new album, Stone Rollin’. If you’ve ever seen clips from Hugh Hefner’s late-’60s TV series Playboy After Dark, which was shot on a set made to look like a swinging bachelor’s penthouse apartment, that’s what this room looks like. And by the time Saadiq casually kicks into the album’s first tune—“Heart Attack,” which he admits is a nod to one of his idols, Sly Stone—the crowd of about 75 local writers, music biz types, and a few friends from his days across the bay in Oakland, is well-lubricated and in a good mood. Just like Saadiq. Handsome, relaxed, dressed head to toe in black (including his trademark black-framed glasses), and cradling a Telecaster on his lap, Saadiq tells stories about his new songs and even takes questions from the audience. The handful of tunes he performs run the gamut from the rockabilly shuffle “Daydreams” (inspired by Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, he says) to traditional soul-flavored tunes more reminiscent of his hugely popular 2008 album The Way I See It.
That disc, with its uncanny extrapolations on the traditional mid-’60s Motown sound, created quite a sensation and brought Saadiq a whole new audience—mostly young, mostly white folks who frankly were unaware of his long and illustrious history dating back to the smash late ’80s, early ’90s Oakland soul and new jack swing group Tony! Toni! Toné!; the short-lived R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl (Saadiq, En Vogue’s Dawn Morrison, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad); and his solo albums. No doubt many of the audiences who saw him play huge festivals such as Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Bumbershoot (he’s playing Coachella and South By Southwest this year) thought he was a new artist who’d just stepped off a bus from Detroit in 1965. The crowds ate it up—loved the tight-fitting yellow suit he often wore, loved the Temptations dance moves, loved that smooth, elastic voice that moves so easily into Marvin Gaye/Eddie Kendricks territory but still sounds original—and Europe and Japan both fell in love with him, as well.
Of course the easy thing for an artist who is clearly cresting and in-demand—when I interviewed him a few days after the Clift event, our conversation was interrupted by a call from Mick Jagger!—would be to offer audiences more of the same sound they love. But on Stone Rollin’, Saadiq has moved away from the hard-core Motown sound and embraced a whole new set of influences, like the ones mentioned above, and also the more expansive orchestral sound of post-Detroit Motown recordings and the great Philadelphia soul records of the ’70s. It’s a more eclectic album all the way around, but in the scope of Saadiq’s whole career, just another synthesis of his roots and current fascinations. After all, he first tackled Motown-style songwriting with “The Tonys” (as he calls them), and his first solo album was called Instant Vintage. In short, this is what he’s been doing all along, or as he puts it with a laugh, “You could say my whole career is paying homage to everybody . . . but I’ve still always got my sound.”
Engineer Charles Brungardt and Raphael Saadiq at Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood.
For the past several years, Saadiq’s principal sonic partner has been an engineer named Chuck Brungardt. Originally from Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, Brungardt got a degree in computer science from the University of San Francisco but fell into the recording world. Working at a software company by day, he also interned at Moulton Studios in San Francisco for a period and eventually “caught the ear of the producers Jake and the Phatman [Glenn Standridge and Bobby Ozuma], and they worked with Raphael a lot,” Brungardt explains. “I ended up working with them for six months to a year, and eventually, when I graduated college, those guys were in L.A. a lot working on stuff with Raphael at his studio. It was right when he finished the Ray Ray album [in 2004].”
Brungardt interned at Saadiq’s Blakeslee Studio in North Hollywood and learned more about engineering there from Standridge and Danny Romero. When Standridge moved in to more of a business role in his partnership with Ozuma (who was mainly a writer/producer), Brungardt started engineering more, and by 2007 Saadiq had brought him onboard to help engineer and mix the Introducing Joss Stone album, which Saadiq produced. (Saadiq has a long production history, too, having presided over his own albums since The Tonys, and helming tracks by The Roots, Mary J. Blige, The Isley Brothers, Macy Gray, Snoop Dogg, D’Angelo, and many, many others; Brungardt worked on a few of those, too.)
Saadiq and Brungardt obviously connect strongly on a work level—Saadiq likes to layer multiple instruments himself; he and Brungardt have spent countless hours together in the studio, and temperamentally, they are clearly suited to each other. But another bond they share is their love of collecting gear and musical instruments, and a fascination with historic recording techniques. “I was always into collecting gear on eBay, even back in San Francisco,” Brungardt comments, “so we started buying things like [Telefunken] V72 preamps and old Ampex tape machines—we’d take the preamps out of those and rack them up. Those kinds of things helped us get closer to the sound we liked, and we also studied the Recording the Beatles book, which was awesome. Those engineers really knew what every piece of gear could do.”
“I love gear!” Saadiq adds. “Old keyboards, like [Hohner] D6 clavinets, Hammond B-3s and trickedout Leslies, old mics . . . I’m still collecting. I never stop collecting. Guitars, basses . . . that’s part of what keeps you making records. You have to have the tools you need.”
“Before we did Joss’ album,” Brungardt notes, “we are already playing with doing Raphael’s The Way I See It, and the idea was, ‘Let’s buy old equipment and make samples, and also let’s try to make live playing sound like samples; maybe we’ll put drum machine programming over it. Because real players are more interesting and dynamic than an 8-bar or 16-bar loop. After we’d worked on Joss’ album and we got back to Raphael’s, we wanted to take it in an ‘older’ direction, it became almost like a bet with some of the guys who were saying, ‘You can’t really re-create this old-sounding stuff because the power-flow back then was different, or the way this worked or that worked was different.’ So Raphael and I just locked ourselves in the studio and tried everything, from bouncing tracks to a cassette tape to get that noise—trying get it to sound dirty and old—to distorting vocals in various ways, because they didn’t have the compressors that we have now; they had slower attacks. So that became part of the sound. We had Motown books and we’d see pictures of the guys in the studio and how their drums were set up, how the mics were placed. So we started out copying that, but as the process went on, we sort of found our own sound within that: ‘Let’s try to re-create that sound, but also modernize it by making the bass heavier and the kick drums pretty slammin’. It was a fun, experimental project.”
But it was not something they were interested in repeating exactly on Stone Rollin’. “That last album was a lot of fun to make,” Saadiq agrees. “Being in the studio and miking things up in certain ways, and studying up on the Motown EQs and all that, figuring out exactly the right tone for that rhythm guitar part. We spent hours on that stuff, and not just trying to make it sound ‘old,’ but to put our stamp on it. Chuck really goes to the wall for me when I’m dreaming all this stuff up. He’s there going, ‘We can do this! We can do this!’” he laughs.
Saadiq says that though The Way I See It strongly reflects the Motown aesthetic, Stone Rollin’ is more in keeping with his other projects that have drawn from more influences: “I’ve never shut my ears to anything, really. It’s not like I’m always looking for things, either, but I can’t close my ears to any music. Any guitar, any drums, any rhythm section— I’ve always been open to those things, trying to understand what makes them work in a song.”
Brungardt reveals that the move away from the Motown sound “was kind of an accident. The first time we recorded ‘Heart Attack’ was maybe six months after The Way I See It, when he was taking a break from touring. Originally it sounded more like that record—it was more of a Motown shuffle. We always loved the vocals, but we weren’t so set on the music. At the same time, we started listening back to the few songs we had when we went fullsteam into this project and we both felt it wasn’t the direction we wanted the next album to go. We wanted to evolve the songs, and I wanted to evolve the engineering, as well. On The Way I See It, everything was pretty much tube pre’s and tube compressors. On this one, I wanted to play around with some of the more solid-state gear, like using some Neve pre’s and EQs [1037s and 1272s] and some Scully pre’s.
“Later, we revisited ‘Heart Attack’ and a lot of the music we were listening to at that time was indie rock—groups like Spoon and MGMT,” Brungardt continues. “I loved the sound of those. In so much R&B, people want it up-in-your-face and polished, whereas indie rock was going the other direction. They were looking back at some of the same records Raphael was inspired by—Howlin’ Wolf and Sly, and all that—and taking elements from them and using them in different ways. So I was trying to push Raphael to be a little more gritty with guitars and use a little more distortion.”
“Heart Attack” is one of several songs on Stone Rollin’ that feature Saadiq playing nearly all of the instruments. “I feel pretty comfortable playing whatever’s in front on me,” he comments, “though live, I guess I’m most comfortable playing bass [his main instrument for many years] or guitar. On ‘Heart Attack,’ the drums came first, then I’d do guitar, lay the bass, one part at a time.” In the case of that tune, everything but the original vocal and some of the drums were stripped when Saadiq decided to take the song in a different direction, and then he rebuilt the parts.
Since he’s often recording one instrument at a time, Brungardt is able to use one or both of his beloved Neumann U47s on almost everything. “I use it as a mono overhead, I use it on guitar; if we did a bass amp, I’d use a 47 as well,” he says. The process of layering to a create a basic track can be quite fast—literally just a few minutes per part—or take several hours. More complicated parts and solos generally take more time and involve greater experimentation. Saadiq likes to record his vocals alone in the control room, and uses a dynamic mic, usually Shures. “This was something Gerry Brown pushed him to use back in the Instant Vintage and Tonys days,” says Brungardt. “His voice benefits from a dynamic mic because it tends to give him more bottom and presence. Plus dynamic mics can sound a little older when pushed.”
Among Brungardt’s other favorite techniques to get Saadiq’s characteristic sound is cranking the gain on a Fender Twin to get more distortion. “One of my favorite plug-ins is Tapehead [by Massey], and I’ll use that on a lot of things to get a little more grit,” he adds. “It thickens stuff up nicely if you record something that’s a little too bright. I usually go a lot for darker tones when recording and mixing. Another thing we like to do is re-amp guitar parts. He’ll go through one of those Avalon DIs, and we’ll take that signal and re-amp it through a ’67 Twin, or on some songs we’ve used an older Vox AC-30. Some of the songs even used Amp Farm: He might use that if he’s just trying to get an idea down quickly. Then, if it’s something he really likes, we’ll go back and clean it up and re-amp it.”
Orchestral sessions took place in Ocean Way’s Studio B.
On the new album, Brungardt used a McDSP FilterBank plug-in to deal with excessive high end in spots, as well as the Waves Renaissance EQ, and though he is a fan of the Line 6 Echo Farm, for this project, he turned to an Echoplex clone. He also utilized a Roland Space Echo during mixing, which was done on the SSL 9000 in Blakeslee’s “C” room. (The album was cut to Pro Tools in Blakeslee Studio A, using the SSL 4000 Series desk mostly for monitoring.)
One of the most striking features of Stone Rollin’ is the lush orchestrations that appear on several songs. Saadiq has always had a fondness for strings, but rarely have they been featured so prominently. “Instead of just having a string section off in the background,” he explains, “I wanted on certain songs for the strings to be more expressive, so I talked to [arranger] Paul Riser about the titles and what I was going for in the songs. I’d say, ‘For this word, I want it to be orchestrated this way. When I listen to the song “Go to Hell,” I want to hear the winds in the valley rushing into me.’”
What are his orchestral influences? “Just music; music of all kinds. There are a lot of orchestral arrangements in dance music. And also from watching cartoons! There are a lot of orchestras in animation. I just thought [the orchestrations] would fit well with some of the new songs I was doing.”
The orchestral dates took place at Ocean Way Studio B in L.A., with Gerry “The Governor” Brown engineering—Brown has worked with Saadiq on projects dating back to The Tonys, and Brungardt volunteers that he has learned much from him through the years. Brown also did some tracking with Saadiq at Blakeslee when Brungardt was off doing work for the videogame company he and Saadiq run, called Illfonic (whose games include Ghetto Golf and the first-person shooter Nexuiz). The horns were mostly done at Blakeslee, too.
A few tracks feature musicians from Saadiq’s band, such as drummer Lemar Carter, bassist Calvin Turner, and guitarist Rob Bacon. And there are also a few guests, such as steel-guitar wizard Robert Randolph, former George Clinton associate “Amp” Fiddler (the song “Go to Hell” began with one of his Mellotron ideas), guitarist Wah-Wah Watson, and Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn.
But mostly, it’s the versatile Saadiq, layin’ every part down with authority and finesse. “I know I’m lucky,” he says. “I get to dream and create things and work in the studio, and then I get to go out and watch people enjoy it.”