Country legend Waylon Jennings’ son, Shooter Jennings, drove cross-country in late 2008, accompanied by his fiancée, actress Drea de Matteo (Adriana La Cerva in The Sopranos), their baby, and the family dog. The eventful journey inspired Jennings’ fifth album, Black Ribbons [Black Country Rock/Rocket Science Ventures]. Joining rebel country rock with the sonic experimentation of NIN and narration provided by famed novelist Stephen King, Black Ribbons takes an audio vérité approach to end-time scenarios.
“We were driving across the U.S., listening to Blue Oyster Cult and David Icke on the Art Bell program talking about ‘reptilian leaders,’” Jennings recalls. “Around Arkansas, the radio announces that the economy has basically collapsed. I got this moment of clarity: I knew when I got to L.A., I would make a record about a possible police state, the New World Order, and the importance of family.”
Recorded at producer Dave Cobb’s 1974 Studio (theofficialdavecobb.com ) in Silverlake, CA, Black Ribbons was created on equipment both classic (Neve 8068 console with 32 Neve 31102 preamp/ EQ, AKG D 19C microphone, and Urei 1176LN compressors) and contemporary (Pro Tools|HD 2, Avedis Audio MA5 preamp, Native Instruments Kontakt). The pair began by sampling drums and layering sounds, and eventually brought in musicians (Jennings’ band, Heirophant) to double the samples and flesh out the arrangements. With the luxury of Cobb’s 24/7 studio, he and Jennings experimented beyond the box.
“Using Kontakt as our sampler, we created these large libraries,” Jennings says. “Everything from drums and television static to Nintendo chip sets, iPhone recordings, and an Alex Jones video about Bohemian Grove. We worked from there.”
Black Ribbons’ opener “Wake Up!” is a spot-on Pink Floyd homage, complete with mindbending David Gilmour-modeled guitar solos. Beneath the hard work, Cobb and Jennings kept it fun. The title track, for example, was a study in tape-loop madness.
“Dave took all 11 tracks of audio and ran them into an Ampex MM1200 tape machine,” Jennings says, “then ran the loop back into Pro Tools and put sends from the Pro Tools tracks going back out to the Ampex. So there was this constant stereo loop cycling; it sounds like angels fluttering. There’s just enough of a delay between the tracks in the loop that it doesn’t create crazy feedback.”
“We were constantly playing with tape effects, tape slap, feedback delay, and hitting it hot to see what came back,” Cobb adds.
Cobb and Jennings also worked lo-fi effects, tricking out a Radio Shack PZM Microphone for ultimate physical pain and audio pleasure on “Triskaidekaphobia.”
“The Radio Shack PZM mic adds a lot of sizzle to vocals,” Cobb explains. “And they’re omni-directional, so you don’t have to be so close on them. We ran it through a Dunlop MXR Dyna Comp pedal as well.”
“We put the PZM mic on top of a baffle,” Jennings elaborates, “and another mic near the bottom of the baffle. I placed myself in this weird, L-shaped position and sang down towards the bottom mic, and the PZM on top picked up a reflection, which produced this underwater effect. We had tremolo and phaser effects going, too. With my body in that L shape, it contorted my muscles and brought out a certain range from my voice.”
The experimentation extended to King’s monologue, which begins as creepy and turns surreal. “We put it in Pro Tools, removed all the delay, and ran two different signals through two different patches in SoundToys Echoboy,” Jennings says. “One had a shortwave setting, another had a saturated tape setting, and then we mixed them together. The slight latency between settings thickened his voice a lot. That amplified it and made it stand out. I wanted to keep his voice sonically clear and high quality but just add this effect that was like a future-level MP3.”
Cobb and Jennings also incorporated reverse guitar effects, disguised Nintendo samples, DI guitars through ’70s fuzz pedals, acoustic piano through wah and delay pedals, and iPhone field recordings from Cobb’s Silverlake neighborhood. Their naiveté kept it real.
“I always thought that I didn’t know enough about sound to make a good record,” Jennings states. “But there is no right way to do anything. It’s about what sounds good to you. Don’t be afraid that your thing won’t sound as good as everybody else’s. At the end of the day, it might even sound better.”