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Published: 2009/03/26
by Brian Robbins

Tim Carbone: The Producer Serving the Song

Anyone familiar with the music of Railroad Earth will recognize Tim Carbone’s name as the master fiddler who weaves threads of everything from Celtic reels to ragas to Hendrix to Appalachian stomps into the band’s musical journeys. Carbone also has a reputation in the recording world as a producer who “gets it” taking on projects with great feel and passion for what the artist is trying to get across. We recently had a chance to sit with Tim after soundcheck at a RRE performance in Unity, ME. (He graciously put off joining his band mates for dinner to talk about his life in the studio.)

BR: First of all, I have a message: I did an interview with Buddy Cage a couple of days ago and he made me promise I’d give you a big hug when I saw you.

TC: Buddy’s a good guy. He and I have been cultivating our friendship over the years.

BR: You produced the latest Boris Garcia album (_Once More Into The Bliss_) which Buddy was a guest on was that the first studio session that you two have done together?

TC: Yeah. And Buddy was really, really sick during the sessions, but we got it done. When Buddy’s on, he’s the quintessential performer and there’s no one exactly like him.

BR: Well, here’s one right back at you from Buddy: his quote about you was, “Tim knows how to serve the song.”

TC: (nods and grins) Thanks. That’s my whole thing, man that’s my whole thing.

BR: Looking at the production credits on the Railroad Earth albums, I notice that none of you have ever taken the reins as individuals it’s always listed as a group effort.

TC: There are too many people involved to do it any other way. There’s a certain alchemy to being a producer you end up wearing a lot of different hats, depending on the circumstances. “Camp Counselor” is one kind of a psychologist role. Railroad Earth is a group of seasoned musicians that I am also a part of I just never felt comfortable with producing a Railroad Earth record I’ve always felt that the band would do better producing on their own, or hiring an outside producer. I don’t think anyone in our band is prepared to listen to me in that way, in that role. It’s harder to concentrate on one thing at a time. Most times when I’m hired, people are looking for direction. That’s not necessarily my role in Railroad Earth, at least not overtly.

*BR: It would definitely be a totally different relationship *

TC: Exactly. Of course, a lot of the bands I end up working with have been produced by all kinds of people. Take Great American Taxi, for instance: I was in the studio with them back in December doing their new album. The guys in that band have been produced by all kinds of people through the years in different settings. Vince Herman has worked with some great producers; Barry Sless, who played pedal steel on the record, has worked with guys like John Cutler. Hey, he and Moonalice just finished an album with T-Bone Burnett, who’s one of the best in the business.

BR: I’ve heard some cuts off the new Moonalice album, by the way good stuff.

TC: That’s good to hear. That’s a band that really needed someone like T-Bone to come in and say, “Here’s what you’re supposed to sound like” or, just get out of the way and let the tape roll. He has a certain vibe he brings to the project.

BR: Let’s go back to the beginning: what were some of your early production projects?

TC: I co-produced a live album that my band Blue Sparks From Hell did in the mid-80’s while moonlighting whenever and wherever at the same time. Ned Massey was this great singer/songwriter that was John Hammond Sr.’s last production project before he died in fact, Ned was with John when he had his heart attack.

BR: Wow.

TC: Oh, yeah imagine it: John Hammond, the same guy who discovered people like Dylan, Springsteen, and Charlie Christian, was excited about Ned. It was the break of a lifetime and they were just getting going in the studio. But when John died, the record never got finished. I ended up crossing paths with Ned and working on tracks for both his album and one by his girlfriend Terry Radigan back-to-back. We did Terry’s record first at the Record Plant in New York, where I’d hadn’t worked before, so I was like “ooh, wow this is great.”

BR: A lot of history there.

TC: Exactly. We’d be there in the middle of the night, trying to get the cheap session rate, right? So we’re at the Record Plant working and it’s 3:00 in the morning and I’m not really needed right then, so I figure I’m going to try to catch some sleep. I peek in somebody’s office and there’s this big, plush leather couch – perfect. So I’m lying there, sound asleep, when the studio manager comes in and wakes me up. “They need you in the studio,” she says, “but first I want to show you something.” And she takes me in to her office where there’s this big, framed picture: it’s John Lennon sleeping on the same couch. (laughs) Cool, right?

BR: Oh, yeah. And then you did Ned’s record?

TC: Yeah at the Power Station in New York with Bob Clearmountain super-famous engineer who’s considered one of the best in the business. Bob worked on albums like Springsteen’s Born In The USA and The River tons of great records. I showed an interest in what he was doing and he was like, “Come in anytime and just watch what’s going on.”

BR: Wow what a gift.

TC: Oh, totally. And he was completely giving showed me how to mic drums; taught me about things like compression: “Here’s what it sounds like with it and here’s what it sounds like without it” he took the time to explain things to me because he knew I was interested. Bob got me into producing for real.

BR: On your own?

TC: That’s right I bought a bunch of gear and opened up a little studio of my own about 3 months after the New York sessions.

BR: Who were some of your early sessions with?

TC: The first band I actually produced other than Blue Sparks From Hell was this band out of New Jersey called Bright Water Garden kind of a jammy sort of band with a lead singer who was just as flamboyant as he could possibly be. It was like having Mick Jagger fronting the Grateful Dead.

BR: (laughs) Perfect!

TC: Oh, absolutely – they were great. From there, I did a record for a young band out of Pennsylvania called Solution a.d. it was actually a soundtrack album to a documentary – who got signed right after that. I did a bunch of singer/songwriter stuff during that period, too. But the whole studio thing really became a burden for me after a while and I ended up closing it.

BR: But you kept on producing, right?

TC: Oh, sure but I realized that as long as I hired a good space to work in with the right equipment, I could do what I needed to do as a producer. So, for a while, I had a string of singer/songwriters who contacted me with projects. I’d put a band together to back them and work on the arrangements.

BR: And the rest, as they say, is history. Let’s talk about your approach to a project are there some basics that you do each time?

TC: First step is, I’ll listen to the demo and chart it out. I’ll write down my first impressions: “I think this should happen here; here’s what I hear for instrumentation; this is what I think would make the song better.” A lot of times newer songwriters who don’t have much experience will do things like reach the turnaround of a song and sit there and pedal on one chord for a couple of measures before they go into the next thing. They just need someone to say, “You don’t need to hang there, just keep it moving. Don’t bore us; get to the chorus!” (laughs)

BR: How insistent will you be with an idea of your own?

TC: I’d never overstep that’s part of my deal. I’d never insist on anything I mean, if I had an idea and they wanted to do something completely different, I’d probably just say, “Hey, man that’s fine. Whatever you want to do – I just thought you wanted a hit record, that’s all!” (laughs)

BR: In the studio, do you think about things in terms of the album itself, rather than individual songs?

TC: Absolutely I’ve never stopped thinking of them as albums. There’ll be a point about halfway through the process when we’ve done all the basics on all the songs and we’re starting to trim the tree, so to speak. That’s when I’ll start thinking, “What do we have here?” I’ll get the band together and discuss it: “Do we have a record here? And if we don’t, how do we go about making it into one? We’ve recorded all the songs, but we still don’t have a record how do we turn it into one? What do we need to do?” One thing I really believe: I don’t care how many minutes a CD will hold – it doesn’t give you an excuse to just pile a whole bunch of songs on that aren’t necessary. Think of those great albums like Revolver or Rubber Soul 34 minutes and you’re done. Boom – you’re in, you’re out. You have extra songs? Great. That’s why God created box sets.

BR: So are you part of the song selection process for the album?

TC: Most of the time. What usually happens is I’ll say, “Pick 10 or 12 songs.” For instance, when I agreed to do David Gans’ record, he sent me a couple of CDs with, like, 40 songs on them. I said, “Wait a minute. First off, I’m not listening to 40 songs, okay? That’s not going to be part of the process. What I need you to do is pick your 20 favorite songs and I’ll cull it down to 12 from there with your participation. There’s no need to give me 40 songs, cause I can tell you that you don’t have 40 great songs you just don’t. Well you might, but it’s highly unlikely, okay? You might have 15 great songs, so you pick 20 really good songs and we’ll take it from there.”

BR: And he was cool with that?

TC: Oh, yeah absolutely. And most of the time that’s the way it is. It’s like discussing mic setups in the studio: most of these guys have made records before, okay? And they’re undoubtedly going to have their own ideas about how we should do things. But once I know what they’re looking for soundwise, I’m going to say, “That’s cool and here’s what I think we should do to get that sound. I mean, I’ve done this a few times before, right? Trust me it’s going to be great. That’s why you hired me.” The key is gaining enough trust to get them to try anything to get that sound.

BR: Well that’s supposed to be the deal, right?

TC: Exactly. It’s like if you took your car to a mechanic and he told you “I’m going to have to rebuild you carburetor” I’m showing my age here because they don’t use carburetors anymore (laughs) and you said, “Okay but I think I’ll do it myself.” Why would you hire the guy to tell you what was wrong with your car if you weren’t going to let him fix your car? Or say, you went to the doctor because you weren’t feeling well and he says, “I’m sorry, but you need bypass surgery,” and your response is, “I don’t think I do.” I mean, that’s the deal and most people get it: they’ve hired you to do a job. And the way I see it, my job is simply to get their vision onto a record. Whatever it is they think they want it to sound like, my job is to make that happen. Part of the process is knowing how to listen; part of it is coming up with the right questions if you’re not sure what they’re looking for; and part of it is knowing when to come up with some of your own ideas in the process “Okay, this is what I’m hearing.”

BR: Speaking of your own ideas, who usually makes the decision for you to step over the line and take part musically? Say, for instance, on the Boris Garcia album was it your idea to play fiddle on some of the tracks?

TC: (strong shake of the head) Never. I would never do that. I mean, like with Boris, the moment I heard the song “Holiday”, I said, “There’s gotta be strings on that.” In fact, I wrote down my initial reactions the first time I listened to the album and that’s what we did on every song one shot. “Strings here; we need funky old keyboards here.” I could hear strings on the record, but I wasn’t thinking about fiddle solos. I would never say “I’m playing fiddle on this” I would never do that. They wanted me to play on more songs than I did, to be honest with you I was hearing something else. Same thing with Great American Taxi they basically coerced me into playing on this fiddle tune called “Big Sandy River” and the problem with that is, I don’t like the song. (laughs) So I said, “Is there any way I can play this song and not play it? Is there any way I can just improvise and just do my own thing?”

BR: And they were cool with that?

TC: They were totally cool with that. And the funny thing was, I had trouble with the song and we tried a couple takes, but it just wasn’t working. I told them, “You know what? I’m just not in the space right now I’ll get up in the morning, I’ll come down, and I’ll nail it.” And it’s funny, because I didn’t really want to do it and everybody in the band plus a couple of their friends were there watching me struggle with it and it just wasn’t happening. The next day it was just me, Vince Herman, and our friend Bonnie and it was like foom! (slides one hand off the other) We nailed it. But, anyway, I normally wouldn’t say “Here’s what I should do.” Now, I have, for instance, come up with a guitar part before and said, “Here’s what I’m hearing for a guitar part this is what would sound good here.” And sometimes they’ll take it from there and sometimes they’ll say, “You’re playing it just fine why don’t you play it?”

BR: How about vocal parts?

TC: I think that’s one of my specialties getting a good vocal performance out of someone. “The song’s about something; sing about the song. Let’s get you in character.” It’s like being a director: “This is what the song’s about. You’re this character in this song – how would you sing it?” But sometimes there’ll be a background part that I can hear in my head that maybe people are struggling with that’s when I’ll just go in and do it myself. That’s a case where I might say, “Okay, I have half an hour to finish up here and this just needs to get done so we can focus on other things. Let’s just do it and it’s done.”

BR: And then there’s stuff like fire extinguishers?

TC: (laughs) Oh, yeah, on David Gans’ album. That’s just something I could hear in my head. I could hear that rhythm track in my head, like an outtake from a Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits album. It needed to be something trashy what can we whack on ah ha!

BR: How about the stuff that’s sort of “happy accidents”?

TC: (shakes his head and grins) Here look at this. (hauls out iPhone and starts scrolling) This is what I’ve been signing at the bottom of my e-mails. “Honor your mistake as an intention.” It happens oftentimes when you’re playing, you know, there’ll be something that you didn’t mean to do and you’ll say “ooh, that’s kind of cool” and you’ll repeat it. Things like that happen all the time: mistakes, happy accidents whatever you want to call them.

*BR: Cool. So let’s quickly go over a couple of recent projects that folks might’ve missed and then take a look at what’s coming up in your world. We’ve mentioned the David Gans album, The Ones That Look The Weirdest Taste The Best *

TC: David’s been a fan of Railroad Earth and I’ve been a fan of his since we first met. That was a totally natural thing and a good example of how I work with a singer-songwriter. David didn’t have a band, so I put one together. The basic lineup was Railroad Earth without drummer Carey Harmon Ned Stroh played drums for those sessions. When Railroad’s Johnny Grubb wasn’t available on bass, we brought in Lindsey Horner, who’s a world-class musician. Buck Dilly on guitar, lap steel, and pedal steel I built a band for David.

*BR: And there was the Boris Garcia album *

TC: Oh, man we recorded Once More Into The Bliss right in the middle of the Gans record and touring with Railroad Earth. We were ten days in the studio, soup to nuts – including mixing. I mean I walked out of there with a record. I had a schedule and we just made it happen.

BR: Any other recent singer/songwriter projects?

TC: No seems like I’ve been working with bands mostly. I produced the second album I’ve done with Greensky Bluegrass, Five Interstates. We did that in five days; recorded it in this cool cabin out in the woods in Hoxeyville, Michigan. Beautiful setting.

BR: And then there’s the Great American Taxi album we’ve been talking about you were in the studio with them this past December, right?

TC: Yes. I just received mixes today, as a matter of fact. Those sessions went extremely well. I put gospel singers on a couple of tracks and one of them will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck! It'll be their “A Day In A Life”.

BR: Cool can’t wait to hear it. What’s happening in the coming months?

TC: I’m going into the studio in April to start a record with a band from Michigan called the Ragbirds. Really, really interesting band they have a woman who plays the violin and sings at the same time, which is very difficult to do. Her violin playing is very melodic while her vocals she’s doing at the same time are counter-melodic and counter-rhythmic it’s like she’s got two brains going. I’m really looking forward to the project.

BR: I know a while ago you mentioned the project you were getting ready to do with Jeff Miller and Phil Ferlino from New Monsoon, along with Jason Hann and Keith Mosely from String Cheese.

TC: That’s right: the Contribution. We just finished the first seven songs for our album at a studio out in San Raphael, CA, called Laughing Tiger. Nice sessions. (hauls out the iPhone and shows me pictures of the band in the studio)

*BR: Looks like a lot of smiles *

TC: Yeah we’ve been waiting for a while to make this happen. Phil, Jeff, and I have been writing songs for this project for almost three years now. From the beginning, we agreed that we weren’t going to write any of the songs separately we’d only work on them when the three of us were in the same room. So we have the seven songs which are done at this point; we’ll probably make it a 10-song record total with an extra one or two songs that will be available if you download the album on iTunes. We’re planning on finishing the album in May and releasing it by the fall as a limited edition 1000 copies that will include a DVD documentary on how we made the record. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. After that, it’ll be available as a download with the extra songs.

BR: Any plans for live Contribution shows?

TC: Everybody’s got too much going on to work in a tour, but we’d like to try to have a one-off show either at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco or at the Fillmore.

BR: How about solo stuff of your own?

TC: I’m moving into a new studio space in March and I’ll be working on a new record of my own, where I play all the instruments. This is something I’ve dreamed of doing for 20 years. My goal would be to release it probably about this time next year.

BR: And you have a book in the works, too, right?

TC: Yes, I do, about my travels in India. I actually just got it back from the editor and need to do a little bit more to sew it all up. I’m gonna figure out a place to drop that in between everything else.

BR: Last question: is there anyone in particular that you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?

TC: I’d like to be produced by T-Bone Burnett and I’d like to write songs and make a record with Paul McCartney.

BR: Cool.

TC: (grins) Yeah my three favorite bass players in the world have always been Rick Danko, Phil Lesh, and Paul McCartney – I’ve worked with two of them.

BR: All right, Tim thanks for taking the time to sit down with us. You better go eat – get your strength up for the show, man.

TC: (laughs) Thanks!

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