Paul McHugh: Teching for the Truckers and Picking for Pilgrim
The tracks on Pilgrim are full of big pictures, and although many of them tend to the dark side of things, McHugh says, “I’m basically a happy guy. I just like to get into those sorts of songs.”
When asked if he believes that playing his way through dark themes makes life a little brighter, he laughs. “Sure – or if your heart gets broken, take those feelings and write a song!”
Tunes in hand, McHugh, Velez-Machado (who not only is a great bass player, but might possibly hold the record for the longest name ever to be printed in an album’s credits) and Hudgins went into Athens’ Chase Park Transduction, laying down the album’s twelve basic tracks in a two-day explosion of creativity. McHugh praises Chase Park’s Drew Vandenberg’s talents as engineer and co-producer: “He’s unbelievable – just a great guy to work with.”
From there, overdubs and sweetening was done as time and money allowed, says McHugh: “I’d go out on tour with the Truckers, get some money ahead, and then come back and work on the album. That’s the great thing about what I do as a guitar tech with the Truckers: when you’re touring you’re on the road and busy – but then you come home and you have the time to put into whatever you’re working on.
“I couldn’t have made this album happen doing some 9-to-5 job,” he says. “I’m lucky to be doing what I’m doing and have the support of so many talented people.”
When it came time to overdub his guitar leads on Pilgrim, McHugh applied the same let-it-come-as-it-comes approach that he takes to songwriting. “I really believe that you have to play what you’re feeling at that moment to have it come across right,” he says. “Too much thought ahead of time and it’s not going to sound real.”
No surprise, the man who keeps Patterson Hood’s crunch crunching and Mike Cooley’s twang twanging has his own weapon of choice when it comes to his Pilgrim picking: an early 60s Gibson SG and a Traynor amp of similar vintage. “Other players will ask me, ‘Man, how do you get that tone ?’” he says, laughing. “It’s a pretty good combination.”
Indeed it is: the guitars on “Isabell” roar with Hendrixian glory, Velez-Machado and Hudgins laying down a rhythm base beneath it all that gives the song a vibe similar to U2’s “Bullet The Blue Sky”. When I ask McHugh how many tracks of Gibson growl he layered onto the song, he says, “Just two: the rhythm guitar and a lead over that.” I don’t doubt the man, but I have to go back with headphones later to satisfy my own curiosity and … sure enough: that is some phat-assed tone out of two guitars.
Or dig the razor-sharp slide work on “Let You Go” – a cool yin to the yang of the happy-go-lucky piano that provides the song’s underpinnings. “Plains” doesn’t need a vocal to get its pain across: McHugh’s SG weeps gently all on its own. The lyrics of “No Time For Dying” read like one of McHugh’s cut-and-paste jobs that created a scenario from his subconscious ramblings; the bass and drums give it focus; and the guitar leads the way from majestic shimmer early on to flat-out roar as the song draws to a close. “Ahhh – sometimes you just gotta have the big rock ending,” says McHugh.
The lovely vocal chorus in the background on “Rising Sun” courtesy of guests Madeline Adams and Melissa Colbert-Taylor was “the perfect touch,” says McHugh. “I could hear a backing vocal in my head, but what Melissa and Madeline did blew me away. They just came in and nailed it – bang.”
Another lovely – but unexpected – combination of sounds is offered up on “Blue Sarah”: while McHugh’s SG rasps out some arpeggioed chords, Jacob Morris’ cello and Jef Whatley’s accordion lay down a tension-filled layer of drone tones. The effect is chilling; and without giving away the song’s storyline, you find yourself rooting for Sarah and forgiving her for doing what she has to do to escape an abusive situation.
And then there’s “Devil In The Eye”: what sounds like (at least) a 50-year-old B3 organ is actually a Nord keyboard, says McHugh. (“Don’t tell me that – I don’t want to know,” I say. “Leave me to my imagination.”) A cool and gruff guitar bumps hips with the keys – the B3 tone eventually gives way to big ol’ fat ivories – as the song slowly makes its way to one of the most chaotic and unsettling endings since Wilco’s “Misunderstood”.
Since the album was recorded, McHugh’s buddy Matt Hudgins has left the band – Trucker Brad “EZB” Morgan (who contributed percussion to the recording) now holds down the drum berth in Pilgrim. The core trio may be joined by any number of guests on a given night, says McHugh: “It’s not like I can afford to hire extra people to sit in with us; it’s just a matter of who’s around for a show and wants to play. This Athens scene is full of incredibly talented people who really and truly love interacting with each other.”
As for the future, McHugh’s time will be split between road trips with the Truckers (and perhaps some studio duties later this year) and Pilgrim gigs when he’s home. “I have enough material written to go into the studio for a second album,” he says. “We’ll see …”
In the meantime, do yourself a favor and latch onto a copy of Pilgrim – or if you happen to be handy to the Athens area, catch one of their live shows.
I hear they have a helluva guitar tech.
Brian Robbins does his own soundchecks and such over at www.brian-robbins.com