Neither Richard Thompson nor Jeff Tweedy is a stranger to prolonged, torturous studio sessions leading to albums that reflect deeper turmoil. Still, Thompson’s 40th LP, is not one of them. The singer-songwriter connected with Tweedy on the Americanarama tour in 2013, and almost immediately thereafter, his latest search for a producer coincided with Tweedy’s recent emergence as one. Their experience working together at the Loft, Wilco’s Chicago studio-base, sounds downright pleasant.
“It’s a very relaxed place to record,” Thompson says. “It feels like you’re just sitting around with friends playing, and there’s no red light that goes on – or none that I saw, anyway. It’s easy to sit there and play a couple of takes and suddenly you’ve achieved something in the studio without really thinking about it.”
The resultant Still, recorded with Thompson’s long-running trio and a handful of Tweedy’s Chicago regulars, is a trip through the 66-year-old’s fascinations, from the sly electric groove of “All Buttoned Up” to the spacious haunt of “Josephine.” “Broken Doll” benefits from some Tweedy-abetted atmospherics, and a nearly eight-minute finale, “Guitar Heroes,” paraphrases from the books of Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry and Les Paul.
Reunited on the phone a few months after the nine-day sessions in early January, Thompson and Tweedy complement each other nicely, a pair of bemused folk-rock vets getting the job done with some caustic riffs on the side.
Richard, what made you think Jeff would be a good producer to work with?
Richard Thompson: I’d long thought it’d be interesting to do something with Jeff, but it was something I’d never voiced. But then certain people in my band said, “Wouldn’t he be a good producer for the record?” I think that was the genesis of the idea. I’m not quite sure how it actually happened! The record he did with Mavis Staples, I just thought was fantastic. I thought he did a very sympathetic job, and really put the artist front and center of the project. Everything I like about a producer, I think he really demonstrates on that record.
How much prep work was there with Jeff before you got to Chicago?
Thompson: I like to turn up with everything finished if I can. That just seems to me something I should do as a recording artist. I should have my shit together. I only brought 12 songs, I think. I did home demos and then we also did a band rehearsal demo, which was pretty rough stuff. Jeff heard all that stuff, and he placed his opinions and his variations on what he heard.
Jeff Tweedy: I don’t feel like there was a whole lot of conversation going in. I got the demos and felt like, “I’m such a huge fan, I wonder what he wants me to do because these are great songs, they sound great.” The only conversation we really had going in was – based on that feeling – asking about how much input was really expected. Would I be stepping on anyone’s toes to make suggestions? And Richard was reassuring in that he wanted it to be all of the above. Some songs, he thought he’d have some strong opinions about. Other songs, some other perspective would be welcome.
Richard, you’ve said the members of your band are some of the only musicians who can play what you’ve called your kind of music?
Thompson: Yeah, stylistically, I’m a bit quirky. There’s a strong Celtic element. The modes aren’t quite the same. I’m not playing blues. It’s a little bit different. There are more drones. There’s more unison with the vocals. There are more octaves that happen. Over the years, Taras Prodaniuk and Michael Jerome, the bass player and drummer, have learned to deal with my eccentricities, stylistically. Sometimes, it’s difficult to bring musicians into that. Jim [Elkington] was fantastic. He was sympathetic. He was so fast at figuring out the style of songs. He could imitate me after about 10 seconds.
Tweedy: I don’t think that’s an accident [laughs].
Did any of the songs change substantially after the recording got going?
Tweedy: I think the most drastic change was eliminating a chord in one song or something.
Thompson: It was a hell of a chord, though.
Tweedy: It’s really a shame no one’s ever gonna hear that chord.
Thompson: It was G chord, and the world is not ready for G.
You’ve had the Loft for a while, Jeff. What led you to the recent production projects?
Tweedy: Working with Mavis Staples was really the tipping point. We got to be friends. I’d been asked to help her pick out some material, and I ended up producing it because she felt comfortable at the studio here with me. I’d never given it a lot of consideration. But in the process, I learned that a lot of the things I’d learned about making records for myself applied more than I thought they would to other people’s records that don’t ostensibly have a lot to do with what I do. That was really rewarding to find out: that recording skills – if you want to call them skills – actually translate to other people’s music. I actually enjoy it more than making my own records. The pressure’s off. You’re not gonna have to take the heat for it. Sorry, Richard.
What was working together like?
Tweedy: There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion of anything.
Thompson: We don’t talk.
Tweedy: We’re not on speaking terms [laughs]. The whole idea is that we wouldn’t need music if you were just gonna tell somebody what you were gonna do. So there’s this atmosphere of everybody being open to listening to other ideas, which makes it fun. You do something and then at the end of the day it’s really not a matter of whose idea it was so much as if everyone is enjoying how it sounds.
Were there common reference points you found while working together?
Tweedy: Richard and I have a lot more overlap in our listening habits than I think people would expect. There’s a common language, in that we both value history and trying to understand how [music] got to be what it is, how things moved the language to where it is. I think that’s maybe more important than having the same record collection. We both have a desire to dig deep into the origins.
Thompson: It’s nice that our collections don’t totally coincide. That means there’s a learning experience that also happens, a pulling and extending of the experience.
Tweedy: I enjoyed listening to some of the stuff Richard played for me, this crazy single that was a little bit of the inspiration for “Guitar Heroes.”
Thompson: “Springfield Guitar Social” by a guitarist named Thumbs Carlisle. He was a country session guy who imitated all the national guitar players on this particular record. It was sort of the inspiration for my song “Guitar Heroes.” There’s a four-hour version! This is heavily edited version of that. I tried to get the most significant ones in there. There was a much longer list. I didn’t get Charlie Christian in there, which would’ve been nice, or Eddie Lang. The list is hundreds. Poor ol’ Segovia didn’t get in, that’s a tragedy.
Tweedy: And Eddie Van Halen didn’t get in there somehow.
Did you ever come to the point where you needed to take a step back, or go drive around and listen to the mixes or anything?
Tweedy: One of the things about working with Richard that I felt like was really sympathetic to the way I like to work was that there wasn’t a whole of preciousness like that. I’ve always been suspicious of people who seemed to need to try to find some vibe or manufacture some magic in some way that is other than with their fingers on a guitar. I imagine there are times when you need to take a break, but for what we were doing, everybody had a real sense of purpose and was working in the same direction and that was really satisfying to not be distracted by, almost like, superstition. Musicians can be superstitious about things. But we were just working and enjoying it.
Do you have a rehearsal space hangout like the Loft, Richard?
Thompson: Not really, alas.
Tweedy: You’re welcome to practice here any time, Richard.