"This sounds good. How can we fuck it up," remembers Bridge guitarist Cris Jacobs being asked by legendary producer Steve Berlin during the recording of their latest album, National Bohemian, which was helmed by Berlin.
Jacobs’ longtime band mate, mandolinist Kenny Liner elaborates, "Steve’s whole attitude is you have heard everything before, so let’s try something you haven’t heard, and that is such an amazingly cool attitude to have as a band going in to record an album."
We are seated inside bassist Dave Markowitz’s house in downtown Baltimore while yet another winter storms pounds the East Coast. After a short pause and a toke, Liner leans forward and finishes his thought, "Before we might have been like we want the drums to sound like Little Feat or the guitars to sound like this. But Steve was always like let’s do something no one has heard before."
As the sound of freezing rain clatters against the windows, creating a smooth rhythm that provides a steady backbeat to our conversation; Jacobs, Liner, and Markowitz recall with a smile their time spent last summer in an Oregon Studio with Berlin and engineer Jeff Stuart Saltzman working on the new album. It was time that came ten years after Jacobs and Liner first started the band, a time that has seen the band grow from small Baltimore clubs to the stages of Bonnaroo, it was a time Jacobs compared to being on vacation or at summer camp.
As the three begin to reflect on that time, I remind Jacobs of a conversation we had a few years back when he was talking about one of his favorite albums of 2006, Los Lobos’ Town and the City, which Berlin had a big hand in both as a producer and a member Los Lobos. Jacobs recalled, "The production on that was amazing. It was such a pleasurable listening experience."
I ask him then how did he go from admiring Berlin’s work a few short years before, to spending a summer working on an album with him?
Liner answers for his friend, "We made a list of producers we wanted to work with. He was number one."
With a laugh Jacobs asks Liner, "Who was number two?"
"Nobody," Liner answers.
"Exactly," responds Jacobs with a satisfied smile.
After checking out the band at a show in Oregon, Berlin was excited to start working with them.
"Steve said send me everything you have that you are working on – half finished ideas, melodies, guitar riffs, words, even Kenny and I sitting there with an acoustic guitar and mandolin playing the barebones of a song. We sent him maybe thirty different songs or ideas. We had a day off of the road, and we were on a buddy’s farm and recorded demos on a laptop all day," remembers Jacobs.
Berlin emailed back comments for all thirty songs he had been sent, some as simple as, "I dig this – extend it," or more specific as, "let’s drop the last beat in bar four, in the second chorus and make it a bar three." The producer joined The Bridge for a couple of days of pre-production in their hometown of Baltimore, before they met up at Jackpot! Recording Studios in Portland, Oregon.
The actual process of recording National Bohemian was a complete 180 degree turn from their last album. Whereas on their last album, Blind Man’s Hill, they went for a much more simplistic rustic sound and labored over every take – a process that Jacobs’ called, "one guy sitting in a room with six other guys telling him, ‘no, yes, no, yes, do that.’" This time around they trusted their talents as a band and followed Berlin’s encouragement to play live as a group which was something they did not always do in the past.
"It used to be layer by layer and we thought that was cool," explains Jacobs, "we thought it would make it better, but it doesn’t. It makes it so much more sterile and surgically processed. This album is more soulful and nuanced. It is the sound of a band playing and you can’t beat that…ever."
This time around they used many first takes, relying on the power of the band and the strength of the moment. "We were really just trying to capture moments like at a live show. It was a very natural flow of energy in the room, and our role was that of a show," says Markowitz, "you have to react and know your part and connect with each other and get in the flow of the music."
They also did not always go for pure perfection, but instead for pure emotion and feeling. Liner recalls after one of Jacobs solo’s for "Hey Mama," Berlin telling him, "that’s good, but let’s do it again way dirtier." During the recording of "Rosie", Jacobs’ voice cracked slightly, but instead of preparing for another take, Berlin told him, "that’s so wrong, but it is so right." At first Jacobs was a bit surprised by the idea of keeping the take, but the beauty of the moment won him over, "It’s energy, it’s feeling it. There are a lot of those little funky moments on the album." During the recording of "Moonlight Mission" Liner dealt with a mandolin he called, "rickety" and said would not stay in tune and almost scrapped it all together, but after some coaxing from Berlin and Saltzman, he dug in and completed it. It is a track the rest of the band all agrees stands as a high-point on the album.
They were more adventurous with sound as well, taking chances that did not seem possible before. With Berlin and a style that Liner called, "envelope pusher," The Bridge began a recording process unlike any they had undertaken before. Using the base of thirty songs that had now been whittled down to a workable number, they looked to find sounds in a whole new way. They threw off the comfortable shackles of how they had worked before, and instead approached each song with a new, experimenting eye.
Berlin got the ball rolling, suggesting different instrument set-ups or finding radically different ways to coax out some brand new sound. This experimentation included finding whatever or wherever they could find the sound they were looking for. One time they used an old film projector amp cranked up, in another Jacobs laid down outside on the street with a microphone in hand and sang while cars went whizzing by.
For drummer Mike Gambone it meant stepping outside his normal realm. At times he played with a handful of pocket change on his snare drum, or with an odd assortment of sticks, mallets, even a plastic dowel rod – sometimes at the same time in one hand, or with a menagerie of bells, shakers, or parts of other drums attached to his normal kit. It was an experience the drummer enjoyed though, "I embraced the whole thing from the beginning. Absolutely. It made such a huge impression on me, it made me see things differently. It was all about finding that sound."
And find that sound they did. This go-for-broke, anything is possible approach served The Bridge well as they crafted an album that is far and away their best yet. It is the perfect culmination of their previous ten years on the road. All the elements that they have become known for, a sound born in the backwoods and the mountains, but raised on the streets of New Orleans, led by intense guitar work and heartfelt songwriting are present. It is an album built as equally upon the intense, psychedelic freak-out of "Sanctuary" or the high energy of "Rosie", as it is the quiet beauty of "Dirt on my Hands" or "Long Way to to Climb". It is quite simply the perfect capstone to the band’s first ten-years, but an even better starting point for the next ten.
Near the end of our conversation as the pounding of the freezing rain against the window seemed to intensify, Liner paused before explaining how Berlin was to able motivate the band to take these chances, to go to places they have never gone before musically on National Bohemian.
"When you work with a producer it is the power of suggestion, it is not like ‘you do it this way.’ One of Steve’s greatest attributes as a producer is that he doesn’t come as off as that kind of guy. He kind of tricks, well not tricks you but…"
As Liner’s voice trails off looking for just the right word, Jacobs completes the thought, "…he empowers you to be the best…"
Liner then continues, "…and that really is the producer’s job to make the musicians comfortable so they can make their best. He is very good at that. We were all willing to check our egos at the door."
Once again Jacobs finishes his friend’s thought, "The album really solidified us as being ourselves. It was just a breath of fresh air to bring someone like that into the mix who we really respected that much, who really pulled from us some honest music, both as songwriters and as performers."