The heart rate of most musicians might jump a couple of beats when they hear a cool lick being tossed off a guitar, or from a saxophone or Hammond organ. The history of recorded music is littered with countless instances when a single note or two has sparked inspiration or set the wheels in motion for a masterpiece to be created.
But why stop at the sounds coming out of mere instruments to stir ones musical muse? Why not be moved to nirvana just from walking down a busy city street and being turned on by the sounds of everyday life?
“Well, that can happen. It’s hard to turn off that part of my brain. Regardless of the sounds being made, if somebody drops a dish in a restaurant, I listen for the sound. Not necessarily how it relates musically, but more sonically,” multi-instrumentalist and producer/engineer extraordinaire Dave Gross said. “I’m just really fascinated with the sounds that things make in different acoustic environments and how those sounds could be applied to my productions.”
Over the past few years, Gross and his Fat Rabbit Studios have given birth to an impressive array of blues and roots-related albums. Artists such as Gina Sicilia, Albert Castiglia, Mikey Junior, Doug Deming, Dennis Gruenling, Brad Vickers and Candye Kane – to cite just a few – have recorded award-winning projects with Gross.
The 24-track Fat Rabbit Studios boasts a ton of high-end recording equipment, along with what seems like an endless supply of vintage guitars, basses and drums. As cool as that may be, the fact is, a lot of studios these days have such amenities. But how many studios have rattles made out of turtle shells or goat toenails or a shaker that when you play it sounds like someone eating Doritos, just laying around, waiting to be picked up and played?
“Yeah, I use a lot of weird instruments and strange percussion in my productions that are not things you’d find in a normal music store,” laughed Gross. “I like things that make completely interesting and unique sounds that can be applied to roots music, but are things that may be something that you wouldn’t normally hear. I love odd sounds that can create a certain mood or get a certain vision across.”
It may sound like Gross is some kind of a ‘mad genius’ who spends the entire sum of his waking hours locked in a musical laboratory where he does nothing but twiddle knobs and push buttons all day. That’s not the case, however, and he does manage to get out into the sunlight from time to time.
“I was on the road a few times this year with some of the artists I’ve worked with in the studio, so I traveled quite a bit,” he said. “But I also spent about two-thirds of my time in the studio this year, so it’s been a nice balance.”
His resume as a producer more than speaks for itself. But there’s more to Gross’ musical aptitude than just working on projects (and playing over a dozen different instruments on them) with other artists. He burst upon the scene in a big way as a 29-year-old when his initial CD, Crawling the Walls (VizzTone), was selected for Best New Artist Debut at the 2007 Blues Music Awards. Gross also produced Crawling the Walls and he says the approach taken to self-producing is a bit different from producing another artist.
“It is a little bit of a different mindset, because sometimes you have to step out of the artist’s chair and go into the producer’s chair and kick your own ass a little bit,” he laughed. “That’s not necessarily a hard thing, but you just have to be conscious and aware of doing it, if needed. Sometimes you can get comfortable and have a great time performing, or producing – getting what you want out of everybody else – and not be aware that you’re one of the people in the session, too, and you might need to do things differently. You just have to step back and have perspective. I wouldn’t treat my record any differently than I would anyone else’s record. But it’s been so long since my album came out (2007) that my production style has evolved considerably since then.”
As well-received as his debut album was, fans clamoring for a new disc from Gross may have to wait a bit longer.
“I love creating music for myself, but my focus has primarily been working on productions for other artists and touring with them,” he said. “Until the time comes when I feel pretty sure of the kind of music I want to create for myself, it may be a little while (before he works on another album under his own name). But I don’t want to close that door prematurely, either. I think sometime down the line I’ll be creating something new for myself.”
Even though his name may appear on the back of a CD as producer, instead of on the front as primary artist, each album that Gross works on can’t help but to bear a little bit of his heart and soul inside it.
“Each one of the projects I work on for other artists, I feel like are, in a way, my own music, just because so much of what I do and how I communicate musically comes across on the productions and recordings. So I don’t feel at all like I’m unable to get my point across. It’s just not necessarily through the vessel of my own record.”
Like any producer worth his salt, Gross knows that at the end of the day, an artist’s vision is a highly-personal – and often times fragile – thing and must be respected above all else during a recording session. That goes for not only producing the session, but playing on the session, as well.
“It’s really important not to distract from the original intention that the artist has. So when I’m recording parts now, I’m more conscious of how things, or little ingredients, are going to fit into the end product,” he said. “The first thing I do is to talk with an artist and find out what kind of record it is they want to make. Ninety-percent of the artists I work with, I’m familiar with some of their other recordings, or have seen them live, and there may be something that I’ve seen little glimpses of (on stage or on record), but I haven’t really gotten a whole set of. That’s the kind of stuff that I like to pull out of them and try and make something more out of.”
A perfect example of that is found on the latest Albert Castiglia album –Solid Ground (Ruf Records) – which was recorded at Fat Rabbit and produced by Gross (who also played some upright bass, percussion and mandolin and sang on the album).
“I’ve always thought that he (Castiglia) has been a great performer and his records were really good. But I just felt that he could have a little more focus on his vocals and on the actual song arrangements and song writing,” said Gross. “I talked with him about that and felt it would really be beneficial to do pre-production of the songs and talk back-and-forth and really develop the material until it naturally became what it was. His touring band came through and we recorded and added some other elements to it that weren’t really familiar to him before the sessions, and it became an identity that took over the record, and he went with it. He sounds really, really amazing on it. His guitar playing is always great, his vocals are always great, but I feel like the focus was put nicely on his vocals and song-writing on this one. Then his guitar takes over when it needs to, but it doesn’t really dominate the whole record. It makes a statement from section-to-section. To me, it created something completely new for him, but yet it’s also very at home for what his fans are used to hearing from him.”
Solid Ground is nominated for Rock Blues Album of the Year at the 2014 Blues Blast Awards.
Like Castiglia, Gross can more than hold his own on the guitar. His playing is like a refreshing mix of gutbucket blues with good-time jazz. Crawling the Walls is like a free-wheeling blast of ‘40s and ‘50s swing-style music with plenty of early rock-n-roll leanings, to boot. When he explains some of the guitarists that helped form his style, it’s easy to see why that’s the case.
“Aside from the guys in the blues scene that were influenced by jazz and swing – guys like Charlie Baty and Kid Andersen – some of the guitar players that I really, really dissected from the source would be Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Bill Jennings, T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton,” he said.
That’s a pretty impressive rundown of some of the most influential guitarists to ever pick up a six-string and their presence can certainly be felt in Gross’ playing. But those cats were not the only ones – and guitar was not the only instrument – to grab hold and stimulate his musical senses.
“I’m just really fascinated with music in general and with all kinds of instruments and different sounds. I just love the voices that come through, no matter what instrument it might be. For instance, Lester Young on a tenor saxophone or Clifford Brown on a trumpet,” he said. “I love the phrasing that comes through – regardless of the instrument – that is inherent to the player.”
It wasn’t by design of some master-plan, but rather just kind of organic transference, that has led Gross to spending more time in the control room producing others than standing outside with a guitar strapped around his neck looking into the control room at some other producer.
“Well, before it became full-blown production, it felt like the things I was doing were more like ‘musical direction.’ Then it sort of naturally evolved into the same kind of category as what a producer does,” he said. “It was around 2005 or 2006 when I started working more with other artists. I’d put a microphone here and there and try different things and then I became fascinated with the way things sound when they’re piled on top of each other. So curiosity kind of helped what started out as ‘musical direction’ grow into what became production.”
For as long as he can remember, Gross has always been in love with albums and has forever been intrigued with the way that they are created, whether it be by traditional production values, or by simple ‘musical direction.’
“I put records into a couple of different categories. Records from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, you’d have players just killin’ it – guys like Charles Brown and Charlie Parker and T-Bone Walker. That all falls more into the ‘musical direction and arrangement’ category. The production there was to make sure the performance was absolutely flawless and the arrangements were correct,” he said. “Then, you have production from the manipulation of sounds and not necessarily doing a straight-ahead performance, stand-point. They’re completely different things and I love them both equally. There are certain producers out there today that I am just in awe of how they can evoke a mood just by bringing in strange sounds that don’t necessarily have anything to do with music. Guys like T-Bone Burnett and Ethan Johns … guys that are fearless in their intent. They’re some of my favorite producers.”
Trust is an important building block between artist and producer, because if the two parties can’t feel at least a little bit comfortable putting their visions in the other’s hands, a project is fated to fail before it even starts.
“Yeah, if the artist doesn’t trust the producer, it’s not really going to be beneficial to anybody, because you’re never going to be able to get them to step out of their comfort zone with any kind of confidence,” Gross said. “They’re not going to be as open to trying things that may be a little unsettling to somebody that’s unsure of what you’re trying to pull out of them. Pre-production sessions can be great for opening up dialogue and feeling each other out and seeing where your limitations are before a project really starts.”
With the track record that he’s accumulated over a relatively few short years, it would be safe to say that Dave Gross has certainly earned the trust of a host of different artists. While his resume inside the studio is impeccable, his eye for nature might require a bit of sharpening up. However, it did help lead to the naming of Fat Rabbit Studios.
“Well, for a while there were these two rabbits living on the property (where the studio is located) that were unbelievably-big. I’ve never seen rabbits so big or so round … it was like they needed to go on a diet plan,” he laughed. “But, it just turned out that they were pregnant. But nonetheless, by that time I’d already named the studio Fat Rabbit, so I couldn’t really change it to Pregnant Rabbit Studio.”
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2014
Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.