The studio is a place where art and tech cross paths. Taking a song birthed from raw creativity and figuring out how to best capture its essence and onto a medium, whether it be vinyl or digital bits to be streamed over the ether, is an art form in and of itself.
To most of us looking from the outside, our minds equate the recording process to a band jam session in a padded room with somebody hitting the record button to catch it all. And while that does happen on occasion, it’s only of one of many ways the sausage is made. In reality, it’s indeed sausage, a confluence of meaty bits – instruments, vocals, effects, ambient noises all processed and combined; and if done well, it tastes pretty damn good. It’s also organic and messy, we usually never know which parts made it in one take or were meticulous combined from ten different takes. Happy accidents are mistaken for conscious brilliance and sometimes the person you think is playing on the record isn’t playing at all.
I was pretty excited to get an unsolicited invite to yellow DOG Studios to sit in with Tahlequah, Oklahoma’s own DocFell & Co. as they began production on their latest project, “Heaven, Hell or Oklahoma”. I’ll get to the band and their album in a minute, but let’s first set the scene.
You may have heard of yellow DOG, owned by the longtime producer, engineer, and musician Dave Percefull. Dave, who started his studio in Tulsa in 1996, was right in the middle of the Texas/Red Dirt explosion. Back then he was no stranger to The Farm or The Yellow House, working with legends like Tom Skinner, Bob Childers, and even some bar recordings with Garth. In 2007 he journeyed south to Austin where he could attract a wider variety of artists and projects. And while Austin did help amass some impressive clientele, it got prohibitively expensive not only for yellow DOG, (who occupied a building in downtown on Congress) but also for the artists. Bands were devouring 30%-40% of their recording budget on food and lodging, not to mention the distractions that accompany a town like Austin that can derail projects in a hurry.
So in 2014 Percefull got out of the rat race and simplified. He and fellow resident producer Adam Odor (BadTruth podcast anyone?) found 30+ acres with Blanco River frontage just 45 minutes south in the artsy small town of Wimberley. The 100-year-old farmhouse sitting on the property was converted to a working studio with views of the river. There are complimentary bunkhouses on premises and even full-sized cabins at a neighboring guest ranch. It’s a musician’s retreat, allowing bands to save some coin and disconnect so they can put their energy towards creating the best record possible.
Percefull and Odor were successful, pulling up to the yellow DOG house feels very unassuming in that weekend Texas lakehouse kind of way. Lucy Jean, the unofficial mascot, was quick to welcome me. It was late and everyone was on the back porch around the firepit, decompressing from the day, wine flowing and philosophy commencing. Through the front door, a piano sits in the middle of what used to be the living room, now a gathering place with all sorts of vintage instruments. Your eyes scan the room, trying to take inventory of it all but eventually failing to organize it. Off the living room are the control room and one of two studio spaces; one is set up for recording drums and the other pretty much everything else.
That leads us to the purpose of my trip, to see DocFell & Co. at work on “Heaven, Hell, or Oklahoma”. Percefull is producing and engineering the project. By the time I got there, the band had already been at work for a couple of days laying down drum, vocal, and rhythm guitar tracks. My day was spent largely with Adam Miller composing and putting down bass lines. It’s a meticulous and at times mechanical process, taking what’s created by the right brain and converting it into a left brain activity. But in the end, it really doesn’t matter how it’s done if the music feeds your soul.
Obviously, it’s all still coming together but the album dabbles in the existential themes of life, death and beyond the grave. Talking with John Fell, several of the tracks were written just after attending funerals, which sounds morbid but it’s those types of events that often get us thinking about the big picture. There are other songs inspired by family members, like “Mean Marie”, loosely based on tales about his grandmother-in-law and “Radio is Dead”, inspired by his son. Fell also pays tribute to Willie Nelson with his song “Three Chords”, but my favorite track thus far is “Beulah Land”. It’s inspired by an old pilgrim hymnal about heaven and marches along as if you are approaching the Pearly Gates. As with their previous albums, Scissor Tail and Dust Bowl Heart, Fell and the band intend to stay true to their established folk-country sound. However, I expect Percefull will likely add a touch of 70’s Waylon Jennings to give the project a voice of its own.
Overall, it was really cool to watch it all happen and I even got in a little jam session with Adam, Kyle Brown (guitar), and Phillip Tijerina (yellow DOG Studios, 2nd engineer).
Expect “Heaven, Hell, or Oklahoma” to hit during the first half of 2018. For more on DocFell & Co. check the usual outlets:
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/docfellmusic/
Twitter – @drfeljo
yellow DOG Studios website: www.yellowdogstudios.com