Stephen Dale Petit
talks to MN reviewer Andy Snipper
added: 15 Sep 2013
interviewed by: Andy Snipper
Stephen Dale Petit's new album 'Cracking The Code' will be released tomorrow Sept 16th. A review will appear here tomorrow.
The album features a number of remarkable guests including the Stones Mick Taylor, Dr John and the last ever performance of the legendary Hubert Sumlin.
He agreed to answer some questions for music-news
Hi Stephen, thanks for giving me your time.
You have been amazingly busy since ‘The Crave’ was released; there was your album of BBC Sessions and the incredible ‘Live at High Voltage’ album as well as your involvement in saving the 100 Club – that show with Ronnie Woods, Mick Taylor and Chris Barber is still one of the highlights of the last few years for me – and in between you have been travelling all over to put together the new album.
I hope you don’t mind going over the album for music-news.com, letting the readers into the intentions behind the album and touching on some of the highpoints?
MN What is the theme of the album? The title, ‘Cracking The Code’, seems to be a code of its own
SDP Initially I just liked the sound of the phrase, then I soon realised it suggested all sorts of things. To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, if I could tell you what it meant, I wouldn’t have made the album! I wanted to achieve something contemporary, modern and new that is shot through with the DNA of Deep Blues, which to me is primal, haunting and mysterious music. And there are a few of us on that quest. So in that sense I guess the title speaks of solving that, you know, a eureka moment. Still, I wasn’t 100% decided, it was a working title that I kept to myself, but 6 months or so into making the album Vance Powell (recording engineer & mix) mentioned that he’s a massive Bletchley Park fiend, so that decided it. And that’s a different, more literal meaning. But it works on so many levels – literally, metaphorically, cryptically – any starting place reveals more layers, which is what I think you’re referring to when you say the title itself seems to be a code of it’s own. On a different level again, having decided on the title, I put in all sorts of clues in the artwork, more of them on the vinyl because there’s more space with the gatefold and 12’ vinyl. As far as a theme, it was pointed out to me that sex seems to be the dominant subject matter of the album, and looking at the lyrics it’s true. It wasn’t thought out beforehand though, like a sex concept album. Maybe the next one!
MN You work with a number of other artists on this album, a bit of a first for you. Did you always intend to feature these collaborations of were they something that grew organically from the recording process?
SDP Organically. I had no intentions of bringing anybody else into the music in the beginning, almost the opposite really, but once we’d started it was case of realising that this was an opportunity to work with some other people, so in a wildest dreams sort of way I made a wish list, “if you could have anybody you want on the album, who would it be?” I was chuffed they all said yes!
MN Can you explain what the contribution of those artists was on the album?
SDP I’d worked with the core band in a rehearsal room for weeks, getting arrangements I was happy with and selecting which songs to record. Then we flew out to Nashville and cut the tracks live, making nearly all the production decisions at the time of recording - decisions that these days generally get put off until much later, like printing the reverbs and so on - so the sonic character and direction of the album was well established by the time anybody outside of the band got involved. All the guests are strong characters musically, so it was a case of me thinking very carefully about which songs for them to play on, finding the perfect places for them before they showed up, then communicating what I had in mind on the day and turning ‘em lose. There was a bit of, you know, a little to the left, a little to the right that went on, but everybody nailed it.
With Hubert, since he’d passed away so soon after the session, I felt an extra duty of care to do him proud because it was the last music he ever made. He was so enthusiastic about the album and that carried through, he was inspired and played fantastically well. He did 3 or 4 passes, and then we comped those. I really wanted him to be showcased in a great way his last time out, after all he’s Hubert fucking Sumlin! I hope I achieved that - Jimmy Page thinks so!
“Hubert’s Blues” was untitled to begin with but was started from scratch with Hubert. He was too tired to finish and so it felt right to turn the song into a musical tribute. When Dr. John added his part (he’s on “Get You Off” also) the song didn’t have the end “up” section, and we were talking after he was done and he suggested that there should be that celebratory party music that New Orleans funeral bands play after the sorrowful respectful section, so that’s how that end bit came to be on the song, because of Dr. John. And to top it off, the very last music you hear on the fade out is an actual New Orleans street brass band that I happened upon by chance walking around exploring when I was there doing the Dr. John sessions. I recorded it with my iPhone, with the police sirens and everything and it was in the right key musically, which was fantastic!
Chris Barber was the natural choice for the song since he’s Britain’s Mr. New Orleans, and he played so beautifully.
““Holla” was the last song we worked on, it was done mainly in London and Mick Taylor was staying at mine when that was going on. I wrote that song on the fly, I’d be working on the lyric and melody while recording the vocal and he’d wander in for a cup of tea, we’d chat a bit, and then he’d wander back out the door. Then I’d be putting down a guitar part & he’s back for another cup of tea, another chat - same thing repeatedly over a couple of days, you know. He was listening the whole time and he’s got this canny ability to be a telepathic sounding board, there’s a real alchemy that goes on. It’s funny, he kept hearing the key of the song differently, you know it was bare bones with little musical context early on, it was just that Hubert riff & the groove, and the riff on it’s own is modal, it could lay in a couple of keys and his ear kind of locked onto the first impression that he had. It was the topic of dinner debate, the key to that song! So when he put his guitar part down we did takes with him in each key and that’s why those bends in the chorus add such tension, because I used the take where he was playing in a different key for the choruses. Musically, he’s got a shamanic thing; he channels stuff. (You know the Honky Tonk Woman that we all know & love exists solely because he said to the Stones why don’t you try Country Honk, which was recorded before he was with the band, why don’t you try it like this? Just one seemingly simple instinct can have such a massive, profound impact). And then Patrick Carney from The Black Keys added such power and groove to the song, plus his drum breaks are so fucking cool. (BTW it’s Hubert & Mick left speaker & I’m right speaker).
MN How did you find the experience of working with Powell?
SDP Exhilarating, inspiring, and very, very easy. He’s a true music man, cut his teeth doing front of house live mixing for people like Tammy Wynette and Dave Alvin for years, so he’s got impeccable spur of the moment instincts. Much different than someone who comes out of a technical sound engineering school or trains up in a studio; they may very well be a master of the recording studio but won’t have that massive other ability. I call him ‘Vance The Man Invincible’, because he’s like a super hero recording man – he’s got that encyclopaedic technical mastery too, you know, he built Blackbird Studio in Nashville. He’s the 2013 version of a Sam Phillips, Tom Dowd or Eddie Kramer; just brilliant and totally expert at “catching lightning in a bottle”, which is such a huge part of recording music.
MN What was the contribution of the producer in all this? Did you seek him out or was the liaison with Vance Powell a side effect of using Blackbird Studios in Nashville?
Vance insisted I take producers credit. It seemed big headed to me, but after the album was finished he kept saying that it was my vision & I should step up!
Blackbird was the side effect. I wanted to work with Vance, the studio was a secondary consideration. It was Vance’s choice. That said, Blackbird is mind blowing to work in so I’m grateful to him for suggesting it. I worked very closely with him during the sessions and the mixes.
MN Can you talk about ‘Hubert’s Blues’? I understand you actually played at his funeral?
SDP Hubert invited me to play at what was going to be his 80th birthday party concert, which was being organised at The Apollo in New York by Keith Richards, but then it became his memorial concert when he died. Keith & Eric Clapton were the driving forces behind that show and there were all sorts of politics that developed – not from those two, but from other people; with Hubert gone I decided to pay my respects another way. See above for “Hubert’s Blues’.
MN You have a signature sound – a hard edge to the playing and strong beat driving the music along and always a strong emphasis on the guitar. How do you think that your sound has developed and evolved over the three studio albums? Would you say that there is a significant difference in you sound from ‘The Crave’?
SDP Hard for me to say really.....Guitararama was focused chiefly on the guitar, there’s lots of instrumentals with shedloads of solos and I made that album more as a guitarist. The Crave was more conventionally song orientated and I was consciously making a statement on that album about how broad the church of Blues is, like demonstrating Blues in rap, or how pop music has appropriated wholesale the musical language of gospel – plus I was using standards to explore what Blues could be with a totally fresh perspective or a return to the essence of those songs. There are “definitive” versions that have taken hold to such an extent that the original energy has been blanded out and lost or nothing new can be said, and aside from playing music that’s much loved, the point of doing a standard is to show what you can bring to the table, to make it your own.
With Cracking The Code I wanted raw and distressed sounds, there’s no horn sections or strings, it’s all original material and the only look backwards is “Hubert’s Blues” which is a sad farewell to a pioneer musician who is no longer with us. I wanted the album to be loud with new sonic textures everywhere, not just the guitars, and for the guitar sounds to be rough and filthy. I didn’t want smooth or polished, so where there’s distortion it’s untidy, jagged and broken. I sought Vance out specifically to realise this. A good example of how brilliant it was to work with him is “Muzzle”. I think it was the 2nd song we cut & I walked into the control room and said “I want this one to sound like it’s a monster”, you know, for the song to be a musical sci-fi creature. He didn’t bat an eyelid, just said “OK!” and away we went. And even the solos are approached differently, there ARE some that are framed more conventionally but with others I sought to a create a new language; on “Muzzle” the solo is just one note and on “Slideway” the solo is a sensory overload thing, coming at you like shards of sonic shrapnel. On “Approximately Perfect Heartbreak” & “Hubert’s Blues” the solo guitar takes the place of a lead vocal, so they’re more lyrical and melodic than they are guitar licks. Since this is the third studio album, I’m always learning, so the album is a convergence of (1) utilising all that I’ve learned plus being able to better communicate what I’m after, with (2) striving to find and create a new sonic palette to work from and (3) working alongside someone who is a sonic genius and can realise anything you want in the studio and who is willing to try anything to achieve what you’re after, no matter how unorthodox it is technically.
And I spent a lot of time on the lyrics. They had to match the sound picture of the recordings and so I focused a lot of attention on them, maybe more than before.
I wanted the album to fire on all cylinders no matter which way you looked at it. Also, I wrote the melodies to be stage friendly, so that there would be no difficulty in singing & playing at the same time, which can happen if you just write a song without considering you’ll have to do both when you perform it live.
MN Your album ‘Live At High Voltage’ was a vinyl only release and recorded entirely Analog. The new album is around the length of two vinyl LP sides and is currently available as a vinyl release. Do you think that you might be losing sight of a great number of listeners who favour downloads and ‘music on the move’ or are you planning to bring themn into the fold by ‘other means’?
SDP The album will be released on all formats - CD, iTunes and download – on Sept. 16.
MN Your current band is extremely young – I believe average age is 20 yrs old? Are these the band that you used on the album? What is there about using musicians that young that benefits the music? I did see that Jack Greenwood, Pretty Things drummer and part of the High Voltage Band, is only in his very early 20’s and his enthusiasm and power is incredible.
SDP Generalisations being what they are, here goes: younger musicians play with more intensity, like their life depends on it, because their life DOES depend on it.
They’re fired up to make their mark on the world.
Also, for anyone, before responsibilities like children and mortgages enter the frame and life choices become calibrated towards safer ends you can be more bold and adventurous in your life. If that person is a musician, being bolder and more adventurous directly translates into the music they make. More established players bring expertise & experience to the table; that can sometimes mean that there is a jadedness that can’t help but affect the music.
MN When is SDP going to start a full touring schedule? I see you in and around London but I haven’t seen any announcements of a nationwide tour or any of the festivals yet? Are these coming?
SDP I have toured the UK a few times, but more recently I purposefully didn’t play live in order to give everything to this album. I agree, it’s high time to get out there and gig! I love live performance, I’ve got cabin fever, so the next 6-9 months should see me doing a lot more shows up & down the country.
Stephen, thanks for your time
Track Listings and guests
1. Holla - Hubert Sumlin, Patrick Carney, Jack Greenwood
3. Get You Off - Hubert Sumlin, Dr John
4. Hard To Love You
5. Absolutely Perfect Heartbreak
7. Riot City (explicit)
8. Shotgun Venus
10. My Friend Bob
11. Hubert's Blues- Dr John, Chris Barber, Mick Taylor, Jack Greenwood
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