It's a Gift: Aaron Lee Tasjan Talks About Producing Drivin N Cryin
Aaron Lee Tasjan talks about producing Drivin N Cryin and recognizing the importance of Kevn Kinney's lyrics: "There were a few lines that jumped out and said, 'Kevn's singing about something super-personal right now.' As soon as I realized that, I said, 'My approach has to be that people can hear and understand what he's saying clearly.'"
Live the Love Beautiful
Drivin N Cryin
Drivin N Cryin
21 June 2019
Live the Love Beautiful is the latest album from the legendary Drivin N Cryin and the group's first full-length album of new material since 2009's working-class opera, Whatever Happened to the Great American Bubble Factory. Produced by acclaimed singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan, who had his own two-year stint with the band as touring guitarist circa 2013, the album captures a number of things, including the current all-cylinders lineup, which features co-founders Kevn Kinney and Tim Nielsen, longtime drummer Dave V. Johnson and Estonian-born guitarist Laur Joamets.
Throughout, the quartet sounds remarkably present, issuing a collection of 11 songs that span a variety of topics, from aging to a tribute to late Small Faces' keyboardist Ian McLagan. Moreover, one can hear the seemingly disparate strains that have always informed Drivin N Cryin's music, from sweet psychedelia and jangle pop to Southern rock and the blue-collar tendencies of AC/DC and Thin Lizzy.
Tracked at Welcome to 1979 Studio in Nashville, Live the Love Beautiful is both a creative renaissance and decided continuation of the group's unwavering commitment to be the best band in North America.
Speaking from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tasjan is effusive in his praise of Drivin N Cryin and candid about the process of recording one of his favorite bands.
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When did this idea of you coming back and collaborating with the band come up?
I was sitting around the house one day when the phone rang, and it was Kevn. I always get excited when Kevn calls, mostly because I really enjoy his speaking voice! [Laughs.]
He said, "Hey, man! I think maybe you could produce a record on us!" I've been involved in the production of my own records, and I did produce a record for Tim Easton [Black Flag Blues]. But the idea really intrigued me. I said, "Sure, man, I'll be there with whatever you need!" [Laughs.] That was that. It was probably a 30-second phone call.
Did he ever tell you what he was looking for from you as a producer?
Oh God. That would have been nice! [Laughs.]
Kevn is a very intuitive artist. He does almost everything based on how he's feeling. A lot of it's internal. I think the best producers for Drivin N Cryin are either someone who knows the band really well or somebody who doesn't know that band at all. If you know them well, then you understand that this is how they work. [For instance, when] they came over to my house, Kevn had a few ideas for some songs. When I say ideas, I mean some chords for maybe three or four songs. That was it.
I think some producers would say, "What's the deal here?" But they wrote six really good songs in one three-hour rehearsal at my house. But I knew that that's how they work. I figured, "Well, there won't be much to start with, and then it'll build as it goes." And it did.
They wrote four or five more songs while they were recording the actual album. A lot of it was Kevn's intuitive sense leading the charge. My main goal was to be ready to capture that. I had to always be ready to record. A lot of times, they'd start playing, and if you weren't rolling, you'd realize, halfway through, "Oh! This is the take!" [Laughs.]
You have to be on your toes. They're working on how Kevn feels and a lot of that doesn't even get [expressed] to anyone.
It sounds like you were hands-off, but I wonder if there were times when you had to come in and say, "That wasn't the best drum performance, that wasn't the best vocal."
What I really wanted as a producer was a Drivin N Cryin record that I hadn't heard or hadn't heard for a while. I think we made something that's much more along the lines of their earlier work. Records like Mystery Road, Scarred But Smarter, Whisper Tames the Lion. You get the full measure of what that band is on those three albums. I'd missed that as they'd gone through their various stages of commercial success.
[I didn't want to do] gated reverb on snare drums and tons of delays on vocals. Part of what is magical about this record is what Kevn is saying, lyrically. It feels like a very personal record. He usually disguises what he says. You can find your own story in it, which is beautiful. But he was reaching deep on this. I wanted people to be able to hear what he was singing really clearly.
I wanted to capture what I'd heard live, which was this rock 'n' roll juggernaut, which is also capable of breaking your heart with a beautiful acoustic song. There's also a place in Kevn's voice where it sounds naturally distorted. It's years and years of singing, and it sounds very natural to me. I wanted to leave all of that in there.
It feels very much to me like I'm sitting in the room with the band.
I'm not really aware that it's an album. I mean, I know I'm listening to it on some device removed from the original sessions, but I can picture the room, picture the players when I close my eyes.
I didn't want to get too many bells and whistles. What I felt was important was to capture a great American rock 'n' roll band in their element.
You mentioned that the band was writing very quickly but, also, that Kevn was tapping into something on the lyrical front. How quickly did you lock into what he was saying?
For me, it was pretty immediate. I think a lot of that has to do with how much I've listened to Kevn as a writer. Not only in Drivin N Cryin but in the context of his other projects as well. Whether that's solo records or Sun Tangled Angel Revival. There were a few lines, in particular, that jumped out at me as being much more transparent.
I thought, "Man, Kevn is singing about himself right now." I'm sure there are many other songs where that's been the case in the past. But he has this beautifully opaque way of writing lyrics that reminds me of people like Tom Petty. You're not always entirely sure what they're writing about, but you know it's something.
I get that.
So, yeah, there were a few lines that jumped out and said, "Kevn's singing about something super-personal right now." As soon as I realized that, I said, "My approach has to be that people can hear and understand what he's saying clearly."
If you're in a collaborative setting, and something reaches up and grabs you, do you say, "OK, can you tell me a little bit more about this line"? Or do you say, "It means what it means, I don't have to explore it on a deeper level"?
With Kevn, I tread very lightly. I don't even know why. It's not as if he's a super-sensitive soul or that I feel like he would be reluctant to share that kind of stuff with me. I think, I know, in some ways, that Kevn enjoys having a bit of mystery.
I did have a little notebook that I was writing things down in during the sessions. A lot of times, that's technical stuff. This time, though, I was trying to keep that super-simple. I didn't want to note too many things unless they were obvious. On "Live the Love Beautiful," I remember hearing the line, "I feel my life is ending / My body is pretending for the first time." I'd never heard Kevn sing a line like that. I have a friendship with him, outside of working with the band, so that line totally cut me. It broke my heart instantly.
That was a signpost of, "I think we're making something special here." Aside from heartbreaking, I think this record is humorous. I think this record is exciting. I think it's wild in its way. It has these various emotional moments that can pull you in different directions.
Aaron Lee Tasjan / Photo courtesy of the artist
It seems to me that this is a good point of introduction for new listeners and it also seems to me that people are either deeply involved with this band or they have no idea.
[Laughs.] Isn't that funny?
[Laughs.] Yes. And I always feel like, "If people could just hear this music they'd love it." Do you have any sense of why that's the case?
You know that is a fair and good question. [Sighs.] Certainly, there are situations, politically, within the band, at times, you can point to when it became strained. Life on the road, trying to balance families. It can become difficult to make good decisions, regardless of the intentions. I'm not saying the guys made bad decisions. I'm saying they probably made the best decisions given what they were working with at the time.
A lot of people think about Drivin N Cryin now as a band that was popular in the late '80s and early '90s, which is true. But they were also on tour with the Who and Neil Young and R.E.M. They were there for some of the true debaucheries that happen when you're in a traveling rock 'n' roll band. [Laughs.]
I can't imagine that that wouldn't have affected them. But to me, it always felt like the wheels started to come loose on the Smoke record. That's a feeling I get from people who were outside of the band but who were there at the time. People who worked with them. Obviously, I wasn't around. It seems like, universally, people say that there was a lot of personal turmoil going on in the band. That seemed to result in a record that got a lukewarm reception. When you're a band that's five or six albums into a career, people tend to write you off very quickly. Never mind that you just had a gold record, you weren't able to do it twice. Therefore the first one doesn't even really count. It's the cruel reality of the situation.
And I think what's important to remember is that this is still a band that, for a certain group of music fans, is tremendously meaningful. I see it because I still go to their shows and the love for them is still very much there. The amount of commercial success they had didn't turn in to something more, but what it did turn into was something that's lasted for a really long time and probably will last for even longer. The work has never failed me.
I think that people have this desire for "authenticity" in art.
And you look at bands like the Replacements, Drive-By Truckers or John Hiatt and people go, "Ah, they should be more mysterious."
[Laughs.] I know! I know, man! Maybe it's not the most perfectly romantic version in somebody's head of being this very pure thing, but when you hear this record, and you hear all these places that it goes, all of those things are real.
Kevn was born in Milwaukee, Tim is from Minneapolis. These are Midwestern guys who moved to the South in the mid-'80s and started punk rock bands. When they started making music in Atlanta, they were already coming at it from a different place because they weren't really from there.
What they do has elements of Southern rock, but it has elements of power pop. It has all these stylistic things going on, and then you have Kevn, who is a devout student of words. He knows William Burroughs, and he knows Kerouac and all of that. I hear that in his writing, that kind of prose. It creates something that is very authentic, but maybe you can't draw a straight line with it.
Maybe that's what sometimes eludes the listener. Not every bit of music can be digested in five minutes and just because you can doesn't always mean it's brilliant, either. I think that's one of the great lessons we can learn from Drivin' N Cryin, the importance of sticking with something.
If there's a spark that makes you believe it the first time, you'll be rewarded by taking the journey of the different places it goes to. Being more than one thing is actually something we should celebrate.
You were in the band for a period of time. What strikes you about that experience?
The brotherhood of Tim and Kevn. I don't know many guys that have that relationship. They've been a band for 34 years. They still find ways to appreciate each other and hold each other up. There's a mutual respect that's crucial to making the band work. The other thing and I apply this to any musical setting: Just be grateful. Kevn is one of the most grateful people that I know.
It struck me that, every time we walked on stage, he seemed aware that it could very well be somebody else. It's a gift.