For the Sake of the Song: Sadler Vaden Talks Producing the High Divers
A solo artist and member of Jason Isbell's 400 Unit, Sadler Vaden discusses producing one of South Carolina's most promising acts, the High Divers, and letting go of work once it's done.
Ride With You
The High Divers
7 June 2019
South Carolina's the High Divers' new EP Ride With You marks a new chapter in the band's history and poises the quartet to reach a wider audience. Informed by a variety of personal experiences, ranging from the suicide of a close friend ("Stick Around") to "Ride with You", which captures the frustrations and fears wrapped up in small-town life. Buoyed by pop sensibilities with a hard-charging edge consistent throughout, the record speaks to the strengths that fans in the outfit's home base have been since the outfit's inception.
Recorded at Jeremy Ferguson's Battle Tapes Studio in Nashville and produced by Sadler Vaden (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, ex-Drivin N Cryin), Ride With You also marks a triumphant return for the band, which consists of Luke Mitchell (vocals, guitar), Mary Alice Mitchell (keyboards, vocals), Julius DeAngelis (drums), and Kevin Early (bass, vocals). Having recovered from a serious car accident roughly two years ago, the band were determined to embrace life and music wholeheartedly.
Vaden, who'd become acquainted with the group through a variety of circumstances, including producing an album for Luke Mitchell's sister, was eager to capture the High Divers in the studio with only its finest material. Tracking the record mostly live, he says he feels that he captured what the High Divers do best, what Grand Funk once referred to as "Good singin' and good playin'."
Vaden, who is spending the summer on the road as a member of Isbell's band, continues to enjoy success as a solo artist as well. He recently spoke with PopMatters about the origins and evolution of Ride With You as well as his approach to production.
You're from Charleston, South Carolina. Is that how you came to know the High Divers?
Pretty much. They opened a gig for me, and I produced a record for Hannah Wicklund, who's Luke's sister. Then, I had a gig in Charleston and needed a keyboardist, so I asked Mary Alice to join me; she did a great job. They had a gig the next night. I went to see them and knew I wanted to work with them. I laid it out for them. "Hey, I want to produce your band. Next time you're making a record, please keep me in mind."
What was it specifically that made you want to work with them? The songs? The playing?
It was a combination of those two. I liked a record that they had put out called Chicora. I thought Luke sang great live. He's got a unique voice and has a knack for writing great melodic pop-rock music. We love some of the same people, including Tom Petty.
Did you do the record fairly quickly or was there a prolonged period of pre-production?
Most of the records that I've been producing happen pretty quickly for budgetary reasons. Luke and Mary Alice came to visit my wife and me in Nashville. I'd said, "Come here, play me what you got. We can go over it, and you can decide if you still want to work with me." We spent two or three days going over songs, tightening up some arrangements, picking songs. Then we got in with the band and cut it mostly live to tape. We did some overdubs but not too much. It wasn't a drawn-out process.
Do you think there's an advantage to tracking live like that?
I certainly think it's faster!
If everybody's playing well. But live isn't always better. It depends on the band. There was maybe one song we built up without playing altogether. It's just how everybody's playing and how it feels. If you can get a rhythm guitar, bass, and drum track live that's got a good energy to it, and it's pushing and pulling because people are playing at the same time [that's a good thing].
What was it that made you want to produce? It seems to me that nowadays you kind of have to learn production along the way. It makes you more employable for one.
It's something I really like doing and have been in enough bands and made enough records with notable producers where I learned a lot from working with them. I feel like I can offer a younger, up and coming band something that's not going to put them in a huge amount of debt. I never thought, "I'm going to be a producer," though. It seemed like a natural thing. Everything has happened organically. I don't have a studio, though. I use studios in Nashville, which I think is a lot of fun because I feel like I'm keeping some of these places alive.
It's not even the same reality it was 20-30 years ago. You can't be a studio musician in the same way, and studios in the traditional sense are becoming a thing of the past.
It's why people are diversifying in a town like Nashville. You've got some guys that play on almost everything that's mainstream country. But it's a very tight circle. No one wants to lose their gig, and a lot of people have made the decision to be studio guys and not road guys. When guys like me come off the road and want to do sessions, it's almost, like, "Hey, hey, hey! This is our turf!"
I have no desire to play mainstream country music, but I seem to get hired to play on people's records when they're looking for a certain thing. When they want to make more of a band-sounding record. Some people just want me to come in and play overdubs. There is still a lot of music to be recorded in Nashville. I think people will always like recording there.
Did you always have it in mind that playing and singing would be an advantage?
When I was 14 or 15, I started a high school band, and the only reason I started singing was that nobody else would sing. That's a big advantage. When Amanda Shires isn't out with us in the 400 Unit, I sing all her background parts. When she is here, I have other parts. I would have to think it's a big plus for Jason because there's a lot of guitar players out there that don't sing.
Was Drivin N Cryin your first big gig?
I would say it was my first step into, "Hey, this is a legitimate band with a legacy." It was like my college. I graduated and joined Jason's band.
How did you land the gig with Jason? Was he aware of you through Drivin N Cryin? Did you audition?
I had a band called Leslie for about seven years out of Charleston. We used to open for Drivin N Cryin and for Jason. I had some rapport with him, knew him a little bit. When he moved to Nashville, I was there. I believe Amanda mentioned me to him. He asked me, and I've been here ever since.
Do you wish you had more time for your solo work or is it something where you say, "It's great to make my own records, but I gotta keep the lights on"?
I don't mind not being able to do a bunch of touring for my solo stuff. My priority is being in the 400 Unit. I like the freedom that gives me to where I can keep making records, and they have a greater chance of reaching a broader audience than they did before. That's down to people knowing me from the bands I've been in. I feel like if the day that I put all my focus on the solo career comes, it'll come naturally, present itself.
Let's circle back to the High Divers. How micro did you go with the production? For instance, did you have a hand in the sequencing or did you say, "I'll let them make that decision"?
I gave opinions on the sequencing, for instance, but I feel like that's the area for the artist. It's their album, not mine. They were lenient in letting me pick the songs that went on the album. I had some strong feelings there. But even in the mixing process, I'm not too hands-on. I want them to have it the way they want it. After we get to a certain point, I'll provide notes, but I really like the artist to be in control.
You hear these horror stories of producers kicking bands out of the mix. "Go have dinner, come back at seven."
If the band's in there and they're cutting up, I can see that. But if it's a creative control thing, I can't agree with that.
Do you remember the first song on this record that you heard and said, "That has to go on there"?
"Stick Around" was one they were iffy about. It took us a while to find the arrangement, but I felt sure about it. They wrote it about a friend who had committed suicide. I didn't pick it specifically for that, but I thought it was very sweet. I thought they shouldn't be afraid to wear their emotions on their sleeves. They'd never really done that. I thought this was their opportunity to put some songs out there with some weight.
Was there one that they had to talk you into?
I don't think there was. We were really on the same page. There wasn't anything that I wasn't too sure of. More often, it was that they weren't sure of something and I was.
Sometimes we don't know our own best work.
Right. Until you really know how to do that for yourself, I think it's really helpful to have a producer.
Do you produce your solo work or do you feel that you have to have someone on hand to confide in?
The last album I made, I co-produced with Paul Ebersole. He was the sole producer on some of my older records. But we just finished a record where he engineered it, and I produced it by default. He did do some producing, but it was more him asking questions about different things, making me think a little bit.
You're a guitarist, but the High Divers record, for instance, doesn't sound like a record produced by a guitar player. You have a very even hand.
I honestly don't like guitary guitar players. My favorite players were always guys who were composers. I love songwriting and just think about what the song needs instead of putting my ego in the mix. I'm glad to hear that you caught that.
When you produce an album and it's done, it's out in the world, do you feel protective of it, like you have to watch over it or do you say, "Well, it's up to fate to decide what's going to happen"?
It's up to the band and what they can do, the team around them and how they approach it. I think, lately, everything I've done I've been proud of. I figure if I like it someone else will too. Once the record's done, my job's done. I do try to promote the artists I work with in a tasteful manner. I don't want to shove it down people's throats. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] You've worked with some great producers. Is there anything that you've learned from anyone of them that you carry with you all the time?
I met Little Steven when I was 13. I asked him what advice he'd give an aspiring guitar player, and he said, "Serve the song." It's a cliché, but it's so important. Paul Ebersole has taught me about engineering and that sometimes you're working with a singer who thinks they're singing the words clearly, but they're not. Working with singers with annunciation in the studio is important. I worked with Luke a lot on that. "You know what you're saying, but we can't understand it."
Do you focus on lyrics a lot? I know Todd Rundgren would sometimes sit down with vocalists and go line-by-line. "Do you know what that means? Do you mean it when you sing it?"
I'm not too picky with it. At times I will throw a suggestion out. "I don't like that line. I think you've got better." But ultimately it's their song. I want them to be comfortable and say what they really want to say. If I'm a writer on the song, that's different. But it goes back to choosing the songs. I pick the ones that hit me lyrically and melodically and that I think will really round out an album.
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