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What's essential to making a great record in the mind of Dave Cobb? "Ordering food, drinks and jokes, all three of those are important to me," the Grammy-winning producer says. "I like enjoying the making of a record. I don't ever want it to be a project. When it starts to become a project, when you start pulling out boards and checklists, I'm out."
The 42-year-old Savannah, Georgia native has proven that his method of making records is a winning formula, as he scored a country music trifecta producing albums by Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. For Cobb, the studio isn't a stuffy place. It's somewhere he and his friends can go have fun and - eventually - make a record.
"I think it's all about having a great time when you're recording cause when you're not, people can hear it. It doesn't translate," Cobb says. "We stay in here, just goof off and try to chase Sticky Fingers and have a good time."
Recently, we headed down to Nashville to visit with Cobb at the historic RCA Studio A building, the former recording home of Chet Atkins. We spoke with Cobb about taking over the big room, his start in country music and his obsession with guitar gear and beyond. Watch our brand new Make Your Mark feature below and continue on afterward to read an extended interview with Dave.
Talk about working on that first record with Shooter Jennings. I was a rock guy. I moved out to LA to produce rock records. I thought I was going to be doing that and when I got out there I met Shooter. A friend of ours introduced us and he was like, "You're from the South, he's from the South. You guys will get along." Really, that's what it was. We talked about Ministry and Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails and wound up making a country record.
He really taught me most of what I know about country music and got me into the right stuff. When I was a kid we had Andy Griffith sings Kenny Rogers, it was these K-Mart records that were never the real person singing the songs. I didn't care too much for country growing up, but I also didn't like okra and black eyed peas and wanted Chinese and pizza. Now I'm into Southern food, I love it.
We were kids. We were children. We didn't know what we were doing and there was no label involved when we made the record. It really was just a bunch of out of control kids partying and having a good time. People heard that on the record and it was real innocent. Eventually, he got signed and it did real well. There were no expectations and there were no ceilings on what we could do and it worked. Then we got to do it again, and again, and again and again. It was like letting the kids take over, but now we're old and still acting that way.How did you end up moving to Nashville? It was a little bit of a scary thing to relocate your entire family across the country to Nashville from LA. I had been getting really homesick when my daughter was born in LA and I had these George Jones and Merle Haggard records I would play her in her crib and it was just one of those things. I heard this song by the Drive By Truckers called "Outfit" and the lyrics of that fit everything I grew up around. It fit the whole vibe of the Southeast and I got super homesick. I was sort of angling to come back home this way a bit.
It made sense. Every time I came back to Nashville to work, this city was on fire. I don't think there is anywhere else on earth where art meets commerce like Nashville. There are more bands, there are more incredible musicians, there is more going on than any other place I've ever lived. London had its time in the 60s, LA had its time in the 70s and 80s and Nashville's time is now. It's not just country, it's experimental music, alternative, blues and rock. I'm here cause the music is here. My heaven is being around a bunch of common minded people and this is the right place for me now.
How has moving into RCA Studio A helped you realize your recording ambitions? The cool thing about this space is I'm able to live out a fantasy I've always had. Most of my records were recorded in the back of my house in a little tiny room, I think its 12' by 10'. I've done all those records like that and if we had to change out something, we have to completely restage everything and move out the drums and everybody's gotta get out of the way. Every time we would walk past each other, we gotta lean out the way. This place is amazing because I can leave three or four drum sets out and miked up, I can leave tons of guitar amps miked up and different pianos miked up, ready to go. There can be three or four different staging areas for making a record sound different, instead of this one-dimensional thing. We can change it up immediately and it doesn't stop the creation process. It enhances it because we can work so fast just because of the space.
How have you gone about picking the gear that you have on hand here? I have a console at home that I love more than anything, an old Helios desk. I was going to put that in this space, but we had cut that [Chris Stapleton] Traveller record here and that was a big influence on making me come to this space. The studio has an API in it now and I told Chris, "I think I'm going to put the Helios in the studio," and he said, "Well, what about that API?" I said, "That's just an API. There are other ones out there." He's like "You gotta buy that console, it's got red, white and blue EQs." So I bought the API here from [previous owner] Ben Folds because it had red, white and blue EQs. It sounds great and we've done a lot of stuff on it.
That was the first part, and then I brought a lot of stuff from home. I've got these old Universal Audio 610s which I think are really incredible and I love the sounds of those old United Western records, the Chicago records and I think even FAME even had a UA desk at one time and I love the sounds of those records. We got some of those and BA-6As, always a nice tube compressor. Basically, I have it so we can record everything on a Neve if we want to, I have a BCM10 here. Sometimes that gets boring, so we'll go with the API for the API sound. I've got racks for the Helios, sometimes we'll do that. It's just fun. It's fun to shake it up.
The truth is you could make a record on anything and it would be great because the room is great and we have really good players, but it's really fun to go, "I want to live out the 50s fantasy, I want to live out the 60s fantasy. I want the Nashville thing. I want the 70s English thing." We constantly change it up to make ourselves interested. I don't think I've ever really made a record the same way.
There are a lot of guitars out there. Is there?
What's the story behind your passion for guitar and amps? I just keep telling my wife that they are like works of art and if we ever need to put the kid through college, we can sell some stuff. They are like a living savings account.
This guy, Mark Neil, who is one of my kind of mentors, he's in South Georgia. He told me a long time ago that the sound doesn't happen in the control room, it happens in the live room with the players. I think he is totally right. We find ourselves hardly EQing or compressing half the time if the source is right. There are a lot of guitars because one guitar doesn't fit all songs and one guitar doesn't fit all players. Same with amplifiers, same with drums.
We have a lot of sources to get that right and once it's right, it's pretty easy. I feel like we're cheating half the time with a great room, a great source and a great microphone. You just have to pull the fader up and it sounds finished. That's why we have a lot of guitars because I like cheating. I like to cheat. I'm a cheater.
What are your favorite go-to guitars? There are a couple. There is an old Gretsch I love, a '59 Jet Firebird, that's been on a lot of records and I've always felt real close to that. There's also a '66 Esquire that I love that I've had forever. There's a great 335 if I want a Gibson thing. I love the sound of old Gibsons with PAFs. It just depends on the record. I've got a couple of old Martins out there that I love. If I had to pick one out of the whole place, it'd be this nylon Martin. I think it's like a '62, I have no idea what the model is, but it just sounds angelic. You play it and it just sounds like a record.
What are some records that you come back to again and again for inspiration? "Witchita Lineman" Glen Campbell. I love that record. That record sums up everything for me. It's just the most pure vocal and the orchestration is brilliant and the band is brilliant. Hal Blaine on drums is brilliant. That's a huge gauge, I'll never hit that, but I love that record. Waylon Jennings has a song called "MacArthur Park" that he covered and it's just the most brilliant progression and feel. There's a lot of them, Buddy Holly "Everyday." That's just one of the most hi-fi recordings I've ever heard and it's very creative, they could have had big drum sets, but everyone is just patting on their legs for percussion. "Can You Hear Me Knocking" from Sticky Fingers. I could go on for ten years about records that inspire me.
What keeps you coming back to the studio every single day for more? I went to this induction of a Sam Phillips book at the Country Music Hall of Fame and his son was talking about Sam and he said at Sun Studio, Sam would walk in every day with no plan and he'd come out with "A Whole Lotta Shaking Going On" or whatever, all these immortalized songs. I like the fear of it, walking in without a plan. I hate pre-production. What people have made record making into, I hate. I hate when it becomes a job, so I never treat my job as a job. I'm serious, but I don't go in, rehearse a band for three months and then come in, do all the drums, edit that, do the bass, edit that. I come here to have fun and I come here to capture the same spirit I had when I was 15 and practicing in a garage with my band. I want that.
Want to hear some of Dave Cobb's handiwork? Check out modern country classics produced by Cobb from the likes of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson below.
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