Interview deep cut: Freakwater on the intricacies of recording and touring


The Mill — Tue., Mar. 15 at 8 p.m.

Freakwater in Iowa City
Freakwater hits The Mill tonight. Photo by Edward Neary.
In this deep cut from Mike Roeder’s interview with Freakwater, parts of which were published in issue 194, Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean talk about the record industry, their new album and touring with the band that built it. Freakwater plays tonight, Tuesday Mar. 15, at The Mill. Tickets are $15.

I really love the sound of this album [Scheherazade]. It has a genuine 1970s Nashville sound — Kris Kristofferson kind of funky.

Catherine Irwin: I think that Morgan [Geer, also of Drunken Prayer]’s guitar is a unifying force. He’s a really inventive guitar player. He plays a lot of different ways, but there is a certain continuity to his sound that really ties it all together in a way. It has kind of a Muscle-Shoals-y kind of sound.

Janet Beveridge Bean: [Sound engineer] Kevin Ratterman likes to use a lot of giant reverb and I think we really embraced that … 1970s country rock, Jessie Colter-era … idea.

Irwin: And I think that kind of worked! What was nice was that when we decided to make this album we didn’t really know what we were going to do with it. We weren’t making this record for Thrill Jockey or Bloodshot Records or anything, so we didn’t have any date it needed to be finished by. It was much more freeform in the studio than we had ever been able to be before. So, if there was something we didn’t like there was no pressure to use it.

Bean: Yeah, Thinking of You was kind of a clusterfuck that way. The hard drive at the studio had become corrupted, so everything we worked on disappeared and we had to do it all over again. So, then at the last minute we were told, “You have to have this in, this hour.” Even though we weren’t satisfied with it. I guess we didn’t realize we could just say, “No. No, we don’t want to turn it in, we don’t like the way it sounds!”

Irwin: I was remixing a song in the studio and that was on one reel of tape, and while that was going on a guy was taking the other reel of tape and putting it in the box to take it to FedEx. I was crying like, “No — wait!!”

Bean: There are some great songs on that record, but I think the whole experience was really heart-wrenching and emotionally debilitating. We toured on it, and it was okay. I think there was a little studio shyness afterward, thinking about what a struggle those sessions were and then having to go back and do them again. I guess ten years was enough time that we kind of forgot about it! (laughs)

Irwin: That was the first time we had recorded digitally — I think Janet had recorded digitally before, but it was the first time I had. We had recorded some things like the vocals to reel tape, we were within days of finishing the record, and we had all of these people come in to play —

Bean: [To] “fly in” stuff —

Irwin: Then we had this gigantic crash, and I guess stuff wasn’t backed up properly and I guess it all just disappeared. It went back to all ones and zeros, so they sent it off to some expert at some X-Files laboratory or something and they said it was irredeemably corrupted. (both laugh) That was fairly traumatic.

These days it isn’t like labels are completely footing the bill for albums. It seems like most bands I talk to are paying for their own recordings.

Bean: Yeah, when we turned this record in, to Bloodshot, they paid the bill, but if you pay for the record yourself you own it. There is an advantage to that — you can take it anywhere you want at any given time. It doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to you. We like Bloodshot and we trust them.

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Irwin: We were lucky that Dave [Gay, Freakwater’s bassist] could front the money. So, then we could make a really great record and then find somebody to put it out for us.

Bean: Also we want somebody to really listen to it and be really excited about it and be like, “Yeah! I want to put that out!” You know? It was really re-invigorating to have someone say that this is a really special record. We sat down with our manager at Billions [Agency] and laid out a plan for the record, how we wanted to go into the studio, and he gave us really great advice … and when he heard it, he said that this is an album that fans will not be turned off by but it’s also beyond what you’ve been doing before — it’s really powerful. Then Bloodshot said, “This is super special.” It gave everything a little more excitement than we were expecting or used to, I guess.

It helps that Bloodshot is a good place for you, with artists like Lydia Loveless, and of course Sally Timms is on there and Rosie Flores — these are all acts in the same area as you guys.

Bean: Yeah it makes sense to have a label that has an identity. It’s a lot easier to get things to the right place … If I had my own label it would be a lot more like Thrill Jockey or something—a bunch of eclectic stuff that really reflects my musical tastes. As great of a model as that is, I think it’s a harder one to sell. To have continuity and have people who say, “Yeah, Bloodshot is a label I like and I want to go buy that.” You don’t get that on a label that will put out a metal record, and then put out a Freakwater record. The metal dude might like us, but he’s going to be surprised.

How does touring with the band on the record change the live show?

Bean: Having the a consistent touring band that also played on the record helps because they know what they are supposed to do. You know? It’s more solid. If you tour with people who aren’t on the record, they’re trying to fit in … [It’s] not as innate as someone who played on the record. It’s really not an issue either way. We do the best we can with whatever we’ve got at any given time. We’re lucky right that we’ve got a really good band.

Irwin: I don’t think we’ve ever been … uh, savvy? It’s nice to be able to play the songs exactly as they are on the record, but a lot of the time we’ve never been able to do that anyway because there’s just way too much stuff. We’ve done a couple of shows where we’ve recreated a record that had a ton of stuff on it like a string section which was also really fun.

Bean: It’s really crazy for us to be going out with six people. It ensures that none of us will make any money. The fact that our touring band is larger than [instrumental post-rock band] Tortoise is pretty funny to me! But, at the same time, this was an album we wanted to play right this time around—we wanted the songs to be reflective of the record that we’ve just recorded and we’re happy with the way everything sounds.

Irwin: It’s also nice to not have to teach the songs to somebody else.

Bean: THAT’S for sure!

Irwin: I think we think the songs are simpler than they are — especially since we wrote the songs, so it seems really natural the way it goes. But, when you teach it to someone else, there’s all kinds of starting and stopping and time signatures or whatever — it doesn’t seem like there’s that much to it. It’s nice to not have to teach a drummer how to play on a three-quarters song — it just makes them really, really angry! (laughs)

Bean: Our ability to communicate using the language of music in any way that is technical is beyond our capacity! (laughs) It doesn’t exist. So, you have to have a suspension of disbelief that we can actually play the songs. We’re like, “Just come in like (makes guitar noise) WAH WAH WAH and then like really hard WAH WAH,” and they’re like, “What is she talking about?” So, if we come together organically, it’s a lot easier.

Irwin: Yeah, there’s less of us resorting to interpretive dance.

Bean: And we’ll say, “It’s a waltz … 1, 2, 3, 4” and they’re like “WHAT?!?” because we like to count in four no matter what it is, because it’s such a nice number. So, people get confused.

Has touring changed in thirty years for you guys?

Bean: Sadly, not as much as it should have. Jesus, you’d think we’d have maybe a tour manager or something so that we’re not sleeping on floors. No, it’s remarkably consistent.
Irwin: It has followed the rest of our business plan of “keeping it real.” (laughs) I wouldn’t mind NOT keeping it real.

Bean: Who knows — maybe a tour bus will just pull up in front of our house and we’ll step on and it will be a magical ride.