TapeOp: Matt Ross-Spang: Eyeing the Future Through the Past (interview)
How does a Memphis-born teen become an intern, and eventually chief engineer, at Sun Studio? How does the same guy go on to record Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Chris Isaak, Drive By Truckers, the Rival Sons, and Kris Kristofferson, as well as win a Grammy? And how the heck did he follow in Sam Phillips’ legendary footsteps to end up recording at Sam Phillips Recording Service and mixing Elvis records? How did he end up working on amazing upcoming releases, including albums by Emily Barker, Sean Rowe, Patrick Sweany, and Margo Price’s follow up to Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. We find out below.
You were excited about studios from a pretty young age?
Yeah, I got to record at Sun when I was 14. I got a 2-hour gift certificate for my birthday! Me and a friend had a little duo; we never played out live or anything. The goal was to just get into a studio. That was the dream. The session started at six o’clock at night. The engineer was James Lott, who I would later intern and assist. He was just a character. He treated us like we deserved to be there, which we didn’t! When he started mixing on the big console, I became transfixed. He was making it sound like something! I started bugging him and asking about every little thing he was doing, and he told me I should come back and intern sometime. I loved playing guitar, but I always knew, deep down, that I’d never be a great guitar player — I just like being a good rhythm guy. But when I started interning, I knew pretty quickly that that’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life. I’ve always felt really lucky to have been that young and figured it out! So I started out as an intern and tour guide when I was 16 and could drive.
You were one of the tour guides?
Well, I started out as a tour guide and also became the studio intern a few months later when the other assistant left. My cousin, Johnny, ran the business and asked if I wanted to come work there. Of course I jumped at the opportunity! I worked up from tour guide, to operations manager, and from intern, to assistant, to second engineer. I became the main engineer when James left in 2010.
So the gear that was in there when you started was not anything like the original Sun equipment.
No. Sam Phillips was only at Sun for nine years. Then he left and built Sam Phillips Recording Service, and he took everything with him. Technology changed so much from ’51 to ’59. They went from direct to disc, to single track, to 3-track. So he was constantly updating his gear as well. Sun Studio reopened in the ’80s — it had been empty for about 20 years. They had a lot of ’80s kinds of equipment; like an ’80s home studio with a really big Soundcraft board. We used Cakewalk Audio instead of Sonar. There was a big 2-inch machine that was basically an ashtray, and not a lot of great mics. But we had a great room. I didn’t know anything about gear when I started. I feel very fortunate to have learned on something like that. I remember the console had so many issues; only 12 channels worked. We just had to work harder. It was probably ten years before I used a [Neumann] U 47 or some of these bigger pieces of gear.
Sun Studio is unique in that during the day there are always tours, and then after six are the sessions. How late did these sessions go?
A lot of the time it was by the hour, with a two-hour minimum. Some people would just come in and do two hours, but most would go late into the night. I was a manager as well, so I was there most days by 10 a.m., so it could be some long days. The session could finish at midnight, but I was often there until 2 a.m. James was a mentor, hero, boss, and a dad; all these things rolled into one. He’s also a phenomenal guitar player. I’d just sit there and learn guitar licks from him. He’d tell me stories, and I just soaked it up. I never wanted to leave. I had to go home because I had high school the next day. My parents would kill me if I didn’t get home at a certain time, but I learned so much from him there. Sessions couldn’t start until about 6:30 p.m., and we couldn’t set up beforehand. They could drop equipment off sometimes. I really enjoyed part of that. I had culture shock going into Nashville and other places. “Wait, we’re supposed to set up the day before, and the band doesn’t come, but we’re supposed to get a soundcheck somehow?” Or, “The drummer comes at 10 and the bass player comes at 2?” I loved it at Sun. It’s one room, and we all soundchecked together. I needed to hear everybody together. Whether you’re in a booth or not, you still need to hear how the drums play off the bass. I enjoyed that, and it made me work really fast. I felt like, “They’re paying for this, so we better be cutting by 7:15 or they might be pissed.” I had to tear down every night.
Were most of the sessions for fan-based kind of reasons?
We’d get a lot of that. Everyone from all over wants to record at Sun, whether it’s a souvenir or they’re actually making a record. Memphis, in general, is the place that people are coming to do the one “funky” track that ends up being the best track on the record. When I became head engineer I left the hourly rate kind of high, because often people just want to do two hours and you can’t get much done in two hours. I tried to make it way cheaper for the day, cheaper for three days, and way cheaper for the week. I’d rather have those people in who are going to spend time and get things done right, instead of rushing for two hours. But it did help me get really fast. We were getting people of all different talent levels, and coming to a historic place where they’re already nervous. For a lot of them it was a lifelong dream to come to Sun and record. You have to be really good at calming people down, welcoming them, and being patient. I’d get people from all over the world who couldn’t speak English. They wanted to record, and they wanted to hire session musicians. They have to work that out, and then try to figure out what they want to do. I think all that really helped me later on; to not have an ego, or not be upset if someone’s not that good. I don’t get upset, because I’ve done the worst there is to do, musically. But as long as they’re happy and having fun, I am too. That’s part of the job at Sun.
I always figured there were certain sessions there that were just for them to take home and say, “I did it. I went there.”
Yeah, some sessions were like that. The hardest part of the gig is when you care more than the client about their own session. But most of these people came in to have a good time. I would try to cater to that, while also getting something that sounds good. They never forget you either. I would get Christmas cards and notes from some of them, and most would become repeat clients. The music and talent may not have been incredible every time; but if you are helping someone realize a dream, there is no reason to think, or feel, that you are “too good” to do that.
When you did something that was a longer booking, how did you work with setting up and tearing down?
We could push things to the side. I would take the microphones down, because there are tourists in there every day. Believe it or not, people will steal stuff. When I first started we had [Shure] SM81s. About six months in, we no longer had SM81s. I could leave some of the stands up around the drums. Playback is always about what headspace you’re currently in, and it never sounds like it did initially. So the one thing I liked about re-setting up every night was that it got me back into the music. I’d remove the mics, question what I did, have an idea, and move them back. The faders were all the same, but I still muted tracks and listened. I don’t know how to explain it, but it really helped. Oftentimes I’d beat the sound the next day, instead of just leaving it the same and saying, “No, we had it.”
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