Old 97's Guitarist Ken Bethea Never Expected To Become A Music Producer. And Yet…
Western Star isn't a Texas band, per se. But there's plenty of Lone Star attitude in the band's sound all the same. That's because, despite the outfit's Northeastern ties, its Southern charm is more than just some put-on.
At the core of the group sits the brothers Max and Nick Jeffers, whose father bought some land in his old hometown in East Texas a few years back and began converting it into a cattle ranch. The brothers formed their band in the summer of 2013 while working at that ranch, even writing some of the songs for the band's upcoming debut LP while stringing barbed wire fences and the like. Later that fall, Western Star played its first show in Austin during ACL weekend.
So Western Star's members are fairly familiar with our state. And it was this familiarity, not to mention their father's childhood connections, that led to Old 97's lead guitarist Ken Bethea producing the band's upcoming record last fall — something Bethea's never previously done till now.
So, before the band comes back to town to play a couple shows in Dallas and Fort Worth respectively this weekend, we decided to catch up with Bethea to talk about the band and the role=reversal that found him on the other side of the console for the first time.
How did Western Star get in touch with you about working on their record?
This is kind of weird, man. I grew up out in Tyler, out in the country, and my best friend that I've known since he was on my second grade baseball team wound up moving away from East Texas and eventually settling in Annapolis, Maryland. They're his sons. So I've known those boys since they were born. They've always kind of been doing music and whatnot. But, really, that was just kind of that. I didn't expect them to form a band together, much less a good band. As much as they're my friend's kids, if the band sucked, well…
Yeah, I mean, if you're going to put your name on something…
Yeah. And I know a ton of people who play music. You just say, “Yeah, they're alright,” but they're really just kind of lame. Just a generic kind of band or a generic kind of guitar player, or whatever. You might help them out a little bit if they wanted it, but this was kind of a different deal. I saw them play a few years ago for the first time, and I was kind of shocked at how good the songs were. This was like their fifth or sixth gig. Then they played for about a year — they're about a two-year-old band now — and it was good enough that, this time last summer, they asked if I'd produce this record and I said, “Heck yeah, man, but I'm on tour.” It was September a year ago when we did it. I told them, “I'll come down to Baltimore and do it with you guys.”
And Salim Nourallah was involved, too?
He mixed it. They put it on a hard drive and came down. The Western Star boys came in. They'll go out to Tyler because their dad bought a bunch of land out there and turned it into a ranch years ago. It still needs some barbed wire, it's a lot of hard work. The whole band goes out there in East Texas in this little white shack and drive bulldozer. They work hard in the heat! There's a funny story: The album's called Fireball and Justin and Max wrote “Fireball” when they were on their bulldozers. And it ended up being their title track. It's kind of funny. So they were going out there to work anyway, so when they came down to Texas, they went to Salim's place and spent four or five days mixing.
How long was the actual recording process? What was that like?
Five days in the studio. They came in with their songs together. They're fairly intricate at times because they listen to metal. They grew up in Virginia, but kind of out in the country, listening to metal like kids do out in the country. So they're kind of one of those bands that put in the intricate endings. Luckily, they knew exactly what they were doing there, because we never do anything like that in the 97's. It was fun watching another band work in that way.
You've never produced a record before. How do you go about navigating that for the first time?
I've done a lot of youth sports coaching — soccer and football — and it's not wildly different than that. You're in charge of this, sort of, creative process. But I'm a firm believer that the band is who the band is. A lot of producers believe in a lot of change and whatnot, but I didn't want to do that at all. I listened to them play. I went to their practice one day, and all their songs were together. So we really just had to find good sounds. I wasn't going in there to change things and do a whole lot of stuff. I tried to keep their mental [side] right, and keep them feeling good about the music and not feeling down if they weren't playing good. Obviously, everybody is going to make sure you get good tones and that kind of stuff. I didn't have to go in and change too much on the tempos. The only thing I felt was a really strong opinion I had on the whole thing was, they had this song that… y'know that song by Journey called “Stone in Love”? It's not a giant Journey song, but it's one that I know and I don't know a ton of Journey songs. They had this song that used the same guitar lick. I thought it was a cover when I first heard it start. They played it three or four times and I was going back and forth whether I should say anything. When I brought it up, they had no clue. They never heard the song. I said, “At the very least you need to know that's a lick from a Journey song — and not a real good Journey song.” I never asked them about it again, but I did notice that it did not make the album.
Did you engineer it as well? Or did you have somebody up there helping with that?
Yeah, I had an engineer there at the studio. There's no way I could engineer an album. That takes a whole lot of technical expertise. I don't know Pro Tools. A guy named Mat Leffler-Schulman did it. He engineered it, I produced it, Salim mixed it.
Aside from your coaching experience, is there anything you've learned from working with other producers that you tried to bring to the process?
I know the things that I don't like, and I made sure, of course, that I didn't do those things. Many producers like to come in and really put their stamp on if not the whole thing, then at least some songs. Or, the undiscovered jewel. That's been a big player in our world. Wally Gagel, who produced Too Far to Care, came in — we had all our songs together for Too Far — and wanted to hear any other songs that Rhett had. And Rhett sent in three or four more songs, and they were songs that we had kind of passed on. Wally fell in love with “Salome,” and he was like, “Guys, this is a really good song.” So we put “Salome” together in the studio. That was the first time that had happened to us because our first two albums were little records; we didn't have much time to do things like that. Those things can happen, and that was a good success, but I didn't feel like this band needed that at all. I felt like their songs were already together, so I didn't even ask that. Both brothers sing and write songs for the band, and they had a great record as it was, so I didn't even ask them stuff like that. A producer can get in the way. That happens, honestly, on every other record nearly. There's a point where you're no longer working with the band, you're working with your own thing. I didn't want to be a thorn in their side. This is their first record, and it may be the only record they ever get to make. I didn't want to go in there and make it not fun for them.
You mentioned helping the band find its tones in the studio. Can you elaborate on that?
Most bands have a sound. I'm a big believer in that you use your own gear, unless your gear is really shoddy or something. A lot of producers don't. I play these Matchless amps. They're awesome, but a lot producers don't like the way they sound in the studio. It's just producer speak for, “I don't know much about them, I know about my own amp.” Used to be, I felt pushed [to use what they wanted me to]. I bought my first Matchless amp just before we did Too Far with the money we got from Elektra way back in the day. I used it some on Too Far. Now, I just walk in and plop it down. Invariably, I know one of them is going to go, “How do you think that Matchless is going to sound?” and I just cut them off at the pass and say, “Men play through these amps, boys play through those little Fender things you want me to play through.” That's my amp. I don't only use that amp, but that's going to be the basis of my sound. Going in, I knew they had not the world's best gear, but they had good gear. Max had a crappy amp we got rid of and got him a Princeton. We did do that. But that was about it. Justin borrowed my Gretsch for one or two songs, just to switch up a little bit. I think he might have used a pedal of mine, maybe. Luckily, Mat knows a lot about drums, because that's definitely where I'm the weakest.
Do you think producing is something you'll try again in the future?
I would definitely do it again. Salim and I have talked about it a little bit — like, if he found the right project to come through him. But he usually produces the projects he gets. You never know. It's kind of a weird deal because I don't know if I should be the guy going to a band like, “Hey, I want to produce your record.” I don't know about that. Nobody comes to us and says that; we go to him. But there's some bands, I'm not going to say who, but I can think of one in particular, that I would do in a second.
Is there anything you'd like to add about the band's shows in town this weekend?
Hopefully there will be some people that come out! The band is good. I'm excited they got this show with Quaker City [Night Hawks] because I told them about them way back. I said, “That's a good band for you to tour with.” Quaker City, Oil Boom, Sealion are three bands that I have played with that I somewhat know the people in the band, and I think would be good for Western Star to tour with. Even when they were first getting going, I said that. But I didn't have anything to do with them getting that gig with Quaker City. So I was really happy. They're a really good band. Hopefully it'll be good at Twilite. I'm coming with friends, so it should be good. They should have a good time.
Cover photo of Ken Bethea by Kathy Tran. Western Star performs on Friday, September 4, at Twilite Lounge, and on Saturday, September 5, with Telegraph Canyon and Quaker City Night Hawks at Shipping & Receiving's two-year anniversary party.