Bill Cutler: With a Lot of Help from His Friends
By Blair Jackson
Garcia and Other Top Bay Area Rockers Make This “Debut” Album Memorable
Drum roll, please…The 2008 Patience and Perseverance Award for a Rock Recording goes to….BILL CUTLER! Yes, 33 years after singer-songwriter Bill Cutler—older brother of Grateful Dead/Garcia Band sound engineer John Cutler—went into Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco with Jerry Garcia and others to lay down tracks on a bunch of Bill’s songs, the album is finally out. Cutler’s Crossing the Line was released this past March on Magnatude Records and has been garnering some seriously good buzz in the Dead Head community. Not only does it include six fine songs with Garcia on lead guitar (tracked in 1975), it also features a slew of other top Bay Area players, including Jorma Kaukonen, Mark Karan, David Nelson, Bob Weir, Matthew Kelly, Dave Torbert, Michael Falzarano, Jerry Miller and many others. Of course, the impressive guest list wouldn’t mean much if the songs and Cutler’s own lead vocals weren’t consistently strong and compelling. Make no mistake about it. This is his album, through and through. There’s a really nice balance of styles here, from solid rock (“Flash Flood”), to ballads (the lovely “Delta Nightingale”), to blues (“Sugar for Sugar”), to hot-pickin’ countryish tunes (the “Cumberland”-ish “Rockingham Mill”), to the exceptional, obviously Van Morrison-influenced “Ridin’ High,” which has Garcia blazing at his best.
How the album came to be and why it had such a long gestation make for a very interesting tale, which Bill Cutler shared with me recently. We started by talking about growing up on the East Coast…
Did you and your brother John move to the West Coast together or separately?
We came out here separately but around the same time. I actually started coming out here in ’67. That’s when I dropped out of school. So I came out just exploring; then I came back in the summer of ’68 again, and then I made the final move in 1970. It took me a few years to sort of organize myself and move out here.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a combination of Manhattan and Stamford, Connecticut. We moved to Connecticut from around the time I was 9 or 10 until I graduated, then my parents moved back to Manhattan, so John grew up more in Manhattan than I did., but we both went back and forth.
Had you been in bands back east?
Yes, my whole life I’ve been singing. I started out as a kid singing in glee club and stuff like that, and then I was in two or three bands back East. I was in a band called the Mourning After—how psychedelic is that name? [Laughs]—which played all the clubs you could play in Connecticut and fraternity parties and other little college things. The repertoire was a combination of originals by me, very primitive early psychedelic tunes, and covers of Moby Grape and whoever already had a record deal in the psychedelic world. We covered early Stones and Yardbirds; things like that. I was in another band called Dr. Fate’s Experiment…
Oh, man, you can’t make this shit up! [Laughs]
Exactly! A great name, isn’t it? I was also friendly with and influenced by a band back there I wasn’t in called NGC 4594, which had a song called “Goin’ Home,” which was an early psychedelic hit tune.
But I actually spent most of my time back there playing in Greenwich Village as a singer-songwriter-folk musician. I did the regular, standard clubs—Gaslight Café, the Café Wha, The Bitter End and The Four Winds. For me, Dylan had been my major influence going back as far as ’62-’63—he’s the one who made me think I wanted to be a songwriter. I opened shows for Eric Andersen and David Blue, Phil Ochs. I even opened a show for Dylan at the Gaslight.
How did the San Francisco scene in ’67 compare to what was happening in Greenwich Village?
It was completely different. The New York scene was much more about little groups of people who played certain kinds of music and were in their own little circles. The San Francisco scene seemed like a movement. It was like walking into a place where everyone was in one tribe together. And I hadn’t experienced that. On the East Coast, you kept your cards a little closer to your vest and [in SF] it was a more visual, less verbal sort of a culture.
When I was growing up in New York and learning how to play guitar and stuff, I was looking at the kinds of musicians that would play in New York sessions, and they were tremendously disciplined—jamming was not even a part of the picture. If you had a session in New York and it was called for 10 o’clock, you arrived at 10 o’clock and you were given parts to play. What I was aspiring to in New York was the whole Brill Building songwriter thing, which was very controlled and business-like. The minute I got to San Francisco, I immediately ran in to the other extreme: “You’ve got four chords and we jam on ‘em for 25 minutes.” [Laughs] So it was interesting to take my disciplined New York songwriter side and collide it into, for lack a of a better way of putting it, a Grateful Dead non-navigated experimentation side. It turned out to be a good combination for me. It loosened me up and let me see the value of letting players really do something unique with my music.
Culturally, out here I got into psychedelics more, I met some fascinating people, and I said, ‘I’ve got to live out here.’ The scene was so open and people were so accessible, whereas in New York, the music business people were far more remote and hard to reach.
At Coast Recorders in SF during the last set of tracking sessions for the album are (L-R): Pat Campbell, David Perper, Bill Cutler, Chris Solberg, Mark Karan and David Nelson
So when you come out in ’70 with an eye on music, it’s changed a bit—a lot of musicians have dispersed to Marin…
The real bridge for me into the scene when I moved out here came when I decided I wanted to make a demo of some of my tunes so I’d have something of a calling card. I looked around and thought, “Well, the engineer I liked the best is Steve Barncard,” [who’d recorded American Beauty and David Crosby’s first album, among others], so I called him out of the phone book and asked him to make a demo with me at Funky Jacks’ Recording [actually known as Funky Features, run by Jack Leahy] in the Haight. And he said, “OK!” It blew my mind! [Laughs]. So we made the tape and as a result of that it kind of got circulated around to whoever Stephen bumped into, and one day it fell into the hands of [Canadian folk singer and songwriter] David Rea. I’d been here a couple of years by then, passing the hat playing for tourists at the Cannery [in SF], playing in places like the Coffee Gallery, and gradually starting to put a band together. Anyway, I got a call from David Rea saying he liked the song “Ridin’ High” off my demo and he wanted to know if I wanted to audition for his band. So I did, and the other guys at the audition were Matthew Kelly, Chris Herold, James Ackroyd from James & the Good Brothers, and Pete Sears. At the end of a long day of people jamming and talking, David hired me. So I went from doing my own thing to being a support player in that situation.
They were in the middle of cutting the David Rea & Slewfoot album for Columbia, so I wound up on some of the tracks on that album, playing rhythm and singing backup and stuff. And Bob Weir and Barncard were co-producing that record with David, so that put me into that world. There were a lot of good people on that record: On this track the drummer was Spencer Dryden, on that one the keyboard player was Keith Godchaux, or Charles Lloyd was playing horns; with the core of us. Meanwhile, Matthew and Chris Herold and I were becoming good friends. Slewfoot played around as a band a little, including the Columbia Records convention in ’73, but right about that time, as the record was starting to do pretty well, Clive Davis was fired as president of Columbia and a lot of the acts he had signed that weren’t super-successful—which included us at that point—were dropped from the label.
It’s an old record biz story…
It is an old story, but it’s amazing how often it happens. Still! You need a guy at a label who supports you, and if you don’t have that you’re in trouble. The Sons of Champlin were dropped. We were dropped. Copperhead, which was John Cipollina’s great new band, was dropped. Once Clive was gone, it left a big hole in the northern California music scene.
So at that point I found myself on my own, and that’s when I put the band Heroes together. There were a lot of incarnations of Heroes…
We met originally in 1976 at Weir’s studio when you were recording with Heroes. I had just started working for BAM [magazine] at the time.
That’s right. In 1976, we were the first band to record there, and that’s when you and I met. We probably recorded half an album’s worth of material there. We also recorded a bunch of other stuff at Wally Heider’s. We actually did quite a bit of recording, but we never got a record out mostly because we had this awful string of bad luck—just as we started to get somewhere, a member left or a member died or something happened that would set us back and make us change course. But we did some demos and we played around and we developed a pretty good-sized draw—we headlined a lot of places in San Francisco.
Since you’d had a relationship with Herold and Kelly, was there any talk about you joining Kingfish, which was developing around that time?
Well, originally, Kingfish was going to be a very blues-oriented band, because that’s what Matthew wanted to do. Blues wasn’t really my background—I was more rock, country-rock, folk, R&B. Then, shortly after the band got started, Bobby announced that he wanted to join as the rhythm guitar player and lead singer, and that would’ve been the spot I would’ve had.
Aced out by Ace!
[Laughs] Well, it wasn’t really like that, because I was never close to being in that band. I co-wrote “Home for Dixie” and other things with Matthew and we were pretty close. Before Kingfish, I had worked on Wing and a Prayer, Matt’s solo album, with him back in ’73, after Slewfoot broke up. [That album was not released until the ’80s.] That was the first recording of “Ridin’ High” and that was also the first time I played with Jerry and played with Bobby, because we played in the studio together. I also helped with production on some other tracks I didn’t play on.
Let’s talk about how this album was put together. It’s amazingly seamless considering you’ve got tracks on here that are more than 30 years old combined with things of a much more recent vintage.
Well, it was my desire to make a timeless album that was a songwriter’s album on which the song could be focused on and you weren’t distracted by any of that. A lot of the credit for how seamless it sounds belongs to Russell Bond, who is a very skilled engineer and put in countless hours with me on this project.
Would it be rude of me to say that this album sounds like it could’ve been made in 1974?
Not at all. An album that sounds like this could have been made in 1974; but this album couldn’t have been made in ’74, because the technology required didn’t exist then. If it had been made in ’74, there would be more bleed and hiss and all that kind of stuff.
But in terms of the songwriting, the instrumentation, the feel…
Right. The approach.
How did it end up being this combination of sessions from different decades?
What happened is this: In 1975 I went in and cut what was really the first half of this album at Wally Heiders with a core group of musicians that was sort of becoming Heroes, which included Pat Campbell on bass—he later played in the Good Old Boys with Jerry, and played with Mike Bloomfield and various others. We also had Austin deLone on keyboards—he was great then and great now. Scotty Quik was on lead guitar—he’d been friends with Matthew and Chris and had been in Horses and other bands that fed into that world, and he and I knew each other from the Wing and a Prayer days. I played rhythm guitar and did vocals, and Carl Tassi played drums on the original sessions. Unfortunately, only one of Carl’s tracks survives on this record, bceause the most difficult thing to preserve over 20 or 30 years is drums, because they’re usually on the edge tracks of the tape, which are the ones that tend to decay first.
How did Jerry get involved?
Well, we met on the Wing and a Prayer sessions and in the course of seeing him around, he heard a bunch of my songs and said, “If you ever make an album of your stuff, I’d be happy to help out.” Which was a pretty exciting offer, of course! [Laughs] In fact, I’m not sure I even believed it at first, because people say that kind of stuff all the time and nothing ever comes of it. And I knew how busy Jerry was.
As it turns out, though, before I went in the studio with Pat and Austin and Scotty, Jerry heard that I was going in to record and told me he wanted to play on the tracks. Because the Dead weren’t touring then [during the Dead’s performing hiatus of ’75-’76], he actually had some time and he came by, rehearsed a little with us, and we recorded about half an album with him. He seemed really comfortable in the group. We got some great stuff down, recording a bunch of basic tracks with scratch vocals, and then Jerry added his solos. Steve Barncard was our engineer at Heider’s.
The plan was to cut a bunch more tracks at some point, but what happened is the Grateful Dead went back out onto the road [in mid –’76] and then they got so busy that there was just never an opportunity to do more, so I literally put the tapes in a closet and they sat there for many, many years.
But you talked to Garcia later about working on the album again, didn’t you?
Yes, we re-connected at a Garcia band show at the Warfield in 1993.
Wow, that’s a long time later.
Yeah, it was. I was working with a hip-hop group called the Mystery Tramps and we did a rap version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that Dylan allowed us to use a sample of his voice for—him going, “How does it feel?” Which was a big deal because Dylan had never approved a sample before. So I brought a copy of it to the Warfield to show it to Jerry, and I was surprised that he asked me about what had happened to the tracks we’d recorded at Heider’s all those years ago. He said, “We should finish that album!” At his suggestion I went into Front Street [the Dead’s studio] with my brother and Jeffrey Norman to bake the tapes [to eliminate the build up of sticky emulsion on the analog tapes], and when we played them they did still sound really good. But, unfortunately, we never got back to it in time, and of course by the summer of 1995, Jerry was gone, and I put the tapes back in my closet again.
Literally a closet?
Sure. It was dry and dark. I’ve seen tapes stored in much worse places, believe me. [Laughs]
So at some point, though, you got back to work on this and cut the second half of the album…
It took me a year or two after Jerry died to feel like I wanted to work on the material; just to get over the raw emotions and everything. Then I started looking for a backer and it was a hard project to explain to people. I wanted to have complete artistic control and make it my album with the contributions of all these people. I didn’t want to misrepresent it.
You mean by emphasizing Jerry’s participation?
Right. I mean, I knew that would be interesting to people, and I’m proud to have Jerry on there, of course, but I didn’t want people thinking that’s what the album was about, because it’s just part of it, obviously. Anyway, eventually Greg Torre and Kurt Burgess, who are both great guys, decided to back the project. That was in 1998.
You managed to snag some pretty good guitarists to help you out on the next round of recording: Mark Karan, Barry Sless, Jerry Miller, Jorma…
I was very fortunate. They’re all people I’ve known for a long time; I’ve known Mark since the early ’70s when he was in the Sarah Baker Band. I’ve known Barry since he started playing in the David Nelson Band. Jerry Miller played with Heroes as a guest guitarist at the first Haight Street Fair in ’78, and Jorma and I recorded together in the ’80s with Michael Falzarano. I wanted to find people who would sound right for the material. It wasn’t just guitarists, either. We cut new drum tracks and keyboards and all sorts of other things. The basic tracks for the next round of recordings were done at Coast Recorders. I was able to cut new lead vocals on all the material, which was done at Russell Bond’s studio, called Howling Point, in Los Gatos. The backup vocals were recorded at Jeff Watson’s studio in Mill Valley by Russell and me. Gary Mankin, another great engineer who I’ve worked with for years, was the main engineer on the second half of the record, though Russell recorded the overdubs and did the mixing.
Was it difficult to match the sound of the older tapes?
We listened to the old tracks and we didn’t match the sounds exactly, but we used some of the same gear [as the original sessions] and that signal path. The new material was cut analog through a Neve [console] onto a Studer [multitrack tape recorder] just like the original stuff. We did the basic tracks at Coast Recorders in San Francisco, which was the closest thing I could find that was like the old Heider’s studio. It had all the right gear and a big, good-sounding drum room, which we needed.
We also worked with Pro Tools. By this time—1999 or 2000—Pro Tools had gotten to the stage where I was willing to put this beautiful analog stuff in there and it didn’t feel like a sonic sacrifice. Once we moved everything into Pro Tools [for editing and overdubs] we would take our rig wherever we needed to and that gave us more flexibility.
How different do you sound now as a singer?
I sound much the same. I sang in the same keys. I haven’t lost any of my range.
Do you have a favorite track?
Well, they’re all important to me in different ways. I guess “Delta Nightingale” is one, though, because it was such a revelation to hear it after all these years and hear all the sensitive work from Jerry on it and to have these wonderful backup vocals on it now.
I like the sort of Van Morrison-ish feel of a lot of the backup vocals on the album.
Well, the female back up singers are Desiree Goyette, Conesha Owens and Sandy Griffith. They were terrific to work with! I didn’t have a target record I wanted it to sound like. I just let it be what it was and I wanted it to be cohesive from track to track and make sure the bottom end was consistent. There were three different bass players on the album—Pat Campbell, Chris Solberg and Dave Torbert—so it was a challenge to unify the sound. Joe Gastwirt did the mastering and really helped tie it all together.
What’s the story behind “Starlite Jamboree,” which has Jerry on it but also seems to be about Jerry?
How that came about is that Jerry and I used to bullshit about this idea I had for a film. He had bought the rights to [the Kurt Vonnegut book] Sirens of Titan, and was really into film and science fiction and all that. So one day I said to him, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Twilight Zone where you could play music with guys who had already died?” He loved that idea and we nicknamed it the “Starlite Jamboree.” We used to say, “I’ll meet you at the Starlite Jamboree,” but it was a joke. Anyway, I also had these [chord] changes I used to call “Starlite Jamboree,” though I didn’t have any lyrics for them. I’d try a lyric and it’d suck. Jerry had played some guitar licks over these chords that I really liked, and I thought, “I’ve gotta finish that someday.” Then, when Jerry died, I decided to write the lyrics about him. I re-recorded the whole song with Barry [Sless] and Mark Karan and [drummer] David Perper and various others, and I was able to import Jerry’s track and put it on at the same tempo as the old one. I’m really happy with how it came out.
So when was the album completed?
We mixed it in 2001.
Why did it take so many years to get it out, then?
Well, after that we ran into the issue of clearances for all of our players and all the legal ramifications—there was turmoil around the Garcia estate, so it took a long time to settle all the legal issues around the record.
You must be thrilled to have this album finally out after all these years.
I can’t even put it into words. It’s been the strangest and most exhausting thing I’ve ever been involved in, but it’s also been so exciting and so satisfying. I’m getting letters and emails from all over the world. Because Pete Morticelli at Magnatude Records chose to release it in Europe and Asia and made deals with iTunes and Amazon and dead.net, it’s available everywhere, no matter how you like to get your music. I’m hearing from four generations of people, and most of the feedback has been extremely positive, so it’s been an incredible experience. And we’re still just getting the word out…
I presume you have newer songs, too, that will perhaps see the light of day?
Sure. I’m always writing, so I have a huge backlog of material; certainly more than enough to do another album, which I’ll think about depending on how things go with this.
And hopefully you won’t be 90 when it comes out!
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe the next one can come out a little quicker! Of course, I’ve been on other records in between, and in bands, so it’s not like I’ve been sitting around for 30 years only working on this. But amazingly enough this is my debut as a solo artist!
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To order Bill’s album click here.
And to see a cool video Bill put together for the song "Starlite Jamboree" go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSYfmPSENf8
good to see billy cutting it up. he's great live.
I guess it doesn't really matter...anyway...
Glad to see all there work and time come together in the end!, i cant wait to hear it!! You know it dont come easy!! herd that before somewhere. EstProph-
POPSICLE QUESTION : WHAT GOOD DOES IT DO??
great story! I've gotta check this out.
What a long strange trip it's been for so many of the GD's family of friends. Thank goodness the legal stuff got hammered out and this material was finally released. I can't wait to get it in my head. Sounds like my kind of studio effort, from the way Blair describes the feel and texture. I knew nothing of this saga, until today - so thanks again to BJ. Also, I love the "Starlite Jamboree" thing! Let's all meet there, for sure...
"You know what the trouble about real life is? There's no danger music."
another fine interview - this one highlighting perseverance and long time friendships. Current and somehow historic at the same time -