Curation, Pt. 4: An Interview with Dave Schools

Dave Schools

Photo by Andy Tennille

Pacific Range is a band that has tight songwriting yet knows how to really stretch out in a live situation. However, the thrill of the moment in improvisation is not an easy thing to capture in a studio setting. Since recording High Upon the Mountain, they returned to the studio to catch that lightning in a bottle. Luckily they had an ace up their sleeve with Dave Schools guiding the session.

As bassist for the mighty Widespread Panic, Schools has made sonic exploration his specialty for over thirty years. It’s a skill on bass he’s brought to the table for other artists like Gov’t Mule, Mickey Hart, J Mascis, and more. He’s also used his musical prowess as a producer to help others sound their best for almost just as long. Playing and producing seem to go hand in hand for Schools, whose creative output simply speaks for itself.

We get the low down on his work with the band, how he operates in the studio, and his philosophy on bass playing and producing. The music he produced with Pacific Range is scheduled for an early 2021 release.

High Upon the Mountain is available now on CD, vinyl and as a digital download (iTunes and Amazon MP3). Be sure to check out the previous interviews with Curation Records founder Brent Rademaker, engineer/producer Dan Horne, and bassist Cameron Wehrle.

I understand you produced some tracks to follow up on High Upon The Mountain. How did you get involved with Pacific Range?

Brent had seen me years ago when I was playing with J. Mascis + The Fog. Then, of course, when Neal Casal sadly passed away, Brent and I met again at the Capitol Theater for the memorial concert.

We talked, a night or two later we were just sort of texting about stuff and about Neal. He had an idea and said, “I really want to do a companion recording to High Upon The Mountain because I feel like the band didn’t dig deep enough into their jamming ability, what they can do on stage, what they do on stage.” Being in Widespread Panic and having made many, many, many records over time with a lot of different producers, I understand that. It’s a tough leap to make, especially in this day and age to try and take it out there in the studio.

The idea came about that I would do like a psych jam version of one of the songs on the record and then maybe record another couple of songs they hadn’t cut yet, so we chose the song “Coming After You”, which is a remarkable track. It’s got Duane Betts playing parallel lead guitar on the record that Dan produced but it’s one that they leap off the cliff on when they’re on stage.

So that was the idea. I realized when we arrived in the studio that I don’t think Brent had actually told the band what was going to happen, but I had ideas and we had talked about it. We went to 25th Street Recording in Oakland. I drafted my favorite engineer, Rick Vargas, who had been my engineer on the Jerry Joseph records, the first Hard Working Americans record, and the Kimock Satellite City record that I did. We work well together, we have a language that we’ve developed, just like a drummer and a bass player have a language.

With that in mind, I met all the guys in the band. I always show up with a bunch of toys. I had a big box of effects, all kinds of effects. I have a pickup truck full of them now because Neal left me his effects. It’s kind of crazy. I’m going to have to catalog it. Maybe it’s a coffee table book worth of crazy stuff.

But it was just my box and immediately Cameron, the bass player, just dove in and it was so… It made me happy because the number one thing for a bass player is you’ve got to be a tone master. If you can nail a tone, then you don’t have to have ridiculous chops. A great tone on a bass says far more than outrageous chops to me. I brought a ’64 Jazz bass that I had just gotten cleaned up. I had never even played it on any recording or anything. He immediately grabbed that and sat down with all the pedals spread out around him like basically a kid in a candy store. It was great. He was just so willing to jump in there so I thought, “Okay, maybe this psych-rock thing will work.”

We did a couple of takes and I encouraged them to jam. It’s not a home studio, it’s a serious studio at 25th Street. You could look it up and look at pictures of the room. I would imagine that it could have been daunting. It took a while to warm those guys up and they had to warm up to me.

We got a couple of versions with some really long jams of “Coming After You”. The tones were all great and everybody’s a great player. Then we went after the two other songs, which were shorter and more composed without leaping off points. We nailed them. Everybody was so willing to experiment. It was great to see young guys come into what could have been an almost clinical type of atmosphere and not be scared to try stuff.

But I never got what I wanted out of “Coming After You”, so I started thinking. I’d heard things they were jamming on just while they were futzing around. I always [record]. The ones and zeros are always going by. I had earmarked certain of these little jams. Then on one of the last days, I would go after Stu, the keyboard player, and point out something I’d recorded off the cuff. I’m like, “Is this something, or is this you just [messing] around?” I’d say, “Well, with the chord changes you’re doing, can we just make a natural band loop out of that?”

I threw an Ebow at Seamus. He goes, “What’s this?” I’m like, “It’s an Ebow!“ I threw that Plasma Pedal that a Gamechanger Audio makes. I just gave them these things to stimulate because what I wanted was off the cuff. I wanted that magic of a group of people who’ve played together for a while, trying something they’ve never tried. I would paint it in a way of like, “This is just for fun.” But my experience has shown me that sometimes that stuff is extraordinarily valuable and very musical and really telling about a group of people and what they can accomplish when they listen and play together as a unit.

We got a lot of different little pieces: a Santana sounding jam and a super early Pink Floyd Saucerful of Secrets kind of thing. I’m a big editor. I’m a super big editor. I made some cut and paste electronica stuff around the turn of the millennium. A couple of records that we called Slang that were done in a similar way. One of them was a four-piece unit. Improvising with Ray Paczkowski, Matt Abst, me on bass, and Knox Chandler on guitar.

We jammed and then me and the engineer would find four to eight-bar loops that we could make of neat stuff that happened between the four of us. Then we’d bring in people like Jay Rodriguez or Eric McFadden, or give the songs to Lori Carson or Vic Chestnut and have them write a song around these. So, construction is cool and fun for me.

To get through the 17-minute long version of “Coming After You” that will be on this companion record, was actually the song and then a few edits from some of these unusual little fun jams, and then a natural re-entry back into the song that the band had done when they changed from one mode to another. I’m really pleased with it. I think they were shocked because they had no idea.

The other two tracks are super cool. They’re really catchy, they’re a little bit of a forward evolution in songwriting for the group. The sounds are big studio, more dance, more bumpy-thump sounds. That’s the long-winded story of whatever this companion or second record, or whatever it’s going to wind up being.

The whole idea was, from Curation’s point of view, was to be a companion piece to the Dan Horne record. Here are their songwriting and this excellent recording. Dan does a really great job of emphasizing that high lonesome California songwriting like the Mapache records and the Cass McCombs stuff. He’s a very deep cat and I have so much respect for him as a producer and also a bass player. Having worked with him minimally on this Neal Casal tribute record, it’s a pleasure to work with him.

We’ll see what the fates have in store for this record. It’s not mastered yet, but it is mixed. We may add another couple of songs, but that’s the story. I’m sorry it’s such a long story. [laughs]

No, that’s beautiful, man. I love it. One thing that jumped out to me from your story is that when I think of going into the studio, I think of having everything squared away before getting there. It sounds like you really enjoy experimenting in the studio.

I do if there’s time, and I was lucky on this. I will put this caveat in that I had a couple of free days at the studio that were left over from another project that was paid for. That made it really easy to take that kind of attitude with a young band because usually, that’s not going to happen. Young bands have a super narrow budget and in those cases, my production thing is: who am I working for? Is the band funding it or is the label funding it?

If the band’s funding it, that’s easy. I’ll just have a set of agreements with the leader of the band or the whole band. What’s the vision? Here are some ways we can get to that vision, let’s get some agreements going and ways to deal with making sure we get to that vision if some heat should happen while we’re in the process. We can always refer back to these agreements.

Also knowing full well that in the heat of the process sometimes magic happens and you have to pivot, but that’s easy. If that’s the case and they don’t have a whole lot of money there’s pre-production. Let’s work out the arrangement so that when we go into that clinical setting, and the tape starts rolling and ones and zeros start dancing by, that we don’t waste your money. We have everything ready to go, the engineer knows what we’re looking for, we’ve got the best sounds. Bam.

The other one [is having a label], which was the case here. Having the label involved gets a little more dicey because it’s generally the label’s money and they have something that they really want to get. Sometimes it’s pretty normal for a band, especially a young band, to consider the label a frenemy if you know what I mean. You’re not going to find a better friend to run a label than Brent. He loves music, he’s not going to sign a group of people that he doesn’t fully believe in. Because he does fully believe in them, he’s got great ideas.

His idea was great – I just think that I should have had a round table with Curation and the guys in the band and me so that everyone was on the same page. At the same time, we were all having fun. The worst thing that happened at that session was the rental van window got smashed into while we were recording. [laughs] I mean, it is downtown Oakland.

It’s bound to happen, I guess, right?

They dealt with it. They’re just learning that the road is not a kind mistress. She’s awesome but she going to be a bitch and there’s nothing you can do about it. Get your window fixed, trade in your van.

For them, I tried to create a place of fun experimentation. I didn’t want to crack the whip. At the same time, I had a homework assignment from the label. I was pushing them that way. There was always a lot of people. Sometimes trying to figure out who’s important to a group, like who I can throw out of the control room when they’re getting in my way. That takes a little bit of finesse.

But generally, those guys wanted to play. They wanted to work and they worked their asses off. Some of the things as far as drumming and bass playing and singing stuff, they really took instruction well. They weren’t used to it and they were like, “I don’t know.” After a while, they were like, “Oh, this does make sense. I see what you’re trying to do here. You’re trying to create a part or create a hook or pull the listener’s ears into the beginning of a verse.”

I’d be like, “Seamus, why don’t you dangle that last syllable into the next change?” Just asking questions and trying to figure out what are these guys looking for? Where are they trying to get? If they could say which direction should we go next at this point right now in the studio, what direction is that? How can I help you get there because that’s my thing? I’m an enabler.

How does your bass playing tie in with producing?

As a bass player, we are like the fulcrum of a seesaw. One end is the rhythmic thing: the meter, the tempo, and the sound, the pattern of the kick drum, and where the snare is, the drummer playing inside the groove or on top of it or back behind it. On the other side of the seesaw is the melody. What’s the voice doing? Where’s the guitar playing?

We have to listen to a lot. I think by virtue of doing that and also being the guy that’s the last one or the very first one to get in there and check the tracks in a recording session, we become very aware of how engineers work.

With all this listening to both sides of the spectrum, rhythmically and melodically, and then watching as things get fixed around – especially in the digital realm – I think we make good producers. We have to listen. If the band that we’re playing in does any improvisation at all, there’s a lot of listening and there’s a lot of understanding of how to get out of the way of the singer. Over time and with maturity, (a word that we all loathe to use, but we have to), [we realize] maybe a great pattern isn’t such a great pattern if it clutters up the verses or the choruses. Maybe it’s best just as an intro pattern or something to make the guitar solo elevate. We understand the mechanics of putting recordings together. We understand the mechanics of harmony melding with rhythm.

What I bring to the table as a bass player for Widespread Panic is not a whole lot because that gig is completely different. People are always like, “Why don’t you play that 6-string of Alembic or that 6-string modulus when you’re playing with Hardworking Americans or with Mascis or any anyone else?” Because I don’t need to.

The roles that I play in any other band are far more traditional and it has everything to do with traditional solid bass and drum playing together as a unit. To me, there’s nothing more annoying than a really good drummer and a really good bass player that aren’t functioning as a unit. That’s like the shakiest foundation of any house I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to hear it. [laughs] I’ll push those guys in the studio really, really, really hard to become a unit. It’s hard. We don’t want to kill our darlings, but we have to kill our darlings if they don’t serve the plot. In this case, the plot is the song.

But we had the best of both worlds with this Pacific Range session because we had this song idea and then we had this completely extemporaneous psych jam freak out thing, so anything went. We had the best of both worlds. Because I do play in Widespread Panic, there’s nothing that blows my mind more than that supernatural magic that happens in an improv with a bunch of people who are listening and have played together. It’s like watching an old Beatles interview where they complete each other’s sentences. It just brings joy into my heart.

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