When I spoke to Stone Axe multi-instrumentalist, occasional-vocalist, recording engineer and principle songwriter, T. Dallas Reed, he was, as I imagine he often is, working in his HeavyHead studio in his native Port Orchard, Washington. His prolific nature is evident in the sheer number of releases Stone Axe has had in the last two years or so, including two full-lengths, numerous splits and singles, compilation appearances, and so forth. Stone Axe II, the second long player, was recently released via Reed‘s own Music Abuse Records, and already there’s word of a new split with weedian Brooklyn mischief-making punkers Mighty High through Ripple Music, out just in time for the band to hit the road alongside the legendary Saint Vitus later this week. He just keeps going.
But if self-sufficiency is a factor in the output of Stone Axe, it’s because of the years Reed has spent honing his sundry crafts. As he explains in our conversation, he’s been making solo recordings for two and a half decades, and is well accustomed to completing projects on his own. His many years working with labels like Nasoni, Small Stone and Roadburn in Mos Generator have helped shape his mindset of what he wants albums to be, and he has the experience to execute his ideas as they occur to him — which apparently they do on a pretty regular basis.
The mission of Stone Axe is simple: To preserve and honor the godfathers of the heavy ’70s, and unlike the myriad retro acts out there whose vacuous posturing is more chic now than it ever was then, Reed prefers to focus on sonic orthodoxy in the songwriting and recording as a means for expressing his love of this sound. Through Stone Axe II and the band’s 2009 self-titled predecessor, joined by vocalist Dru Brinkerhoff, Reed has molded his guns and stuck readily by them, resulting in some of the most prudent classic rock to come along since before it was classic.
After the jump, we join the conversation already in process. Reed has just informed me that with him in the studio is Stone Axe‘s live bassist, Mike Dupont (Mykey Haslip rounds out the live band on drums), and although I shouldn’t be, I’m a little surprised he’s already onto the next round of Stone Axe material…
What you’re working on, is that for a new Stone Axe release already?
Yeah. We’re always working on music. I’m about 10 or 11 songs ahead of Dru, almost always. I’ve got a bunch of covers recorded, and like I said, 10 or 11 original songs. I’m always ahead. Some of the songs were even written before the first album and they just sit there until he gets inspired. So they’re always there.
That’s got to be nice, to have a backlog.
I’m just trying to work on things. I have a lot of time to do that shit, so it’s cool.
I guess it’s handy to record yourself.
Yeah, it’s easy to do it when I feel like it.
Well, that explains how you seem to be able to bang out an EP or a full-length at a moment’s notice.
Pretty much. We’re doing a split with Mighty High, and that was something that was playing around pre-Stone Axe. It would have been a Mos Generator song, actually, but I had Dru put vocals on it.
That was actually something I wanted to ask you about, the differences between Mos Generator and Stone Axe for you, how you think about writing the songs.
Well, Stone Axe is definitely more “period,” like, “I’m gonna go for this sound from this particular period or this particular band,” where Mos isn’t so much like that. I might cop a feel, but then it gets translated by the musicians. Stone Axe, I’m not going to put a lot of me in it, I’m going to channel who I want it to sound like. That’s the difference. Stone Axe, to me, is way less creative than Mos Generator, on my part as the writer. I’m channeling a feel. That’s how it’s different.
So before you start writing a Stone Axe song, do you say to yourself, “Alright, I want to sound like this band” and work from that?
It’ll go both ways on that. Sometimes it’ll be, “I can’t get this song out of my head, I would love to record a song that has that same feel and that same sound.” So I go for the feel of the song and I go for the audio, for the sound. I’ll try to make it sound like a certain recording as well. Trying to do that, that’s a challenge to me, trying to get the same sounds as these old bands had. It can go either way. I’ve definitely said, “Hey, I want a song that sounds like that.” Like “Turn to Stone” sounds like Procol Harum meets Blind Faith to me. It’s obvious where that came from, and as long as you can do it without it being bad or there being nothing horrible about it – I think at this point we’re pulling it off. I can’t foresee the future, like, how long are we going to be able to do this? To get away with it? But I don’t really care, I’m just having fun making music that I dig. That’s right now, anyway.
What was it that initially led you to make Stone Axe a separate entity from Mos Generator? Was the idea to make a band with this sound so specific that it needed to be a new project, or do you think it could have been done with Mos Generator?
We were going in that direction on, Mos was, on this record called The Vault Sessions. It has a way less heavy tone to it, and I had written some songs during that period that could have ended up on that but never got realized. Those leftovers I decided to start demoing myself. That would have been “Riders of the Night” and those first Stone Axe tunes. As I finished the tracks, I’m like, “Man, Dru would sound good on this.” I’d played with Dru in other bands, and he’d actually sang when we did a Zeppelin tribute night, so it was Mos with Dru singing, doing covers and stuff like that. I figured he’d be good for that, and it went from there. That was really cool, it was so easy. He came in, nailed it in one or two takes, and the feel was all there. So that’s how that started. It came out of Mos’ leftovers. It certainly could have went that way. Mos could have stayed in that Vault Sessions-type feel, but this seems to have worked out a little better for those kinds of songs.
In terms of working with Dru, does being so ahead on the songs ever get frustrating?
There’ve been deadlines that I’ve set, personal deadlines, that don’t always get met. So that was why there’s two songs that I sing and an instrumental on the new record, because I was past my deadline. I didn’t ever want to sing on a Stone Axe record, actually. Not a proper record. Maybe the side tunes or the EPs or whatever. I felt the songs were strong enough and they fit well, and Dru was always into that. He was like, “Having two voices on the record is really cool, it breaks it up,” but I figured he was using his voice in a bunch of different manners, so his voice was diverse enough to take care of a lot of areas. But we do have different voices, so he’s probably right on that one. As far as being ahead, yeah, I guess it could get a little weird, but that’s me rushing everything. As much material as we put out in a year, most bands don’t do in five years, these days. I’m actually pushing really hard to get things done.
What’s the difference for you between recording parts yourself instrumentally and bringing in someone else to do them?
At this point, it has to do with me being able to do it on my own. I’ve been recording my own songs since I was 15. That’s like 25 years. I’ve been playing and putting them all together by myself since I started. Not always, but a lot. That’s not anything to me at this point. That’s really easy. But, in Stone Axe, I would like to have more band interaction when we record, because I need to bounce ideas off of people. I feel like I’m starting to make formulas in the songs, rather than being able to be more intricate working in arrangements. I’m looking at a way we can all get together and write songs as a band and record them as a band, for the next record or the next stuff that comes out. I’m working on some country rock songs, exploring that area of the ‘70s. Leon Russell and some of that kind of stuff.
So if the goal is to bring the band into it more, do you feel like the stuff Stone Axe has done so far was too singular? A little too much “you?”
No, not at all. I don’t really feel like that, but I think I want to bring in other players just for arrangement. So we can play it through. A Stone Axe song is never even performed until the record comes out, until the songs are all done. We never play it as a band until it’s completed, so there’s no process in it. There’s no demos. The first Stone Axe record is all what I consider to be demos to do again, and it just was like, “Fuck, that’s fine, just put it out.” And so we just continued to be like that. I don’t feel like it’s gonna be any different if there’s a band. I just need some people to bounce ideas off of and play through the song numerous times, and then my arrangements might become more complex. Sometimes I just lay down a drum track for three or four minutes, then I write a song over it. That’s how it goes. Or I’ll have the song in my head and I’ll play drums, and it just comes out. Sometimes I’ll do the guitar first and play to that. There’s different ways to do it.
Bringing in other players allows you to develop the live band too. Someone has a part in writing a song, their performance of it live is going to be different, right?
Yeah. It’ll definitely bring in a different feel all around. There’s the song “Chasing Dragons” on the record that Mikey plays drums on, and I took a few shots at that song, and I couldn’t, by myself, get how it felt when Mikey played it. That’s one that we did write together. We practiced these riffs that I had, played through it all, then I went, “Okay, this is what the arrangement’s gonna be,” and I had Mikey tap me in, and he’d lay it down in one or two takes with this feel that I wasn’t getting on my own. Hopefully that will sculpt the sound into another level of it. It’ll change the sound a bit if we are able to do it all together. Or most of it. There’ll always be tracks where it’s just me, I’m sure, because I’ll get freaked out and I’ll just get something done.
I think there’s something to be said for that kind of impatience though. It gives the music a feeling of urgency.
And that’s how it goes, really, because it’s like, the idea comes, I want it now. That’s why I don’t allow myself very many takes. That’s why I allow mess-ups. Because I’m running through it for the first time. That’s why I allow that kind of stuff – to make it feel like a band. When I’m doing all the tracks, I allow for mess-ups and stuff like that, because the feel has got to be there.
You mentioned before the first album was kind of like demos. I find a lot of time that the demos are my favorite releases. There’s something to when a band is just finding their way you can’t really capture again. I definitely got that vibe from the first Stone Axe record. This one seems a little more established. You have the mission pretty well set.
That’s on purpose. The way that comes off like that. “Let’s add more vocals, more textures to the sound.”
How consciously does that happen when you’re writing?
I remember after the first album, I talked to Dru about, “On this next album, I’m gonna write bigger choruses, so when you’re writing your lyrics and your melodies, think about that. Let’s think about having some sing-alongs or that kind of deal.” That was one of the ideas that we knew was gonna go down, and thought about. I wanted a little bit more of a rock drum sound on some of it. I’m still panning the drums to one side and shit like that. I’m trying to make the recording a big part of how its presented, so it sounds like old records too. I mix in that style. We thought about mix, we thought about the choruses and that kind of stuff, and that’s about all of it as far as it being premeditated, the way it’s gonna go. Dru might be picking from the well of songs that are sitting there, so we’re not writing all of them necessarily for a certain thing, because there’s some that were from earlier.
What are some of the differences in terms of the mixing style? You usually hear people say, “We played through vintage equipment” or whatever, but what are the differences as far as the techniques go?
Not permitting microphones on the drums. A lot of the songs on this album have three mics [on the drums]: one in the kick drum and two overhead mics. Or I’ll run them through these old P.A. heads, and I’ll mix them mono, so they’re ran through these old tube P.A. heads and directed out to the recorder, and ran mono and maybe panned to one side, and kind of distorted. There’ll be drums, guitar and vocals on one side and bass – there’s a lot of that big stereo panning from the old days. Not a lot of process going into it. “Okay, I got a good guitar sound, put a mic in front of it and don’t worry about it.” No equalizing the take, just get the sound that’s coming out the amp. It’s a lot of that kind of real quick, get the sound, really easy. Make sure your equipment sounds good. Using vintage stuff, that’s always part of the deal. I go back and forth with computer and old reel to reel machines. I do analog and computer both. I have no preference there. But generally it’s just quick and efficient, easy, and less is more in the recording process. I’ve actually got a lot of work. That’s what I do for a living, the recording studio, and I never record bands like I record Stone Axe. I record them with 12 mics on the drums and lot of focus on everything, but I’ve actually gotten more work from these records than I have from my other stuff.
As time has gone on and you’ve gotten more experience engineering and recording bands, and yourself, does getting to that point where you want to evoke a specific feel or mood become easier, from a technical standpoint?
I guess so, because the more you use instruments or microphones or drums, you know more of what is going to make that mood happen. If I put electric organ, or electric piano or something, it’s going to add a certain mood. You know what to texture in to make mood. I have three or four drum sets, actually, that sit up in my loft, and they will be used for different songs, and tuned different, they’re different sizes. From the ground up. That’s what’s first: “My drum sound is going to be this to make this song sound or feel a certain way.” The drums, from the start, have to be tuned and miked the way I want it to sound.
Is it hard for you then to let go and have someone else play the drums?
Not if they’re capturing what I can’t. If they’re getting it, then I’m alright with that. I’d like to have someone that could read my mind and do whatever I wanted, but they add their thing. That’s the deal. I’ve often thought about having Stone Axe be just whoever wandered in, kind of a Steely Dan thing, whoever wandered in the studio could play on it. If they got it right, they’d get to be on the track or whatever. But I don’t know how that would affect the live band, the people that are putting in the time, live. They should get first shot, and I give them the chance, “Hey, I’m recording a track if you’re gonna be here,” or something like that.
You mentioned before the two songs with your vocals and each one ends its side of the album. How much thought went into placing the songs?
“Those Were the Golden Years” wasn’t even going to be on there. I got to sequencing side one – because I still think of CDs as having sides, or programs or whatever – and as I got past “Live for the Day,” I was like, “You know man, if that just kicked in there with ‘Those Were the Golden Years,’ it just has to go there.” And that’s how it happened. And then I figured, with “Turn to Stone,” it’s too epic to go anywhere else on the record. As far as what the idea is, it’s super dramatic and epic and has a good ending feel. Dru wanted to end out with something a little more upbeat, kind of like the first album ends with “Taking Me Home,” and that’s got that total upbeat feel, but I felt like this needed to go on the end. For one, it puts me at the end. It places me away… you know, by the end of the record it’s for lesser tunes or whatever, so it places me back there, and that’s fine. I don’t mind that. That’s how I sequenced that. That’s why.
You guys are doing shows with Saint Vitus. That’s pretty incredible.
Yeah, I’m really excited. The new drummer Henry plays in Blood of the Sun, and I go and visit Henry just because. Henry and I are really good friends. He asked Mos because Mos has the same kind of kit that he does, same sizes, but he’s a huge Stone Axe fan. I said, “I can’t get them out on the road like that, so let’s do Stone Axe and we’ll just bring extra drums,” so that’s pretty much how that worked out. They use all of our equipment. That works out. We even get a guarantee every night as the opening band letting them use our gear. We get to play for lots of people. Of course, we’re not nearly as doom. All of the opening bands, the really heavy bands, we’re gonna be this other kind of band, but Vitus wanted it that way. They wanted an opening band that wasn’t like them, so that worked out real good for us.
I’d imagine you’ll get a pretty good response from the crowd though, even being different from Vitus.
I’m hoping it’ll be alright. We’re playing what is the genesis of all that stuff anyway. Our style is the rock genesis, so it should go over well. There’s some other cool shit going on. The first gig is Seattle, so they’re flying into Seattle and they’re coming to my house and practicing. So that’s cool. All my friends are like, “Can I leave a coat there and have to come and get it?” and hang out? I’ve got a friends that are really flipping out over it. I’m like, “I’ll ask if people can come over and hang out for a bit, but probably not while they’re practicing.” We’re talking about recording a new song they have too, which would be really cool, but I don’t think we’ll have time. I can record their rehearsals really easily. I have enough around here I can make really good practice recordings that are like album quality, if they let me do that.
Just sneak in some microphones.
I’m gonna do that for sure (laughs).
What do you guys have planned for after those shows? I know the split with Mighty High is coming out.
That’ll be out before the tour, I hope. What I want to do is take three months – though it’s probably not the best time to take three months off from gigging, because there’s the new album and whatnot – but I want to take three months off. Another reason these people are on the record is, we practice once a week and somehow people’s families, jobs and schedules won’t allow for any other days. We’ve got the one rehearsal day and then gigs every weekend, extended weekends and whatnot. For three months, we’re going to practice on Wednesday, we’re going to practice on Friday and Saturday nights, after everybody’s done, and we’re going to write a bunch of songs and we’re going to record them together. That’s what I want to do, for three months. And that gives them a chance to be involved in it, and it gives me a chance to bounce ideas. That’s what I want to do after that, then I want to go to the UK in October. We seem to have a pretty nice following in the UK, which is really interesting to me. I’d love to go play there, because all the bands really that we are trying to be are from there.
Do you have a touring partner in mind for over there? Is there a band you guys are close with?
No. That’s the problem that we’re having right now. We have some friends in Europe, but I want to do the UK first, and I want to do Europe in the Spring of next year.
Yeah, probably do Roadburn. So that’ll be super cool. There’s a band from here called All Time High, they’re on Small Stone, and we’ve been doing some stuff together, playing. That would be a good thing, but I don’t know how much pull they’re gonna have. I’d rather tour with somebody over there that already had a draw. We’re gonna go on a tour in the States or whatever, if we get gigs that are good for us, like the Vitus. Okay, that’s a great gig, we’ll definitely take the time off to go do that.
Do you think you guys will keep releasing stuff through Music Abuse? Would you sign to Small Stone or a label like that?
Small Stone has asked a couple of times. I’ve already been on Small Stone, and Music Abuse, that’s my label. I’ve been seeing every penny that comes in. I know where all the sales are, I know where everything is coming and going. I like that, because then I can correspond with these people that are buying my records. That’s a huge important thing with me, to be able to talk with people, email them, be in contact with people. I’m considering working with the Ripple Music guys. They started their label, and I just got done mastering the Poobah record for them. They’re releasing the first Poobah record and I mastered it for vinyl and CD and went through all the tapes and did the restoration on that stuff. I’m their mastering guy for projects like that, which is really cool because it’s all these lost records. They’re going to be doing that split with Mighty High, and we’re going to be doing another single with them, and they’re reissuing the first Mos CD, which has been out of print for five years and never came out on vinyl. It’s the only Mos Generator album that never came out on vinyl. I think they’re going to reissue the CD and LP. My work with them could go into maybe releasing full-length Stone Axe stuff, I don’t know. They are reissuing the first Stone Axe record. I just sent them the stuff a couple days ago. The Roadburn one is out of print now, so they’ll reissue it in the States, which is cool because it’ll be cheaper too.
It’s funny. It’s not really all that surprising that you’d be most comfortable working the label angle yourself, since the recording, the writing… I guess the releasing just falls in line.
All the artwork. I’ve always done all my artwork. I don’t have to worry about it. If it gets messed up, it’s my fault. I don’t know why I’m this massive control freak. I try to be nice, though. I’m not a dick about it, I just like to do stuff a certain way.
Tags: Music Abuse, Port Orchard, Stone Axe, Washington