John Ralston
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John Ralston

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"“Brian Wilson’s teenage basement demos to God.”"

“Brian Wilson’s teenage basement demos to God.”

Needle Bed - HARP


"“… channels the spirit of the late Townes Van Zandt..."

“… channels the spirit of the late Townes Van Zandt to create a piece of reflective folk-rock nouveau that even bests Bright Eye’s 'I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning'”

Needle Bed - Alternative Press


"The Boston Globe praises Sorry, Vampire"

Ralston Becomes a Studio Monster on 'Sorry Vampire'

Layered New Disc Explodes Boundaries of Earlier Work


By Jonathan Perry
The Boston Globe / February 22, 2008


Unlike the layers of mud caked on John Ralston's car windshield making it nearly impossible to see the road, and the scrape of wipers making it tough to hear anything else, the layered beds of sound on Ralston's latest album, "Sorry Vampire," allow you to hear more and more all the time.

"There's tons of snow here, and a truck just blasted me with mud," the 30-year-old singer-songwriter explains en route from Wyoming to Colorado for a show. "I can't really see, so it definitely makes the drive a little bit exciting."

Not wanting to contribute to a road mishap, I prepare to shed about five layers of questions from our chat. But Ralston is in a gregarious mood, ready to talk about why and how the opulent, lushly textured "Sorry Vampire" came about.

"On 'Needle Bed,' I wasn't even really intending to make a record," Ralston says of his mostly acoustic 2005 debut. "The idea was to get out of town for a couple of days and record some songs with a friend of mine. I immediately became interested in [the recording process] and the question of how we can build on this sound, and spend more time on it, and really layer."

Really layer is right. "Beautiful Disarmed," a sad, striking ballad that resembles some of the late songwriter Elliott Smith's gorgeously fragile work, is embedded with 20 vocal tracks. Floating together amid synthesized strings and accents of piano, they sound ethereal and endless. The tune eventually drifts and dissipates before a full, flowering bloom of electric guitars announces the next track, "No One Loves You Like I Do."

Before "Sorry Vampire," Ralston claims, "I really didn't have experience in the studio." Working again with "Needle Bed" co-producer Michael Seaman and Grammy-winning mixer Charles Dye "really opened my eyes about what we could do in the studio. I realized that we could really push the boundaries of what I had done before and experiment." Hence the title of the latest album.

"['Sorry Vampire'] was about ignoring the different things that can really suck the life out of a project, and keeping really focused on making something unique," says Ralston. "The goal was making something you could listen to over and over again, and you'd hear something new each time. I think we did that."

Dye was stunned when he began working with Ralston again. "It was apparent to me really quickly that his whole vocabulary about engineering and mixing had increased tremendously," says Dye, who has mixed albums for Aerosmith and Lauryn Hill, among others. "It had been two years almost [since 'Needle Bed'], but I've never experienced somebody coming into the studio not really knowing much of anything and then coming back and knowing so much. I didn't expect it, but he had clearly done his homework."

In keeping with his desire to experiment, Ralston recorded "Fragile," the track that leads off "Vampire," with ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist and noted studio junkie Jay Bennett. "He's obviously a talent and a tireless worker," says Ralston. "There would be times when I would be exhausted and crash out at 2 or 3 in the morning and he'd keep going."

Ralston has since become something of a studio junkie himself. He has built a home studio and is about to release an EP, "White Spiders," that marks the first time Ralston has written, recorded, produced, and mixed all of the tracks. But his newfound fascination being "behind the board," as he puts it, is merely a new twist on an old love. Ralston regularly sang at Sunday gatherings with his extended family in Florida.

"Music was always around when I was growing up," he says. "It seems kind of antiquated when I talk about it now, but singing with a group of people was really fun. I remember listening to my mom's old records like Neil Young's 'Harvest' and the Byrds and the Band, but I didn't think about playing or writing my own songs until I was about 16. One day I had my mom teach me a few chords. She's a guitar player - she's still better than I am." - Boston Globe


Discography

When We Are Cats 7"
Needle Bed LP
Sorry, Vampire LP
White Spiders EP

Photos

Bio

What would become the jangly, densely layered Sorry Vampire (Vagrant, 10/2), the second full-length from John Ralston, began as just a few basic elements and eventually snowballed into over 50 songs with almost twice as many individual tracks on each song.

The record was built to give the listener the experience of hearing something new with each repeated listen – you’ll likely never hear this record the same way twice. The final dozen tracks also speak to the ‘luxury’ Ralston experienced by not having time constraints and being able to home record.

The Florida-based musician began work on Sorry Vampire almost immediately after self-releasing his debut, Needle Bed, in 2005, which was picked up by Vagrant and re-released in 2006. When he arrived in Knoxville to record the album and Needle Bed’s producer Michael Seaman, he’d formed his plan: “To make the record sound beautiful, but in a different way than you’ve heard before.” This is when he began experimenting with his songs, tossing out leftovers and writing new parts.

The first song, “Fragile”, was one of the first Ralston began crafting with onetime Wilco keyboardist/engineer Jay Bennett and Ralston’s then-bandmate David Vandervelde. Even though they recorded “Fragile”’s basic elements three years ago he didn’t finish the song until 2007, over the course of three or four sessions. “Oh man, it was something! There are so many tracks and so many songs and so many takes on so many songs,” says Seaman, erupting in laughter. Seaman estimates they took a cumulative six months across their sessions in Tennessee and Florida.

The original version of the deceptively bouncy “Beautiful Disarmed” contained about 20 vocal layers and piano, but it wasn’t until after he added two separate drum takes, a Stylophone, and an ARP Solina String Ensemble to the mix that it sounded “done.” The otherworldly feel of “A Small Clearing,” which began with a loop of field recordings (street noises, doors slamming), was only completed during the very last recording session when the band stopped in Knoxville for 10 days after a tour and their collective experimenting gave the song its signature arpeggiated figure complete with steel drum, tongue drum, and even more sampled noise.

With “Ghetto Tested,” which was tracked a mere two times, Ralston’s orchestra shifts from electric guitar to symphonic strings to mellotron brass. “I can’t tell you how I arrived at it or what it means,” says Ralston of the track. “But I can tell you it was the most challenging for everyone to figure out.” The depth of sounds he used, including instruments like a PortaSound (a $10 Yamaha keyboard that creeps up everywhere on the album), helped make the record sound unique. For as many instruments as he employed, he invited just as many guests.

In addition to his regular band, and whoever else stopped through Knoxville during recording, Miami friends the Postmarks stopped by. Vocalist Tim Yehezkely lent her voice to “I Guess I Wanted My Summer Now” and drummer Jon Wilkins performed on all but two of Sorry Vampire’s songs. “Last time I think I played about 80 percent of the instruments and I’m not qualified to play even half of those,” says Ralston, “so it was nice to have some professionals in there with me.” Wilkins and Ralston got on so well that the drummer took on a co-producer’s credit as he helped finish up the sessions.

To mix the record, Ralston teamed with Grammy-winning mixer Charles Dye (Lauryn Hill, Ricky Martin, Aerosmith), as he had done with the comparatively sparse Needle Bed. The pair whittled down Vampire’s hundreds of layers per song. “He just said, ‘I want it to have depth,’” Dye recalls. “I want it to feel three-dimensional.” The engineer began ignoring his first instincts, making “unconventional choices” to give it the desired 3-D sound. When they were done, Dye decided that this was the best record he’d ever worked on.

Reflecting, Dye says, “It’s an intensely beautiful epic, an amazing collection of songs, brilliant melodies and lyrics, very different sounds and texture. He’s really one of the best lyricists I’ve ever worked with – especially his sense of humor and the way that he plays with phrases. It’s not overt. It’s sort of this wry sense of humor.”

Sorry Vampire and all of its component parts became a monolith of sound. The back of the CD bears a note saying that the record was intentionally mixed quieter than other albums to preserve the original performances’ contrast between loud and soft, leaving it up to the listener to crank it. With so many pieces and nuances working together, this album more than deserves the distinction.

“Little things like that take a while,” Ralston says, referring to the art of creating such a sonically loaded album. “You can’t force them. You just have to wait for them to come to you.”