You can take the Dan out of the country . . .
Dan Lethbridge’s latest album Oh Hawke is a labour of love that’s been a long time in the making. We caught up with the charming guitar slinger and songwriter to find out how it all came together.
Interview by Les Thomas
Congratulations on Oh Hawke. It’s an unusually assured sounding album, but I know you have very exacting standards when it comes to sound and performance. Tell us about the process of recording on a 16 track by yourself.
Long and tedious would be the best way to describe the recording process, but very rewarding at the same time. It was recorded with such a basic set-up out of necessity really. I didn’t have the money to head in to a big studio at the time (I still don’t) but I also wanted to make a more simple, straight-to-the-point sounding album. I’d had this little 16-track machine sitting around at home and I knew that with a bit of trial and error and a lot of time, I could make it work. I used one basic $300 Rode condenser mic for every single instrument and vocal on the record, even the saxophone. I learnt about mic placement, room sounds and how the right guitar is much more important than the right microphone.
It took me 18 months to record 10 songs. Ridiculous really. There are a few reasons for this. The main reason was me changing my mind all the time and re-doing takes. The other reason was the nearby train line. As I couldn’t punch in takes like you can with a computer, each instrument had to be recorded from the beginning of the song to the end without stopping. Sometimes I’d get 10 seconds from the end of a five minute finger-picking song and a train would go passed and ruin the whole take. That hurt.
What was Shane O’Mara’s role? Had you already chosen all of the takes when it came time for him to mix?
Pretty much. Everything was completely recorded except for the drums. We did the drums in three days at Shane’s Yikesville Studio. That’s another rule we broke, recording the drums last. Shane was very excited about the idea though right from the beginning as it gave us total freedom to be as creative as we wanted with all the percussion. Adam Coad is a very creative drummer to begin with so there was definitely no shortage of ideas. Shane also added a couple of cheeky atmospheric guitar lines here and there which are of course, pure gold. If you listen to ‘Song I Sing To You’ there is an instrument which you’d swear is a pedal-steel but it’s actually Shane doing big string bends on a Gibson SG. I wasn’t there when he recorded it and I still, to this day, don’t know how he did it.
There’s a very relaxed and gentle quality about this album. Do the people you listen to tend to share those qualities?
I’ve never really thought about that before but now that I have, yes maybe they do. I don’t necessarily only like gentle music; I like a good rock song as much as anyone. If it’s a good song, it’s a good song. But I don’t dance and I don’t scream so that automatically rules out a few genres. Melody is very important to me. Lyrics too, but I tend to like melancholy lyrics where I don’t know exactly what the singer is saying, just enough to get a sense of feeling. Two artists I’m constantly obsessed with are M Ward and Rufus Wainwright. They are, in many ways, polar opposites. One is a low-fi folk genius and the other is a flamboyant, operatic showman but it is their beautiful songwriting that draws me in. It’s funny that I often get tagged as a country artist because I don’t really listen to country at all.
We know you come from rural Queensland originally and you’ve been playing with a stack of great musicians in Melbourne since arriving. How did you find your way down here and what had you been up to musically in those years? Your website says you had a brief foray into journalism. Can you elaborate?
Can’t we just keep talking about music?! I’m just getting started! I’m from a 6,000 acre cattle property in Southern QLD. It has been in my family for three generations and still is. My parents don’t necessarily fit the typical farmer image – both of them are well educated and well traveled. They placed a lot of importance on education and after seven years of boarding school, I went to uni where I tried three different courses before I finally finished with a journalism degree. I focused on radio journalism but my lecturer said I had too much of a monotone to keep the listeners interested. That hasn’t changed. When I graduated I went overseas for the best part of three years. I worked on a remote farm in Alberta, Canada, sold ‘Sham Wows’ in shopping malls in Vancouver, traveled solo through the US and Mexico, lived in Dublin and taught English for a year in Seoul, South Korea. When I came home I had a bunch of original songs written and all I wanted to do was play music. I had never been to Melbourne before but for some reason it was calling me so I got in the car and drove down here. Now here I am, playing music and making a fortune.
What’s in store for the rest of 2012?
I’m going to play live as much as I can, both solo and with the band. We have NSW and QLD shows planned for later in the year. I’m actually about to start the new album, this time with Shane as producer. I want to get this one done quickly, I’m not putting myself through 18 months of torture again! The Lightweights have already started recording a new record, Damon Smith has cooked up another batch of excellent songs so keep an eye out for that. I’ve also joined a band called The Handsome Bastards which features the dual guitar attack of Shane O’Mara and Rick Plant. We’ve been rehearsing every Monday night for the past few months. We have a strict rule: we only play sad, slow, country covers. Oops, there’s that country thing again!