Of Late …

Catching up on the last few years. On the writing of the autobiographical novel ‘Talking Stories’ – Recording vocals with Donald Fagen for his solo CD ‘Morph The Cat’ – The recording of Allan’s fourth solo album ‘Making Up For Lost Time.’


2003 ushered in the breakup of a long-time on-again off-again relationship. In fact from Christmas right on through the first two weeks of the new year I was pretty much in another world, one I’d just as well not set foot on ever again. As usual the only way out of that chasm of gut wrenching turmoil and bewilderment, was through writing – only this time instead of songs, it was short autobiographical stories.

I began with my Hawaiian ocean adventures; of getting swept away by the pure joy of windsurfing, of getting bit by the bug of surfing, of kayaking and outrigger canoe sailing down the famed, and at times wild, Napali Coast, and of the unusual and funny things that would happen, out there in that blue-green water world.

After a couple of solid months of this outpouring of words, I was way over the lost woman, but now just couldn’t stop the flood of stories wanting to see the light of day. I decided to see what would happen if I kept right on going. Starting at the very beginning of my life, and ending around 2003, I wrote fifty-three stories and called the compilation ‘Talking Stories’. I didn’t have a plan or direction for where the writings would wind up, I only knew I had to do it. I let myself dive head-long into it, and ended up writing everyday, six to twelve hours a day, for eight months straight. I call that spasm a first draft.

Later, after I had gotten back to songwriting and various recording projects, I would chip away at the stories whenever time became available. I finished what I call the second draft in 2006, and put the whole shebang on my website for anyone interested enough to peruse. All in all, it was, and continues to be, a great pleasure to be able to go back in time, and dig up the stuff of stories without having to worry about keeping it under five minutes, or in a verse chorus bridge structure.

2004 found me producing and recording Kauai artists Norman ‘Kaawa’ Solomon, and Darryl Gonzales’ solo contemporary Hawaiian albums. The deeds were done in my one room, 500 square-foot home/recording studio, using Pro Tools LE recording software, an iMac, and various mic’s and pre-amps I’ve acquired over the years. 2004 was also when I began the pre-production of what would become my next solo record.

In late December of 2004, I get a phone call from someone whose voice sounds strangely familiar. He says his name is Donald Fagen. I’m thinking “Right, Donald Fagen, the dude who is one half of the duo Steely Dan, the same Steely Dan band I played once a week for six and a half years on my weekly radio show on Kauai Community Radio – the same mysterious cats who wrote those funky, jazzy, bluesy, groovacious tunes we heard on FM radio back in the day”. I’m thinking “He’s gotta be faken joking!” After convincing me that it was he, and that Mombo had given him my number, he asks if he could drop by to see my studio. What could I say? I told him come on by, and gave him directions.

My studio was pretty much of a joke at the time, as real recording studios go, especially in comparison to the soup-to-nuts studios I know he’s used to working in. I mean I did have good Blue Sky monitors, and Neve mic pre’s, and a B.L.U.E. tube vocal mic, as well as some other decent gear, but the heart of my recording rig was an ’04 800 Mhz iMac, and the lowly and slowly LE version of Pro Tools native, with a Digi 002R interface, no mixing console, or anything super high-end like that. I wondered why he would even want to see my little home studio, but I’m not gonna tell him that, let him come over and hear for himself. I’d be happy to meet the legendary cat, and call it a great day, as that in and of itself would have been plenty.

As it turns out, he was staying at a friend’s new digs right up the street here on Kauapea Road. Six minutes later he bops up to my door, shakes my hand, and after a minimum amount of small talk, cuts right to the chase and asks me to play him something I recorded in the studio. I gesture for him to sit down in the black faux-leather swivel chair. He plops down and sort of melts into the chair, and rolls it to the sweet spot in front of and between the Blue Sky’s. At this point I don’t even know what the f I’m going to play him, and I’m wondering if I should maybe play him some of my new record in progress. I decide against it. Instead I choose to play a Hawaiian swing track of Norman Solomon’s that we had just finished, and to my ears sounded pretty damn in the pocket. I hit play, and as the song gathered momentum he began nodding his head to the rhythm, his shoulders and feet following suit. He seemed to have dug it, but who knows?

Afterward Mr. Fagen began explaining his current situation as thus: his record label, Warner Brothers, had rented him a recording studio in Princeville, five miles down the road, to record the vocals for his new solo CD. Only problem was, the owner of said recording studio building, has asked the owner of the recording equipment to vacate the premises, for one reason or another – which has nothing to do with me but everything to do with the untenable situation that Donald faced by having a recording studio with no recording equipment, and the good karma situation that was about to land right in my lap.

The upshot is this: Donald wanted to know if he could rent my recording equipment lock-stock and barrel, for two solid months. I would have to move all my gear to the soundproofed studio in Princeville so he and his engineer could work. It all hinged on whether I had the right gear, and would I be willing to upgrade if Donald’s engineer deemed it necessary, and could I drop everything and do it pronto? “Count me in” was what I was thinking, and told him just that.

He rose to his feet after informing me his engineer, TJ Doherty, would be calling me shortly. Before he sauntered out the door I handed him my two previous CD’s ‘The Island’ and ‘Coconut Culture’, and with that he was gone.

Did that just happen? I knew it had because in about ten minutes TJ calls. The first thing I hear is a thick, intense New York accent asking me what I have, equipment wise. After I get through explaining my recording rig he says that ain’t gonna cut it. I ask him what I need to make the gig happen, and he goes through the short but concise list. A new Neumann U 87 mic, a Distressor compressor, a brand new dual core PowerMac with 4 gigs of RAM, a decent size monitor for the Mac, and a Digidesign Accel 2 HD system as the Pro Tools interface. As he’s reeling off these expensive items one by one, my face has gone from one of hopeful joy, to one of total incomprehension, as I’m thinking how the hell can I afford to buy all this stuff, which, with cables and shipping and whatnot comes out to around $23,000 smakaroos? I tell him no problem I can do it. He asks me how much will I charge a day for renting the recording gear, and I tell him I’ll call him right back.

There was no way I was going to let this golden opportunity slip by. I had to believe in the American way – that is, the way of borrowing. I hastily made some calls, hit the internet, and figured out what the recording gear I was about to own rents for in the gear rental business. I also asked a good friend if she would back me in this endeavor, and explained how I could pay back 85% of the loan in two months. She gave me the go-ahead and said to get what I needed.

I phoned TJ and gave him the figures as to how much it would cost to rent my gear, new stuff included, and he relayed the message to Donald and Donald’s wife Libby, who then relayed the figures to Donald’s liaison in Woodstock, Mary Lou Arnold, who took the ball and contacted Don’s manager in LA, who then called Warner Brothers and explained the terms. The answer which was affirmative, came back through the same circuitous route, and Black Bamboo Studios was in the studio rental gear business, and I was wondering if I would be able to attend any of the sessions – knowing about Donald’s, penchant for privacy.

I called some of my good friends in the world of recording: Stephen Barncard in SF, Chas Sanford in Nashville, and Ken Wallace in NYC, and between them figured out the best place to get the gear asap. This was the 21st of December ’04 and the sessions were scheduled to commence January 6th ’05, about two weeks away. If this was going to happen it I had to have my end together soon.

I then got on the horn and phoned Norman Solomon and his executive producer Jon Scott, plus Darryl Gonzales, who’s records I was working on at the time, and told them the news. I explained that I had to take a break from their projects to work with the man. They were stoked for me and gave me their blessings. After receiving the new gear I moved Black Bamboo Studios to Princeville where TJ helped me assemble the whole magilla. In no time we realized we needed a special custom cable made to be able interface between the studio control room and the recording room where Don would be singing. That meant it would take at least a week before it would get here and we could start recording vocals.

On day one Donald and TJ began working on some edits on one of the tunes. The song was ‘What I Do’, and I could feel the chicken skin crawl right up the back of my neck. It’s the song where Ray Charles is having a conversation with Donald, telling him the secret to his way with women and such. This song just reached in and got to me. To my way of thinking this man’s music was such a perfect example of great playing, writing, arranging, and singing, and I realized I was right smack dab in the middle of the creation of this classic track, and I shook my head in wonder, and smiled like a man who once again recognizes amazingly good fortune inexplicably entering his sphere of influence.

They continued on with the editing of different tracks for several days, allowing me to sit in the whole time. I was honored to be there, right close the action, and hardly said a thing to anybody those first couple of days, just testing the water as it were, and feeling my way around. Ten days passed and we still hadn’t received that custom cable, so TJ started recording Fagen on keyboard marimba, clavinet and vibes. A couple of days later they started working on Donald’s melodica solo for the brooding ‘Mary Shut The Garden Door’.

After the aforementioned cable arrived we set up the U87, in the main recording room, and Donald sang a couple of lines. TJ recorded it, and Don came back into the control room and they listened to the result. Fagen was not smiling. He didn’t like what he heard at all, and said the giant room – which in it’s former life had been a dojo – had way too much echo; it just wasn’t dead enough for recording vocals. We all had the bright idea to build a vocal booth but had no tools or components. So we put out the call, and soon had blankets and rugs by the score, plus there was a shit-load of unused fabric and wood gobo’s in the main room. For several hours the three of us tried to make a vocal booth out of the things we had amassed, but it was a joke, as we weren’t very good constructioneers, and could never get the room to sound dead enough for Donald. Since he was the one who was going to have to sing, and he damn well knew what he was looking for, we realized it was time to bring in the cavalry, and called Mombo. We explained that we needed an 8×8 wooden frame made, could he help us? Within an hour Mombo had three of his construction workers over to the studio, with tools and wood for the project, and within another two hours it was assembled complete with gobos and blankets for the walls, a persian rug on the floor, with an upscale standing lamp, and a 16 channel mixer, just for Don’s headphone mix. The god-send construction guys left and Donald and TJ immediately began to test the new room by recording a few lines. Fagen loved the booth, and TJ was grinning now. This was twelve days after we had started and now the singing was about to begin.

Donald dubbed the facility Sugar Sound. We worked six hours a day, six days a week, for seven weeks. During the sessions Fagen would occasionally call for a quick well-deserved break, and the three of us would play the basketball game H.O.R.S.E. I learned much from those sessions as far as recording, editing, comping vocals, and moving instruments forward and backward a few samples at a time, and as a special bonus, my hoop shots improved dramatically.

At the end of the dream sessions Donald asked me to play rhythm guitar in a band he was putting together for a benefit concert for a local private school. The gig was to be held at the Princeville Hotel ballroom in about ten days time. He also asked guitarist Kirk Smart to play, as well as bassist Trey Thompson, drummer Tris Imboden, guitarist Ken Emerson, and keyboardist/doctor Jim Winkler. Backing singer Michelle Rundgren was asked to sing and with her addition that was the ensemble. The other acts featured Kauai artists Todd Rundgren, Toni Childs, and Ken Emerson. I also ended up playing guitar for Todd and Kenny’s set, and sang backup vocals for both Donald and Todd.

I’ll never forget the Fagen backing vocal practice session at Todd’s. Donald sat at the piano and gave Michelle, Ken, Kirk and I our vocal parts one by one. These were songs I’d been hearing if not performing for years – Third World Man, Black Friday, and Pretzel Logic – and though I knew the tunes, learning these jazzy harmony parts was tough going. I broke out into a cold sweat a couple of times when Don had to repeat the correct note for me to sing, and when the dude who wrote and arranged the tune is sitting there five feet away shit all I can tell you is think intense. I had a little micro cassette with me and recorded my parts so I could practice later, and I did for days while driving around before the show. So now I had to not only play rhythm guitar on his set, but also sing on a few as well simultaneously. The groove was so tight and it was so much fun at the gig that I wanted to jump right out of my skin, but had to hold it together or would have danced right off the end of the stage.

The recording and editing work on what ended up being called ‘Morph The Cat’ prepared and inspired me to get back to work on my own next solo record. I spent almost two years working on ‘Making Up For Lost Time’, with a break of eight months in the middle to recuperate from a near-fatal surf related injury. I’ll get into that, if only to exorcise it – at a later date.

After recording drum and percussion loops using my new PowerMac Quad and Spectrasonics Stylus/RMX software, I recorded my rhythm guitar tracks direct into the Neve, followed by lead vocals. I then brought in my favorite backing musicians, one at a time, to assist in the groove making. Long-time AT collaborators Bryan Kessler from Oahu played rhythm and lead guitar on five tracks, neighbor Michael Ruff played all manner of keyboards, organ, and accordion on eight tracks, and character of characters and slide guitarist extraordinaire Ken Emerson, weaved his particular magic on three tracks. Thereafter the music began to take shape.

Then came new Kauai recruits Kirk Smart, on his DeTemple tele guitar, mandolin, and lap-steel, and fresh from Austin, harmonica virtuoso JP Allen. I then enlisted the talents of all-around renaissance music man and goat herder Ron Pendragon, to record the ever-upbeat drummer/surfer Tris Imboden, of the group Chicago. In three other sessions Ron recorded Michael Ruff and I on Backing vocals on ‘How Long Till Light’,  the beautiful Anjela Rose and I singing backups on ‘Remember The Best’ and ‘Leap Of Faith’, and the great Graham Nash singing backups on Ray Of Hope.

The icing on the cake was James Taylor’s bass player Jimmy Johnson, who I recorded at Snuffy Walden’s Studio in LA with the assistance of Avi Kipper who set the levels and left us to it. We finished the bass sessions in one ten-hour session!

The record was then mixed and mastered in L.A. by my buddy and renown mixmaster Mike Shipley, and his more-than-capable assistant Brian Wohlgemuth.

Long-time rock photographer Jim Shea, now living on Kauai, photographed me for the album’s back and inside cover, and old friend and surfer/artist Steven Valiere painted the CD front cover while listening to the title track as he worked.

Do I feel like one of the luckiest cats in the world to have worked with the caliber of musicians and technicians such as these? You know it!

What’s next? Get out my 7’1, and harvest the fall and winter waves of Hanalei, while continuing to write new songs for album #6.

* ‘Making Up For Lost Time’ came out mid October ’07, and wound up receiving radio play on select sations in the US, Australia, and quite a few radio shows in Europe as well. To date the CD has sold over 1000 copies.

* In May of 2009 I released Brooklyn Boy In Paradise – a 14 song compilation of previously unreleased tracks from 1980-1994. Available as a full CD or single-song download

http://allanthomas.bandcamp.com/album/brooklyn-boy-in-paradise

* Am presently recording album #6 – 1/1/2010

Peace – AT