My editor over at Hot Indie News left a message on my voice mail last night saying, “I just shot you an email with a link for a band’s EPK I want you to check out. They not only have some pretty hot material, but this thing just jumps out of the speakers at you. Try to get the lowdown for our readers about how they did it. If you need to, get a hold of these guys and ask them a few questions. Oh, and sorry about the delay in payment for that last thing you wrote for us. I swear, the check’s in the mail.” So, I began my assignment.
Apparently, Prime was a work in progress that took Jaw Kneecap more than a decade to complete. It was originally conceived by songwriter/guitarist/producer Johnny Kap in 2001 and along with bassist Chris Buck (credits include Allan Holdsworth), drummer Mike Leasure (The Walter Trout Band, Edgar Winter, Albert Collins), recording engineer/co-producer Shawn Bossick, and Grammy award winning mastering engineer Adam Ayan.
The most amazing thing about this album is it sounds like, and gives the impression of being recorded live in an enormous arena. Huge walls of amps and speakers on stacked on stage for the guitarist and bassist, the drummer high above them on a riser surrounded by a crowded kit, and PA woofers and tweeters littered about like it was a mad sonic scientist’s lab. The reality is, according to some of the details in the band’s press kit and my later conversation with Johnny Kap, their guitarist and the band leader, is that is was recorded remotely by the various members of the band in different cities across the country who rarely interacted with each other face to face while laying down their tracks. So, that’s what I call amazing.
After some back and forth with the band’s publicists, and then finally the band leader, we got together for one of the most fun interviews I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. The following is what ensued during the course of our chit-chat.
Hot Indie News: Why, where, how and when did the idea for the Prime project begin?
Johnny Kap: The idea for the project was spawned about 12 years ago when I decided to make the change from being a cover guitar player to a songwriter. I simply got bored of playing other people’s material, although it was an invaluable way to learn to play guitar. I spent a good deal of time in the local library reviewing collections of poetry, which I used as a starting point for songwriting. I had a very basic studio setup which I used to create the original demos for the songs.
I joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International and brought in all of the songs to the meetings so they could be critiqued by other musicians. The music was more progressive compared to what the other songwriters were submitting, which was more country-based. Quite frankly, it did not go over very well in that audience. I still believed in the material and began to search for other musicians to play on the project. I was introduced to Chris Buck, who sings and plays bass on the project, through a mutual friend. Chris in turn introduced me to Shawn Bossick, who recorded and mixed Prime. Shawn introduced me to Mike Leasure, who played drums on the project. Chris, Mike and Shawn formed the core of the project. All of them are into this type of progressive hard rock music, so it was a perfect fit.
Hot Indie News: Why did it take 12 years to make this record?
Johnny Kap: Much of the recording and oversight of the project was done remotely. Most of the other guys live are California based whereas I was in South Carolina. That led to many scheduling conflicts as Chris and Mike both tour and record extensively and we only had limited access to our main recording studio, Diamond Studios. As we progressed from the original demos to the final project, many upgrades were added and other things changed. So twelve years may seem like a lot of time to some people, but it really only felt like it took about ten years.
Hot Indie News: We heard that there’s a pretty interesting story behind the Jaw Kneecap name. Can you share that with us?
Johnny Kap: We had been bouncing around different ideas for the band name over a period of several months. Jaw Kneecap was originally the title to the instrumental track 1221. At the last possible moment, just prior to finalizing the CD artwork, we made the call to use it as the band name because it sounds pretty heavy, it’s definitely original, and it has a bit of an inside joke attached to it which I will explain: I moved to South Carolina about 12 years ago from Canada and people in the south have a different way of speaking than what I was used to in Canada. Because I was not used to this way of speaking, whenever someone called me Johnny Kap, I thought for sure they were saying Jaw Kneecap. So that became the working title to the instrumental, which then led to it becoming the group’s name.
Hot Indie News: How’d you come up with the album’s name?
Johnny Kap: Everything seems to happen only when there’s a deadline in the music business. The album name, like the band name, had been played with and thought about for quite a while. The album had several working titles and again, at the last possible moment before everything had to be finalized, we had the idea to take a piece from one of the songs, Prime of Youth and call the album Prime. Two definitions of the word prime are “of first importance” and “time of greatest strength”, so we felt that tied in nicely to the overall theme.
Hot Indie News: Most of the songs on Prime are credited to you as coming up with the music and lyrics, but 3 of the songs have lyrics based on, or inspired by, poems from dead poets. What’s your obsession with these writers?
Johnny Kap: To me, as a songwriter, the lyrics are the starting point for any song. I need to see the words and then write the music around those words. In many cases, the original lyrics written by me were rewritten over another poem that had a similar meter. For the three songs on the album with the dead poets, I thought the source material was so strong that there was no way I could possibly improve on what I already had from the poems. I did have to edit the poems down to fit into the song format, but that was it. The poem Tichbourne’s Elegy was written in 1586 and the author Chidiock Tichbourne wrote it on the day before he was executed for conspiring to murder the Queen of England. How do you top that? Regret was written by Robert Service, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Those words could not be improved in any way. And Lost Things came from a poem written by my late uncle, Jon Whyte, who was a well renowned poet and author in western Canada until his death in 1991.
Hot Indie News: Prime has an amazingly live performed in stadium like sound. Yet, you guys were hardly ever in the same room when you recorded it. What’s your method, or secret, of achieving this feat of high fidelity, or maybe better stated, this audio illusion?
Johnny Kap: When you go to see live bands play, it’s normal for the band to speed up and slow down within a song. The best bands are not playing to a click track; they are playing off each other and the excitement and emotion of playing live. Most studio albums today are grid mapped over a rigid tempo. So if a song starts at say, 130 beat per minute (BPM), it stays at that tempo the whole time. It makes it much easier to play along to, since everything is constant. It’s also the opposite of the “live feel”. Every song on Prime is played over a variable tempo grid. So a song like Moderation might start at 130 BPM and speed up to say, 133 BPM for the first chorus, and drop off to 132 BPM for the next verse and then up to 135 BPM for the next chorus. By the end of the song, it may have a tempo somewhere around 139-140 BPM. This made it much more difficult for the musicians to play their parts, since everything was continually changing but we feel it accomplished our objective of injecting a more live, exciting feel into the songs.
As far as not being in the same room, I don’t think that’s uncommon these days. Albums today are put together using musicians from all over the world. Even though we weren’t all in the same room, the recording of everything except the bass, strings and piano was done by the same engineer, Shawn Bossick, and in the same studio, so he was able to put his sonic fingerprint on everything. And having a Grammy winning mastering engineer, Adam Ayan, put his final polish on the product definitely helped things come together sonically as well.
Hot Indie News: Great answer to my question about the concept behind getting that live performance, but can you also provide any technical details, or “tricks”, on the audio side that went into achieving it. You know, like “we filled the kick drum with raw meat” or “hung our amps upside down from the rafters” kind of stuff?
Johnny Kap: One of the things we did that helped give a cohesive sound was to re-amp all the electric guitars. I recorded my electric guitar tracks in my own studio, but only the dry, pre-amp guitar signal. I could hear it as if the sound were coming out of a fully mic-ed up guitar amp so it did not affect my playing in any way, but that guitar amp signal was not recorded, only the dry track was. The dry track sounds almost like an acoustic guitar. If you heard the dry tracks, you’d have a hard time believing that it was actually electric guitar.
Those dry tracks were emailed to Diamond Studios where Shawn Bossick routed them out of his computer workstation and into a black box device and then into a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier 150 watt amp head and 4×12 cabinet. That’s the amp and cabinet you can see in our video for the song Pariah. Shawn dialed in the amp settings and mic-ed everything up appropriately. I wasn’t even there for that!
So, the guitar recording was really a two-man job with me composing and playing the actual notes and Shawn dialing in the sound and doing the actual recording of the amp. This gave Shawn the opportunity to really shape the appropriate guitar tone to suit the particular song he was working on. Also, most of the heavy rhythm guitars were double tracked, that’s playing the same part exactly the same for two tracks, and then each track was hard panned to give a big, wide, fat, heavy tone.
Hot Indie News: I didn’t see any production credits listed in your album’s linear notes. Who gets the credit for producing Prime?
Johnny Kap: The album really had two producers. I was heavily involved in the production process and made the final mix decisions, contracted with the guest musicians, and of course wrote the actual music. Shawn Bossick as the recording and mix engineer also played a key producer role. His insight was critical in determining which tracks actually made any particular song and which tracks got cut. He also was very instrumental in determining the sonic footprint of Jaw Kneecap. He knows how to play guitar, bass and keys so he has a musician’s sensibility which was invaluable throughout the project.
Hot Indie News: Which song off the album was the most difficult to record and why?
Johnny Kap: Regret. It has the densest mix and the most elements of any other song. It’s got violin, viola, cello, acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Having all the parts come together cohesively was a challenge and it was a challenge to have each part be heard in the mix.
Hot Indie News: Of the 9 songs on your CD which is your, or the band’s favorite and why?
Johnny Kap: For me, it’s Prime of Youth, although I’d give Lost Things a close second. Prime of Youth has a killer 5:4 groove and intense lyrics with a great vocal performance by Chris. Chris’ bass playing during the choruses is perfect. Mike’s drumming is off the charts in this song. It also has two guitar solos, and as the guitar player…I’m ok with that.
Hot Indie News: Now that the record is done do you have any regrets in the way it turned out, and if so, what would you change?
Johnny Kap: There are always a few things you want to go back and change, but we did not want to deviate from our firm 12 year schedule. And anything that I’ve ever pointed out to someone as a “concern” was never noticed by that individual, even after highlighting it and playing it multiple times. That tells me that everything’s ok.
Hot Indie News: As a guitarist, which band, or artist, would be on your bucket list if you could choose to join them in the studio or on stage?
Johnny Kap: In an ideal world, Randy Rhoads, but if we’re talking about living guitarists, I’d go with Guthrie Govan. He’s insanely talented and seems like a nice person as well.
Hot Indie News: Are you planning to tour?
Johnny Kap: Right now we are working on aligning our schedules for our next music video. We are also working on new material for the next album. As for touring, we are in the process of evaluating the overall response to the record. If the demand warrants some live dates, and if we can align our schedules, we’ll tour.
Hot Indie News: Any plans for the next record?
Johnny Kap: Big plans. I’ve got some new tools for helping me with the songwriting process and I’m constantly on the search for more dead poets.