Interview with Joe V. McMahan of Nashville on Producing, Songwriting, Bandmaking, Life
Joe V. McMahan wrote songs for the best band you've never heard of, Luella and the Sun, in which he also covered electric guitar duties in a devastatingly original style. Before they broke up in 2014 after three years together, they had more than album's worth of material, but had only put out an EP of two songs, still downloadable on iTunes. Sounding like a female-fronted White Stripes, or perhaps like a gospel tinged visitation from hard blues heaven, with crazy breaks, innovative leads, a stage presence beyond reckoning, Luella and the Sun took vocal cues from Mahalia Jackson and Patsy Cline, blending those with Ry Cooder's more cohesive and meaner alter ego in Joe on the guitar. The band tore up the world until they imploded. But Joe persists as a player and producer, and his best years are ahead of him. Hear the man speak in this article, and know talent mixed with toughness.
Q. What original projects are you working on now?
Joe V McMahan: I’m in the process of finishing a record with the great singer, songwriter and person Sarah Potenza. I’m very proud of the recordings we’ve made and am excited to see this music get out and into the hands of listeners.
Q. What was special to you about the Luella and the Sun project?
Joe V McMahan: There were many things magical about that band. 1st and foremost the chemistry of musical personalities. The first time we played together it was obvious that we were all bigger when we were together. The sum being greater than the individual parts, something that I’d looked for for a long time. Also- this band really motivated me to write songs like no other time in my life. We had this amazing sound and we really needed the right material. You can only go so far covering Blind Willie Johnson songs. As much as I love them they don’t always speak to the contemporary.
Q. What do new bands commonly do wrong, if anything, when forming and trying to develop original material?
Joe V McMahan: Bands are a difficult proposition no matter how you slice it. They really are like a more complex marriage. You spend all of your time together and you are also a full time and committed business. I think something that cannot be overstated would be- tend to the business side of things as early in the game as possible- writing credits, publishing, who owns the band name, etc.. As the band grows and becomes more successful those questions will only become more difficult.
Also, have a deep and egoless understanding of who is bringing what to the table: songwriter, visionary, organizer, live performer, the business mind, etc.. Then every member understands their own value and has great appreciation for what his partners are bringing to the table that he or she cannot.
Q. Do you have any influences that you feel aren't immediately audible in your music but that represent a major contribution to how you write?
Joe V McMahan: I’m sure there are many. With Luella and the Sun the most common was may have been Joseph Campbell. Or Leadbelly.
Q. Do you ever feel you veer too close to any influence or pattern in songwriting, and if so, what?
Joe V McMahan: Good question. It’s so natural to want to write a blues song. Something about the phrasing and feel is like a big couch that you just want to lay back into and dream.
Q. What is your aspiration, in terms of "If I could write a song that does XYZ?" what would those things be?
Joe V McMahan: In a general way of explaining, I’ve always looked to a person like the great Allen Toussaint RIP. He was of high intelligence, spoke eloquently to heart of humanity and was always funky. How could you define XY and Z any better than those things?
Q. Is there a particular song by another artist that you admire because its melody or structure or rhythm are mystifying to you? Any unsolved riddles in songcraft you hold dear?
Joe V McMahan: Tons! For rhythmic mystery my first response would be Tinariwen. They are masters of playing a mystical rhythm that hypnotizes the listener and pulls you into their world. Simple and repetitive and yet you cannot turn away, nor can you figure out how to duplicate it! For melodic there are many references, mostly early/mid 20th century. Of course the Italians were early melodic geniuses-Puccini. I have always loved the melodies of Nino Rota who wrote the music of the Fellini movies. The melodic theme of La Strada is permanently haunting.
And then of course the melodies of the songwriters of American songbook material like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, etc..
Q. I don't know what kind of guitar you used with Luella but I saw it pretty consistently across your live performances and videos of studio work. I see three switches on the top neck cutaway, what do they do? What kind of guitar is it, and what draws you to it?
Joe V McMahan: The brand on the headstock says Lindell but I think it was made by a company called Teisco Del Rey. Japanese, probably from the ’60’s. It is a slightly longer scale(26”) than your standard Gibson/Fender guitar so I set it up to be a semi-baritone. Standard tuning down to C. So the strings are, from fattest to skinniest: C, F, Bb, Eb, G, C
There are actually 6 switches up there. On/off for each pickup and then there’s two mystery switches that seem to be a low pass or something. I’ve taped them down so that it’s just the straight sound, no low pass.
I got that guitar from an amazing music character named George Bradfute. It’s been a magical box for me.
Q. What amps and pedals do you like most? What do you look for in amps you try out?
Joe V McMahan: With LATS I was way into using old Magnatone amplifiers. I have an M9 which is a one 15” amp from the mid-sixties and I also have a Magnatone Maestro from the mid-fifties that’s amazing. It’s a one 15” amp with two 6L6 power tubes. With these amps I didn’t really need pedals. You turn them up and it’s all there. So rich in harmonics. I used the volume on the guitar a lot if I needed a quieter and cleaner sound and then turn it up when it’s time to go, much like the real blues guys did.
Q. What bands or artists do you hear these days who excite you?
Joe V McMahan: This past week I did discover a girl named Kadhja Bonet. There’s a track called Tears For Lamont that is totally mysterious and intriguing. I’ve also been on a hip-hop and rap jag lately too, although mostly old school-Missy Elliott, NAS, Gravediggaz. I am a bit intrigued by these kids called Rae Sremmurd. When I listen to that music I feel like we(rootsy white folks) aren’t working hard enough on our beats and rhythms. Speaking of, Tinariwen has a new record out that I really need to check out. I’m also always curious to hear what bands like Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra are up to. I happen to think that the latest JD McPherson record is a bit of a masterpiece in ways. Mark Neill, who produced it, is brilliant when it comes to doing things that sound old but are completely original and inspired sounding. Anything Nick Cave is always inspiring. I really enjoyed the Sleater Kinney record that came out in 2015, No Cities To Love.
Q. What do you hear too much of in roots-oriented guitar music these days?
Joe V McMahan: Hmm…imitation? If you want to be like your idols you have to turn your back on them at some point and create your own identity. It’s such a tricky balance between revering the greats and still stepping into the here and now saying what’s true and pure from your own life and experiences. Like your idols did.
Q. What do you hear too little of? In other words, what do you think is commonly misunderstood or underappreciated in the roots music on which so many bands today try to build?
Joe V McMahan: I feel like my natural response is to say the reverse of what I said in the previous question. Sometimes I wonder where is Leadbelly, or Johnny Cash? I wonder where is the total freak with a bizarre and original sound and songs that doesn’t need a band or production or expensive microphones. He can play a subway station or Carnegie hall and it’s just obvious that we have a bellwether. I don’t mean to sound negative or insulting I just think it’s very hard for all of us at this period in recorded music to step away from all of the amazing shadows of the 20th century and move forward. We can spend our whole lives studying the greats- even when we’re writing and creating.
Q. What producing projects you're working on now are you excited about?
Joe V McMahan: As I mentioned, the upcoming Sarah Potenza record is exciting and I’m also very proud the the Kevin Gordon and Patrick Sweany records that came out in 2015. I’m about to start a record with an amazing rock band from Louisiana called the Chambers and I’ve also been helping an immensely talented and intensely passionate guitar player named Johnny Duke. It’s really fun for me to work with guitar players as I can sit and be a cheerleader as opposed to me being the one trying to perform the ultimate guitar solo- which can easily turn into a self-deprecating mess when you’re working alone. Speaking of guitar players, I’ll be going to Louisiana in March to work with a great guitar player/songwriter named Josh Hyde. Oh, and there’s also the amazing songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Isaac Alexander. He’s from Little Rock and we’re sort of slowly working on a record. He’s so incredibly talented.
Q: What do you do differently than other producers, if anything?
Joe V McMahan: Oh gosh I guess I really don’t know. I will say that I know myself to be fully dedicated and present when working on recordings. I try to always stay true to what will serve song and recording over my own ego as well as over the artists ego. The music is the boss of all of us and it is what we are here to serve. And while doing this you must stay positive. Focus on the good things that amuse you and those in room, that is the thing that will lead you to making good decisions.
And I of course I bring my own unique experiences, passions and way of hearing music. There are certain records that I love that when you listen you are involved in a sensuous experience. The music is more than just sounds coming out of vibrating paper cones. It leaves the speakers and engulfs you. You are overwhelmed with the mystery of the sounds you’re hearing and curiosity about the people who made the sounds. Ultimately to make recordings that do that to others is the ultimate.
Q. What, to you, divides producers from engineers if anything?
Joe V McMahan: Someone asked me recently “What does a producer do?” and my immediate response was “Anything he can to make the record better”. That still stands. Arrangement decisions, microphone choices, buss compression, lyric modifications, overall vision of the artist/band, when to take a break or go to lunch, knowing when to speak up, knowing when to shut up, mastering choices, etc.. Choosing musicians for recordings is important as well, which in itself is like assembling a band that has chemistry with each other, the artist and the artist’s songs. You want that chemistry in the studio. You want that sum is greater than the parts thing. You want the shit that you get for free.
Q. Where and with whom have you studied music? What tutelage (other than your own self study) has had the most impact on you?
Joe V McMahan: When I was a teenager I had several great guitar teachers that had huge impact on me. Ron Roskowske in rural Missouri introduced me to Hendrix, Clapton, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman. HUGE changes for me. A fabulous guitarist in Shreveport, La named Mark Griffith. He prepped me for the jazz harmony world of Berklee College of Music, which I attended for a year when I was 18. That exploded my brain in so many ways, culturally as much as any.