Studio Project: Steve Salett and Gary Maurer on The Poison Tree & Saltlands Studios

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DUMBO, BROOKLYN: In an era when a record’s “production” often overwhelms its “performances” – for better or for worse – a worthy and well-recorded live performance can sound like a revelation. The newly released, self-titled album by The Poison Tree, a Brooklyn-based project led by former King of France frontman and producer Steve Salett, captures performances so worthy and so well that it actually feels familiar, forges an instant connection.

The Poison Tree

The Poison Tree’s self-titled album is available now at iTunes

What feels so right here? The immediacy of Salett’s deep baritone vocal, his nylon string guitar, and the sparse but essential ensemble including Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) on keys, Jeff Hill (Rufus Wainwright) on upright/bass and drummer Konrad Meissner (Graham Parker) captured in the perfect room (Sear Sound) by a skilled engineer/producer, Gary Maurer (HEM). The songs are intimate and wistful, lyrically driven and cinematic, and the music is a sophisticated spin on folk-acoustic-jazz. Timeless.

According to Salett, The Poison Tree was awhile in the making, both before and after the two days of tracking at Sear Sound in January of ’09.

They mixed the album over several weeks in Brooklyn at Saltlands, the recording collective Salett operates with Maurer and two other musician/engineer/producer partners — Dawn Landes and Eli Janney.

Salett also runs the adjacent 10,000 square feet of production/rehearsal spaces known as the Saltmines, and the ‘collective’ extends to include his many tenants. The sprawling basement facility is like its own little sub-set of the Brooklyn music scene, an underground coop where multi-dexterous music and recording professionals share gear, swap techniques, play on each other’s projects and book each other’s rooms.

We sat down with Salett and Maurer in Saltlands, a fully functional recording and mixing room where artists like The Soft Pack, Obits, Alexi Murdoch and The National have recently recorded. Like The Poison Tree music, this studio is real and unpretentious – made by friends.

We are big fans of The Poison Tree record. Tell us, what was the inspiration behind this project and the sound?

Steve: I wanted to write songs that were like the very first songs I wrote, before I started trying to have an indie rock band and chase certain sounds. I was writing folkier tunes. So I wanted to do that kind of record.

Also, I’d always wanted to write something fast and slow at the same time. There are so many things I’m inspired by that I wanted to do it all. I wanted it to be lyrically driven. I wanted it to have very simple arrangements. I wanted to focus on the sonics of it. I was excited to use tape and to really think about the songs. I felt like I’d never made a record that sounded to me like the records I loved. They just never sounded good enough to me.

As I learned more about recording and producing, and I’ve learned a lot from Gary – I realize that a great sounding record is very much about performance. It’s about capturing good players playing thoughtful parts. Do that and it will sound good!

What was the approach going into the studio? Musically, sonically, what was the direction?

Steve Salett, The Poison Tree. Photo by Bernie Dechant

Gary: One of the early definitions of this project was that this was not going to be an indie rock record. In fact, this record has nothing to do with indie rock. The original idea was to go to Sear Sound for two days with this four piece, all acoustic band and just record these guys playing the songs. And that’s how it started. It was totally simple. It was all about the vocal performance.

Steve: It was a lot of live takes. And even though we worked on the record for a long time, we were working on pretty small changes, or adding stuff that we ultimately got rid of in favor of the live take. It’s funny to work so hard on something that was already there!

Gary: But it’s an easy trap to fall into. You figure: I’m a producer — isn’t it my job to put stuff on there? Isn’t that the work? I’ve made a conscious effort for a long time to get away from that – with HEM and other projects – saying we’re not going to do overdubs, we’re just going to play. The Poison Tree group of songs are so much about the lyrics and the stories that a lot of the other stuff we tried just ended up feeling like it was detracting from that.

Why was Sear Sound the right studio for this project?

Gary: Sear Sound is a place where I’ve worked a lot since the 90s. For the kind of record we were talking about, this kind of ensemble – upright bass, piano, drums, Steve playing nylon string guitar and singing – it was the natural choice. At Sear Sound, there’s no impediment to getting that on the tape. You walk in and everything is ready to go. I’ve worked with those guys for years. I can send them a mic list, and when we walk in it’s all ready to go.

Steve: Also, we really wanted tape. And we didn’t have a tape machine at that time. We recorded to 2” 16-track. (Gary: Also Walter had some 996 hidden away that we bought off of him to use on this!)

Salett recording at Sear Sound in Manhattan

I remember the process like: OK, we want the record on tape. Can we do it here [at Saltlands]? At that time we didn’t have a piano. We didn’t have a tape deck. So we started to think – what do we need to buy to get set up to do the record here instead of spending the money on Sear Sound? And in that process you realize just how good Sear Sound is! (laughs) It’s incredible. The equipment, the microphones, at that time Walter…

Gary: Yeah. I mean just the signal path for the vocal chain alone: chrome long-body Neumann U47 with a Pultec MB-1A preamp and an original LA2A that Walter bought new in the box going to 15 ips 16” 2-track. I mean…what more do you want? Listen to those vocals – it sounds like Leonard Cohen. And I take no credit for it: that was Steve and Walter. I had nothing to do with it!

So you were working with these great players – were these arrangements all written and rehearsed ahead of time, or was it more collaborative with you guys trying different ideas in the studio.

Steve: I had a good idea what I wanted and we did pre-production and recorded all the parts. And we rehearsed. Gary was really instrumental in helping to shape the songs. But when it was time to go, some of that went out the window and we just played.

On certain songs, like “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” it seems like there’s so much going on and it’s really just me, upright bass, piano and CJ Camerieri (trumpet player) came in and put down some horns. That was it.

And that was exactly the type of thing I wanted to get to, which took me a long time to realize – that it’s not really about trying to add all these things. It sounds so full as it is. Just left alone, an upright bass is a very rich and full instrument.

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