Much press is given to ever-younger indie artists creating music thanks to digital recording software, samples, loops and computers. However, there are also countless veteran indie artists who are still playing real instruments and creating rock and other genres with those same digital recording tools.
Brooklyn-based American Nomads is one such band. With a sound that defies easy categorization but wears its classic rock, R&B and Americana roots influences proudly, the eight-member group’s members have all paid their individual dues with decades of gigging and recording experience. Their debut album, American Nomads, was released in 2017, and its single, "A Revelation's Gonna Come" reached Number 6 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. The band has continued to pick up steam after its second album, Ghost Highway, and their upcoming third album was engineered in American Nomads’ studio by co-founding member and guitarist George LaGrange and mixed and produced by the legendary musician Joe Vitale at a studio in Canton, Ohio. In addition to releasing albums as a solo artist, Vitale’s credits include Joe Walsh and Barnstorm, the Eagles (as a touring member), the Michael Stanley Band, Dan Fogelberg, Peter Frampton, John Entwistle, and others.
Copper spoke with LaGrange and Vitale on the unique circumstances around the making of the new album, slated to drop this summer, though two singles have been released in advance of the album.
George La Grange:
John Seetoo: Unlike many indie bands around the world, American Nomads is based in Brooklyn, also home to artists like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. A distinct preference for playing actual instruments, and for analog sounds, American roots rock, garage punk, and R&B/soul is something you all share. Is there a musical sensibility that you think sets Brooklyn bands apart from others, and if so, was that a factor in making Brooklyn American Nomads’ home base?
George LaGrange: I’ve always enjoyed those types of bands from New York City. To me, there’s a lot of truth in that music. It has that real rawness that can only be drawn from living in a city like this. Although some of those bands that you’ve mentioned tend to be different from us as far as style and genre, we’ve always felt there are many parallels as well. Many of us in American Nomads have been living in Brooklyn for a very long time. Our experiences, like so many other artists from here, no doubt translate through the music we create. It was a natural fit to set up our home base here in Brooklyn so we could stay rooted in and gain inspiration from a place we know so well.
JS: Since American Nomads has their own recording studio, how much live tracking is done with the whole band playing versus overdubbing separate tracks? Have any songs been recorded track-by-track individually, similar to bedroom DAW (digital audio workstation)-equipped laptop artists like Billie Eilish? Can you cite some examples of each, and how you think the different protocol affected the performances on the final releases?
GL: For us it’s always been about what’s doing best for the song so we don’t follow one set principle on how to approach each recording. There are a few on the new album, songs like, “Long Way Down,” “Women And Whiskey,” and “Running on an Empty Heart,” that start out with a scratch track so we can track drums and then build on top of it from there. [On] other songs, like “Can’t Cheat The Hangman,” “That Ain’t No Kind of Livin’” and ””Don’t Look Back,” we tracked drums, bass and guitar live in the studio together and then overdubbed on top of those tracks. The main reason for doing it [this way] was to breathe some life into some of the songs where we really wanted to capture a live sound. Either way can work but it starts with knowing what kind of song you have and what you need for it to capture the best result.
JS: American Nomads’ studio has some nice Neve, Orban and Summit Audio preamps and equalizers, but do you also have outboard processing gear for modulation, delay and reverb, or do you use plugins?
GL: After working with Joe Vitale on our two singles, “Running On An Empty Heart” and “My American Dream” we were excited when we heard those mixes and we knew then [that] we wanted to keep working with him for the new album. From that moment, we knew we were only really going to be recording at our studio, and let Joe handle the mixing and mastering. The sound coming from our studio is a mixture of new and vintage instruments, amplifiers and the overall sound of the room.
George LaGrange engineering a recording session. Courtesy of American Nomads.
JS: In an era where anyone can now get the Abbey Road or Capitol Studios’ echo chamber sounds in a digital plug-in, what elements give American Nomads’ studio its signature sound?
GL: I would say the actual space itself. Our studio is in an old Brooklyn firehouse that one of the lead singers, Walter Kenul, owns. It dates back to the 1860s, so there are really unique qualities that it brings as far as natural acoustics to tracking. [There are] a few challenges as well with the walls being brick and reflective, but we’re so familiar with the space that we’ve been able to home in and fine tune most of that as we went about recording this new album.
JS: American Nomads is a large band with a wide diversity of cultural and musical backgrounds. Is the band completely self-contained, or does it also bring in other musicians and writers to collaborate with? For example, who played banjo and fiddle on “White Lightning?”
GL: One of the benefits of it being such a large band is everyone brings their own sensibility and musical taste to the table. That, on its own, can sometimes feel like a collaboration in itself. For the most part we are self-contained as we always feel like what we put out on record should be something we can perform live, but by no means [do we] shut the door on working with anyone. On that song, “White Lightning,” we were fortunate enough to work with the legendary David Mansfield, who has performed and recorded with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and T-Bone Burnett, among many others. David has played fiddle on a number of American Nomads songs. It was one of those situations where from the start, there wasn’t a set plan to collaborate or go outside the band, but when that opportunity came up, it was too good to pass on.
JS: As American Nomads contains a number of songwriters, (including Richard Humann, who doesn’t perform with the band), are the songs written with the band’s skill sets in mind? Or are the songs presented with an idealized sound and arrangement and American Nomads then enacts a band interpretation of the song to give it a signature twist? Or is every song treated on a case-by-case basis?
GL: On a case-by-case basis for sure. The reality is that the music of the songs are written either by Walter Kenul or myself. Richard Humann writes the majority of the lyrics for us. In previous albums, Dante DeLemos was a songwriting contributor. We've all been working with one another for a while now, so what seems to be our M.O. is that a songwriter will present it to the full band and we will work out musical arrangements together, as a group. That being Walter Kenul on Hammond B3 and keyboards, Susan Darmiento on vocals, myself on lead and rhythm guitars, Jay Rivera on bass, Joe Conoscenti on drums, Joseph Humann on harmonica and percussion, Andrew Friedman on pedal steel, and our newest member, Matt Schneider, on lead guitar and vocals.
I feel as a band, we already know what the band can do with it once a song is set into motion.
George LaGrange recording guitar tracks. Courtesy of American Nomads.
JS: American Nomads has worked with producers Stewart Lerman (Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, numerous film and TV soundtracks), Joe Vulpis (Lady Gaga, Dolly Parton), and more recently, with Joe Vitale. Can you recount how those collaborations came about, the kinds of sounds the band was seeking with those producers, and which songs exceeded expectations or created something totally unanticipated?
GL: American Nomads is made up of many veteran musicians and all of the producers that you mentioned have been long-time friends or contacts of the band. Each one has been unique and fulfilling to work with. Stewart Lerman produced a song we wrote and recorded for when we performed at the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival at Bethel Woods. The song is entitled “1969” and Stewart was able to capture the sounds of that era. In fact, he was so into it that he even laid-down a conga track himself.
Joe Vulpis has also been a long-time friend of the band and he produced A Revelation’s Gonna Come in 2016, which ended-up on the Billboard chart. Where working with Stewart is a more relaxed situation, Joe Vulpis is very intense, in a good way, high-energy, and [he] honed-down every instrument and sound to a concise product. Joe Vulpis also produced one of the songs on the new album, and it will be one of the first singles released. It’s called “Can’t Cheat The Hangman” and was recorded entirely at his studio in Windham, New York.
Working with Joe Vitale is also unique in that he is almost a mind reader with the band. He seems to know exactly what we’re looking for in each song, each sound that we want, one that is both grounded in musical history, but also captures the current sound of today. It’s the perfect mixture for American Nomads to have both of Joe Vitale’s approaches working as one.
JS: For your new upcoming album, how much of it was done with Joe Vitale in the same room as the band, and how much was done remotely with Vitale coordinating from the studio in Canton, Ohio? Are there sounds that Vitale was able to add that were unavailable in Brooklyn? What were some of the logistical and technical challenges that you had to overcome in order to arrive at the final master recordings? Were there any issues with using PreSonus Studio One as your DAW in Brooklyn when working remotely with Joe Vitale at the studio in Canton? Did you have to convert all of the digital files to .WAV or other format for mastering?
GL: The entire album was done with just the band here in Brooklyn. We tracked everything in our studio and from there sent it out to Joe Vitale in Ohio for mixing and mastering. It’s a pretty smooth way of doing things and Joe is always available by phone or e-mail if there are any issues or questions that come up. As far as issues, I have to say, surprisingly there were little to none. I track an entire song and I mix out the stems in .WAV format and then send them over to him and he’ll load it up in the Canton studio. Maybe once or twice we had a minor issue of something being slid out of time but that was easily correctable, so I feel we got pretty lucky on that front.
JS: You have previously worked in an engineering and producing capacity for Inika Mars, Sweet Marie and others. How did your engineering skills develop, and what led to you getting those gigs?
GL: I got into engineering and producing more out of necessity. At the time, around 2003 or so, home studios were a big hit so naturally as a songwriter and composer, learning and being able to record my own music and ideas were a must. There really wasn’t much of a choice. You saw the shift from musicians working together and writing in the same room, which I still feel is the best way to do it, to everyone kind of on their own recording their own songs and presenting them. Over time you learn more tricks of the trade, whether it’s through trial and error, picking up a book and reading about it, or just being fortunate to work with some really talented people, all of which has helped me develop as an engineer and producer.
JS: When wearing the engineering hat, how are you able to maintain your objectivity, since you are also the guitarist for American Nomads? What circumstances led you to become the engineer of record, versus hiring someone outside of the band?
GL: Way back in school, I took a class that focused on music media marketing, which kind of taught you how to take a step back and analyze music as a whole, so that kind of always stuck with me when it comes to engineering. Even though I'm a guitarist, I’ve always valued other instruments and how they all play a huge component into creating a song. Thankfully this is not the case of a guitar player sitting in the driver’s seat yelling, “more guitars!” With American Nomads, we were going through a change in our recording process and looking for ways to better it. We built our own studio in Brooklyn and were going through trials to see how it was all going to pan out for the new album. Once we found out a rhythm for what was going to work [we were] off and running. Hiring someone outside of the band didn’t really come up in conversation that much once we felt confident in how we were going to attack this album.
JS: What hi-fi equipment do you have for personal listening pleasure? How does it differ sound-wise from what you use in the studio?
GL: It’s been a long time since I’ve invested in hi-fi equipment for music to just listen to for enjoyment. When I was younger, I had stereo systems and such but I'm sure those are well outdated now. I tend to listen to music with headphones these days mainly due to its convenience of being on the go in the city. In the studio, you’re not always listening to everything as a whole all the time. You’re also going through the tracks and exploring different sounds in the mix, frequencies and looking to solve phasing issues, et cetera. It’s a whole different experience but one I enjoy.
JS: Where do you see American Nomads’ music and the industry in general heading? And, since vinyl sales outpaced CDs in 2022, is this a trend that you favor from an independent artist perspective?
GL: Well, I think streaming music isn’t going to go anywhere for a long while. It’s just too easy and accessible for many people to have all the music they could want in one streaming platform. That being said, there is still value in being able to purchase a vinyl record, being able to hold it in your hand and take in the artwork. It’s an experience. It can create more of a connection between the artist and the fan, which I still believe is important to many who love music.
For American Nomads, being able to have that connection for fans is something very important to us. It’s what motivates us and keeps us pushing forward to create music that resonates. We’re excited about this new album and the work we have put into it and we know that once people hear it they will see a band that keeps striving to get better. And in keeping with that thought, the new album will be released on vinyl as well as all other platforms. You can check out our website: www.AmericanNomadsBand.com for all information about our upcoming album and shows.
John Seetoo: As a world-famous percussionist who has played with many noted artists throughout your career, you recorded Roller Coaster Weekend, your first solo album, in the mid-1970s. Were Roller Coaster Weekend’s production ideas and songs stored from your earliest musical years or did they all come about in a rush of creativity after your initial experiences playing with Joe Walsh, Ted Nugent, and others?
Joe Vitale: As far as Roller Coaster Weekend (my first solo LP), I’ve always said that one's first album is the result of a lot of creative time…maybe years to put it together. After your first LP, you have to hustle to get a second one out. That’s the way it was way back then. A lot has changed since then as far as the demand for a second LP. Many artists and bands like the American Nomads record in their own studios with their own label and they decide when their next LP is to be recorded.
JS: Although you are from Canton, Ohio, you have become famous for your contributions to American folk-rock and country-rock artists like the Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Dan Fogelberg. This differs from fellow Ohioans like Chrissie Hynde and Dave Grohl who have displayed a preference for heavier rock. What were the musical aspects of artists like Joe Walsh, Stephen Stills and Dan Fogelberg that attracted you to their songs, and what do you think were the skills and sensibilities they saw in you to demand your multi-instrumental talents for their records and concerts?
Joe Walsh and Joe VItale. Courtesy of Jerry Schwartz.
JV: I grew up listening to the Beatles and Stones…the Beach Boys, Young Rascals, et cetera. I love [the] singer-songwriter’s art. I played and practiced every kind of music in the ’60s but still loved the songs by vocal bands. It was a great experience playing and creating with the bands I’ve worked with…some I still do.
JS: When producing and performing your own songs, do you have a system? For example, some people might play acoustic guitar to a click track first and then overdub the other instruments. Some might start with drums and bass. How do you approach recording when you are the sole musician?
JV: When recording my own music, I set up a drum machine pattern that is similar to what I will play on the live drum tracks…similar in feel and energy. Then I put down the piano track; next the live drums and percussion if needed. At that point you have a very basic track to dig into. Works for me…others might have a different approach but whatever gets you there is most important.
JS: As you are a veteran of large analog studio work, how did you navigate the changes in technology to maintain your cutting edge as a musician and producer? Are you a diehard analog person or do you embrace digital, and what, in your opinion, are the pros and cons of each format?
JV: I believe all of us older musicians that have recorded since the ’70s maintain a certain level of analog thinking. We all prefer using as much analog gear as possible [along] with the modern digital formats. It’s a great marriage. You get such warm and punchy sounds. Most of the big studios still use a ton of analog outboard gear with their digital recording programs. Having to edit tape with a razor and editing block back in the day, I really love and appreciate the ease of digital editing. That is one thing I would never go back to – way too stressful – we didn’t have an “Undo!”
JS: What were the circumstances that introduced you to American Nomads? How did you determine the working protocol you developed by using both their Brooklyn recording studio as well as the facility in Canton? What strengths or weaknesses did the protocol wind up providing for the final record?
JV: I find a lot of young up-and-coming artists are thinking the same way. That certainly is the right thing to do.
JS: If you were to work with American Nomads again in the future, what would you change from how you did the latest, upcoming record?
JV: As far as the next American Nomads album, I really wouldn’t change anything. We have a great chemistry and the same musical taste. One thing though, on my wish list is I’d like to get to New York and be in the same room when they record – like old school –but for now, the remote thing is working just fine.
Special thanks to Ken Franklin of RadioTV.com for his assistance in arranging these interviews.
Header image: (L to R) Jay Rivera, Joseph Humann, George LaGrange, Susan Darmiento, Walter Kenul, Matt Schneider, Andrew Friedman, and Joe Conoscenti. Photo courtesy of Richard Humann.