Salim Nourallah's Hit Parade, recorded in Austin with the Treefort 5, is another collection of '60s pop musings from the longtime Dallas producer and musician. John Singer Sergeant, Deathray Davies singer/Apples in Stereo drummer John Dufilho's latest album, took a concept approach. He wrote the music and did the arrangements, while artists such as Ben Kweller, Will Johnson, Sir Earl Toon (Kool & the Gang) and, yes, Salim Nourallah, contributed vocals to different tracks. Since both albums came out this week, we cut out the middle man and asked them to interview each other via email.
John Dufilho: When did you find time to write the 40-plus songs you brought in for this record?
Salim Nourallah: The songwriting pretty much happened in the gaps of my life; quickly scribbling things down on scraps of paper or napkins in restaurants or singing ideas into answering machines while driving so I wouldn't forget them. I seemed to always be on the move whenever ideas for the songs were coming in because I don't have any quiet, peaceful writing time anymore. Now that I think about it, when we came in to record I considered most of the songs unfinished, so during tracking I was still writing words, changing structures, writing bridges, etc. An example of this is the song I wrote for my daughter, called "Miette." It has different words in each version. The title track, "Hit Parade," was actually at the very bottom of the sprawling song list I came to the studio with. I wasn't even planning on recording it because the words were an unedited mess.
JD: Do you have a favorite lyric on the record?
SN: "I'm in a jungle fight, scrapping with the creditors who fund my life."
JD: Who would win in a fight: Salim Nourallah and the Treefort 5 or Modest Mouse?
SN: The Treefort 5 would definitely win because Richard Martin owns an automatic weapon and I know kung-fu.
JD: Are you a "warrior of love"? Do people realize that you're being funny?
SN: I'm not sure about the warrior part but I like love a lot and seem to be unable to give up easily. We'd have to poll the people on whether or not they got the humor in this song. I'd like to think most of them could tell it was a bit tongue-in-cheek by the campy vocal delivery and ridiculous words (my homage to Pat Benatar, "If love is a battlefield then our hearts are machine guns ..."). Sometimes it seems like you almost have to hit someone over the head with a frying pan in order for them to get your intent.
JD: What's the best thing about being a musician in 2012?
SN: We're reaping the fruits of a revolution of sorts that's taken place over the last 12 years. Pledge drives have replaced squandering your life away waiting for a record label and a fishy A&R guy to give you a record deal. The Internet allows us to reach people all over the world with our music, whether or not we're on Sony. It's easier to get gigs and spread the word too. You don't need a $100,000 mixing console and a $75,000 multi-track tape machine to make great recordings. All the way around, it's way better than it was before. Not to say that it couldn't get even better because it's still a really hard row to hoe. I also don't think any of these things necessarily apply to musicians like Madonna, Bieber or Lady Gaga, so maybe your question should've been, "What's the best thing about being an indie musician in 2012?"
JD: Did you think at 18 you'd still be doing it now?
SN: Of course I did. I was ridiculously naive and full of delusional, arrogant dreams. I never questioned that I wouldn't be doing it. Foolish bravado ...
JD: "Everybody Knows." Care to comment?
SN: This one barely made the record because I don't believe in perpetuating bad vibes. There's something to be said, though, for angry rock songs and recording this was a cathartic moment. I also would've gotten in trouble with the rest of the band if I'd left it off the record. It's actually my least favorite track on "Hit Parade," although I love the band performances, especially Jason Garner's Keith Moon-on-steroids drumming. He made this track explode almost single-handedly.
JD: Do you have a favorite moment or story from the recording?
SN: I'd already mentioned the song "Hit Parade" was unfinished. I had something like 10 verses and no idea how to reign it in or structure it. It was completely disheveled. So it was living at the very back of this song notebook I'd brought to Austin with me. We were getting ready to work on another song I'd just called out to the band when, on a whim, I flipped to the very back of this notebook to "Hit Parade."
I started playing it while everyone looked at me with bewilderment. They all quickly fell in and it sounded really good right away. About three takes later we had what ended up being the final version of it, mixed and finished, exactly the way it appears on the record. I used the "rough" mix we'd thrown down right then and there because it had a rawness to it that disappeared months later when we went back to properly mix it. Random pay dirt recording experiences like this one are one of the many things I love about playing music.
SN: How did the idea for John Singer Sergeant's revolving cast of lead singers come about?
JD: Names in a hat. I don't actually know any of these people. Really, I don't consider myself a singer. I write songs, I play a few instruments. I love recording. I could lock myself up in a studio, not come out for months, and be happy. I've made friends along the way. Fortunately, I've discovered most musicians are really generous, and it's amazing what people will do if you just ask. This applies to most things in life. I've written a lot of songs: Some I think are great, some of them are not. I was curious: What would they sound like with friends of mine singing them? Would anyone want to? Do I have any business playing and recording instruments that I really don't know how to play? Do I care? The answers, so far, are: good, yes, yes and no.
SN: Were any of the songs ones you considered singing yourself?
JD: No. I don't hate my voice, but we're not on good terms. I wanted this record to be something I could listen to.
SN: What ended up being the single most challenging thing about making this record?
JD: All the phone calls.
SN: How long did it take you to complete it?
JD: About three weeks, spread out over seven years.
SN: What ended up being the most satisfying thing about making this record?
JD: In order: Getting to spend some time with friends, recording and hearing how each song would change. Playing the harmony bass that Andy Lester lent me. Playing the omnichord that Marcus Striplin lent me. Hearing Tami [Thomsen] from Kirtland [Records] tell me they'd press vinyl.
SN: Is there anything you'd like to see the JSS record do now that it's finally being released?
JD: Yes, I'd like this recording to be the entire soundtrack for the next Coen brothers film. Can you help me make that happen?
SN: I wish I could. How 'bout you hook me up with Wes Anderson and I'll get you the Coen brothers?
SN: Do you think you'll ever make another record like this one?
JD: That depends on what Willie Nelson, Stephin Merritt, Robert Pollard, Keigo Oyamada and a few others have on their calendars. They're all old guys like me, they couldn't be that busy. Actually, I think I'd like to change the idea. Maybe guest drummers? John Drummer Sergeant?