Not Your Average Cover Song: Ain't No Rest For The Wicked by Philip James
This blog is a personal account of the recording and production of Ain't No Rest For The Wicked a cover song set to release at the end of this month on 07/31/2020.
It all started about a year ago. I was running late to one of my classes, sitting at a traffic light, drumming on my steering wheel, when the song Ain't No Rest For The Wicked by Cage The Elephant came on the radio. I listened to the twangy slide guitar rumble, sang idly along with the chorus, and tapped my toe to the rhythm, when suddenly it hit me. I should totally cover this song! Every one knows it, people love it, the lyrics are juicy, and it is damn fun to play. So I rolled my sleeves up, and started to reverse engineer the song. I wanted to honor the original composition, but add just enough of my personal touch to make the cover uniquely my own.
This song is musically articulate and took quite a bit of time to get right. For starters, the guitar is set to "Open G" tuning. Prior to this, I had never played in open G before, so naturally it took some getting used to. I've also never played with a slide. I had heard stories of old-time blues musicians using make-shift slides out of glass bottles, but never actually tried one on for size. It was a little awkward playing in a brand-new tuning with a slide on my fret hand completely taking up my ring finger. However, once the water was warm enough, I was able to hop right in and start jamming.
I wanted the guitar tone to be slightly overdriven with a vintage "tube style" sound and just enough distortion to make it punchy & fun. The original song is played acoustically so I thought a more raw, hard-rock version was in order. The guitar track for this tune was recorded right in my home studio. I took a standard SM-57 mic, and positioned it just right, to capture the authentic and vintage tone of my 1962 Fender Showman Amplifier. After a few runs with my Stratocaster electric guitar, I was able to nail the sound I was looking for. I recorded the guitar solo in just one take, composed a new section for the woodwinds to have at it, and even added an outro section to really beef up the song. Now that I had the framework ready, it was time to reach out to some friends and get some more instruments involved.
The vocals, percussion, and bass guitar was recorded with my good friend and producer Jeremy Miller in his home studio over the course of three months, a few cold beers, and some damn good times. Jeremy is the hometown hero for all things related to home studio recording, and a guru for sound during live events. He's had success with multiple bands and has plenty of experience touring across the country. He can rip a legendary keyboard solo out of thin air with one hand, while drinking Jameson out of the other. It is very impressive.
First I took some time to really find my voice in this tune. I laid down a scratch track at home to get a good idea of where we wanted to take this thing vocally. By the time I took this over to Jeremy's, I had rehearsed it about 100 times, and was ready to deliver the meanest performance humanly possible. I wanted to take this song to the next level by really pushing some vocal grit. I thought it would be best to emphasize the lyrics by catapulting them over to listeners with my vocal style. The end result wound up being better than I ever could have expected. I'm most happy with the fact that my vocals pay homage to Matt Shultz the original singer for Cage The Elephant's version of the song. I did not want this newer rendition to be completely different than the original, because I hold the authentic track so close to my heart.
There are 2 percussionists in this song. The first is a local Latin percussionist named Juan Sanchez who added some profound flavor to the mix. We primarily recorded conga, but it is worth mentioning we toyed around with bongos, djembe, maracas, and tambourine. You can primarily hear the latin percussion in the intro & outro, but if you listen close enough, it is present throughout the entire song.
The second percussionist is my good friend and local San Diego musician, Chris Thiel. The rock drums complimented the latin percussion perfectly. I wanted to add some grizzly, punk-rock style drums, to really drive the composition forward. Chris did an amazing job by adding his own touch to the mix. He brings the song to listeners with an "in your face" kind of approach that's almost impossible not to appreciate. I personally wouldn't have it any other way. With the drums kicking it was looking like we were finally in business for the rest of the crew.
The bass guitar was performed by TJ Moss from the renowned San Diego trio The Mojo Jackson Band. TJ is an incredible session musician. I've had the privilege of working with him on my debut solo EP, Music As Addiction. One of the many reasons I love working with TJ, is because of his unmatched efficiency. He rolled up to Jeremy's, plugged in his gear, recorded 2 takes, packed his gear, shared a beer, and left. The whole process took about 45 minutes. His work 100% speaks for itself. The bass rumbles and really kicks off the song with its hanging introduction along side the conga. It also really glues the guitar to the rest of the piece in a musically cohesive manner. No complaints in the bass department for this track, it is a thumper.
Tenor & Baritone Saxophone
Now is the part where the big brass comes in. Make room for the dynamic duo: Chris Guarino & Ryan Youmans. These guys are like the special-forces of muscianmanship, not to mention they both played music for the US Army. From the very start of this recording I wanted to add saxophone to this song. Nothing else seemed like a better fit for what we were trying to accomplish. When I sent them over the recordings we had together, I made it clear that there was a 1 minute-long break right in the climax of the mix, where we wanted a tenor and bari sax battle to take place. I must say we were not disappointed. The clash of the woodwind titans really completes the track. Once we closed the book on recordings that night, the last steps were in order for launch.
3... 2... 1... LIFT OFF
After months of recording the arrangement, scheduling studio sessions, mixing, mastering, and working out the fine print, I am pleased to announce that this release is right around the corner. The track was mastered by Grammy-Winning Producer Alan Sanderson right here in Pacific Beach, San Diego. After that I used my graphic design skills to put together a thumbnail image. I used a photo from Netherland photographer Sebastiaan Stan, and put together a release video using some visual effects from Final Cut Pro X. These last 3 weeks I have been nonstop applying to playlists, radio networks, and influencers to help spread the word. This would be my very first time working up to a pre-release, since I did not market my initial EP, Music As Addiction.
With all that being said, it has been a crazy and fun time getting this thing recorded. Our version of Ain't No Rest For The Wicked has a hard rock feel to it, with Jazzy baritone & tenor sax solos, Latin conga, & some bleeding Blues undertones you're sure to appreciate. We infused this song culturally, with multiple different musical elements, from several different styles. This song was chosen to be released now, because of current events regarding inequalities and discrimination within U.S. society. Lyrically it speaks of the corrupt institutions plaguing our civilization. I personally support the idea that music harbors no prejudice, and choose to represent that symbolically with this release.
Thanks for listening! Be sure to check out the song on all major platforms. You can Pre-Save this track to your favorite streaming platform by following the link below: