Fading Trails - Magnolia Electric Co.
Released 13 years ago today, ‘Fading Trails’ is a collection of recordings from a number of sessions from Molina & company - Originating from sessions with Steve Albini at his Electric Audio Studio, David Lowery at his Sound of Music Studio, and at the famous Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee and the home recordings of the Shohola sessions, ‘Fading Trails’ perfectly captured the vast, varied and prolific world of Jason Molina.
To mark the 13th anniversary of it’s release, Magnolia Electric Co’s Pete Schreiner has shared his memories of the sessions at Memphis’ Sun Studio, as well as some personal pictures of that time.
Sun Session - Pete Schreiner
“The knife is on the floor,” Molina said, cryptically signalling it was time to do a take. Soon there were two open knives on the floor. We never had hard rules about recording but there was a certain way that Molina liked to work. While blades weren’t always involved, it was normal for him to run roughshod over completely established recording “rules” in an effort to do a song justice and at this session we even broke some of our own.
Jason Molina, Jason Evans Groth, Mikey Kapinus, Mark Rice and I, walked humbly into Sun Studio on March 12, 2006, and we could tell right away that what you played is what you got. The spartan room is hallowed for the musical magic that happened inside it, and not its purposeful acoustic design elements.
We had played the Hi-Tone, a favorite Midtown Memphis club the previous day, so adding on a Sun Studio session made sense geographically. What broke the first soft-rule of recording was doing so on the second day of a tour. The standard plan would be to bring Molina’s new songs on the road, work the arrangements into tightness on stage for a month, then record at the end of the trip. We would, however, occasionally book recording time on the road to get something done quickly or if an interesting opportunity came along. Our 2005 album Trials and Errors had come out of a serendipitously-recorded live set so we were basically ready for any scenario.
The band had been in Memphis just six months before and would return six months later. Today it was the first stop on the first tour of the year, following Jason’s February residency at Schuba’s in Chicago. How the Sun session was arranged is still sort of a black box to me. Memphis friends helped get it going although anyone could book time at Sun Studio. Recording at Sun starts at 5pm daily, after the tours are done. I presume we spent the day visiting guitar and record shops and eating barbecue, which would only be possible on a tour day with no driving.
As mentioned above, the studio is a simple room. It has square walls, ie. no visible wall geometry designed for audio clarity, and no real acoustic wall treatments. The 1950s era ceiling tile would add some absorption although it was probably just the standard material at the time.
Though the room is mundane its magic lives on. There were some old amps for us to use and Mark drummed on a house set of Ludwig’s. It felt right to play my 1968 Telecaster bass that I’d purchased in Memphis on a previous tour. There wasn’t much separation of amps or drums in the room so each player’s sound would bleed into the others’ microphones. That’s not a problem so long as you play correctly and don’t need to fix mistakes by punching-in. It also works best if everyone keeps their volume down, which was difficult for our rock-deafened group. We eventually dialled in a nice balance and rolled through the songs, picking notes gingerly and taking cues from one another.
There’s really no wrong way to record, as long as the artist is achieving the sound they desire. For us that meant doing live takes, and keeping the ones which overall, despite minor sonic imperfections, captured a song’s essence to Molina’s enigmatic standards. That’s how we approached it at this session too while breaking three of our normal practices. First, Jason usually strove to record on analog tape but we were recording digitally. I don’t think there was an in-house tape machine so it was an easy decision. Second, there are headphones in the session photos, whereas typically Jason didn’t like singing with cans on and when possible we would opt to simply hear him live in the room. Third and most surprising is that Jason allowed slap-back reverb on his vocals, which I can only credit to the studio’s charm and history because that sort of thing was usually censured.
We tracked four songs at Sun. The two that appear on Fading Trails, “Memphis Moon” and “Talk to Me Devil, Again” were new tunes from what I remember - we would have learned them at soundcheck the day before. When I listen to the tracks I hear them as new or seeming new. Jason would often switch up his guitar tuning or the key a song was in, sometimes to accommodate a vocal range. That made songs feel new even if they were previously-played. One way or another the songs feel fresh and Molina’s voice sounds woody, clear, and confident; refreshed from a few months off the road and whetted by the acoustic shows over the winter.
The additional two songs were definitely not new but got a fresh spin. Our group of players had performed “Hold On Magnolia” countless times on stage but had not recorded the version released on the Magnolia Electric Co. album. Here we had a chance at it and got a nice sweet take. “Trouble in Mind” was one of the occasional cover songs that would come out on tour. Covers were ephemeral and wouldn’t necessarily ever get a studio treatment, so this arrangement of one of Jason’s favorite tunes is a gift.
The Sun Session is by far the shortest disc of the Sojourner set. Still in many ways it captures the spirit of the Magnolia band the best—flipping the switch from club mode to studio mode and making music that was unique to the time and place the band was at. Molina’s timeless songs were a perfect match for the classic Sun Studio and it was a really special session for Jason and the band. Afterward we folded the knives, packed the van, and proceeded on down the road. Mixing would be done later in Chicago and I may not have heard the final songs until they came out in the Sojourner box, which was itself a surprise, and a story for another day.