What Goes Into Making A 'Long Rider'? Andrew Stern Of 3 Pairs Of Boots On Becoming Americana
Andrew Stern and Laura Arias are gearing up for their second album release as 3 Pairs of Boots in January 2021, Long Rider. The themes of the album are inspired by the true story of Bernice Ende, the Lady Long Rider, who traveled alone over long distances by horseback in her later years. The sound of the new album, as well as those of their 2019 release, Down South, draw on a mixture of genres that can safely be called "Americana" but also show a real taste for elements of Rock and Country Rock as well as more experimental veins.
Andrew Stern recently made an appearance on our Tower Instagram Live show, which you can still catch here, to talk about 3 Pairs of Boots singles "Everywhere I Go" and "Summer of Love", but Laura Arias kindly joined him for a special performance at the end! Andrew Stern also spoke with Tower's PULSE! about how he picked up the skills to record and Produce Long Rider, where his musical inclinations come from (including a stint working for Tower Records!), and how songwriting works for he and Laura Arias.
Hannah Means-Shannon: How did you record the new album? Did you undertake all that work at home?
Andrew Stern: I know how to engineer, record, and make records. We don’t actually mix the albums. I have several friends down in LA who are talented engineers who do the mixing. I’ll do all the recording, all the steps up to the final putting it all together. I could do an okay job at that, but they are the professionals. One of our friends who does that is Grammy-nominated for working with Pop stars like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Selena Gomez. He’s a vocal mix guy.
HMS: How did you pick up all those skills for recording and Producing? Was it always from your own work, or did you Produce other peoples’ albums?
AS: Mostly my own, though I’ve had a studio in my house for many, many years. I started with a 4-track tape recorder, then an 8-track. I now have a mondo, monster Mac work-station in the studio. Initially, when I first started playing, I played in bands all the time. When I morphed into a songwriter, that’s when I knew I had to have a studio and I had to be able to Produce work.
I would still go into recording studios when I was in bands to record albums, even though I had a studio at home, up until about ten years ago. Then I felt like I didn’t need to go to recording studios anymore. The software had gotten good enough and I felt that I had gotten good enough to do it at home.
But ProTools is not easy to learn! And when I first got it, I was really not making much progress, until I did a project together with a friend, Happy Sanchez. He asked Laura and I to get together with him and do a French Pop record, with lyrics half in French and half in English. The key element there was that Happy knew ProTools in and out, and I just sat there and watched him for two or three weeks. Then I was ready to take over. It worked great. I learned so much in that three weeks. That was about ten years ago.
HMS: I was actually going to ask you if there was a moment you could share where you learned something that ended up being incredibly useful to you as a musician. That sounds like one of those moments! It put the power in your own hands.
AS: There was that. Then, there was a time when we morphed from doing the French music, to doing a Pop album, to doing some dance music. The dance music required me to really be an engineer and learn how to use SoftSense. That was another big transition for me, really learning how to use the studio in a better way. With dance music, it was all about using loops. I didn’t particularly care for it, though it was very compositional for me.
With the dance music, we ended up writing songs for placements, looking to license. But that’s when I saw a placement ad for some Americana music for a TV show. I thought we’d try that, and when we did it, there was lots of guitar, and that’s when the lightbulb went off for both Laura and I. We realized we liked Americana way better and felt that we could do it way better. It led to us making our first album, which came out last summer. Now we’re totally hooked.
We’re not a Country act, but we really are a mishmash of Country, Rock, and Folk all pushed together. I realized that in growing up and listening to artists earlier on, I was headed in this direction the whole time. It was Poco and Dusty Springfield, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Byrds. All of that had contributed. I was into the English guitar players, too, growing up, like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Jimmy Page.
HMS: Yes, all of that is awesome!
AS: It was those guys alongside these Country Rock influences, like Grant Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Now we’re a mix of all that, whether Shania Twain, Emmylou Harris, or The Cocteau Twins, and The Smiths. When I’m writing songs, I’m looking for a certain kind of Expressionism, with some traditional aspects, but also twists and suspense in things you don’t expect.
HMS: Does it take a lot of experimentation to get what you’re going for in songwriting?
AS: Songwriting takes a lot of work. For both Gone South and Long Rider, there are 10 or 12 songs on each record, but we probably wrote twenty or thirty songs to get to the ten that we loved.
HMS: Wow, that is a lot of songwriting!
Do you think that there was a period in Rock where things were more experimental and fusion-based and that things then became more stratified?
AS: I’m still working with some traditional elements. I think that in the last half of the 60s, there was an explosion of experimentation, throwing Rock, Blues, and Jazz, all together. I grew up in San Francisco, and if you look at the shows they were holding, you can see this. I didn’t get to go to very many of them but earlier on, Bill Graham would be putting on shows with Miles Davis and The Grateful Dead.
HMS: Oh, yes, I’ve heard of those shows. It’s amazing. Did you get to go to any shows like that?
AS: I did. I snuck out of the house when I was really young. I actually have Tower Records stories, too. In between high school and college, I took two years off and I worked at Tower Records, in San Francisco at Bay & Columbus.
HMS: Wow, amazing!
AS: I quickly became the “Tape Manager” since they had a separate tape section and no one else wanted to do it. We were selling 8-tracks and cassettes. At that time, Tower Records had buyers in each store and the record labels would send out sales reps to each store. We had a Jazz buyer, a Rock buyer. When I got to Tower, I was a Rock ‘n Roll guitarist, and that’s all I wanted to do, but because I was the Tape Manager, I had to order everything, from Country to Rock to Jazz. I learned so much in those two years. I fell in love with Jazz. Then I went back to college and studied classical guitar. I played in Jazz bands. It totally expanded my mind. It was literally an education.
HMS: That is beautiful!
AS: They had such a unique perspective as a record store, “We’re going to carry everything.” Nobody did that. I have so many fond memories and I did so much better in college because of it, too.
HMS: Music is a great network for learning about culture and history, generally. If you have a framework, you learn more easily, and music can be that. I should have asked you right away about Tower Records since I knew you were from San Francisco. A lot of people have told me that music is their way of experiencing culture and society. There’s a lot to be said for that.
AS: It does give you so much of a framework. I’m very interested by the new Bob Dylan record, and the song that he wrote about JFK. The musical, historical perspective is in there, like quotes about Tommy and the Acid Queen. It’s an incredible piece of songwriting. With my songwriting, I’ve always done it, but I’ve really ramped up on it in recent years.
HMS: You mentioned having written so many songs and selecting only some of them. What has to be there for you to decide that a song makes it onto the album versus those that don’t?
AS: It’s actually a pretty easy answer for 3 Pairs of Boots. Laura is also a songwriter, though she’s not as prolific as I am. She is our in-house A&R person. I’ll write songs and when I play her a song, I’ve got a minute and a half or two minutes to impress her. She will decide, right there and then, yes or no. On this album, the first she turned a song down, she said, “There are good parts to it, but it doesn’t grab me.” Or she might say, “I don’t want to sing that.”
HMS: That’s a big one. I can definitely see her making a decision like that.
AS: I really try to write for her voice. But she’s also said, “If I say ‘no’ and you really love the song, then you have to fight for it.” So if she turns down a song, she says, “Do you love the song?” And usually, I couldn’t say that I really love the song she’s turning down. Some songs are more complete than others or I know what I want to say but can’t quite get it right. She’s really helpful. When we’re working on things, we’re changing lyrics, even while we’re tracking the song, trying to make things fit better.
Sometimes I’ll write songs that are little more like talky, Bob Dylan songs. And she says, “I get it, but that’s just not me. I can’t sing that way.” Or sometimes I write more mainstream Blake Shelton kind of songs, and she just says, “No. I can’t do that mainstream stuff.” She then says, “When you get a publisher in Nashville, you can go and sell them.”
HMS: I was about to say to you that you can take all these songs that aren’t quite right for 3 Pairs of Boots and give them to someone else.
AS: I would love to do that and be a songwriter and also do 3 Pairs of Boots. Laura really needs to be able to feel the songs and identify with them. Lyrically, I really try to put myself in her shoes and write things that she will be able to sing well.
HMS: Do you ever have a moment where you have a vision for a vocal for her that you feel like you know she can do, but she’s not so sure? And you have to get her to try it?
AS: Yes, absolutely. Singers are so much more vulnerable than other musicians, I think. I’ve got this big piece of metal and wood that I can hide behind as a guitarist, but singers are just out there. Sometimes singers don’t have as much confidence as they need or should have. As a Producer, I really have to encourage her and get her out of her wheelhouse to try things. But I also have to be flexible and shift quickly if it doesn’t work out and think of an alternative.
But most of a song that we’re putting into demo usually works without a lot of cajoling.
HMS: Does she ever suggest that you should do something differently that surprises you?
AS: Oh yes. There was a song that my sister-in-law, who is a DJ, gave me a line for, and I wrote it down and tracked it. Laura didn’t like it. A year or two later, for the next record we’re working on, I really liked the hook, so I went back to it. Then I wrote another subject matter for it instead. Laura liked it, but she didn’t quite like the chorus. She said, “I’m hearing this.” Then she sang the melody line for the chorus to me. I put chords to it. It worked really well. I never would have thought of that in a million years. We think really differently. She’s a natural. It’s about feel.
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