When I was a kid I had dreams of being in a band and going into the studio and recording “my Pet Sounds.” I’d be at the control room, we’d spend weeks and months writing, arranging, producing, mixing…the whole nine yards.
Then I started to realize just how damn expensive it is…to say nothing of how difficult the process is! There’s a reason why Brian Wilson is considered a once-in-a-lifetime genius and the rest of us are, well, just the rest of us.
My first brush with recording was a 4-track tascam and a Shure SM-57. My friend Dave and I bought it a music store and went straight to his house (stopped for a six pack) and set about the business of recording, maybe not Pet Sounds, but certainly Please Please Me.
My god…what a tedious process. I hated the sound of my own voice. I still do. I hated the sound of my guitar…and jeez…every little mistake captured and magnified right there on that tape.
My perception and expectations have changed a lot over the last 30 years. Now…with technology changing as much as it has, my not being in a band anymore and generally writing in isolation within the Cathedral, I don’t really have this notion of recording “my Pet Sounds” in quite the same way.
The biggest thing I enjoy about recording now is the immediacy of it. I can write a song and have a recording in just a couple hours. I can walk into the Cathedral and within a few button pushes, have that red light flashing and lay down tracks. They’re like polaroids…
I see my recordings as a snapshot of the moment…the emotion I felt right then as I played the songs. The mistakes, while massive, don’t matter to me as much. Maybe I’m not a perfectionist and I’m just making excuses for my laziness but I don’t think so. I record something and I hesitate to mess with it because those mistakes are honest. The crack in my voice, or the overly aggressive attack of a particular note…that’s who I am in that moment so I tend to only fix real mistakes and bad performances.
Tech these days allows you to do anything…to hit perfection. Fix things on such a microscopic level that going down that rabbit hole can result in never returning.
I fight that urge sometimes but I think I’ve found a good balance.
I try to record everything in one take. I don’t “punch in and out” if I miss a note. If I do and I’m not happy with it, then I start back at the beginning.
When I’m recording guitar I’m actually playing guitar. I don’t use MIDI. Same with bass…drums and keys I use MIDI instruments but the drums are an actual drum set with a MIDI-USB out. There’s no way I could sit there and click each drum beat one at a time. It doesn’t FEEL like I’m playing drums.
I have tattoos on both of my arms. One says “Analog/Mono” and the other says “Digital/Stereo.” I think that’s as good a representation of my entire life as i can come up with. I enjoy technology and everything it affords but I don’t want to lose that organic spirit or aesthetic that I believe is so very essential for all of us in life.
Anyway…here’s a link to a couple demos I threw together a while back…same song but one is acoustic and the other is “band.” In both cases I’m the only performer.
Let’s chat with…David Latchaw of www.unbrokenstring.com
Tell us a little about what brought you into the world of guitar and amp repair. How long have you been doing it? How does it feel to have a schmancy name like “luthier?”
My entre’ was entirely supernatural. My mother raised her children to play keyboard, band, and stringed instruments. She passed away a few years ago. Shortly after that, a very close friend, and leader of our Bible study where I work, lost her struggle with cancer. Within a month, friends and co-workers (whom I had no idea were musicians) approached me EVERY DAY with music-related questions and inquiries about getting their stuff fixed (and one of them dared to call me a “luthier.”) I did what I could to support them, and I am now powerless to stop.
Your site is easily one of the most fascinating gear pages I’ve seen. What gave you the idea of sharing your projects with such detailed photos and blow-by-blow breakdown of the work involved?
The initial motivation was to differentiate myself from poseurs and braggarts who ‘talk the talk’ of fixing musical instruments and electronic equipment, but who do not ‘walk the walk;’ The Web site was to clearly demonstrate that I could perform the work as described – “Don’t believe me, just watch!”
The second motivation was to enable me to shamelessly promote the business in a New Media space in such a way that would easily integrate into such online platforms as Facebook and Reddit using pictures and video, without any duplication of effort. By managing content to one place I could easily enter other media spaces using a single HTML link.
What’s your advice for anyone interested in buying a used guitar or amp? What should they look for, what should they stay away from?
That said, the choice of the rest of the gear is a different matter. Cruise Craigslist or pawn shops for a pre-owned amp. Musicians are always upgrading their gear, so buying something used, particularly older gear, is a good value. Avoid the ‘Made in China’ stuff. And if your ‘find’ doesn’t work, you KNOW who to call.
What’s the best way for someone to learn how to maintain their instrument or amplifier? What are some basic things everyone should know in order to get the most longevity and satisfaction out of their gear?
Owners’ manuals are available for almost everything. Read the section of the manual that discusses ‘Care and Maintenance’ two or three times.
Wash your hands before playing, and wipe off your instrument afterwards.
Go to the car parts store and purchase some electrical contact cleaner. Wipe down your cable connectors and jacks with a little contact cleaner from time to time. Don’t use WD40 because it leaves an organic film of fish oil on everything.
Don’t smoke around your gear because it leaves a film of nicotinic acid on everything.
Use modern transient suppression equipment for AC line powered equipment. I offer these: http://www.smartpowersystems.com/ which protects against arc flash transients per IEC2014 as well as more traditional electrical power surges. I have seen an entire stage-worth’s of gear wiped out in an instant, due to old AC wiring in a venue. Protect yourself.
When should someone call in a pro like yourself?
The time to call a pro is the time you realize your stuff has been in someone else’s shop for a year without being fixed.
Your site features a ton of unique, often “off-brand” and vintage gear. What do you think about the new stuff being made today? Who is making gear that really impresses you right now?
You won’t find much mass-produced electronic equipment from China on my blog, because it is designed and built to be sold and sent to the landfill, and not repaired.
I’m a huge Peavey fan, mainly because of the robust support ecosystem, availability of spare parts and factory phone support right here in the U.S.A. Yeah, Peavey is the stuff our parents gave us when we were in high school, but it works surprisingly well. I love to work on it.
Houston is a strange place in my opinion. One of the largest cities in the country but it is very much a mid-level market in a lot of ways. Places like Austin, Seattle, even a place like Athens Georgia…all are viewed as better “scenes” than Houston by many people. Yet, Houston can call some incredible musicians as its sons and daughters – ZZ Top, Kings X, Clint Black, the Geto Boys, Destiny’s Child, Robert Earl Keen, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers, BJ Thomas, Ezra Charles, Lightning Hopkins.
That’s not a bad list!
So…here are the questions: Despite this amazing history, why does Houston lack a “thriving music scene?”
People come to Houston to work and make money. The objective of making money is sometimes at best agnostic with respect to the arts, and at worst, at cross-purposes.
What makes a “scene” great?
A great scene is the result of a functional ecosystem of creators, facilitators, and consumers, who interact in such a way so that everyone benefits.
As someone who works with some of the best players around town, what do you think of the Houston music scene and the musicians, venues, retailers, services providers (such as yourself) who comprise it?
It’s very fragmented. Part of that is geographic, due to Houston’s urban sprawl. If we look at venues, where is Houston’s version of Austin’s 6th Street? Washington Avenue? Maybe… or Downtown. Kemah. FM1960. Mid-town. Pasadena. You choose.
Culture fragments the scene. Houston has an awesome rap scene and Tejano music scene, but, much to the chagrin of this Child of the Sixties, we, as a society, have made Negative Progress in unifying the cultures in the American melting pot. The walls between us are higher than I’ve ever seen them…
Another source of fragmentation is the near-extinction of local music stores. God Bless the local music stores that have weathered the enormous music market consolidation that occurred throughout the whole Internet/MARS/GC ordeal. Visiting with the owners of these local stores, it’s my opinion that they are in ‘siege mode’ after decades of competing with the national chains and online retailers.
And don’t get me started on the venue business models. OK, I get it; Exploiting musicians to sell alcohol is one thing. But having the bands promote the venue they don’t own, sell the tickets and give all the proceeds to someone else, then scheduled for some free exposure based on how many of their friends they bring, is enormously cynical. What’s next? Maybe the bands could clean the bathrooms and fix the AC at their own expense. Venue management needs a paradigm change and, in some cases, a regime change.
In response, the musician retreats into their bedroom, with an Internet connection, a good mic, and DI box to create their art, isolated from the rest of the world. Technology empowers the individual, but fragments the scene.
What role does each individual player, venue etc play in ensuring a city has a thriving music (and artistic in general) community?
We need to maximize our gifts (musical talent, performance skill, technical chops, business acumen, etc.) through practice and performance, to be as good as we can be, to maximize the opportunity for success. And we owe it to our audiences and customers to NOT suck.
We need to decide to have a little humility and consider how we can be of service to those of us in the community… just as you are doing with Cathedral Records.
A careful balance between the determination to be successful and the humility necessary to serve others is enormously difficult. This difficulty is compounded in our society where we celebrate the Bono-class egos that dominate the music business. But, if we were to take ourselves down a notch and work a little bit toward the common good, the music community will more likely thrive.
The alternative is, we all doggedly work towards our own individual self-interests, and nothing changes.
Alright…word association…what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
Gibson – my first real guitar
Paul Reed Smith – Carlos Santana
Stratocaster – Jeff Beck
Twin Reverb – Fender combo
Stack – Slash
Jim Marshall – Lord of Loud, RIP
Finally…last question, and you know I have to ask:
Ronnie Main – husband, father, guitarist, retail mogul!
So tell me…are you really Scottish or is it something you do to pick up chicks?
Ha, the accent is totally legit. I’ve had it for quite some time. It only works over here in the states, it worked on my missus.
You have an interesting story. Tell me a little bit about how you came to Houston from Scotland, how you met your wife.
Great story, if you ask me. We actually met in an MSN chat room for alternative music (back when that was cool). I didn’t know anyone with the name “Renee” and I decided to talk to her. Several back and forth messages, emails, care packages etc over time and I pestered her into loving me. I decided to move here once we got married because she was still in school.
Once you arrived in Houston, what was and is your impression of the local music scene? Do you feel it has changed at all since then? If so, how?
In all honesty, I wasn’t fully in the scene when I arrived. It wasn’t until after I started working at Guitar Center that I began to get more involved and more so once I joined a band. There’s a huge array of talent here and different styles/genres of music to choose from. If you’re into something you can definitely find it in Houston. As a musician it’s tough to break through in any city and Houston is no different. However there are some great avenues. It’s definitely grown over the years with the introduction to social media but, the musician is still definitely underappreciated and underpaid for the efforts put forth.
Tell me about your musical projects? How did you go about meeting musicians after arriving in Houston?
I tried the site like houstonbands.net at first and met with a few folks but none of them every really panned out…just never clicked and as you know chemistry is a huge part. I did eventually get together with a few folks and it first happened a GC. I was playing something i write and a Patrick (my drummer) overheard and we got to talking. I honestly blew him off for a few months until I saw him again while eating dinner. We met up at GC again and I played him a few things then we set up a jam with a few of his friends. That jam later turned into Raging Apathy. I’ve played with 3 bass players, four singers and two guitar players in that group but the foundation was always Patrick and myself.
As far as any other projects goes it’s only ever been my own writing.
You’re the general manager of Guitar Center North Houston. Tell me about your career, how Guitar Center fits into the local scene and what you do to make sure you stay grounded in the local scene despite the company being such a large national chain.
I’ve worked at almost every store in Houston now but I started in Clear Lake. Almost all of us are musicians and we love talking about gear. I personally love talking about gear! GC has given us a place to enjoy and freely test out the equipment we all want before we buy it and without the hassle. In the scene you’re always known as the “guitar center guy”, which is quit funny.
What inspired you to play? You have a very unique approach to both acoustic and electric guitar. Tell me a little about what and who shaped your style?
My uncle had a guitar so I’ve always been around it as I grew up but I never really touched it other than accidentally breaking a string. My first concert was Guns n Roses in 1992. Slash came down to the front of the crowd while playing and I reached out and touched his shoulder as he walked past. I always joke that this was the moment, but that concert started me down a path I wouldn’t change. We arrived home from the show the next morning and I asked my uncle to show me some chords. I taught myself from books, watching MTV unplugged sessions and crudely written sheets with song chords. So, my first influence would be by uncle, then Slash. His style has definitely shaped my own over the years. I learned what I could form songs and bands that I loved.
Best local band out there right now?
That’s honestly a tough question. My ego says my own, while we were active. There are a lot of excellent talent in Houston and I couldn’t choose one in particular.
Best local venue out there right now?
House of blues has to be the best mid size venue in Houston. I love the layout and the sound system there. I also love Scout bar. It is a great stage, great lights and great sound system. The owner knows the struggle of being in a band and shows some great appreciation to the local acts by giving them the chance to get out there and even play with national acts.
With social network being what it is and there being so much content out there from big bands and aspiring players out there on youtube, soundcloud and every other site, how can a musician help themselves cut through the noise and connect with their audience? How can they distinguish themselves rather than passively hoping their music gets noticed? How do they get beyond their friends and families to strangers who will come out to see them, click their tracks and download their music?
Sometimes having a gimmick can help, but I am a strong beleiver in having great music and a very hard working attitude. As they say, you have to spend money to make money. Get yourself out there, spend the money on a quality product and get your music to as many people as possible. It’s a lot easier to get your music out there these days but it’s a lot tougher to “make it”.
Most important advice you can give to an aspiring musician? He’s just learning to play, just getting started writing songs and riffs…
Work hard, simple as that. It’s not easy, but if you work hard at learning your instrument and using the tools at your disposal, it’ll pay off.
Essential gear for a guitarist? (Here’s your chance to get some folks out to GC North Houston!)
Quality instruments. It pays to have a good guitar, good cables or a good pedal. Save up for what you really want. It took me a long time to get my Les Paul, but it was well worth the wait.
What are the benefits to going to a studio compared to recording everything on your ipad or on your own home computer? (Here’s your chance to get some folks to Cathedral Records haha)
It takes a good ear and years of experience to put out a good product. Let the engineer you’re paying for worry about how to get that guitar part to fit with the vocals, you need to worry about the music. Also, sometimes having a producer is very helpful with the unbiased outside perspective.
Cathedral Records exists to help cultivate a creative and collaborative environment for aspiring songwriters, bands, and the people who love and support them…like photographers, graphic artists, guitar repair techs, retailers…and of course fans!
We aim to offer everything from assistance with recording to promotions and consulting but also networking and educational opportunities.
This blog will serve as both a platform to communicate what’s happening around the Cathedral but what’s going on in my head.