by Colin Tedeschi
Studio West instructor Shawn Rohlf —a lifelong musician and outdoor enthusiast—has spent much of his life intermingling between an urban environment and the natural world. His newest musical project, Country Mouse City Mouse, explores the themes of nature, modernity, and our place in all of it through the lens of the classic fable about a country mouse and a city mouse who trade places.
Country Mouse City Mouse: the Conception
The album’s conception is rooted in the early 90’s during Shawn’s stint at a “hippie commune” in northern California. While he was there, living amongst the redwoods, Shawn composed a poem reflecting on the natural wonders of the area. He titled the poem Country Mouse City Mouse. Although he didn’t immediately use the poem, he revisited it five years later, arranging it as a song on an album called Banjo Travels.
In the ensuing years, Shawn continued to dip his toes both in the city life and the natural world. He lived in San Francisco and eventually settled in San Diego, all the while spending long stretches of time as a whitewater rafting guide in the wilds of Utah, Arizona, and Alaska.
Collaboration with Ben Hasdovic, Engineer and Co-Producer of Country Mouse City Mouse
Studio West lead instructor and chief engineer Ben Hasdovic shares a similar path to Shawn. He’s lived most of his life in the urban centers of California, but is also an avid hiker and outdoorsman who makes a concerted effort to get off the grid as often as possible. It was these common values, as well as similar musical tastes, that prompted Shawn and Ben’s decision to collaborate on Country Mouse City Mouse.
Choosing the Sound
Shawn and Ben set to work sifting through the prolific backlog of material that Shawn had amassed since the early 90’s when he first wrote the eponymous poem. He had amassed a collection of over 50 songs—too much for one project. Ben and Shawn keyed in on the sound they wanted, and selected a couple dozen tracks to use for a double album.
With the raw material chosen, Ben then asked Shawn for some musical references, to help shape the overall sound of the album. “At the beginning of a project, I’ll often sit down and listen to reference music with an artist to get in their head and see what it is they like about different songs,” Ben says. “This helps us get on the same page creatively when it comes to determining the sonic direction of an album.” For Shawn, this included tracks from artists like Tom Waits, Wilco, Beck, Bright Eyes, and Eric Clapton. In the end, both Shawn and Ben wanted to prioritize having a distinct sonic contrast for the album, showing a mix of influences, with multiple styles and instrumentations, much like a project you’d see from Waits or Beck.
In hearing the final product, it’s difficult to argue that they didn’t emphatically meet this goal. The album hops through genres at will, and apart from the unifying thread of Shawn’s voice, each track brings something creatively distinctive to the table. Whether it’s rock, bluegrass, country, punk, or folk; a polished production or a live/acoustic feel, each step of the 44 minute run time keeps you on your toes, while still retaining a cohesive spirit.
Much of that sonic consistency in spite of the genre bouncing can be attributed to the way the album was tracked and mixed. With the exception of an occasional overdub at Shawn’s home studio or other small rooms around town, the vast majority of the album (90% according to Ben) was recorded at Studio West, specifically in Studio A. Both Shawn and Ben echoed that a major focus during tracking was musicianship and capturing as instrumentally complete takes as possible, using punch-ins, and making an effort to minimize piecing things together after the fact, save for some vocal compositing. In several cases, the initial bed tracks ultimately did provide the final takes for the record. On the song “Yakutat,” for instance, they were able to create and incredibly cohesive and intimate feel by using a single full take, including the lead vocal, with only the backup vocal and fiddle as overdubs.
Ben described the tracking process as ambitious, if often stressful. With a limited time and budget, they put a lot of pressure on themselves to get the most out of their time in Studio A. Assistant engineers Jimmy Lecroy and Daniel Bourget were instrumental in keeping the sessions moving smoothly for the musicians and helping Shawn and Ben maintain a forward momentum, but trying to capture everything they needed, and properly, in a limited time was no easy feat. On top of the significant logistical challenges was the task of keeping the musicians engaged and keyed into the spirit of what Shawn was trying to accomplish for any given song. An essential quality of any effective producer is the ability to keep up the good vibes and draw out the best performance possible from your artists. Shawn reflected that this is a subtle art, done by balancing attentiveness to the clock and the task at hand, while making it seem like you’re not.
The first day of tracking for the project began back on new years day of 2015; where Shawn and his crew of handpicked musicians laid down the bed tracks for ‘Barbed Wire and Broken Glass,’ ‘Blossom and the Weed,’ Tumbler,’ and ‘Neon Trapeze,’ all of which appear in the final version of the first volume. Going into the initial tracking, the plan had actually been to release both albums simultaneously, each ‘side’ representing one piece of Country/City dichotomy. However as the recording and mixing process progressed, a new narrative arc in the album’s concept began to take shape, with our hero beginning the first volume in the country, venturing out to the city, and making the return trip for the second.
Having been entrenched in the San Diego music scene, as well as touring the country for decades, Shawn has accumulated a large pool of musicians to draw from, and was particular in selecting people he trusted, and that he knew would be able to take his charts and ideas, and improve on them in a way that he couldn’t have imagined.
Though the twelve tracks of volume 1 feature a host of contributors, some of the main players on the album include ‘T Bone’ Larson on drums and John-Michael Brooks on the fiddle (who are also members of Shawn’s band The Seventh Day Buskers), as well as Steve Peavey on strings, Christopher Hoffee on keys, and Ken Dow on bass/backup vocals. In Steve, Shawn utilized his specialty on several string instruments including electric guitar, mandolin, and lap steel guitar, with Christopher adding many unique atmospheric elements such as the Omnichord on “Winter’s End” or the Wurlitzer on “Little Willy.” Ken and Shawn, close friends from decades past, hadn’t played together in 15 years, but felt their chemistry renewed the moment they began recording; a truth that’s palpably felt on ‘Yakutat.’ This is a folksy, and surprisingly emotional tale that’s a fantastic showcase for both Shawn and Ken, and perhaps my personal favorite of the bunch. Ben remarked that this is the track he’s most proud of, specifically with regard to the production and how much they were able to get out of what is ostensibly a fairly sparse and simple arrangement. Shawn himself played 9 separate instruments over the course of the album, and he didn’t shy away from utilizing talent just outside the studio door, pulling in several Studio West staff members over the course of the project to fill in overdubbing gaps.
Though pleased with how much they were able to accomplish during the early whirlwind tracking sessions, a couple of songs ended up being particularly difficult to pin down the final sound on. Ben referred to “San Francisco Love Affair” as the ‘Faberge Egg,’ due to its delicate/exposed nature and their insistence on getting everything just right. Tim Flannery, a friend of Shawn’s and fellow singer/songwriter based in the bay area, actually recorded his own version of the song first, which garnered a sizable following in the region, and gave Shawn and Ben that much more incentive to really nail it. Ben had initially used the songs ‘Lost Cause’ by Beck and Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California,’ as reference points, and after four or five separate attempts using varying tempos and style shifts in the lead vocal, they finally landed on a version that felt right. Ben explained that, “there’s always going to be one or two of these types of songs in a project, and you just have to embrace it and keep going back; be your own worst critic, cause once it’s out there, it’s forever.” ‘Neon Trapeze’ was another track that took several attempts to get right, this time with a focus more on the mixing end of things. They wanted to differentiate it from some of the other ‘rockin’ songs on the album like “Blossom and the Weed” by going for a more garage/extemporaneous feel. Though the track ultimately arrived where they intended, Shawn concluded by musing, “a lot of work goes into making something sound spontaneous.”
For the mixing phase of the album, Ben decided to stay put in Studio A, and run everything through the room’s SSL 4000 console. While this constraint contributed to some delays in the album’s progress due to the room’s limited availability and of course the finite resource of Shawn and Ben’s time (they’re both also full time instructors at The Recording Arts Center), approaching it this way allowed for a sonic consistency across every track. Ben added that just before mastering, they would also take the finished mixes into Studio B and bounce stems to tape to even out the dynamics and get rid of some of the harsher artifacts that digital can leave on the top end. Considering the project’s complexity in genre/instrumentation from song to song, reigning in the disparate elements during the mixing phase was essential in crafting a unified soundscape heading to mastering.
After a couple false starts going into this final stage of the project, local artist and friend of the studio Gregory Page ultimately recommended engineer Mark Robinson, based in Orange County, to handle the mastering of the album. Shawn and Ben couldn’t speak more highly of both Mark and his studio (Master Recording Studios in Tustin), raving that, “his gear and facility was world class, his customer service was top notch, and most importantly, he seemed genuinely excited about working on the album.” Because of the unique nature of the project, this wasn’t a simple mastering job by any stretch, which accounted for some of the difficulties they encountered with other engineers earlier in the process. Mark offered to do as many revisions as needed (even 1/10th of a dB change!), and invited them into his facility for a day to explain his workflow and philosophy on mastering in detail. Shawn remarked that he learned more about the mastering process that day than from anyone he’d ever spoken to previously on the subject. Suffice it to say, they are quite pleased with the final product and would highly recommend Mark to anyone in need of quality mastering services.
Following the Casbah release show on May 27th, Shawn is excited to continue promoting the album and playing out as much as possible. It’s designed in a way that Shawn can perform with a full band, solo, and anywhere in between, giving him significant flexibility in pushing the project through various channels. Eventually, Shawn envisions having a full theatrical production following the release of volume 2, and potentially cutting a double vinyl record for the occasion, but for the time being, he summarized the plan as simply to, “get the record out, start performing and continue adding from there.”
In winding the discussion down, Shawn and Ben were quick to reassert the importance Studio West played throughout the course of the project. In addition to the continued use of the space, several members of the staff took part in the album’s recording and creative process, including owners Peter Dyson and Mark Kirchner (to whom they note a very special thanks in the album’s liner notes). Shawn even enlisted a number of TRAC students to help with a promotional video and future marketing efforts. “We aren’t just working in a vacuum, sequestered into separate rooms and clocking out at the end of the day,” Shawn insists, “this place is like a family, and this project is most certainly a family affair, something that I believe brought everyone in the building a bit closer together.” Ben observed the unique opportunity to be working in a multi-room studio where several different projects can be going on at once, saying that, “a facility like this has the potential to become a true musical community, welcoming to creative collaboration.” This culture of openness starts at the top with Peter Dyson, and manifested itself during the project through the input of artists like Jeff Berkeley and Gregory Page, who would often stop in on mixing sessions in between working on their own material.
Through collaboration with dozens of artists and friends over a span of decades, this project has seen Shawn embark on an ambitious journey not all that dissimilar from his album’s titular figure. Though this is just the midpoint of a greater arc to come, Volume 1 is a testament to Shawn’s vision and passion, as well as the creative embrace of the Studio West family and the greater San Diego musical community as a whole. The mouse’s return trip to the country is already well under way, and we’ll be looking forward to seeing what wisdom he brings back from his travels. With any luck, he’ll have found some semblance of balance and understanding between the two worlds, something his creator has shown is well within reach, if you only give it a chance.
Tickets to the release show on May 27th can be found at the Casbah website where Shawn and his band will be performing the entirety of the first volume. You can also read a review of the album in the San Diego Troubadour.
Thanks again to Shawn Rohlf and Ben Hasdovic for their time and assistance.