An Interview with Engineer, Jay Messina
On recording the Original Blues Brothers Band and Eric Heilner at IIWII Recording/SST Studios.
Recently, IIWII Recording at SST hosted legendary record producer Jack Douglas and his long-time engineer, Jay Messina, for sessions with composer and recording artist, Eric Heilner. In 2017, Messina also worked with the Original Blues Brothers Band at IIWII for their album, The Last Shade of Blue Before Black. That session included guitarist Steve Cropper and sax player Lou Marini, who is well-remembered for his iconic countertop dance during Aretha Franklin’s performance of “Think” in the first Blues Brothers film.
The list of classic records Messina has engineered is long and illustrious, including artists as diverse as Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Yoko Ono. Judy Collins, and Miles Davis. We talked with him about his sessions at IIWII Recording for the first issue of SST Backline Report.
SST: You recorded the Original Blues Brothers Band at SST and IIWII Recording when they reunited for another album in 2017. Let’s talk about that.
JM: Yes. When I first met with Lou Marini and the guys, I suggested that since the room was large enough, we should record the tracks all at once, with everybody in the same room, and they liked that idea. That is what was so much fun about those sessions. I had them set up in the middle of the room. I put up some baffles, but not many. We recorded the vocals in the same room with the horns and rhythm section. I remember Eddie Floyd ("Knock on Wood"), who sang on a couple of the tracks, telling me how much he liked that setup. He said: "That's the way we used the record all the time at Stax."
SST: Did you record the vocals live with the band as well?
JM: Yeah. Most of the time we had three people singing. I used Shure 58s on them and put them behind some Plexiglass. It wasn't total isolation by any means, but it worked.
SST: Who were the singers?
JM: We had Bobby "Sweet Soul" Harden, Rob "The Honeytripper" Paparozzi, Tommy "Pipes" McDonnell, and on a few tracks, Eddie Floyd. Also, Paul Shaffer sang on one song. Joe Louis Walker and Joe Morton (Blues Brothers 2000) contributed vocals, as well.
SST: Was Dan Aykroyd involved in the recording?
JM: Not at all. He gave us his blessing and he was fine with it, but he didn't perform.
SST: Why did you choose IIWII for these sessions?
JM: It was the vibe, more than anything else. There's a naturalness to the room that we like. The size of the room made it conducive to having all the players in a big circle so they could all see each other. It worked. I have always liked that room. It sounds amazing. Everybody loved playing at the same time. The next time I'd like to try it without the headphones so everybody can hear each other in the room naturally. I think that would work well, too.
If everything is acoustically well-balanced in the room, we wouldn’t really need phones. The only thing we would need to amplify would be the electric piano and the guitars and bass, so I would just run them through amps in the room. The horns and the drums would carry the natural sound of the room.
SST: How would the singers monitor the vocals in that setup?
JM: I'd just put the mics through a speaker out in the room and get a good live mix of that.
SST: IIWII’s console is an analog Focusrite. Did you enjoy working with that?
JM: Oh yes. It's a real clean, transparent kind of sound and you don't need a lot of EQ. It's just a matter of moving a mic around or changing it, because of the signal path in that board is so great.
SST: IIWII engineer Billy Perez has talked about the Focusrite's analog preamps and compressors in interviews, He says that they contribute to the warmth of the sound that everyone likes so much.
JM: They do. If you have a good room, good players, and good microphones, and you put them in the right place, with nice preamps, that's pretty much all you need. The EQ and compressors, maybe you'll use, maybe not. Billy assisted on the Blue Brothers project, and he is assisting on the project we’re working on now, too. He’s great.
SST: Ok, tell us about that. You’re working at IIWII with producer Jack Douglas again. What is that project about?
JM: The artist's name is Eric Heilner. He had been playing in rock and roll band as a keyboard player. About five years ago he started taking courses at Julliard in composition.
He's been composing and writing, and we've recorded a few pieces already. We did a string quartet, and then he also composed a piece for clarinet, viola, flute, piano, and electric guitar. The latest thing that we recorded at IIWII was a saxophone quartet: alto, soprano, tenor, and baritone. No rhythm section. It's very interesting stuff, a unique style of composition.
SST: How did you meet Eric?
JM: Jack Douglas and Eric are old friends. They know each other from the eighties, I believe. Jack and Eric were talking about doing this project and Jack called me. He asked me if I'd be interested, and it did sound interesting, so I did it. We've recorded about 50 minutes’ worth of music with three pieces so far.
SST: Is Eric an independent artist? Does he have a label?
JM: No label yet. Jack is going to try to hook something up for Eric.
SST: You mentioned that one track includes an electric guitar. Will some of the other pieces you'll be recording include a band or parts of a band, as well?
JM: Well, it's not your typical, everyday band or quintet. It's something quite unique, and all the writing follows suit. It's hard to describe his style; you just have to hear it.
SST: We look forward to hearing the complete record. Thank you for sharing your stories, Jay.