Shawn Lee

Soul in the Hole

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Photo by Woodie Wright

Wax Poetics recently sat down with Shawn Lee to discuss his recent Ubiquity solo joint, Soul in the Hole, and the methods of writing the music that has transformed this Midwestern multi-instrumentalist into one of the most talented and prolific musicians of the past twenty years.

Tell us about using the Maestro Rhythm King drum machine. It turns up about halfway through Soul in the Hole and really creates a sway that carries to the end.

The Rhythm King was really the origins of the album. I’d get up a rhythm and write some chords over it, and that’s how I started almost every song. The beginnings of the album are definitely all with the Rhythm King.

It definitely drops you right back in the ’70s and evokes memories of the drum patterns on all those old home and church organs, not to mention the Sly Stone connection. Did you sample and loop it, or just let it run?

Yeah, it’s a quirky machine, a great find for collectors if you can get one. I didn’t loop the Rhythm King. Those analog machines, when you loop them up, they don’t sound the same. They don’t move the same way. They drift. They don’t really fit to the grid. It’s harder not working to a grid, but I think the result justifies the means. It’s a little less predictable. Cutting and pasting stuff all the time can make you a bit lazy. With the different styles and singers on this record, the Rhythm King, that signature sound, kind of glues it all together. Sometimes, you get rid of it in the mix, but it has a way of giving an album some continuity.

You’ve got a few different distinct vocalists on this record. You pretty much recorded the material and sent them finished tracks?

Yeah. Basically, I wrote the tracks, recorded them, then sat down and demo-vocaled it. When I did my demo vocals, I sort of went for the kill. I wasn’t going to sing a half-assed vocal. I wanted to sing it the best that I could so that the vocalist knew they would have to step up. They could not be intimidated. I wanted them to feel like, “I could do better than that.”

The singers really brought the songs to life. They brought other dimensions; they made it mean so much more. It was a bit like being a casting director. The singers were the actors that made the dialogue resonate in ways that I could have never imagined.

I was lucky to get Darondo through the Ubiquity hookup, and I’d like to work with more people of that ilk, that sort of age. It’s a real luxury to be able to bridge that gap. There’s so much life in their voices, so many great stories. It’s good to remind people again, and, hopefully, reintroduce them to a new generation of listeners.

But that window is really small. A lot of people are passing on. This needs to be done now. I want to try and hook up with as many people from that generation as I possibly can.

You can be like the Ry Cooder of the soul music world.

Yeah! Or, you know, like how Tarantino does in his films, brings back his favorite actors. I’d like to be able to make records like that, just bring back people that need to be brought back.

You’ve released nearly ten records since you’ve been on Ubiquity. Are you worried that your prolific output will lessen demand for your work?

For me, making albums has never had anything to do with how many records I’ve sold. To this day, I can’t tell you how many copies I’ve sold of any of my records. I don’t want to define my success by that. Whether something is successful or not, it’s all about making music and getting it out into the world. And that’s the process of being in the studio, writing, recording, and releasing records. The film soundtracks, the games, [the television] opportunities, they’ve all been because I’ve been releasing these records. It’s my calling card. It makes things happen.

A lot of people have discovered me just through the one track [“Kiss the Sky”] I did with Nino [Moschella], and we did that about four years ago. These days, you just have to create your own niche, do your own thing, create your own “brand,” if you will, so that people know, they know that, like Madlib for example, you’re the cat that does certain kinds of things.

What can you tell us about your new record, Lord Newborn and the Magic Skulls, that features you, Tommy Guerrero, and Money Mark collaborating?

Well, I had the idea of doing this record about four years ago. We all share the same label in Japan, and I’ve always been a fan of both [of them]. Every now and then, there’d be an email among us, you know, “Yeah, we should do this thing.”

But to be honest, I didn’t think it was going to happen. But Mark’s manager, I think she’s a fan of mine, and when she caught wind of the project, she made it happen, cleared Mark’s schedule.

We got together at Mark’s studio in L.A. Tommy flew down from San Francisco, and we recorded for about six days. We started from scratch, all just off the cuff. Nobody was short of ideas. We just threw down, and it was really natural.

On the first day, we got nearly three tracks done. We’d talked about doing it for so long that it was just automatic. It’s a very musically sympathetic organization between the three of us. It was always gonna work.

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