With dreams of making their debut album in a sanctuary by the sea, The Dead Lovers traveled 6,000 miles from their home in Berlin to record at the Lost Ark Studio. Founder and guitarist Wayne Jackson described to me how a fateful online search for a rare Supro Reverb unit last year led him to contact the studio, which he assumed from pictures, was a museum or a private collection. Email exchanges, high hopes, and shared excitement turned into a wild journey and two weeks of fast paced recordings – pushing the studio, the musicians and the music to its limits.
As I sat in the mixing room on day 13 of recording with the band (Jackson, Lula, Oskar Alpen, and Chris Lippert), engineer Mike Butler, and owner Paul Cavanaugh, I could tell things were less than blissful at the beachside studio.
“I don’t want to do it that way- it’s shit,” Lula decreed firmly in a matter-of-fact German accent.
It reminded me of any good rock ‘n’ roll movie- a standoff between bandmates. Someone would storm out, threaten to abandon the project… something dramatic must happen behind the mysterious doors of a recording studio, right?
Instead what I observed was much more beautiful but just as intriguing.
For the song in question, “Kill Me,” Jackson had already tracked lead vocals- gritty lines full of bravado. The original plan was for Lula to sing in unison on the chorus but she rebuffed. With firm, yet gentle guidance producer Mike Butler and Jackson asked her to try it anyways.
Soon everyone in the room came to agree with Lula- it wasn’t going to work. But what next?
As Jackson and Butler brainstormed a different kind of harmonizing occurred. One offered an idea for Lula to sing just part of the chorus repeatedly. This attempt proved better and then they asked that she harmonize just sounds instead of matching word-for-word. The seemingly simple idea clicked almost immediately. Butler layered her utterances, doubled up her sounds, and rapidly created a lush vocal mixture.
The interactions I observed as the song took shape reminded me of a choreographed dance- give and take in the right spots to make sure everyone hit their marks. With so much creativity in one space it’s easy to see how it could become war of words or an assault of egos- but here mutual love and support shone through. In the end the chorus on “Kill Me” sounded nothing like the original intent, but was entirely better due to the collaborative spirit. It was certainly not “shit.” Butler took the best parts of Lula’s ability and blended them to suit Jackson’s vision. For an outsider, this was like watching magicians reveal the secrets to their tricks.
Wayne Jackson and Lula’s experiences in music and a familial dynamic within the band make for a good balance of business and laughter in the studio. Though I met them near the end of their sessions they all looked and sounded as enthusiastic as kids just arriving at the playground.
When I asked the group to describe their music I got bits from each member: rock-a-billy, 60s, surf, rock, pop, retro, blues… the descriptions flowed but in the end they agreed that they didn’t come to San Diego with a rigid idea for their sound. They used the studio, the equipment, and the recordings to help them find an identity for the record.
The recordings I heard were raw, yet compelling. Lula’s mesmerizing vocals were reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull, but more dreamy, and her accent has the charm of The Cardigans’ singer, Nina Persson. As different as her vocals are from Wayne Jackson’s growling Manchester tones, the two voices play well together. The overall sound could easily be straight from America and even San Diego. A surfy vibe on some of the tunes made me wonder if the location inspired the direction of the songs or vice versa.
The Dead Lovers appreciation for nostalgic sounds made The Lost Ark an ideal recording spot and allowed Wayne to experiment with retro sounds he had been dreaming of. Jackson told me that at first he’d planned to play just a few of the guitars during tracking, maybe 4 or 5. But on the day I visited Wayne’s arsenal for the album had crossed the two dozen mark – all vintage guitars rarely found in other studios. In fact, at one point drummer Oskar Alden turned to me and exclaimed “I don’t think a place like this exists anywhere near Berlin.”
I asked Butler how this session differed from working with local acts.
“They spoke a lot of German,” he deadpanned.
Wayne Jackson described the experience in the studio “like a dream.” His excited mannerisms when he explained what had happened over the two weeks made it clear that he was pleased with his decision to record here. He wanted “an organic development” and he equated the experience with Butler to the idea of a sculptor bringing a piece of art to the surface of a stone. And though the album won’t be done for a while the group is already anxious to return to the studio for the next one.
If The Dead Lovers came to San Diego to find a sound, I’m certain they picked the right spot to do it. And I can’t wait to hear the sound they found.