Matt Patton, co-owner of Dial Back Sound studio (and label), and bassist for the Drive-By Truckers, was driving towards Jackson, MS on his way to New Orleans for a little trip and to play a couple shows with Jimbo Mathus when Americana Highways caught up to him.
AH: Dial Back Sound studio is situated in the music community of Water Valley, MS; that is a potent musical spot, can you describe it a little for those of us who haven’t been there?
MP: There are a couple different things that characterize the community. It is a small community with less than 4,000 people. It feeds off the nearby college town of Oxford but is a lot less expensive to live in Water Valley. It’s an artist community partly because artists and educators, creative types, musicians, and writers, get priced out of Oxford and come 20 minutes to the south to Water Valley.
In the 1990s and early 2000’s, Fat Possum Records also had its office and headquarters in Water Valley, which made it a destination for blues and roots music back then too. There was a lot of attention centered around the area based on that. Now they have their offices in Oxford, MS.
AH: How did Dial Back get its name?
The original owner was Bruce Watson, the founder of Fat Possum Records, and he named the studio; as a side note, Bruce said that Scott Bondy, who goes by A.A. Bondy, named the studio, but my wife recently asked Scott about that and he doesn’t remember it. It opened in 2009 as Bruce’s personal production studio and Scott made his When the Devil’s Loose record there around that time. But Scott doesn’t remember naming it, now. (laughs)
AH: You have produced many albums (together with Bronson Tew) there. What would you say is the advantage of having a producer, for musicians and bands?
MP: A producer helps when you tend to get so close to something you can’t see it for what it is anymore, and that characterizes a lot of artists. Some artists find they are tired of what they are doing and they want another opinion or perspective. And some artists need somebody to butt heads with, and that’s fine too. (laughs)
To be clear about how we work: Bronson is 100 percent the technical end of things. He may lean on me for references and things that make the record cohesive, the emotional parts of it that bring it together. That’s my part of it.
AH: You’ve recently produced Jimbo Mathus’ album Incinerator, and now we heard you’re working with Jerry Joseph too.
MP: Jimbo has a long relationship with Fat Possum and he’s a Mississippi native and he lives 10 minutes away from the studio — in Taylor. When we were making Incinerator, we had started bugging him about his “outlier” songs, really wanting him to bring things in that he didn’t know what to do with. He had these piano songs and that turned into the concept for the album. In addition to the concept he had of writing about the spiritual burnoff of the incinerator, our angle was: don’t bring us stuff that you’re going to make a country record with, and don’t bring us stuff you’re going to make a Squirrel Nut Zippers record with. That was our focus.
Jerry Joseph is working on a new album with Patterson Hood as the producer, and Patterson has been aware of our studio and what we’re doing, so this was a reason for him to come work there with us. He wanted to peel away Jerry’s sound to a stripped down record, and it turned out that Dial Back studio was a great place for that to happen. That record will be mixed at the end of June.
AH: You play bass with the Drive-By Truckers, you have the studio, and now you’re launching a label. In the current state of the music industry, how important is it to diversify?
MP: Anybody who has known me for a long time knows that I tend to bite off a lot, and do a wide range of things; I tend to sign onto a lot of different projects. I’ve always had this drive to do as much as I can and create my own legacy to leave.
A huge reason for taking on the studio is that I’ve watched a lot of places I loved close and go away. And when I was a starving artist there places like the Vinyl Solution in Tuscaloosa there is a record store there that closed; there was a bar called The Chukker I cut my teeth playing, and they closed. There were a number of these beloved places that I watched go away without being able to do anything about it. So when Bruce said he was going to move to Memphis and open a studio there, with the thought that Dial Back was likely going to turn into a duplex, I really thought about it. And I’m not wildly rich but I am more stable now, and I realized that this time I could actually do something about it. And Dial Back was one of the reasons, besides my family, that I love Water Valley. So I decided to step in and save it. (laughs) Bronson agreed to keep his family there too.
Going back to your question. It is important to diversify, too. It’s no secret albums haven’t been selling for quite a while now. Most of my friends and peers who are musicians do all seem to be diversifying. Whether it’s adding solo shows in addition to the full band gigs, or some of them are driving Uber, some have an art career or are writing for music publications. I guess that is part of it. When my body is no longer able to handle the touring, or if something else happens, the studio would be built up and there to run. That’s definitely part of it too.
AH: And now you are launching the label. Is that another thing that musicians may need help with instead of trying to work their album release on their own? What made you decide to add the label component?
MP: We’ve released 3 albums and a couple different compilations. Hopefully when people contact us they’re contacting us because they’ve heard records that we’ve made here, and that’s a good sign, then they call us to do some label work. The label started out to shine some light on some of the projects produced and recorded here who were seeking representation and didn’t find it immediately. We’re talking about bands who were touring 100 or so days a year and just weren’t getting the breaks that we thought they deserved. So that’s how the label started.
Going back to when I was 19 and 20 years old, I was a local musician, and I was just fascinated by bands that had this nomadic nature, who’d live by the “die in the van” motto. They’d be in a dive bar on a Tuesday night playing their hearts out and then come home with me and crash and we’d talk all night and I’d pick their brains. And it seems like that kind of dedication needed to be rewarded in some way. And there were a couple bands who came into the studio like that, who hadn’t got their break, and we thought we could help with that.
Young Valley was super talented and they were playing more than 100 shows a year, and then Pope Paul & the Illegals from the Los Angeles area, they probably do more than 200 shows a year between their band and a couple side projects they do. They just travel from one end of the country to the other, and they’ve written some great songs, so we decided to help them. And then the Great Dying is working its way, they’re from Oxford, they are playing around 100 shows/year and we love the songs on that project so we decided to help them out as well.
These were releases they were going to take and sell out of the trunk of their car and at their merch tables, and now they are doing a little profit splitting with us as a payback for financing the cost of the release. And we’ve enjoyed that. So now we are talking to the distribution places and about making bigger steps for the label. It’s been fun so far. We haven’t made money but it’s fun. (laughs)
AH: Hopefully it’ll turn into something where everybody can make at least a little bit.
MP: You need to put five years into something before its time to reevaluate. It’s a struggle out there. We try to lessen our appeal for those doing vanity projects. We’re here for the bands who are out there killing it, and because of where we are, we can make that experience affordable. If we were in Portland or a bigger city we’d have to charge two or three times what we charge! (laughs)
AH: Do people find you in an organic way, by word of mouth?
MP: Yes. And if somebody calls up asking a lot of a certain type of questions it’s obvious they haven’t listened to anything or looked into who we are. But if somebody calls us about from out of the area and they’ve checked out our record then we know they are into it, then it falls into place.
AH: What’s on the horizon for you?
MP: Bronson is heading out west so he and I are going to be working on projects from a distance and he’ll be coming back working for blocks of time. We’re excited because a lot of our clientel comes from out west so he can likely expand on that. So there’ll be a lot of cheap flights in the future, and loading up in the van with bands from out west and driving to Mississippi.
AH: He will be a scout!
MP: We get a lot of clients from out there. We are going to do some wider releases with wider distribution so you can walk in a record store and get them, besides being able to get them at a show.
AH: What albums are coming up for Dial Back?
MP: There’s always talk about doing another Jimbo record, we are working with Bette Smith on her second album, she’s from Brooklyn. She’s a soul singer she put out a record previously with Big Legal Mess. We are also in the demo-ing phase of the second Great Dying record.
Investigate more on Dial Back Sound, here: http://www.dialbacksound.com Read our interview of Jimbo Mathus, here: Interview: Jimbo Mathus on How Life is an “Incinerator” and Jerry Joseph, here: Interview: Jerry Joseph on Recent Iraq Trip, Current Solo Tour Dates, Upcoming Album