Jerry Joseph and Eric Ambel photos by Eric Ambel
Jerry Joseph & Eric Ambel on Collaboration and The Man Who Would Be King
Two musical titans, musician/singer/songwriter Jerry Joseph and singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, teamed up to make Joseph’s recently released album, The Man Who Would Be King. Bringing Jerry Joseph to Ambel and Tim Hatfield’s Brooklyn Studio, Cowboy Technical Services, was a central aspect of the plan that ended up giving the album a mysterious New York vibe, but the album started with Joseph writing songs in a vintage camper during covid times and sending video files to Ambel. While Jerry Joseph never sets out to write a certain kind of album, the uncertainties in the world in recent years find their way in, giving the tracks a certain urgency.
Eric Ambel himself was facing the news that his studio would have to be shuttered for a time due to building work, but by hook or by crook they managed to schedule a time to get the selected songs recorded before the opportunity disappeared. On top of a certain New York feel go the album, audiences will also notice the prominence of the harmonica, with both Joseph and Ambel bringing forward with a certain inquisitiveness that Ambel feels delivered “even more Jerry” to the tracks. I spoke with both Jerry Joseph and Eric Ambel about this collaboration and their comparative memories of recording their first album together during a strange time in the world.
Americana Highways: It doesn’t seem unusual to me that you two ended up working together, but do you all have thoughts about why you ended up working together at that time and on this project?
Eric Ambel: Well, we met through a mutual acquaintance, Patrice Fehlen. We did a gig together, my band and Jerry’s, at Rough Trade, and I got a message that Jerry had asked me to sit in on a couple of songs. I ended up playing the rest of the set and the encore and really had a great time. I enjoyed watching the way that Jerry works with his dudes and the way that the crowd knows his music. He’s giving them the music in a way that feels special, as opposed to just a reading of the recorded works. [Laughs] That’s what kind of got me hooked into the idea.
Jerry Joseph: I was trying to remember the timeline on this. Just before Covid, a guy was offering to hire me to do a Christmas party, but my band couldn’t do it. Then I got in touch with Eric about it, but then the gig was cancelled about a week out. Somehow that started us talking about playing together. In some ways, I think it’s going to turn out that Covid was the best two years of my life. I lost people but those years were remarkable because I was with my kids for two years straight. However, it felt like everything I’d ever worked for surrounding the release and touring for The Beautiful Madness went away. And stayed away, really.
So, as Eric knows, I traditionally go somewhere to write. The Beautiful Madness was written in South Africa and Mexico. So when Covid landed, I borrowed a vintage camper trailer and put it out in my driveway and that’s where I’d write. I’d wake up every morning and I’d go out there. I’d never really had a man-cave like that. Right at the beginning of that, a couple songs in, I started calling Eric.
Eric: Yeah, so we started having conversations. Jerry was sending me stuff and it was a lot of songs. They were cool, but they were coming to me in like video form in these really large files. It was like being at a batting cage, they just were coming at me, and I was trying to field them. I found a way to get the audio off the them so I could put them in a folder. We were going through the songs, and also I had my own weirdness going on with my studio in Brooklyn. The building is super-old and it’s leaning. You can see that from a few blocks away.
A guy came and told us to move out so they could do foundation work. I was told it was straightforward and would take three to six months, but my Dad was in the building business and I knew that wasn’t true. But I knew that if Jerry and I were going to do this, it would have to be done by June in time to decommission the studio. I ended up moving the stuff in with a friend on an upper floor on the same building. We had to unplug stuff and move out.
Jerry: It was literally the last day. We did the last track, and the next day, they were packing shit up.
Eric: It was cool to have Jerry there because the studio is in Greenpoint, in the part that I refer to as “the non-brunched out part of Greenpoint.” The hipster restaurants haven’t gotten over there yet and it was still kind of industrial. We worked it out that Jerry was staying in a hotel right next door to the studio and I got my guys in there. We had all these songs that Jerry had sent me, and I had gone through them and figured out some favorites. I had an idea of things. The Beautiful Madness has awesome band sound on it, and nobody wants to recreate their last record. They want to do something different.
I don’t know how I got this in my head, maybe it was from our discussions, but I got to thinking about making what I would refer to as a “campfire record.” I had my rhythm section guys, and my engineer, and we had the whole place set up for that. Jerry comes in and it’s a whirlwind of people trying to get to know each other. But we tried running down a song in this way and it was just super-clear that it didn’t want to be a campfire record! So we had to re-do everything. But once we did, we were on our way.
Jerry: Very quickly, too! We were moving. I had this funny experience where I’d done this gig that was a one-off with top-name jam band guys, then I flew to a gig with The Drive-By Truckers, and I only knew a couple of the guys, but was working in this band situation. So I had a little bit of an idea about that band approach in mind. But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to let producers produce. I don’t think I’m super-combative about it, am I, Eric?
Eric: You were rolling with it pretty good. The very first day, you were a little nervous, because the first day is always a shaky thing. After the studio, you walked to the subway with Phil Cimino, who I refer to often as “a Joe Pesci theme park.” He’s a gregarious, entertaining, New York guy. Phil told me that he said to you, [Doing a heavy New York accent] “Roscoe hears this stuff finished. It’s going to be great. You gotta go with him.” After that, we started moving and we were going out of our way not to do the same thing with every song. I think the first song that we did was a song called “Bridge and Burn,” which got left off the album, but it got us going, down the road, so it wasn’t a waste of time. We were in the river and paddling.
Jerry: What was cool about “Bridge and Burn” is that it got all the bad ideas out of the way! [Laughs]
Eric: We knew that we didn’t want to turn stuff into “riff rock” and that was part of it, I remember. Then every day we’d have a few songs. Traditionally, one thing I like to do is work all day, and then every day before we split, we listen to everything that we have. So each day the little juke box session would be a little longer. As I remember it, we worked for six days, then Jerry went somewhere else for a couple days, then we had three or four mop-up days after that where we added a keyboard guy and made sure we had the vocals we needed. Then we had to rip the studio apart, and after that, it turned into remote work.
Just before Covid, at Christmastime of 2019, my home studio equipment had started to feel like I was having to push-start it to get it going. So I bought new everything for my home set-up. So when covid hit, my home set-up was super-rocking, more rocking than it had ever been. I was in a position where I could do a lot of work at home. Then it turned into me going way down a rabbit hole on individual songs, fleshing them out. Then I’d be sending them to Jerry and hoping for a good reaction. It was different, but it was really fun.
I like to say that Covid, recording-wise, kind of sent us back to the 1970s. There are an awful lot of overdub records, and I’m kind of known as the live guy. We did track the band live, but there’s a lot of overdubs, too, because we literally couldn’t have that many people in the studio. Like Jerry said, I had positive things from Covid, too. I had never put so much of myself into a record that I was producing for another artist. Usually I’m helping the group do a great job or finding something they hadn’t thought about, but this was a little different for me. I really enjoyed that.
Jerry: It’s funny thinking about records and producers. I had like thirty fucking songs on my hard drive that never got recorded, at least, so I had sent this huge batch of songs to Patterson [Hood]. He sifted them out. Then I sent a huge batch to Eric, and he sifted them out. I’m not the guy who sits down and says, “I’m going to write a certain type of record.” Nah. I’m interested in writing about relationships, and the middle of marriage, and that kind of stuff. But actually, even though I’ve never been a big Springsteen guy, a friend of mine, Casey Neill, had been feeding me a lot of late 90s and early aughts Springsteen records, like The Rising, and Magic.
I remember listening to Devils & Dust and hearing the harmonica. I had a personal rule against ever putting one of those harmonica holders around my neck, but I went out and bought one. I went out and bought a bunch of harmonicas, even though I don’t know how to play them. I went out into my trailer and I wrote that song, “The War I Finally Won.” Usually, those songs take about one minute, so that’s what I was sending Eric, these recordings of me and a harmonica.
I’ve never been interested in having a home studio, so I’d just turn my phone on and film myself playing the song, but I’m vain enough that I point the camera at my face, and not the guitar, so later, I never know what key it is and what chord it is. Then I have to sit with my guitar player while he tries to figure it out by ear. I’m struggling with that now, because none of these songs on the record ever got played live, and it’s been a couple of years. I literally have to now get someone to sit down with me and teach me how to play “Carmen Miranda” or any of these songs!
Eric: With “Carmen Miranda,” I think we only played it a couple of times. Jeremy started doing this bass thing out of nowhere and we just had to ride this thing to the end. I love that. The harmonica was something that I encouraged because I have had my own struggles with the harmonica. On my way to get married in Hot Springs village, Arkansas, before I left, I went up to Mannie’s on 48th street and bought a bunch of harmonicas and a rack.
My idea was that I was going to drive all the way to Arkansas with this harmonica and play along to classic rock stations as I found them. It didn’t work that great! But eventually I came back to it, and I’ve played the harmonica on records, and I’ve even played it live. When you’re playing solo, to have that extra thing to go to can have a huge impact.
Jerry: Eric has a crushing version of “Slow Ride” from Foghat that he can play on the harmonica now! It’s amazing.
AH: I think the harmonica does have a big impact on this album, as a whole, since it features prominently on several songs. It’s like the changing the color of the walls in a room. Having the harmonica there really changes everything to have that element.
Eric: When somebody plays it, especially if they are not super-technical, their personality comes out. On “The War I Finally Won,” it’s celebratory and happy, but on “Canadian Girlfriend,” it’s so pensive. It’s totally different and it’s just coming out of Jerry. For some of those, I don’t think we did the harmonica more than once. It was just super-direct. Your personality, Jerry, was there. I got more Jerry out of that harmonica, so I was saying, “You got another one of those?”
Jerry: We were doing that on stage the other night and I could never remember these songs. We’re only doing a couple of those songs lately, but I’m wondering if I should hire a harmonica guy. I’m remembering them from the harmonica part. There’s a simplicity to it that’s pretty cool.
Find more details and stay up to date on Jerry Joseph through his website here: https://www.jerryjoseph.com/
Keep track of the latest with Eric Ambel here: https://www.ericambel.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage: Interview: Jerry Joseph on His Non-Profit in Iraq, New Album Full Metal Burqa, Gray Areas and So Much More
and here: Key to the Highway: Eric Ambel