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Few people in the local music scene have earned that respect to where when you hear their name, a type of respective hush comes over the conversation for just a brief moment upon mention. Not only have very few done that, but very few have done that in a way such as Greenville’s Niel Brooks. I can be hanging out with someone like Jay Spivey of Fete or someone in their mid 20′s in a bar, and if they know local music, they know Niel. Whenever I heard that Brooks was re-issuing his Prairie Fire with a limited edition 10″, I knew we had to cover it, as not only is Niel’s music absolutely great but he’s just an all-around good guy. The disc itself is expanded with four new tracks, and a red 10″ with six songs and comprehensive liner notes is also available. You can pick these up exclusively at Horizon Records in Greenville, and he is also playing a show to promote the re-release next door at The Bohemian this Saturday from 2pm – 3pm. You can read the interview below.
Wes Gilliam” First off, congratulations of the re-issue! What was the thought process behind this and then expanding upon the original with new songs and the 10″?
Niel Brooks: Thanks! I’d done two pressings of the CD since its initial release in late 2009. I’m very fortunate that both prior pressings sold out, so I thought I’d do something special this time by adding a few additional tracks and a vinyl companion. A few of the new tracks were recorded for the first pressing, but didn’t make it… or in the case of “When The Levee Breaks”, it was a track I had laying around that I thought I’d add to the pressing.
WG: So I’m looking at the 10″ colored vinyl from the re-release and noticed you chose 3 of the new songs from the re-issue for one side and the first 3 songs from the original album for the other but slightly out of sequence, how did you go about choosing the songs/order for that?
NB: You are very observant! And, I wish there was more of a method to that madness, but it really came down to wanting to make a re-issue package that was at one time affordable – the same price as a CD – and to make a “Side A” that was from the original pressing, and “Side B” from new tracks. 10-inch vinyl seemed perfect for that set up. And, the order just seemed to be fitting for the vinyl format.
WG: I’m a big liner-note nerd, so as I’m going through this album I see lyrics and chord progressions for most of the songs, but for the instrumentals I see instead a series of symbols more like a map-key for each of these. Can you tell us a little more about this or should we stop being so lazy and try to figure it out for ourselves?
NB: Yeah, those symbols do have a meaning… the symbols themselves originate from early 20th century design, namely the “prairie style” architectural designs. But they do have specific alphabetic and symbolic ties to each of the instrumental tracks, like a musical geocaching of sorts. Stop being lazy! Hah, just kidding.
WG: On your cover of “When The Levee Breaks” (Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy) you mention it was recorded using a 1929 Western Electric carbon microphone and 1937 Epiphone Olympic guitar What were you going for on this cover, why such the detail to replicating the detail of the original? Was this more of a personal challenge or more of an homage?
NB: That notation was actually made more to clarify what was going on with the recording of the song – to tell why it had such a specific sound to it. I tend to use old equipment anyway. I just prefer the sound of tube amps, old guitars, and the vibe on old recordings.
I have a neighbor who is a physics professor at a local university, and he brought me that particular microphone one day and asked if I knew how to use it. I ended up recording quite a bit with it.
I set it up a few different ways, but remembered reading about the Robert Johnson recordings… how they set up the microphone in the corner of the room and let him play into it that way… So, that’s what I did. I have an old Wollensak tape machine that I used to record it. It’s a portable tape machine, similar to the Alan Lomax recorder.
I’ve always loved the sound of those early blues recordings, so yeah it was also an homage. I’m very influenced by the sounds, styles of playing, and lyrical content of the Piedmont and Delta style blues music. It seemed fitting for the record.
WG: You’re doing a special afternoon set at The Bohemian in Greenville to celebrate the re-release, any other special show plans after that?
NB: Nope. That’s the only special show I have planned. I’ll be doing a few radio shows to promote the re-release, but I’m more focused on new recordings and working a good bit with my band, The Jaywalkers, this fall.
WG: And one last liner-note nerd question: you mention that the songs were recorded in various bedrooms, studios, living rooms, basements, cars and drive-ways. I’m just curious about which one of these recordings stand out most to you from uniqueness of recording situation or spontaneity?
NB: Probably the instrumental, “What Happened On Saco River Road”. That song was recorded in a car – on my old Wollensak – during a rainstorm. I had recorded it just as a demo and planned to do a proper recording later, but decided to leave it as is. I like that you can hear the rain on the roof of the car, and the windshield wipers at the beginning. The rain slowly stopped as I recorded. That’s probably my favorite.
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