However haphazard the recording sessions for Faithless Street may have been, Whiskeytown was quickly earning a reputation for their utterly volatile nature as a live band. Some nights were transcendent, some were disasters; some were a little bit of both, scattered amidst the mayhem and destruction.
All of which made for legendary entertainment, but also hinted at deeper problems within the band. Even as Whiskeytown’s star was beginning to rise nationally and major labels were expressing interest, the increasing pressures and personal conflicts were starting to widen rifts within the band.
Pedal steel player Nicholas Petti, who had been performing live with the band for a few months after Bob Rickers had laid down the pedal steel tracks in the studio on Faithless Street, was dismissed in June of ’96. Things began to fall apart more dramatically about three months later, when bass player Steve Grothman quit the band for what Adams says basically boiled down to a typical “artistic differences” situation. A bigger blow came when Gilmore followed Grothman’s lead: “Skillet came in and quit that same day, two minutes later,” Adams said. “About three weeks later, he asked to rejoin, and I declined him the opportunity, because I believe that, if you quit, you’re gone, you don’t come back.”
Given that the band’s origins could be traced back to Gilmore and Adams hanging out together at Sadlack’s, the loss of Gilmore was a particularly trying turn of events. “It hurt pretty bad,” Adams admits. “It compromised a lot of the integrity of the band, and it compromised my stability in being able to do the band. I was pretty damaged because of that.” (The personal wounds have since healed a good deal, enough so that Gilmore served as the band’s road manager on a nationwide tour this spring and even sat in with them on a couple of occasions.)
“I remember me and Phil sitting on the front porch going, ‘What are we gonna do?’,” Adams continued. “I almost signed as a solo artist to A&M, I almost quit the whole thing. And then I said, No, I can’t give up the ship. I’ve worked too hard, and Whiskeytown is still a good band.”
The continued interest and support of Outpost also helped hold the group together. “Outpost just said, ‘Hey, we’ll still sign you guys, and if you need a bassist and drummer just to be in the studio, we’ll work with you,’” Wandscher recalls. “And that was just like the biggest thing. Because, you know, most people don’t even get this opportunity, and then, if something like that [the near-breakup] happens, you definitely don’t get that opportunity.”
Oddly enough, the personal conflicts that epitomized Adams and Wandscher’s relationship ultimately helped them keep Whiskeytown together just when everything seemed to be falling apart. “There was a lot of friction between me and Ryan, and there was some dramatic shit that happened at shows,” Wandscher recalls. “But ultimately, that stuff made our relationship stronger, because there was a fire there to fuel every now and then. Which is sometimes pretty good — rather than nothing ever happening, and people keeping stuff inside. That was what happened with our band breaking up. … And that was never the case between me and Ryan. We would just blow up upon each other, but it was good to get all that out in the air right then and there.”
Cary came close to quitting as well — close enough to where an interim Whiskeytown press photo issued by Outpost/Geffen, which appeared on the cover of Billboard, pictured only Adams and Wandscher. “At that particular time, she wasn’t even sure what she was gonna do,” Wandscher said. “She never really even knew until we went to make the new record in Nashville.”
Take a second to stop
Think about it again
See what you would be losing
Somehow, all the falling-apart fell back into place by February of this year, and Whiskeytown — with new drummer Steve Terry and bassist Jeff Rice (who has since been replaced by Chris Laney, formerly of Ithica Gin and the Adams side-project Freight Whaler) — headed to Nashville to record what would become Strangers Almanac with producer Jim Scott.
Not that things were any less fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants than usual. “Steve and Jeff really just came together as a rhythm section about a week before we went to make the record,” Adams recalled. “We didn’t practice to make the record. We just said, ‘We’re going to Nashville to make a record, are you guys ready to go?’ They said all right, we got in the car, and there we were. The first three days of rehearsal, I thought he [Scott] was gonna cry. Because we sounded like shit. We sounded horrible.”
Furthermore, Scott had a fundamentally different approach to recording than the band had experienced during the sessions for Faithless Street. Adams explains: “We’re good with first takes; we’re good with, ‘The guitar part was wrong, but it was great.’ Jim’s not like that. Jim’s like, ‘You’re not gonna wake up in 10 years and call me and tell me what a bad record I made, or that I listened to you and I shouldn’t have because you were dumb.’ He’s like, ‘Quit jerkin’ me.’ That was his line the whole time: ‘You’re fuckin’ jerkin’ me. Are you gonna play something good, or are you gonna jerk me?’ And we jerked him for about a month, and then we finally did some good takes.”
True to form, different band members had different perspectives of the Almanac sessions. Wandscher described the experience as “fuckin’ great; we just ended up loving him [Scott] to death,” and says he appreciated the chance to use a variety of amps and effects to come up with sounds that would have been impossible on Faithless Street. On the flip side of the coin, Cary observed that the making of Faithless Street “was much more spontaneous.…The other guys in the band might say it [making Almanac] was really great fun, but a lot of my stuff had to be done in overdubs, so I didn’t get a whole lot of that vibe of the first take of the song. Even though almost everything was recorded live as far as basic tracks went, for me it was mostly in the box later that I got my moment.”
Whatever the pros and cons, some of the exchanges between Adams and Scott were classic. “He’d listen to a couple takes, and he’d say, ‘I believe this guy.’ That’s how he would talk about it. He wouldn’t ever put it on me; he’d listen to the recording and go, ‘This is the guy I believe.’ He’d ask me, ‘Are you this guy right now?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, when are you this guy?’ I’d go, ‘In about an hour.’
Scott: “Well, where are you going?”
Adams: “Down to the store.”
Scott: “What are you gonna do?”
Adams: “Go get a bottle of Southern Comfort.”
Scott: “What are you gonna do then?”