Remembering Gene: Jeff Elbel

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1) When/how did you first meet Gene?
Since I wasn’t living in Southern California when I first heard of Adam Again, I “met” Gene as a fan. In early 1992, I was playing with Farewell to Juliet. Our thing was to only play original material, or covers from stuff we loved in the Christian alternative music scene. We played tons of Choir songs; probably a different one every show. We also played Swirling Eddies, Chagall Guevara, LSU, Dave Perkins, King’s X, Over the Rhine and more. But our number two band beyond the Choir was Adam Again.

Jeff Schmale, our drummer, had a copy of Homeboys. We played the title track a lot, and it was probably the only reason I needed my wah-wah pedal until we wrote “Blindness” for our first CD. That was definitely informed by Adam Again. Dig came out that summer, and I remember FTJ covering “Deep,” “It Is (What it Is),” and “Walk Between the Raindrops.” I got the CD at the Cornerstone festival that summer when I saw the band for the first time. They were the total package; I loved everything about what every individual brought to the band, and they became one of my biggest favorites ever. It’s a universal crime to me that we never got album number six, when it finally seemed like Gene was ramping up to work on it – “Guadalupe,” or whatever it would have been. I still have the clipping from the Diamante distribution catalog announcing the album, for which Gene had never recorded a note. Whatever was prepared was all in his head when he left us.

2) What projects were you involved in with him?
I had moved to Los Angeles by late 1993 and was playing with Sunny Day Roses. The first time I recorded with Gene at the Green Room was when I was helping out Christopher Scott from Blackball and Precious Death. We went in to record some horns for the Blackball album Hope. I remember thinking that it had been a dream of mine to record with Gene, and when I finally did, it was playing bits parts on my euphonium from junior high. It was fun, though.

I was listening to lots of Gene’s production, and always respected his ears and recording technique. It was eye-opening to see how casually he operated in the studio. I was just beginning to do production work, and I was super meticulous. Gene’s theme seemed to be, “if it sounds right, it is right.” Of course, he had tons of experience that helped make it look so easy, but since then I’ve learned to be more focused on the music itself and less hung up on studio details. I’ve still got that admiration for his ears. He was a great, intuitive mix engineer.

The second time Chris and I went to the Green Room, I was going to record some rhythm guitar for a new Precious Death project. I figured that would be great, hanging around with Gene and playing guitar. I remember telling him about Farewell to Juliet, and that we covered a few of his Adam Again songs. He asked me to play Homeboys for him, which made me really nervous, but I showed him. He laughed and told me I was making it way too hard. He showed it to me, and I swear it looked like his way took maybe two fingers. I had been combining parts. Anyhow, after that I thought we were going to settle into the recording. Gene got up, and said, “Well, Jeff, you know how to run all this stuff.” Then he left and went to see a Dodgers game, and we didn’t see him the rest of the night.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this time, I started assisting at shows as an instrument tech, and that included a couple of Cornerstone Festival dates for Adam Again. I loved being right in the middle of that sound. At the Perfecta gig, Gene had a bunch of trouble with his monitor next to the B3, and it was really getting his goat. He couldn’t get the sound crew’s attention, so he bellowed at me to come out, and he ducked down where people couldn’t see how frustrated he was, yelling for me to fix something. The stage volume was deafening, and I couldn’t hear a word he said. He was making gestures toward the monitor, though, so I got it swapped out and the show went on. After the song, some guy in the crowd yelled, “Thank your roadie!” Gene half-heartedly obliged on mike, muttering, “Thank you, Jeff.” The poor dude just wanted to put on a show without having to hassle with gear problems. And I wanted to hear as much Adam Again as possible, so I was motivated to help get things working.

Back home, I helped The Lost Dogs a few times, too. My favorite show was one they played at the Whisky-a-Go-Go. I remember Gene’s flag shirt and white cowboy hat, which always seemed like a funny image to me. I imagined Marvin Gaye dressing up like Garth Brooks. And I remember duct-taping Elvis sideburns to Mike Roe’s face for the encore of “Close But No Cigar” at that show. I still love the Dogs, but like anybody who saw them then thinks, it was so great with all four of them together.

In fall of 1997, I was working on the second Farewell to Juliet disc. Greg Lawless traveled south from his home to work with Gene at the Green Room, and my understanding was always that they were kicking around Adam Again ideas. Greg came to Mirolab studio in Long Beach, and I played him a song called “Ever Be.” I had recorded a guide track where I deliberately tried to play like one of his Adam Again solos, and I wanted him to do the real thing. Greg told me that I’d already done the part justice and that I should keep it. So, he recorded a great snarly one for our song “731.” To this day, I think we had a synch problem between Logic Audio and our clunky old ADATs that makes Greg sound late; I’m positive it’s not his fault. You should have heard the volume while he was playing. It would have melted your face to be in the room with the amp. So, we got to hear that part the way it was meant to be heard once, in real time.

I played on one full album with Gene, kind of as a stroke of dumb luck, really. Mike Knott was making an LSU album, and Brian Doidge had moved away from California. At that time, I was a regular crew member for the Aunt Bettys, so I heard about the recording while setting up for a gig in Hollywood. I told Mike that I’d loved those LSU albums, and that if I could play a triangle or one xylophone note on a song, I’d be thrilled. He told me to bring whatever gear I had to the studio the very next day. After work, I plowed through Orange County traffic and brought my amp and my pedal board, my good guitar along with my hunk of junk bass, just in case. Knott asked what I had, and all he cared about was the hunk of junk bass. I played the whole Dogfish Jones album in about five hours, plugged straight into the desk, having never heard a note of it. I do like that record, but the bass playing is definitely nothing to brag about. That was the event that made me realize the world was full of guitar players, but bassists could generally get a gig. I’ve been probably more of a bassist than a guitarist since then. Anyhow, the two things that make Dogfish Jones really cool are Knott’s story and Gene’s weird B-movie organ playing. Gene’s playing on that has tons of character, and it was probably entirely off the cuff. You can’t go wrong with Chuck Cummings on drums or Andy Carter on guitar, either.

I visited the Green Room while Mike was tracking vocals, and started seeing Gene a little more while I was helping to assemble the Ford Supersonic album for Aunt Bettys. I had volunteered to intern for Gene, which was probably an offer he got two dozen times a week. On one visit, Gene said he was going to give me a call to run the board for him while he worked on vocals for the Adam Again record. I tried to play it cool, but was, of course, stoked beyond words. Now, I’m pretty sure he was just yanking my chain. The guys in The Lost Dogs seemed to love winding people up like that.

3) How do you think Gene shaped and impacted the music scene?
That’s a question that doesn’t have a short answer. Adam Again were pioneers in Christian alternative music’s early days. They brought funk and soul into a genre that still doesn’t have much of it – and I’d love to hear any band anywhere that’s as good as the final lineup with Jon, Paul, Greg, Gene and Michele. Gene’s lyrics grew more painfully honest with each record, to a degree that I think should be held as an example for any songwriter of substance in any market. Those last three records are like an open wound that gets wider and deeper. They’re full of pain, but they also reach out to people to let them know that others have experienced hard times and survived. And maybe even found beauty in the middle of it.

Of course, Gene impacted the music scene in very practical, hands-on ways every day at the Green Room. He recorded young bands, and taught them the ropes of song arrangement. He undercharged a lot of them to get them on their way. He brought fresh perspective and altered the sounds of veteran bands, too. I especially love the later albums he did with Starflyer 59. I hope Jason is interviewed for this story, because I’m sure he’d have great things to say about how Gene helped augment his vision.

I think Gene’s biggest influence on me was in the behind the scenes roles, recording, mixing, and helping younger bands reach a new level. I’ve been engineering for a long time now, and Gene looms large in my interest (along with another guy named Mark Rubel from Champaign, IL, who shepherded the Farewell to Juliet records). I remember once thinking that I’d try to get every record that Gene played on or produced. I soon realized I’d go broke trying to achieve that goal. He touched years worth of music.

4) Three words that you would use to describe Gene, and why?
Frank: Things like “River on Fire” and “Stone” could not have been easy things to write, let along sing in public. But those lyrics transcend style. They’re timeless, and will hit anyone who hears them square in the gut.

What’s a word for doing what you’re meant to do? In Gene, I saw somebody who essentially lived in a recording studio, and saw as many ball games and as much of his friends as he could. I also saw someone whose whole life seemed to pour through his songs. To someone with a grinding day job, it looked like freedom. I’m not naïve enough to think that Gene didn’t feel worn to a nub by his workload, and I think he carried a lot of sadness. But I think if you can get away with it, it’s a good thing to do what you’re passionate about. It seems to me that’s what Gene did.

Authentic: I never saw Gene as somebody who indulged in pretense. He was salt of the earth.

5) As a friend of yours, how did Gene influence you?
I can probably blame Gene for my Motown obsession, because it started with his version of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” I’ve got Gene to thank for What’s Going On, which I’m pretty sure I couldn’t live without. And yeah, I was late to the whole Leonard Cohen party, too. I can’t imagine life now without songs like “Suzanne,” “First We Take Manhattan” or “Hallelujah.” Of course, Cohen is name-checked during “Lenny,” but what sparked my attention was that Gene had Leonard Cohen racked with his demo tapes, Aunt Bettys rough mixes and DATs in the control room at the Green Room. I put a cover of “Songwork” on the No Outlet album with Ping, but I’d call that tribute rather than influence. Michele sang that with us at Gene’s memorial, which gave me goose bumps. The other people you’ve spoken with will have more to say about friendship with Gene, and I’ll look forward to reading that. I can claim being on a first name basis with him, and he’d take my calls. But I was really just someone who respected various facets of his work, who was lucky enough to interact with him for a few years. Like I’ve mentioned before, I think I learned craft from Gene. I learned things like not compromising on a lyric, but not getting hung up on technical minutiae in the studio when the soul of the music is so much more important. I also learned the value of knowing where all your spare backline gear is at a big show, and that maybe it’s smart to work out some hand signals in advance. 🙂

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