John Mellencamp: Looking Back While Staying Timeless For his new album, Mellencamp and his band went for an old-fashioned sound, using vintage equipment like a 1950s Ampex tape recorder while also recording in venerable locations like the Sun Studio in Memphis.
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John Mellencamp: Looking Back While Staying Timeless

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John Mellencamp: Looking Back While Staying Timeless

John Mellencamp: Looking Back While Staying Timeless

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(Soundbite of music)


The singer John Mellencamp went out of his way to make his newest recordings sound old. He played in historic locations with outdated technology hoping for music that was timeless.

(Soundbite of song, "Each Day of Sorrow")

Mr. JOHN MELLENCAMP (Singer): (Singing) I ain't been baptized. I ain't got no church. No friend in Jesus and what makes matters worse...

INSKEEP: Listen to this recording and you hear the slap of the strings on an old upright bass. You hear the reverberations of the room. You hear the singer's distance from the microphone. There's only one mike to capture every sound of the band.

(Soundbite of song, "Each Day of Sorrow")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) And if I weren't so afraid I'd lay down and die.

INSKEEP: Mellencamp made a musical journey for his album "No Better Than This." He made this recording at the Sun Studio in Memphis. He stood in the room where great African American blues singers once recorded, as did the young Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: There was an X on the floor where Elvis stood, there was an X where the drum kit was set up, there was an X where the upright bass was supposed to go, and there was an X where the guitar was supposed to go, and the microphone goes in the middle. And so that's what we did. When you hear it, it's just like - well, there's no doubt where you're at - you're in Sun Studios.

(Soundbite of song, "Each Day of Sorrow")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) So all of you angels, don't waste your words. Dog-gone my soul, I ain't no good...

INSKEEP: The Indiana singer has been touring with Bob Dylan, which is the sort of thing that would get a musician thinking about tradition. As old school as this music sounds, Mellencamp would have like to make it sound older.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: My original idea was to record on a lathe, but of course they can't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Really, yeah right. Well, I wanted to go straight to disc.

INSKEEP: You're talking about the wax discs on which people did some of the earliest recordings.


INSKEEP: Is that what you're saying?


INSKEEP: Just make it old fashioned.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yeah, that was the original idea. That became very problematic because, you know, you couldn't find the material, there was a whole bunch of problems. So I said, well, let's go to the next best thing. Let's find what they recorded on out in the field.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: He's referring to the researchers who famously recorded old Southern musicians decades ago.

(Soundbite of song, "Thinking About You")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) It's not in my nature to be nostalgic at all. I sat by the phone last night waiting for you to call.

INSKEEP: Mellencamp traveled around with old reel-to-reel tape machines from the 1950s. He brought his band to an old Texas hotel, where the 1920s bluesman Robert Johnson once recorded. He even recorded at a historic black church in Savannah, Georgia. Because of the simple recording, producer T-Bone Burnett had no way to mix the sound of different instruments, or different versions of a song. They just had to be right.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: There's no, you know, half of this song here, and half of that song there. Everything was one take. Every performance was the way it was played, from beginning to end. T-Bone and I both laughed at I said, T-Bone, what the hell were we doing in the '80s?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Why did we record these songs over and over and over and over again? When I was a kid I recorded the song "Hurt So Good." And we cut that track a hundred times, but first of all because we couldn't play and we never could get the rhythm to work. And you know, so we just kept playing it, da, dun, dun, dun, we couldn't get that part right, you know, so we just kept over dubbing and playing and over it. And it was like, I would never, as an adult make a record like that again after this experience. Why? Because this was so much more musical and so much more fun than actually - of course, we can play now, too. That helps.

(Soundbite of song, "Save Some Time To Dream")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Save some time to dream. Save some time for yourself. Don't let your time slip away or be stolen by somebody else.

INSKEEP: One of my colleagues here was listening to this song, "Save Some Time to Dream," and to the lyrics - which you seem to be advising someone not to let all your time fly by. And it brought to mind a much earlier song of yours, a hit song, "Jack and Diane," in which there's a description of almost too much time. Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone. Do you think your ideas about time and about life have changed as you've gotten a little older?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Well, you know, the older you get, the more you realize that wow, you know, I'm burning through these years pretty quickly. And I know there's times that I look back on my early recording career and I really wasted my time. My ego and my drive and my tenacity was so strong, as a young man, that, you know, we had to just punch, you know, our way through. So any accomplishment that we may have had back then was lost on me.

INSKEEP: You never paused to savor it, you're saying?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: No, I didn't - I never cared about it. I could have cared less. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not complaining. I would bet my bottom dollar I had more fun in that same time period than most people are allowed to have in their life. But at the same time, you know, I didn't take time to enjoy the success that we were having.

INSKEEP: That's how John Mellencamp remembers the 1980's. In these latest recordings, in three different locations, you can say he took time to immerse himself in tradition.

(Soundbite of song, "Love At First Sight")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) And let's suppose our dreams came true just like they're supposed to do. And let's suppose we spend the rest of our lives together.

INSKEEP: So what brought you to the third location, that church in Savannah, Georgia, that made you want to record there?

Mr. MELLENCAMP: I'm very familiar with that area, almost as familiar as I am with Indiana, 'cause I've been going there so long.


Mr. MELLENCAMP: And the - I knew that the church, it was a big stopping off place for the Underground Railroad. And it was just the idea that we could go in there, in this old, beautiful church downtown Savannah and record on the pulpit. And consequently we were actually recording where they baptized people, because you lift up a hatch and...

INSKEEP: You've got some water there.

Mr. MELLENCAMP: Yeah, so Elaine and I got baptized there.

INSKEEP: That's Elaine Irwin Mellencamp, his wife.

Did they sprinkle the water on you or did they dunk you?

MR. MELLENCAMP: No, no, no, no, no, no, you raise up this floor and there was like a pool underneath there. It was like a big coffin actually full of water and you take steps down these old rickety steps into the water and you're up to your waist in water.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Forget About Me")

Mr. MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Me and you together, from life to death to heaven. Don't forget about me...

INSKEEP: John Mellencamp's latest recording is "No Better than This." You can hear him perform a song in our studios at our website,

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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