The New Basement Tapes are a supergroup put together by producer T Bone Burnett to turn long lost Bob Dylan lyrics into new songs. Elvis Costello, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) reunited in the Capitol Records studio where they recorded their album, Lost on the River, for a rare performance which we’ll share on Morning Becomes Eclectic at 11:15am. Anne Litt hosts the conversation.
Photo: Paul Moore
Anne Litt: Alright, to set the scene we are in the legendary capital studio A, and I’m joined by The New Basement Tapes. T Bone Burnett is here, Elvis Costello, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith, Rhiannon Giddens and Marcus Mumford. They recorded their new album here during two weeks back in March, but this project really started in the late 60s. As the story goes, Bob Dylan recovered from a motorcycle accident, he gathers his friends, The Band, he shuts the world out and he starts writing and recording music. Probably more music than he ever wrote and recorded during a single year in his career. So that brings us up to today and we return to where you all made this album. I want to fast forward to right now, to where you are and with that little bit of history behind us, how did you, T Bone, come into possession of these lyrics in the first place?
T Bone: You know, Bob, and his publisher, were going through stuff, I guess and I got a call saying they had found a box from 1967, and it was all basement tape stuff, and would I like to do something with it? And I said, of course.
Anne Litt: So, did just a box of papers arrive?
T Bone: No, the first thing that arrived, they went through them and pulled out about 15 or 16 songs; things that were fragments, pieces of fragments, a few verses or a verse, and chorus, and another verse, things like that. They came typed up and edited for us to get started with, and then I sent them around to everyone. And then as we were getting started recording last spring, the box came and there were quite a few more lyrics in there, there were probably near a dozen in there.
Anne Litt: You have the lyrics now in your hands, how did you assemble this incredible group of musicians?
T Bone: Well, I did it the same way Bob did it with me. Bob just handed me the lyrics and said here, you know, do your worst. And then I called all people that I trusted enough to do that same thing. So I’ve worked with every one of these musicians before, intimately with some and for years with others, and I knew everybody to be for real.
Anne Litt: So, I want to put it out to you, Elvis, when you get a call from T Bone saying do you want to write music to Bob Dylan lyrics, do you say…
Elvis Costello: I’m used to getting those prank calls, (laughter). But no, I mean, I just do whatever he says. Of course, your first question is, what form are they? How complete are they? Because you know people will make the assumption that if they were left aside, then maybe Bob didn’t think very much of them. But, I think it has become clear now that he was working at such a speed, they weren’t self-conscious and they were working in isolation, therefore they weren’t even imagining any of these things were going to emerge. So the difference between a great song and a goofy song that’s just fun to play, it’s obvious when you listen to the original basement tapes that they weren’t distinguishing between the two, they were enjoying the virtues of both of those things. And so we were presented with a number of lyrics that were quite complete and some that were, were just as wacky. And thankfully we all seemed to find something in them. Each of us heard a different thing even in some of the same lyrics. We have four renditions of several of them. Four I think, I don’t think we have five of any of them, but we definitely have three or four of the titles and of course they’re just totally different songs, that’s the beauty of it.
Anne Litt: What did some of the rest of you think when you got the call?
Jim James: I was not interested at all. Yeah I mean, they paid me so much money I couldn’t resist. And once you get so much money, you’re set for life and you just don’t care anymore so you’re like, yeah, sure, great, that’s awesome. It’s one of those things where you get the call and you’re like yeah of course, where do we start, where do I sign and…
Anne Litt: Was it daunting?
Jim James: No, I mean I don’t think it was daunting. It was more of like, I mean yeah you want everyone to think that your stuff is good, and you want to feel like you’re an equal in the group. And I think once we got here, everybody, we all took extra special care to make each other feel equal and make each other feel loved and all that stuff. So I think along with T Bone kind of guiding the ship, once we got in here, it was all just really peaceful, and fun. Which is the whole thing that I think everybody was going for.
Anne Litt: Yeah, what about you, Rhiannon. When you got the call from T Bone what did you say, or think.
Rhiannon Giddens: I’m kind of along the lines of Elvis. It’s like you know, ‘YES’, and then ‘what is it’? Because in the way that T Bone has picked people that he trusted, we also trust him. So it’s just kind of like anything that he has ever asked me to do, or indeed even been involved with. Even if I had no idea what was going on with that, it’s always been something that I respect, and think is really worthwhile.
Anne Litt: So, how long did you have the lyrics before you all joined together? How did the process actually work from the moment you sent everybody the lyrics? Did you ask everybody to prepare songs, or come in with ideas, or…
T Bone: That’s what I was saying, I did the same thing Bob did. I just handed everybody the lyrics and I didn’t say anything, really, that I remember.
Taylor Goldsmith: I don’t know about everyone else, but I got the words like a week before we started. And I just felt so lucky to be a part of the project that I just wanted to make sure I, I don’t know, that I just was way over prepared, because I didn’t want to come up short in any way. And I mean some of us didn’t have anything prepared and it was perfect that way, and it couldn’t have been better. But for me, I just, in that week before we started, I was just with my guitar with those words every day. Like what can I kind of carve out so that we can, or I can always have something to suggest. Because I just, I don’t know, I felt I really didn’t understand, to be honest, how I got in the room. I was like wait, I’m invited to this too, are you sure I’m not just kind of the coffee guy or something. So, yeah so I just, for me it was just working at break neck speed and once, like Jim said, once we got in here it was immediately, oh this is just a good old time of partying, let’s all just… I was thinking about it the other day, how with a lot of recording sessions you think about it in terms of, well we have to achieve, this has to get done, this much or this whatever. Whereas with this project, we all got in here, the attitude the whole time was let’s just see what happens, and that allowed us to feel free and easy and smiling and laughing the whole time. I feel like you can hear that on the record, but every time we play any of these songs it just goes right back to that place. The only priority is having a good time, and let’s see what happens.
Anne Litt: Well, listening to this session today, I certainly got that, listening to you guys play. Marcus, what about you, did you come in the same way Taylor did into the session, or what mindset were you in?
Marcus Mumford: No… very unprepared. I was sort of the opposite of Taylor; I hadn’t done any work at all. Which is good, meant now I had a bit more work to do than everyone else when we got here, which is also good. Yeah, it was really fun.
Anne Litt: What is it like too, because I imagine when T Bone, they made the original basement tapes and, I think one of you referenced it, they’re making the music just to make the music. They’re not anticipating that it’s necessarily going to be heard. You know, it’s a different world now; you come in with the expectation that you’re going to make a record that people are going to hear. Does that put a different set of constraints on you, or is it just the way it is?
T Bone: Actually, I go into it now thinking I’m making a record that nobody is gonna hear, just…
Elvis Costello:That’s a pretty good guess as for in the record business.
T Bone: It’s interesting, you know I’ve watched, we’ll talk about it later, but yeah, I think the thing I try to do it just not pay any attention to that at all. Not to feel any pressure from feeling that it has to do well, or be anything that anybody likes or any of, I’ve kept a hard line about that throughout my life. That particular question right there is so I’ve never allowed myself to give into the idea of this is gonna be anything other than what happened. The beautiful thing is what just happened just now, when everybody came back into this room and played these songs again, and every one of them sounded killer and it was this, there’s this immediate chemistry, that’s the big surprise of this whole thing is, you know the guess was you’re casting something, so the guess is these people are, they’re good together, and it turns out they are.
Anne Litt: Well did, did you all know each other ahead of time?
Elvis Costello: I think when you look at it on the page, or you hear about it, you imagine that we might have gone off into our own studios and made, you know, tracks and contributing that records have been made that way, it would’ve been great. But this is different in that we had Marcus and J playing drums, but then we didn’t have anybody who’s officially a base player. So whoever was singing, they were going to be leading and that meant that somebody had to be on an instrument that wasn’t their first instrument, and that gave it a personality. Because you know, you can’t play every note and you just have to play the right ones.
Anne Litt: What was the best part about it? Was it the process? Was it saying hey we tested ourselves and we wrote a whole bunch of songs in a really short amount of time? What’s the best thing that you took away from it?
Marcus Mumford: Well, there was an awesome sense of abandon when we were recording, which actually was nigh on irresponsible when you’re in this great building, with these great people, but it was just a real sense of we’re just kids in a toy shop. Like there are some sick guitars around, there’s an amazing drum kit over there and Mike makes it all sound really good and T Bone just creates this atmosphere of anything goes. So we just sort of, yeah we were like kids in a candy shop, just playing instruments and singing songs and then all coming up with ideas and we just chased every idea. But then at the same time, we all sort of trusted each other and that was what was sort of magical about it. Because we chased every idea, we tried everything that everyone suggested and then we all kind of had this sense to say, like, oh I’m not sure about that or I know that what I’m playing on Rhiannon’s song right now is going to stick out in a bad way, you know. Or, like, T Bone will come in and be like, do that louder, you know. So it was a real…
Rhiannon: And sometimes it was the same thing, like you might think that this is gonna stick out and that would be the time that T Bone would come in and that’s the thing to go up. You know, like, that is why it was so great that T Bone listened to everything and we didn’t have to worry about it, you know. We definitely had our own opinions and instincts and stuff, but you know every once in a while, like you know he’d come – actually that’s the thing and then you know we could just kind of relax into that.
Anne Litt: Right.
Elvis Costello: We also had – this wall wasn’t here – and we had the other studio next door, we had B as a sort of rehearsal space. And we went, we would go in there to work stuff out, but it was also mic’d, so like five or six, we came in the second to last day we were recording, we saw we still had a big stack of songs that we hadn’t touched and we came in at ten o’ clock in the morning and cut five songs before one o’ clock. But sitting around the table…
Anne Litt: Oh and recording it while you’re sitting around the table.
Elvis Costello: Two of the versions were just acoustic guitars and one of them was left just like it is, that’s just, that’s the recording, and I think your, Florida Key we just added a couple of things to it, and then Lost on the River was done in there as well. We had come in the night before and cut a beautiful version of – that’s one of the only songs that we have a little bump in the road trying to find the right setting because Rihanna knew what she wanted to hear, but…
Marcus Mumford: I’d say it was more a scenic route.
Elvis Costello: A scenic drive – but we ended the second, the third from last night with this beautiful atmospheric version of mainly just staying out of the way of Rihanna’s voice. With all of us making these electric sounds.
Anne Litt: And that’s the one that’s the last song on the record…
Elvis Costello: No, that’s the one that we thought we were going to put on the record until they went in the other room and cut another acoustic version.
Jim James: Yeah they beat it around the table, and I think Elvis and I were in here working on something else, like that’s how quick everything would move. Like we wouldn’t even know yet, that somebody had started another thing, like they were allegedly just working on another thing…
Marcus Mumford: ...and we were like quick guys Jim and Elvis are in here, let’s do the real record.
Jim James: So then they’d get it done and it was so great and then we’d walk in and be like alright let’s do this, and they’re like it’s already done, and we’d be like, oh… But it’s so great, you’re like it’s great, it’s done.
Elvis Costello: We cut; I think we cut seven songs in the last day of recording, including my version of Lost on the River, Rihanna’s version of Lost on the River, and Six Months in Kansas City. The night before we’d cut, Taylor had come in with his Liberty Street which is this beautiful ballad, and I thought, well we don’t even need to cut my version of the same lyric now because how are we going to beat that. And then so I had written it for everybody to sing a bit on so we cut both and you know, you have to pay attention to the lyrics to even hear that it’s the same source of lyrics, it’s just such different songs.
T Bone: Well one of his great lyrics though, two I think, I love, ‘he came from the old religion but possessed no magic skill, to send it from machinery he left nothing in his will.’ That’s a killer all time bomb lyric.
Anne Litt: Well, when you’re recording different songs or different versions of this same lyric, is it, I mean based on everything you guys are saying, I don’t think this is the case, but does it get competitive or intimidating or, oh gosh you know, that version is better than this.
Rihannon: Yes, Marcus begs to differ
Marcus Mumford: Not at all.
Jim James: We moved so quickly. All it’s about is competition and how high you rank, and winning and how much better you are than everyone else.
Anne Litt: Well, we were grading you while you were…
Elvis Costello: You know some of this, there’s a class of songs in this pile that’s kind of like drunken pirate songs or something, there’s a lot of those on the original basement tapes and there’s a few in this folio as well, and one of them is Heidi Heidi Ho. And I mean Rihanna’s take we did in there was like really moody and atmospheric, and Jim’s I didn’t even, I felt like we should all be wearing grass skirts or something while we were doing Jim’s. It was like psychedelic wine music. And mine, there was a version that I wrote which was like a minute and a half long, that’s like a jump blues or something – filthy – we were all totally different and they were all completely different.
Anne Litt: Has Bob heard the album? Did he, I assume he gave his blessing obviously because you got the lyrics, but did you communicate with him at all or…
T Bone: You know we haven’t talked about it at all and we will someday – yeah – but I know what he thinks. I mean, he thinks the same thing I think. You know what I mean, about this. It’s good, we did it. But no I haven’t asked him to come do publicity or anything.
Anne Litt: Right, right. That seems like that would be a bad idea. Have any of you ever made a recording like this, that is? T Bone I’m sure you have, that it’s just this collaboration in the moment, or is…
Jim James: I did a new recording project called New Multitudes, where we took Woody Guthrie, unfinished lost Woody Guthrie lyrics and set those to music, and that was really cool too. I mean both things were so different, you’d think they’d be similar. I mean, they were similar in concept obviously, but both experience was so entirely unique.
Elvis Costello:You know, the difference is that Bob is still, he’s out there playing shows right now, probably –yeah – and making records and he could hunt us down and kill us if he didn’t like it. So, Woody Guthrie can’t argue back, can’t talk back, you know,it’s just on the page, whatever you set. Like people used to set poetry, classical music right times you know – right – that’s great because you just have a finished text and there’s nobody, you know. What if he, next week, he put out a record of like finished versions of all these lyrics?
Anne Litt: Well, I think the concept of taking these lyrics, I mean, in a weird way I was thinking about this, you’re sort of messing with the future, right? Or you’re messing with – it’s if you’re re-working Shakespeare or you know…
T Bone: No, but that’s what everybody does. We’ve been re-working Shakespeare ever since he wrote that stuff, you know. And that’s what Bob’s done and he’s re-worked The Carter Family and Homer and Ovid, all of it.
Elvis Costello: And every year somebody, or some theater, will put on a supposedly radical interpretation like Don Giovanni On the Moon or something you know. It’s sort of like – right – you know just take something that everybody’s always been in doublet and hose and they’re all wearing PVC and leather bondage gear… It’s like a really cool exercise in interpretation you know, which is what those things are as well.
T Bone: Yeah, because this thread that goes through these things, it goes back through time and goes through all of these, everything Bob’s done. Yes, it extends into the past and into the future. So any of us could grab, you know, a moment from 1967 or a moment from 1987 or a moment from any time, of some way to relate to this thing and it all ends up being of a piece at any right.
Anne Litt: I think you’re right.
T Bone: I was trying to agree with you.
Anne Litt: Excellent. I also know that you all recorded or made a documentary around the making of this album and actually before we get to the documentary there was one other thing I wanted to ask you. Listening, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to the album and you’re talking about all the multiple versions of all these songs but there aren’t all of the versions on the album, what will happen to the other versions? Will we get to hear those? Or will you play them live?
Elvis Costello: We’re going to bootleg them.
Anne Litt: Excellent! Well isn’t that what this is ultimately about, the birth of the bootleg, you know, that’s where it started.
Elvis Costello: It is now.
T Bone: In one way, ya, definitely.
Anne Litt: So there is a documentary about the making of this album which when we air this will not yet have aired. How did you feel about that coming into your process of song writing, is that disconcerting?
Marcus Mumford: I’d say it didn’t affect the song writing at all. You know, the song writing was a separate thing that was happening and it’s not unusual to be watched anyway, really . You know, there was a bit of effort in trying to ignore the fact that there were cameras around and it couldn’t of been more different than the original basement tapes, method, you know. Which was literally in a basement, writing, recording a writing session that they never thought would get out. So it is different in that way, but it didn’t, I don’t think it affected our creative process, I mean we were still pretty prolific in that two weeks to get it all done and they were just sort of watching it, which is fine.
Anne Litt: I love it. I want to thank you guys so much for talking to us today about this; the project has been so much fun to listen to and to learn about, is there, T Bone, in closing anything that we don’t know that would be fun for us to know. I’ve learned so much about how you made the record today, but is there something, I don’t know, something secret. What’s next or is there something I’m not going to learn from listening to the record?
T Bone: Here is the next thing that happens and it might be the last thing that happens. Which is we’re playing a show Thursday night, which would be before this airs as well I think, but…
Elvis Costello: Where are we playing that show?
T Bone: We’re playing the show right down the street…
Anne Litt: We can walk there.
T Bone At Montel Bond Theater, so we could do that, speaking of going backward and forward in time, maybe you can… (laughter)
Anne Litt: There you go. Will that be the first show that you all have done, a full show of these songs?
Anne Litt: Besides I guess, this morning.
T Bone: Now we’ve rehearsed them all for the different shows, so we have a repertoire now, and Marcus was insistent on going and playing, which I agree with, that’s the whole point of this after all.
Rihannon: Hopefully it’s not the last time we do.
Jim James: Marcus might insist again – yup.
Anne Litt: Alright, well you heard it here, they’re going to play again.
Elvis Costello:And as you know we do want Marcus says.
Anne Litt: I’m learning that. Thank you guys so much for coming in and talking to us at KCRW, I really appreciate it, all of you.