Posted August, 2014
The Last Hombres. You may or may not have heard of them. To many, they’re a “best kept secret” by the most discriminating of music fans. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, let me give you a little background on ‘em. In the beginning, the band consisted of Paul Schmitz, Michael Meehan, Russ Seeger and, ultimately (believe it or not), none other than the great Levon Helm on drums.
Yes! Levon Freakin’ Helm!
The band focused on what is now called “Americana” music and developed quite a loyal following. The band produced their popular album, Redemption, and toured with Helm, playing legendary clubs and appearing on live radio shows that included World Cafe.
Helm eventually peeled away to focus on his barn party endeavor called “The Midnight Ramble” and, ultimately, the band split up about ten or so years ago – and on amicable terms. Schmitz helped out Helm get things started on his “Ramble” project as well as put out an album, Raised By Wolves, as The Low Rollers. Seeger continued to play, ultimately becoming in-demand guitar slinger as well as put out a solo album, Live In Peace. They all became friends Chris James, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. But, as the band tells it, it would take another force of nature to get all these Hombres back in a room making music together.
That force of nature was drummer Tom Ryan and the “Hurricane Ryan” struck recently – about ten years after the Last Hombres’ last hurrah. He got the Hombres to reunite for a fundraiser. The set went so well, one thing led to another and the band got back together and cut a brand spankin’ new album, Odd Fellows Rest.
Because of that new album, I was afforded the opportunity to speak with Paul Schmitz – not only about the band’s reunion and the album, but also some poignant stories about the late Levon Helm.
Paul called me from his home on the north shore of Long Island, New York. Warm, gracious and engaging, we made small talk before quickly getting into chatting about Odd Fellows Rest.
I started off by asking him to describe The Last Hombres for the uninitiated.
“The band itself is really – and I don’t want to sound hokey or anything – the Last Hombres, we’re on a journey to see the sites different sites that are around. That’s what we’re in it for: the journey and not the destination. We’re looking at what kind of action can happen; what kind of fun we can create; the experiences of going what we go through. That’s the pay off. We’re all about that.
“It’s music. It’s a very spiritual thing. When we played with Levon (Helm), he was very much into the spiritual aspects of music – the healing part of it and the spiritual part of it and what it meant. I spent hours talking to him about it – days and weeks talking to him about it. That’s how all of the old blues guys felt, too – like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, all of those guys. They did it for the spiritual aspect of it – the raising of the human spirit. That’s kind of what we’re about as a band. And, like I said, that can come off sounding hokey or like bullshit but that’s how we are.
And as for the music?
“Tom Ryan’s the drummer and the guy who really got us going again. He’s one of the three formers of the band. And we’re all, like, ‘Why? Why are we doing this?’ Because were all playing solo stuff and we had our run – 2003 was our last show. Me, Mike and Russell – we’re all kinda like, ‘The run’s over’. We had a nice run and played with Levon Helm and Rick Danko. We just felt like the run was over. We never thought we’d ever play together again.
“So, Tom Ryan is somewhat of a maniac. He’s a drummer, number one. That’s gotta tell ya something there. He’s got this energy level that I’ve never quite got. I mean, I’m a Type A personality and it blows me away. His brain’s on fire all the time! He’s always got something going in his head. His energy and his life force are very affecting. He’s really the one who brought the band back together. We were here, kicking around, playing a benefit here and there. Then, it was, like, ‘Let’s go record a new album!’ What?!
“One thing led to another and then we just went in (the studio). We all had backlogs of material. We have three writers. I write. Mike Meehan writes and Russ Seeger writes so, we had tons of material. That was actually the hardest was picking out of everybody’s song book. ‘What are we gonna do? What fits the Hombres as an album?’ So we settled on what we were gonna do and we went in and recorded it.
“Tom coined the phrase of what we do. It was the best, short analysis of what we do which is ‘cinematic American’. It puts pictures in your head of what we do. We recorded all this stuff. You’ve got three different writers writing in three different places and we brought all the songs in. Some of them we didn’t even know when we recorded them. They were the third take of a new song we were trying. That’s how we approached recording. We recorded live – just set everything up in a really good studio, turned on the machine and went.
“What I found strange was how the songs related to each other. They’re all along the same lines of different characters in the songs. It all played out like a movie. That was a total accident. I didn’t notice that until we were mastering. I’m sitting in the chair at Scott Hull’s Mastering and I’m listening to it and, first of all, I’m hearing it on million dollar speakers and I’ll never hear it again like that! And, then, I’m thinking, ‘This makes sense! “From beginning to end, this tells a story!’ We didn’t plan on telling a story. It wasn’t a concept album or any of that kind of stuff. It was an accident but it turned out. We’re pretty happy with how it turned out.”
I asked Schmitz what was different about recording Odd Fellows as compared to Redemption - from both a collaboration and technological perspective.
“I would just say that it’s grown as we’ve grown as people - as spiritual beings. We’re just a better band. We’re better writers. We’re, hopefully, better human beings. There’s a definite consciousness in this group of responsibility. Levon was always saying, ‘Look, you have a responsibility as a music maker to – not only to the music – but to the people, to raise their spirits.’ There’s that consciousness in this band as far as the themes that went on. It wasn’t like it was an afterthought. It wasn’t thought out. It was not a conscious effort to do that from a songwriting standpoint. It just happened that way. We’re all on the same path in that aspect. We see the reaction of what music has on people.
“Even science has become hip to what music can do for people. It brings up their spirits. Special Ed kids – they have music programs for these kids. Levon was involved in a lot of that kind of thing that nobody knew about. He used to go to cancer wards and play music for people. It lifts the spirits. There’s a healing thing there. So we’re conscious of that and there’s a responsibility that goes along with that. It’s not like we’re constantly thinking about that. But I think that gets reflected in how the songs were written and they come out. We want people to laugh. Reflect. Think about what we’re talking about. Interpret their own version of what we’re saying. That’s how we think on that respect.
“From a technical point of view, we recorded Redemption in a really good studio in Glen Cove – the rhythm tracks – with Levon. I had a home studio that we did mostly everything else and then we went back to the studios in Glen Cove. That was redemption. For Odd Fellows, we went One East Recording in New York City where we recorded the entire album except for the brass band. Tom went to Payette (Louisiana) and recorded those there.
“This one is a cross between old school and new school – digital and analog. The kid that produced us – Yohei Goto – do you know Steve Jordan – the drummer? He’s his engineer. The one thing that Yohei knows how to do is record drums. Keith Richards records up in One East and the Stones were in One East. It’s a small, little place and it’s got a lot of good stuff in it and it sounds really good.”
When I mentioned that others like Boston, Joe Walsh and Rick Derringer like to record in analog as The Last Hombres just did, Paul added, “But it all ends up digital at some point. How we recorded Redemption was went to two inch tape on really good machines, transferred it over to Tascam 78’s – digital. Then we brought the machines back to my basement studio, recorded all this other stuff and then went back in. So there’s a lot of back and forth in this day and age. To me, if you’ve got a lot of great analog gear at the front of ProTools, ProTools is really good. Certainly, editing is great on it. I come from the days when we were cutting up and splicing little pieces of two inch tape all over the floor. It’s rare that guys will record to two inch tape any more. We ended up not doing that. We could’ve.
“What we always do is we recorded everything through the Neve Console, through LA2a’s, through Fairchild 660’s, RCA Ba6a’s, Neumann mic’s – all that good stuff gets it into ProTools. You can edit things much better. Yohei knows enough or Steve Jordan would kill him if he didn’t make it sound like pristine and he’s worked with a ton of great people. A lot of credit for how it sounds has to go to him. He’s the guy who really knows what he’s doing. It’s a tedious process. We’re in there going, “Yeah, we like that. No, we don’t like that” and he’s the one who putting it all together.
“Then, the big difference between this and a lot of records is we went over to Scott Hull over at Masterdisk. He mastered ‘Nevermind” by Nirvana. He masters all of Steely Dan’s albums. He worked for Bob Ludwig (Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Clapton, McCartney, and countless others). He was his assistant for fifteen years and took over for Bob Ludwig.
“If you look at any album about the stuff you write about – the seventies – Bob Ludwig mastered more than half of it. So, Scott Hull – Combat Rock by The Clash – I’m looking at his wall and going, ‘Oh my god! Now he’s gotta work on our crap?’ But he liked it! That was a huge, huge difference what a great mastering engineer can do for a record. They can’t put a spirit in it, though, which is what is in that record as far as I’m concerned. There’s a certain spirit in Odd Fellows that, no matter how you record it, it’s gotta be there.” Then, in concluding his answer, he mused, “What we do, unfortunately, is a dying art. We’re trying to keep it alive.”
While preparing for my interview with Schmitz, I hadn’t intended on bringing up the late Levon Helm who passed away two years ago after a heroic fight with cancer. I assumed that the subject might still be a bit sensitive to those like Paul who knew him. Because Paul mentioned Helm a couple of times in our chat, I felt comfortable in asking how his passing impacted him and the band and how it influenced Odd Fellows.
“Levon was huge influence on me, personally. We became very, very good friends. When the Hombres split up in ’03 . . . Levon and I went up to Woodstock to start a rockabilly band that I was going to front and we had a standup bass player. That was what the plan was. By October of that year, I went up to Woodstock and started putting this rockabilly band together – which completely disassembled the second he talked about the Midnight Rambles. I said, ‘That’s a helluva good idea!’ I had a small hand in helping him get that together. He had been so sick but we’d be at a gig and I’d hear another voice and I’d look back and he’d be singing. He could barely speak when I first met him. Then, every once in a while I’d hear a fourth harmony in there and I’d turn around and it would be him!
“So, basically, what happened was he started singing again, which he was never supposed to do. They said there was no way he would ever sing again. Maybe he would whisper through the rest of his life. All of a sudden, he’s singing and then he’s singing good!
“So, he put the Rambles together. I knew that was going to be a piece of cake – a slam dunk. I hung out until 2004 and then went to do other things myself. Then the Rambles became a big thing. He didn’t have a ton of confidence at that point. A lot of work went into making that happen, though.
“The last time I hung out with him, the Hombres had reformed. I went up to Ramble and brought my daughter. He and his wife loved my daughter and was always a great visit so I brought her back. This was a couple of years ago and was the last time I hung out with him. He was just thrilled that she was there. I said, ‘Look, we just put the Hombres back together’ and got this huge grin on his face. He said, ‘Just go for it, man! I love playing with you guys. I love being with you guys.’ So, yeah, there’s always that influence there.”
Then Paul surprised me with a deeply personal story involving Helm.
“My brother – who used to always do road work for us and was with us through all of that early Hombre stuff – he’d gotten colon cancer. This was the kind of guy Levon was, okay? My brother, Bill, was in Chicago. I called Levon because he was getting’ ready to go. It was getting towards the end. I called Levon and said, ‘Bill is on his last legs’ and Levon goes, ‘What can I do? What’s his address?’ and I gave him his address. ‘What can I do?’ and I said, ‘If you want to give him a call, give him a call’ and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that’. He called every day for thirty days until he died. He sent him a box of t-shirts and CDs and all kinds of notes. I didn’t even know that he did that but that’s the kind of guy he was. He had such a huge heart and such a huge spirit. That’s the kind of guy he was. That’s a testament to Levon. That’s who he was.”
When asked what pre-release buzz for the album has been like, Schmitz said, “I haven’t heard anything negative. Some people really love it. What surprised me is certain songs that people pick out as their favorite song - one of them being Streetlights, which is the last song on the record. I didn’t want that on the record! But it fits. It’s the end of the story and I didn’t see it that way. We tried it with the band and it didn’t work. We tried it with just the piano and that didn’t work. Then Tom said, ‘Let me take it to New Orleans and see what the horn guys do with it’. He brought it back and I was, like, ‘Oh! Okay, that works!’ So, that’s what it became.
“So, yeah, we’re getting incredibly good reviews and positive feedback. We’re thrilled with that. There’s nothing better than putting something out and having people like it. That’s the payoff. “
Is the band planning a tour to promote the CD?
“We’re going out in September and October – mostly the northeast for the first round. We’re booking dates now. Then we’re going to go south. We’ll probably go to New Orleans at the end of October/first of November. I want to go in warm weather. Ha! Ha! That’s my goal. We’ll probably do that kind of thing through the winter – get out of the northeast as much as we can. That’s the plan right now and what everybody is working towards.”
I asked Paul what fans and the curious can expect from a Last Hombres gig.
“Russ Seeger on the guitar – he’s an amazing guitar player. Russ’s quote is, ‘It’s (the band) is powerful. There’s something about this that’s very powerful.’ I feel that on stage and that goes off into the audience and the audience feeds back. I would say that is the thing: the power and the energy that happens when the Hombres play. We don’t ever really go out and have flat shows. We’re not a hit or miss band. We’re really consistent. We don’t over rehearse the stuff. We’re never going to play a song the same way twice. We leave a lot of room open for stuff to happen but we’re consistent as far as that goes. And fun! People have a lot of fun when we play. It may not sound like party music on the record but it’s party music. People come around and a party breaks out and we get to be in it so it’s cool!”
When I asked Schmitz what was on the band’s radar for the next year or so, he shared, “The next five years? Staying alive. I would say the next six months is going to be spent playing out, playing a lot of shows; getting out as far as we can. I want to go to Europe. What we do in Europe is, supposedly, very popular. I don’t know why but that’s what I’m told is that the American/roots/rock genre is big there so I’d like to go to Europe. Then, go back into the studio and start on another record, which we’re really actually thinking about doing that this month. We have such a backlog of material and none of us ever stop writing.”
As our call wrapped up, I asked Paul how he wished to be remembered and what he hoped his legacy will be when he joins Helm at that great gig in the sky.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who tried something who, as a little kid, I was told that I couldn’t do it and did it. I grew up in an area and a situation where it was not encouraged to be a musician, to be a guitar player. I, essentially, told everybody to **** off and lived my life the way I chose. I want to be remembered as a guy who cared about music so much that I lived for it. That I tried to help people. That I had a big heart. I don’t know what impact any of this has anywhere. I just don’t know how little or how big. I don’t know any of that. I hope people enjoy it. I hope it speaks to people. I hope it raises their spirits. That’s really why I’m doing it.
“Not to harp on Levon but I watched Levon – when I first met him, he was very, very ill. I watched that man be healed by music and the people that loved him to the point to where he could sing again and he won two Grammy’s. That’s how powerful music is. It’s big medicine. If I can do that, if I can help somebody, if somebody hears what we do and it raises their spirits or helps them in any way . . . I think it does for people. And that’s what music is.”