Way Down in the Jungle Room: Interview with Matt Ross-Spang

I’ve always liked Elvis’ last studio recordings – those 16 songs that he recorded in February and October 1976 in the Jungle Room of his beloved home Graceland. Most of these songs that were first released on the albums From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (1976) and Moody Blue (1977) are of a contemplative nature. They are highly emotional expressions of deep loss. In that sense quite a few of them belong to Elvis Presleys finest interpretations for me.

Elvis posing for a Memphis police badge photo at his home Graceland in February 1976

A serious looking Elvis posing for a Memphis police badge photo at his home Graceland in February 1976

Knowing that the Jungle Room recordings are Elvis’ last studio recordings ever, many people are naturally drawn to listen to them simply as the final farewell of a sick and unhappy superstar who knows that his end is near. For a reason that I could never pinpoint myself I always found this retrospective viewpoint debatable, although it definitely reflects the mood of the songs. For me the Jungle Room recordings felt more like Elvis trying to refer to the beginnings of his career in the early 1950s at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis. But as I said, I could never really explain why.

When RCA/Sony announced earlier this year that a new set with 2 discs called Way Down In The Jungle Room (Legacy Edition) is in the making with the support of a very successful young engineer called Matt Ross-Spang, I became curious. I found out that Matt had worked for years at the still existing Sun Studio in Memphis, before he changed location to the Sam Phillips Recording Service operated by the Phillips family.

Cover of Way Down In The Jungle Room - RCA/Sony Legacy 2016

Cover of Way Down In The Jungle Room – RCA/Sony Legacy 2016

 

Back cover of Way Down in The Jungle Room with the new mix of Matt Ross-Spang on CD 2 - RCA/Sony Legacy

Back cover of Way Down in The Jungle Room with the new mix of Matt Ross-Spang on disc 2 – RCA/Sony Legacy 2016

Matt Ross-Spang’s credits in the studio include names like Jerry Lee Lewis, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jakob Dylan, Justin Townes Earle, JD McPherson, and Chris Isaak. Just to name a few. Earlier this year Matt won a well deserved Grammy for engineering and mixing Jason Isabell’s Something More Than Free. Besides, he was responsible for engineering, mixing, and co-producing Margo Price’s debut record Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter.

Legendary Elvis – Sam Phillips – Sun Studio – Matt Ross Spang – Jungle Room sessions 1976? Was I right after all with my feelings about Elvis’ last “studio” recordings at Graceland? I decided to find out more about the new mix on Way Down In The Jungle Room (2016) and the engineer behind it by asking the man himself what all of this is really about. Matt Ross-Spang turned out to be a very nice guy.

Matt Ross-Spang entering Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis - Photo: Ross-Spang

Matt Ross-Spang entering Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis – Photo: Ross-Spang

INTERVIEW

The Memphis Flash: Matt, you’re from Memphis where it all started for Elvis in 1954 in Sam Phillips’ now world-famous Sun Studio. The studio and the Phillips family play a major role in your successful career as well. How come?

Matt Ross-Spang: Sure! I was born and raised in Memphis! I played guitar in bands and I got 2 hours of studio time at Sun Studio for my 14th birthday from my wonderful parents. When I recorded there I was mesmerized by the studio and the process of recording and mixing. The engineer there James Lott was a great patient man who made the whole process fun and answered all of my annoying questions! My cousin John was the President at Sun and offered me a job when I was 16 and could drive, so I started working there then as a tour guide and an intern in the studio.

Hound Dog-Parodist Sam Phillips in seinem berühmten Aufnahmestudio in der Union Avenue

Matt’s hero Sam Phillips at Sun Studio in Memphis

I soon worked my way up to Operations Manager and Chief Engineer. I spent 11 years at Sun and spent most of that time installing and using the same period equipment Sam Phillips used back in Sun’s heyday. While working at Sun I met and became friend with the Phillips’. Sam and his two sons Knox and Jerry I consider to be heroes of mine (and many others). Obviously being from Memphis you are born an Elvis fan! But especially for me the history and the music that was recorded in Memphis really consumed me. Elvis is a big part of that!

The Memphis Flash: How did you get the assignment for a new mix of the outtakes and alternate versions on the new release Way Down in the Jungle Room?

Matt Ross-Spang: A friend of mine Sharon Corbitt-House recommended me to Sony’s Rob Santos and Ernst Jorgensen who are the Producers of the Elvis record. After a few phone calls we worked out scheduling and we decided to do it at Phillips. I am a freelance engineer but Phillips is a magical studio and Rob always wanted to do a project there so it was a perfect fit.

The Memphis Flash: I see. Was this Elvis project something you wanted to do for a long time?

Matt Ross-Spang: I could say I’ve always wanted to do this but I never imagined I’d ever get to work with Elvis. So it was really great surprise and a dream come true… not to mention very very heavy.

The Memphis Flash: To work with Elvis sure puts some pressure on you. What is your idea behind the new mix of the Jungle Room sessions? How free were you in realizing your own vision?

Matt Ross-Spang: Well first and foremost to stay true to the original material and the thought process that they were in. Rob and Ernst and I discussed the material and they had some thoughts but then let me do my thing which was great. Each song after I finished my mix we would listen and tweak as need be, before we went to the next. I always mix pretty old school using analog gear with some digital as well as mixing by hand and using real plates or echo chambers for reverb and tape machines for delay.

Engineer Matt Ross-Spang in the studio - Photo: Ross-Spang

Engineer Matt Ross-Spang with his studio equipment – Photo: Ross-Spang/Jamie Harmon

In this case we used my real plate reverbs and the echo chambers built by Sam Phillips! Along with his personal studio outboard gear. I go completely by feel. I didn’t want the mixes to sound modern… I wanted them to feel timeless if that makes sense. I wanted them to appeal to the hardcore fans while also attracting new ones. Most importantly I wanted to do what I think Elvis would of liked.

The Memphis Flash: In what form did you receive the original tapes and what equipment did you use for your mix?

Matt Ross-Spang: The tapes were already transferred to digital so I was given a hard drive containing all the tape transfers. I set up the songs on the console and would patch in as needed on a song to song basis. No two songs were mixed or set up the same.

The Memphis Flash:  Did you experience any major challenges and/or suprises while working on the recordings?

Matt Ross-Spang: I think most people assume that it’s 1976, Elvis is close to the end, out of shape and not vocally in his prime BUT you can hear from these tapes that he was completely in command of not only his vocal but creatively and as a band leader/producer. I think he sounds great. Every album there are some songs that are hard to mix. On this one I’d say it was Danny Boy. Danny Boy has the least amount of tracks or overdubs but sometimes its harder to mix because its so empty.

Audio Danny Boy, Take 9 – Way Down In The Jungle Room

They cut that one late at night and so dynamically they weren’t as locked in as usual. I rode every fader through every part of the song trying to get it all to “sit” . The tracks were recorded very well. I don’t compress much in any session but this session I barely compressed or eq’d things. I mostly just rode the faders for every instrument through the whole song to get things to “pop”.

The Memphis Flash: I understand that some of Elvis’ musicians who worked with him in the Jungle Room back in 1976 were present at your session. How did they contribute to your work 40 years after the original session?

Back in the Jungle Room: Elvis' band musicians Ronnie Tutt (drums), David Briggs (piano), James Burton (guitar) and Norbert Putnam (bass) return to the Jungle Room where they recorded the famous tracks in 1976.

Back where it happened (left to right): Elvis’ musicians Ronnie Tutt (drums), David Briggs (piano), James Burton (guitar) and Norbert Putnam (bass) return to the Jungle Room where they recorded the famous tracks in 1976.

Matt Ross-Spang: The record was mixed for the most part by then but it was great having the studio chatter spark memories for the guys that they would share. Also it probably let to James Burton’s solos being louder than usual because when he came in the control room I would goose them up! Hah!

The Memphis Flash: In a recent interview you mentioned that you’re a massive Elvis fan. What is your personal fascination with Elvis’ music?

Matt Ross-Spang: Oh man that’s tough to answer. He’s one of the greatest artists that ever lived and changed not only music but pop culture… as the LP says 50,000,000 Elvis fans cant be wrong!

The Memphis Flash: What’s your favorite recording on Way Down in the Jungle Room and why?

Matt Ross-Spang: I don’t know if I could pick my favorite track. That would be like picking my favorite flavor cake. They are all so good! I love moments on the record… the bass lines on For the Heart…

Audio For the Heart – Way Down In The Jungle Room

… the swampiness of She Thinks I Still Care. I could go on!

Audio She Thinks I Still Care  – Way Down In The Jungle Room

The Memphis Flash: Is there something you would have liked to ask Elvis while mixing the outtakes and alternate versions?

Matt Ross-Spang: If I could talk to Elvis I’d probably ask for a photo!

The Memphis Flash: And you would get one for sure ;-)! For those who haven’t bought the new release of the Jungle Room sessions yet, what do you think makes it a different listening experience than previous releases and therefore worthwile buying?

Matt Ross-Spang: I think hearing the studio chatter and the alternate versions are amazing. You can hear Elvis at home surrounded by friends doing what he loves. Not on stage or on camera persona. As I mentioned before the original masters have all the strings and horns overdubs and Elvis’ vocal is somewhat buried. The tapes I mixed from were before the overdubs so you get to hear the songs how they were originally cut. I also worked hard to keep Elvis’ vocal clear and upfront. I’m a little biased but I think it sounds pretty hip!

The Memphis Flash: Not biased at all. I like your mix a lot and hope that we are going to have more Elvis by Matt Ross-Spang in the future. Thank you for taking the time to do the interview.

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