Ben Vaughn's 1965 Rambler American has had a profound
influence on the course of his life (and I'm talking more than just roadmap
destination stuff here). It has raised girlfriends' eyebrows, cinched him a
composing deal with TV's "Third Rock from the Sun" and served as the
recording studio for his latest album.
It's a pretty sure bet that the designers of AMC's 1965 Rambler American didn't design the car's interior leg room with the expectation that someone might want to move a recording studio into the back seat. But at the end of 1994, that's exactly what Vaughn did.
"I was parked in the driveway and I ran one of those big ugly orange power cords into the house," he recalls. "I brought my home studio out, an eight-track reel-to-reel with one track broken . And I had an eight-track Tascam mixing board and a little Panasonic turntable to use as a power amp."
But why? Why record an entire 10-song album in your car?
"I was producing demos in a studio in Hoboken and we were having a problem getting a good sound from this conga player," Vaughn explains. "As a joke, I said, 'why don't we just go stick it out in the car — it's gotta sound better in there.' It was as innocent as that really. But then I started thinking...I wonder what it would sound like?"
Why use a Rambler as the car to do it in? Why not say, a utility van, or a roomie Cadillac?
"A Rambler's what I drive," Vaughn says, admitting that he's had more than one date question his taste. "I've owned nothing but Ramblers since high school. I'm on my fifth one. I love the car."
Eclectic? Sure. But par for Vaughn's course. He's worked as a producer for the likes of Ween and Los Strait Jackets, and cowritten with rockabilly legend Dave Alvin and guitar great Peter Case. In 1990 he put out Dressed In Black, a rockabilly record with guests like John Hiatt, Alex Chilton, Marshall Crenshaw, The dB's Peter Holsapple and Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano. His last record on Bar None was a collection of instrumental spaghetti western and surf guitar songs called Instrumental Stylings. The one in between? Mono U.S.A., an album of cover tunes recorded and mixed in mono in his home studio. Now there's Rambler '65, his eighth album overall, which includes 10 songs that would have been right at home coming out of the Rambler's mono speakers back in its birthyear.
"There's magic there, and mystery in the AM sound. To me, when recording got really slick and in stereo and multi-tracked, you started being able to pick out the different instruments a little too clearly. I have a real romantic image of what music oughtta be — and I think it should be filled in by the listener."
Vaughn says recording Rambler 65 was a personal challenge to himself. A mid-life commitment crisis of sorts.
"W ith the Rambler record, it was the challenge to commit myself to something all the way through until the end, whether it was a good idea or a bad idea.The experiment was the work itself. Whether it was released or not, or whether I would even want to play it for anybody afterwards wasn't what I was thinking about. It was all about the process. I was very curious about the sonic possibilities of a car."
As it turned out, those possibilities coalesced into exactly what Vaughn had been searching for in high-priced, spacious studios for years. Not only were the metallic floors good for foot-tapping, but vocals and guitars sounded great in the small confines of the '65 Rambler (they didn't work as well in his '64 Rambler, which Vaughn chalks up in part to the water damage in the ceiling of the '65 model).
"I did a soundcheck with an acoustic guitar in that car just to see if it was a good idea to start this project or not — and it was the best acoustic guitar sound I ever got! It sounded like one of those early Dylan albums, like folk albums used to sound before they started recording guitars beautifully. It's the sound I've been looking for basically my whole life and I didn't find it 'til I recorded in my car! It has an edge to it, an immediacy that you just don't get in the studio."
Vaughn blames Ween, in part, for the sound of Rambler '65, which leads off with a nostalgic Dave Edmunds-style gem called "Seven Days Without Love."
"I produced Ween's last record. Those guys are ruthless. They got me back to my roots, because they do all their records in their home. Those guys will sing and play through anything — any distortion box or phase shifter. Recording with them, I realized that a lot of that stuff was a very legitimate way to express yourself."
Hence the use of a Rat distortion pedal to flatten out the vocals on "Seven Days."
"I used a Shure SM-57 mic without a windscreen and plugged it into a Rat and plugged it into the board and sang. In one take. Boom. And the harmonica is actually on the same track, going through the Rat. It's a vocal sound that various records have used. Like "I Hear You Knockin'" by Dave Edmunds, where he's singing through some kind of radio mic or something or "In The Summertime" by Mungo Jerry. It takes all the overtones out of the voice. There's no bass and no real treble. It's just really ugly midrange. So it cuts through."
With a vintage-sounding album recorded in a vintage car, you can assume that vintage guitars were used. You would assume more-or-less correctly.
"I use an '85 Telecaster which is a vintage reissue of a 1962, I believe. I infuriate guitar guys when they meet me because I really know nothing about guitars. They want to talk about tube amp systems and I'm like, huh? I got a Telecaster when I was 14 and I learned to play on it and....well, it's like the Rambler. I play a Telecaster. I also use a '66 Fender Mustang that has some serious intonation problems. But I use it all over this record. Anytime you hear a whammy bar, it's the Mustang. And I use a Takamini acoustic, which really records nicely."
Rambler '65 actually came out in a limited edition last year through a record company in Spain.
"Originally, I put the album together and listened to it with some friends and they said 'Wow, this has to be your next record.' So I put it out in this limited edition so I could have the record in my hands and calmly shop it around. I wasn't really looking for a record deal, I was just kind of loitering through life, as usual. I'm not a career-oriented person. I just have to keep doing things that are different from what I did before. I had a meeting with Rhino Records about a reissue project and James Austin at Rhino asked what I was working on now. When I told him about Rambler '65 he went nuts. He thought this was incredible. I gave him a copy and he went nuts and said, 'we have to sign this.'"
Vaughn then made a 24-minute faux documentary of the making of the album, which takes him through the process of recording in the car at the same time as he is trying to replace its pistons to make it run again. The video ends with him dropping a copy of the recording tapes to "The Geator" a "vintage" Philadelphia DJ who puts "Seven Days Without Love" on the air so Vaughn can run out and listen to how it sounds over his car radio." The longform video includes a couple of clippable MTV style videos for songs from Rambler 65, as well as the guest appearance by The Geator, who Vaughn credits as his "hero."
" I grew up listening to him. He has his own AM radio station and he still plays old records and talks a mile a minute and pounds his desk with his fist and screams. He's amazing. He's my hero. I started listening to him on AM radio when I was 8 or 9 years old and he played the craziest shit. My dad was just appalled."
A Wolfman Jack type of DJ?
"Yeah, but the difference is that he started out as a dancer on 'American Bandstand.' He was one of us. Whereas the Wolfman was more of a father figure. The Geator was always right down there dancing with the dancers. He may be the only disc jockey that was a dancer. Usually the DJs were the guys who couldn't dance but loved music."
Since recording Rambler '65 at his New Jersey home, Vaughn transplanted himself to L.A., in search of soundtrack work. His instrumental album of 1995, coupled with the omnipresent Rambler, landed him his most visible job to date — as the music scorer for "Third Rock From The Sun." A TV exec heard him being interviewed on the radio where they played music from Instrumental Stylings. It wasn't long before Vaughn was having a meeting with the "Third Rock" producers, who showed Vaughn the pilot episode. Vaughn says he flipped when he saw the "Third Rock" cast lounging in a Rambler. He pointed out his own car in the parking lot.
"They looked at me and said, 'You drive a Rambler? You got the job!' So it was like it was meant to be."
Every week Vaughn records new episodic music for "Third Rock,' and he is now also on call to do music for the show "Men Behaving Badly."
"I'd like to think that "Third Rock" reflects my personality and "Men Behaving Badly" reflects what people think I'm like," he quips.
While Rambler '65 is really more than two years old for Vaughn at this point, he says he has no current plans for a new record. Scoring the two TV shows, as well as some independent film soundtracks, has been keeping him busy.
"I am not working on an album now, but I'm recording and writing all the time. I have probably 20 new songs with lyrics and then I have probably 30 to 40 instrumental songs. I'm always recording and writing. It's what I do. It's all I do. And when I'm working on something for "Third Rock" or "Men Behaving Badly" or film, I always make sure I write something for myself at the same time and put it in the can."
The soundtrack work has kept Vaughn from playing live much over the past couple years, but he hints that he could take Rambler '65 on the road.
"Anything is possible. The TV season is over May 1 and then I'm free til August..."
Of course, he may use that summer vacation to go searching for a new Rambler.
"Ramblers were made by an independent company so it was like the indies against the majors. American Motors vs. GM. They made them in Kenosha, Wisconsin and supposedly the Kenosha Police force at one time all drove Ramblers. I'd like to get one of those old Rambler police cars. So if you know anybody..."
Spread the word.
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