“If you go close enough to Stevie while he was doing his thing, it was almost like he was in a trance, like something else was playing through him.”
The late producer/engineer Richard Mullen – the man behind the boards for Texas Flood, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Soul to Soul, In Step, The Sky Is Crying and Live at Carnegie Hall – was well-equipped to speak about the power and glory of Stevie Ray Vaughan. “On the spot, Stevie could play things that he’d never done before, like he was tapped into a higher plane. His level of precision and expertise was flawless.
In this rare 2003 interview, Mullen describes his approach to recording Stevie, as well as their close working relationship over the course of SRV’s life.
A guitarist and pedal steel player, Mullen (1953-2019) moved to Austin in the early Seventies, and in 1976 connected with a young SRV, initiating a fruitful relationship that lasted throughout Stevie’s career.
In conversation, Mullen’s respect and admiration for Stevie’s artistry is overflowing. “He played on at least a 95 to 98 percent level of perfection all the time. In the studio, whether he would ‘bring it’ was not even an issue. He was fearless when it came to playing, and he always played well.”
Regarding Texas Flood and Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Mullen says, “Every take was based on Stevie’s performance; if he exploded on the track, that’s the one we used. On every record I made with him, the final product consisted primarily of live takes, which is something above and beyond what most musicians are capable of.”
How did you first meet Stevie?
“I was playing in an original band in Austin called Denim, and the main place we played was the Rome Inn, where we often crossed paths with Stevie when he was with Paul Ray and the Cobras. This is where Stevie and I had our first conversations; he was very shy and I think the first three times we spoke, we had exactly the same conversation!
“I often ran sound at the Rome Inn during those days, and I would record the shows. I was running sound one night when Paul Ray had gotten sick, and this was literally the very first time Stevie came out as the front man, doing all the singing. You could see where he was headed. Unfortunately, that tape was stolen!
“Stevie was always one of my favorite people to go hear, but his soundmen were so bad. If I was planning to see him, I’d go down to the club in the afternoon and do the sound check so that it would sound reasonable when I went to see him that night.”
You did this for selfish reasons, then?
“In a way, yes; [Laughs] I did want it to sound as good as possible, and he noticed it sounded better when I came down. I eventually moved into live sound and studio work entirely, and I began doing live sound for him in ’81.”
Was Stevie working with his manager, Chesley Millikin, at this point?
“Yes. Chesley hooked us up with recording Texas Flood at Jackson Browne’s studio, which may have happened because he was dating Jackson’s sister. That was the connection to us ending up in L.A. at Jackson’s studio. Chesley was not a huge fan of mine and he did everything in his power to keep me away from that session, but he failed!”
Was Texas Flood the first time you recorded Stevie in the studio?
“I had used Stevie on some of my own sessions; one was for a singer/songwriter named Vince Bell, and I brought Stevie in to do some slide work. The session that turned out to be Texas Flood was the first time I worked with Stevie on a session of his own.”
Did you squeeze into the milk truck for the trip out to L.A.? [Stevie, Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon traveled from Austin to L.A. in a converted milk truck, which was the band’s van – GW Ed.]
“No, thankfully! Stevie and I had planned to go together, but Chesley wasn’t going to pay my way out there. Coincidentally, I was already in L.A. in the studio with Christopher Cross. We met Chesley at Jackson’s studio, and Chesley had a heart attack when he saw me! The main reason he wanted me out of the picture was that he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. But it turned out that the engineer there, Greg Ladanyi, wasn’t really interested in the session.
“Once he’d set things up, he had the assistant run the 24-track machine and that was it. I was just standing in the corner with my hands in my pockets. They’d done some recording to get sounds, and Stevie kept looking at me, like, ‘Help!’ He wasn’t happy with how it was going, so I said, ‘Stevie, you are the only one here with any clout; you can change things if you want to.’
“Stevie was always shy back in those days, so a few more hours went by. After going out for some food, we came back and Greg was gone. Stevie went up to the assistant engineer and said, ‘I brought this guy with me from Texas to do this recording, and we’d really like him to work on it.’ The assistant said, ‘I’m just here to punch ‘Play’ and ‘Record,’ so go ahead and do whatever you need to do.’
“I revamped everything and basically started from scratch: I tuned the drums, set up the guitar and bass, re-did the mic placement, re-EQ-ed the board and got new, better sounds for everything. My goal was to make Stevie as happy as possible with his guitar tone, to the point of setting the tones on his amp a certain way. Once I had changed everything around, they were all happy; all they had to do was go in and play. Whatever they had recorded previously was scrapped.”
Did you use just one 24-track machine?
“Yes, but I was really interested in doing it in a 16-track/two-inch format. This way, I could play the tape on my 16-track back home [at Riverside Sound] to record the vocals, which is what we ended up doing. You can convert a 24 to a 16 with ‘head stacks,’ but there wasn’t time to get into this. Stevie’s setup was simple, so we only used 14 tracks.
“We had recorded one track and were listening to it when Jackson walked in. He took one look at me and said, ‘What’s going on?’ After listening to what we’d done he said, ‘I don’t know exactly what’s going on here but it sounds 100 times better than when I left. You obviously know what you’re doing, so the studio is yours for tonight and tomorrow.’ It was late by then so we broke it down till the next day, without having recorded anything to speak of.”
What other changes had you made to the set-up?
“For one, I put a few go-bos [partitions] between the instruments just to prevent the loudness of the guitar amps from killing the drum tracks; it was pretty much an open space. I wanted the band’s “reality” to be as close as possible to what they were used to when they played live. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even let them use headphones.
“I also wanted them to play like it was a gig, with the same sense of abandon. In the studio, if you give a musician the chance to think about what they are doing, there’s a good chance they’ll mess up. I looked at their 14-song set list and said, ‘Let’s go through the tunes just like a set.’ I wanted it to feel as un-studio-like as possible.”
Did Stevie sing at all?
“Only as a cue for the tunes; he knew it wasn’t for keeps.”
How did you mic the instruments?
“Just one mic on everything. I used two Shure SM-57’s on his guitar amps: one on a Fender Vibraverb with a 15-inch Altec Lansing speaker, and one on a Dumble 4x12 bottom with EV’s with a Dumble head. Stevie played through two Vibraverbs, but I only mic’d one of the speakers in one of them. I positioned the mics about three or four inches off the cabinet at about a 45-degree angle off the cone.”
Stevie’s sound on Texas Flood has been primarily attributed to the Dumble. How did he discover this unusual amplifier?
“Just prior to the session, I had stumbled across Jackson’s Dumble at a repair shop/rehearsal studio and was blown away by it. This turned out to be Howard Dumble’s shop. He and I got together and designed an amp for Christopher Cross called the Steel String Singer, which became an essential part of Stevie’s setup for the rest of his career. Eric Johnson used this same amp for many years, too.”
Did Stevie use the same setup for all of the songs on Texas Flood?
“Yes. The only effect he used was an Ibanez Tube Screamer.”
Did he use only one guitar for all of the songs?
“I believe he used only his main guitar, Number One, for the whole record, though he might have used his brown stain/maple neck Strat for Lenny. I was very vocal about him using ‘Number One’ because I think he had the most authority and the best sound on it.
He would punch that guitar and it would respond in a way that was the Stevie Ray Vaughan sound.
“There was a depth to the sound of that guitar – he could slam it or pick it gently, and it always had a huge tone. The whole record was recorded in two hours – as long as it took to play 14 songs twice. There was no evaluation of the whole thing other than that they were happy with the way it sounded.”
Was Stevie attuned to the technical aspects of recording?
“Not at that time, but he did become more attuned later. Stevie could be very finicky about his equipment, but he didn’t approach things from a technical point of view – either it felt right or it didn’t.
“One effect he used when we mixed Texas Flood was this Roland delay/chorus [Dimension D] that gave a little bit of a growl sound. It was a stereo device that created phasing effects, which you can hear on the solo to Mary Had a Little Lamb and the end solo on Pride and Joy. Stevie sat at the board and brought that effect in and out as the song progressed. He used the same effect on Couldn’t Stand the Weather, too.”
What happened after you finished recording at Jackson’s?
“We took the tapes to Riverside Sound in Austin, and a few weeks later he came in to record the vocals. I gave Stevie two tracks to work with, and he would cut the vocal part for each song twice. We would use either the best of the two tracks or do a quick “comp” [‘Comping’ tracks means to edit parts together from different takes.]
“Overall, there was no finagling of anything on Texas Flood; it was about as live and true to a performance as it could be. When we were done, I did some mixes and ran off a cassette for Stevie. Those are the mixes that John Hammond heard, who immediately got Stevie a record deal.”
At the time, did you feel you’d recorded a great album, or was it more that it was just a good representation of the band?
“We felt we’d done a good job, but it was viewed as a demo that would be used to try to get a deal. Hammond heard it and said, ‘This is great; let’s just release this.’”
Do you believe the bare simplicity of Texas Flood allowed Stevie’s personality to shine through so clearly?
“That’s right; there were no overdubs, and here he was, basically live. That’s why I wanted him to approach it like a gig from the beginning, because I knew what he was capable of. I wanted them to feel as comfortable as possible, and I think that comes across when you listen to the record.”
One of the most important tracks in Stevie’s career is his incendiary cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return), recorded during the CSTW sessions. Stevie was able to tap into Jimi’s spirit without sacrificing his own signature style and sound.
“Voodoo Chile is a song they’d been doing live for a few years; it’s not like they worked it up just for that record. And I pushed him to record it, because when he played Voodoo Child live, he brought a life force to the song that no-one else could possibly do.
“Stevie played Voodoo Chile with so much soul and so much spirit – he nailed every note and every nuance. That take was live from beginning to end, and it’s seven minutes of pure guitar energy without a single miscue.
“It would be hard to find anyone that could play guitar that way without some sort of mistake here or there, but he blew right through it. That fact that he could pull everything off with such precision is the very thing that allowed us to make the albums the way we did.”
What are your feelings today about Texas Flood and CSTW?
“I would say I like the second one a little more than the first. Texas Flood was Stevie’s introduction to the world, but, to me, that’s the Stevie I’d known for six years. He was just playing blues and shuffles, but of course he was playing it like no one had ever played it. On Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Stevie was coming into his own and branching out into things that were more ambitious.
“Lincoln Clapp came up to me during the Couldn’t Stand the Weather sessions and said, ‘You did such a great job on Texas Flood – everything is so consistent.’ And I laughed and said, ‘No wonder, because in the two hours it took to cut it, not a knob was moved!’
“I would never have been involved with Stevie if I didn’t have my own passion for what he was doing. I did those soundchecks in the early days because it was his gig, and I wanted to be there. I’ve always loved his playing so much.”