A few days after I spoke with Spencer Gibb, he sent me a wax copy of his latest studio album, Let’s Start Over.
“It’s something I thought should have been heard on vinyl,” he says of his long-awaited sophomore effort. Shortly after it came in the mail, I unboxed it and put the gleaming black disc on my barely adequate turntable and took it for a spin.
He was right. The arrangements, glazed with layers of strings, horns, and buttery bass, achieve a warmth and body that just don’t quite translate the same way digitally. And the inevitable, occasional pop and crackle from under the needle didn’t hurt the experience, either.
For context, my conversation with Gibb lasted about three hours, and much of the time we committed to discussing Let’s Start Over resulted in me being spectacularly educated in the intricacies of making records—perhaps a bit of kismet as most of the vinyl I've collected over the years was made by various members of his family.
If you’re not well-versed in his lineage, Spencer is the first-born child of the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb. While Let's Start Over contains scant likeness to much of what his father produced during his career, their mutual adoration of the R&B and soul standards of the Stax and Atlantic catalogs of the 1960s and 1970s is pulsing at its nucleus. It’s a lovingly-made tribute to all of it.
Gibb was born in London and raised in New York, leaving school at the age of fourteen to pursue work as a full-time musician, engineer, and producer.
“I’ve always been really kind of hands-on,” he explains. "I started engineering at a really young age and playing all different kinds of instruments. One of my first sort of huge influences was Prince. This was a guy that did it, you know, went out of his way to learn how to do a lot of this shit himself.”
Spending his late teens close to his father and uncles’ adopted home of Miami, he would move to Austin, Texas in 1997. He quickly enlisted a slate of local musicians, which included future bandmates J.J. Johnson (drums), and Stewart Cochran (keys), to play on his first solo album 4-Track Mind, released the same year under the moniker Jez Spencer.
Once sessions wrapped, Gibb, Johnson, and Cochran began working on music together as 54 Seconds, which would eventually amass a loyal following and an impressive discography of EPs and live albums. Their first and most recent studio effort, 2007’s Postcards from California, was recorded for the Warner Music-affiliated Rock Ridge imprint.
Years in the making, Let’s Start Over contends with ache of lost love, and the eventual path to forgiveness, albeit with a few extra unexpected, difficult turns.
“I’m so happy it’s out now,” Gibb affirms. "There was catharsis at first, but as the record was being completed, all kinds of other crazy shit happened in my life. I went through a breakup with a different person, my father died, and I broke my back and had to have an emergency spinal fusion.
And, so, all of these things were happening as the record was getting completed, so it was just two or three years of whirlwind chaos. We lost our management and had a big falling out with [them], had family drama in certain areas, you know? I mean I could definitely go on. [laughs] This record was a journey.”
Gibb’s vocal trademark has long been various shades of melancholy, but the ways in which it interplays with the album’s luxurious instrumentals, furnished expertly by veteran composer and conductor Ludek Drizhal and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, makes his already emotional compositions that much more visceral. Let’s Start Over is inarguably a listener’s album that requires time and attention to discover the intricacies and details that have been carefully woven into its fabric.
Grant Walters: This album has really long roots, and I know these were songs that were conceived under some personally challenging circumstances. How did they evolve into an album project?
Spencer Gibb: It started out…I went through a really bad breakup. At the time, my band 54 Seconds was still together, and we were supposed to make a record—another record—for Warner Brothers that we never made. But I went through this bad breakup slash divorce, and we were never married, but we might as well have been, you know—we had property and dogs, thankfully no kids. [laughs] I went into kind of a funk and I wrote the song “Empty Room,” which, ironically, is one of the only songs on the record that doesn’t have any strings or horns on it at all.
And I wrote that, and when I finished writing it, I realized it kind of sounded like a Sam Cooke song to me. That was the music I grew up with—old R&B was the stuff I first fell in love with, like Sam and Otis Redding, Motown, Stax, you know? And so, I finished that tune and started writing more, and then my friend Aaron Frescas came over to the studio and was listening to some of the stuff and started playing guitar on some things with me. He was going through a bad breakup, too, and he wanted to be involved with the record because he loved the material. So, he became my co-producer.
But my plan was to really just make this very involved kind of acoustic record, and make it a solo record because I didn’t want to bring my baggage into 54 Seconds. So, a solo record or EP, and pretty acoustic, but sort of in that R&B kind of vein.
GW: So, you’re making this acoustic record, but there was a decidedly sharp turn at some point where you enlisted the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. I’m glad it happened and it’s one of my favorite things about the record, because it’s unusual for an artist in 2018 to make a pop or R&B record where strings and horns are integral to the arrangement rather than just sweetening on top.
SG: I had started writing some basic string arrangements, kind of like in the sense of padding like you were talking about, but a little more defined, and I had some string samples. And then Aaron started writing some horn parts because before he was a guitarist, he actually was a trumpet player.
Meanwhile, while this was going on, I had a lot of friends that are incredible players that heard I was making this record, and they asked if they could play because they’d known me for years, but I’d always been in a band and we’d never gotten to play together. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Grupo Fantasma, the Latin jazz band—they’ve won a couple of Grammys. They’re friends of mine and their horn section ended up being my horn section. For free, you know, which is, like, crazy. [laughs] They were actually recording a record two houses down from us and they got a Grammy for it the next year.
So, very exciting times creatively, but I put together these songs, and then things just started to get bigger and bigger sonically. The horns were really coming together, and I’d started to write these elaborate string parts, but I hit kind of a roadblock with…essentially my ability. I’d come up with these great melodies, in my opinion, but things weren’t gelling quite the way I wanted them to.
GW: And that’s where Ludek Drizhal comes in and essentially provides the score to your album.
SG: He’s a film composer in L.A., but he was living in Austin at the time. He’s originally from the Czech Republic, and I’d called him after I got his number from a mutual friend, and we met for a glass of wine together because I just wanted to ask him advice on why my string arrangements weren’t doing what I wanted them to, and how they fit together with horns and all of that. He said “well, can I hear the stuff?” And I said, “yeah, my studio is actually only a few blocks away. Do you want to come over?”
So, he comes over and I play him a few of the tunes, and he says, “hey, I really love this stuff! Do you mind if I just sort of take over and clean up some of the arrangements?” And I said, “no, not at all!” And then he said, “well, how would you feel about going to Prague and recording with the Czech Symphony?” And I made a joke and said, “well, yeah, sure if you want to give me, like, a hundred-grand, because we have no money!” It turns out that he’s the guest conductor there, and he works on all of his movies there. So, we worked out a deal, and we went. He finished up the arrangements, we went to Prague, and we did a full-length record and we added strings to the ten core songs. We came back and then we mastered with Bernie Grundman, one of my all-time heroes.”
GW: That’s astounding.
SG: But, then right as that happened, the Czech Symphony called and asked if we wanted to come back to do another session with them. And I didn’t have any songs, and the session would be in about two months’ time. So, basically, inside of about six weeks I wrote six new songs, which would essentially be for an upcoming EP because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I’d gotten to a place in my life that was about forgiveness and letting go of the grief from the previous breakup. So, those songs ended up being about letting go, starting over, and forgiving people for things.
We did basic tracks—drums, bass, tempo locks, melody locks, chord structures—and they all got sent to Ludek, who only had about two weeks to do the orchestral arrangements before we went to Prague, including finishing one of the songs on the plane. [laughs] So, all of a sudden, we were sitting on two records, and then I got management, at the time, and some publicity people in the UK had said “you know what you should do, really? You’ve got so many strong songs here, you should combine them into one record, and then keep what’s left over for bonus tracks.”
And essentially, that’s what it is, and Let’s Start Over became what it was because of this journey of heartbreak, but also letting go—all while still tapping into the R&B roots and, like you said, really exploiting the orchestra. Because there’s nothing that sounds like real strings and horns. It’s a magical thing.”
GW: This entire project was a big investment on a number of levels, and you also crowdfunded the vinyl release of the record, which actually arrived before the digital version. Did that match your vision of how your fans would support it?
SG: Oh, it really did. Because, basically what had happened…I’d had a recording studio with my old production partner, and we had complications with the landlord of that building, so we bailed and moved the studio into his house. And that’s where we finished the last 54 Seconds record back in like 2008 or 2009. And then his wife got pregnant, and the baby was coming early—they were kind of going through a separation, but then they patched it up and she was moving back in. I went through my breakup, and my ex moved out of our house, which I almost lost in the process because, you know, you basically lose half your income if you’re sharing everything, right? And, so, he called me in kind of an emergency, saying, “hey, look, the baby’s coming a month early and she’s moving back into the house. I’ve got to move the studio.”
And I said, “well, look, Heather and I just broke up, so I’ll just move the studio into my house.” So, we moved it all [in], which took us about three or four days, and it was kind of meant to be because that’s how I wrote “Empty Room.” I was just sitting around, and I had all the gear and equipment, and my guitars were back. Then I kind of just gutted the rest of the house and put in a permanent drum kit, and various other things. And then things got shelved for a while, and I wanted to do the crowdfunding thing to get it out on vinyl. That was sort of my big goal for a while, and it finally came to fruition about a year ago when I said “okay, I’m going to do this—what do I have to lose?”
And I was able to use that as a way to get it into people’s hands the right way, but also kind of as a promotional tool. Not as a publicity stunt, per se. If you can advertise it on vinyl first before it goes on iTunes or Spotify, it’s just better. There was no capital to that, and so I just went to the fans. I was, like, “help us do this. If we don’t raise the money, it’s not coming out on vinyl. If we do raise the money, you get it on vinyl. It’s that simple!” So, we did custom turntables with Crosley, and I went back to L.A. and mastered the album again with Bernie Grundman specifically for vinyl, which was an amazing experience.
GW: Undoubtedly. I mean, his name is on so many records I own. It must have been a masterclass.
SG: Oh yeah, it was just great watching that happen and hanging out with him. You know, I know so much about analog recording, that’s how I grew up. But I learned things from him in the vinyl room that I thought I knew, but I didn’t.
GW: I will absolutely admit I don’t fully understand how the analog and digital mastering processes work, other than knowing at a surface level that they’re quite different.
SG: It’s completely different. He had already mastered both of those two sessions I previously mentioned for a digital release that didn’t happen. So, I had done a remix of one song—we replaced the bass line on one song. I flew back out there, and we did two sessions—one was for him to master that song to match it up, and then do a final master for digital with all of the songs lined up. Everything he masters is in analog, so even if I'm giving him a digital file, he has these incredibly high-end converters that spit it out into his analog console, which is all custom-made for him and cost millions of dollars. It’s two channels, but the most pristine shit you’ve ever heard in your life, you know? [laughs]
And years back, I specifically wanted to work with Bernie on this record because he’s mastered some of my favorite records of all time, but his approach is very much about dynamics. Not overly compressing stuff, not playing the sort of loudness game where everything is just sort of brick wall and in-your-face. I wanted someone who appreciated dynamics in orchestra and R&B, you know what I’m saying? And that’s his bag. He’s got other people who work there who specialize in the other stuff. This wasn’t that kind of record. I was trying to make something kind of timeless, you know?
GW: Yeah, I completely agree that a lot of new music I play now seems to aim for that punch, almost as if it’s competing for your attention. And maybe it is given how we consume music in such a distracted fashion. But it can really obscure nuance and sensitivity, and it’s almost numbing.
SG: No, there are no dynamics! No peaks and valleys. But, yeah, I didn’t want my mixes destroyed. I knew if I showed up to his place with mixes that we were all happy with, he wouldn’t have to do much to even them out. And sure enough, he didn’t. He was very complimentary the entire time and said “these mixes are fantastic! I’m only going to have to tweak out a couple of things just to make sure they line up on a record together.”
When you work with him on vinyl mastering, he spits out the session into a different room and pulls it up on a computer where he brings it through a different analog console, and then a rack of gear that [is] heavily modified by his team. On the inside, they’re completely different than what you’d buy off the shelf.
GW: I imagine there’s a rather precise science in modifying those to get them to do exactly what he wants them to.
SG: Yeah. Totally. They clean out the inside guts and everything’s pristine. And it goes through these lathes that they have made just for [him] in Germany, and they actually float on air. It’s really crazy. And then what he does is he listens to the music again, and with his own ears, he ascertains what frequencies are going to be problematic. So harsh vocal ‘s’s and cymbal crashes can be really [so] in terms of how much they pop out. So, with his years and years of expertise, he was able to dial those down subtly. In the previous session, we’d also reduced the length of the record slightly, because the closer you can get to twenty-five minutes or less per side, the higher quality the audio is going to be.
Back before digital lathing, you couldn’t actually make a record with more than eighteen minutes per side. That’s why old records were as short as they were. If you went longer than that, you lost sound quality, and you lost dynamic range and increased signal-to-noise ratio. So, if you turned the volume up on your turntable or on a radio station, you’d get noise. You’d get the crackle. The other thing about it is that the closer you get to the center of the record, the more low-end accumulates.
Historically, and this is really cool to think about how people picked running orders [of albums], if you had an up-tempo dance song—[Michael Jackson’s] ‘Billie Jean,’ or [the Bee Gees’] ‘Stayin’ Alive’ are good examples—you would make those songs the first or second song on one side of the record because that’s where all the high-end was, and you wanted that punch. You’d put the ballads near the end so you could have the warmth of the low-end.
GW: And now that I think about the running order of most of the albums I own, that makes perfect sense, because most of the last songs on each side of a record are almost always ballads or rootsier tracks that might have thicker bass and softer instrumentation.
SG: But where it gets freaky with Bernie is when he puts on this sixteen-inch lacquer test-pressing thing, and he puts down the needle and he’s got this microscope he’s looking through to watch the pressure of the needle and how deep it’s actually creating the grooves based on the audio coming through. And at that point, he’s stopped using his ears and he’s actually using his eyes to see what the perfect depth is to correspond to the type of music and the signal-to-noise ratio.
GW: That’s...it’s just genius. The amount of detail that involves is mind-blowing.
SG: Right. Exactly. It’s just amazing to watch. The whole process was very fulfilling and very exhausting, and it was great to have the fans involved and the people who wanted this music in their hands that took a long time. We had a lot of people buy vinyl that wanted a collector’s item, so they either bought a turntable from us, or they went out and bought one later, or they were, like, ‘maybe I’ll buy one sometime, but I just don’t want to miss out on this.’ But we ended up raising all of the money, all the costs got covered.
As I said in the initial video that went up on Indiegogo as part of the campaign, this was never about profit. It was a labor of love, and I really wanted to get the record into people’s hands. I just wanted to make something timeless that people of different ages could relate to, or that people who’ve gone through heartbreak or loss or forgiveness could relate to. Whether I achieved that is really up to the listener.
GW: Well, that’s a good segue into my last question, which is in the spirit of our site’s appreciation of the album as an art form. What are your top five favorite albums of all time?
SG: So, a quick disclaimer: I rotate records by some of these artists quite a lot in my head as to which is my favorite. For example, with Stevie Wonder, there are times I prefer Fulfillingness' First Finale or Innervisions. With Prince, I juggle Sign O' the Times and Around the World in a Day. Joni Mitchell is Blue or The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It's tough. I made these choices based on cohesiveness of the records and stuff I could listen to all the time, as well as how much influence they had on me as an artist: Prince’s Parade, Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, Marvin Gaye’s What's Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.