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A Do-It-Yourself Musician : Studio Wizard Dave Edmunds Prefers to Rock on His Own--at Home


Dave Edmunds is a firm believer in the adage that if you want something done right you should do it yourself.

The Welsh rocker scored his biggest career hit in 1970 with the single, "I Hear You Knocking." Edmunds' elaborate reworking of the Smiley Lewis R & B chestnut wasn't quite a do-it-yourself job: He relied on a bass player and a second guitarist to round out a production that included his own drumming, his own multiple layers of guitars, and his own echo-drenched singing that sounded as if he'd funneled his voice through a bullhorn. But some of his other early-'70s recordings were indeed all his own work.

In the late 1970s, Edmunds began to emphasize collaborative music-making, as he hooked up with the corps of sharp English roots-influenced rockers he dubbed Rockpile. He also began serving others with his studio know-how, producing successful records for the Everly Brothers, the Stray Cats, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and k.d. lang.

But a few years ago, Edmunds decided to go back to his beginnings as a do-it-yourselfer. He retreated to the spare bedroom of his Los Angeles home for six months in 1992-93, didn't let anybody else have a hand in what he was doing, and emerged with his current album, "Plugged In."

The album displays Edmunds' acumen in a wide range of roots-rock and pure-pop styles, from the hard-hitting chug of the ZZ Top-like "Chutes and Ladders" to the country twanging of "The Claw" by Jerry Reed.

On "Standing at the Crossroads," Edmunds approximates the sound of Levon Helm fronting the Band in one of its more lighthearted moments. On the biggest production number, "Beach Boy Blood (in My Veins)," he overdubbed his voice 19 times to get a facsimile of the elaborate harmonies of Brian Wilson and company.

Edmunds, 51, likes the results and says he will continue to record in solitude for the foreseeable future (he has company for his tour, though: at the Coach House tonight, he'll be backed by a three-man band).

"I love working at home," Edmunds said in a recent phone interview from New York City, where he was awaiting a club date with pal Joe Walsh and a sitting-in appearance with the "Saturday Night Live" band. "I wouldn't like to go back to doing it the regular way in a professional studio. I think this is it for me from now on."

The chief obstacle to solo recording, Edmunds says, was something he calls "decision fatigue," which sets in when there are no other musicians or engineers to bounce ideas off of during the recording process.

"There's a decision in everything: Which guitar should I use? Which amp? When you get decision fatigue," he said, "you have to take a break and come back fresh."

Edmunds said he usually dealt with such brain-weariness not by switching on the TV, but by doing studio scut-work such as sweeping up and calibrating his equipment.

Then, when a creative mood struck, the machinery was already fine-tuned and he could rock ahead without having to wait out the frustrating technical delays that musicians often face when they are itching to nail down a spontaneous performance.

Edmunds learned his craft at a studio in Wales that a friend of his set up in a drafty converted barn on a dairy farm.

"It started as a little studio with just two mono (recording) machines," Edmunds recalled. "As the studio expanded and they added more equipment, my knowledge went with it. It was an apprenticeship."

The only real gap in Edmunds' resume has been songwriting. While he writes some of his own material, including two of the songs on "Plugged In," he has relied mainly on songs from outside writers, drawing upon the country, R&B and roots-rock traditions, or culling songs from such notables as Graham Parker, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe (who was part of the Rockpile consortium that released one album of its own and also served as the studio band for solo albums by Edmunds and Lowe).

Edmunds says that he has never tried deliberately to turn himself into a songwriter. If he has made any conscious effort, he said with a laugh, "It was not enough. It's not a matter of effort and will. There's like a gift that comes to you. I'm more concerned about the quality of the songs (on my albums) than (I am about) who wrote them. There's too many bad songs out there, and too many people writing songs who aren't songwriters.

"It's a special craft. Nick Lowe is definitely a tunesmith. My love is production, making records, engineering, tinkering around in the studio. I'm not so swept away with the idea of songwriting, especially when I listen to (songwriters) who are swept away, like Chuck Berry and John Lennon."

The stage isn't Edmunds' most comfortable habitat, either. "I don't see myself as a natural performer, an extrovert who's always ready to go leaping on stage. I'm introverted, and that doesn't make for the best show-biz type."

He does, however, "start getting itchy" when he has been off the stage too long.

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