Herding Cats - The Making Of "Satisfaction Garage"
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
This is the incontrovertibly indefinitive, more or less true though incomplete, story of the making of Satisfaction Garage.
An unexpected call and an unlikely reunion.
In May of 2017, not even a year after I released my record Death By Sunshine, I drove up to Nick Blagona’s house in New Caledonia, Ontario to wish him a happy birthday. He was grumpy and pissed off that it was his 70th birthday. I asked him if there was any music he was working on at the time that excited him and he said there wasn’t. I said “Should we make another record?” He said “Yes.” I said I would, though I couldn't envision it as I still felt tapped out of ideas from Death By Sunshine.
About a month later, I received a call from Gordie Rogers, the drummer from my old group, Animal Planet. We don't stay in touch much, though not for lack of love or mutual respect, it's just how life goes. Gordie was waxing nostalgic about the good old days when our band regularly packed the Buffalo jazz club called The Calumet and we toured the world. At the time of that June 2017 call Gordie was living in Las Vegas. While talking with him, I softened up on the subject of playing with the Animal Planet guys again. Memories of why I hung the “gone fishing” sign on the Animal Planet website thirteen years hence were distant and I quickly invited Gordie to come play drums for my then planned show at Sportsmens on November 22 in 2017. He accepted immediately and asked if I’d talked to the guys yet. I said “The guys? G, how the fuck could I have talked to the guys already when I’m still on the phone with you?”
My next call was to Rodney, who is living in Savannah, Georgia. He said, “Really, Gordie’s in? Then I’m in. I’ll drive up.”
Who to play keyboards? My next call was to Paul Zablotski, who was the second keyboardist in Animal Planet. I thought that was the right thing to do considering he’d been with the band longer than Percy Jones, our first keyboardiest, and more recently at that. Paul lives near Boston, Massachusetts, now. Paul, who smartly long ago developed the ability to say "no" to me when I proposed things that would screw up his life, said that he had other plans with his wife and son and couldn’t come to Buffalo then. So, I wrote Percy, who was the original keyboardist for Animal Planet, and who is now living in Kobe, Japan. Percy and I had then recently worked together on the song Funk You for Death By Sunshine, and he did a gorgeous job on background vocals and keys. I was always particularly awed by Percy’s background vocal arrangements, which were big soul and gospel. Rodney’ vocal arrangements were excellent too, more bluesy than gospel to my ears, but suffice to say, I was super excited at the prospect of having those talents in the same room as they were not in Animal Planet at the same time.
Percy said he’d fly in from Japan for the show on one condition. That condition was that if I was assembling this reunion, we had to make a record. At that moment a bell rang and I knew what the vague record Nick and I talked about on his birthday would be like, or at least I thought I did at that moment. Satisfaction Garage is kind of Percy’s fault. I agreed on the condition that he co-write with me. He said he would. Rodney said he would too. I called Nick and he was excited about the idea. It was game on. I also called the Jims, Runfola (saxophone) and Bohm (trumpet) respectively as they were both in Animal Planet and I love Jim Runfola's arrangements and the two of them together sound amazing. They were in. We had a core band.
It was almost an Animal Planet reunion, except for the gospel choir. Nikki Hicks and a few other female background vocalists would have made this reunion complete, but Nick was of the mindset that we scale down the ensemble for the new record a bit from Animal Planet, so it would just be the boys in the studio this time. Back to basics. The studio of Nick’s and my choice was GCR Audio in Buffalo, New York, the former storied Trackmaster where many tracks on Gillan's Inn and nearly every other record I've been involved with have been recorded. In the interim between 2005 or so when I rented the then empty old Trackmaster to record Gillan's Inn when there was no plumbing or heat there, the Goo Goo Dolls had since leased the place and put a fortune into it. It's now a first class, and I mean superb, recording facility owned and operated by Robby Takac and Justin Rose, who kind of runs the place, is a fantastic engineer.
On to the writing of Satisfaction Garage.
Remember when I wrote earlier about the guys agreeing to help me write the record? Silly me. Our best music back in the day happened when I would come in with an idea or riff and we’d vibe off each other. I’d record everything, and the happy accidents would often become key parts of the songs. Joint composing remotely for Satisfaction Garage didn’t go at all the way I’d envisioned. I sent out maybe twenty demos of songs in various states that I thought this group might dig. The rule I laid down for selecting tracks was that if everyone wasn’t “fuck yeah” in favor of a song, then the answer was “no.” I had so little input from the guys, it didn’t go that way at all.
So I cranked away at home in California working up demos of songs I thought might work together. Geno McManus was, as always, a great, selfless and helpful friend in this process. Not only did he help me write a couple of the songs on Satisfaction Garage, but he was super helpful with me on my vocals and as a sounding board I trusted for his visceral responses to the demos as I developed them.
As the time approached to promote the show, I phoned Gordie and he sounded a little tentative. He was going to have to pull out, he said, because he needed his hips replaced again. I told him not to get them at K-mart this time and wished him well.
We’d barely announced the show, let alone set foot in a recording studio and the wheels were falling off already. Within a day or so of Gordie cancelling, I had a call from Randy Cooke, one of my all-time favorite drummers and a good friend, and he was lamenting that we hadn’t recorded anything together in a while. “Hmmmmm, I thought….” And so I invited him to come to Buffalo to make the record and do the show with us. He said “hell yes,” the only correct answer. We lost the authenticity of a reunion, though Randy is definitely in the family, and we lost Gordie’s harmonies, but Randy is such an incredible talent, I was delighted.
It wasn't all meant to be, alas. Sometime later Randy called and said he had a tour opportunity booked which necessitated him leaving immediately after the show, and skipping the recording. I had no budget to speak of for this record, and couldn’t afford to buy him out of the tour so we agreed that he’d come in for the show and I’d get someone else for drums on the record.
I asked Rodney if there were any great drummers in town who would get our music and who he wanted to play with. Enter Reggie Evans at the last minute, a killer and studious drummer, singer, bandleader in his own right, and childhood friend of Rodney’s. Great guy too. Reggie did a superb job on Satisfaction Garage and I would happily work with him again.
Because we had committed to doing a live show with Randy Cooke on drums and a record with Reggie on drums, we had to split up the rehearsals with one in the morning and one in the afternoon/evening. I rented a rectory room at an old church from Brian Wantuch, who was going to convert the entire place into rehearsal rooms. I think we were the first ones in there to rent from him. The room we had was perfect for our needs, and I remain thankful for the accommodation, and for John Fierle so reasonably renting us, delivering and picking up our rehearsal gear.
Satisfaction Garage rehearsals at the church.
The night of the first rehearsal, I got together with Percy and Rodney at my parent’s carriage house where I was staying in Buffalo. Percy had literally just arrived from Japan and Rodney from Georgia. We dusted off a little bit and touched on some of the tunes for the record. It was evident that they hadn’t prepared much and we agreed to get together again the next day at the same time.
The next morning, I awoke to a voice mail from Percy that he couldn’t rehearse that day, he had to go to the emergency room. It was that vague. I didn’t know if it was for him, a loved one or what. I couldn’t reach him on the phone all day and got quite worried. That night, Rodney and I got together and worked on “Clothes On Yo Back.” The riff was from something Jesse O’Brien came up with a while back when we were writing at my place in California. I always loved the groove, as I do everything Jesse writes. Percy sent me a voice memo singing over the song and one of his lines was about leaving with the clothes on yo back, and Rodney pretty much just ran with it. We shared a bottle of wine or two and laughed our way through writing the lyrics and working up the arrangement together.
That is the way I’ve always been most productive with Rodney. Jamming, having fun, and somehow capturing the madness so it can be reproduced later. Making great music in the moment is Rodney’s superpower. The music beds for this song (guitar, bass, drums, piano), and a bunch of the others on Satisfaction Garage were recorded live off the floor. I didn’t even wear headphones in the studio most of the time as the balance in the room was excellent.
I had been getting increasingly worried about Percy as I couldn’t reach him all day. There were so many moving parts aligned that I phoned Jesse O’Brien to see if he might be able to sub for Percy, and he said if needed he’d jump in for the gig and record on keys, on only a few days’ notice. He's a diamond. At that point I didn’t have any idea what was up with Percy. I reached Percy the next morning and found out he’d had an emergency medical procedure. In true form he said he was ok and would be at rehearsal that day. I said “are you sure about that?” He said he was. He showed up and was surprisingly chipper. Happy as I was to see him, I do have a faint recollection of threatening to put him back in the hospital if he didn’t learn the fucking songs.
Frustrated as I was with Rodney and Percy showing up without a greater command of the material, those guys are great improvisational musicians. They knew that we'd capture some inspired performances, and they were right. Long after the recording has been finished, I can now listen to it and hear how much these guys contribute with their seemingly effortless raw inventiveness. I'm forever grateful that they've ever picked up the phone when I've called. I called each of them and told them as much on one of my cross country drives earlier this year. That was my big lesson on this record. Even old dogs can evolve a bit.
A few days out from the gig, Randy flew in. He was sick as a dog (where does that metaphor come from?), I mean really ill. He rehearsed the show with us and was by far the most in control of our arrangements from the first down beat to the last cymbal crash on stage. Randy had done the same thing when I hired him to be the drummer on Ian Gillan's 2006 North American tour. That's how Randy rolls and that’s the reason that he’s on the shortlist for likes of Dave Stewart and Ringo Starr, and a mainstay for Smashmouth and Five For Fighting among many others. The guys were awed by Randy, as I had hoped they would be.
As for the show itself, it’s hard for me to judge how it went off. I was a little disappointed about the turnout, and it seemed really sloppy to me (other than Randy), but the crowd was enthusiastic. I had it recorded and videotaped, and what I’ve heard hasn’t inspired me to have it mixed, edited and released. Maybe down the road that stuff will see the light of day.
MLJ & the Gatos Malos live at Sportsmens 11/22/2017. Pics by Bruce Jackson
The day after the show was Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and we took that off and met bright and early in the studio on the next day to start the first of three days of solid tracking. It was Nick’s idea to track the record as live as possible, to go for performance over feel, and to not worry too much about track bleeding. He strongly believed that was the only way to record this record in the time I had booked and he was right, as always. It was such a relief to record that way with the guys in the same room after Death By Sunshine, which was recorded piece by piece, pretty much exclusively in my apartment. Randy’s drums on Death by Sunshine were recorded at a nearby studio, and Geno, Jesse & Percy recorded their parts and emailed them to Nick and me for dropping in to the session files.
For Satisfaction Garage, we recorded Friday November 24, 2017 through Sunday November 26. For the first two days, it was me, Rodney, Percy and Reggie putting down the basic tracks for the eleven songs on the record. Those were really long and exhausting days. On Sunday we may have done a little more group tracking, but we also recorded the Jims on horns, Rodney and Percy’s lead vocals, and background vocals with Rodney, Percy and Reggie. I recorded a solo or two as well, I think. The following Tuesday, November 28, I went to Nick and Mary Jane’s house and we recorded most of my lead vocals there the next day, starting about 8:00 a.m. so I could get my gritty morning voice on the quiet vocal for Waiting On You.
Recording Satisfaction Garage at GCR Audio 11/24-11/26/2017 in Buffalo NY. Pics by Bruce Jackson and a couple by MLJ.
I then headed back to California. I still had no lyrics for the bed tracks of what was to become "Flaw of Averages" (then called "Fall From Grace") and I either didn’t like the vocal I did at Nick’s for "Do You," or we didn’t record it, but regardless, that was to be done, and I had some overdubs and solos to record. Geno McManus flew out to LA for the NAMM show in January 2018 and made a little extra time to come by my place and sing background vocals on a few tracks and to engineer some vocal tracks that I needed to record.
The record was taking shape. I still had a few guitar bits I wasn’t happy with, and Nick sent me back to the drawing board a few times for my solo on Kitchen and we got those done over the following few months, more or less – the process being slowed down by me leaping back into photography with a vengeance and a spring trip to Thailand, a drive to Victoria, British Columbia, and a few other jaunts around North America. Nick and I agreed that Jesse O’Brien’s magic touch would be right for a few of the tracks, so I sent Jesse the tracks with no instructions other than, “do your thing” and when he delivered the tracks, Nick dropped them into the songs and edited as he saw fit. Jesse's contributions were brilliant and gorgeous, as always.
The only song I then needed to finish was “Fall From Grace.” Though I’d been percolating on the idea for quite a while, I just couldn’t get myself happy with the lyrics or verse melody. A bit of time went by, and at some point, Nick called me up and said “We don’t need the track for this record, and I’d really like to get it finished…” I knew what he was saying to me. He wasn't feeling well and it was different this time. I was determined to finish that song as I thought it would be good to close out the record with a real barn burner and we didn’t have one yet. When I went back to Buffalo for the holidays in November 2018, I went over to Geno’s house with a fresh lyrical idea for the unfinished song. My notes say it was December 5, 2018. I had the idea to write about the flaw of averages, and when I searched the title online I found a brilliant sketch called “Flaw of Averages” by Jeff Danzinger where there’s a creek, a sign that says “average depth three feet” and a guy in the creek in a suit underwater reaching for the top as he’d stepped in a hole. Then I had my chorus, “It’s not that we’re all savages. But it is the flaw of averages.” I thought that was a fitting metaphor for the then current state of United States politics, and applicable to this day. Geno and I finished up the lyrics that day and he recorded my lead vocal, which we shipped right off to Nick. Geno followed up with the background vocals on that track and I finally felt like the recording part of the record was complete. Nick and I had a few more rounds of mixes, notes and revisions, but the record was pretty much done and mastered not long after that.
The Title & Artwork
I was really excited to call the record "Herding Cats" because that’s what I felt like I was always doing with these guys, and I had this vision of a sketch of the band in a kitchen with me frantically trying to cook and coordinate these guys who were going in every direction. The food was going everywhere, and it was total chaos. The problem was almost every time I told someone the title I was asked “but why would you call your record 'Hurting Cats?'” So back to the drawing board and the intersection of my two dominant artistic passions.
While driving from Buffalo to Los Angeles in January 2018, I came upon a building in the tiny town of Wilsall, Montana. "Satisfaction Garage" was etched into the cement above the doors. The light wasn’t optimal, but I loved the starkness of it and wondered when there had last been any satisfaction in the Satisfaction Garage. Because of the blown-out highlights and otherwise drab colors, it looked better in black and white, and months later when I was toiling with what to call this record, I came upon this image and the bell went off in my head. "Satisfaction Garage."
I searched the title and found there was a record of the same name from 2010 by a country/folk artist named Ben Bullington. He even used the same building on his cover. It's hard to come up with something original, but Ben Bullington did, apparently. Bullington passed away in 2013, but I'd like to think he'd have smiled that I stumbled upon the same building and had a similar thought. After an inner debate about whether or not I should use the title and image, I decided the world was big enough for two of these and to go for it -- but only if I could successfully transform the image into some dreamy netherworld.
I thought, “what if we take the Satisfaction Garage building and put it on an island with animals, a jungle, and so forth..." and that was the beginning of the composite of disparate imagery on the cover. The beach, water, shipwreck, and jungle are from photos I took in the Maldives in October 2018, and the sky and elephant were from Sri Lanka later on that same trip. The bar in the middle is the old American Hotel bar at the Cerro Gordo ghost town, and which sadly burned to the ground in June 2020, and that picture of Shadow bartending was clipped from a picture of him jumping somewhere or other in 2019. The band onstage is from our November 22, 2017 Sportsmens show and was taken by Bruce Jackson. My friend, Jennie Taylor who lives near me in Pacific Palisades, helped put together most of what the cover became, and Paul Marko finished it for me in Buffalo a few weeks ago. It always takes a village.
And there you have it. It’s amazing any records ever get done, especially mine. Now where was I?
Photo by Bruce Jackson. L to R (top) Jim Bohm, Rodney Appleby, Nick Blagona, Percy Jones, Michael Lee Jackson, Robby Takac (bottom) Geno McManus, Jim Runfola & Shadow, Reggie Evans and engineer extraordinaire, Justin Rose.
Me and Nick Blagona (RIP) on Thanksgiving 11/23/2017. Pic by Bruce Jackson.