Gibson Guitar's THE AMPLIFIER Volume 4, Issue 4, April 1998
Jars of Clay's Stephen Mason 'Just Trying to Stay Relevant'
by Reno Kling
Jars of Clay lead guitarist Stephen Mason has just woken up. From a hotel room "high above Elkhart (Indiana)" he reflects, "We're just trying to stay relevant."
You'd think after selling millions of records, winning a Grammy award, being nominated for six Dove awards and playing worldwide to sold-out theaters that Mason would feel ultimately relevant -- and still only 22 years old. "This was never intentional. This has been a gift. What a huge honor," he says. "It's an internal challenge now -- about reinventing yourself."
Over the course of a week The Amplifier talked with Mason from Elkhart to New Orleans about "getting strange and loony," and about guitars, of course.
"I started playing guitar late," Mason says. "I studied piano as a kid. I got turned on to guitar listening to my mom's record collection. The first song I learned was "Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen. Then I heard The Beatles' Rubber Soul, and, well, that was it.
"The Beatles have always been an incredible encouragement to play it with feeling. It's an inspiration. That's what's possible."
At Greenville (Illinois) College Mason studied classical guitar for a semester and met his future Jars of Clay collaborators. "I started learning Led Zeppelin riffs (laughs) and we began playing together just for the fun of it. No agenda." Then, "just for fun," they entered a CCM Magazine talent contest in 1994 and won. Soon they were discussing record deals on a pay phone in their dormitory. They decided to move to Nashville, finally signing with Essential. Their first, self-titled album was co-produced by famed King Crimson veteran Adrian Belew. Belew's niece, an intern at Essential, spontaneously sent Belew a copy of a few demos. He was impressed and asked to help. The project was released in May 1995, and sold over two million copies, crossing over to the secular music charts. Mason played bass and, with Matt Odmark, most of the guitars.
Ready for a second album, Jars of Clay still found themselves Much Afraid, the title of their recently released sophomore project. "Fear is a daily part of our lives," Mason again reflects. "That is where we grow."
Surprisingly, "the album (production) went quick," he recalls. Londoner Steve Lipson produced. Lipson has worked with Sting, Simple Minds, and Annie Lennox. "Oh man, it was great. We learned so much and got to be around such talented people."
Mason says his acoustic guitars were recorded direct and with a microphone on the f-hole. "Steve then processed the sounds afterwards and would bounce the really great sounds from track to track," Mason continues.
In the studio and on the road he most often plays his Gibson Chet Atkins SST, "a really great guitar," he says. "It's so easy to dial up any sound in any circumstance. I love that big sound. And it's such a hot guitar. It will always cut through."
He also uses an Epiphone Les Paul ("That one with the really sparkling gold finish"), Gibson ES 135 ("The bridge pickup has a great really clean, low-fi tone."), Epiphone Sheraton II, and Epiphone Casino. He powers his guitars through a Matchless Chief, a Mesa Boogie and, finally, an old Leslie cabinet.
"I'm now re-approaching the instrument," Mason says. "On the first record it was the `whip it-whack it' effect (laughs). I'm playing more electric and I'm learning it doesn't take all six strings" to create the energy and feeling. Mason also credits the "acoustic chord voicings" of singer-songwriter Dave Wilcox as a recent inspiration as well as the guitar work on Michael Penn's new release. "Also, I'm learning and playing more slide guitar. Listen to George Harrison. Great note choices and he's very melodic," Mason says. Mason uses the Epiphone Sheraton and Gibson ES 135 with a ceramic slide. "The ceramic slide just growls," Mason says. "You know I'm goofing with tunings also. And sometimes I'll stumble upon something new by playing and not looking at the guitar," he says.
To find time to "study" guitar on the road, Mason's guitar tech, Steve Miller, will set up a compact Akai DPS 12 hard disc recorder in an empty dressing room while the crew loads in. Mason will practice and write songs "before and after sound check and up until it's time to get ready (to perform). I'm addicted," he says.
Mason and Jars of Clay will head into the studio to record an original track for Dreamworks' upcoming animated feature Prince of Egypt. "We'll break soon for the Dove awards (April) and then begin doing the fairs and outdoor festivals this summer," Mason says. "We'll take it as it comes. Try to keep learning and be spontaneous." No doubt Mason will. For after all, he says, "I'm the one that gets real strange and loony." It's worked well so far.
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