Interview--Reed Arvin: Recording Rich Mullins' A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band

Rich Mullins' landmark album A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band turn 20 years old this month.  This interview is part 2 of my celebration of this anniversary.  

NOTE: A condensed version of this interview first appeared on Christianity Today's website and can be found here. 

My previous reflections on A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band can be found hereMy essay on "The Theology of Rich Mullins" can be found here.  My article on the upcoming film about Mullins' life can be found here and my interview with the film's director can be found here.

Growing up listening to Rich Mullins' records there was always one name that kept standing out to me other than Mullins himself.  I was the kind of kid who poured through every word of the liner notes looking for hidden meanings and the fingerprints of everyone who made had made the album possible.  And so, every time I bought a Rich Mullins record I would inevitably read this: "Produced by: Reed Arvin."  Now I'm no fool--if Reed Arvin's name was constantly associated with my favorite music artist, then Mr. Arvin must be a high-quality upstanding individual himself.  As a budding musician I often dreamed of what it would be like to be Rich Mullins, but I also dreamed of what it would be like to work with Mullins and help him create his music.  There is only a hand full of people who would fall into that category: Beaker (David Strasser, Mullins' frequent co-writer), The Ragamuffin Band (Rick Elias, Jimmy Abegg, Mark Robertsons, and Aaron Smith), Mitch McVicker and the other Kid Brothers of St. Frank, and then Reed Arvin.

Over the years a number of questions began forming in my about how Mullins worked and how his albums came together. After a time I realized Mullins, even though he had long since passed, was probably not the best person to ask these questions to anyway, but that these were questions specifically for one person, Mullins' producer Reed Arvin.  So, I got up the nerve to contact Arvin with my questions and he was gracious enough to respond with his answers. (Arvin blogs regularly at http://notjusttalk.tumblr.com/)

On working with Rich Mullins
PostConsumerReports: I assume you met Rich Mullins on the road touring with Amy Grant. What kind of connection did you develop then and how was it that you took the step to become his producer?

Reed Arvin: I did meet Rich on the road. I don't recall the city, but I recall seeing him for the 1st time. He was wearing a dark overcoat and looked pretty disheveled, but in an intentional way. I shook his hand but had no idea the role we would eventually play in each other's lives. I don't think I saw him again for a year or so.
Eventually, Mike Blanton, Amy's manager, asked me quite spontaneously, "Do you think you could producer a record on Rich Mullins.?" I immediately said, "Yes," although this was nothing more than a response. I hadn't thought anything through.

What would you say your approach to producing was? Specifically, what did you add to Mullins' songs that wouldn't have been there otherwise?

I cared about the song more than the artist, which is not smart for a producing career. My approach was simply, "What is the emotional core of this song, and how can I bring that forward?" I really wanted to feel things listening to music. Still do.
The early records were a bit catastrophic; neither Rich nor I had any real idea what we were doing. I was in love with experimenting at a time when experimenting wasn't economically possible. So, some of the early stuff is unlistenable. Partly, it was because of a lack of competence, but also because we would try stuff, it wouldn't work out, and then we were out of money to regroup.

Everything changed with Winds of Heaven, because that record was made for very little and sold a lot - I don't know how many, but it was certified gold (500,000) a long time ago. I imagine it must be close to platinum. We got better budgets as a result.
In terms of what I brought to the process: Probably a more musically diverse background. I knew a lot about world music and I could write orchestrations and conduct them. I had a big soundstage in my head and I liked pushing together latin percussion and orchestra and dulcimer and whatnot. But there were downsides to that, too. I had never been in a dirty, grungy rock band, and there times when that would have suited Rich's music better. But to be fair, the '80s and early 90's was not a time for dirty, grungy rock bands. We were listening to Mister Mister and Toto and virtuosic bands.

Most people are surprised to learn that Rich wasn't particularly involved during recording, simply because he wasn't interested. He would disappear for long stretches. I would beg him tostay around more, because I was quite worried that he would come back after we'd spent a good deal of time going in a direction and pronounce that he didn't like it. But he very rarely expressed opinions about things musically. I very rarely had musical discussions with Rich. On the other hand, I had many, many discussions with him about politics, religion, and philosophy. And the music business. But to actually sit and talk about what to "do" with a particular song, no.

When I was a kid I would just pour over the liner notes to each of Rich's albums, and I was always surprised to see how little of the instruments he actually played on the recordings.
Obviously, he played the hammered and lap dulcimer, but usually you were the one listed as playing piano and not him. Why is that? Hearing him live numerous times I know he was proficient, although at times it seemed he had tempo issues. Was there something about his playing that wasn't quite up to studio or record industry standards?

Rich was incredibly soulful musically but he possessed a particular quality many singer- pianists share: he played all over the instrument, all the time. He was used to accompanying himself, you see. He would hammer out double bass notes even if there was a bass player and things like that. So, when you added other instruments, it didn't quite mesh. Live, this didn't make so much difference. But on record, it didn't really work. Also, he had a very elastic sense of time. Making a record is just a different enterprise. But just to sit around the piano while he played and sang by himself, this was beautiful. And we did that sometimes, just for the pleasure of it.

At the beginning of his CCM career in the late 80's Rich's sound was very synth-heavy and this progressed all the way to a very folky and organic sound on the last few albums. You can literally hear the shift from album to album, each subsequent album becoming by degrees more acoustic or "natural" in instrumentation. How do you explain this shift? Was this an intentional reaction against the more synth-heavy sounds of the 80's or just a natural progression?

I think the change was mostly a function of better budgets. When you have few dollars - and remember, this was not the age of garage studios, but of expensive studios at hundreds of dollars a day, not counting people costs - then you just do what you can do. But the budgets got better, so we could get people in a room and record them. The other thing was that I was gaining more confidence as an arranger. I couldn't have taken on something of the scope of Sometimes by Step on the 1st couple of records, money or no money. We were all growing. But I think, given the epic scale of Rich's lyrics, moving to a more cinematic soundstage was inevitable.

The first time, as far as I can tell, that the hammered dulcimer made it into a Rich Mullins recording was on "One Thing" from Never Picture Perfect. Can you explain how your recording technique for this instrument changed over the next few albums because to me the sound really changed. I mean no offense, but to me, on "One Thing" the recording sounds kind of muffled whereas on "Sometimes By Step" and "Creed" the instrument sounds crisp and has a huge sound.

I think actually this was a different dulcimer. Also, we probably didn't know what we were doing before so much. But the biggest factor was Rich's tendency to tune his dulcimer by ear, usually with negative consequences. As you're probably aware, if the instrument is in tune, it "sings"; if it isn't, it doesn't. I don't believe I ever actually recorded Rich with the instrument properly in tune. On one occasion, I paid a tuner to come in and get it perfect. I was elated - the record company had given Rich a new dulcimer in recognition of sales or something, and it was a good one. I went to lunch, satisfied that all was well. When I got back, Rich was hunched over the dulcimer, "retuning" it. I was mildly peeved, but what can you do? The artist is the artist.

Rich was a phenomenal dulcimer player, however. I gave him the nickname, "OTR", which stood for "One Take Rich". Both "Calling out Your Name" and "Sometimes by Step" were recorded in a single take, for example. He had marvelous concentration when playing dulcimer.

On Recording A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band
A classic album needs to contain a strange mixture of making the listener feel as if the music has always existed but that also feels as if it came from another world altogether. Like Abbey Road, A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band is one of those albums for me. Obviously, since you had a key role in making it, the recording didn't just "appear" for you. What can you tell us about the recording of this album? Did it seem special to you and everyone else in the midst recording it or were you all so focused on your work that you only concerned yourself with the job at hand?

I can't even imagine having the thought, "Wow, this is going to be classic," while working on a record. When things go well - I mean down to the granular level, like a snare drum sound - you quickly move on in your mind to the thing that needs attention. You spend 90% of your time fixing stuff and 10% of your time exulting in something beautiful happening. Now, it happens that this 10% is like morphine, it's just the best thing ever. But you also have the clear sense that these wonderful moments can't really be engineered. They're serendipitous. So, your job is fixing problems while still making it possible for beautiful moments. But the idea that you would think, "Oh, yeah, this is awesome, people will listen to this decades from now" - that is just hilarious.

In terms of how my production style changed over the years: I always had a plan, but as time passed I tended to use it less often - almost as a last resort. I wanted to give the beautiful stuff more of a chance to happen. I became more patient when things weren't great, yet. Back then, that was a pretty expensive way to work. Today, it's much more attainable, because time is cheaper. This is such a wonderful change.

Were you surprised with the quality of songs that Rich was bringing forward? How collaborative were the musical arrangements?

I was never surprised by the quality of Rich's songs. He was the best writer in Christian music, and remains so to this day. He is untouchable lyrically. He possessed that particular combination of gift and fearlessness that equals genius. Lots of people have 1 or the other. It's the combination that's rare.

The arrangements as rhythm tracks were highly-collaborative, and we set things up that way from the start. We moved everyone out of Nashville to Indiana so we could just be together and work. Everyone there contributed. The hope was that we would return after a week with a set of rhythm tracks and then finish the record in Nashville. It pretty much worked out that way. Once we left Indiana, I took the tapes and did the orchestrations and overdubs with an engineer.

Who gathered the "band" for the recording of Liturgy? Was it Rich, you, or the record company?

Rich and I worked out the "band". Rich always wanted to use people in his live band, and I tended in the opposite direction. So, we sort of compromised. I think the blend worked out. I pushed hard for Billy Crockett, who is an astonishing acoustic guitar player, and Chris McHugh on drums. I felt like with Chris laying the foundation, we could fix things later if necessary. But not much got replaced. Everybody pulled his weight. And there was no doubt that Rich was happy having his pals around.

Were you tracking with the whole "liturgy" theme of the first half of the album that Rich was going for? What was/is your church background?

I'm midwestern protestant, but I had studied musical liturgy in college. I liked the idea of an animating principle like liturgy. But frankly, my opinion on this was irrelevant. Conceptual stuff like that was entirely Rich's domain.

Let me set the context for this next question: A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band was the 7th album you recorded with Rich over the course of eight years (I can't imagine that kind of pace), and it was recorded right in the middle of something of a golden age in CCM where production budgets could be a lot bigger because of the success of some of the record labels. On top of that you and Mullins had had a sizable hit from the previous album with "Sometimes By Step". So my question is two-fold: 1) What did you bring to the recording of A Liturgy that was different this time around? How had you changed and grown as a producer, as a musician, and in your relationship with Rich? And 2), was you production budget larger than it had been previously; that is, was the record company willing to send more money your way because of past successes or were you guys still operating under the radar?

I've kind of covered this, I think. Again - the biggest change for me as a producer was trusting more and controlling less. Eventually, you have to exert control, but I imposed that control later with every record. Sounds obvious, but in that era, it was actually difficult because of how expensive it was to record. You felt like, "Right, I need to get this down fairly quickly, and so it's safest to just explain what we're going to do." But eventually you figure out that you got what you paid for, no more, no less. Nothing transcendent happens that way. Transcendent moments are like shy women at a party. Walk up, say 'hello', and back off. Give them a chance to come to life a little. That was much easier when the budgets increased. But it also required some growing up on my part.

The truth is, there's no single way. Another guy who was very active at that time was Keith Thomas. Keith had some pretty big budgets, but he used the money to actually drill down and control things more completely. To get them as perfect as possible, in effect. And he made some killer records that way. He had a kind of single-minded genius and working that way suited him. But I couldn't have made a record like he made for Vanessa Williams, even if you gave me a million dollars. And he would have probably been wrong for working with someone like Rich. We're all just trying to figure it out, you know? You do your best and hope accordingly.

Life now and the legacy of Rich Mullins
Where do you think Rich would have headed musically if he hadn’t died and how do you think he would have adapted to the implosion of the music industry, especially of CCM?

Rich would have fared fantastically. He was immune financially, because he set up his life to live on a tiny fraction of what he earned. The implosion of the music business would have meant next-to-nothing to him. Meanwhile, the fact that the Christian radio business has become metric- driven would have pushed him off the radio in any case. Rich and I had more than a dozen hits on radio - I don't recall quite how many. But I would say effectively none could be played on Christian radio today, except as the occasional oddity. But this would make Rich's music - the music he would have made between then and now, had he lived - even more precious to those who loved it. I think his concerts would have become events, frankly. But remember - that is only because he had achieved critical mass before the big changes. A more interesting question would be is there a Rich Mullins out there now, unable to get heard because he came along after the implosion? And we can't answer that, for self-evident reasons.

Oftentimes you hear that artists wrote 20-40 songs for an album but that only 10-12 made the cut? Were there completed or nearly completed songs that you and Rich recorded for his albums? If there are, do they still exist anywhere? For those of us who are long time fans of Mullins we are left wondering if there's any more of his stuff out there that hasn't gotten released (as great as the Here in America project was, it just never felt like enough).

I have a few demos of things, but I never let the record company put them out, because I don't think Rich would have liked the idea. Rich didn't present a lot of extra songs before we went into the studio. If we were going to record 11, we might listen to 14.

Have you gotten a chance to view any of the upcoming Ragamuffin movie about Rich’s life or were you consulted on in their research for it? What’s your take on the project?

I don't know anything about it, other than it exists. I had a phone conversation with the producer a year or so ago, and never heard anything else. I wish them the best, for it not to suck.

Do you still do any music producing? What's your relationship to the music industry these days.

I'm retired from the music industry. I occasionally consult with record labels, but I don't actively produce. I think more about creativity generally and consult with various organizations about how they can maximize the creativity of their people. My clients are various - universities, tech companies, media companies, even churches. My relationship with the music industry is mostly social, in that most of my friends are still in music.

Do you still play music yourself anymore? 

Nope. People always look shocked when I say this, but I haven't touched a piano in years. Nor do I miss it in the least. I'm fully engaged in other creative work.

In the last fifteen or so years you have primarily focused on your literary career, writing novels and now on your blog you are focusing a lot on the act of creativity. What projects are you currently working on and what ideas are you hoping to convey to people?

A few years ago, I started teaching a class on creativity at Belmont University. So, I did a bunch of research on the subject, reading the popular books but also scientific journals and things. And I was generally let down by it. The popular books in particular were really just creativity tours, where the author is like a tour guide. He would point out the window at this or that and say, "See? This is how this person is being creative." At the end of the book, it was, "Okay, everybody off the bus. Go be creative." The stuff was seductive on the surface, but then you realize - what does it mean when I go to work tomorrow? I felt unchanged by what I had read. Like the fetishisizing of neuroscience right now. Michelangelo and Beethoven didn't know how creativity works in the brain, and they managed to crank out some decent work, right? So, I decided to seriously think about what mattered in actual creative work. I ended up with 6 things: values, iteration, the zeitgeist, play, limits, and "+1", which means to take something that already exists, add a function to it, and make something new. I'm presently writing a book about these ideas called 6 Creativity Engines: innovation for life and work. I should finish this fall some time. Between that and consulting with various organizations, I stay pretty busy.

And finally, going back to A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band and at the risk of using a pun, what do think the legacy of this album is?

A: I think maybe it's a marker in time. There was a convergence of artistic freedom and budget that probably doesn't exist, now. It would be very difficult for anyone to choose to make a record like that today. Not just musically, but thematically and lyrically. The value of recorded music is very small now. It's disposable. When we made Liturgy, we thought about a record as a complete thing unto itself, as opposed to "a bunch of songs". We dreamt big.

More information on Reed Arvin's current projects along with a link to his blog can be found at his website: http://notjusttalk.tumblr.com/ and https://twitter.com/reedarvin

Related Articles: A Twenty Year Anniversary: A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band
"The Theology of Rich Mullins" can be found here.
Rich Mullins and America As The Promised Land


Focus C3 said...

I truly appreciate your interview and article with Reed. I too was a young boy that wore out cassettes and liner notes listening to Rich and trying hard to figure out what it was he was trying to say! I am nearly thirty and I still listen to his catalogue. I can remember driving through a terrible storm in the Badlands and my dad was cranking Calling Out Your Name. I was deathly afraid of storms, but I felt at peace when I heard Rich's words. I also remember signing Brother's Keeper with my family for a church "family music night". And I remember when I really understood why Hold Me Jesus brought my dad and his worship partner to tears when they sang it. Thank you so much for your words and shared passion for the message Rich tried to spread.

Unknown said...

It might have been too personal a question to ask, but I've always wondered why after a triumph of an album like Liturgy did Reed not produce the next album? Was it Rich's call? Did Reunion want a different sound? Was Reed just burned out after (as you noted) making 7 albums in 8 years?

Since neither Brother's Keeper nor Canticle of the Plains had anywhere near the production quality of Reed's best three -- World as Best 1 & 2 and Liturgy -- it's pretty clear they could have benefitted from Reed's involvement.

PostConsumer Reports said...

Brian, to your questions I say: :)
I've had the same questions for years. Years, I tell you.
I guess I didn't have the guts to ask Reed those questions and I also wanted to keep things strictly focused on this particular album. I had about 5 more music specific questions in a miscellaneous section that he declined to answer, not for any reason other than he had already given me lots of material. Maybe once he and I become BFF's I'll get to ask the question of why he stopped being a producer and a musician in general. I know he's really focused on his writing career.

Anonymous said...

i can answer your question. rich wanted to try producing on his own. he wanted a raw sound with more input from band members. he wanted to get away from polished recordings.