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Friday, 16 September 2016 12:45

Whitewater's Jay Craggs is a music maker

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Jay Craggs of Whitewater says he feels fortunate to make a living working in the music business. He currently plays guitar with Cold Sweat and the Brew City Horns. Over the years, he's played with and done studio work for dozens of performers, including Prince and David Bowie. Jay Craggs of Whitewater says he feels fortunate to make a living working in the music business. He currently plays guitar with Cold Sweat and the Brew City Horns. Over the years, he's played with and done studio work for dozens of performers, including Prince and David Bowie. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Guitarist Jay Craggs has shared the stage, opened for or recorded with musicians as varied as Wynton Marsalis, Buddy Rich and Kansas. He’s also a self-described technology geek and has done sound engineering and studio work for dozens of performers, including Rush, Prince and David Bowie.

He still has a recording studio in the basement of his Whitewater home, but these days, he’s the facilities coordinator at the James R. Connor University Center at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the school where he earned a degree in music education, and teaches an occasional class in audio recording for the communications department. He also plays with Cold Sweat and the Brew City Horns, an eight-piece band performing around Milwaukee, Chicago, Green Bay and Madison.

“I feel fortunate to be able to make a living doing something I really enjoy,” Craggs says. “It’s fun stuff, and they pay me to do it.”

Listen to his slice of life:

Musical roots

I was playing the guitar in third grade. None of the rest of my close family is a professional musician, but my dad plays mandolin and my mom plays piano. My brother and sister both play instruments. My wife is a very good clarinet player and singer.

His playlist

I was a jazz guy -- John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker -- that kind of stuff is what I grew up listening to. But at the same time, I’m a kid, right? Growing up in the ’70s and the ’80s, I’m also listening to rock ’n’ roll.

I really like what’s called fusion -- it’s a term that gets overused and weirdly, but there’s elements of jazz, elements of rock. I love the Yellowjackets, Robben Ford. I’m a huge Allan Holdsworth fan. He’s one of my heroes. I got to play with him a couple of times.

Best venue

My favorite stage that I’ve ever been on in the world is probably Red Rocks (Amphitheater) out in Colorado. That’s incredible. It’s hard to believe it’s real.

On the road

I played in a number of regional bands that traveled a lot. I was involved in a number of aspects of the music business -- performer, writer, composer. I have some albums out. I played on many albums, radio and TV commercials.

That was what I did for a long time. The upside of that is it’s very exciting, you’re right in the main limelight, you work with a lot of big names and you’re immersed in the music business. The downside is you do an awful lot of traveling.

I eventually ended up getting out of the music business because I found the love of my life and I got married and wanted to be at least in the same state. So we opened a recording studio here in town.

One thing leads to another

I was teaching down in the Platteville area and was still doing recording sessions in Minneapolis and playing in Green Bay and Madison and Chicago a number of nights every week. I worked with some local guys here in a group called Uptown Technology. At the time, Adrian Belew, who was the guitar player for David Bowie, lived in Lake Geneva. We did a lot of custom work for him, worked with him in the studio a little bit, and we ended up doing support for the Sound + Vision tour for David Bowie in the early ’90s.

The advent of MIDI

One of the things we had to do for that tour was synchronize sound and lights and film and sample background vocals and all that stuff for a big show. And that’s a pretty complicated thing to do -- especially in those days. I remember we had one of the original Macintoshes that were all in one. Remember those? It was like state of the art -- it had a 20-megabyte hard drive, four megabytes of RAM and it cost a ton of money. Now it’s a joke. My watch has more power.

But at that time, they had to synchronize all those things onstage. A lot of that was done with something called MIDI, musical instrument digital interface. All that is, is a bunch of data that goes back and forth between a computer and say, synthesizers or recorders, that kind of thing. I didn’t know anything about it then. When I was teaching, I had the summer off, so I took a whole summer and spent eight hours a day for about two, three months, learning how to work with MIDI and sequencing -- where instead of recording audio, you record performance data.

When you record the MIDI data it basically plays a synthesizer. So if you record it and play it back, and decide you don’t like, let’s say, the piano, and you want to make it an organ instead, you just change the patch and the synthesizer plays it back and now it plays a different sound. It’s very flexible. It also doesn’t take much data. Nowadays you record tremendous amounts of data -- there’s no issue. You’ve got six terra-byte hard drives. It’s just crazy. The MIDI was very attractive because it didn’t take a lot of space on a hard drive, it didn’t have to be a very fast interface.

Getting noticed

A lot of major artists got interested in some of the work we were doing. Prince was one of them. Talking Heads, Rush, Night Ranger, Living Colour, a lot of studio people -- Paul Pesco was one. He was a guitar player with Madonna at the time. He ended up being the musical director for Hall & Oates for quite awhile.

Working with the stars

People think there’s a lot of glamour in the music business. The truth of it is, I don’t think it’s that much different from a lot of other businesses. It’s a business.

I remember being in the studio with Rush up in, I think it was Toronto, and being amazed at how normal they were. They were just a bunch of family guys. That really struck me.

Working with Prince was not quite the same. I have a tremendous respect for the guy. I thought he was a brilliant pop person, similar in stature, I suppose, to someone like Stevie Wonder. He was just a prolific writer, tremendously talented and a great businessman as well. He really looked at the business differently than a lot of other acts did -- changing his name and all that stuff kind of set him apart. I think a lot of his persona was real. He was a very different kind of person. He had a very large personality if you want to put it that way. He believed in “Live life large.”

My work with him was mostly working on guitar sounds. We did some playing together in the studio, looking at different equipment. His setup was pretty basic. I was trying to get him involved in some of the more elaborate equipment, and he just wanted to keep it pretty simple generally. He used a lot of different stuff, but his go-to thing was just a bunch of pedals and a couple of amps. But he treated me very well. I hear a lot of stories about people having a lot of conflict with him. I didn’t experience that.

I didn’t work with David Bowie a lot personally. Most of what we were doing was supporting the production. But I met him a few times, and again, the interactions I had with him were all very professional and nice and open. No issues at all. The picture painted of him in the media has changed over the years from Ziggy Stardust to, before he passed, a man in a suit and tie. He was not the stereotype of the crazy rock star.

The technical side

Some people could care less about the sound design. They’re just about playing and it is what it is. Some people are totally immersed in it. I did some system design stuff for guitar player Vernon Reid, with Living Colour. A guy like that is a good example -- he’s constantly evolving with the technology. At the time I was with him it was all very high-end tube amplifiers and very complex routing system, switching and all this stuff. It sounded killer. I haven’t seen him in years, but I saw a YouTube video of him; he’s got a laptop and stuff like that. That kind of person is very much into all the technology and all the possibilities that presents for itself. Other people, I think, are overwhelmed by that. Some people just want to plug the guitar into an amp and turn it up and go. And that’s fine, too. It’s just kind of a personal thing.

A paradigm shift

Guitar amplifiers, still to this day, are very amazing. A quality, well-built tube amplifier is a very great sounding amplifier. But they’re coming so close now with apps you can have on your iPhone and do the same type of thing. It’s not the same, but it’s close. There are an awful lot of records made by never using an amplifier, just plugging in a computer and using the software. It’s really amazing how much that has changed. This studio used to have tape decks, reel-to-reel recording. Now we have a hard drive.  

There are a lot of purists that maintain that there’s a big difference between analog recording -- like tape -- and digital. But there are trade-offs. Tape is very expensive. ... I grew up with analog and I love it. But there’s an ease of working with digital. I did a project a while back for a piano player that was for HBO Romania, a film called “The World According to Ion B” that ended up getting an Emmy award. We did the tracks here and sent them to Romania. You know what I mean?

The future of recording

In the future, the opportunity to make better and better music at home will just keep increasing. It’s to the point now every Mac you buy has GarageBand on it. Is it a full-blown recording studio? No, but you can do a lot of cool stuff with GarageBand and it doesn’t cost anything more than just buying the computer. There’s so much processing power now in a phone that you can do the same thing on your phone. It’s crazy. So I think things are getting smaller and smaller and better and better. The high-end digital stuff is very, very good. And the price of that stuff comes down every week. What you can buy now versus what you can buy 10 years ago is unbelievable.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the discipline to become a good musician. You can have all the equipment in the world, but the musician part of it, there’s no short cut. It’s thousands and thousands of hours of practicing. There’s stage presence. That’s thousands and thousands of performances. It used to be forget about it, you can’t even do a recording outside of a studio that would be worth doing. That’s not the case anymore. The equipment is becoming less and less of a barrier. But the concept is you still have to have it together as a musician. Otherwise you’ll get a great recording of a horrible performance.

Making a living

I know a lot of musicians -- big names and not-so-big names, and almost all of them work in the business in a variety of ways. Generally, if they’re performers, they’re playing in some kind of group, they’re doing recording, maybe doing some composition, maybe music writing, engraving music in software to make it readable, doing arrangements for people, teaching -- there are just so many different ways you can market yourself to stay busy doing what you love. People have the stereotype of a rock star that all they do is do a couple of concerts a year and make millions of dollars. That’s just not even close to the way it works -- even for those people. Mostly, they do many things. The No. 1 thing on your list, sure you want to do that. We all do. And you do as much of that as you can. And then you fill in with things that are a little lower on your list.



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