Ouds, a New Year, a Lacquer Factory and the Desert: Our first week in California

At the end of our first week in California, we found ourselves looking out across a vast expanse of sand and sky thinking back to our trip’s beginning, just one week ago in San Francisco.  It seems too beautiful to have all just happened in one week. But as Ben Vaughn reminded us, gesturing out beyond his property to the faraway mountains before we recorded with him at his house in Wonder Valley, “How can anything be wrong?”

This idyllic scene in the Mojave fell at the end of a week filled with wonderful hospitality and amazing serendipity. But we should begin at the beginning of the story of our California Journey…

Last week when we left New York, we were nervous. If you’d seen us at the airport, you’d have laughed or died. We checked 9 bags of gear, including the Presto in its iron-clad, perfect black road case made for us by Red Dirt. It might have only been a hundred yards from the car to check-in, but it felt like a mile. Thankfully the nice folks at Delta took our gear with good humor, and we were on the plane and on our way!

We arrived in San Francisco and watched in horror as the Presto came crashing down the baggage chute. After testing the gear and finding everything miraculously in working order, we set out for Santa Rosa to record our first 78 of the trip with The Easy Leaves. At the end of a gravel road, next to a chattering creek, Sage Fifield and Kevin Carducci live in cozy, adjoining shacks. We set up in Sage’s under twinkling lights and recorded the duo performing “Cotton Fields.” Our first record in California! And it was beautiful.

Novato became our home base, thanks to our generous friends Tony and Kay. And suddenly, New Years Eve was upon us. How better to spend the last day of the year than on a real adventure? we thought when Jaron Lanier called and asked us if we wanted to stop by his Berkeley home to see his profound collection of musical instruments from all around the world. We stopped into San Francisco to pick up Jody Stecher to join in the fun, and an hour later we were lugging the Presto over clarinets and under hanging ouds to make our final 78 of 2012. A momentous and improvised recording of Jaron’s own design.

A new year and what a way to start it! Recording with X’s John Doe in his home in Fairfax. After cutting a rendition of “Skip To My Lou” more badass than your average barn dance, John was all fired up to try out some of the 78s he had lying around the house. So we turned the turntable over to him for an afternoon of Almanac Singers and Lead Belly’s “Sinful Songs.” 2013 felt welcomed in right.


An hour away in Sacramento the next morning, Julie Baenziger of Sea of Bees awaited us with doughnuts and coffee and stories galore. Her voice, like her house, was filled warm sunlight and life as she sang “In My Dying Day.” And after we made her 78, she took us to see her favorite Sacramento sights, cafes and a recording studio and all the places a local would want to go. We felt so at home that it was hard to depart, but we had to put a whole state under our wheels that night, so we bid Jules goodbye and hit the trail.

Eight dark hours later we were in Southern California. We regrouped, backed up and repacked at our dear friend and 78 Project contributor Sarah Law’s house. The desert was calling and we knew we had to be ready. We had a date with our supplier!

We can say without hesitation that Apollo Masters in Banning, CA is the reason The 78 Project can exist. They make our 78 acetate discs and the cutting needles we use…and they are the only ones in America who still do. We were honored that they extended us an invitation to visit their record-making facility, which included a full tour of every part of the process. All we can say is that it was mind-blowing. Apollo is a small company that produces an incredible product. Each disc goes through so many stages of production and quality control, and at each stage a real human being handles it. We saw how they polish the metal discs and coat them in lacquer then punch the hole in the center after they’ve dried. We also saw how one woman carefully crafts the ruby-tipped cutting needles one at a time under a microscope. We left wide-eyed and in awe of the preciousness of each and every disc we cut!

Further east past the grapevines and cow pastures, past the golf courses and the Joshua Trees, at the end of a long dirt road and a long dirt driveway, Ben Vaughn was waiting for us. His famous Rambler stood sentry as we entered his property, and two vintage campers sat out back, ready to be used to make a 78. As the sun went down, we set up in front of the Silver Streak, and Ben played “Worried Man Blues” with a lilting, cheerful energy. No dust settled on the disc and his camper provided us with a refuge for our playback after the hot desert sun set and left the air chilled and dark.

Our L.A. adventures are still to come, and our California trip is only halfway done!  More from us soon…