Renowned music producer Dave Cobb was working on a film job where he recreated the music of one singing icon — Tammy Faye Bakker — when he got the assignment to do the same for an even more significant vocalist, high a bar as that may have been: Elvis Presley. Truly, both figured into his youth, growing up as a Pentecostal kid in the Southeast. But even if one were to consider these singers on the same plane, “Elvis” would require quite a lot more out of him than “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” as workloads go, due to the sheer amount of Presley catalog being recreated. Ultimately, he wound up working on 80 different tracks for the Baz Luhrmann film.
He admits he was intimidated by the task, although probably not as much as a producer whose parents hadn’t constantly played Elvis records from the time of his birth might have been. It also doesn’t hurt, perhaps, that Cobb has worked as the constant collaborator of a lot of modern greats, including Brandi Carlle, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, as well as having started moving into film music more, starting with 2018’s “A Star Is Born,” for which he produced Lady Gaga.
The later parts of the film use actual vintage Presley recordings, but it was Cobb’s role to produce and wholly recreate the “young Elvis” tracks sung by Austin Butler, as well as come up with the music representing Presley’s many Black influences in the film, and some vintage country as well — and then do one wholly modern-sounding number with Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak. How’d he do? The proof is in the pudding that most moviegoers don’t even notice the transitions between the newly recreated Butler tracks and the original masters heard toward the end of the film. He came, he conquered, he played house.
Variety caught up with Cobb just after the film opened to considerable enthusiasm from audiences.
There is a list of 80 tracks you worked on for the movie, either producing or mixing. Not every one of those is in the film or on the soundtrack; some of those are alternate arrangements and some are things that didn’t make the final cut. Still… Not many people would take on doing 80 songs for one movie.
No. [Laughs.] But it wasn’t all in one fell swoop, thank God. We started this pre-pandemic, and then everything got shut down for quite a while. We picked back up about a year ago. So 80 credits was easy to manage over three years, you know? It was pretty incredible, because some of those days at RCA, we had 15 people coming to sing different characters. We’d have Les Greene coming in to do Little Richard and Yola to do Sister Rosetta Tharpe — just one after the other of incredibly talented people who got behind a microphone and made this happen. The band’s playing completely live. Every bit of the music that I worked on in the film is completely live, with everything happening at one moment.
We had to find a Little Richard, a Rosetta Tharpe, an Arthur Crudup, and that was part of the gig as well, and the fun, trying to find people who could pull it off. Baz found Austin, and God, what a find that was — Austin really sells Elvis vocally. But trying to find Little Richard is one of the most difficult things in the world; he’s got one of the most unique voices of all time, so that was extremely difficult. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, extremely difficult, so I thought of Yola, because Yola can do anything. She walked in, dressed for the part with the guitar and everything, and absolutely overdelivered. And the same goes for finding all the gospel stuff in there. Baz from early meetings really wanted to show where Elvis got everything from, and bringing people like Shannon Sanders in – he’s a vocal arranger and choir director in Nashville — was huge as well… And the Settles Connection and the McCrary sisters, as well as Robert Randolph and his Family Band, all these incredibly talented people making these scenes happen with all the gospel stuff as well.
A lot of that casting was pure vocal casting, where the actor would be lip-synching to a more trained singer’s vocal. But then there were a couple of instances where the vocal casting became the on-screen casting, as well.
That’s correct. Yola, who I’d gotten to work with her briefly on the Highwomen, came in dressed as Rosetta Tharpe with a guitar and the whole nine, and just obviously had the voice, and she overdelivered. Baz fell in love with her immediately and wound up casting her as the part in the film. And Shonka Dukureh was recommended by Odesa Settles from the Settles Connection to come and be part of the choir. She started singing as we were doing these revival scenes and everybody’s like, “Oh my God.” So eventually she got cast to be in the film as well, as Big Mama Thornton. Shannon Sanders, the choir director, played such a big part that Baz cast him as well — he’s the Pentecostal minister in the tent scene.
How much did you get done before the big pandemic interruption?
Quite a bit. We had done quite a bit of the backing tracks for the ‘50s and ‘60s Elvis stuff, and recorded just a myriad of people, including Yola, in that batch. And then we actually had the idea to make it really authentic when we recorded the tent revival scene. We wound up driving about an hour outside of Nashville to this old, little 1800s Pentecostal church, and actually recorded that (audio) in the church. It was supposed to be reenacting what a tent revival would be like, but it actually turned into a real service. Austin and Baz and Elliot Wheeler (the executive music producer) came down and the whole team was there. The switch (was flipped) from just playing like you were in church to church. The band just wouldn’t stop playing, and it was beautiful. We captured so much gospel content right then and there. It just kept going and going and going and it was a real revival. We did, God knows how many songs in that, because it just kept one after the other rolling into each other.
Speaking of gospel, the last time we talked to you was about your work on the “Eyes of Tammy Faye” movie.
That’s right. It seems to be a theme, right? “Eyes of Tammy Faye” was right before we started on “Elvis.” I grew up Pentecostal, so I have such a love for gospel music, and it’s great to see two extremes of it, between “Tammy Faye” and this film.
People may be surprised at some of the more obscure songs that are in the film or on the soundtrack, like one I can say I didn’t know, “Cotton Candy Land.”
Honestly, I didn’t know that either. Baz and his team found that, and it’s such a really obscure, deep-dive Elvis track. That was cut a couple of times. It’s in the score with Stevie Nicks singing. And then later on, Baz really wanted a remix, so we did one where we have Chris Isaak and Stevie Nicks singing this kind of dance version of the track. Actually, it’s more like Serge Gainsbourg meets Elvis meets Nancy Sinatra or something.
Stevie is (vocally) playing a character in that too, by the way, which is really cool. She got really into character, because at the very opening of the film (where her voice appears on the soundtrack), you see a gypsy. So Stevie’s singing as a character, which is really interesting.
And doesn’t Chris Isaak also appear on the soundtrack as the voice of Hank Snow?
Yes. He’s singing the song “Pardon Me” in the film (for the Snow character, portrayed by another actor). It was funny because as we were working on the film, Elliott Wheeler calls me and is like, “Do you know anybody who could do Hank Snow?” And I was in the studio with Chris doing “Cotton Candy Land,” and Chris says, “I can do that.” Chris knew the song that they wanted and literally immediately started singing it on the spot, and just nailed his voice. I mean, it’s unbelievable. Chris can do anything. He’s one of my favorite people in the world.
Luhrmann clearly had a lot of strong ideas about the music of the film and wasn’t just leaving you guys to your own devices to develop it.
He is a genius. I mean, I’ve never met somebody who, when they talk about things, you visually see what they’re saying all the time. When he was in the studio, as we were doing the tracks, he was directing the scene in front of our eyes, and I think everyone played better because he was there. I think everybody understood the intent behind every note they played because he was there. He’s such an incredibly talented director, but the guy could be the best music producer in the world too, because he connects with people like no other. I was in awe of him being in the room and really getting the best of it out of everyone.
Can you talk about why Austin worked out so well?
Austin, the first time I met him, he walked in, and we had this huge studio band ready to track this stuff, and he gets behind the mic and starts singing and was just so impressive. I would’ve been scared to death, walking in a large studio with a bunch of session players and Baz and Elliot Wheeler and Jamieson Shaw and all those guys. To a certain extent when he came in the studio for the first time, he was talking like Elvis, and obviously had really researched, researched, researched and had an incredible grasp on Elvis even at that point —before they’d started filming. He really killed himself to get Elvis and nail Elvis’ spirit and intent and his emotion and his personality — and the vocals. I saw him at the Memphis premiere a couple weekends ago and the first thing I said was about how I was mixing the soundtrack and I just couldn’t believe I wasn’t pulling up Elvis’ vocal.
Were you nervous at all about remaking the classic tracks and not getting it quite right?
Anytime you think of trying to recreate such iconic recording, it’s absolutely terrifying to even attempt to do that. So, yeah, I was super scared about it all. But the musicians all came in really prepared. And we actually mic-ed everything and used equipment that would’ve been used in that era. We did it to analog tape, and we had ‘50s mic preamps and ‘50s ribbon microphones. The Country Music Hall of Fame has some of the equipment that Elvis used, including the slap you hear on some of those early records, and they were kind and let us borrow that. So we incorporated as much authenticity as we could into the recording side, even aside from the musicianship and the playing. So much attention to detail went into not faking it, but actually doing it the same way they would’ve done it. But just because you have all those ingredients to make it happen doesn’t mean you’re gonna nail it. And everybody poured their heart in to kind of make it come to life and actually sound like those records as much as we could.
In mixing something like this, it seems like there’s probably a fine balance to strike between wanting authentic period sounds and then gearing it toward however many speakers the average movie theater has right now — it’s going to be disappointing to the mass audience if you have these big, explosive scenes and it truly sounds just like a Sun record playing on a 45 spindle.
Stuff that I mixed, we really had really a pretty accurate balance and picture of what it was gonna sound like as it was tracking. When they were making Sun records, I’m sure they were going early on directly to mono and mixing on the fly. So I had an incredible team of engineers, Darrell Thorpe and Greg Gordon, mixing as as it was going down. When a solo happened, they were riding the mic preamp. And the players also paid homage to how players played back then. When they needed to get loud to get loud, they’d get loud; if they needed to get quiet, they’d get quiet. So a lot of the mixing happened completely live. And when I got the files, really the only things I did to make it bigger was maybe in the bottom end, to add kind of sub to a kick drum, which you don’t hear on a lot of old records; you don’t really hear the kick drum. So there are things like that that we modernized, but overall, it’s as authentic as possible.
Some of the stuff that we we talked about, especially when you see “Baby, Let’s Play House” in the film, and they’re playing live, and it’s really hard to get good recordings or hi-fi recordings of Elvis playing live in the ‘50s. And I think that was fun, to kind of capture the energy that might have been, but with a bit more fidelity. That was really striking a balance, in having that thing where everything sounds like it’s blowing up, like a great ‘50s record, but also it’s a little more expansive and wider than the original records. Which I think are perfect. We probably shouldn’t even try. But we did slide that a little bit.
What do you most appreciate about the way music is represented in the film?
You know, Baz had the whole idea musically for how everything fits together and and the choice of songs and the choice of legends that are in it. Seeing the fabric of American music all come together in a few days for the majority of the soundtrack was pretty magical. You see the influence of the church. You see the influence of blues, you see the influence of soul. You see the crooner side, and you see the birth of rock ‘n’ roll almost recreated in front of your eyes in the studio. Some of those beats and shuffles and things like that are long forgotten, and no one really uses that, but my God, how powerful are they? There’s a reason why Little Richard has so many hits; it just feels great. There’s a reason why Elvis has so many hits. To see that music happening organically and live with real human beings playing it and going for it, I think that’s the biggest takeaway. There’s definitely not a computer making it happen.
We should probably ask you who some of the musicians are. Do these arrangements just automatically come to them— “Oh yeah, this is how that Little Richard shuffle goes” — or is there a level of scientific analysis to try to reverse-engineer how they came up with some of those parts?
I picked people who I knew would get it, who had all that stuff in their formative years of playing. They even hyper-criticized the parts just to make sure it was as close as possible. One of the players I had to give a lot of credit to is Chris Powell, the drummer. I mean, he was playing on Little Richard, he’s playing on Rosetta Tharpe, he’s playing on the Elvis stuff, nd he was able to switch up and nail the variety of music that we had to do. As well, this guy JD Simo, who’s playing electric guitar — he’s playing the Rosetta Tharpe guitar parts, he’s playing Scotty Moore, he’s playing James Burton. It’s just incredible how they were able to be so versatile on the things we did on the spot.
Even though we had ‘50s Elvis period tube equipment and microphones, when we went to ‘60s Elvis, we were changing it all to solid-state transistor stuff and solid-state microphones, and just trying to really chase the audio archeology of these records. And I think we did our damnedest just to get that right.
Was Elvis part of your upbringing and youth?
He’s huge, huge to me. You know I grew up Pentecostal, and we had to go to church it felt like every single day. And we had a lot of (gospel) quartet records — and Elvis did quite a bit of gospel stuff too. But for some reason, (secular) Elvis and Buddy Holly snuck through the gates of what we listened to, and Elvis was my dad’s favorite. So there was always Elvis going, all the time. My mom told me that when my dad was young, he tried to impersonate Elvis vocally all the time. So I always heard Elvis, always, as a gigantic part of growing up. I may not have heard Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin early on, but I heard Elvis since birth.
And I think Elvis sums up the Southeast region. I think most people who grew up in the Southeast have the same kind of church overtones in that kind of mix of soul music, country music and gospel music; it just seems to swim around here. So growing up in the Southeast, I definitely felt a kinship to Elvis, particularly the gospel stuff too. So this is a gig I never thought I would get, and it was a dream to work on.
Anything else in the hopper, film-wise, for you yet?
I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about it yet. But I’ve really tried to make a conscious effort to really go into film; in the last three years, after “A Star Is Born,” I’ve just really gone pretty, pretty deep into it. I’m fascinated with it and I love it. It’s a different challenge and a lot of fun to get to do such variety when you do film. Sorry, no pun intended.