NiteTalk: Warren Russell-Smith on Lomax in Haiti, Boardwalk Empire and The Stones

While Sunday's Grammy's wil be dominated by big-name stars and pop hits, sound engineer Warren Russell-Smith is more interested in a lesser-known piece. Russell-Smith, of New York City's The Magic Shop, digitized "Alan Lomax In Haiti: Recordings For The Library Of Congress, 1936-1937," a 10-disc collection that is nominated for two Grammys.

The box set, better known as the Haiti Box, chronicles the music the famed ethnomusicologist recorded on a trip to Haiti more than 70 years ago. The set is nominated for two Grammy's: Best historical album and best album notes.

Russell-Smith also worked on the incidental music for HBO's hit TV show "Boardwalk Empire," and  tweaked such legendary slabs as Woody Guthrie's "Live Wire" and The Rolling Stones' reissue of "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out."

Niteside got with the man of sound in order to hear all about it.

Congrats on the Grammy nomination! Want to tell us a bit about The Haiti Box? Thank you! The Haiti Box is from legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who was very important in the history of music. The recordings on the Haiti Box, if I'm not mistaken, were recorded on his honeymoon. He spent a lot of time in Haiti, and without him I don't think a lot of that type of music would have been captured. It would've probably just existed as folklore really; it would've been sung in families and local groups, and it would've progressed, and we would've never heard the original sound of it.

What was your role in the set's creation and how'd it come about? Around 10 years ago the Library of Congress had transferred the aluminum discs; five years ago it showed up at The Magic Shop, and me and Will Berlind restored maybe a hundred hours of everything and put it aside. Then the Association of Cultural Equity (ACE) sifted through what we restored and picked out about 10 hours that best represented the various styles of music, and they came back to me, and, using even newer technologies, better plug-ins, higher quality things, I went across the 10 discs and reduced the noise even further.

In between the original restoration and the final mastering I met [Green Family Foundation president] Kimberly Green and mentioned that I'd worked on this project. She seemed excited  and said she'd like to stay in touch about it. After the 10 hours came back from ACE I contacted Kimberly, told her the project was picking up again and asked if she'd like to be involved. She asked 'how?' So I put her in touch with ACE and it just went from there. I think she developed a great relationship with [ACE Director] Anna Lomax Wood, and I think without Kimberly the project would still be scuttling around between ACE and The Magic Shop. She made it happen.

People sometimes forget that Haiti's a real hotbed of culture. Were you able to go down there and get a feel for the sounds' origins?
Sure was! I went down there with sound recording equipment, just like Lomax, though mine was a lot smaller and a lot lighter. With Kimberly and Anna and Gage Averil, the musicologist who wrote the liner notes for The Haiti Box, and using the research undertaken by the Green Family Foundation, we followed Alan's footsteps as best we could -- where he stayed, where he went. It's interesting, though some things have changed, of course, the core values are still there. The music is still there. It was a real eye-opener. To sit here and listen to the music in New York City versus going down there and hearing it with your own ears was really something special, and something I'm really honored and privileged to have done.

What other Grammy-attracting music has come out of Crosby Street? We had The Arcade Fire; they recorded Suburbs here. They're up for a number of different Grammys. The year before I think we had Coldplay's Viva La Vida. My boss [Steve Rosenthal] seems to attract the Grammys. [laughs]

This isn't your first time in Grammy land either, is it?
No, it isn't. In 2007 we won for Woody Guthrie's Live Wire. Someone had made a wire recording of a show Woody did in Newark, New Jersey, back in 1949, and we digitized the wire and used all kinds of restoration techniques to make it listenable.

Speaking of award-generating projects, you and The Magic Shop are also in on the sound of Boardwalk Empire. Want to tell us a bit about that? Sure.  [Boardwalk Empire] Music Supervisor Jim Dunbar ... came by with a couple of different tracks. I spent some time doing some work on them and he sat and listened and seemed satisfied with the work we did. Every week more and more tracks started to come through, these early shellac recordings from 1900s and 1910s and 1920s, and I'd painstakingly remove the crackles and the hisses. They used a lot of that music on the first episode.

What's this I hear about you twiddling the nobs for re-release of the Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out? Yeah, Steve again had done a lot of work with ABCKO; quite a few Rolling Stones reissues in fact. And in the Ya'-Ya's box set there's a film, and I helped with that. Then there's the actual CD of the performances, and I spent some time using different types of technologies to get rid of the line noises and typical live performance interference to make it as clean as possible.

That Madison Square Garden show was insanely cool. Yeah, it's considered by many to be the greatest rock 'n' roll performance of all time.

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