A&M chapter Fifteen

There are so many more stories between those days and the days I’m itching to talk about so maybe I’ll go back and tell some more, fill it all in a little more, regardless, you the reader, will never be the wiser.  There’s no real reason to tell you this.

Whatever.

We’re gonna dance around with this chapter a little.  Got ta, got ta, got ta go see Ben.

If it seems to  have taken too long for me to rise to the occasion of what I expected of myself, it didn’t take very long to get what I wanted once I figured it out.  It was equal parts unwilligness to follow the years long path a typical assistant engineer takes to get a shot at the show, as it was not at all congruent with my aspirations once I finally began to understand what I was doing.

Fuck all that.  I understood the big picture.  I’d seen enough.  Paid my dues.  Fuck all that.  I was busting.

I had a plan.  I was developing mad skills.

There was bullshit.  Shitloads of it.  Nonsense.  I’d be cutting through that.

I was a quarter century old.  I’d produce record and mix my first record before I was thirty.

The fact was, I could hear it in my head and knew how to put it on tape.  Or I knew I could figure out how to.  I had come to understand top and bottom and volume and chunk and circumstance enough to make it so.  I witnessed famous engineers and producers making huge mistakes.  Both in coaxing performances and being clueless while getting a sound.  I witnessed Bob Ezrin leave a turd in the punchbowl with a band called El Magnifico.  An A&M staff guy named Brian Schueble had already nailed the El Mag vibe.  He had already given the band their sound.  He understood them.  Their record was shit and I understood the biggest reason for that was because Brian didn’t do it.  I witnessed Mike Clink fuck up a band called I Mother Earth while I won his confidence after he’d thrown me off Gun’s & Roses two years earlier.

No one was any more or less fallible than me.

It’s a very delicate and elusive thing, the relationship between band/artist and producer/engineer.  As often as not, the band needs nothing more than an engineer with an opinion as opposed to an engineer and a producer.  It’s a fact, I’ve been there.  Foment an atmosphere where they are relaxed.  It sounds simple but cheer lead them into trying harder and reaching further.  Explore harmonies and percussion and other melodic instruments.  Musicians are creative animals and the man behind the glass and in front of the knobs must and should make them comfortable with experimenting.  That man must also contribute and suggest, make the band try things they oppose even if they don’t work because it pushes open doors to other possibilities.

I did the same with a brilliant band called Agnes Gooch.  There’s a story there for later but I’m here to tell you that I understood them and they did there best work with me and I think you’d know their name if it was left to our mutual muse and device.  We fucking killed it.  I joined that band and we did excellent work.  Goddamn they were special.

I punched the same sixteen bars for CC Deville one night for eight fucking hours.  Julian Raymond producing, Phil Kaffel engineering and CC on blow and guitar.  It was a cover of Hank Williams’ “Hey hey good lookin” for some Pauly Shore movie.  From eight at night until four in the morning we did nothing but the same solo over and fucking over.

I punched every note, every space, every nuance.  I could have played it myself by the time we were done.

Nobody stopped the little prick.  Julian was a sweet man but a worthless producer.  Philo was a good engineer but a bit of a prick who always looked like he combed his hair with a sharp rock.  CC was an obnoxious, whiny, coke fueled, Brooklyn accented self absorbed piece of shit.  That Julian didn’t stop the whole thing after an hour or two made him guilty of manslaughter.  It was profoundly ridiculous.  I doubt Julian ever made a dime for Disney or The Mouse (Hollywood Records).  Seriously, every time I worked for Julian, he sucked.  Indecisive and no control or vision.  The whole thing could have been done in any shithole in LA with a multitrack, a decent mic pre and a decent mic.  Instead, CC Deville was allowed to masturbate for eight hours without shooting his load because he was hoovering coke every other take at a studio like A&M at hundreds of dollars an hour on top of engineering fees etc.

Vulgar and insipid burlesque.  The kind of stupidity and waste of resources endemic to a place like A&M; a situation among hundreds that taught me me lessons I wasn’t necessarily supposed to learn.  How is it people don’t get embarrassed in the middle of shit like that?

I’d been engineering on my own.  I was taking all comers.  I was a whore.  You got a polka band?  Bring it.

I was confronted with my first horn section, my first concertina, my first stand up bass and my first violin, mellotrons, organs and Leslie’s etc.  I stood in front of these instruments, listened to them and heard them in my head the way they should sound.  The way they wanted to sound, so I figured out how best to be honest with them and still allow for them to speak in a song.

I took it very seriously.

I had ceased to fuck around.

I was faithful to them.  Honest with them.

I became somewhat expert at guitars and amps and distortion.  How an amplifier breaks up, how different ones behave and how to drive them differently to get what I heard in my head.  Hundred watt Marshalls tend to suck because you have to run them so hard before they bust up.  Fifty watt heads are much easier to make crunch.  Give me a 50 Watt Plexi and a 4X12 loaded with aged Celestions and I’ll go gay.  A Vox AC30 with a Tele or a Moserite.  Class A always runs hot baby.  I loved experimenting with voltage regulators, powers soaks etc.  Vintage Fender Bassmans were a favorite.  Hiwatts,  I adore a Fender Twin.  Boogie dual rectifiers.

My penis on a hot tin roof.  A wall of Ampegs.

Single coil, lipstick or double coil humbucking pickups.  Always check between the bridge middle and back pick up positions for every part.

I always brought my own cables because they made such a huge difference.

Tube or solid state.  Tubes in the pre amp or actual gain stage?  Is it a hybrid?

There is no finer perfume than a hot tube amp.

A/DA flangers, vintage MXR distortion, Wah pedals, Big Muffs, DOD ……..the variables were infinite and a geek’s dream.

A Les Paul, Strat, Explorer, Flying V, Rickenbacker, Moserite, semi acoustic, hollow body, acoustic with steel or nylon or both.

Six or twelve strings.

The thickness of the pick or plectrum, the gauge of the strings.  Where on the guitar the player strummed.  The size of hands and fingers.  The ridiculous shoes worn that day.

It’s kinda about the way you combine all the elements and the combinations were infinite.

Just turn every knob until it breaks up somewhere between barbarian and princess or love of self.  Only then do you add microphones.  414s, 57s, 421s, fet 47s and make sure all the diaphragms are lined up.  Phase is everything.  Use a flashlight but them there diaphragms need to be like ducks.

Before the sun sets, tone comes from hands and fingers.  Ignore that fact at your peril.

I tuned drums even.  Showed the drummer from Everclear how to do it himself.  He thanked me for it years later after a show in Vegas.  I was a shitty drummer, but my kit always sounded awesome.  I understood the kind of heads best for a drummer based on his kit and how he played.  The size of his sticks and how hard he hit.  light medium or heavy batter for the snare.  Ambassador, Emperor, Pinstripes or Black Dots on the toms.  The lighter head on the bottom, the thicker head on top.  Tune the bottom head a little lower, sometimes a little higher.  I spent inordinate amounts of time moving various blankets with various textures back and forth in kick drums.  I built gynecological tunnels and used sand bags, bricks, weights from the sound stage and gaffer’s tape.  I miced it inside, out side and way back, while pounding the shit out of the way back one with the most brutal compressor I could find.  An 1176 with all the buttons pushed in.

I made compression my friend and my bitch.  It’s an ugly muscular mistress with copious facial hair.  Ya just gotta keep it’s head between your knees and below your waist.  Compression done wrong will eat your genitals.

I really digress.  Sorry.

But goddamn, recording is a crude and manly art that begs a feminine touch.  Pricks.  Bitches.  Fags.

All necessary.

Once I understood the tools, and it took a while, but once that epiphany occurred, I had no interest in playing it the way everyone assumed it was to be played.  Studio C was my epicenter.  It was where potential wizards and obvious dipshits were first assigned to study the craft.  The idiots got fired.  I spent thousand of hours in that room as an assistant.  Mostly Demos for the record company but also working with the ‘B’ listers like Quiet Riot, Peter Criss and Alice Cooper.  Older luminaries like Mel Torme, Solomon Burke and Don Cherry.

I ended up being the last engineer to record Don Cherry alive with the Watts Prophets.

From Gospel to hip hop to metal, it was an excellent education.  A solid, real time crash course in just about everything.  I got a brainfull everyday.  I was a shitty assistant but I was learning to be a good engineer.

I understood there was no way I would survive as an assistant engineer.

I understood I didn’t want to.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I could do what these outside engineers could do at least as good and probably better.  At the end of the day, I was right.  I did it better.  Much better.  I heard it in my head.  Took a while for me to pull it off.  I befriended most of the A&R staff and earned their trust.  It didn’t hurt that in the beginning, no one on either side, the recording studio and the record company being separate entities, paid much attention.  The deal was, the A&R department had first dibs on the room (studio C) from nine a.m. to five or six p.m., five days a week.  That’s when demos got done.  The smarter, more adventurous A&R people took advantage of the free time in a world class studio to literally sound out artists with any potential.

Those smart ones I courted with a vengeance.  I made friends with them.  Before long, I was scouting bands and bringing them in under their auspices while they handed me projects.  Pierre Vudrag, Jeff Suhy, Michael Whitaker, Teresa Ensenat, David Anderle, Amy Brokaw (daughter of Tom)………

They just wanted a decent engineer they could trust and maybe spend an afternoon away from the desk and phone playing house and or record producer.  At the same time I began to have some facility as an electron director, I became an earnest student of the socio-political mechanics and egos of young ambitious record company wannabe heroes, lazy but talented musicians and older and wiser record execs.

I made friends.  I began to be a salesman.

Thus I was able to avoid dancing with more substantial egos of the famous engineers or producers by assisting.  I worked with plenty of the good ones but successfully avoided most of the assholes.  I never once assisted Shelly Yakus, Niko Bolas,  only once for Don “Dry as a bone’  Smith…….I did learn tons from Dave Thoener, Ed Stasium and Paul Hamingson, Thompson and Barbiero, Bob Clearmountain, Keith Forsey, Mike Shipley, Jimbo Barton, Tony Platt, Boll Dooley, Steve Barncard ……..

The rest of the twenty four hour cycle and weekends, the studio was free to book the room for profit.  It was such a technologically advanced complex that most people made the mistake of underestimating the little 32 input API without automation.  It was the red headed step child.  The truth was, it was an amazing sounding console and the compliment of outboard gear available in a facility like A&M, made Studio C an absolute asset in the hands of any capable engineer.

My contemporaries were damn fools for not realizing the room’s potential and assuming it was amateur hour.

It was a brilliant venue for overdubs.  But I tracked twelve piece bands, grand piano, horns and full on rock bands, all live, with very pleasant and thickly rendered results in that little 10×15 foot room without a single iso booth.  I used the “Dance Hall”, an equipment storage room down the hall with the master fridge for fruit and perishables.  It also housed some ancient power grid.  Hello sixty cycle hum and phase horror.  I used the guard shack even further down the hall.  I ran cables all the way out to La Brea Ave. on a Sunday for vocals.  I put mics and instruments and amps in the public bathrooms and in the other studios before or after they showed up or went home.  I recorded in the lobby and the live echo chambers.  I made the asses of the office bitches itch by using the mic closet for isolation with amps so loud they couldn’t hear the phones ring.  It was often a dorm room carnival with the phone on the console ringing and us not answering because we knew they just wanted us to turn it down.

Fuck them, it was a recording studio.

We recorded vocals live on La Brea Avenue.

I routinely blew up speakers.  A percussionist spilled his bong into the console and smoked the power supplies on my watch, a story that made it all the way to New York, where my assistant tried to tell me the story without realizing who he was telling it to.  I set him straight.  I had no respect for impedance, voltage, wattage or amperage.  Voodoo bullshit.  When the woofers in the NS10’s were toast, I muted the console, pushed the kick drum fader all the way up, cranked the line amp, twisted fifty hertz all the way to the right, master buss fader and console gain on overdrive and flicked the output toggles open.  Turned down the lights, started the multitrack and watched the little fuckers cough sparks.  Called the techs for a swap.  Learned that from the Kill Bennedy.  Seems like it was always Mad Dog Mannon who showed up with a fresh pair.

He looked at me funny for a decade.  Fuck you Mannon, I always liked you.

By the time I was done, that whole nine to five thing meant dick to me and eventually, I meant dick to management.

I was pushing other people out of the way.  Merely a way of life in a high pressure, high stakes environment.  Borja, Bogosian and a sweet man named Steve Smith who always wore a suit because he was engineering at A&M yet still honked a fatty from his endless briefcase supply. They all would see their gigs dwindle because of my ambition.  These men all taught me well and as importantly treated me in a way that was far more humane and kind than I was used to.  Good men.  I did blow with Borja in the gardens of Yamashiro and Mr. Smith always got me high while I drove him home.  Bogosian took me to the apartments of strange women during the riots and I always got laid.

Good men that I owe thanks to.  Before it was done, each knew they could trust me should they need to step away from the session.  I engineered completely for each of them before it was over.

I became better than them.  I did, no shit.

Inside of eighteen months, I’d taken over the bulk of the A&R departments business, drawing salary and benefits from the studio, between $25 and $35 an hour from the record company and vacuuming the best training any aspiring engineer could possibly hope for.  Most studios weren’t anything like A&M but many were like Studio C.  A new band every week or sometimes every few days for what felt like a forever paradise.

I ate, drank and slept it.

Along with my partner Alex Reed and a few complicit A&R guys, we’d eventually come to control the Studio C schedule for years.

Golden and ripe.

Once I’d figured this out and began to be able to make things sound like they did in my head,  the whole paradigm changed.

I went to town.

We started making records.  No one but Alex and I saw it coming.  Every band we recorded, we saw as a body of work with at least one one radio single.  I recorded and mixed a band named Wink, Michael Lockwood was the guitar player.  He now plays for Aimee Mann and functions as her musical director.  Back then, the singer named Roxy, did a head stand in the ice chest and the band paid me with a brand new pair of sixteen hole oxblood Doc Martins.  I have a Polaroid.  I still have those boots and I wore them on every record I ever made.  A plexiglass drumkit I barely got a handle on, good God it was hard to contain, a genius and kind guitar player, and a junkie singer.  I think we did a seven inch vinyl single and that would be my first produced, recorded and mixed by.

It sounded awful.

Thank you Michael Lockwood.

I kept at it.  I could hear it in my head.  It didn’t take long for me to hear and understand what the engineers I assisted were doing wrong.  I could hear it in my head.  Competent engineers.  More than a modicum of skill.  But they just didn’t get it.  They’d turn it up and make the paper NS10 woofers dance but that was easy.  Make ’em dance with clarity, thump chunk and chaos how you mean and then we can have lunch.  No shit.  That’s what is.  Sorry, but that’s what I did because I heard it in my head.

I figured it out and Alex Reed came along because he was way far from stupid and he knew I needed him as much as I was gonna need anybody.

Alex became my assistant one summer and he asked me to help him with an actual record he intended to make with friends of his from Berkley.  I’m not sure how much I contributed because I was suffering the slings and arrows of being a professional assistant engineer at that point and I really lacked both courage and conviction.  I was more than a little spent and beaten.

I ended up getting drunk a lot and trying to teach him to engineer.  To his credit, a fine record was made.  It was to be the first for both of us.  A band called Love Nest.  A very cool quirky record.  I still like it very much.

The truth is, Al thought I was the biggest most arrogant prick he’d ever met.  It’s true, he didn’t like me at all.  Ironically, we share the same birthday but we are about as different as the sun and the moon.  He was painfully bright, knowledgeable and both subtle and diplomatic.  I was loud and forceful.  He taught me far more than I ever taught him and he learned what I had to offer at a pace that humbled me.  I miss him.  We talk, but not often enough.  Music was our bond, we are otherwise different.  Almost entirely.

I have still, as much respect for him as anyone I ever met.  Alex Reed is is an example to me.  His mother passed while we were working together.  The very first time I was called upon to produce, record and mix a record, I said yes knowing Alex would agree to be there with me.  We made records together and you just can’t know what that’s like unless you’ve done it.  We slept in bedrooms, shitholes and fleabag motels.  We were more than the sum of our parts.  We did four times as much musical good together as we could have done by ourselves.  God love you Al.  I trust you are well.  We did the best we could.

Drinks for my friends.

7 Responses to “A&M chapter Fifteen”

  • David Lee 3:

    I always thought Kaffel looked like he had just eaten a used tampon, but then found out it wasn’t Streisands & thus his displeasure.

    Good one Dr.

  • admin:

    Thanks Helmet, very much.

  • admin:

    Got another one on deck.

  • mr. joshua:

    i stumbled on the a&m stuff after linking to your blog from ron pauls myspace page. i am a junkie for sound, and this blog talks about the people i wanna know about, mainly garth richardson but anyone in the industry who’s tone i admire. i’m trying to put together my own little studio and this blog is inspiring.

    also, i read you did sparkle and fade? i always dug the tone of that record. especially on a track called the “twistinside.”

    can’t wait to read more.

  • admin:

    Thanks and thanks for reading.

  • Alex Reed:

    dude, that last part snuck up on me. you got most of it right, except the part about learning from you – hell, I’m still learning from ya all these years later.

    all those 12 hour sessions we did…an incredible time in my life. you were the first person to use the phrase “You Rock!” Seriously, I’m pretty sure you started expression about 17 years ago.

  • admin:

    12 hours? How about 15? You were a gift to me Al. We did good things and I learned more from you than probably anyone else in my life. Thank you my good old friend. Wouldn’t trade any of it for anything.

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