Do you want to know the dark truth...
or do you want to see me whack some dingers?

Oct 18 2004

information leafblower exclusive!

The good news? I have another exclusive interview to drop on everyone today. The bad news? I'm almost done milking what's left of my dwindling industry connections. Ugh. Oh well. Enjoy!

Quick, name all the people that have worked on records by Public Enemy, Ween, Bob Dylan, The Super Furry Animals, and...ummmm...Soul Asylum. *taps foot* C'mon, I'm waiting. OK, honestly I'm not really sure how many people have, but one person I am sure that's done it is producer/mixer/engineer extraordinaire Chris Shaw. As you'll soon see, Chris worked on many of the records that shaped my musical tastes in high school and college and still continues to be on top of his game these days, as evidenced by his amazing work on Ted Leo's forthcoming album,Shake The Sheets, due in stores tomorrow.

In addition to all of this, Mr. Shaw also provided yours truly with an experience that I will take with me to the grave, namely being able to sit in with the Super Furry Animals while they were recording Rings Around The World in Woodstock NY in the summer of 2000 (visual evidence below). The band invited me up to the sessions and Chris graciously agreed to let me come up, hang out, and just generally be a fly on the wall. It is hard to put into words the experience of watching your favorite band in the world go through the creative process as they make music. I was there as Cian created the drum loop that would become All The Shit You Do and also watched him record the piano backdrop for Patience (both of these songs wound up as B-Sides). During playback of the songs, the band would ask me things like "What do you think?" and "Should the guitars be louder?", which was just mind-blowing to me. I'm not sure if I ever conveyed my eternal thanks to Chris at the time, so consider it done. Thank you sir! OK, enough about me, here we go:

1) Since I don’t think many people know, can you explain exactly what it is a producer does to a record? Is it the same for every band?

A producer to an album is very much what a director is to a movie. He shapes the overall feel and tone of a record by telling a band how to approach the songs on the record. This includes editing a song that's just too long, suggesting lyric changes, changing the key of a song to better suit the vocalist, cutting out the dreaded drum and bass solos, and establishing good tempos. Sometimes you even have to make the band write additional material, like bridges to songs that don't have one. I'm a sucker for a great b-section or bridge. My favorite example believe it or not is Def Leppard. Like the band or not, the b-sections of their songs or just as good if not better than their choruses. My favorite example is "Animal" off of Hysteria.

Bands in general look to their producer a guidance to make sure that they don't take too many detours while making the record. (Honestly will people not buy the record because there's no cowbell in the outro of this song?) He's in charge of the budget, chooses the studios that are used, picks the songs that will be recorded, hires the engineers that will record and mix the record (if he's not also an engineer), and tries to stave off record company politics and in-band fighting.

Chris Shaw in the producer's booth at Bearsville Studios A producer can dramatically change the sound, style, and direction of a band. A good example is how U2 became a completely different band after working with Brian Eno. Obviously, U2 was ready to make this change and had the confidence and talent to do so successfully. Very few bands and producers can accomplish this easily.

Some producers can be dictators while working with a band but many, like myself, work in conjunction with the band to achieve what they ultimately want for the record. A lot of bands don't need too much from their producer except to just keep an overall eye on things. When I worked with the Super Furry Animals on Rings Around The World in addition to all the other things that I mentioned, my main job was to tell the band "Stop, you cannot possibly fit anymore ideas into this song. Let's move on to something else." There was never a lack of creativity there. With other bands getting creativity flowin is not unlike pulling teeth. 'Nuff said.

2) Why do you record drum sounds first? Is it better to record a band in separate rooms or all together in one room?

This is actually a bit of a misconception. If you're lucky enough to worked with a really good band you can record everybody and once and get the whole song done in a few takes. However we don't live in a perfect world. A good rhythm track/drum take is the foundation of a song. If the drum track sucks then there's nothing you can overdub that will make it sound god. If Hendrix had a crappy drummer you'd never know he was a great guitar player - period. So a good drum performance is essential.

Some of the gear at Bearsville Concentrating on drums first follows a certain logical progression. You can't start by recording the singer first because he has no music to stay in tune, a guitar player can't play first because he has no rhythm to play to, and bass player can't record unless he has some drums to lock to. Drums come first. There a many horror stories of albums taking forever to make because the drummer couldn't hold a tempo or play to a click track to keep things steady. Happily this doesn't happen too often.

When recording basic tracks, the band performs in the same room as the drummer but their amps (and the singer) are usually isolated in separate rooms. This prevents, for example, the guitar sound from being pick up by the drum mics and vice cersa. If a mistake is made by the guitar player during basic tracks he can rerecord his part again later. If the band records all in one room, then one player's mistake will ruin an otherwise perfect take. This is not to say it can't be done. I recorded Dylan's Love and Theft with everyone in the same room. In this case the leakage between instruments was a good thing.

3) You started your career by engineering hip hop records. How did you make the jump to producing indie rock?

That's an interesting story. After doing a lot of hip hop records I really started feeling the urge to produce but hip-hop was obviously not what I was cut out for. I was a middle-class white kid that grew up listening to metal and prog rock. I couldn't front; I wasn't from the streets. I loved working for Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad, (their production team) but I couldn't see myself getting any further in the world of hip hop. Fortunately in the early 90's everybody in the rock world was listening to hip hop and there was a lot of interest in how those records were being made – especially Public Enemy. At that time not many people in the rock world knew about sampling, scratching and drum programming. And fewer still knew how PE mangled their samples.

Being on staff at Greene Street Recording also gave me the opportunity to engineer a lot of rock records as well. The owner of GSR had a band he produced in-house called Riot (big in Japan). So I wound up engineering on a bunch on those records. Sonic Youth recorded Daydream Nation and Goo at GSR often at the same time PE was there recording It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet. I didn't work with Sonic Youth but I hung around a lot of those sessions. As a result there was a lot of interest in the engineers that worked at Greene Street. Eric Sadler from the Bomb Squad convinced me to break out as an indie engineer and even hooked me up with my first manager. To cut a long story short Michael Beinhorn got a copy of my discography (resume) and had me engineer Soul Asylum's Grave Dancer's Union - which he produced - because of my work with Public Enemy. This led me to Ric Ocasek and eventually Weezer.

4) (Former ilb co-worker) Heather once told me a story about how someone mugged you and almost stole the master tapes for a Public Enemy record. Care to share that story?

Long before Napster, the biggest threat to the music industry was cassette bootlegs. Hip hop records would be on the street weeks before the were officially released. PE decided to take matters into their own hands by keeping close tabs on who got copies of the record. On the day we mastered Fear Of A Black Planet, they gave me the only DAT copy to keep safe at home. When they needed them, they would call me and I would bring it to the studio to make copies.

One night while walking home I got mugged at gunpoint. I had no money so they told me to give them my leather jacket. Realizing that I had the only DAT in my pocket I clumsily took it off upside down so that it would fall out of the inside pocket. "What's that?" "An answering machine tape, you want that too?" Fuck it." - and they ran off. Leaving a potential fortune in bootlegs on the sidewalk.

I went back to the studio to call the police. Chuck D. and the rest of the crew were there. When I told them I got mugged they got really upset until I pulled the DAT out of my back pocket.

Continue reading "information leafblower exclusive!"

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Comments

Hottness. Utter hottness.

Posted by: gorilla at October 18, 2004 10:56 AM

Great interview. Congrats!

One thing that immediately stood out is his story about getting mugged with the PE DAT in his pocket. PE was keeping tabs on the lone DAT to keep the cassette pirates on the streets from getting the album out ahead of street date.

This is the same Chuck D who criticizes the music industry's efforts to fight piracy? The same Chuck D who thinks P2P should be legal?

Why didn't he want those cassettes in the hands of his fans? He obviously didn't like piracy when his career and album sales were more in the public eye.

Hypocrite, how low can you go?

Posted by: Coolfer at October 18, 2004 11:49 AM

I don't think it's hypocritical at all. There is a difference between kids downloading music over the internet and bootleggers selling copies of records for a profit.
I'm sure Chuck wants to cut out the label and get music in the hands of the fans at a cheaper price, basically changing the distribution model. Selling knockoff CDR's on the corner of Canal and Broadway is much, much different.

Posted by: information leafblower at October 18, 2004 11:57 AM

Wow, great shit. I have to give props to Mr. Shaw on loads of his work, and he's right, Leo is sounding his best.

Posted by: Troy at October 18, 2004 4:35 PM