When Joe Boyd's book White Bicycles came out last year, I was excited. Not only could I finally read more about this amazing record producer/label owner/manager, but there might be a chance to interview him for Tape Op. During Joe's West Coast book tour we were able to spend a lunch together at Portland's Doug Fir Lounge, and I finally got to meet the man who recorded some of my all-time favorite records. From Pink Floyd's firÌ single, "Arnold Layne", Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights, R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction, most of the Nick Drake catalog and early Fairport Convention, to some passionate and informed production of world music albums, Joe has helped create, release and guarantee the (sometimes gradual) success of many artists. In some ways you could look at Joe's career as flying under the radar or hidden behind the scenes, but even he has two slightly odd number one hits, with "Dueling Banjos" from the Deliverance soundtrack, and Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis". Anyone with over 40 years in the music business is capable of losing his or her wonder of music, but with Joe this is not the case. Yes, he's stopped producing records and running a label, but with White Bicycles he tells eloquent tales of his adventures in music through the '60s and '70s. With his next book he will take us on a journey through world music — and I'll be waiting patiently for this sure-to-be-fascinating tale.
The one thing that really struck me with the book is that everything that happens to you really comes from being a fan of music. I think one of the problems I've had with the music industry lately is that it just feels like too many people in it are just doing a job, not coming at it with a large record collection and a passion for music.
That may be true with the major labels, but I think for most people who work in the indie world, the rewards are so limited and chancy that most people I've met are pretty passionate about music.
That's true. We'll see what happens to the major labels, anyway.
I don't remember saying it, but [in] one of the interviews I read I was welcoming the crisis in the music industry saying, "The dinosaurs will slowly sink into the tar pits and some of their cousins will turn into birds."
There have been periods where major labels worked fine, hand-in-hand with the music. Your book documents a certain era that definitely made a lot of sense — Elektra wasn't part of a major label in the same way it is now. Two things that make themselves apparent in the book are your early loves of jazz and working with jazz musicians. In my vision, that influenced the way you recorded everything from then on. It became more about looking for a space and a performance and capturing something.
It's not just jazz. Certainly, jazz in general has only really successfully been recorded that way, unlike other forms of music. I don't think there was a question of taking a practice that applied to jazz and trying to apply it to other things. I got through the mid-'60s until 4-track tape came in. That was the way all music was made.
That's true. That kind of dictates the process.
Les Paul did some tricks, but they were bouncing stuff back and forth. That was an aberration rather than a practice.
I guess now we take layering and creating in that fashion for granted.
The "Wall of Sound" was live. He [Spector] had three pianos in the studio. He had twelve guitars in the studio. He had the girls in the vocal booth live.
What I responded to was you talking about looking for recording spaces and how that creates part of the environment, and making sure something happened on the floor.
That is one of the problems I have with a lot of contemporary recording. You don't feel like it is taking place in a room. It's taking place in cyberspace or in an electronic environment — close mic'ing in a dead space. If you want atmosphere, you dial it up. I keep quoting these two examples, but I think they're good examples: Buena Vista Social Club and Norah Jones — they really sound as though they've been made in a space. I don't personally think they would've been that successful if they hadn't sounded like that. Norah Jones made her record on Pro Tools originally and Blue Note said, "We don't like it." So they went into the studio with Arif Mardin to redo it. They were right. It could've easily dropped like a stone, but that record had that fantastic warmth and atmospherics to it that you can only get when you've got more than one microphone open in the space at the same time, so it sounds three-dimensional.
In your book you mentioned working with The Incredible String Band and doing overdubs, having access to an 8-track, probably at that point.
The first time it was four.
You were taking a jump from two different ways of working. Initially, what did you learn in that process?
I don't think there were generic lessons. Mistakes were individual and specific. You try putting a harmony on and it doesn't work and you erase it and put something else on. You put a pennywhistle on something and Robin [Williamson] or Mike [Heron] would say, "Oh that works." It was in the air. [In] '67, Revolver was already out and the fact that The Beatles were working on Sgt. Pepper's — and "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields..." came out. It was in the drinking water, those kinds of experiments. It was hugely fun and it worked. They got it right away.
How did you feel your role changed as a record producer working in a situation built more around adding and judging overdubs to a take?
I didn't think about it much. It was all whatever the situation needed. If I was recording Chris McGregor's sextet — that was one job. Doing Nick Drake was a completely different job because then you had to hire musicians to come in and join him. The Fairport Convention — the recording process changes a lot whether you have a drum kit or not. All the problems are different. With The [Incredible] String Band you had tremendous flexibility because there was no drum kit, so there's a lot of sonic space — it's open. A drummer playing a kit takes up a lot of space and if you put an overdub in, it has to assert itself. Whereas Robin, on the first track of Hangman's Beautiful Daughter ["Koeeoaddi There"] where he sings, "Skating on happy valley pond" — he came up with [an] idea. He just said, "I'd like to try this." He had little finger cymbals and he just rubbed them and it sounds like a skate on ice, or you surmise skates on ice. He just went downstairs and John [Wood] set up all the microphones. I think there was a track that had something on it from a previous verse, and he's going to have to put something else on it the next verse. So we did part of that then did "shhh shh shhh" [sound of the finger cymbals] and put echo onto the mix — they just really enjoyed the process. My role was to tell them, "Look, you can do this. Think of an instrument to put on to add to this tune" or whatever. If Robin would say, "I want to put on four layers of this instrument", I would say, "Well, I don't think it would sound so good." We would have to bounce it back and forth. There were also logistical things like, once you learned it and started doing this kind of stuff, it was good to know beforehand what they had in mind — so you positioned the tracks right, so you could bounce things to non-adjacent tracks. You have to sort of plan ahead. We'd do something on track one and we could then bounce it together with something else on track three or four, and then come back to two and then four.
How did you end up finding Sound Techniques and engineer John Wood?
Good luck. When I took up my place at Elektra, I think the first thing I did — aside from some recording outside of London — the first real session I did was that Eric Clapton thing [Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse].
That was at Olympic [Studios]?
I asked Bill Leader, who was this mentor friend of mine and folk producer. I said I had to do this rock session with a drum kit and everything. He knew Keith Grant at Olympic and he said, "Call Keith." So I just called up Keith and he said, "Sure." That was falling on your feet to do your first session with Keith Grant because he is a great engineer. Jac [Holzman, Elektra] wasn't just putting out Judy Collins and Phil Ochs records — he built his label, in a way, on gimmicks.
What kind of gimmicks was he using?
The thing that enabled him to stop writing ad copy or whatever it was he was doing before was a series of records by Ed McCurdy called When Dalliance was in Flower (and Maidens Lost Their Heads)- basically bawdy songs. It was a guy with a Burl Ives kind of voice, strumming guitar going, "Hey ho, nonny, nonny, he took the maiden into the green wood and turned her upside down" — and it sold tons! It was huge. He had this other idea that was probably okay — it was the signs of the zodiac [as] a series of easy listening records. There was an American arranger who Jac would commission every six months and he would put out sounds of Libra, you know — an instrumental record that was supposed evoke Libras. In those days a lot of string players were much cheaper and better than now. You could get London Philharmonic players for twelve pounds for a two hour session. They were probably up to eighty-five dollars in America. He always did his string sessions in Sound Techniques. Jac's doing these sessions for the next three days and he was going to be at this studio, "Here's the address, take down four hundred pounds in cash to pay the musicians" — because you had to pay the musicians in cash. I walked in and I liked the feel of the place and I met John. I think I had to come down the next day again and there was a break and everybody was getting their money and counting it out and getting cups of tea and I started talking to John. By that time I had decided I was going to do a session and I was thinking I might do it in Bill Leader's kitchen [where many folk records were done], but I already had a few misgivings. I loved Bill and I loved what he did, but I wanted to set the record that I was going to do apart. The kind of recording he did — they were wonderful recordings, but sonically they were a little flat. I was sort of in the background thinking, "What am I going to do? I don't want to hurt Bill's feelings." I mentioned it to John Wood. "Would you ever think of doing this record with fiddle and guitar?" and John said, "Yeah, great, sure! Come on down." He gave me good rates and I liked going there — it sounded good. The next thing was the Incredible String Band's first record. John had never heard any of this stuff before. He was a classical guy — he loved violin concertos and things like that — and we're playing things like this and he was like, "Wow. Let's try putting the mic here. Let's try this kind of a mic." It just grew from there. He learned a lot about this music from me and I learned about recording and sound from him.
I like your description of your working methods with John and overlapping a little bit in the production areas. He would not feel timid to say something nor you vice-versa. It's hard to develop that sometimes. Someone thinks, "Well, I'm just the engineer. If they're only asking me to be the engineer, I'm not going to say something." Was it just a rare combination of personalities?
Yes. John is a distinct personality and I think he has always been. I think it was fortunate for him that he found me just as much as it was that I found him, because I think that he probably was not the best front foot forward for the studio. He's a grumpy, curmudgeonly guy who does speak his mind. He was used to doing typical commercial stuff that wasn't very interesting and he'd keep his mouth shut. He was not one to suffer fools gladly. If he had an idiot producer, he'd probably make them feel like they don't want to come back — and to be fair, over the years there have been times when he and I have gone our separate ways when we have disagreed about stuff and it wasn't shrugged off easily. He got out of the business, but he's now getting back in a little bit. Jerry Boys came to work at a certain point, at '68 or '69 at Sound Techniques, and I was booking so much time. I was block booking — just give me this week and the next week, and then Thursday and Friday I'll be away for four days and then I'll book more time. John was part of that so he said, "I'm not doing all of this stuff." He would take certain projects and say, "I'm doing these, but you could do this with Victor Gann, Jerry Boys or Roger [Mayer]." By that time we had three other engineers working there. I think Jerry is in a way temperamental and perfect and I think that John as a recording engineer might have done some things that were more original — but you couldn't really choose between them. They were both great recording engineers.
Did you have different interactions with Jerry?
Jerry is more prepared to shut up, but I never asked him to. I always asked his opinion. He was a little more, "What do you want? I'll get it for you." Jerry as a mixing engineer is fantastic. That's a real strength of his. John, too — I got spoiled working with Jerry. Now I feel like the ideal thing would be to go make a record with John and then take it in to mix with Jerry.
You talk a little bit in the book about the lack of sixties trappings on the recordings, like clichéd overuses of things. Was that a conscious decision at the time?
I had a horror of that. Sometimes musicians would say, "Let's put a phased guitar panning from right to left." That kind of shit. There may be something on The Incredible String Band — there was one thing where they wanted the voice to go left to right very slowly. The one argument like that that I lost, which I really regret that still drives me nuts when I hear it-I tried to look for the tape to see if I could undo it — was Wee Tam and The Big Huge, an Incredible String Band record has a track that I love — it used to be their closing track in their concerts called "Maya", and they end with this coda sort of flourish and it all grinds to a halt. Mike plays sitar. It's a rousing chorus. It's great and you hear it either once or twice — I can't remember if there's one or two verses, but you hear it at least once, if not twice all the way through and then the third verse, as it's just getting to that climax, they said, "Okay, now we want to cut it off and have bird songs going into this next track." It's an absolute — you can tell it's a scissors [cut]. It's not musical. It's technical and I hate it. I said, "No, no, no. We can't do this." They said, "Yes, yes, yes, we must do this. This is the concept. This is what we want to do." In the end, I always felt that for artists' records, I can argue a lot and I would often fight against things, but at the end of the day I couldn't convince an artist that this was [the way]. I might say, "Do it my way and if it doesn't work, we'll try it your way." Sometimes, every once in a while there were situations where an artist would say, "I've heard it your way and I still want to do it my way." That was one of them. It still drives me nuts. I can't stand to listen to it.
What would you have decided, to go naturally where the music was going?
Yeah — where it ends in a live show.
In the '80s you ended up doing R.E.M.'s third record [Fables of the Reconstruction] and 10,000 Maniacs [The Wishing Chair] — these American bands were showing up in the UK to record with you. I remember you had some comments at the time going, "I don't know why these people are coming over here and asking to work with me." What are your feelings looking back on that era for you?
Great experiences. I have great respect for R.E.M. — both groups — particularly R.E.M., as an organization, were quite extraordinarily impressive. The way that they were together and the way with the management — that was before their problems with Jefferson [Holt, manager] and the six of them were very much a unit. The fact that they didn't take advances from the label — they were very much in control of their own career. I just thought these guys were totally on it. I had never met a young rock band with such a mature attitude towards everything. I haven't really seen the guys from 10,000 Maniacs since then, but I stayed friends with Natalie [Merchant]. Mike Mills [R.E.M.] and I became good friends. It was a strange experience because I didn't feel like I finished the [R.E.M.] record properly. I wasn't happy with the mix — probably because I mixed it in Livingston [Recording Studios] with Jerry — but it was when he'd just remodeled Livingston and we booked the big room for eight days to do the tracks, and we moved in the smaller room to finish the mix. I've never mixed another record in that room. I've always insisted on the big room because I can't stand that room.
Just the way things sound?
Yeah, I just don't hear it. I just don't hear things right. I've done recording in there and overdubs, but I just will not mix in there. It makes me nuts. Then the group was making life a bit difficult because they wanted everything to be turned down, which is the opposite of the way most groups are. I was a bit annoyed when I heard the next record — Stipe's voice is right up front. I think at the time I was uneasy about the record. They were uneasy about the record. I think we were all relieved the record did pretty well, but I think we all felt dissatisfied with the final result.
I really like that record. It stands out as a very different record for them.
Now, it's nice that people now come back to it and say, "Hey, I just realized that's actually not so bad! It's pretty good."
It's very different because they had the Mitch Easter/Don Dixon records before that.
I think the second one is fantastic.
Reckoning is one of the best examples of what they were doing. I can't imagine that being any better for what they were at that time. Fables... came out as kind of a darker, moodier record in some respects.
Which — I guess they were feeling that way. To me, it rains all the time — so what? I guess it did affect them. With Natalie and the 10,000 Maniacs, that record has disappeared. It's not even on CD [Wishing Chair]. I really liked that album. One of the things that happened with both albums — and it took me a while to digest this information — I think I sensed it at the time, but when I look back on those records — this is slightly the flaw in my philosophy that I espoused of trying to do everything live in the studio. I realized that I was very spoiled. I worked with a lot of fantastic drummers. Dave Mattacks was a great drummer. I worked with Steven Gadd. I worked with Earl Palmer. Come on, I worked with a lot of really, really good drummers — and Mike Kowalski is a terrific drummer. He was on a lot of the Nick Drake records. The truth is that Bill Berry and Jerry Augustyniak — they're good drummers to be in those bands, but they ain't world class drummers. That's where if somebody wanted to call me on some of the things that I say about the philosophy of recording things live, there aren't as many good musicians around these days. A lot of musicians making records are not that good at playing their instruments and in a way, if you say, the only way you should make this record is by playing and waiting for the best performance — you might never get the best performance because they're just not really good enough to treat it, as you say, like a jazz record. Where is that moment going to happen? The moment needs help. They need the click track and they need something. With both records, I think, the farther along we went in finishing the record, overdubbing and mixing — both records — when you have a great track, you start adding things on — it just gets better. When you have a weak track, you add things on — it exposes the weakness. It doesn't fix it. It makes it worse. If you add a harmony and you add another guitar, it kind of makes the flaws more obvious. It doesn't cover them over. It's very difficult to cover them over. I think I felt at the end of that experience working with those guys that maybe I wasn't the right producer for them. I remember when I was working on the R.E.M. record there was another group working in the smaller room when we were working in the big room, and the two studios share a men's room. So I would find myself standing at the urinal and there was a guy who was the producer or the bass player (I can't remember) of the group in the other room, and we started having a nodding acquaintance. I remember saying, "How are you guys doing?" and he said, "Well, we got five tracks finished." This was four days into the thing. He said, "Yesterday we did the bass drum and we are doing the bass line today." I just would never have the patience to do a record like that. They were doing the A and B side to a single and they laid down the bass drum and...
A track at a time.
The next record the Maniacs did, Peter Asher obviously put a click on them. I mentioned that to Peter Buck. I saw him in Austin and talked about it and he said, "The thing with Scott Litt — we didn't actually use a click but we rehearsed with a click for days. We did it with a click and then when we actually came to record, he took the click off." The other record that I did from that year which nobody really knows I did is Miss America by Mary Margaret O'Hara. What happened there is I tried to sign her to Hannibal and her manager said, "No. We want to be with a major label." I got to know them and then she signed with Virgin. She actually said to Simon Draper, Virgin's A&R director, "I'd like to use Joe Boyd as a producer," and they said, "No. We have much more commercial ideas than that! We're going to make you a star. We don't want this Joe Boyd kind of record. You're going to be produced by Andy Partridge (From XTC)." They come over and they check into Rockfield [Studios] in Wales and they start working with Andy Partridge. She brought over her Canadian band. It had Hugh Marsh on violin and Rusty [McCarthy] on guitar. These guys are really good musicians. They are Toronto players. The bass player and the drummer had been on the road for years with Chuck Mangione. They were jazz guys. They get to Rockfield and Andy Partridge says, "Okay, let's put down a drum track. Let's start it that way. Are you guys used to using headphones?" Treats them like they're amateurs — A and B, he does it layer by layer and starts making this pop record and they freak out. Within a few days Mary Margaret had called up Virgin and says, "Either Andy leaves or we leave. We're not making this record with Andy Partridge."
I can't imagine that.
It was just a total culture clash — transatlantic in a way. The wildest way of recording has its origins in Britain. The British don't play. They play at music and that's one reason they make such good records. They're very original. They're very fresh. They don't have that facility that the American musicians have where they can play any kind of style. There aren't bars. It's a whole different ethos. So, Andy and Virgin had in mind making an English pop record with Mary Margaret — and the musicians were like, "Fuck this, we want to play. We just want to plug in and play. We know these songs. Roll the tape." Andy had never done a record like that. He couldn't imagine doing a record like that. So I get a rather sheepish call from Virgin saying, "Oh Joe, how would you like to go down to Rockfield and produce Mary Margaret O'Hara?" I drove a hard bargain and got him to pay me a sizeable advance, and then I went down to Rockfield and I started working with them. It was very, very difficult because Mary, as you know...
I heard she's a handful.
She's a handful. I love her! She's a fantastic person — really clever, really wonderful but, she's very eccentric and she wouldn't, couldn't change her time — her Canadian time. She would stay up until six o'clock in the morning and then sleep until four o'clock in the afternoon. These guys were the kind of guys who liked to run at dawn — like two miles of road work before the sun gets too hot and come back and eat a big breakfast and be ready to go at ten-thirty or eleven — so they were going nuts. I was going nuts. We couldn't get Mary out of bed. Then we'd have these long sessions and they'd get sleepy at two o'clock in the morning and she'd just be waking up. But there was this fantastic moment I'll never forget. One of the great songs on that record is "Bobby's In Trouble" and there's this weird, loping rhythm and even with them all playing together, it was difficult because she kept changing things. We finally did this take of "Bobby's In Trouble" and I said, "That's it. That's nailed it. It's fantastic." It just had this great feel, and she was singing great and she said, "Yeah, guys that was really great, but I'd like to do it one more time." Everyone looked at her like, "Mary, what are you talking about? It's great!" She said, "Yeah, it is, but I heard something." I said, "What?" She said, "Okay, now, just do exactly what you did on the last take, but" — and she pointed to the bass player — "you do exactly the same thing you did there, but do it one beat later." Everyone went, "What?!" She said, "Trust me, it's going to work." They were all rolling their eyes going out there. I pushed the button and we started to take it and that's the master take. It worked. She was right.
She heard it.
She heard it. Then what happened was — that was in late November of '84. Then Jefferson called and asked would I do an R.E.M. record — this was early January. What had happened with Mary Margaret was we finished all the tracks, and the idea was over the Christmas period she was going to be back in Toronto. Catherine (her sister, the comedienne) had a studio in her basement, so she was going to get someone in Toronto to make rough mixes and work out all the harmony parts, imagine other overdubs that she wanted, talk to musicians and then she'd be ready to go. I'd come in the middle of January and finish the record with her in Toronto. I finished that record and got back to London and did that 10,000 Maniacs record. Then I got a call from Jefferson saying, "Could you do an R.E.M. record?" I said, "Holy shit, I'd love to do an R.E.M. record." But I can't because they needed it right away. So I turned it down. I went to Toronto and I had this Chinese dinner with Mary Margaret and her manager. I'll never forget it. We were sitting in this Chinese restaurant in Toronto and there's a blizzard and the snow is piling up outside the window and Mary Margaret is explaining why she hadn't done anything — why she had completely rethought the whole album and she thought that she wanted to record some new stuff. She hadn't figured out any of the vocal stuff and she was re-thinking some of the things we had talked about. She wanted to take some things off that we had put on and I'm looking at the snow and I'm thinking, "Fuck. I'm never going to get out of here. I'm going to be snowed into this fucking city with this mad woman." I'm haunted by this phone call that [I] had from Jefferson, so at some point toward the end of the evening I said, "Mary, I get the feeling you have a lot of strong views about how to do this record. It sounds to me as if you would kind of like to produce it yourself." She said, "Joe that is so perceptive of you. That is so thoughtful. I love you. I think you're wonderful. I've loved working with you, but I do really feel like I know what I want to do with this record." I said, "Well, I'll call Simon and see what he says" — knowing Simon would probably love to get rid of her. First I called Jefferson to say, "Do you guys still need a producer?" He said, "Yeah, come on down to Athens." I called Simon Draper and I said, "I think Mary wants to produce this record herself." They agreed to give me a credit and pay me off or something.
How much of the original stuff was used?
All of it — all those tracks I did in Wales -but it didn't come out for five years. Five years! Michael Brook finished it off and he's the one who got her to finish her vocals and mixed it and everything — but uncredited on the record, those are all my tracks.
That's pretty strange. How did you end up moving into more of the world music stuff? Was part of that due to starting Hannibal?
When I started Hannibal, my first signings were Richard and Linda Thompson, Joe King Carrasco, Geoff Muldaur — but I'd always (going back to when I was a kid), when I was twenty-something I would get stoned and listen to Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares. I loved little bits of African music. I knew about the Ali Brothers — that was another great thing to get stoned and listen to. I loved Edith Piaf. I loved all kinds of shit. In the seventies I got totally into Carlos Gardel and the tango. I was gobbling up stuff. When I was running Hannibal, my brother (who was a lawyer) took a year off from being a lawyer and worked with me. The idea was if it worked out, he would run the New York office and I would run the London office. I'm in the office every day scrambling trying to make enough records to fill the orders for [Richard and Linda Thompson's] Shoot Out the Lights because they were selling like crazy. We didn't have enough credit because distributors don't pay you for 90 to 120 days. The pressing plants need paper in 60 days. So I was getting put on hold by pressing plants, scrambling around checking over duplicate parts from England and driving them to pressing plants in upstate New York, hoping that we get enough to fill the order for Pickwick on the West Coast, because Richard was out there this week on tour and I'm going nuts. In the middle of all this my brother says, "Listen, I've got an idea. Let's do a series of vocal harmony records, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo or The Ali Brothers. You could say that in that idea that he presented to me were the ideas that would dominate world music five years later. And my response was, "Listen, I love that shit. It's fantastic. I'd love to sit at home and listen to that stuff, but I'm trying to run a record company and that is such an uncommercial idea!" Of course, he turned out to be totally right and I missed the boat. I loved that stuff — I just didn't believe there was a market for it. In a way that was [what] the whole "world" term was about, was trying to find a place to put them in the record store. Because in 1983 the record store had a section called "International Folk", or something called "Foreign", or something called "Ethnic", or "Imports" or whatever. I think the trigger for me was in 1985. I went to the Fairport Convention annual summer festival where they play and invite people, and they had this weird group on called Mosaic. It was made up of a couple of Irish musicians and a Dutch guy and this Hungarian singer. It was boring kind of pan-Euro folk noodling. I went off to get a beer. As I was walking away from the stage I heard the singer come on and it was an Hungarian singer singing a Bulgarian song using open throat technique — just this incredible piercing noise — just her on stage singing a capella. "Whoa! What's that?" Afterwards I went backstage and I met her. I said, "Wow that Bulgarian song you did was fantastic!" She said, "Oh you like Bulgarian music?" She said, "Come to Hungary next summer because a bunch of my friends and I are all going down to this huge festival in the mountains. It's a festival which has this huge assemblage of traditional musicians from all over the country." I said, "I'll be there." I actually tried to set up doing a documentary about it. I pitched it to BBC and Channel Four and I got this woman who spoke Russian to come and translate for me — just before I'm leaving, 4AD puts out Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares and John Peel starts playing the shit out of it and it goes onto the charts. I'm feeling really stupid because if I had listened to my brother... The Hungarian singer who invited me to go to Bulgaria was Marta Sebestyen, who is a wonderful singer when she sings in Hungarian. I went to Budapest and I ended up licensing music. I went to Bulgaria and met all these people there. I went back in the winter and made records and put them out and I found Ivo Papasov & His Bulgarian Wedding Band and started this whole adventure. One thing led to another and I was part of the committee that invented the term "World Music".
I was surprised by that, but it makes sense. You have to have somewhere to put the record. Going somewhere like Bulgaria to make a record, what are the challenges? Is it the language barrier? You've got to educate yourself about the music.
Yeah, but it was wonderful. It was a bit of a challenge, but it was great fun. I met wonderful people. A lot of what I did in world music would not have been possible if I did not speak French. I learned French a long time ago when I was a teenager in school. I've gotten to be pretty fluent in it now, but twenty years ago I was just okay. In Bulgaria, the woman who was the producer of folk music for the state radio — she didn't speak any English, but she spoke French. My engineers spoke French much more than English. Then when I started working with West Africans, Toumani Diabaté and all that, we always communicated in French. I'm not sure I could have done the Songhai records [without it]. French was a door into Spanish. I learned a lot of Spanish so I could make a lot of stuff like that. That was pretty key. The radio studios in Bulgaria were great. It was all Telefunken and old stuff.
All the good old stuff.
The sad thing is, you meet this time and time again — I remember the next time I came back to Bulgaria, I made some comment like, "Let's put this through the EMT plate" and they said, "Oh, we got rid of that." I said, "You got rid of it? Why?" "Oh, there was some American who came through here and he had one of the Lexicons (not even that, something worse), and he said he'd give us a good deal on that and he'd even take the EMT off our hands". Oh God, I bet that's sitting now in Ocean Way [Studios] in L.A. I saw that all the time — the plundering of studios and "improving" them.
Without having a real good grounding, people usually think modern is good when it comes to recording technology, and yet things many things haven't really improved in fifty years.
Quite the contrary. In Cuba, Alfredo Rodriguez and his Korean investors built the big fancy studio in Cuba — and nobody in Cuba wants to use the great EGREM Studios where the Buena Vista Social Club and ¡Cubanismo! were done. "Why would you want to go in there? It's so difficult." You go in these modern studios and it sounds like shit.
They're different. Progress isn't always progress. I first learned your name through Pink Floyd as a teenager, and the story is often told that you were hoping that you could have produced their first record. If that had happened, if EMI had let it happen — even Geoff Emerick had a hard time coming back and engineering The Beatles — if that had happened and you ended up producing the first Pink Floyd record, what would you have done differently?
I think Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a pretty good record. It's not like you could say, "Oh well, Norman Smith messed up", because they made a good record. I think "Bike" is a fantastic track. I guess my fantasy is not so much about sounding different, but about hanging on to Syd. I got along pretty well with Syd and since then I've had people tell me that he never felt comfortable with Smith and the whole thing got kind of out of hand for him. Listen, I don't think I would have had a magic wand that would have prevented him from taking acid every day for seven days, but that's the part — it's not so much listening to the record and thinking, "Oh I could have made a better record than this or I could have made a better sound than this" — although I think that there is something about "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play", which were both done at Sound Techniques with John [Wood], and I think it punches more.
John's recordings had a very exciting sound to them.
The room was fantastic, and he knew the room.
With Pink Floyd there seemed to be a dichotomy between their recorded self and their live self, especially in those days.
Have you ever heard the soundtrack to Tonite Let's All Make Love in London?
Yeah, "Nick's Boogie"?
Yeah and "Interstellar Overdrive" — that's what they sounded like. I did those two records. That is what they sounded like with Syd.
Doing "Arnold Layne" — that song was part of their set, but was it a longer, jamming thing?
Yeah, they would play it and do a jam on it.
So you just had to say, "Let's rein it in a little bit and change the lyrics on the B side"?
Another record that is really fascinating is Shoot Out the Lights. It's a really emotional, heavy record, but Richard Thompson has gone on record saying it's not about their situation.
I think it was subconscious. A lot of things that are true you don't know are true. I believe Richard that he did not set out to write songs about breaking up with his wife, but I think that there were certainly tensions in the marriage. The marriage was definitely difficult in the period he was writing the songs and whether they were subconscious wish-fulfillment or projection of something....
Were the sessions reflective of anything like that?
No. This is a story that was told before; maybe more in England than here. It was a very curious circumstance because I set up Hannibal — Island agreed to back me initially and that didn't last very long — and I went to Richard and his manager Jo Lustig because I knew he had been dropped. Somebody at Chrysalis had told me, "We're not going to renew their contract." Sunnyvista didn't sell. I said, "I'm making this label. It's called Hannibal. Come on — let's make a great record together." Jo Lustig said, "No way. We're going to sign with United Artists." I said, "Really? How's that going to happen?" He said, "We're doing a deal with Gerry Rafferty and Hugh Murphey" who were hot because of "Baker Street". Hugh Murphey was a big folk fan. He had done a lot of folk records for Decca over the years and Rafferty knew Richard. I went to Richard and said, "Richard, have you ever worked with Gerry Rafferty, the way that those guys work? Because they make pop records. They really make slick sounding records — very tight, all overdubbing and control and focus." He said, "Well, I like Gerry. He's a good guy and I think it'll be interesting. We need to do something different. I think it'll work." I said, "Don't say I didn't warn you." They started working on the record. I'm getting occasionally, either through Richard or Linda, reports that it's not going that great, but they're finishing it. I hear that they finished recording, but they aren't mixing it yet and they have a few overdubs left to do. Richard has a few guitar solos to do. Then, the next thing I know, someone tells me to call Richard. I call Richard and Richard said — he never would have admitted he was wrong — he said, "Well, Joe, it didn't quite work out the way I hoped and I'm not that happy." The more I got into it, I discovered this incredible thing. I'm not sure whether this is the true reason, but I remember becoming convinced that I had discovered what was actually going on. The first thing I found out was that the contract had never been signed. They were making a record, but had no deal. They got the money and the production deal with United Artists, but they want to sign the artists through them. Then somebody told me that Rafferty and Murphey had this plan to set up a management company. Even though Lustig was the one who brought Richard to them, Lustig was a very abrasive guy. A lot of people didn't like him. He was insisting on having an override royalty that would go straight to him for executive producer credit or something like that. They were resisting this and holding off signing the contract. Meanwhile they're spending United Artists' money making the record. Then they get to the end and they need Richard to do a few more guitar solos and Richard has decided he doesn't like the record. Richard says, "I'm not going to finish the record. I'm not going to sign the contract and I'm not going to finish the record." It all suddenly explodes and everything is in meltdown and it's a complete disaster. So I go to Richard and I say, "Listen," he'd used Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Simon Nichol working with Rafferty, so they knew all the songs. I said, "You guys are totally rehearsed and ready to go. Let's go into the studio and do it in three days for Hannibal." He said, "Great idea. I'd love this. I can't wait to get out of this. It's been kind of a nightmare." I said, "One condition — the money that we save by doing it so quickly, I'm going to put into tour support. You've got to do an American tour." I talked to Joe Lustig. He said, "What's this about an American tour? I don't want Richard to go to America until he plays Carnegie Hall." I said, "Joe you're full of shit. This is what Richard needs to do. This will transform his career. He needs to get out. America doesn't know Richard Thompson. They don't know who the fuck he is. They've never heard him play. They don't know what a genius he is. He's got to get out there and play The Bottom Line, Great American Music Hall and all those places. Forget Carnegie Hall. That will come later. Let him play these places and that's the deal. If you don't agree, fuck it. I'm not going to do it because I don't want to make this record and see it languish without an American audience." I called Richard and I told him what I said and he said, "Well, I want to tour in America so I'll tell Joe we have a deal." That's what happened. We went into the studio, bang! We did it in three days — fantastic, great tracks but, then the budget got a little ballooned because Linda was very pregnant and she was having trouble breathing. So everything was done except her vocals. She and I would go into the studio night after night for five nights and do her vocals line by line.
She'd just be winded, more or less.
Yes. That's the story of that record.
One thing you bring up that's really important with a lot of this is you created a management company early on. You said, "If I'm going to get involved with this record, I want to make sure this band on this record does well." That's a lot of foresight and that's also stepping outside the realm of just being a producer.
When I set out, all I wanted was to be a producer. To me, management was a pain in the ass. I didn't want any part of it, but I realized very early on with The Incredible String Band — they set the tone in a way because they were folkies. They played Scottish folk clubs. I took one look at them and I said, "This is not your audience. You need to play for freaks. You need to play for the people who listen to Pink Floyd. You need to play for people who listen to The Grateful Dead. I don't want you going to folk clubs." It's just something that happens with almost everything I ever do in the studio. It's not a category. It is slightly to one side or the other of the category. You can't just put it on the rock band conveyor belt and expect it to work.
I went looking for records of yours. I went to the folk section and there's the first Fairport Convention record. I said, "Do you have any Incredible String Band?" and they said, "Incredible String Band is in psychedelic."
Exactly! I think it's true of almost everything I've ever been involved in — not so much as a producer because sometimes I do things for hire like R.E.M., who had a career — but where I would take initiative and start something up. The only way it was ever going to work was for me to get involved. Back in the '60s I managed people and I was determined not to get into that in the '70s because I thought I was going to be a film producer — even when I was passionate about something like the McGarrigle sisters. I watched that first record (which I think is one of the best things I was ever involved in) die because the cover was crap, because Warner Brothers had it on the schedule. Kate got pregnant and cancelled the tour — and thank God she got pregnant because she had Martha [Wainwright, sister of Rufus Wainwright]. But they should have held the record. All kinds of things lead me to say, "I'm going to have to have my own label." Even as a label head, a lot of the things I would do dealing with music artists would technically be more management. I would set up the tours and a lot of that worked pretty well. When Ryko bought the company they said they couldn't do that. We don't want our people spending time setting up tours. Sometimes we did it anyway without them knowing. That was the only way to make it work. Everything I've ever done has been something that you've had to figure out — not just how to record it, but how to get it across to people in a way that isn't the customary way to go about it. It wasn't something that I had a vision would be a great idea. It was more of a defensive response to "What the hell am I going to do with this record unless I get it to the right audience and get this group out to the right audience?"
What do you find yourself doing now... besides writing a book?
Well, I finally got a performer who does absolutely everything I tell him to.
Yeah. It's fun. I'm here to middle of April doing lots more stuff and then I'm going back to London to sit down and write the world music book.