Ted Nugent, REO Speedwagon, Poison, Mötley Crüe, Molly Hatchet, Twisted Sister. When pitching this article to Tape Op, it was not lost on me that many of the artists that Tom Werman signed and/or produced in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s are probably exactly what drove a good number of this magazine's readers to create a scene, as well as methods of making and recording music, that circumvented the commercial rock establishment. But I probably wasn't the only kid running around the streets in 1987 with a Maxell XLII in his Walkman that had Poison's Open Up and Say... Ahh! on one side of the tape and Hüsker Dü's Flip Your Wig on the other.
Even if I was, it's hard to argue that Cheap Trick's late '70s trifecta of In Color, Heaven Tonight, and Dream Police — all Werman productions — weren't the high water mark of American power pop. Werman, now 69, stopped making records almost completely in the mid '90s when the alternative rock revolution resulted in him becoming essentially unemployable, due to his close association with glam metal. He says, "I was already 55 in 1990; time to hang it up, really. How many lifetime producers work successfully beyond that? A handful. Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler, George Martin, and Phil Ramone. Not hard rock guys though." Rather than slog it out, Werman opened a luxury bed and breakfast called Stonover Farm, located in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. The establishment is still thriving, and that's where I visited him on a snowy winter's day to discuss his unusual career arc, unwaveringly pop aesthetic, and, most importantly, what it was like to make hit records in an era where the budgets were even bigger than the snare reverbs.
You did not come up through the studio system. Instead you got an MBA from Columbia University. Did that degree, or anything in your business training, help you later when you were making records?
The degree basically helped me get a job. I had a concentration in marketing, and I did it mainly to stay out of the Vietnam War, as well as to please my parents. I went into advertising — major league advertising — and I hated it. Music was always the main thing in my life. I just couldn't ignore it, and I knew that I had the capability for it in some way. I wrote a letter to Clive Davis; the fact that I had an MBA made me appear more serious. I presented myself as a musician who was a student of rock 'n' roll, who also had two degrees and a job. Instead of saying, "Give me a job. I need a job." I said, "I'd much rather work in music because, honestly, I don't like what I'm doing." I think I saw three or four other people and the last one said, "I want you to see Mr. Davis." Mr. Davis gave me a job and that was it.
When you were at Epic Records, one of your responsibilities was editing songs down to single length. Was the actual edit that you did the one that ended up on the radio, or did you do an example and then somebody else would recut it?
I had a tape machine and a splicing block in my office. I really enjoyed editing. They'd bring it to me and they'd say, "How do we do this? How do we get this 8 minute song down to 3:20 without butchering it?" I'd figure out a way. I'd just listen to it a few times. I had the pop structure in mind — intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, verse, chorus, out. I'd make notes. You had to make sure everything was the same going into the splice, and out of the splice. I got very good at hearing whether it would work or not. I wasn't allowed to touch the master. We were a union shop at CBS. So, I'd take the model from my office, walk it down to the studio, and give it to the mastering engineer. I'd say, "Edit here; 1, 2, 3, bang," and he'd copy it exactly. I did some songs that had seven or eight cuts in them. The O'Jay's "For the Love of Money" was so long [7:14]. It was great because it was wide open — it had a lot of space in it. Anything from Philadelphia wasn't going to have much of a tempo problem.
The first artist you signed to Epic was Ted Nugent.
I didn't know what a producer did when I started; I was a talent scout. Embarrassingly enough, I signed Ted Nugent. That's really hard to explain to people these days, given his views and outspokenness. But actually, he's a really good guy. He just got twisted at some point. Ted had a production deal with this guy, Lew Futterman, who would call the shots. He could be the producer. I was kind of bummed by this because I was thinking that maybe I would get a producer. I actually asked Pete Townshend's lawyer if he would consider producing Ted Nugent, one day when we were on a plane together. She laughed. But, to her credit, later on she sent me a letter congratulating me on the success of the record. I horned in. I went into the studio a lot. I slowly, but surely, started making suggestions. Lew was a reasonably creative guy, but he didn't know much about rock 'n' roll and he was nice enough to give me co-production credit. There I was — a producer. I also remixed the whole record. He mixed it; it was delivered and I didn't like it, so I asked for $5,000 to remix. I took it back down to Atlanta, where we had made it, and I mixed it with a really great engineer named Tony Reale. Unfortunately later he borrowed some money from me and disappeared. It was a real disappointment to me because I loved the guy.
What did you look for in the engineers that you hired, and who were some of your favorites?
A sense of humor first. The first engineer I ever latched on to was Gary Ladinsky. When Cheap Trick decided they wanted to record in L.A., I called the Record Plant. I figured, "Well, that's a well-known studio." I spoke to the studio manager and I said, "Can you recommend some engineers?" They had some house engineers — some guys that worked there pretty exclusively, who had come up from tape ops and assistant engineers. I interviewed three of them on the phone, and Gary Ladinsky came off as the best. He was low-key and easy going, and he just sounded good to me.
You figured he had been screened.
Yeah, he was making records. He had made some Moody Blues records. I liked his credits, I liked him, and we decided to work together. We went out there and we made Cheap Trick's In Color, which was Rolling Stone's Album of the Year. He had booked Sound City for the tracking, I think. It was a pretty interesting project, and I really enjoyed working with him. We wound up making 16 records together, almost every one of them at the Record Plant. It was my home away from home — just the best place on Earth. It was a party house, as well as the most professional recording facility I ever saw.
Does that mean the process is almost invisible to you while making the record? Like, nothing is breaking?
Their maintenance staff was unbelievable. We had the same assistant engineer for three years. He went on to win a Grammy. But no matter what kind of chaos was going on in the studio — in the control room, in the halls — you could always count on the fact that your assistant engineer was on the case. He'd mark everything, he'd put everything away, and he'd get it back to the vault. Absolutely button down — it was like a SWAT team. Yet, they did everything that they could to accommodate the rock 'n' roll life. I mean everything. It was great. I lived there.
While you were working with Gary and making those 16 records, you were really just there the whole time?
Pretty much. We did go to Orlando for Molly Hatchet. We did one in Nassau at Compass Point. We did the rest in Orlando at a tiny little studio called Bee Jay [Recording Studios], because the band's manager made a really good deal with them. It was just like Ted Nugent in Atlanta at Sound Pit Studios. Futterman made a really good deal for that studio. I mean, really good. In the '70s we used to make some albums for anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000. And then slowly, by the mid '80s, we went up to $200,000.
Was the increase in budgets due to the fact that you were spending more time in the studio, or that the studios got more expensive?
Spending more time, working with less talented musicians, escalating studio costs, bigger rental fees, more outboard gear, more drugs, more time wasted — it was just a lot of that stuff. I had the permission — the clout — so that we could spend a little more money. Honestly, for most of the records I was making, especially the second and third for any band, I was almost positive that the record was going to recoup so I really wasn't worried. I tried to save money, but I didn't skimp. I'd pay double scale for some backing singers, and keyboard guys who'd come in by themselves. We'd spend two or three days and they'd make a bundle. We'd work out the parts. I couldn't write or read music, so I would sing to the keyboard player or any studio musician that I used.
Did you use studio guys a lot on the records you were making?
I never used a ringer, or anybody uncredited — never. I'd have guests — but never substitutes. One of the stranger guests I had was Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson's harmonica player. He played on Poison's Open Up and Say... Ahh! on "Nothing But a Good Time" and stuff like that. These guys would come in; they'd get double scale and work overtime. You'd pay what you had to.
It's so foreign now, that there was money to spend.
Yeah. There was plenty of money to spend. On top of that, they'd make a video for $100,000.
Without romanticizing anything, do you feel like records lost anything in that transition to being much more laborious?
Well yeah, they got too perfect. They got a little finished, they got corporate, and I was into that. I was into perfection. I thought that you could not have power without order in music. You had to be on time, and in tune, in order to make really locomotive rock 'n' roll — something that had a lot of forward momentum and rhythm — which was my thing. All of a sudden, around the late '80s, everything that I knew was wrong; everything that I worked for was something that the new bands didn't want. There were times when these new bands said, "That sounds too good." It's out of tune; it's out of time — like the Rolling Stones, times ten. Not only were they imprecise — they were sloppy.
It really seems like the temptation would have been there to bring in some ringers with some of these bands.
Sure. Rikki Rockett playing drums for Poison... You know, that was tough. But I accepted the project by seeing the band, evaluating them, and saying, "Okay, I can make a hit record with you." Not, "I can make a hit record, with two out of the four of you, and bring in some ringers." It wouldn't be the band's sound; it wouldn't be the band's vibe. I think it's always important to try to duplicate, or be faithful to, the band's live sound — even though one of the things I was most criticized for was commercializing the band, and making them too neat and too pop. But that's just who I am. Musically, I gravitate towards the strengths of the record and want to get rid of the weaknesses. The hook and the main guitar lick — in all my work — if there is a good guitar lick, like "Cat Scratch Fever," you're going to hear it. It's going to be featured. We're not going to bury it. We're not going to soft pedal it. I was very good at comping vocals. I'd do three tracks of vocals and I'd be able to pick out whatever was best about every line, every word, and every phrase. I'd say, "Take 15 minutes," and we'd put one together. Then we'd do two more and I'd put that together. By the time we were finished, the vocalist was thrilled. They'd say, "I did that?"
I was going to ask you about that, versus having the guy just punching in.
Oh, yeah. No. I really wanted to shorten the process, and keep him and his voice fresh. The same with lead guitar. I'd bring a guy into the control room and just sit and work with him on the fills. A lot of guys would have a solo, but they wouldn't know how to fill. They'd fill over the vocal, or they just wouldn't feel it. I would sing to them. I'd say, "How about something like this?" I was really good at shortening their day and getting the real meat out of them.
From the early '70s to '93, when you stopped, would you say that the quality of musicianship went down consistently, for all bands, across the board?
Well, no. I guess it started to go down for me. I started to work with musicians who weren't quite as good, starting in the mid-'80s. Everybody in Cheap Trick was brilliant. Robin Zander was the best vocalist I ever worked with, Bun E. Carlos was the best drummer, and Tom Petersson was the best bass player. They were great! We did those records just like that. [snaps fingers]
Because they were out in the Midwest rehearsing, playing shows, and getting good.
Same with REO Speedwagon. They were the first band I signed. These are road-tested bands. Then you get to people like Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister, who weren't bad — and Poison — but it took a lot. They could play their instruments, but... Let's just say that Nikki Sixx improved quite a lot on the bass, from the first album I did with them to the last. Tommy Lee was a great drummer — the second best drummer I ever worked with. Mick [Mars] was a good guitar player too. Mick's problem was that he didn't know his equipment that well, and he didn't have a good tech. When we finally got a good guitar tech — which was on Girls, Girls, Girls — he started to sound really good, as far as I'm concerned.
There's a certain consistency and midrange to the guitars through the Cheap Trick, Nugent, and Molly Hatchet records. Did you have any equipment that you travelled with from session to session?
The only thing I brought with me from project to project was a mic — a Sennheiser vocal mic that I purchased for Vince Neil because he sang through his nose. I rented it to all the bands. We'd do a test by putting a [Neumann U] 87, and something else, up against my mic. We'd do a blind test, and my mic always won. I don't remember the model — but it was a $2000 mic that I bought in 1985. In the beginning, I didn't understand anything about the frequency spectrum, or how you had to distribute the instruments over the whole frequency range. I tended to try to fit everything into the midrange. Everything's there — vocals, guitars, and the top of the bass — it all fights for space. What I noticed was that, with midrange build-up, you are going to get a painful playback when you turn it up. If the whole band is well distributed, you can turn that thing way up and it will just fill the room. It's pleasant to listen to, and so much more apparently loud.
Did you have a pretty rapid technical learning curve, once you were in studios all the time?
The only thing I really learned was what you could do with outboard gear. Not how it was done, but just what was available to modify sound. I had some favorites. When I started producing, there were three things you could do: a chamber echo/plate echo, tape slap, and a phaser. But I was still making records when you could quantize and pitch correct. That was the beginning of the end, as far as really good music and really good recording, as far as I'm concerned. But, as I kept producing more and more records, there definitely were routines that I found that worked on records that I had done before. I never recorded a rhythm guitar without doubling it and spreading the two — never! I'd double it; it would smooth it out, or average out the peaks, and I loved that. I never made one record where you had trouble hearing the rhythm guitar. Never.
Yeah, with your records it's prominent, but not harsh — they are there, but they're not clawing at you. Were there other routines?
Plenty. There are backing harmonies that bands would never dream of having. For instance, Poison considered themselves a hard rock band. Listen to the arrangement on "Every Rose Has Its Thorn;" it's pure schmaltz — pure chicken fat. I call it the kitchen sink approach. I put everything in there: Oohs, ahhs, strings, and synth pads. I did all the hand percussion for all my records. After we were finished with the recording, I'd go in one afternoon and do all the percussion — the tambourines, the hand claps, the shakers. I always told the band if they didn't like it we could hire somebody, but everybody liked it. That was my last chance to influence the direction of the song. I liked doing backwards things. I liked phasing. I loved the Roland Jazz Chorus amp. What a great sound that is. I love the Hammond B3 organ. I used it with power chords a lot. There are very few Mötley Crüe songs that don't have a B3. Sometimes piano — you could conceal them behind the guitars. I used double cello on Cheap Trick's "Auf Wiedersehen." You can't hear it, but you can feel it, along with the guitar, when everything is going, "Duh duh duh duh duh." It makes a real drive.
How would you pick which instrument was going to produce the right texture? Was it instinct, or trial and error?
Trial and error. I'd say, "I'd like something like this." The keyboard player would give me a sound. I'd say, "No, more gnarly. Let's crank up the Leslie because it's too polite." Stuff like that. But I am a sucker for string pads and constant pedal tones — I always try to find the key note that would go through the whole verse. I'd use an organ, or I'd use a string synth pad. I made records to please me. Producers are supposed to be neutral; they are supposed to serve the band. But I found the music that I enjoyed was music that people would buy. So, why not?
Around 1983, when you transitioned to hard rock bands, were you were thinking, "This is where I'm going to go, because this is where the new guitar rock is." Did you identify this sort of sea change?
No. It wasn't me. I stopped signing bands after I left CBS. I got my projects by A&R guys calling me. They would say, "I have this band; I think you would be a good producer for them." I would meet with them, I would see them, I'd listen to their demos, and then I'd make a decision. It was the industry that kind of decided where I was going to go, and it didn't do me any favors. With Twisted Sister, Doug Morris — the head of Atlantic Records — called me and said, "You're the only guy who can make a hit record with this band." So, I did it for him, because you don't turn down the head of Atlantic Records if he calls you. I was pigeonholed.
That's sort of the way of the world — "We need that guy." What do you think your skill set was perceived as being?
I'm quite sure that they said, "What the hell are we going to do with this band?" I'd made hits from — not unrecordable bands — but challenging bands. I had this string of hits — remarkably, even to me. At one point, when I moved to L.A., I remember I had three albums that I did in the Billboard Top 40. Three different albums, by three different groups. It was great.
When Nirvana came out did the phone just stop ringing?
Yeah, it was pretty quick. There's an old joke that I tell all the time — the four phases of any Hollywood career: 1.) "Who's Tom Werman?" 2.) "Get me Tom Werman." 3.) "Get me a young Tom Werman." 4.) "Who's Tom Werman?"
Do you think that the whole industry was relieved when they could get rid of glam metal? Or were they just moving on to the next thing, as they are wont to do?
A&R people are lemmings. They'll go wherever the wind blows. They are generally very insecure. Publish or perish — a lot of pressure. If another A&R guy was interested in a band, immediately you paid more attention to that band, even if you didn't particularly respect his taste. One of my favorite stories is when Tom Zutaut, who signed Mötley Crüe and hired me to produce them, went to see Guns N' Roses at the Roxy. It was a showcase, and a lot of A&R people were there. He told me that he made it very obvious that after he'd heard a few songs, maybe after the third song, he got up and made sure everybody saw him walk out. The next day he signed them. He didn't want anybody to know that he really wanted them; he figured he would throw them off. It was pretty cool. But no, I think they were happy only because they were off to the races — it was a foxhunt. Blow the trumpet and get them out of the bushes, because Seattle was loaded with these guys.
How involved were you in mixing?
Typically I would let the engineer set up the mix and work on it for maybe five or six hours, then I'd walk in, hear it, and give him a list. I'd say, "Make this a little louder. Try more compression here. Try this; this is too shrill." And I'd let him work on the list. Then I'd come back in again, and I'd do the same thing. We'd refine it, and refine it, and I'd know if I was going in the right direction. For him, it would be a series of little changes. For me it would be quite a difference between this playback and the next playback. I never touched the board until we went to tape. The only thing I did then was really ride for levels, or maybe I'd pan or something. But I found that if you produced the record well, it almost mixed itself. You could really pre-mix the record during the recording by doing the right thing — getting the right sound, making the right part, being aware of all the musical parts of the song. Occasionally, when you didn't do such a good job producing the record, you tried to fix it in the mix, which really can't be done. I wasn't afraid to scrap a mix. We'd work till midnight. I'd come in during the day and do that whole come-in-go-out thing, and then after dinner we'd try to bring it home. By midnight, we'd sit there and say, "Fuck, we went right by it. We over-mixed it." Then you'd just go right back to zero and come in the next day. Those were usually the songs that just didn't turn out that well.
When things switched from being on vinyl to being on CD, did you change how you were mixing? Did it affect how you were doing things?
Well, I guess I did a little bit. But each engineer has his own signature. Geoff Workman, who did the first two Mötley Crüe and the Twisted Sister record that I did — he had a bigger bottom end than Ladinsky. Duane Baron, who did the second and third Mötley Crüe albums — he had another approach. More balanced, and a little more meticulous. They really determined how it sounded, to a large degree. I didn't say, "Okay, we're going to CD now, instead of vinyl, so we have to do this." I remember listening to Ted Nugent's first album on FM stereo, in New York. Before I would produce a record, I would listen on FM stereo, and I would listen on earphones. I thought, "This is good, this is great." I'd listen to the record and I'd say, "This is as good as I can make it, but there's definitely something lacking. It just doesn't sound like all those other records." I finally heard one of the songs that I produced on WNEW FM with their compressor and I said, "Wow! Is that my record? God, it sounds good. Compression!" So, I had this one mastering engineer, George Marino at Sterling Sound, and he did everything that I ever did, basically. Up until the time when I think he retired. I remember there would be a point in every project, or every song, when he'd give me the compressor control. I'd go way overboard; then I'd go off and I'd find the middle.
You attended all of your mastering?
Oh, yeah. It was so important to me. I always saw it as a process of peeling off a layer of wax over the linoleum floor and revealing the linoleum. You'd go in there with a flat tape and you'd come out and A/B the two and be like, "Oh man, I just improved this record by 20 percent. This is so much better than when I walked in the building." That's a great feeling. You just play it over, and over, and over, and over. And you're hearing stuff that you didn't hear in the mix that just came out. A creative mastering engineer can just bring out the best stuff. I would approach mastering like mixing. I would say, "Well, this solo needs to be louder, but this fill is a little too loud." So, he'd actually map out his moves. He'd roll off something on that fill, when he got to that fill. We'd try to do whatever we could to make the record the best it could be. I didn't just let it go.