What do Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, LL Cool J, Ozzy Osbourne, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, U2, Mick Jagger, AC/DC, The Damned, The Posies, and Rage Against the Machine all have in common?
They all belong to a long and diverse list of artists that have had David Bianco touch their music. I fondly remember my own daily ritual of going into Toast Recording in San Francisco, in 1997, to work on my band's (Black Lab) debut record for Geffen/DGC. David and I have been friends ever since. I recently caught up with him at his studio, Dave's Room.
What was your path to L.A.'s Record Plant Recording Studio?
I played in bands all through high school and college. I moved out of my parent's house after I graduated college. I had a communications degree and I decided, "Well, I'll be a big time cameraman" or something like that. My girlfriend had cracked up my car, and I lived within walking distance of Record Plant. David L. Wolper Productions was across the street, at the time. I had my last résumé, after months of not finding anything and realizing that the union had a lock on any camera work. I walked into Wolper Productions and the lady at the reception desk said, "I'm sorry sir. We're closing." I walked outside and there was a wire trash basket, which I threw my resumé in. As I did that, I looked up and there were the big ol' psychedelic Peter Max letters, "Record Plant." So I fished my résumé out of the trash and walked across the street. I met Rose Mann, handed my résumé to her, and she gave me a tour. I didn't know anything about recording studios. My bands did home recordings, but we'd never been in a big recording studio. They had Dave Mason [Traffic] in one room, Crosby, Stills & Nash in the other. Stevie Wonder had finished up Talking Book in Studio B, and The Eagles were in Studio A. I was like, "Yeah! This is my kind of thing!" I walked down there every day and hung out, until management said, "Why don't you give him a broom if he's going to just stand there?" I had taken a job at a Pier One Imports as a cashier; then I got a call from Rose saying they had an opening and she asked if I wanted to come down. I said, "Oh, I have to give at least a week's notice." When I told her where I was working, she laughed for about a half hour on the telephone. She said, "You know, I like that you would do that, jeopardizing this job for that one." I started answering phones at night and on the weekends. Then I worked my way to janitor. They started giving us free reign to work in the studios on the off hours to learn. I recorded every weird hair band in L.A. in the late '70s and early '80s for free. That was the beginning of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Knack. They'd all say, "You're going to do our record, man," and then you'd never hear from them again. [laughs] But I learned, worked, and lived there. I'd be there 86 to 90 hours a week, sometimes sleeping in the back. That's how I learned how to record, and I worked my way up from there.
Some of your early days at Record Plant were spent doing mobile recordings.
I started answering phones, then I got a promotion to janitor — I actually got to be in the studio because I was cleaning it! Eventually I was an assistant engineer, and the remote division of Record Plant needed somebody. I developed it, side by side. I would assist in the studio when I wasn't doing a remote, and vice versa. I did remotes for about five years or so, and got my first "big break" recording Nazareth live — their engineer couldn't make it back from England. From there I got more and more gigs as a first engineer doing remotes.
What were some of the other artists you did remotes for?
We used to do a regular gig at The Roxy. You never knew who was showing up. It'd be Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, The Psychedelic Furs, or David + David. We also went on the road with Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, and Arlo Guthrie. We probably rolled more tape on Springsteen than anybody.
Has any of the Springsteen tape ever seen the light of day?
He finally released that three CD/LP set [Live 1975-85].
What was your first break, outside of mobile engineering gigs?
My demos were getting around the place, and people were starting to hear what I was doing. Rose recommended me to David Kershenbaum, who was coming through. He was working with an artist named Robert Hazard from Philadelphia, and I wound up engineering the record [Wing of Fire] there at Record Plant. From there I mixed a band called Icehouse from Australia for David, as well as doing a couple of other projects for him. Then I started to go in a bit of a different direction.
How did you develop your own sound and aesthetic?
Once I got to the top of the seniority at Record Plant, I was there for almost ten years, so I got to work with artists like Fleetwood Mac and Rod Stewart, as well as working on all these studio records with a variety of engineers. I would snitch the best ideas from each [of them] and then apply it to my own work. By the time I got to the point where I was working with David Kershenbaum, I realized I had a feel for how to get things to sound good and big. My style evolved further when I started doing more R&B and dance remixes in the '80s. I would take the rock 'n' roll aesthetic and apply it to R&B. I'd make the drums slam and the bass hit really hard, and not be afraid of ambience. From the mid '80s, and into the early '90s, I did a lot of that. But what happened was that there were people that wanted to get the rock bands onto the "power" format radio stations that were broadcasting R&B, so I got to do some remixes for U2 and Aerosmith. That was my end around into production, because I was able to add production and beats for these club mixes of rock songs. From there I was able to parlay that into hardcore rock production. I learned not to dismiss ideas from young kids doing demos. Instead I'd collect tricks from the experience. "Oh, you put a [Shure SM]57 through a [Boss Compression] Sustainer pedal, and you got the toms to go berserk! I love that! I'm going to do that!" I loved working with young bands because they were very excited and wanted to experiment...
Who were some of your producer or engineering mentors?
The goal was always getting the purest sound. There were guys on staff at Record Plant that were really, really good. Bob Merritt was a great carpenter, as well as an engineer. I learned in my formative years about getting really good, pure, vocal sounds and things like that from him — learning about the [signal] chain. The engineers we would work with on the road — that was a very formidable learning ground. You had to make things happen because you had one go at it. There was an engineer named George Tutko who did a lot of the [John] Mellencamp hit records. George had a great aesthetic of not only making things sound good going to tape, but he would also hype it coming back on the board so it sounded like you were listening to a record when you came into the [control] room. Ron Nevison did The Who and Zeppelin records; he had a great way of mic'ing drums and getting ambient sounds. He and George were both good at getting ambience. I learned also that even if you have the mic placement, and have the mic pre at the right level, it doesn't mean you are going to get his sound. It's the artistic side of it, I guess. Then there's the creative side where you have to get it to a certain level — as big as your heart can make it, as big as your vision.
Everyone has the same tools available, to some extent, but everybody paints a different picture.
It really depends who's working the hammer, doesn't it? I saw guys trying to imitate Ron and George's setups. They had the right setup, the right mics, but it sounded horrible.
What are your thoughts on playing live versus building tracks?
You have to figure out what fits the bill for the band, and what they're most comfortable with, obviously. It's really wonderful if everybody can play together. To me, that's where the magic and the mojo happens. We had a session about a year ago, after pizza around 10 o'clock at night, where everybody grabbed their instruments and started playing. The jam went on for about 10 to 12 minutes, and it was unbelievable. The guitar player comes in and says, "I can make four songs out of that!" That shit doesn't happen when you build tracks. If you are building tracks, it's going to be good, and probably nobody's going to know how you did it. But [playing live and together] it becomes more than a nuanced thing, and I think it can really be magic. That's my whole idea of this place. Mix your own headphones, get excited off of each other's playing, and come up with new and fresh ideas that you didn't do in the rehearsals.
Has your production and engineering changed over time?
Yes. Every situation you find yourself in is different. You find yourself in the situation as a producer, where you have to figure out how you fit in and what is needed. What gap are you filling? Sometimes it's being a sounding board, sometimes it's helping write the songs, sometimes it's playing on the project. It could be any manner of those things. You also have the whole idea of being the cheerleader/psychologist. My method has always been to try and be as patient as possible, figure out what needs to be done, and, the best way; do it gracefully. [laughs]
You are not a producer that sits in the back of the room...
Yeah, well it becomes Pavlovian. You hit the red light and you become super concentrated. It's difficult once you are in that [mode] and do it for a number of years to not do it. Of the times when I was sitting in the back, because somebody else was running the tools or tape machine, it's a harder thing for me because I have to really force myself more into the game. When Pro Tools came out I have to say that my knee-jerk reaction was that the sound really bugged me. It messed with my ears and I didn't really like it. Eventually it got a little better. We would drag it along with the multitrack on the background vocals, percussion, or the odd track on it. But when HD came around, I liked it and decided to learn how to use it. I feel that I have to be autonomous. I cannot rely on some young kid to come run my rig for me. Being as old as I am, it might've taken me a little longer than others; but I got my head into it and now I thrive on it. I love it. Another engineering friend of mine was saying he didn't really care about, or want to learn, Pro Tools, and I said to him, "I think that it's the most intimate you can get with the music." I never could have imagined it; you are actually touching the waveforms. It has absolutely fantastic flexibility. Being able to affect the slope on an EQ for a 10th of a second in a mix is absurd to me! We never imagined this! We used to climb over each other doing manual mixes, switching EQs on and off, and all that sort of thing. I'm not a control freak per se, but I do like the idea of running my own ship and not having to explain to somebody, "Punch in here, because of blah blah..."
How is it, jumping between the two roles of producer and engineer?
Again, I think you have to fit the role that is asked for and be willing to do what is necessary. I don't want to say, "Kids these days," but it's so funny with all of these recording schools. People come out of them, walk into studios, and they're instantly putting their sunglasses on their head and saying, "This is out of tune. This is what's wrong." I came through a boot camp at Record Plant that had a hazing like no other. You never spoke. You had to be there, be ready, know what the next move was going to be, and know what the engineer was going to need. But you never spoke or said, "Oh, that's not right." You had to figure that out. As you progress along, the roles are very, very clear. For people to spend a lot of time in a control room with you, as an assistant, an engineer, or a producer, you better be pretty fun, unless you're really big time. [laughs] For the most part, you're going to go by the wayside if people can't be around you. There is a sensibility and sensitivity that you have to have for the people around you, as well as the situation. And you have to be on it, at all times. You have to be super present. If I am working for another producer, I know what I would want to hear from the engineer, and what support I would want from him or her. If the producer asks, I proffer up whatever I have to give, but otherwise I stay in that support role. I'll tell him or her something discreetly if something might be wrong, or call attention to it, but not with anyone else in the room. You learn it.
You've done many genres: R&B, hip-hop, indie rock, Americana, pop, metal, and so on. Has that been a curse or blessing?
It's both. I guess there is something to be said for specializing these days, but I love all kinds of music. It's cathartic for me. I have been trying to coerce more jazz in here, because I think my room is set up for it. I think we could make an amazing jazz record here and I haven't done enough of that. I try to do the best I can with everything, as well as giving people something that they can hold their heads up high from, and have a hard time beating down the line. That's usually what I go for. I guess it's my competitive nature, but it's also about being honorable about the job and trying to do it well.
How did you come to work with Bob Dylan?
When I got this room going, I found that, without hyping it up too much, or jazzing it up with EQ — using the right microphone for the right situation — I was getting really great natural sounds. I recorded an acoustic-based record [Can You Hear Me] with a fellow named Keaton Simons. Live acoustic guitar, drums, and bass, for the most part — there were a few cuts when we went electric — and it caught the ear of Bob's manager, vis-à-vis the head of the record company. They liked the acoustics of the record. They wanted somebody who could get a "live through one mic" sound, and Chess Records was the model for it. Bob was on the road in Nashville; they pulled in to do a recording and there was one microphone open. Bob was in the control room and said, "That's the way a record should sound." Not that Chess Records were one mic, because they weren't, but Bob had that concept so they asked me if I could do it. I said, "Sure, I can do that. No problem." But what I did do was sneak some microphones in the usual spots everywhere. We had everybody in one room, with everything bleeding; like the organ at 110 dB with an upright bass right next to it. You can imagine the degree of difficulty was pretty intense. But I did have the one mic. I researched and found the microphone that they had in the studio in Nashville. It was an AKG C422, so that I had the same mic up. I wasn't going to blow that. I recorded that mic, along with a couple of stereo Telefunkens and all the microphones I had discreetly placed on all the instruments. I was prepared when Bob came into the control room and said, "I can't hear Mike's [Campbell] guitar." I had an SM57 tucked inside his amp and pushed the fader up. Bob said, "Oh, yeah. That's better!" It was a lot of fun; we had a lot of success and a number one with that record [Together Through Life]. The next time we met up was for a Christmas record. He told me that everyone was asking him how we got that sound on the last record. But he said, "I'm not going to tell 'em. I can't tell 'em." But I'm actually not sure he had any idea.
I was reading Daniel Lanois' book [Soul Mining: A Musical Life], and he mentions that Dylan was a bit of a shadowy figure, showing up at random times, and whatnot. Was that your experience?
No, Jack Frost [Dylan's nom de plume] was the producer. You know, if you have a vision and stick to it, that is part of production. Being able to stay on course. There are actually only a few guys in this town that can do that. Once you get into "Alice in Wonderland" in the studio, things really change. Very few guys can really hang onto it. When I first met Dylan, I didn't really think about what I was getting into until I was driving down the I405, to Jackson Browne's studio [Groove Masters], even though I had done a bunch of prep. I did three days of intense equipment chats with the crew at Jackson's studio. I really wanted to make sure my ducks were as close to in a row as they could possibly be. I did a lot of plug charts, as well as lists upon lists on how we could do this thing. It really didn't dawn on me until I got near the Skirball [Cultural Center], and I said to myself, "Holy shit! This is Bob Dylan!" I started to realize what he meant to me. I started to psyche myself out and realized I had better tamp that down! When I finally walked in there and met him, the first thing I did was go to shake hands and Bob goes like this [makes a fist for a fist bump] and I shook his fist. First meeting! I'm thinking, "Oh, my God!" Nobody warned me about that. I wish I had gotten the head's up. Bob said, "So, we're going to go in there and listen to the templates, and then we're going to record." I said, "Oh, we're doing covers?" He looked at me and went dark, blank-faced, and then said, "They're not covers, they're templates." We go in and listen to this Otis Rush song, which became "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'." We would go in and listen to the old tunes, taking those grooves and modifying the licks. On some of the tunes he didn't change the lick. He would look in the control room and say to his manager Jeff [Rosen], "What did you think of that?" He'd reply, "It's really too close, Bob." And Bob would say, "Aw, fuck it!" [laughs] So they paid for those and definitely had to give credit! Once we were mixing and getting it done, he says to me, "They don't make records that sound like this anymore." I said, "Yeah, it's like a Gestalt recording; you get the big picture all in one go." He thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. He doubled over laughing and said, "I couldn't have said it better myself, and I learned a new word!" He always wanted us to have our meals together, like a family, and he listened to people completely. Not what you would imagine. He was always like, "And then what'd you do?" He was that guy! I got calls to do interviews during the sessions, about the sessions. I turned to his manager and said, "They called me about doing an interview about the sessions." He shut his laptop and said, "You know, there's no upside to talking about anything about Bob." I went, "Nuff said... okay!" And then he opened his laptop again.
Are there things that have stuck with you, or that you have learned from working with people like Mick Jagger, Bono, Johnny Cash, AC/DC, and so on?
I don't see how they could not. Making a record is such an intimate thing. It's so personal. It's hard not to share hopes, dreams, and fears. To support that is hearing what their wants are, and guiding the ship in the right way. I learn from everybody. Johnny Cash was one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet, in that he was so kind and shared his space with everybody. I recorded him for a week at Ocean Way. We had Mike Campbell, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Brendan O'Brien sit in with him. I did two remixes for U2, "When Love Comes to Town" and "God Part II." Bono liked to sing in the control room, with the mains up. We turned them up until we had feedback on the SM57, then backed it up one notch until the feedback stopped; then he'd jump up and do his thing. Very powerful singer. It really jolts you to a whole different reality when he starts to sing. Unbelievable. Great guy, and I had a lot of fun with him.
Moments that make you want to keep showing up for work everyday.
In the studio, you quite often witness amazing moments. Most recently, with Lucinda Williams, on the record [Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone], "magical" seemed to be the catchword. We had a cavalcade of extraordinary musicians: Ian McLagan [keys for The Faces and the Small Faces] came in to play. Tony Joe White guested on guitar, as well as Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Stuart Mathis, and Val McCallum. There was guitar playing like you've never heard. So many nights of chills, and all live! No overdubs. Lu sang live; no punch-ins. We did 33 songs and the whole experience was remarkable. I had known about Bill Frisell, but I had never worked with him. That's a whole other level of magic, and such a humble, wonderful guy too. When Lucinda tried to reach Tony Joe White to play on the record, his son, who manages him, said, "He's not available right now." Lu said, "Well, when should I try him?" "Call after sundown. That's when he finishes fishing." I hit it off with Tony really well. He loved the room, the wood, the sound I was getting, and he was on about that. We'd sit outside and he would tell me all these stories about Jerry Wexler, Muscle Shoals, and the old days. How the drummer would show up for sessions five hours late with fish scales all over his legs and shorts. His set up was a wah wah pedal and a Colorsound [fuzz pedal] that he had picked up in Europe years ago. His Colorsound was pretty bashed up and taped together. I had one that was in pretty good shape, so I gave it to him and I thought he was going to cry. He goes, "Are you sure man? That's like giving someone a guitar!" He loved it. Tony Joe White was a game changer for me. Hearing him open for Led Zeppelin back in high school. That was my first time I got to hear Delta blues. Just extraordinary.
Anyone you admire now in the engineering or producer world?
I have always admired [Robert] "Mutt" Lange for being able to concentrate and do what he does. I really like Jack White [ Tape Op #82 ] and what he does. His latest record kicks my ass! It's so raw and amazing. He's got a good thing going there. I love the sonics of it. Mitchell Froom [ Tape Op #10 ]; I do like him a lot for his musicality. When I first heard Crowded House I thought it was amazing. I met Neil Finn, he told about how Mitchell would worry more about the music than him, and I really admire that.
How involved in the lyrics do you get during production?
Well, I tread lightly there. If I can proffer up something that's a little more poetic, I might offer it, or if it's losing me somewhere I'll mention it. I think it's really important because there is a marriage there that a lot of people don't even think about or deal with. But particularly when we're doing vocals I like to have the lyrics in front of me and go over and over it. I try not to be too heavy handed with it, but usually my rule of thumb is you don't talk unless there is really something in your heart. I don't just say something for effect. Mick Jagger told me, "The thing about these producers is they always feel they have to say something or they're not doing their job. I really feel that I don't need it." And I understand it too. I'm battling it out in my mind during these types of discussions and really have to think it out.
It's the most personal thing for singers, and it can be like picking away at their very being when you make lyric change suggestions.
Yeah, completely. You have to tread lightly. It's all how you proffer it up. I did say something one time to Stevie Wonder. He had a song lyric, "My leg got shot off in Vietnam..." And then in the next verse was, "I walk the streets..." So I asked him, "How are you walking the streets with your leg shot off?" He laughed — he thought that was the funniest thing, and he actually did change the lyric. I was an assistant at the time.
Recently you've been working on a lot of hip-hop...
Well, in the '80s I did a lot of remixes that crossed over a bit into the rap world. I got to work with LL Cool J on "Going Back to Cali" and "Jack the Ripper." Rick Rubin was producing; I was engineering. It got me on the fringe of the Beastie Boys thing that was going on, because they were all friends. I recently did a remix for The Who, and also a band called Triggerfinger from Belgium. They were so enamored with old school hip-hop. They really wanted the "99 Problems" deal, with the heavy beat, and so on. Their agent in NY liked it so much that they gave us songwriting credit. Then Eminem came out with his retro album of Beasties influenced hip-hop, and now it feels like we're jumping on a bandwagon. [laughs]
Are you going with a traditional approach by using an [Akai] MPC?
Yes, I have an old MPC60 and an old Roland MC-505 drum machine. That usually inspires us in some way; and we play on top of it, so that it's real. So all the playing is more like what the Beasties would do. They played and could do a live show; not just walk back and forth with microphones.
Are you chopping loops and samples from the live performances, or keeping the performances intact?
Playing live over the beats, for the most part. We try to find a point of departure, which is usually a groove, and then come up with a guitar or bass line that makes that happen. Some days you're lucky and the riff comes out instantly. I have a detuned a [Gibson] SG that I'll crank through a big Marshall amp, and sometimes that's just the thing!
Can you talk a bit about working on Tom Petty's Wildflowers, which you received a Grammy for, and also how you started working with Rick Rubin. It seems to me like that was a pivotal point in your career.
Oh, hell yeah. I had good luck with the R&B and the remixes I was doing for MCA and Capitol Records. I had a bunch of number one singles. It was quite a run and I was mixing all the time. Rick Rubin came to town with his sidekick, George Drakoulias. He needed an engineer for that night and a friend of mine at Hitsville [West], who was mixing a cartoon show, said, "Hey, I know a guy." So I went down to Hitsville and met Rick. He and George went to go see a wrestling match at The Forum and they left me with LL Cool J and his MC. We cut "Going Back to Cali" while they were at the wrestling match. It was quite possibly the most low-tech way you could cut a record. I striped the tape with a little beat from a [Roland TR-]808, LL picked out a loop from a bunch of different LPs from what the MC was throwing on his turntable. LL said, "Did you see that? Where I started smiling? That was it. That's the shit!" And that became the beat. He [the MC] would perform four bars and then we'd go back on another track and fill in the holes. LL filled out a legal pad with lyrics, went out and did one pass. He didn't even look at the paper. We tried a second take, but it wasn't as good as the first, so that was it. [singing] "Bikini small, heels tall, she said she liked the ocean." That all happened there. In that session we did three songs in three days for the Less Than Zero soundtrack. In addition to "Going Back to Cali," we did Poison covering Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite." Roy Orbison came in and sang a Danzig song, "Life Fades Away," which was for the end credits roll. Glenn [Danzig] played guitar, George played bass, and my friend Tony Brock from The Babys came in and played drums. Roy played nylon string guitar and sang. Everyone played live. Rick went back to NYC, where he lived, and I got a call from him to do the first Glenn Danzig record. I stayed at The Mayflower Hotel on Central Park for a month. I flew back to L.A., and then Rick called again and wanted me to work on the Masters of Reality record, so I flew back. My oldest son had been born; I think he was only about 6 months old. Rick became intrigued with L.A. and started coming out more to work, so we started working on Masters of Reality at Sound City. He wasn't liking how much the band was fighting in the studio, so he stayed at the room he was renting at the Mondrian and said, "Just bring a cassette to the hotel." So I babysat Masters of Reality at Sound City for two months. They asked me to be in the Sound City movie and I declined. I can't even talk about it. [laughs] Too much time at that place! So, that's how I hooked up with Rick, and we did a lot of projects together after that. Andrew Dice Clay, a Mick Jagger solo record, Tom Petty's Wildflowers, Trouble, and The Four Horsemen. I had worked with Tom Petty before; as a second engineer I cut "You Got Lucky." They called me for the Southern Accents record, so I worked on that one a little bit as well. Then we did Wildflowers. While working on that they would cancel the Monday session on Sunday night. I was losing a bunch of mixing work that was paying me really well, so I asked Jim Scott [ Tape Op #75 ] to come in. Jim was my second engineer at Record Plant, so I asked Rick if it'd be cool and he said, "Can he do what you do?" I also told him I wanted to go up to San Francisco to record a band called The Spent Poets. Tom and Jim hit if off, so we tag teamed it for a little bit.
You have the unlikely honor of recording a number one record in Norway.
Well, Bianco means good luck in Norweigian.
No. But it's some bullshit I tell everybody. [laughs] I got to work with a band called the Hellbillies. The lead guitar player, Lars Hogan, can play anything with strings on it. Total virtuoso. They have had a couple number one records over there and they won whatever the Norweigian "Grammy" is [Spellemannspris]. I worked with Madrugada as well; George Drakoulias produced and I engineered. We did it at Sound City. I mixed it out at Scream [Studios], which is sadly no more, but was a great mix studio. I also flew to Norway and recorded and mixed them there. They are a big deal there. They sell out the Spektrum in Oslo, which is where Madonna would play; and that's saying something, because there are only about 500,000 people in Oslo!
Have you ever wanted to quit?
This business? Oh, sure. There are times when you get so burnt and you feel like you can't go any further. But it changes... everybody has those days. What else would I do, at this point?
What do you do to clear your mind?
I don't know, put on a Bruce Springsteen record or something... [laughter] The thing about music is that it grabs you or it doesn't. There are some guys out there that are making a lot of money in music, but it really doesn't touch them. For me it's a thing. It's like an opera where an aria comes on; it electrifies you and you have to pull the car over. I have those moments all the time. I had a weird moment the other day to a Derek Trucks slide solo [laughs]. It was so good! I played it over and over again; my son came in and I was crying. It's so beautiful.