Leo Sidran is an accomplished solo artist, multi-instrumentalist, award-winning music producer, and podcast author. He grew up surrounded by great musicians, producers, engineers, and recording studios via his father, producer/keyboardist Ben Sidran. When he was a teenager, he wrote a few songs for The Steve Miller Band and watched with perplexity as his demos became the actual album cuts on Steve's next record. He went on to win Oscars and a Grammys for productions with other artists that were essentially from the original demos as well. In the spirit of his brilliant The Third Story Podcast, where he interviews prolific creative types and looks for the moments that helped shape their success, I caught up with Leo to get a glimpse into his production ethos, and to track how that may have been shaped. We talked about demos, dancing, eureka moments, gymnastics, and making records in the parlor.
I want to talk about Alex Cuba's Healer album. It's an amazing sound. How much of that is you?
The Alex Cuba record was, in many ways, the perfect culmination of all that I have been doing all these years. The Spanish aspect of it, the jazz and soul influences; he's a singer/songwriter, and it's a largely acoustic album. He reminds me of a classic kind of artist from the 1970s, and a perfect fit for me to work with. The record started when he sent me demos of himself playing guitar and singing, and asked, "What would you do?" I did that thing where I'm alone in a room and I play all the instruments. I stacked the track up, and I sent it back to him.
I love the tune, "Realidad Que No Escogimos." Is that what I'm hearing there?
Well, not the song that you're asking about. Alex eventually came to New York and we did another part of the record with a rhythm section tracked live in the studio, and I wasn't playing on those tracking sessions. I brought those rhythm tracks back to my place and filled them up with additional elements. My main concern was, "Will this be coherent? Will this all sound like the same production, if some songs are made by one or two people playing everything? Will the other songs with a more traditional rhythm section tracked live in a room feel like more of an old school recording?" I had a lot of conversations with Alex about it. The track that you're asking about, "Realidad;" that's one that was cut live with Alex playing guitar, a bass player [Rob Jost], and a drummer [Rob DiPietro] in another studio. I was recording it, and basically just dancing.
Alex talks about the effect of my dancing on that record, about how he would look through the glass and I'd be dancing around the studio. He said, "Your dancing was a real influential element in the tracking of those songs." I brought it home and played guitar, vibes, and Rhodes [electric piano] on that song, and I was really pleased to discover that it all does still feel like my production. There's a way that each of us produces and records that has its own personality. I've been playing with that idea more over time: How far can I go, and still maintain my identity? If I'm not playing, but I am recording, does it still have my sound? If I'm not playing or recording, and I'm just dancing, am I still transmitting something?
Can you trace how, as a young kid, your producing identity developed?
I don't remember the first time I walked into a recording studio, but it must have had an impact on me. By the time I was three or four years old I was taking piano lessons, but I didn't want to take piano lessons anymore. I told my parents that the room I wanted to be in was the room with the musicians and the microphones, not the room with the piano teacher. I definitely had some concept of what recording was, where it happened, and who the people were that made records. I started playing drums when I was 5 or 6, jamming with my dad and local teachers in Madison, [Wisconsin]. The first was Clyde Stubblefield, who came over to the house because he was a friend of my father's. He didn't really teach exactly. He guided, you could say, and encouraged me.
You put out a tune about Clyde ["Handed Down"]. It was so touching. That's the demo, right? But you released it to the world.
There's been a real evolution in my thinking. I used to believe that there was some fundamental difference between a demo and a record, and I feel that much less now.
When you work so quickly, is that because you don't know where it's going, or because you do know where it's going?
I don't really know! Sometimes I have a vision and I'm trying to catch it before I lose it, but a lot of times I really don't know what it's going to be. With that Clyde song, I really didn't know what it was going to sound like. I had a little bit of an idea that I wanted to write a sweet, story-song, almost from the point of view of a child, and underneath it I wanted a Clyde-styled breakbeat.
Did you know what you wanted to say, or did that evolve?
That came out of a song club that I'm in. Every two weeks I'm emailed another song title, or a lyric; something that can get your juices flowing. That week the title was "Hand Me Down," so I started thinking about hand-me-downs, or things that are handed down. Clyde handed something down to me, and that's how I approached that song.
How complete was the song before you started recording?
The songwriting happens in tandem with production. I might walk into the studio with a lyric sketch and some chords, and the song will take shape as I'm recording it. I try to write songs that you can play on the guitar or at the piano, or you could sing a cappella, but I know that the songs are also shaped by production. I think that's goes back to the time when I was 12 or 13, and I learned to record, to play guitar, piano, to program, to sing – I learned all of what I do now by doing them all at the same time.
Your album Mucho Leo sounds as much like production as songs.
That's cool; thank you for saying that. I know it has a different life to it, because I'm not precious. When I play all the instruments, I try to keep it feeling pretty performed. I don't overly fix a lot, and I leave it rounded on the edges. I leave it a little sloppy, a little loose, because there's something, particularly in the rhythm, that happens when I'm locking with myself. I know it can happen when I'm not playing too. The Alex Cuba track we were talking about; we got a great feeling, and I wasn't playing bass or drums on that.
You were dancing!
I was dancing, and who knows, maybe the dancing did something. [laughs] But in terms of what happens on those tracks where I play everything, and I also record it, even the introduction of an engineer can change it, because I'm so fast at grabbing a punch-in, or rolling back to exactly where I need to be. That communication, of having to talk to someone else, can trip me up. My house is generally set up so that there's a general version of "set up" that's ready to go at all times. Right now, there are two ribbon mics that are ready to be the room mics at any point, and there's this Bock 251 that is my go-to workhorse mic. The drums are mic'd up and those mics can move around the room to grab guitar amps, vibraphone, or percussion. Everything is ready to record. There is almost never set up time; maybe a half hour.
Our studio needs are usually zeroed, so if I want to do something of my own I have to really be committed because of set up time.
Yeah, I did a lot of work for three or four years at Let ‘Em In [Studios, NY]. What I loved about it, initially, was that it was a 15-minute walk from my house, it was cheap, and I could run it by myself. But I used to say to the owner, "I don't know why you don't keep everything mic'd up in here." My mentality was not that of a studio owner, it was that of a guy like me, "Why do I have to waste time every time I come here to set up the whole room?" I did the same thing in that room that I've done in my own room, now that I have the space. I'd go in and set up the kit, mic the piano, set up the Rhodes, set up a guitar rig, set up the bass rig, and basically prepare the room as if a band were about to record. Then I would move from station to station. I made a lot of Mucho Leo that way. We also made Alex Cuba's record there, and we made Joy Dragland's last EP [Tumble Town] there.
How long does it take you to make a track this way?
Almost all of the tracks on Mucho Leo are made in a day, and that might include set up. "Tonight Someone is Me" was a day. On most of Mucho Leo, that whole record went through two iterations of mixes, and, in most cases, it's a tweaked version of the rough mix that's on the record. I couldn't get it back. "Speak to Me in Spanish" is the demo. When I was making it, I told myself, "Well, when I go back and fix, it I'll do this and that." When I tried to get back into it – even though it's the same guy in the same room, you're never in that moment again. That's part of the reason I work so quickly.
That is the "moment."
Yes. The "moment," meaning the closed circuit of creativity when you are working on a song.
And a moment can be a moment [snaps fingers], or it can stretch. It's an elastic thing.
Sure. There's an argument to be made that a moment could last the length of a record. If you were working every day on a record for three weeks or a month, that could be a creative moment. But because I tend to work piecemeal, where I'll do a song then a week later I'll do another song, or month later another song for the same project, I have to try and stay as committed as I can, and get as much down as I can. I recorded a track yesterday. It sounds so ridiculous, but I was trying to make it to see my daughter's gymnastics recital. I found myself playing this shaker part, because I was thinking that I really heard shaker on the track. I wasn't going to leave the room until the shaker was finished. It was 4:45, and I'm supposed to be in the gymnastics place at 5:15, and here I was doing this shaker overdub. It's because I knew if I didn't do it then, even the shaker probably wasn't gonna feel right if I came back at a different time.
Have you figured this out over time, or was there a "eureka" moment?
The closest thing to eureka for me has been, over time, coming to terms with the fact that that is the work. It's not a rehearsal for the work, or a demo for the record. Those become the records. Yesterday, for example, I cut drums first, then started to put electric piano on it, then put the whole thing through [Pro Tools'] Elastic Audio and slowed it down 15 bpm. Then I realized it was too fast, so I recut drums, recut piano.
When you work with a client, I imagine it's still a similar process.
Yes, and it's taken me a long time to understand that this is what I'm offering clients a lot of times.
What do you mean?
I've had three or four projects, other than what I've done with my dad, that made me realize that my career – my life, this journey – is built around this thing that I do. I kept making apologies for it, for a long time. It starts with the first thing that I did professionally, when I wrote songs with Steve Miller. It didn't have so much to do with the songs, although I look back on it and I can't believe I was writing songs at 15 that he recorded. But the real crazy thing about it was that he took my demos and played on top of them, on his record. I went to his studio in Sun Valley, Idaho, and they had put together a mirrored rig from my rig at home. I wrote him a list of everything I had at my house, and he had all the same gear there. I pressed "play" on the sequencer and ran my sequences into his Sony PCM 3348 [digital tape] machine. Then I played reference rhythm guitar, some of which stayed on the record, and he played guitar on top of the demos. There's a little additional drumming, but not too much. I remember thinking, "These are my demos. Why isn't he fixing them?"
What tracks are those?
There're four of them, from his record Wide River: "Conversation," "Lost in Her Eyes," "Walks Like A Lady," and "Perfect World." I don't love the way it sounds. I was 15 and it was 1993, so there's a lot working against it, but they were my demos. Fast forward ten years, when I worked with Jorge Drexler on the song "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" for The Motorcycle Diaries [soundtrack].
That one sounds great!
Thanks! But, again, it was essentially made as a glorified demo. It was his demo, where he's playing acoustic guitar and singing to a loop, on top of which we went into the studio and recorded drums, bass, and piano. Then we went back to my apartment and recorded strings straight into a [Digidesign] Digi 002 with no preamps; super homestyle. We mixed it at Smart Studios [Butch Vig (Tape Op #11) and Steve Marker's studio, located in Madison, WI] in a day, very quick.
Was that a board mix?
Yes, and it was my first experience working with stems. We mixed stems back into Pro Tools, and then re-balanced the stems back at my apartment afterward.
Wow, that was a good idea.
Yeah, I learned a lot on that job. [laughs] And that recording won an Academy Award! Ten years after the experience working with Steve Miller, having started making records and starting to learn how to work in studios, and I was thinking that in order to make serious sounding recordings you had to do it in a serious way. But we did this song in a very hybrid way with very few resources, and it translated. I would say, to an extent, that the Alex Cuba record, which happened after I had done a lot of commercial work and learned how to really spend money if I needed to,still was made in a small, very contained way. Alex's record is what it sounds like when I make demos. He did spend a lot of time doing vocals on his own, and it was mixed in Canada by Joby Baker, a great mixing engineer and producer. That won a Latin Grammy, and was nominated for a U.S. Grammy. It seems, if you look at those three albums alone, the message that keeps getting sent to me is that the most automatic, natural work that I'm doing seems to be rewarded and comes back to me with bigger results than when I worry about whether or not I'm doing it the "right" way.
There is no "right" way.
There is no right way! I went with Alex Cuba to the Grammys, and it seemed every other speech was someone up there saying, "When we recorded this in my apartment in Brooklyn, we never thought that it would have..."
Speaking of recording albums in apartments in Brooklyn, Picture Him Happy [Ben Sidran's recent album] sounds great. You recorded and mixed that quickly?
So fast. In the experience of having interviewed people like James Farber [Tape Op #114], Al Schmitt, or Creed Taylor, I learned that they seldom worked with the luxury of getting to second guess when their cakes were baked. They were like, "We are mixing today. We're making a record right now. We're doing it." My father wants it done, and he's not particularly interested in second guessing anything. He's interested in, "First thought, best thought." I've never heard him say something like, "Oh, the kick sounds too woofy."
That's not even on his radar.
He's not even hearing it! I mean, he may be hearing it emotionally, and if it's too wet, or too dry, or too heavy-sounding. But most of the choices that I'm making in mixes – reverbs, delays, EQs, and compression – he's not even [focused on that]; he just wants it done. He'll say, "Turn the vocal up" or, "Turn the solo up." He wanted to get the record done fast. He was really motivated to get that particular collection of songs recorded and released. We even booked the mastering date before we tracked the first song, because he knew how many weeks it was going to take to manufacture the CDs in order to have them ready for his European tour. So, six weeks before that, we were making a record so that we could have a master file to send to the manufacturer. I'm very happy with the sound of the record. I know it sounds silly, because we just made it, but I know I could make it sound better today.
It's weird, you can get up to 96 percent pretty quickly. The other 4 percent...
James Farber said to me, "Ninety percent of the work happens in 10 percent of the time." Previously we made a record at The Bunker in New York that was beautifully recorded. I mixed it at home, and it got played on the radio. Then we made a record at your studio [DNA], I mixed it at home, and it got played on the radio. And then we made a record in my parlor, I mixed it, and it got played on the radio! The previous two records were recorded so beautifully; the fact that the one I recorded at my house is comparable blows me away. I'm astounded that people think that they sound similar, because I hear all the differences.
I don't hear any of the differences. The players are causing so much of that sound.
And that's Ben's thing. He comes from the old producer's school: finding material, assembling the players, and choosing the engineer – that's the job.
You grew up being around all this: the producers, the players, and the engineers. Tommy LiPuma, Clyde Stubblefield, James Farber, etc. You probably learned through osmosis, but did you see it that way?
Yeah; I never studied what I do, but I learned it all. When I interviewed Ryan Hewitt [Tape Op #61] for my podcast, I was envious because he's someone who did it both ways. He learned it from his dad, and he went and studied it. He focused on a specific area of recording, and he's a master. In my case, I picked up a lot from a lot of different kinds of people, in a lot of areas.
Did you know you were picking it up at the time?
I would watch James Farber work a lot, and I knew when I went into the studio that I was taking ideas from him at the time. I saw [the late] Tommy LiPuma work when I was a boy, and it was not until more recently when I was working with him – in the last few years – that I was able to better understand what he did. He was so mysterious in that he made it look like he wasn't doing anything! [laughs] I know people say that about the greats, and he was like that. You could not tell why he made it come out so good. It was done so much through his personality and through his approach to dealing with people: his attention, his elegance, and his respect. How do you study that? That was in the man; it wasn't something you could ever really study. But, later on, I did have "a-ha" moments with Tommy; I know a lot of people did. The biggest one was when I realized that he trusted me. It was really incredible how much that meant to me, how much I wanted to do a good job, and how much confidence it gave me to know that this guy trusted me. I lot of times when people trust me, I think, "Oh, shit. They're gonna find out that I'm faking it and they're gonna be so disappointed." I knew that that would never happen with Tommy. He had a very in-tune bullshit detector. He knew when something was good and when it wasn't. You could not fake in front of him. When he thought it was good, it made you believe that it was good! His acceptance of me made me believe in myself more.
How about Clyde? You wrote about times in "Handed Down" that sounded like a-ha moments.
There were a few a-ha moments with Clyde, but it was more of a cumulative effect of being around him, seeing him, and playing two-drummer gigs with him. That was an amazing feeling – it really showed how strong he played and how he felt. We would do gigs where we would trade off playing drums, and then we would play at the same time. It obviously felt so different when he stopped playing and I started playing, and I thought to myself, "What is he doing to make this feel this way?" But if you wanna play like Clyde, one of the worst things you can do is watch him and study his technique. He had this unique, self-invented way of playing that you would not want to try and copy.
But you were able to study Clyde.
I've gotta find my own way to make it feel good. I can't make it feel like he could make it feel, so I've got to make it feel as I can make it feel. I knew, from watching my dad and hearing him talk about this, that I still had to learn by myself. One way to find out what you do that's unique is to fail at trying to sound like what other people do. I spent my early years trying to make records that sounded like the people I was listening to. Like Prince, James Taylor, Paul Simon, and then Elvis Costello. I went through periods where I discovered an artist and I wouldn't just try to write a song in their style, I would try to record it like that too. Over, and over, and over again I failed at being Prince! [laughs] I failed at being all these people, and the only person I can even come close to succeeding at sounding like is myself. Through the course of the interviews that I do, I'm very focused on getting to that same moment in other people's careers, because it makes me feel not so alone, and it's a very significant part of creative development.
You started The Third Story Podcast in 2014, as a way to learn about creative people and what they do. Are you still learning? What do you see for the future of the podcast?
I'm at that moment where there's no turning back, but I can't quite see the finish line. I don't know if it's good or not, but I've come so far that I know it has value; yet my life and motivation have changed a little bit since I started it. It really is a constant companion. I'm constantly preparing for an interview, booking an interview, editing an interview. Originally, I was doing it every two weeks. Now I'm doing something every week as a new challenge to myself, because it was starting to get less fun for me to do. I had two options: I was either going to stop it or do more of it. I decided to do more. [laughs]
How does that make you feel right now?
Every week it's another race to the finish. But I love being inside of these conversations, I love the process, and I've learned a lot. There might be a more commercially-viable version of it that I could do. The format is long – it's over an hour – so I have to give myself over to [the interviewee] to get the good stuff. A lot of times it's like, "Where does the work meet your life? How do you think about that?"These are ideas that are slow to emerge, especially with musicians who are not very practiced at revealing themselves. Musicians are often solitary people, and their process is very private. But I'm talking to the people that interest me and that I can learn from. I'm gonna keep doing it, but I hope it leads to another thing, and I don't know what that is yet!
It's making an impact.
I'm sure people with more listenership get more fan mail than I do, but I'm getting about a letter a week. It's reaching people. This beautiful level of people wanting to share their experience with me, their story, or their question. I couldn't hope for anything more, really. Knowing that people are hearing it, and they're moved enough to write to me. That's very special.