As the former lead singer for Journey, Steve Perry should probably require no introduction, as his vocals have graced some of the biggest FM radio staples of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. His solo records (in 1984 and 1994) also did very well. Yet, despite Journey’s 1996 “comeback” album, Trial by Fire, it was a 24-year-wait for Steve’s next solo album Traces (released in 2018). Last year, Steve released a version of this album, Traces: Alternate Versions & Sketches, with stripped down instrumentation, and a fascinating cover painting depicting a plethora of studio gear. I talked to Steve and engineer/co-producer Thom Flowers about the process of making both of these albums. We also discussed Steve’s home studio and uncovered his thoughts on writing and emotional connections.
What is your home studio like? This record sounds excellent, and so did Traces before this.
My home studio is probably one of the most outboard-equipped analog studios I’ve ever seen. I have everything, from original, old rack-mounted SSL channels to Neve 1073s. I’ve got a lot of API gear. I’ve got some 500 series [units]; Sunset Sound has one called the TUTTI [S1P 500]. It’s named after [the owner’s] dad [and founder, Salvador “Tutti” Camarata]. That thing is sweet. It’s everything about analog that you love: punchy, clear, and ear-friendly as opposed to digital by itself. We’re working in Pro Tools, but we run a stereo chain out, and we go through an SSL G-Series compressor. On the back end of that we have a Manley Pultec [EQP-1A]. We changed the tubes in it because we found that the old Telefunken tubes sounded amazingly sweeter. It’s also got some extras, which I can’t talk about. I’ll call it “secret sauce,” how about that? I also have [Neumann] M 49s, U 87, U 47s, FLEA 47s, and Coles mics. The typical mics, [Shure SM]57s and 58s, are still sometimes the go-to. My monitor system is ATC SCM150s.
I’ve got the smaller SCM25As. I love those.
Yeah. I also have a subwoofer that they recommended, because my control room is a little bit tight, so I don’t have the size to generate a low frequency accurately. Just a tweak of the sub, so that I don’t miss some of the ugly things I hear these days on Sirius. If you’ve ever turned on SiriusXM and listened to the soul channel, or any channel that’s playing old music, you’ll hear the pops, the Ps, and the bumps.
Right! They couldn’t hear that those were there back in the days. Now that they’ve been remastered 20 times and they’re coming from a satellite, you can hear them. I want to make sure that’s not there.
Is the studio space at your home?
Yes. It’s in my house, in the San Diego area. It’s in a basement area; kind of a bunker. I have a drum room which is almost the same size as Motown’s in Detroit; that’s the tracking room. That’s where we put the drums and any other guitars we’re doing for overdubs. The control room is like a shoebox; it’s smaller.
What is a favorite “Steve Perry” vocal mic?
I have three old M 49s that I bought from Klaus Heyne [German Masterworks] back in 1984. Klaus, at that time, was the guy to go to who could get you these mics. I believe he used to be from up there.
Yeah, he lives outside of Portland. Great guy.
Yeah. I remember he came down to San Francisco and had a whole bunch of M 49s. We set them up, and I found three of them that had this sheen on the high end that I liked, so I bought all three, along with their power supplies. But the hardest part to talk about mics, is that if you’re a singer, you realize that there’s a mood that comes along when you have this idea. Sometimes it’s a 58 directly into a 1073 with echo, with no compression, in the songwriting moment with somebody. The entire vocal of “We’re Still Here” is an SM58 with a 1073. It was the demo writing vocal, which I kept.
There’s a lot of emotion in it.
Well, because again, you’re dealing with a singer and his first impression of what the song could be. At that moment I’m reaching for, I’m not sure what that is; but I’m going to let the vibe of the echo and the landscape of the echo let me pretend it sounds good and is going somewhere that I want it to reach for. I’m not worried about sonics at that point. When I’m in that mode, good things can happen. An SM58 through a 1073 is good enough.
When you joined Journey and had to go in the studio initially with that band, there must have been a lot of ego and pressure. Were those vocal sessions terrifying for you?
I was young and cocky at the time, so I wasn’t too intimidated. I fell into the band pretty well, because everybody else was young and cocky too. We were all going to have our moments, giving each other a little bit of, “Fuck you.” But out of that came love songs, great tracks, and great music.
Well, it certainly worked!
Let me tell you a story: I got to work with Lamont Dozier on one of my earlier solo records, which was a dream come true for me. I found him through my attorney, because I didn’t know my attorney represented him. One day I was talking about how much I loved Holland-Dozier-Holland songs, from the Motown era, and how much it meant to me. I loved how they recorded those records at that studio, the limitations of the tracks that they had, how they would bounce tracks, and how they would make sure that it felt good. I was working on a song called “Forever Right or Wrong (Love’s Like a River)” on the For the Love of Strange Medicine record, and Lamont was sitting behind me on the couch. I got tired of people punching and erasing my vocals. Because I’m a drummer, I’d sing and punch my own vocals; so I’d drop in, sing, and then drop out. I knew when the next phrase was coming. There was one line where I said, “Gee, Lamont. What is it with that one line? Is it my lyric or my melody? Doesn’t it seem to emotionally change position from the previous line to the next line? Should I change this?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. All we’re trying to do is sell a feeling.” I looked at him and went, “What?” I had to write it down, because it was so powerful. Like I was talking about earlier, it doesn’t matter sometimes if it’s an M 49 or a 58. You’re really trying to sell a feeling. Journey, in the studio back in those days, we had a lot of emotion to put into those records.
It translates and it captivates people. Presenting the songs from Traces in a different light by stripping them down is also a way of searching for different emotions that you can pull from this music, right?
Yeah. In my heart, it’s always been melody and lyrics. I’ve been reflecting a lot about how much music parented me. It’s a long story, but I needed some extra parenting because I was not getting it. When I fell into music, and music grabbed me, it taught me about the world. It taught me about emotion. It taught me about people. It taught me about culture and so much that was important emotionally to me. Those particular songs were always melody and lyrics. One of the ultimate tests is what we usually call “the campfire test.” If you can sit with an acoustic guitar at a campfire with your friends and sing a song like “I Need You” by George Harrison, most likely it’s going to pass the campfire test, because the song is absolutely sound within itself. You don’t need a lot of production. It’s acoustic guitar, melody, a lyric, and then arrangement. I’ve always felt these songs stripped down to melody and lyrics – and some accompaniment of chord inversions, whether it be piano or acoustic guitar – pass the test to me. “Most of All” was written with Randy Goodrum, who’s one of the most prolific songwriters. He could write with anybody. I met him through [drummer] Andy Newmark, who said, “You need to write with this guy. He lives in Nashville.” I’m thinking, “What?” He came to California, and I was about to do my Street Talk record. We sat down in one afternoon and wrote “Foolish Heart.” I thought, “This guy’s a songwriter!” We wrote “Most of All” together the same way. I wanted people to hear the naked emotion and get the message of what the song’s trying to say, without anything else around it. It means a lot to me to explain the nuances of this whole thing.
Isn’t this a lifelong quest for all of us to communicate and get this across?
It never ends for me. I just bought some more gear. I have a Magic Death Eye Stereo Mastering Compressor made by Ian Sefchick [Tape Op #134], and it sounds truly amazing. I like compressors that are musical. We’d go to New York to cut vinyl with Bob Ludwig [#105]; he was working at Masterdisk back then. He set his compressors in such a way that when he would cut vinyl, or when he was mastering a record previous to cutting the vinyl, the compressors would attack and release in a musical, complimentary way. The way they would pull back and then open up was rhythmic. I didn’t remember “Who’s Crying Now” feeling that good when we mixed it. But when we mastered it, it started to breathe in a rhythmic way. It was enhancing the pocket of the song electronically through the compressor by the way the attack and release was set. I remember thinking, “That’s some cool shit!” That’s something to pay attention to, right? When we get into my studio with Thom Flowers, my engineer, we sometimes just tickle that G-Series SSL across the bus in a way that you can see it behaving, and you can hear it behaving, rhythmically, over the whole track. Hopefully not stepping on any vocal clarity. To me, that’s musical.
You can hear when it’s done improperly, where the vocal gets too loud when the music gets quiet.
I hate that! It makes me crazy when people shove ten pounds through a five-pound sack. “What are you doing?” It clamps down. People think that’s a cool sound; I think that’s squashed.
How did you and Thom meet and start working together?
I was looking for an engineer, and I was talking to Greg Wells [Tape Op #123]. I wanted to work with him at some point, and he had this young kid named Ian [MacGregor] he was working with. I talked to him one time, and Ian had made this piece of 500 series gear called [Standard Audio] Stretch. I have, to this day, an old A301 Dolby, the big one, and the repro cards are pulled out. An engineer, Dee Robb who ran Cherokee Studios years ago, he did that to my vocal track on my demos. He brought that up on a side channel and slightly fed that into and under the vocal, so the voice had a grain to it that was unique. It had its own texture that could compete with large amounts of other instruments. I ended up with a 301 Dolby, and I use it. Greg Wells told me Ian had developed Stretch, and that it does the same thing. I talked to Ian and said, “I’d love for you to come and do a record. Can I hire you to come and be my engineer?” At that particular time, he was working a lot with Greg, and he could not get out of other commitments. But he said, “I’ll tell you who taught me everything I know. That’s Thom Flowers in the Santa Barbara area.” I’d had other engineers come to my studio to show them when I was building it. I said, “Look, I know because of the way these walls have been constructed…” – there are no parallel walls, and the ceiling isn’t parallel to the floor – “…I know we can get some drums in here.” I’m a drummer, and this room is not too big that we can’t get a great drum sound. It’s small enough to get a great drum sound too, because you want the drums to dynamically fill the room. You don’t want them in a cavern; they lose their punch. I had engineers come and look at it, and they all tried a couple of things. Then Thom came over to look at the room and simply said, “Oh, we can get drums in here! No problem.” I stood there in one area and thumped my chest with my mouth shut. I said, “Can you hear that?” The room had a low end bump in one place. I said, “That’s where the bass drum should probably go; right here.” That’s where we put the drums, with Vinnie Colaiuta and Josh Freese. Thom fricking nailed it, man. Some great drum sounds.
That’s the sign of a quality engineer.
That began a lot of hotel rooms for Thom down here. It was weekends with the family and weekdays with Steve. Ask him about that!
There was a long hiatus between records for you leading up to Traces. Once you began working, was there a timeline to make sure you stayed on track?
That was the beauty of it; it had no timeline. I was able to give everything its own time to become what it needed to become, or to keep reaching until I got it. I’d been through a lot of different drummers and bass players on these tracks until I found, feel-wise, what feeling was being sold. That was a pleasure for me to be able to do that. That’s the beauty of a home studio. But yes, I think what you’re driving at can be a curse.
You can never stop. I must tell you that [director] Patty Jenkins is a close friend of mine, and she’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. She’s been such a creative supporter. She writes, produces, edits, and does everything when she makes her films. But one of the things we’ve talked about, and I’m not sure where the quote comes from, but the quote is, “Art is never finished. It’s only abandoned.” That’s what it’s going to feel like, no matter when you let it go. You’re always going to feel, “I could still tweak a little.” At some point, you’ve gotta let it go.
Exactly. But on the new Traces: Alternate Versions & Sketches, you did jump back in.
I did! Never finished. It takes a little bit of, I daresay, guts, to strip it down where there are no clothes on it and it’s naked.
That puts your vocals front-and-center even more. It brings it up, close and personal.
That’s great, because that’s all I was hoping for. When you’re that exposed, you’re going to get some egg on the face, but that’s okay.
The record is also mostly co-writes. When you write solo, do you feel you need more input?
There are some songs on the record that are just mine. I am writing a little bit more on my own now. But I feel that collaborating with people can really be the best. They bring something to the moment that I would not have thought about; like if somebody comes up with some beautiful chord inversions, which I am not a knowledgeable-enough musician to come up with. If I have Randy Goodrum or Barry Eastmond – who wrote “You Belong to Me” – they come up with these voicings in their hands that make me feel, “Oh, my god; what is that?” It sounds amazing to me, and it feels so beautiful. That helps inspire, emotionally, the launching of a musical collaboration.
It also gives you a different inspiration about how to sing and navigate
I don’t play piano very well, I can play some bass, but I’m really a drummer. I sat with Lamont for a session years ago. I thought he was going to be like Beethoven on the piano, but he wasn’t. He was doing it the way he felt, with three or four fingers in spots. He was closing his eyes and singing and reaching. It hit me that what I loved about him was that he was a visionary of a landscape of where that song could go. You could see it as he was reaching and singing. At that moment Lamont Dozier gave me qualifications within myself – as a person who’s always believed in the fantasy in music. Maybe I’m not as talented technically, but I believe in the fantasy of that landscape. Now, once I’ve started reaching for that landscape of the song, that becomes my compass to help me follow the same thing I saw Lamont doing. He gave me an eternal forgiveness of my shortcomings. Being in a band like Journey for years, these guys all know inversions. They know all this music. I was sitting there trying to have communication with them, almost in a layman way. I see landscapes.
It’s like they were thinking of it musically. Meanwhile, you’re thinking about what’s it creating?
Yeah. I’m trying to come up with an emotional target that’s something that will lift off the runway and fly. That’s all I’m saying. I’m speaking emotionally; it has to fly. That’s a communication that’s something magical about music. Larry, can you imagine what the world would be like without music?
Holy moly! We need every kind of music there is in this world.
I absolutely agree. I think it’s the way we communicate and the way we feel. It blends into everything in our lives.
It’s one of the centering aspects that connects us all. There’s something in all of us that craves that connection with music. It must be primal in us.
One of the key words you used earlier was “fantasy.” There’re these five-minute moments in time where we’re transported.
I always loved the fantasy of music without visuals. When I was a kid, the radio gave me that. I could have my own visuals because I was in my car, or I could have my own moment with it because I was somewhere with someone. It became my own personal moment. When I first heard “Baby I Need Your Loving” by the Four Tops was in the back of a ‘57 Chevy on the way to the prom, because I didn’t have a driver’s license yet. I was able to double date with a senior who had a driver’s license. The girl and I were in the back, and I heard “Baby I Need Your Loving” as I was pulling up to the school. I’ll never forget that moment. It becomes your own personal soundtrack. That’s really true.