There are very few record producers whose names grace large portions of my CD collection, and Tony Visconti is one of them. His production work with David Bowie (including the newest album, Heathen), T-Rex, Badfinger, Thin Lizzy, U2, The Stranglers, Sparks and many more has resulted in classic, great-sounding records, and his arrangement skills have shown up on even more records.
A few years ago I went to listen to a panel of record producers talk about their craft, and, although there were some big-name talents there, the man I had come to listen to was Tony Visconti. During a break in the discussions I nervously handed Tony a copy of Tape Op and said we really liked his work. A week later Tony emailed me saying he had enjoyed the magazine very much (which thrilled me to no end) and we corresponded via email, with me eventually asking him if he would write an intro to the first Tape Op book, which he graciously and enthusiastically did. With Tony being such a great sport we knew he'd be up for a full-on interview, so while at AES in New York last year John and I got a chance to sit down and talk with him.
You've done multiple albums with a lot of artists: David Bowie, Thin Lizzy, T- Rex, The Moody Blues when they re- formed... What do you think it is about you that turns one record into a longer relationship?
Well, I'm an incredibly nice guy, is what it is. [laughter] And I give the artist what they want, basically. I really have little agenda of my own in a production. I'm not out to prove myself. I take pride in what I do and I do what I do very well. My name's not going to be bigger on the album than theirs — I have the ratio right. So, if it's a David Bowie album, why do I want to thrust "Tony Visconti" on that? I'll do what I have to do. I'll play bass, I'll sing backups, I'll play tambourine — which I do all the time. So I've always had a sense that my job is to make that artist sound as great as possible — and they know it. They can see that I'm on their side. The record business has always been putting real unnatural pressures on the artist, and in the whole forest of those people that want to try and influence the artist I'm like the beacon of light. "We can do it your way." I'll have the artist communicate their dream to me and that's the goal. "What do you hear in your head? I can do it." And I really can do most things, in an audio sense. I suppose that's why people invite me back. They see that they have a great ally in me, and a good friend.
You must feel good about that.
I do. I feel great because virtually every artist I've worked with I've maintained a friendship with. There's very few I haven't. Even the hardest groups to work with realized I was on their side. They'd be very defensive at first, like the Stranglers. They said, "We think producers are a load of shit. We're going to work with you because your records sound good on radio." That was the intro, and then two albums later we were good friends.
With a case where it is very difficult and you end up not retaining a friendship, what causes that?
I think one or two times I've fallen out with an artist was when, at the end, they wanted me to do something so ridiculous that it was counter to their interest. One group I worked with wanted so much high end on their mastering that it sounded very, very tinny. And no matter what I did I couldn't convince them to go back and make it fatter. And then one person in the band said, "It's okay, the lead singer is legally deaf," and I went, "Oh no," but, you know, you couldn't hurt this lead singer's feelings. I thought, if this is going to be like the emperor's clothes, you can't talk to this guy one to one, then you can't have an open, honest relationship. So that might be another thing that would split me. But, of course, the third thing is that people just like to move on. You know, Bowie has the right to work with other producers. He worked with Nile Rodgers.
Even during the previous period where you'd worked with him there were times when Bowie worked with Ken Scott and others.
Yeah, he would stagger his producers a bit. On two occasions Ken Scott was my engineer and David would the do the next album with Ken Scott as producer. And then Harry Maslin was my engineer on part of Young Americans and then he [Bowie] did "Fame" with Harry Maslin. On "Fame" I just wasn't available. He had to do that. He called me the night he came home from the studio. I was in London and he was in New York and he said, "It just happened. It was spur of the moment. It was spontaneous, and [John] Lennon and I went in the studio." I said, "Next time that happens, phone me and I'll take the Concorde. I'll pay for the Concorde." But artists have the...