On a beautiful day in early March, Oz Fritz showed up at the door of New, Improved Recording — a studio I co-own in Oakland, California. He had been hired by multi- instrumentalist/singer Mark Growden to co- produce and engineer Mark's new record Saint Judas. I was pretty nervous. This was the guy that recorded and mixed Tom Waits' Mule Variations, Blood Money and Alice, worked with Bill Laswell over two decades, and has worked with Wanda Jackson, Iggy Pop and the Ramones. The man that showed up on my doorstep that day surprised me — Oz Fritz is as unassuming as they come despite all the great things he has accomplished, and I was immediately at ease talking with him and helping him get set up. He walked into the control room with only his trusty Peavey Kosmos Pro and a very practical attitude towards the task at hand, which was to capture the sound of Mark's sextet performing their songs live. Luckily he had time to sit down with me one morning for breakfast to talk about Meat Loaf live albums, quantum physics, magical battles and recording music that can't be recorded.
Tell me about starting out. Did you go to recording school?
I did go to recording school. I'll give you a real brief synopsis of my history — I got really interested in manipulating audio when I was eleven years old. My friend and I recorded "Revolution 9" from the [Beatles'] White Album onto a cassette tape, which were fairly new in 1969, and then we took it apart and flipped it around so we could hear it play backwards. It was an incredibly spooky experience. After high school I started doing live sound. I did that for four years in the Western Canadian bar band circuit and got to the top of where I could go. I went to New York on a visit and really loved it there, so I tried to find a reason to go back. I discovered the Institute of Audio Research, and I went there for a year, in 1983. I went back to Canada, couldn't find work in studios there, went back to New York two years later and started out as an intern at a studio called Platinum Island, that was an up-and-coming, state-of-the-art studio that eventually rivaled The Power Station, which was the studio of the time. Then, after a couple of years working there as a staff engineer, Bill Laswell came in — he was looking for an alternative to the Power Station, where he normally worked. We hit it off and when I went freelance not long after, my first few years were as his full-time engineer at his Greenpoint Studios that he opened up in Greenpoint [Brooklyn].
That was the late '80s?
I started as an intern in 1987, went with Bill Laswell in 1989 and went freelance in '89-'90.
From your school experience through being an intern, an assistant and finally a staff engineer, was there a particular methodology that you feel you learned?
Well, there's a pedigree. The great thing about working at a commercial New York studio is that you work with all kinds of well-known producers and engineers in different types of music. I sort of aligned myself mostly with the people from The Power Station. My main engineer-teacher was Jason Corsaro, and his pedigree was The Power Station and Bob Clearmountain. I learned how to get big drum room sounds from Jason and Tom Edmonds, who started out working with Todd Rundgren up in Woodstock. Roger Moutenot [issue #20] passed on the lineage of another top New York studio called Skyline. I learned a great technique from Roger when he recorded Caetano Veloso singing and playing acoustic guitar. He placed a [Neumann] FET 47 at about the level of his chin angled toward his mouth. The rejection side of its pick-up pattern was facing the guitar to minimize guitar bleed. Some months later I used the same technique for recording the Turkish saz player, Talip Özkan. His album, The Dark Fire, was an early successful recording for me. I learned how they did things at the Hit Factory from Robert Musso and Bruce Tergesen. But back to Jason Corsaro — when I did live sound, it was predictable that every drummer would come up and tell you, "I want my drums to sound like John Bonham, Led Zeppelin," except at one point a drummer came up to me and said, "I want my drums to sound like the drums from Power Station," and it was my friend Jason who came up with that sound. It was such an incredible sound that when John Bonham died one of the drummers they were thinking of getting was the drummer in Power Station — they tried him out and he wasn't that great. Because it wasn't his playing that was so awesome — it was the sound that Jason got.
You're talking about Robert Palmer's band, Power Station?
Yeah. They were called Power Station because they worked at the studio a lot.
You're saying that sound was more tied to the engineer than to the studio — if he worked somewhere else he'd get a similar sound?
He was a unique engineer and he never got the same sound twice, but yeah, he would stretch the box in that way and get sort of breakthrough sounding records. I worked with him as an assistant on the Swans' Burning World and Ginger Baker's Middle Passage.
Does it create friction when a band asks you to get a specific sound, but you want to do something new?
No, because I don't have a particular thing I personally am going for. What I'm trying to do is translate the vision of the artist. I'm trying to be transparent — there is no "Oz Fritz sound". I'm trying to tune in to what they're looking for — which they don't really know exactly (no one does) — to align myself with that. You work with a new band or producer, and there's a little period where you're finding out how to relate to each other, and what each other wants. When you develop a relationship where you're working with the same producer over time like I have with Bill Laswell, he doesn't have to tell me. I get the mix set up, he comes in and it's already sort of how he wants it, but then he does the fine-tuning. It was like that with me for Tom Waits. I find after a while there gets to be almost a telepathic musical connection.
You're describing your role almost as a conduit, in service to the artist.
Exactly, but I'm not in service to the artist — well I am, but what I'm really in service to is the music. To me, music is a sacred thing — it's the closest thing I have to a religion. When I worked in a studio in Madras, India with Bill Laswell, they treated their recording studio like a temple. The only places you had to take off your shoes in India were in the Hindu temples and in the recording studio.
When you walked into this recording studio, which was a major one in that city, you walked through a little lobby area and then a little anteroom before you got to the control room and the studio. In the anteroom there was a huge Indian altar set up, and there was a woman whose sole job was to tend to that altar with all of its pictures of deities and flowers. Before we actually started recording we did a little ritual to mark the beginning of the project. It was acknowledging the sacredness of what we were doing. I try to honor that and serve that.
In contrast, would you say the reverence for the recording studio as an institution has diminished in this culture?
I really couldn't answer that question. What I think has diminished with the advent of home recording systems is that music has gone from something that you feel to something that you think about. I'll try to explain that better — Robert Fripp wrote a series of incredible articles for Musician magazine that influenced me a lot in the early '80s, and he talked about the three different aspects of a musician, what he called the head, the heart and the hands. All three aspects, in order to make great music, had to be aligned and going to the same place. Nowadays with Pro Tools you're able to mainly go into your head and look at the waveform, and you're doing things based on how you think it should sound, rather than how it feels. That's what I observe a lot, and I think it's a bit of a tragedy that people over edit their music and try to conform to some ideal, perfect standard, because to me it loses feeling.
The project you're working on right now at my studio with Mark Growden — you're doing live band takes, almost exclusively live vocal takes, a minimum of overdubs, a minimum of editing...
I've found, although I can't prove it, that my respect for music has meant that the projects I get are usually musically great, like Mark's music, and they are more aligned with how I approach things. It just works out that way, that I end up working with people like Mark. And the whole approach to making this record was his, partly based on budgetary limitations. Limitations aren't necessarily a bad thing. Limitations are part of the parameters of your project and can be approached creatively, rather than feeling like it's a detraction from the project. I try to keep it on that course. It's funny, because Mark had an engineer who had requested being there, as an intern type of thing. I took a break and they started editing stuff and I come back, and all of a sudden they're editing more and more. So I had to say, "Hey guys. Wait, we're not doing it this way." I'm not against editing, I just think it gets carried too far... you've got to use it cautiously.
Are there any other projects you're working on now or coming up that you're excited about?
A couple of festivals with Bill Laswell in the summer and the upcoming mix of Rupa & the April Fishes. I'm currently working with Johnny Boyd, who had a band called Indigo Swing, on his solo project.
You mentioned that about 75% of your work these days is at Prairie Sun [in Sonoma County, CA]. Do you think being away from a city can help in the process of making a record?
I've found it helps, because it takes away some of the distractions that you get in the city. It tends to make people more focused and concentrated on what they're doing. It's my personal preference, but it's not something I set out to do. I got turned on to Prairie Sun by Tom Waits — he wanted to work there so we worked there. I don't look for clients at all and I don't have a manager — I have a lot of other stuff I do when I'm at home [in Grass Valley, CA]. It just happened that I developed a relationship with the owner of Prairie Sun [Mark "Mooka" Rennick]. We have a mutual relationship in that he'll recommend me to clients and he uses me as a marketing device. Conversely I'll bring my clients to Prairie Sun. I also do believe in the sound of Prairie Sun. It's quality stuff — not by default.
In this climate the relationship between the studio owner and freelance engineer is important and has to be mutually beneficial.
But you're both interested in the same goal, which is making great music. In the old days studio owners were often disconnected from the process of recording, believe it or not. To them it was another business, but instead of selling shoes they were selling music production. Mooka is himself, like you are, a producer, engineer and musician. He knows gear, he can relate to my needs and so he talks to me about what gear he would like to get. The relationship extends beyond us just getting clients — we talk about how we'd like to improve Prairie Sun.
Maybe because being a studio owner isn't as lucrative as it used to be it's going to weed out people who aren't doing it for the love of music.
I don't know that it was ever a lucrative market. One of the interesting classes I took at the Institute of Audio Research was supposed to be a maintenance tech class, and it was given by a working, in-demand New York maintenance tech — very street. His whole thing was, "I'm gonna tell you like it is." He did a lecture (and this is in 1983) on how all studio owners are crazy because they're never going to get caught up on their overhead, because they're constantly having to update their gear.
Even on a smaller scale we're always playing catch-up.
But I don't think you can generalize about the whole industry. There are studio owners who have a great deal of integrity and I've been meeting them more and more.
Are there any benefits of working in smaller studios?
Every performance is affected by the environment it's in. Smaller places can be more intimate and bring about a different, perhaps closer, chemistry amongst the musicians. Obviously there's a lot more to it than size. Smaller places have to take care that the spaces stay clean and don't get cluttered with non-essentials.
You've done a huge amount of live sound. I've always tried to keep in mind that doing live sound is about facilitating an experience that all of these people are sharing together, and that's the payoff. There doesn't have to be a plastic disc at the end for it to be valid.
The payoff is in the moment, however that moment can be recorded. I try to record all of my shows. I've got a pretty good collection of interesting bootlegs of Bill Laswell's bands: Praxis, Massacre, Tabla Beat Science, Material, etc.
What is the difference in the satisfaction you get out of doing live sound versus recording in a studio?
To me, there's less of a difference. Live you have less control. In the studio, to me, that's also live music, because I'm there hearing it. One of the first records I did as an assistant was a Meat Loaf live record [Live at Wembley], and maybe I'll get in trouble for saying this, but who cares? They recorded it live at Wembley [Arena], but they came into Platinum Island and basically overdubbed all the vocals... so is it a live album? Well, it was live for me. I was there! I saw them play, you know? [laughs] To me, that's not taking away from it being a live album, it's just playing with time. It's different periods of time being pieced together. I think there are a lot of things you can bring into recording that are not directly related to music. If you read some of the theories of quantum physics, it can relate to the idea of creating performances by piecing together different stretches of time by cutting it up. If you take the example of recording a vocal — you record five takes of singing and then you make a comp — what you're doing is taking different segments of time and putting them together. Also, if you think about when you're turning the pot on a board, you're manipulating electrons. You're directly influencing the subatomic world. I think it helps to have some knowledge of what may or may not be going on while you're doing that. Another thing I recommend that has nothing to do with music is to watch Marx Brothers movies because they really get you thinking outside of the box. But you asked about live versus the studio... I find they complement each other a lot. Live sound gave me a lot of great ear training — trying to make bands sound good in horrible bars. You just learn a lot from doing it, like how to EQ. You know, my internship in New York at that time... if you got on with a big studio you could spend six months — and some people spent eighteen months — as an intern. It was just ridiculous! I had an interview at The Hit Factory and they had me waiting in the lobby for three hours to tell me, "Thanks. Don't call us — we'll call you." When I got on at Platinum Island I was very fortunate — they were up-and-coming and I only spent three months as an intern before I got thrown in as an assistant engineer. I was able to progress from there.
People who are well established in their field often talk about that moment where the perfect opportunity arose, and they had the wherewithal to take advantage of it.
There's a lot of mystery to it. When you say "opportunity" you're absolutely right — these opportunities happen. When I was doing live sound I was with the top band in the area, and they saved up their money — $15,000 — which was a lot of money back in the early '80s, and went in to make their demo recording that was going to get them their deal — original songs — just a basic rock and roll band. They hired the top producer/engineer in Alberta, [Canada]. I'm not going to say his name, but he had been down to L.A. and worked with The Eagles, and he was the guy up there. I hung out with them in the studio and it was such a tedious, boring thing that I swore I would never, ever become a studio engineer. [laughs] They would spend thirteen hours trying to get the basic tracks for one song. They would play it, and it would sound great to me, and this guy would go, "Well, it sounds really good, but in measure sixty- three, on beat three, the hi-hat dipped a little bit in energy" — stuff like that. It turned out that they weren't happy with it — it didn't sound like the band. The next time when they recorded they had me do it on a 2-track in a bar. I'd never recorded before and I got a better sound.
I swore I would never do it. Then a year or so after that I put on this new record I had, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne, and it just totally transformed me. It was as strong an experience as hearing "Revolution 9" backwards all those years ago. I realized there were things you could do in a studio that you could not do live, and it totally changed my perspective. Years later I ended up meeting Bill Laswell, and it turned out that Bill was the co-writer and played [bass] on the first track of that album.
There's synchronicity and opportunity for you.
Here's another one — I was twelve, and there was a guy who was turning me on to music, because he had older hippie brothers and I didn't. He told me about these magical musicians, the Master Musicians of Jajouka — their music was so strong it could not be recorded. [The Rolling Stones'] Brian Jones had gone there and had made a recording. The recording was okay, but when he had gone to mix it he was trying to recreate the experience he heard in his head, not document their sound. It was very phased and flanged — it wasn't an authentic document of their sound. Ornette Coleman was very influenced by their music — he took a recording crew four or five years after that, in the early '70s, to their village in Jajouka, and he made a recording. For some reason, it didn't turn out, I don't know why — there is a lot of really strong hash in that area, so who knows? I heard this story when I was a kid. Flash-forward years later, I've just flown to Japan with Bill Laswell — it's my first time in Japan. I know he had been approached by the Master Musicians of Jajouka to record them and the engineer, Billy Yodelman, bowed out and all of a sudden I was the engineer. Here's this thing I'm hearing about at twelve years old, that it can't be done, and there I am doing it. [laughs]
Well, can it be done?
Yeah, we did it! We did a record.
Do you want to talk more about recording "World Music"? I always feel like that has to be in quotes.
It's a European/American-centric view. I've had a gig for the last three or four years field recording music in the West African country of Mali. It's so refreshing to get out of the model of music as something that has to be a business — [something] you do because you're trying to become famous or rich. Over there the people are very, very poor. Mali is one of the three poorest countries in the world, but the people over there seem to be, generally speaking, happier than the people here. Mali is one of those areas that's just so rich in music, which is why my friend Aja Salvatore started this label, Kanaga System Krush. He doesn't have a lot of money — he was a musician himself who had gone over there to study African music — but he just realized that there's so much music there that can be recorded fairly cheaply if you have Pro Tools and some mics. They call themselves a Fair Trade label, which means they're trying to give back to the musicians as much as they give. But the musicians over there, there's no hope of them becoming famous — they just do it for different reasons. We were outside of their main city in what used to be the capital of a huge empire four or five hundred years ago. This is where a lot of the old-style drumming originated. These old-school guys were playing, and I was recording it, and you go into a trance — it's like that thing where you're outside of your identity of who you are and your problems and all that, and you're just connecting to something on a deep level. So, after we did this, and everyone had this experience, this one drummer was running around saying this phrase in Bamana, their native language, and they told me he was saying, "music is medicine, music is medicine." It's medicine of the spirit over there in Mali — that's sort of how they get by.
When you're on location in another country, do you record them in the spaces they usually play in or do you create an environment that's more controlled?
We've tried working in a studio, and there is a studio in Mali that's not too bad, for Africa. But we generally look for a suitable location. It's very low budget, so [Aja]'s not renting spaces. A lot of it is outdoors. One of his friends has a farm outside of the city so we'll go out there. We've done stuff in the city inside people's living rooms. It's wherever we can find it. We'll scout it out in advance to find out if it will work. Then we have to figure out if we have to bring a generator or if they have electricity we can use. But there are engineers over there and there are studios. It's hard to communicate how it is over there, but for them, magic — phenomena that exist outside of what we consider rational experience — for them it exists over there. One of the people we were recording, he's called a donso, and they use music to change things — to create rain, or to create a more fortunate hunt. There are specific songs that are for the hunt, or to drive evil spirits out of someone who's psychotic. This one — he's a master. We went over to his place, which was an honor. It was an unexpected and rare thing to be invited to his home, but it wasn't a house like we think of it. In one of his areas he's got a live crocodile, and he says that's his power. And this guy's an incredible musician — he's the guy we're recording! He had an apprentice who's an incredible musician, a good kora player and singer. These two were having difficulties with each other — the teacher felt that the student was using his talent for personal gain too much. That he was using it to pick up women, and stuff like that — which he was. They had this disagreement, and they were having what I was told was a magical battle with each other.
We're in the studio and they had decided to try some lighting system to help with the videotaping, an electrician had to come, etc. We were recording the teacher, and the student showed up for no clear reason — he had no business being there. The electricity in the studio, not long after, freaked out in a way I had never seen before. Forty-eight volts was going across everything. All this electricity had fried out our Pro Tools, and it totally destroyed two [AKG] 414s and a [Neumann] KM84. We were still able to record, but it totally shut down the electricity there. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I said, "From now on, if people are having magical battles let's make sure they don't show up."
Speaking of magical battles, what can you tell me about working with Tom Waits?
Well, I need to respect his privacy because he doesn't like people talking about his recording style. But I have learned a lot from him, and there are some general things I can say. There are three producers and musicians that I have worked with that have influenced me more than others: Bill Laswell, Tom Waits and someone named E.J. Gold, who's not really in the music industry. He's a visual artist but he has a recording studio in Grass Valley, so I work with him when I'm at home. All three of those I consider masters — a cut above ordinary people in their abilities. Tom Waits is like a Zen master. You really have to pay attention to what he's doing and really be on your toes — be prepared to record at any time. Working with Tom completely got me outside of my box, if "the box" is what you call your beliefs about how to do things. Jason Corsaro was completely outside of the box of how you're supposed to do stuff. Then Tom Waits... I had a bigger box, but I broke outside of that working with him. I had this notion that you learn in New York — that you always make the sound as nice, as beautiful and as big as possible. I hadn't been turned on to the potential musicality of lo-fi sound, and that was a big thing that I learned from working with Tom. All three of those people that I mentioned have one thing in common, which is that they really like to record almost before you're prepared. "Do it before you start thinking about it." That gets back to what I told you about the head, the heart and the hands. The head wants to think and figure things out, especially for a person that's intellectually inclined. And so if you do it so fast, before you're ready, you've just got to do it. It's like doing live sound in a way.
It's like the limitation thing you were talking about earlier.
I got asked to do a record Tom Waits was producing with John Hammond, Jr., the blues singer, and they ended up deciding that he was going to do all Tom Waits' songs. The album was called Wicked Grin. We were working at a studio called Alpha & Omega. I don't know if it still exists — it was owned by Sandy Pearlman, who produced Blue Öyster Cult. It was in San Rafael and the studio had great vintage gear and a nice-sounding room, but it was incredibly poorly maintained. I got there at eleven for a session that was supposed to start at one. Because of all the problems we encountered I wasn't ready on time. Fortunately for me Tom had gone away with his family and had gotten snowed in on the way back, so he was running really late too. The whole band was there — setting up and ready to go. By five or six I still wasn't ready, the band was itching to go and Tom had shown up, and they're playing and Tom says, "Just start recording. Wherever you're at, just start recording." I started recording. Larry Taylor was on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums — two guys that often play with Tom. Tom had brought an incredible keyboard player named Augie Meyers, who had played with Bob Dylan and had been in the Sir Douglas Quintet. These guys just had an instant, immediate chemistry. I hit record and they were playing, and the first thing that they did ended up being the first song on the record.