Jeff Lynne might be best known as the songwriter and singer behind the incredibly successful Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), or maybe as a member of the fun supergroup Traveling Wilburys. But the other side of his story is that Jeff is a successful record producer, with credits ranging from his aforementioned groups to sessions with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Roy Orbison, Paul McCartney, Dave Edmunds, Del Shannon and Joe Walsh. He even worked on The Beatles' "new" tracks for the Anthology series. For a man that who comes off so matter-of-fact and unassuming, that's a career to be reckoned with. Jeff recently re-recorded ELO's hits as Mr. Blue Sky — The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, and has a beautiful album of covers out called Long Wave (see our sidebar review of both).
What kind of path did you take on revisiting the old ELO tracks? Did you pull up old multitracks and re-work them in the digital realm?
These are brand new recordings, from scratch. All I got from them was a click, and then I started from that. The reason I did it anyway was because I listened to the songs, and there was something I didn't quite get right about the sound of them in those days. I think it was probably down to lack of experience. I've obviously had 30 years more experience now than I'd had then. The improvements in technology have made a big difference too. I just wanted to get them cleaner, clearer, more punchy, and tidier, basically.
I hear a difference, like the guitars on "Do Ya" or the snare drum on "Don't Bring Me Down" — it's a similar intent, but a different sound.
Slightly different;, but just more punch to them, I believe.
Was it a bit of work? It seems like you'd have to go back, and listen and think about how the parts were done.
No, it was easy, because I remember. I produced it all in the first place., I wrote it, and so I knew everything there was to know about it. There wasn't anything that I didn't know about. I already had the road map and I'd played them on stage hundreds of times. I just wanted to have another go at them, just to see if I could get them as I hear them now. They sound great to me.
How long did that take?
Between that and Long Wave, it took the last three years;, and that was probably six days a week.
Long Wave is beautiful.
It definitely still sounds like you, but it's great hearing your take on these songs.
Yeah, that it was so much fun to listen to those beautiful old songs and actually learn them! I've always known them, of course, but to learn them is a different matter again. You've got to really tune in deep to get just the guitar part. Since the arrangements are so grand and fancy on some of those old recordings, it was difficult to find the chords in there — the arrangements were overpowering them.
I'd get tuned deeply into the track, where you can really tunnel in and just listen to one instrument. I'd just get really sucked in and really listen to the guitar part. I'd start with that on all of them.
Did you look at sheet music or anything on any of those songs?
No. I don't read music, anyway, so that wouldn't have helped.
Same here! You have a home studio.
Yeah, I do. I work in Pro Tools, but I work on an analog desk, so it is always being monitored through it. It's always got that nice, warm, smooth bottom-end on it; not the sort of empty sound you sometimes hear in digital. I think it's nice to have all the good old guts of an analog desk for Pro Tools to go through.
I agree with you on that. Do you have a substantial collection of outboard equipment?
I have nice outboard gear. I've got about ten UREI compressors. Those are my favorite. Of course the AMS DMX reverb is a digital machine, but you'd think it was analog. It's been around so long. It's still the best one! It's so easy to use. It's just a wonderful machine. I still love it.
For digital reverberation?
Well, not the reverb particularly, but more the slap and the harmonizing.
I recorded a cover version of "Strange Magic" for a band [The Minders] a couple of years back...
Well, we tried! You know on the chorus where it's got an acoustic guitar with a flanger that plays in time and sweeps with the music?
Yeah, that's an MXR. I've still got the pedal — it's sitting right under my desk! I've had that pedal all these years. That's what I used on it recently. As you turn up the resonance, it starts to whistle a little bit. Mine is really whack and very high-pitched. That's what the shimmery thing is on top of the acoustic guitar.
How is it so synced up? It feels like it follows the tempo of the music.
You can just turn up the speed. It's all manual. You select it until it sounds pretty good. It doesn't go all the way through the song, so you can stop and get the sweep back in time.
Well, now I know. That was driving us crazy. I assume you work with an engineer?
Yes, I have a terrific engineer named Steven Jay. Also, at the start of the project, I was using two different engineers — Ryan Ulyate and Marc Mann, who also did the string playing. Then Steven took over; he's done everything for the last three years. He's a really good engineer, terrific.
You mixed at home, on your console?
Yeah, all mixed at home. It never left the joint until it went to Howie Weinberg for mastering.
I know some of your previous solo and ELO records are going to be coming out with re-masters and bonus tracks. How do you go through the process of sorting out, as well as adding to, the releases?
Well, it was quite simple. I was looking to have a couple spare songs I'd never finished that I'd done at the time of each album. I decided I would finish them and put them in as bonus tracks because they were from the same kind of mindset.
Even more work to do.
Yeah. I've also been working on a new album of original songs. I've got about eight of those, and the new album is supposed to come out next year. So I haven't been lying around doing nothing!
I know you've said before that you really like making records, more than performing or other aspects of the music biz.
Yeah. I think I'm very lucky that I've been able to do so, because I got sort of fed up with touring pretty early on. Not so much fed up, but that, "Hmm, I wish I didn't have to do this every night — I want to be in a studio" kind of feeling. I don't mean to sound ungrateful when I say that either, because obviously it was a fantastic thing to have 20,000 people a night coming to see you play — it's wonderful! But the actual novelty soon wore off, and the studio always beckoned to me. I just couldn't wait to get in there again. I used to not get much time in there. I'd write an album in about six weeks or so. Then I'd go in the studio and record it all in probably about six weeks as well. Then I'd be back out on tour a couple of weeks after that, promoting the thing. I didn't have a lot of time for second-guessing or listening to mixes over and over and over.
Sometimes that's a good thing, I suppose. But in this instance, like for Long Wave, I really wanted to give these songs their due respect, because they're so beautiful. It's so rare to get a load of songs where the words are as good as the tune; and the chords are just superb. Everything about them — I'm just thrilled to play. So, learning all the bits to those was like going to university or something.
Were there some really specific "Ah- ha!" moments with arrangement and whatnot?
Yeah, there were times when I realized that I had actually used, without knowing it (like 35 years ago), some of the same chord changes that Richard Rodgers used. I never realized it until I started to learn "If I Loved You," from Carousel, the musical. So when I learned the chords to some of the greats, I realized I was actually using chords a bit like that. The naughty chords, as George [Harrison] used to call it — the diminished and the augmented. They're great chords, and people don't seem to use them very much nowadays. They used to use them all the time. Richard Rodgers probably uses them ten times in a song! I happen to love the old-fashioned chord sequences.
The origin of Electric Light Orchestra was similar; drawing from other genres.
Well, yeah. It's like Paul [McCartney] says in my documentary that I just finished [Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO], "Oh, we were all borrowing off each other, once upon a time." I believe it's always been like that — from the classical guys down to the rock 'n' roll guys — everybody has always borrowed and learned little bits, as well as added little bits here and there.
After I interviewed Reinhold [Mack, Tape Op #81], I was really curious what drew you and [Bev] Bevan to go to Munich to record ELO at Musicland Studios.
I think the first time was while we were on tour with Deep Purple; they were going there to record. They had already done some recording there, and they loved it. One thing about Musicland was the fact that it was built in a very strange place, in a basement underneath a great big hotel. It was a very odd place, with all-concrete corridors to get down to it. It wasn't the most inspiring of settings, but it certainly did the trick. And there was not much else to do, unless you wanted to go all the way into town — which we did sometimes — or to the beer garden down the road. That was the main hangout, and of course it had the best beer. So it suited me fine.
You ended up doing quite a number of records there.
I did, yeah. I got used to it. I liked the size of the room a lot, and I enjoyed the ambience of it.
Where do you see Reinhold's role?
Well, he was the engineer!
Did you find you had similar studio aesthetics?
Kind of. I enjoyed working with him. We made some pretty good runs together. It's a long time ago now. Obviously I enjoyed it or I wouldn't have been there.
You became the producer of ELO, of course, and then evolved into a producer for other artists. Was that a conscious move?
Well, what happened was that I took a year off, just to play in my studio at home in England. I had never really gotten the technical aspects of engineering down, so I taught myself engineering at home. I had gotten to be pretty quick and sharp with the desk and everything. George [Harrison] got in touch with me and asked if I'd like to work on his new album with him (what became Cloud Nine). I said, "Yeah, of course!" I worked with George. Then Tom Petty heard George's album. He saw me on the street and said, "Hey, do you want to do some songs together? I just heard George's album and I loved it." We ended up doing Full Moon Fever. It just sort of snowballed. Then Roy Orbison, George and myself invented the [Traveling] Wilburys in George's studio while we were making Cloud Nine. Then we asked everybody if they'd be in it. They all said yes, so that's how it came about.
I like the DVD that comes with the re-issued Wilburys set.
Yeah, it's fun.
Obviously the link with George led to doing the two Beatles songs for the Anthology series.
Yeah. I didn't know Paul [McCartney] all that well, but we got to be good pals. That's how I ended up doing a lot of tracks on his album, Flaming Pie, at his studio. That was a lot of fun. What can I say? It was the best fun you could have working with great people.
Why would you want to be doing this if you're not working with someone who's inspiring, interesting, or fun?
Exactly. All these guys were all of that and more — as you know. Just totally outrageous. I can't say that I did it as a conscious effort. It's just what happened when I worked with George. Everybody was suddenly interested in me producing them. That's how it worked, really.
The best calling card you can get.
Yeah, it is!
You recently worked on Joe Walsh's new record [Analog Man] too.
That was fun. Joe's a good pal.
Did you work on that at your studio?
Yes. I think I did about four tracks. He produced four tracks, and there were a couple of other ones as well. Joe is a fantastic guitar player. He did this solo on "Analog Man" that still makes my knees turn to jelly. It's just like somebody on a high-wire who's wobbling in the wind or something! It's like, "Is he going to fall, or what?" He fits these notes in perfectly. It's just amazing.
Being able to capture that in the studio, as well as feeling free enough to do it, is a good thing.
Oh, totally. He's a very professional, well-learned guy. He's terrific.
No touring plans?
"Never say never," they say. But not at the moment. There're no real touring plans. I'm trying to invent a way of touring without actually going out anywhere, without a great big band — just trying to get it smaller. Maybe just me and Richard Tandy [ELO's long-time keyboardist]. We'd probably just sing and play. We did this live concert in my studio and filmed it, just Richard and myself. He played a grand piano. I'm playing an acoustic guitar and singing. We did about eight ELO numbers. It turned out great. You could hear all the little nuances that you never could hear when there are hundreds of people playing on it. When that racket's going on, what's going on in the middle of it? It looks and sounds really good. That's coming out. They're playing it on the BBC first, and it's going to be out on DVD as well.
Are you going to continue producing and writing?
I'm hoping I will finish this album of new songs and have it out next year. That's my plan. I hope it that will come true.