You have a reputation for only working with artists that you admire and are known to join the crowd at a live show before doing so. Do you still recall your visceral reaction the first time you saw Biffy live?
“I never saw them live (Laugh). Actually Simon and his A&R guy showed up to my Farm in Gibsons and we sat and talked for the whole day and I asked them exactly what they wanted to do and I got the demos and then we did the record and then I saw them after the record and I was completely floored by the show.”
Apparently, this was also the first double record you’ve produced. Now that you’ve been through the experience, would you willingly get involved with another?
“That’s a good one, we did a double record in under 5 months. We basically recorded 23 songs and reliving Groundhog Day waking up everyday and coming into the studio for 5 months was a little daunting. We did take a 2 week break so that Ben Kaplan could go get married but you know it was a lot of work with not a lot of time. I think we really should have had 6 months on that record because I felt that the last part of it was rushed.
Would I do it again? Yeah. Hell Yeah. We were really able to take every song and make it its own and try and make each one an individual story and not have the same crushed velvet Elvis Presley painting in every room. We shaped every song and tried to make sound different. Accomplishing this was the biggest challenge but also the most fun. We had a complete open canvas and Simon wrote 50 songs for this double record that we eventually cut down to 20.”
Do you have any insights behind the decision to release the 14 song version? The documentary that came with the special edition repeatedly stresses that a 20 song double album was envisioned from the beginning. Necessary compromise?
“Actually what’s happened was in typical record label fashion was they don’t really have any balls. Alex Gilbert the A&R guy came up to the band on the first day of mixing and told them that they can’t do the double record and the band -which I am completely on their side with – were extremely upset about the fact that the record label had no balls. It was a risk with the band doing a double record with this new music era and in the current music business. You know what? This whole record was geared towards a double record, they had the sides for each part of the record already picked out and named.
I understand why the record label did not want to put it out but I think they should have known this as apposed to leading on the band. I thought it was a great double record. I still think it’s a double record, but I understand the politics of dancing. As sad as it may be, the record label paid for it so they have the final say and in reality the band loses any kind of artistic control in that respect.”
The trilogy of the last three Biffy Clyro records, which you produced, went to #2 then #3 and finally to #1 on the UK album charts. Looking at your production credits, they seem to be the only band you have worked with three times. Clearly something is working in the relationship. What has made it work so well?
“I did do two Melvins records, two Autumn to Ashes record and two Spineshank records but this really was my first three-peat. Knowing that the band does things in threes, I think this may be my last record with them. It’ll be sad if that’s the case. If I could do a fourth I’d be honoured and thrilled. In that three record span I was able to see the band go from boys to men. Simon has become a right a wonderful visionary, in his own right, and he knows exactly what he wants. I found that with this record he was more involved coming in because he knew exactly what he wanted it to be. When you tend to work with a band frequently you start to take a little bit more of a back seat role guiding the ship or the bus in a little bit of a less hands on way, simply nudging it to the left or to the right a little.
The thing that worked so well with Biffy was that the band knew that I had their back . I got into a lot of fights with the label because they wanted it a certain way and I would always tell them “This will be happening shortly”. Not believing me they would respond ”Yeah right, right , sure.” When I told them what would happen actually happened they’d look at me saying “How the fuck do you know these things?” I have been around the business for 40 years and I have literally seen it all. I really think the biggest thing is trust and the fact that I had their back.”
If you ‘had’ to pick one song from each of the past 3 albums that you are most pleased with, in terms of how they ultimately turned out, which ones would they be?
“Oh dear dear dear, well I’d have to say from Only Revolutions would have to be Many of Horror; I think that was just a beautiful song. I would have to say the one that brings a tear to my eye every time is ‘Folding Stars’. That song is about Simon’s mother going to heaven. It was a hard record for Simon to make because that was right after his mother had passed and that song really hit a nerve with me. Choosing one from the new record ‘Opposites’ is a really tough one because there are so many amazing tracks, but I would say for sheer power it would have to be the Thaw; but then again I love Opposites and Stinging Belle. I’m gonna go out on a limb and actually say The Thaw because of how it builds from nothing and it ends in this gigantic amazing sound.”
The band’s satisfaction in recording a record and the fan’s excitement in finally being able to bring it home is, to a certain degree, self-explanatory. As a producer where do you derive the most satisfaction?
“I would say that it happens on the day after I actually wake up and I don’t have to go into the studio.(Laughs) What you guys have to realize is that we did 23 songs in 5 months and we did 7 days of Pre-pro for 23 songs which was Incredibly fast. The fact that the record finally went to number 1 was one of the most satisfying things because whenever you make someone’s record you always always hope that the fans like it and that they take it into their hearts. I think that with this one, we finally got it right. Not that their first two records were wrong in any way, its just that the band is just gonna get better because they are like a great bottle of wine.”
Do you ever pull one of the albums that you’ve worked on from the shelf and just listen to it? Are you able to lose yourself in it or does it put you right back in the studio?
“Ha, You mean that nervous twitch that I get every time I play my records. Haha. But no, It took me a few weeks before I could listen to it because we were working on it for 5 months straight, the fact is that when you make a record you usually don’t know what it is. You know every single note, every single beat, every single sound and every single nuance; So its harder to appreciate it as a whole. When I went back and listened to Puzzle and Only Revolutions for the first time in a long time, it actually put a smile on my face. The fact that Biffy is so different and unique and unlike any other band on this fucking planet makes me feel proud and lucky to have been a part of this. I think it has been just phenomenal.”
Do you have an anecdote from the Opposites recording session ?
“We kind of have a code of what happens in the studio stays in the studio. I think if you watch the making of DVD you could see some because we had cameras on us at all times. Everything you saw was what we did. There aren’t really any other anecdotes I can think of because everything was video taped so fans should check the DVD as there were some funny moments on there.
Although having said that, every time the band would do their parts they would take off their shirts. So Ben Kaplan, Ryan Williams – The two engineers who did excellent work on this record- and I. We almost began taking off our shirts in solidarity but we decided we may actually scare the fans.”
Has the time you’ve spent with Biffy over the years led to your discovery of any other Scottish music?
“The thing I do have to say about Scottish music is that it is real and they always go outside of the curve. There is also just a lot of passion coming out of that country all the time. Probably because it is so cold and rainy. (Laughs)”
The band has indicated the next step may require a thorough reassessment of their songwriting approach and that someone else at the helm may very well be what is needed to help facilitate a creative push in a new direction. From your own perspective as a producer, is three times a charm? If they did ask again, would you do it?
“(See 4) I think they need someone to come in with a completely different direction. I think the problem will be that whoever does take over the helm will have a difficult time because Simon knows exactly what he wants to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if Simon ended up being the producer himself and ended up hiring a different engineer to help him capture what he’s doing. I think they are ready like with Muse who produced their own last record. I think Simon is ready.”
I’m from London Ontario myself. Had I known how innovative the Fanshawe music industry arts program was I might just have reconsidered my academic pursuits at Western in 1983. Until recently, even though I had the debut Kim Mitchell record, I had not heard of your father, his achievements or of his recent passing. I came across this interview which struck me as a fascinating insight into the kind of producer he had been and what a beloved educator he must have become. I was at the local record shop and I had an original copy of Bob Seger’s Night Moves in my hand while I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to ‘grow up’ in the studio. Do you still remember some of the early lessons you were taught?
“Yes. I was always taught to show up on time and that I actually have three ears. I have two on the sides of my head and I my eyes act as the third. I was also taught dedication to excellence. Everything we did had to be done at our best. The fact that my dad touched so many peoples hearts and souls I would say was because he was a true teacher. A few of his students were Shelly Yakus and Jimmy Iovine. My father also trained Jack Douglas, Bob Ezrin, Me, Micheal McCarty(President of EMI publishing Canada), Gary Furniss (President of Sony publishing Canada).
One key thing he taught me and I’m sure people are getting sick and tired of hearing me say this one phrase - The way to make it in the music business is, good songs sell, bad songs don’t. If you don’t have a good song you’re wasting your time.”
Pedro had a chance to visit Vancouver, your new home base, last December. It was his new daughter’s first plane ride and visit to Canada. It is also the home of the Nimbus School of Recording Arts, which you co-founded. What would you say is its guiding principle and mission?
“The reason we opened up Nimbus was because of a conversation Bob Ezrin and I had about 8 years ago. We agreed that there’s all these people being trained, but not the way that we were trained. We were trained that if you couldn’t deliver a sandwich into the session properly they were not going to let you into the room to make a patch or to set up a microphone. Everything to do with Nimbus is about being excellent and being accountable. We teach you the reality of music production. I find that the other schools don’t have people that have the same experience and as I have always had a saying that If I was actually to go into battle I would shoot my teacher first because they have never really worked and done the job. The main thing about Nimbus is that you have to have made records and you have to still be making records if you want to teach there and if you’re not then we will find someone who does. It’s the same way my father taught me, Shelly Yakus and Bob.”
I noticed on twitter that you’ve almost finished installing a SSL 4072 G console. What did it replace? Where did it come from?
“The SSL came from Danny Elfman in California. It just had so many amazing things being played through it. I still believe that analogue is the way to go. Maybe it is because I am old – even though today everyone is listening to everything through a shitty MP3 player coming through a 5 cent chip, I still believe that moving air through gear like an old SSL or an old NEVE or an old API console still sounds better than everything that is mixed in the box. I just felt that in order for me to continue to make records I still need to have the proper tools.”
Pedro also saw ‘Sound City’ and realized you worked on the legendary Neve console. Will recording to tape eventually win over the casual music listener’s ears in the long run? What kind of console did you cut your teeth on?
“I cut my teeth on an Auditronix, It was a console that my father had at his studio Nimbus 9 Productions in Toronto at Sound Stage. Now the fact is that his techs were completely insane and they completely rebuilt the console. That’s what the first Peter Gabriel was made on, Bob Seger Night Moves, Alice Cooper, The Guess Who, Mark Foreigner, and Tim Curry. Part of The Wall was made on it as well. It was a pretty amazing and special console.
I still go to tape because it sounds better. It’s the best sounding compressor that was ever made. It gives you depth, it gives you height and it gives you width. The problem is that nobody knows what music sounds like any more and it sounds like shit now. The MP3 has destroyed the sonics of what we do. Mastering has destroyed the sonics of what we do. Everything has to be the loudest. I think, as they keep telling me, the genie is out of the bottle. There are still purists that feel that an analog console sounds better and it makes it rich and it makes it thick and it makes it powerful. The problem is today that Youtube is the new music business and its more visual than it is audible So I would just say that analogue will be around for a long time but no one will be able to tell the difference. The fact that vinyl is now coming back but still digitally cut means older analogue vinyl sounds better.”
Pedro also wanted me to ask about Garnet amplifiers and I noticed a recent twitter pic of James with a Garnet head. It is a fascinating story. Sonically, what are the advantages of this vintage Canadian gear?
“Well, they are just a great sounding head. if you listen to American Woman that whole guitar sound is garnet heads. We just happened to find them, nobody knew what they were and my father said, your going to buy those. We were buying them for $300 bucks. To be able to buy a tube guitar head for $300 is a steal. The other head that James used was a Traynor bassman head, and it’s a complete replica of an early 60 Fender Bassman. Traynor went down in the 60’s and bought a fender bassman head and copied them exactly. The guy who builds the Garnet heads is based out of Winnepeg and was a complete nut but these heads can explode, drive, be punchy, be powerful. They are just a versitile head. James has kept the Commonwealth together with the vibe of Scotland and Canada. Scotland compared to Britain is like Canada compared to the States; we are actually better!”
Who are you working with now?
“I just finished a record with a band out of Dublin called The Minutes. Amazing band, you guys have to check them out. Another band I am working with from Austin Texas are called Not in The Face. Then there’s a band up here in Canada called Head of The Heard. We have a Number 4 single in the rock charts right now and they don’t have a record deal yet. It just shows the changing of the guard. Record labels are actually no longer explicitly needed.”
You’ve recently come back from Canadian Music Week in Toronto. Did you have the opportunity to see any shows? Has it become as commercial as SXSW appears to have?
“The problem with all of these music conferences is that it’s so hard to see all the bands because it is all spaced out. So many bands in so many clubs that it’s difficult to see them all. Was there anything that blew my mind? There was a band that I met that are from Nova Scotia called Glory Hound, they were the ones that were really cool and they were true rock and roll. There was also another band from England who were singed to Redbull Records and they were like a Guns’N’ Roses type band. But it’s hard to actually see the artists because there are just too many bands in too many clubs spread over to few nights.”
We were lucky enough to catch Biffy 3 times during the touring for Only Revolutions, but 2 of those shows were in a tiny venue that didn’t sell out. Their talent and hard work is not in question. Do you think the momentum gained from the recent Muse support slot might finally be enough to ‘crack’ the North American market?
“We can only hope. Its kinda like, Warner is going to be pushing everything they can into it to make it break over in NA, the problem is it is up to the fans, If they like it and they buy it then they can make it. It is a little bit sad that they can sell out the O2 in London and then play to 500 people here because they are actually the best live band. I would put them up there with Rage Against The Machine when it comes to putting on a live show. They are that powerful.”
Finally a hockey question – Is there still hope for any Canadian team for that matter?
“I think having hockey in the south is a Garry Betman Joke. He thinks people in the south want to watch hockey. He’s a fool. He is probably the worst Commissioner in all of sport and will go down as the most hated commissioner ever. I think hockey needs to be in the areas where there is winter. I was happy to see the Kings win the Cup because I lived in LA for many years and used to go to games. Hockey should belongs where it is cold; if the kids can’t play it outside they shouldn’t bother.”
Pedro and Thor