Kevin Shirley: Distortion To Death Threats - Life In A Producer's Chair
Mega-Producer/Mixer/Engineer Kevin Shirley talks direct from THE CAVE about working with some of rock's biggest legends and with acts famous for infighting.
Great to talk to you Kevin. What are you sitting there working on right now?
Right now I'm doing a song with Joe Bonamassa with Vince Gill on guitar, and John Hyatt on vocals as well.
That's an interesting combo.
Yeah - Nashville boys. I'll be doing a new album with him in, I think….coming up soon.
Fantastic. So, you're sitting in the cave in Malibu?
I'm sitting in the cave in Malibu as we speak.
It's a good place to be.
Yeah, yeah. How much time have you put into building that studio now over the years?
Um…not that much time. I just did it. I mean, I just built it and then I just update it from time to time. But it's like phenomenal; it's basically a mixing studio but I do vocals and some guitars and things here. But it's basically just a big ole mixing studio.
Ok and of course you go on location for what needs to be done and then bring it back to the cave for mixing.
It's really good to talk to you after many years of emailing and the odd controversy here and there. (laughs)
Oh well. You get that.
(still laughing) especially with some of the guys you work with.
Well, there is controversy that comes from…it's all over the place. It's all over the forums and from the bands and…….it's a tough environment and to just kind of get away from all the bullshit.
Well, it's almost impossible these days, isn't it?
I remember, just to recall quickly, when I first started the website, in the first year I managed to get a hold of Jonathan Cain, which started off a lengthy relationship of support from my site with Journey. At the time, they were going through the motions of, signing out Steve Perry in '98…
It was before they and many others had embraced the internet - at the time it was very much a novelty and there wasn't the control-freak restraints there are today over anyone saying anything out of turn.
I called Jonathan and asked how things were traveling with Steve. He was like, 'Yeah, we signed off on that today, he's gone…' and I said, ok, can I print that? He goes, 'sure, why not?' And from that I kind of created this massive shit storm by printing it that afternoon, without any formal announcement from the band as yet.
Well, you know, it's a tough one because it's interesting, contrary to some people's opinions on all of these forums, I'd say, that all these bands I work with have pretty rabid fans…
(laughing) Yes indeed.
(laughing) Yes indeed.Journey probably being the most rabid. But Joe Bonamassa has his fanatical fans and you can't ever say anything right because it's always being looked at as some kind of insult, and Iron Maiden and, you know, Mr. Big---all these bands…. It begs the question, 'Why even bother doing interviews', because, contrary to popular belief, I a) don't enjoy them, and b), because I really don't have any reason to do them - they take up a lot of time and I'm really busy.
But, when I was a kid, I couldn't glean enough information about people that were in the business, and people I wanted to know about. If you followed an interview in Rolling Stone or New Musical Express, you would pore over and it and you would….it was like listening to the fades in songs, looking for more information about the songs than you could just glean from listening to it. So, at the risk of sounding magnanimous and arrogant, I owe it back to the kids that are interested in making a record to do the interviews. I couldn't, generally, give a flying fuck about what people think about which things should be in and what bands and whatever; that doesn't really matter.
But you are talking about a vital part of the art - I could also do all these interviews and just be matter-of-fact about stuff and edit what I wanted to say but that doesn't achieve the reason for doing the interviews for me. People want to know what's going on. The biggest problem these days is that people are making records in bedrooms and they're not interacting with people and their social skills are fucked up. The skills that make musicians work in an ensemble are huge skills to learn. You can't learn that by having an Apple Macintosh in your kitchen, making beats and then putting a vocal on top of it. It's not the same thing at all.
Well that's interesting because you…just for a little bit of background, I was going to talk about the Australian pub scene—it used to be the most brutal learning / educational platform for musicians in the world probably. But you grew up in South Africa before moving to Australia, right?
Yeah, right. I started in South Africa making records and then I moved in '86.
I thought it was the late 80s.
Just in time to start from scratch all over again. Then, I went up to Newcastle and I was working quite a bit in Newcastle and worked with all sorts of small bands at the time— Vegemite Reggae and Dv8 and all the Newcastle guys that were up there—Screaming Jets and…..
…Silver Chair, which was big. But Silverchair was still a good 8 years away at that point.
Ok. So, how did you get hooked up with Silverchair then, because that really broke you in Australia then, as far as the go to guy.
Pretty much in the world. I mean, the thing is that I had had a lot of big records before then. I had a lot of big records in South Africa and I worked on big records in the states, including like Bon Jovi and Billy Squier and, of course, the Baby Animals record.
I forgot the Baby Animals came first. That was HUGE here in Australia!
I was an engineer in all these records; I didn't make any money at all on them and, I mean, they literally paid nothing on them.
Yeah, it was kind of pitiful but it's just the way they were.
I see that you weren't cut in on the residuals, then?
Oh, not at all, no.
And I think for Baby Animals I got $5000. My wife left me during the making of Baby Animals because there wasn't enough money. She sold all of my guitars and…
… and I couldn't get them to pay me and it just went on forever. But, you know, we were just trying to make a record and trying make the career work.
Wow. And that's still one of the best sounding rock records I've ever heard.
The drum sound on that was just… I just love it.
The drum sound on that was just… I just love it.Yeah, that was Bearsville. I mean, it was just a good sounding drum room. Frank had a great sounding drumkit and we just recorded it, pretty straight up.
Yeah. How do you get to be a 'go to guy' for all, whether it be here in the states or whatever?
Well, there were a lot of factors. It may be…you know, we were talking about people skills before. I think a lot of it is how you interact with people and the way you manage to make decisions is very important in all that. When you can get projects that are finished, when you can get budgets in on time, when you have a delivery date and you deliver. A lot of people vacillate over a lot of things and very often, people want decision makers that come in and do something.
You don't just get a producer because you want to have a name on there-you are trying to get something done. A band like Journey have got guitar techs and piano techs and bass techs and everyone. We have grand pianos and we have tuners in everyday. Everyone's got a hotel room and the budgets. We have tour managers and people holding their hand and wiping their ass.
It's just like this mammoth undertaking every time they get to do anything.
So, you know you can't just go in there and fuck around for four months or six months because things are not getting done.
Believe me, with those guys, there are a lot of decisions that cannot get made.
I want to come back to that. I'd like to ask you a little bit about the dynamics of the mixing in the studio. When did you decide to move to L.A. then?
Well, I moved to L.A. in 1990, after the Baby Animals, and I had a bunch of other work to do. Then, I just gradually went broke in New York City…and then I did Rush in '92. I decided to move back to Australia and just be a medium sized fish in a small pond. The concept of world domination was obviously had nothing to do with happiness. So, I moved back to Australia – Sydney, and I was very happy there. Then, I did Silverchair and everyone called. In all that time, I had kept a place in Sydney and I still have a place in Sydney. After Silverchair, I did Journey and then I did Aerosmith and then I did the Black Crowes and then I did a host of other people….Iron Maiden. It's funny because Steve Harris says that one of the reasons that they got me to do the Iron Maiden album was because they loved the sound of the Silverchair album.
Is that right?
Yeah. So, on you go.
On you go. How did the Journey guys get a hold of you in '96? You raised a few eyebrows, probably unintentionally, with that recent Music Radar interview, saying that you'd never heard of Journey or really knew their music before you signed on.
But I wasn't going to lie!
Oh no, of course not. Journey really were nothing in Australia and American fans have a hard time understanding that.
I was brought up in South Africa and I think that I'd heard 'Wheel in the Sky' and I think that was about it.
But, you have to understand that also didn't grow up in a rock and roll household; I grew up with classical music. I grew up singing in the church choir and I grew up as a conductor of an orchestra-I played the French horn and I played classical guitar. So, rock and roll wasn't a part of my life. Some people had the Beatles and some people had the Rolling Stones. I didn't hear Led Zeppelin until The Song Remains The Same! I didn't hear all of those albums coming out there. So, it's not just Journey that I didn't hear. I didn't listen to Aerosmith before and I didn't listen to a lot of these bands that I work with. I mean, you've written pieces about them. I didn't listen to them. The bands that I did listen to were Deep Purple-I really listened to because I was a big aficionado of Deep Purple-they were the bees knees back in the day.
But I maybe listened to Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver even. I mean, as a kid, those were what I had to listen to. So, I didn't hear Journey-people can say what they want. I didn't hear Journey-I didn't know about them.
I think what you've got there is the typical American Journey fan that has no idea outside their own circle what exists.
I can relate to that….you mention Journey to somebody down here and they go, 'Huh?', But then you mention Steve Perry's 'Oh Sherry' and they go, 'Oh!! Yeah Yeah!!! I remember that!' Steve Perry had a MASSIVE hit down here but Journey never broke through to that level. But they still have a great cult following of fans here also.
So. Who got in contact with you then?
I know that the band had reformed; John Kalodner had put the band back together again…and Steve Perry was always the alpha dog in that pack. They had been to see a lot of people. You have to understand—the reason why I mention that…you know you can't go through 50,000 trains of thought when you say a sentence….but the reason why I mention that was Kalodner suggested that they had just been to see Bruce Fairbairn in Vancouver and they were not impressed with something that he had done. They had met Ritchie Zito and they were not impressed. They had met Mike Clink and they were not impressed.
They were looking for a producer. Glen Ballard had come along and they were going to work with Glen but he dropped them, apparently to go and work with Aerosmith on the album that I invariably went and took over from him so it was kind of a strange thing.
So, they were looking for a producer because they didn't have one. I went to go and see them—and the whole point of even saying that I hadn't heard of Journey was that when I went in to go and see them play, I had no idea that this was a 100 million units selling band here. They were just like these guys playing music. I didn't recognize Steve Perry; I wouldn't have known who he was; I wouldn't have what his name was. It didn't mean anything to me. I wasn't star struck. When I saw Jimmy Page, I almost fell down! You know, he was a huge idol. I saw these guys and I didn't know them from anything. I'm not arrogant about it—that's just what it is.
It's just a fact, isn't it?
Yeah. It really is a fact.
Yeah. Do you think being new to the band helped you to craft that album?
Oh absolutely! I mean, absolutely. We had done demos and we went into rehearsals and I was very big on the pre-production thing being right at that point. We spent….we went over and over….I think we might have done 6 weeks of pre-production. I think everyone was getting really upset with me.
And I would go in everyday and the band would sit on stage and I would sit down in a chair in front of them with a notebook and make notes. I had Journey play for me day in and day out. I'd say, Steve Smith needs to change that drum fill, and we are going to cut this like this, and we're going to cut this album live and they were like, 'We haven't done that before-we've done this before and we haven't done that before…' And, you know, it all paid off in the end. When we did “When you Love a Woman', that track is like one take!
Everything on that track, other than the string overdub which Jon Cain originally played it on synthesizer, is one take. Neal's solo is live, Steve's vocal is not live—we would have gone back and done a comp of that, but that track was a one take track!
The drums, the bass, the guitar solos, all the guitar—it's one track. I mean, we had rehearsed the thing so well that this was what the band sounded like.
Absolutely. You've alluded to it, and I think that everyone else has heard before that those guys are argumentative and opinionated in the studio…things get tense. Did you hit upon that during 'Trial By Fire' or did that come later?
There was a bit of it in 'Trial By Fire'. It definitely got more difficult to deal with as time went on. You know, personalities changed as personnel changed and people took over. Like I said, Steve Perry was the alpha dog in the band. He was the lynch pin of the whole thing. So everyone cow towed to the Steve Perry train of thought, pretty much.
But after he left, there's been a rumble about who takes over what place and, um, it's working itself out.
I think it seems obvious that in today's Journey it is Jon Cain and Neal Schon holding equal billing on the ladder and everybody else does what they are told?
Sort of. You know. I don't really want to discuss Journey.
No worries. So, do you don't want to talk about the new album then?
Uh, no. I don't want to talk about the new album.
But how did the sessions go for that – generally?
Uh…..they went. They went.
Challenging. Very challenging sessions. Um…..(Long pause) Very challenging sessions.
Do you think that as a band of guys that they got what they wanted? It's finished, isn't it?
It's busy being mixed at the moment.
You're mixing it…
No, I'm not mixing it.
You're not? Really? Who's mixing it?
A guy called David Kalmusky. He's a good guy.
Ok. Did you have the option of mixing it or had you just had enough by the time you'd finished recording?
No, it was part of my deal to mix it but I'm just really busy. When we did the deal, I'm just really busy this year. I've done a lot of records this year. Part of it was that we didn't need it till summer of next year so I tried to break it up into two sessions. In between the two sessions, people got tired of waiting. So….when it came time to mix it, they said, 'Look, we've started mixing with somebody else'. And I said...'Ok'.
And, honestly, I've been without prejudice. I've been doing...in fact; I mixed something for them yesterday. I'm giving them a handle on things because they've run into a couple of problems with a couple of mixes here and there. I did the mixing and told them where I thought the melodies should go and where this should go and where this should go.
Yeah. So there's nothing negative on my side at all, not even like one little bit.
My name is on the record as a producer; I want it to be 100% as good as it can be but I'm not mixing it. I'm happy somebody else is mixing it. Honestly.
Really. I'm not sure my heart could have taken another mix session. (laughing)
You did the Journey record, you did Trial By Fire….
I did Trial By Fire. Steve Perry was fabulous to work with and he just has such a voice-he's just a great voice-great sensibility, great sensitivity. I know a lot of people have issue with the record being as soft as it is but I know a lot of people who rank it up there with the finest.
Oh, I love the record; it's soft and whatever but I still think it's fantastic. It was just great to hear Steve singing again, wasn't it?
Do you understand the myth of Steve Perry? He's a reclusive guy they all say and whatever. He doesn't come out a lot and say much but there's a real myth about him, isn't there?
Well, there's only a myth because there's a lot of nonsense that folks have said about things but, you know, he's a singer and he's got a life. He's got things that he chooses to do. I mean, I don't speak to him at all but he chooses not to have me in his life and that's just the way some people are. I don't think any of this stuff is fun. He certainly was around at the San Francisco baseball stadium when they won the World Cup and the television camera was on him when he sang 'Don't Stop Believin'. He's out in public and he's living his life. He doesn't like to get tied up in all the bullshit. Like I said at the top, it's important to stay; there's a reason for doing the interviews and that's because I think it's important for people that need and want the information on how to make records. So, that's why I'm candid and forthright about things because I think it's important. But Steve doesn't want to do that. And he doesn't want to deal with the ramifications and the bullshit. And he doesn't want to deal with internet fucking Bob coming in and saying, this person's got this much and that person's got that much. I mean, I've got one death threat for Iron Maiden!
I mean, are you out of your mind? It's music! I can't get a fucking death threat because someone preferred to hear The Number of The Beast instead of Where the Wild Wind Blows. It's just ludicrous; we're just creating art. It's about culture. It's increasingly becoming a strange part about our culture where humanity thinks it's ok to steal it by downloading it; no one is making any money from it. We have to find a way to make it work because it IS so important in our lives and it IS so important in our dreams. It's about the ONE THING that you can relate to your childhood from. It's like…music…you grow with music… it's so meaningful in the things that you do in your life. You can't remember what your garden smelled like when you went to a school dance but you can remember the music that you danced to. You can remember that you slow danced to this song or that song…or this song was a part of something. Even pop music is obviously more disposable than other genre like jazz or classical but it is vitally important that we keep it going. That why I do these things since Steve Perry doesn't want to deal with it – that's his prerogative.
Yeah, there was a rumor that you were involved with in mixing some new material, and I helped that one along, but that is obviously bullshit?
That is such nonsense—I don't even know where they get that from. Really.
You haven't heard from him then?
No. I haven't heard from him since I did the Journey Greatest Hits Live a couple of years after Trial By Fire and it was a debacle because they [Sony Music} had to have stuff signed other wise he would have reamed them. So we did that record and we did it over the phone. It was ridiculous.
Yeah…. (long pause) …We had 10 days to find tapes and make a record and to get to signing before… because apparently it took the back end [financials] of Trial By Fire away from them so we just had to get it done.
So, yeah, there's a lot going on everywhere.
The business is brutal.
Where's it going, Kevin?
Well, I saw in Time Magazine that the C.O. of Pandora reckons that it should become a patronage system where the king or someone pays for music. It's banal to me that people think in that sort of head space; it's just stupid. Where's it going? It's going….people are making money-music is making money. Records are not making money but music makes money.
You have to have the records for the music to make money. So, the model has to come into play where the records are somehow reimbursed for what happens in the line. So the model has to change. For me, it's difficult because I have to [earn a living]…I can't go to Led Zepplin and Iron Maiden and everyone and say, I want a piece of the tickets [sales] because they'll just tell me where to get off.
But that's gonna have to happen. Otherwise, we just keep making records, you know, in bedrooms. People are going to look at recoupment as being the way you find it at the front end then that's not going to work.
Yeah, very interesting take and I agree. Previously, the only way you could buy something was to go into a store and buy it.
And this is the thing—things need to have material value. When they went from LPs to…it gets to be how old are you really…but it went from LPs to CDs, it immediately got more difficult because you lost a huge quotient of the artwork, apart from the fact that you had to have a magnifying glass to see what the credits read.
And that was all really vitally important. You would think that after the internet came in that they would have artwork on the net and credits on the net and you could go and read all that stuff. We STILL can't find it. There's a few artists that have done it, admittedly, but there's a lot of information that you can't get. To hold something gives it value and when you are just looking at your iTunes—which computers are going to die like in 2 years anyway and you are going to loose it all and try to beg iTunes to get it back- you know, what value has that got? It doesn't hold the same value.
I'm completely old school with you. I love holding something-you know, the physicality of it.
I don't know if it's old school! You know, I think its material VALUE. I think you want to have something that has material value.
It just worries me that the kids, early teenagers of today, are now being completely bought up on digital files.
Let's not blame them! Let's blame the quality of the product that's out there! There's terrible music out there…
Yes, there is!
… and the packaging is shit.
I mean they've put the name of the band bigger than anything on the CD so that when you rack them, you can read 'em. And then, there's a picture of like a goat's head on there and that's supposed to be something. Then, it's all black on the inside and you can't read the credits. It's hard to get that value.
Yeah. I agree. A lot of the shops are gone…you can't even go to them anymore. It's a shame….
It is a shame.
So, how did the Mr. Big guys get a hold of you?
Uh...a phone call? It's one of these new fangled telecommunication devices.
(laughing) Who called you up?
Their manager called me up and said, Are you interested? I looked at my schedule and I thought, 'Well, I'm interested.' To be honest, I'm not that familiar with a lot of Mr. Big music either. Obviously, I knew the supermarket hits but I'm really not that familiar. I went back and listened to the catalogue once I signed on to do something with them so I could get a take on what they were doing. There's a couple of cool things, especially on “Lean On It'- a couple of great things on there, 'Green Tinted Sixties Mind' I think it was.
Then I listened to some of Paul Gilbert's solo stuff. That was just phenomenal. And Racer X.
Oh! My god, I tell you they are incredible musicians-all 4 of them.
I think you have your cell phone close to the phone or something.
How's that? Better?
Yeah. Probably. Yeah it keeps going (makes a noise).
(laughs) I am in the ass end of the world here, you must remember…
Oh then! My parents live there so go easy!
(laughing) I know! They are in the next suburb!
They are in Sandy Bay!
Yeah, that's a suburb away.
When are you coming down to see them again?
Maybe March. We'll see. I'm trying to see them but I'm busy and I have really fun projects coming up.
So, back to Mr. Big. Phenomenal, phenomenal guys.
I can't believe how GOOD this album is.
Well, I'm glad!
Obviously, they wrote some great songs but the energy with which it's recorded….tell me how you went with them in the studio.
Well, we did ok! I think that they were like a lot of the guys when I work with them, they are……I don't think I have an unconventional approach to working but it's not conventional. I'm really more concerned with the overall presentation, with the big picture, than the minutia. I don't listen to individual instruments, necessarily, and look for all the detail in them. I try and make sure that there's energy in the big picture and THEN I'll go and like….. if stuff needs to be sorted out then sort it out. I'm not one of those guys who will do the drums and then overdub the bass and then overdub the guitar. I don't like the sound when you make a record like that; it sounds sterile and it doesn't have---it doesn't capture the interaction that musicians have between themselves.
I mean, when musicians play together—and especially of that caliber—there's a way they play; there's pushes and there's pulls and there's tugs so when you're cutting it to a track, you don't get that stuff—you can't get that stuff because it just sounds wrong when you isolate it.
So, I don't like that. And I think, no I KNOW that was challenging for Billy-not to have to opportunity to go in and re-do everything and look at it under a microscope.
Less though with Paul, who was just happy to…I mean, Paul was just really happy to….he just embraced it. He just loved the challenge of being put on the spot and coming up with stuff. I think they both would have performed differently if we had done it in a different way. But we were lucky, I think, lucky in that we had time issues and we HAD to get it done.
So, this is the way that I thought we should do it and so we did.
They haven't played together in a while and they did the right thing, if you ask me. They played together so many years and then had such a long break. But then they went out and did a couple of tours and got tight again. It sounds as if they just walked straight off the stage and straight into the studio.
Good! It was supposed to.
Yeah. Excellent. I figured….it's funny you should say that about Billy because his bass playing on this record is just out of this world.
Well, I hope you write that down because he needs to know that-he was very self critical.
Really. God! It's phenomenal!!
I think so too!
The interplay between him and Paul on this album—I don't think I've heard it as good on ANY Mr. Big album.
It's probably their most energetic record ever. So I'll most certainly put that in my review.
And, it's my favorite next to... I think it's going to be my favorite next to Lean Into It and the debut album.
There's a modern touch on the album. Why? Is that their doing or your doing?
In what way?
A little bit darker, a little bit heavier, a little bit—I wouldn't say down tuned but just a little bit grungier kind of sound.
Oh that's, I'm sure…that's what I wanted to get—that's how we get the energy out. That's what I wanted. To me, rock has got a dark component about it. It's interesting that you say that because I have thought that some of the early work, and especially the more glistening, polished stuff from the early 90s, sounds a little lighter than this does. You know, it's not going to be to everyone's liking but I like the darkness in rock.
Yeah, yeah I do too.
It appeals to me.
I think you've struck a nice balance with the album because there's like probably 6 tracks which I pick out as having that classic, Mr. Big sound of the debut album sound and there's about 6 that have that darker overtone.
Yeah. Undertow is phenomenal—it's just blowing everyone away. I'm really impressed with that.
Ah—good! I love Stranger in My Life. I think that one's great too.
Yup. Absolutely. Huge ballad.
Great lyrics on it. Eric did a great job.
American Beauty's rockin'!
That to me sounds like it's off the first record. It's got the energy.
I think it's probably---I think the riffs were written back then, at the time, and they've been laying around for a while.
It's one of the older ones that's out there.
Yeah. It definitely has that feel. And then Nobody Takes the Blame is probably the heaviest thing they've ever recorded.
Oh, right. Yeah. Still Ain't Enough For Me I think that's mostly a Billy song. I think that' pretty much a rock and roll song. I think it's a Billy creation. A lot of fun!
Ah!! Just fantastic! Unforgiven? The bonus track for Europe-it's another great rocker.
Yup. Do you have the Japanese bonus?
I've got the CD on order so I haven't heard it yet.
Oh. That's a great little tune, too.
What is it? Kill Me With A Kiss?
Yeah. It quite different for them but it's a really cool tune.
Ok. I look forward to hearing that.
It was difficult to decide what to leave in and leave out, you know?
Did you record any further tracks?
No. That's all we got. We only had 2 weeks in the studio and the Monday was a holiday and then Eric decided not to come in on the Tuesday because he figured we'd be setting up. So he didn't come in until Wednesday. We didn't get going until Wednesday about 3 o'clock.….
…of week 1. We ran over 1 day so we had had the second. We actually had only 2 weeks in the studio. No weekends. So I think we were maybe 10 days tracking the thing.
If only other bands could record as quickly, eh?
Well, if it's right, then it's right. I don't there should be a rule about that stuff. However long it takes. But, these are great musician, though. Pat Torpey plays great drums…
Yeah, I was going to say, I haven't mentioned Pat yet but, again, that great drum sound—it just fills everywhere, not just great playing. He's just—whenever there's a gap, he's putting in a fill, isn't he?
Yeah, well, you know and I really did emphasize that-I really try to keep movement going on a few of the tracks where I wanted to get this real energetic overplaying. I like people to feel like they are 19 and they want to play. It goes back to the beginning. Music, for me, is best when people are 19 and 20 actually. The energy is the BEST. They grow and they start getting fine chords and jazz this and that and start writing out charts and then at some point who gives a fuck.
Well, you've certainly brought out the energy in these old guys.
This is another band that's renowned for tension in the studio and stuff. I get the feeling that there wasn't any of that this time around?
I think there was probably more tension between them and myself but it didn't bother me.
I just dealt with it, yeah.
How do you deal with that? It's a good question.
Well, it's my job. It's what I do.
We all know what musicians can be like, some more than others. Do you just ignore them? Do you tell them what they want to hear or do you go to war with them?
No, I don't go to war with them. It's their record at the end of the day and it's really important that they know that I realize that it's their record at the end of the day and that, after a month, they're going to go on and perform this album and then they'll perform for a year while I go and do someone else's album. So, I'm very forthright about that. I do say, This is where I'm at with that; I'm 100% dedicated to them, 100% focused-I'm giving you my 100% experience and what I think is……it's like, it's what I do. Not everyone likes it but I what I bring into a record is what I do and if you wouldn't sign up for it if you didn't have some notion of what I do on a record. So, this is what I think and this is where I think songs are strong and this is what I like to hear in music—there's no science involved. Basically, all it involves is what I like to hear in a song. And, I'll very often NOT like the hits singles on records because I just happen to actually prefer a different kind of thing; you know, I like darker, heavier music.
Yeah. You've almost…you've done the impossible-you've gotten away with putting vocal effects on Eric Martin, which I've NEVER heard before, on a couple of tracks there. You are feeding his voice through several effects to just sort of modernize it but you get away with it.
Yeah. In what way? Do you mean get away with it for the big picture or in terms of dealing with Eric?
Oh well I don't know! How was it dealing with Eric? I mean, Eric's a really good friend of mine….
Eric was a piece of cake; he's a dream, actually. Eric just said, We want you to make this record, We're going to give you the songs, We don't want you to know who wrote what songs, We want you to pick the songs that you think we should go with.
Yeah, they don't want to appear confrontational and then they'll be confrontational in a passive aggressive way—Eric as well and I have said as much of them. It doesn't mean I don't like them for doing it; I just recognize that they are doing it.
We want you to make this record, We don't want to fight in the studio amongst ourselves, We want someone to take the reigns and make a record for us.
So he was very committed to you being the producer?
Yeah, and he was very much…..he got just a little passive aggressive at the end. He said, “I hardly said anything and you don't give me time on my vocals”. I mean, You had plenty of time to get AMAZING vocals on the record, I think.
He sounds PHENOMENAL; he sounds the best I've heard him in 20 years probably.
And you know there's a reason for all of these things! I don't go and say everything all the time, because I'm achieving….and, again, this is when the interview is not for the band to read - this is for everyone that wants to make a record. But I listened to Eric's vocal and when he was controlled, as in the studio environment, when he was singing with the acoustic guitar, I noticed that he had a particular vibrato. When I put him into the room, just to run through with the guys rocking, and he was energetic and not thinking about it, he would let it go so I thought it was better for the music and maybe less dated not to have that vibrato. So I would emphasize that I wanted him to sing these songs live. That's why I think he sounds like he sounds; he sounds energetic and enthused.
So here, he does all of the vocals live as well?
All of them. All of the vocals are live.
That's all the vocals live, But, you know, it's not…..everytime I say this, you are going to get people saying why didn't they take their time and do it in the studio. I STILL craft the record. It's not just ONE take!
Yeah, of course.
It's this internet frenzy. As soon as we say we cut things live, everyone goes like, I wish they'd take their time. We STILL craft the record—it's just done a different way now.
The record sounds like a million bucks. I'm glad you've done what you've done.
You do whatever you do to get the results.
I'd love to hear a band like Journey do the same, do a record in the same way.
Well, you know we do, pretty much - we do, pretty much. Um…..it does get away from it a bit, but Trial By Fire was like that.
Yeah. Yeah. Arrival was a much longer process, though, wasn't it?
Um…yeah. Arrival was a bit more difficult-Arrival was difficult. Um…Revelation was fun! Revelation was a lot of fun.
Yeah! How was Arnel? Everyone's got good things to say about Arnel.
Oh Arnel was great! Arnel is great. We did have one issue on the making of this new album where he'd just come in from a long stint in the Philippines and his English was a little broken. I was very vocal about him being unprepared for it and I was later told by management, that that he had been ready to leave the band if they wanted and they could get a new singer in as he didn't want to embarrass the band. Of course, I didn't say any of that-I just meant….
By the way you say that it he's sounding like he hasn't had a prima donna hissy fit but he'd actually said that for the good of the band.
Oh no, no, no. He's just a super guy, I mean, he's really a super guy.
Yeah but he said, you know, Get someone else because that would be the best thing for the band. Is that what you are saying?
Well, he was just offering it, I think out of his own embarrassment.
I know what you are saying but he just seems to be a good character and what you are saying there just kind of emphasizes it, I guess. (long pause…) Is he in over his head?
Not at all!!!! No! He's the real deal. He's a great singer.
Oh, I know he's a phenomenal singer-I'm just wondering if …..
No he's not in over his head at all. I mean, he needs work, like everyone, and he's got the extra challenge of having his diction…
…in a band where they are All American icons, and anyone outside with a Conservative Palin-like attitude will take a swipe at him. But, he's the real deal. He's an amazing singer and he's terrific. And, he's done a lot for the band, too. He's really broadened their credibility and their reach.
Although, the decision to take him on could have been a disaster. They had to go through a lot of negative PR from dumping Jeff Scott Soto but I agree with you; they took a risk and it paid off.
He's a phenomenal guy. I haven't interviewed him yet but I'd like to. He's a phenomenal little character, I think. (long pause) Now when I said that he's in over his head I mean he comes from a different world, doesn't he.
It's difficult for him. He has to leave his family and he gets to leave his Filipino food and Filipino culture and Filipino language behind. He gets to join a band who are substantially older than he is. And, he gets on the bus with... a bunch [that don't always see eye to eye]…
…and he has to deal with them.
(still laughing…) Is there a more… How do I put this… Is there a more dysfunctional band than Journey?
I don't wanna do this. (laughs)
(laughing) We've got a new record coming out and it's a good record. It was a difficult record to make. You have difficult records to make—it doesn't make them less valid and it doesn't make them less exciting to listen to. Lennon and McCartney had issues and Tyler/Perry have issues and the Robinson brothers have issues-they make records like that. You know, Cain and Schon have that kind of thing. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant-I've worked with them. They go at each other. It's pretty much one common thing between them. At least they don't say anything that they wouldn't say behind each other's backs.
You've just summed up some of the icons that you've worked with. You really have worked with some challenging people, haven't you?
I have! Except for the Beatles bit…
Do you enjoy that situation more than someone that's just a bunch of 'Yes' people or just …. happy? Do you prefer the challenge in the studio?
No, no. I….no—give me yes-people any day. (laughs)
But, you know, I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to make music and I'm here to hopefully, in some respects, make history as well. It's one of those difficult things in the business where you work with people, you know, you live in people's pockets for 3 months and then you don't see them for 4 or 5 years, if you have a long term music relationship with them. While they are recording, they're your best buddy, and when it comes to concert tickets, it's like, Speak to someone else.
Um…You're not REALLY friends - it's a strange kind of friends thing going on there between the producer and the band. What I like about making records with these guys, is that I know that it is REAL music and I know it's going to get out there. I know I'm not wasting my time. It's fascinating to take …..I mean, I did a track with John Hiatt last week. He played me this track and I made this really HUGE suggestion that we try something and take the song totally away from where it was at. Nothing to lose. And to his credit—at the end of the day it would have been just a demo, it wasn't anything locked in - we did it and I did the mix. He called me and was really moved, and said, You know, this is so fabulous!
It's really fabulous. I just LOVE what you've done with it and it just sounds incredible.
Is that the best compliment you can get?
It IS the best compliment! You know you are making a difference and you know you have to follow...like I said; I just make the kind of music that I want to listen to. I mean, I just make it the way I want to hear it. There are no other rules – there's no science, so that response justifies it all.
Excellent. Excellent. Well, to wrap things up—I could probably talk all day, Kevin, (laughs) but I don't want to take up too much of your time. Is there a project that you'd still kill to be part of? That you'd do for free to be involved in that hasn't come out yet?
I think I'd like to make a record with the Stones where I'd get some of the Exile on Main Street swagger back…
….where we'd just put them in the studio and we'd just say, Here's the deal—make it. And I don't care about the older tunes and I don't care about this and…I guess we'd have to have cigarettes in the room.
….but here we go! Let's just play it! I don't think they've made a lot of records like that and I think people enjoy those. I like 'em. I'd like to hear Sweet Virginia happen again.
So that would be really fun. I totally think they could do it. And I think the world would love it. We need another band with tambourine off the beat.
(laughs) What about Led Zeppelin?
Led Zeppelin is different. Led Zeppelin's…I've done my time with Zeppelin and it's like a highlight of my life, working with Jimmy and, to a lesser extent, working with Robert because he wasn't really that involved in the beginning; it was DEFINITELY Jimmy. And that was just like unbelievable and it was unbelievable to have…to work with an icon-MY icon--MY hero and have him trust me, like implicitly on the stuff we were doing. It was, like, fascinating. At the end of the day, I'm not on that I want to buy a Led Zeppelin album that's produced by Kevin Shirley so…
…I don't know if anyone else does. I think that Jimmy Page produces Led Zeppelin and if he ever wanted me to help him with a project, I'd be happy to. But Led Zeppelin is produced by Jimmy Page-that's what it is.
Gotcha. Very cool. I should…I've neglected to mention Black County Communion. It's great to hear Glenn Hughes back in full force.
Yeah, it just….did you see today it just got ranked…..where is it…..let me see….it got uh…..Classic Rock magazine rated it , ranked it number three on their top 50 for 2010.
And then I also had Iron Maiden at number 7. And then Bonamassa is 32. THAT'S the guy that…you know I've such a thing for Joe….
I should touch on the relationship you and Joe. Obviously, of all the musicians you work with, you and he are probably the closest, right?
He seems like a sweet guy and then again I haven't talked to him but he's an amazing talent.
He's an amazing talent; he's unbelievably overworked. He's more overworked than anyone I know. I think one of the reasons why we get on well is because he is so overworked. I love his dedication and he trusts me; he really does trust me to make his records.
When you announced Black Country Communion and the guitar player was Joe, I was like, 'I know he's a phenomenal blues player and Glenn loves his blues rock, but can Joe rock?' But, boy, he sure can!
Joe can rock. Joe's just phenomenal. Joe can rock, Joe can country, Joe can jazz, Joe can blues, Joe can slide, Joe can finger pick—I mean, Joe's just something. He's got all of that in his memory banks. He's just grown up to be a guitar player. He learned from Danny Gatton, he learned from Jimmy Page, he learned from Eric Johnson, he learned from Peter Green, he's learned from Paul Kossof ---these are his influences. Clapton is an influence and then all of the old black, blues guys—B.B. King, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and those guys.
So he's got all if this stuff and then he stored it all. Then he can do the finger picking, you know, the country picking stuff. He can just do anything. He's great.
Awesome. What's coming up for the next Black Country Communion album?
We're coming up for…..the next Joe solo album is being released on March 22.
And I think it's going to be called - well, we'll wait for them to announce it. It's phenomenal. Joe's next record is just insanely phenomenal.
It's streets ahead of anything we've done so far.
What do you put that down to?
(pauses) I think, sonically, it's really great for one thing and I think all the performances are exemplary. It's got an amazing song list-- I mean, amazing songs on it. It's a cross-pollination of styles again; it's become a bit of a trademark of the way WE do things. We went to Greece and we went to Nashville and we went to Los Angeles for this one.
So we have a little bit of influences from all of these places. He's singing great and he's playing phenomenally. And, we've got some special guests on there, too.
…like B.B. King was on the last one and we've got some special guests on the new one, too. Vince Gill and John Hiatt…
Excellent. And then, after that, you're doing Black Country?
We do Black Country Communion albums, starting on January 10—I hope to have that delivered by the second week in April. That should probably come out by the beginning of June, just in time for the festivals in Europe and whatnot.
Excellent. What styles? Same again - an extension of the first?
It's a guitar-based Classic Rock band. I've only heard a few of Glenn's new tunes….Joe's still on the road with still a couple of more days to go there but we're rooted in the late 70s rock era with that band. I think this time around we're going to have a bigger more expansive drum sound. We want to really try and capture some of that DNA that's in the Bonham family.
And, you know, Zeppelin meets Deep Purple meets Free and Bad Company – that's the kind of record that I'd like to make with them.
Absolutely. And Glenn…I've known Glenn since I started the site and I love him. He's a personality and a half, isn't he?
He is indeed. He is indeed. I get on great with him. He's a good bloke.
Couldn't agree more. I think …people say he lives on Planet Glenn. (laughs)
Yes, he does. Our rock pontiff. Our very own rock pontiff.
He's got the voice of rock. As soon as BCC came to life he emailed me and said, 'It's time to rock! This is the one you've been waiting for!'
Because I've been hounding him for the last 2 or 3 years to get off the soul train.
So I was really excited to hear the album and I love it.
Great stuff. Anything you want to add, Kevin?
Geez—I don't know. You've let me talk for hours!
We have, haven't we? We've done a very nice interview and I appreciate your time.
Cool. Great. Thanks, man.
c. 2010 MelodicRock.com / Interview by Andrew McNeice