17 Nov 2018

Music producers Gil Norton, Sylvia Massy and Clint Murphy spill secrets of the craft

From RNZ Music, 2:00 pm on 17 November 2018

Sylvia Massy has worked with Prince, Tool, and Johnny Cash; Gil Norton has produced for The Pixies, Foo Fighters and Manic Street Preachers; and Clint Murphy has had his fingers on the faders for dozens of NZ albums since the beginning of the century.

Earlier this month they were in NZ running workshops for aspiring and working producers and engineers. Kirsten Johnstone gets them around a table to talk about their craft.  

Clint Murphy, Gil Norton and Sylvia Massy

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Selected Transcript

There is such a range of input that producers can have, from more of an engineering producer, you know, who sets up mics beautifully but then kind of steps out of it musically, someone like Steve Albini, to a really fully-involved co-writer like Mark Ronson. Where do you sit in the spectrum, Sylvia?

Sylvia Massy: Well, I think that there are three types of producers like you're describing in that there's the engineer type of producer - and I think I come from the engineer world, there's the writer and then there's the fan, and that's the Rick Rubin style, I think, because he's not necessarily technical and he's not a musician, per se. But I think that all of us probably have a little bit of everything. But I do come from the engineering world.

Gil Norton: I started as an engineer but I don't engineer very much now. But I think to be a good producer, you've got have a good overview of everything. You understand music, you understand the ear, you've got to know how the signal path works. But I think if I'm going to have an opinion on a song, you've also got to be musical, so you can give advice to the artist and guide them in the right way. But I think that's what we're there for, we're facilitators, really. We're there to listen to what the band wants and what they want to achieve and try and make that happen for them, really.

What kind of an atmosphere do you try to create for artists when they come to your studio, Gil?

Gil: I think the most important thing is that they feel safe. When we get them, a lot of time they don't know what to do. They've got a new idea, a verse, and the chorus. So you need them to be safe and be able to make mistakes without feeling embarrassed. 

Sylvia: And I think that you're right, that the artist needs to trust you. And then hand over that part of the decision making to you. But that doesn't mean that, for me, that they need to be comfortable all the time because I may want to manipulate them into giving me a kind of an emotional response that's not always pleasant, you know? And depending on the style of music, I might actually try to aggravate the artist.

Yeah, I had wondered that about you, whether you've purposefully made people angry, just to get that angry performance.

Sylvia: Yeah, to get that really arghh, kind of performance, especially with vocals. There was a time when I was recording the singer from Tool, Maynard [James Keenan]  And he sings with a handheld mic facing the ground. And I've seen him on stage giving this really bloodcurdling scream in one of the songs, it was the song 'Crawl Away' on Undertow, and he was just not getting it in the studio.

So I had him stop because after two or three times of really trying to do it, this scream, I knew that we were going to wear his voice out. And so I just made him stop and told him to take a break and go out and walk around the block before we would do any more vocals. And he got really pissed off and I made him do it anyway. He went out for a walk and then he came back in and he just gave me that really angry scream and that was the take.

Sylvia, recording sessions with you seem like adventures. You've recorded on a submarine, in a nuclear power plant silo, in a salt mine. You've recorded through an ice cream truck speaker, filtered noise through pickles, played trumpets in buckets of water. What's the wildest situation you've recorded in?

Sylvia: I've started recently recording audio through different filters.

 When you say filter, what do you mean?

Sylvia: Let's say you amplify a sound with an amplifier, a solid-state amplifier and then there's a speaker cable that goes between that amplifier and a speaker. Well, I'm going to insert things in that speaker cable-

Like gherkins.

Sylvia: Well, like cheese. I think cheese is my new favorite thing to put in in-line. It has a very nice blues tone.

But there's been a lot of other crazy things too. Recently I went into the subway and there's an abandoned subway platform in the London Underground.  And that was a really fantastic recording space. It was an acoustical space that had a lot of reverberation and we did some big drum sounds in there. It was really exciting. But I'm always looking for new things to do.

Why is it so important to you to push artists out of their comfort zones in that way?

Sylvia: Well, for one thing, if you throw out an idea, they come back with a new idea. So suddenly we get this flow of imagination. The other thing is that I think that this kind of inspiration is imprinted into the music and you can record it with the anticipation of doing some of these things. You can hear it in the result. Whether or not the actual recording in a salt mine is actually usable, you just make memories you'll never forget.

 You've no doubt all worked with some difficult people in the studio. I wondered about Black Francis [leader of The Pixies]. He notoriously doesn't like to do things twice. How do you deal with him in the studio?

Gil: Well, you know, for me, he was a really big learning curve for me because it's trying to excite him into doing things. Because the song, obviously you've got a verse, you've got a chorus. You're going to repeat the verse, the choruses at some point but he likes it if they're slightly different or I could stimulate him into doing something that wasn't the norm. It's just trying to keep it interesting as much as anything. You know, like Sylvia with her sonics, it's trying to find something that stimulates and it makes the band interested, and something they wouldn't do normally, really.

 And I tend to work more in pre-production. I like to work outside the studio more than inside, so when we get to the studio, we know what we're doing.

Is there any situation where you've been in pre-production and you've had to say, 'Actually, I have to pull the plug on this. I can't go through with this record'?

Gil: Well, no, luckily enough I haven't had because normally I've had demos beforehand and I've had conversations. And you've sort of given ideas out before you even go into a rehearsal room, you know. I mean, speaking of artists that I've spoken to on the phone. I don't think I'm the right person for this, you know. I mean, David Byrne of Talking Heads. I went for a meeting with him and he wanted to do a Cuban album and I don't know anything about Cuban music so I just thought, well, it would be silly for me to try and produce that because I wouldn't understand what I was trying to produce, you know.

Sylvia It's also a shame when you get into the studio with an artist who is paying you as a producer to do the work and then they kind of take it out of your hands. If you make suggestions and they turn down every suggestion and they are unwilling to try anything, any of your ideas, then they're just wasting their own money, basically.

Do you ever take it personally when an act chooses not to come back to you for their next record?

Sylvia: You know, I just had a recent conversation with a friend who just got passed over for a project that he'd done, you know, all the previous records with this artist and now they've gone on with someone else. And I just had to tell him that he can't be precious about that. You can't really be precious about them being your client. Maybe they'll come back. I've had several clients who've gone on and done records with other people come back. But yeah, it's a tough one.

Gil: I've had the Foo Fighters come back after 10 years. And Counting Crows as well, you know. I did them again 10 years after their first album. There's another artist where I've done three albums in a row. But there's a certain point, I think, after three or four albums where I think it's good for the artists to go off and find something, and just get stimulated in a different way because I don't want to get stale doing the same thing or regurgitating something we did. Or, you know, it's the same melody in my head. It feels like it's the same song that you did and I think you're trying to color it in a different way.

I don't think it's a bad thing when they go off. And then sometimes when they come back to you, they appreciate you more because they've done other things and they can see what you're bringing to the party, really.

Sylvia: And honestly, just doing albums together, you build a friendship that never goes away whether you're working together or not. I'm still friends with people I worked with 30 years ago and it's a special kind of friendship because we've gone through the gauntlet, you know, the roller coaster ride of making an album together and had success with it.

Clint: You know, when you're spending 14 hours a day for two or three months, you get pretty close.

Sylvia: Yeah, and the artist is really baring their soul to you because it's very personal.

Gil: Yeah, because as I said earlier, I think we get them at that insecure bit where they don't quite know what they're doing. So you see them in a different light than probably most people actually see them. And I've been lucky because a lot of the time, I go to L.A where they're living, so I live with them. I live in their ... I go and see their family. You know, you go off at dinner together. I mean, you sort of live together. It's like you joined the band.

Related: An interview with producers Dave Eringa and Guy Massey

Does it work the other way where you never want to see someone ever again? Do you make enemies in this business as well? 

Clint: There might be a couple. Yeah, I mean, not everything always goes swimmingly well, you know. And trying to avoid that as much as you can but I think it's important to try and get past that, you know what I mean? 

Gil: I think you've got to be honest with it. You know, I mean, the thing is sometimes you might upset an artist but you've to got be honest with them because if they're not doing something right so I don't know a falling out, but sometimes you have differences of opinion. We're not there to be yes men, you know? We're not there just to go, oh, yes, let's have a lovely day today. You know what I mean? There are situations where things need to get done or discussions need to be had on certain things. I can't really think of anything in particular at this moment.

Sylvia: Oh, I have one.

Gil: Thought you might.

Sylvia: Yeah, I'd worked with Prince for about three years and he's difficult to work with, but very rewarding and an incredible musician. But I did spend a great deal of time in the studio with him and working on his projects. Then at one point, I was given the option of moving to Paisley Park in Minnesota to his studio and being on staff at Paisley Park because I'd been working with him in Los Angeles at Larrabee.

I turned him down because I had just been offered the production job for the Tool albums and I really wanted to do that because well, you know, the choice was to be Prince's engineer or to be a producer and run my own sessions. And I wanted to be a producer. And when I turned him down, I never heard from him again. So that was shutting the door on that whole era.

You were here doing Master Classes with local producers. What is the single most important piece of advice that you want to give over to aspiring producers?

Sylvia: I think that you have to record as much as possible and as many artists as possible because each pull on that handle of your slot machine is going to get you closer to that jackpot. So you just keep pulling that handle, you know? And you hone your craft, too.

Gil: Yeah, I mean for me, I think just preparation. Just make sure that you're well-organized, especially in this business. Make notes on things as well. So things that you like, you know, you keep a journal or something so you've got experiences that you have. Yeah, just preparation, really.

Clint: It's changed quite a lot in the last 10 years where there's a lot of people doing this now. If you've got a laptop, you've got a studio. You know, like when I studied, it was and when you guys were in it, it was a bit of a small club, really, of people doing it. But actually Ken Scott once said at a seminar, 'If you're thinking of another option for a career, take it.' Because basically what it means is your heart and your soul is not in it enough. So you know, there's going to be a rough few years, maybe, a few months. 

It can be really difficult. I've had a rough time where there was nothing coming in. And if you really believe that this music and production or whatever it is is your soul, just keep on fighting for it, even if your family don't agree, or whatever. It's just like, for me, it's the only thing I want to do. And so I will keep doing it.

Related - Lyttelton Ben Edwards in his studio with Marlon Williams