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Tony Visconti Part 1

By Raoul Hernandez, 11:40AM, Thu. Jun. 19, 2008

The Producer Who Fell to Earth: Tony Visconti, Greenwich Village, June 11, 2008
The Producer Who Fell to Earth: Tony Visconti, Greenwich Village, June 11, 2008
photo by Aubrey Edwards

If you don’t know who Tony Visconti is, you don’t own enough David Bowie albums. Simply shelving The Man Who Sold the World, Low, Heroes, Scary Monsters, and Heathen made him a household name in my music library. That producer’s credit carried over onto my Thin Lizzy CDs: Bad Reputation, Live and Dangerous, Black Rose. I’m no T. Rex jeepster, but “Bang A Gong (Get It On),” “Children of the Revolution,” “20th Century Boy,” pretty much every Marc Bolan song you care to tick off, all Visconti. And those are just the greatest hits.

Devour Visconti’s 2007 autobiography Bowie, Bolan, and the Brooklyn Boy and you can tack on credits for U2, Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, Morrissey, Gentle Giant, the Boomtown Rats, the Stranglers. When that mark of excellence stamped the advances for Alejandro Escovedo’s new Real Animal, Austin’s very own Lou Reed/Iggy Pop/Mick & Keith had finally arrived in rock royalty style. Although such an honorarium had already been bestowed on his John Cale-produced The Boxing Mirror (2006), Real Animal bares its incisors as firecely as Escovedo’s Stooges set staple “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” as three-guitar Skynyrd as the True Believers, as “Black Shiny Beast” as mothballed glam locals Buick MacKane.

Over the horn, Visconti’s energetic calm betrays traces of English vowels and phraseology picked up during the Brooklyn boy’s formative career decades in the UK. Escovedo’s Real Animal dictated our agenda, but once that inquiry closed, there were a few other questions begging a little air. We’ll come back to those presently.

Where am I reaching you?

At my home: Greenwich Village in Manhattan.

What’s on tap for you today?

Well, I’ve been on the road, recording Alejandro in Lexington, Kentucky, [and] another band there, and I’ve been actually away from my city for about seven months. So today I’m just doing chores. I had a massage and I’m going to see my acupuncturist later. So I’m catching up on all the things that make me feel whole.

Have you ever been to Austin?

I have been to Austin, a couple of times. The last time was when I first met Chuck Prophet and Alejandro and we started working on the music together. That would be back in November [2007] I think.

Had you been here before that?

I know I have been, and I can’t remember why or for what reason. It was probably the Eighties, or the Seventies. [Laughs.] And it’s buried.

How did this project come about with Alejandro?

Well, I’ve known about Alejandro for years and years. Believe it or not, a lot of people told me that we would work together well. Where I came in is when he announced to the world that he was ill. I wasn’t sure that would be a good time to work with him. I think he had to really look after himself for a few years. I used to work with NARAS; I was the president of the New York chapter. So anytime we had a MusicCares event, I would be present. I remember we were part of a fundraising event for Alejandro. So that’s when he first came to my attention. I listened to his records and I thought he was great, and I said, “Yeah, we should work together,” but that didn’t happen until just recently.

Do you remember the first time you saw him live?

Well, I had been sent the live videos, when he played Austin City Limits. I was very impressed. The first time I saw him live was before we recorded the album. I went to a gig in Chicago. Alejandro was playing a gig that night and I met him for the very first time at the soundcheck in the afternoon – listened to the band run through the material. And I must tell you, I was blown away, even by the soundcheck. Because here’s this man: he’s had this illness, he’s just hit 50 or something like that, and there he is jumping around the stage like Iggy Pop, doing all his punk stuff – very much unlike what I expected. I expected him to be more introverted, introspective. But no, this was a wild rock and roll man I was observing.

What did you think of his band? What did you think of [drummer] Hector Muñoz?

Hector is one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with. I couldn’t believe his power and his taste. It's a rare combination to be powerful, loud, and also have great taste, reserve when it’s necessary. Hector completely blew me away.

When you first met, was the album’s concept in place, the idea of tracing Alejandro’s musical identity through periods of music?

Yes. And I didn’t know how closely we would stick to it, because there was too many songs. Some of the songs weren’t in that concept. Alejandro said, “You just pick the best songs,” and I unconsciously picked out the story line songs. I think it was 80 percent certain that we were going to do that kind of album, but there was a chance that we were just going to go for it, like the ‘best songs’ kind of album with an unrelated theme. I guess I was hearing the story and all the songs I chose for the album made sense. It was only until later that Chuck and Alejandro really explained the meaning behind the songs, what they represented.

Is this then a case of synergy, where they’re tracing these eras of music of which you were a prime component?

That’s true.

Makes perfect sense. You couldn’t get two better parties together.

Well, it’s true. I can’t work with everyone. I’m pretty much an all-around-er, but there are certain people I just can’t do, certain styles of music I can’t do. Alejandro and I spoke the same language as soon as we started talking. We had dinner after the soundcheck andwe just sat in the restaurant until it was time for him to go onstage. We had so many common experiences. It was just a really great rapport we developed immediately.

I would think that at this point in your career people who want to work with you want the war stories as much as anything else.

Well, yes [laughs]. Bowie is quite a mystical person. He’s attained god-like status in this business, and Alejandro and the group wanted to know a few things. Like how did he do this, how did he do that. Even Bowie’s albums come off as magical albums. Sometimes I listen back to them and ask myself, “How the hell did we do that?” [With Alejandro], it was great. We had campfire nights sometimes. At the end of the session we’d just tell campfire stories. And you know, Alejandro has equally great stories. So does Hector. Hector’s got a story about practicing drums and him having all the teenage girls in the neighborhood hang outside his house. His mother would let them in two at a time.

Do you think the auteur theory of film applies to record producers?

What do you mean by that?

The theory that you see a Hitchcock film and you know it’s a Hitchcock film. A Fellini film, a [Luchino] Visconti film - you know their style from their body work. Do you think that applies to record producers as well?

It certainly does. It was something I tried to deny years ago. I didn’t want to overlay my personality on somebody else’s work, but it inevitably happens. One reason it happens with me is that I’m a musician. I find myself with a guitar in my arms or singing backing vocals, or banging a tambourine. Or in the case of Alejandro, getting very, very involved in the string arrangements of the band. I’ve been arranging strings for T. Rex for years and years and years. So there’s always a bit of me. I’m always making a cameo. And now that I do listen back to my work, I do hear me. I couldn’t at first. Not in the Seventies. I couldn’t hear me then. I can hear me now.

How would you characterize the ‘Visconti’ sound?

Well, my sound is organic, but at the same it has technical swagger, and I just made that up right now [laughs]! When I’m in the studio, I play with my equipment like it was an instrument and I come up with sounds. I try to consciously create a sound for every project I work on. I want the project to have a sound personality, an audio personality. Then I just take it from there. That actually stimulates the musicians to play differently and play with more energy and more positive attitude. Because I get those sounds on the session itself. I don’t wait for the mix to add the reverb and all the compression. I do that on the spot. And I thank that to my British training. That’s the way we started doing it in the Seventies.

On “Golden Bear,” the intro seems to nod to Bowie. Sounds like maybe “Ashes to Ashes.” That had to have been conscious.

Well, it was there. It was hinted at in the first place so I thought, “Why don’t we go there?” I always go with the flow. I said “Why don’t we just go the rest of the way there?” So yes it is [conscious]. It’s an homage and why not? Why not do it? It’s not the exact same thing. But I’m glad you picked that up. And that intro, on the demo, just captivated me. It haunted me. And I fought for that song being on the album. It wasn’t a favorite of the record company, but it now is. I said, “That is magic that intro.” My mind, which is usually very analytical, just couldn’t understand the chord changes. The beauty of it was magic.

With “Sister Lost Soul,” it seemed like you were going for a Phil Spector-ish thing.

Yeah, and that started out as very much a country song and I said, “We can’t go there.” I said, “You guys have to work on the twang a bit. We can’t have too much twang in this song.” It could have gone country and I thought that would have been inappropriate, because we were making a rock album. So yeah, I’m guilty of steering it in that other direction.

The string work on “Swallows of San Juan” is gorgeous.

Thank you.

Alejandro has used strings since his first solo album and you of course are known for your string arrangements so I would think you two were like kids in a candy store in terms of working on string arrangements together.

Yes. I couldn’t understand why Alejandro had a fascination with strings, but he does. He feels that it’s very much an integral part of his sound. On this album, though, I consciously directed the string players to play ‘rock strings.’ “We’re gonna play rock strings. We’re gonna put guitar effects on your equipment. We’re gonna go for a rock sound. We don’t want this quasi-classical sound on this album. It’s gotta be really up to date and earthy.” And they just rose to the occasion. Susan [Voelz] and Brian [Standefer] were just fantastic. Both of them are arrangers, and I’m an arranger, so the three of us actually cooked up the parts together. We had a good time doing that.

Sometimes a record company or even the artist will want to use session players. It’s clear that in this case the band was an integral part of the process.

Yeah, and I like the fact that they weren’t hardcore studio musicians. Everyone in the band has soul and I can work with that better than professionalism. They played together really great in rehearsal, facing each other in the same room and all that. And I tried to get the same atmosphere in the studio. I didn’t put up any screens, any barriers. If I turned off Alejandro’s microphone on the mixes, you could hear his live vocal on the drum kit. He was singing that close to Hector. This made the spirit of the album, to have everybody in the same room playing at the same time. Consequently it didn’t take long to record, because we didn’t spend tedious weeks overdubbing. A lot of that stuff is the live take. We redid the guitar solos, and about 40 percent of the vocals I used Alejandro’s live vocal. Cause we would try to replace it and the he would sing stiffer. He would sing stiffly. His live vocals would be jumping.

I also made him do something very unconventional. Instead of having the classic tall microphone stand with the microphone on a boom, like you see in an Hollywood recording session, I gave him a hand mic, a Shure hand mic, one that he would use onstage. So a lot of the vocals are sung with him holding the microphone in his hand as if he was onstage.

Was it the live dynamic that made you do that?

Yeah. When I saw him in Chicago, I told him, “I’m not going to let you rest now that I’ve seen this animal [laughs], this crazy rock & roll guy.” Maybe that’s why he calls the album Real Animal. I said, “Man, you have to sing these energetic songs. You’ve done enough introspective albums.” And I know he’s had some very bad personal tragedies in his life. And I know that was the subject of his many past albums. I said, “But that’s the past. You have to sing like that guy I saw onstage tonight.”

And now, prompted by this album, he’s doing something us longtime fans have never seen him do, which is take off the guitar and just sing with mic in hand.

Yeah I think he got into the habit in the studio.

We have you to thank for that apparently.

Well, we had two very strong guitarists in the studio, David [Pulkingham] and Chuck [Prophet]. And still I insisted that Alejandro play on some songs because he’s got that punky, right-hand downstroke technique better than the other two guys, so I made him play guitar on a few of the tracks.

You of all people know that strings are as integral to rock & roll as Bo Diddley’s violin, and yet why does this idea persist that strings are the antithesis of rock & roll?

Because a lot of string writers still write quasi-Mozart or Brahms. When I started writing strings, string players, really, that’s all they were capable of. They always played a little bit behind the beat, which was very, very frustrating. People’s opinions are based on the way strings have been used in that way. And even string players sometimes resent it when you write a note that they have to hold over three or four bars. They call them “goose eggs,” because that’s what they resemble [on written charts]. It’s almost an insult. But when you really write a good part for strings that really works well with the guitars, I’ve named it ‘rock strings.’ If you get the right string players they will love it. It’s a string instrument like the guitar and it’s capable of the same kind of acrobatics. So this is my mission in life, to make strings as aggressive – and I mean classical strings – to make them as aggressive as rock & roll guitars. I’ve proven it over and over again with T. Rex records, and we have [Beatles producer] the great George Martin to thank for that. He wrote the string arrangement for “Eleanor Rigby,” which put a little fuzz on that and they could be electric guitars. It’s really smart string writing.

Is there a future of strings we’re not seeing? Those collaborations between Aerosmith and an orchestra, Metallica and an orchestra, have been really hit and miss.

I think you’re finding players like Susan, who works with a lot of kind of punk rock bands. She’s a real wild lady with the violin. She’s got all the equipment guitarists have. She’s got a whole array of pedals and she knows how to use them. Quite often on the record what you might think is a guitar is actually Susan. I think there’s a new generation of string players who want to be onstage with guitarists and they want to be loud and they want to play with great style and great panache. It’s already happening. There are a lot of string players who rival lead guitarists now and play with a lot of feel.

Lyrically, Alejandro sounds great on this album, like on “Chip N’ Tony’ where he works Juan Marichal into a rhyme. How together was the material when you came aboard?

Alejandro was writing lyrics up until the very last minute. The song “People,” that was done very last minute. Alejandro and Chuck were often sitting on the couch right until the vocal, changing some words, changing some lines. Even when Alejandro was on mic, singing, Chuck would inject and said, “No, no, you have to change this word, it’s not working.” So it was always a work in progress. And the imagery, as you said, was spectacular. These are Dylan lyrics. They’re worthy of a Bowie or Dylan. These are some of the best lyrics I’ve ever had to work with and therefore easy to produce an album when you have lyrics that good.

Al being such a fan of Bowie and such an Iggy follower, can his talents be compared to theirs?

Sure. My benchmark is “Does this person sound like anybody else?” And so many people do, but Alejandro is unique. He’s a one-off. I see audiences just enthralled by him. Talk about charisma and having people hang on every breath. I have seen that. I’ve witnessed that. And he has that effect on me too. When he sang in the studio, I would get goose bumps. He does that to me. He does that to other people. It’s a shame – it’s actually a crime that he doesn’t have the status of a Bowie. I think that’s being remedied now. I’m so happy he has new management. That’s what Alejandro always needed. You know he doesn’t look after himself very well quite honestly. He doesn’t always pick up his phone. He needs someone very strong to manage him and yet allows him to be him.

You being the producer and seeing an album through every stage, is there a point when you can step back and get an objective self-appraisal of it?

To tell you the truth, I can’t. I still haven’t done that with Alejandro’s album. When I finish an album, I finish it in a state of frustration. There are always certain things that didn’t come out in my opinion and of course there are some pleasant surprises I wasn’t expecting. I know when an album’s finished because I just can’t think of anything else to do. I exhaust all possibilities. But it doesn’t mean I’m satisfied. I’ve got a good friend, a folk musician in England. He said, “The best time to mix an album is three months after it’s been released.” I agree wholeheartedly. So right around now I’m ready to hear the album and hear it objectively. It’s my job to be objective and I’m afraid I don’t do a very good job of that. I put up a good pretense.

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