Note: AFTER THE SESSION has been produced as a podcast, and thus, is intended to be heard and not read. This transcript is a supplement to the original podcast, and as such, doesn’t necessarily reflect the original content or context, so we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio if possible.
After The Session: Season 0 Episode 5
CHRISTIAN: Hello. You’re listening to After The Session. My name is Christian Cummings, and this is Season 0, Episode 5 with my good pal, producer/engineer/mixer David Cole.
You know David’s work with The Steve Miller Band, CAKE, Melissa Etheridge, huge hits with Bob Seger, Richard Marx; he also worked with Tina Turner. He also worked on some of Christopher Guest’s projects – “A Mighty Wind,” “Best in Show,” “Waiting for Guffman.” He was a staff engineer at Capitol, among other things, and has had a very storied career.
I’ve known David Cole – or DC, as a lot of people call him – for several years, and I can’t say enough great things about the guy. First off, he donated his time to be my guinea pig as the first-ever guest on this podcast. What you’re about to hear is the first attempt I ever made at doing this podcast, and he graciously sat down to let me pick his brain about his career, and he didn’t need to do it. So I really, really appreciate his time and energy and effort. The dude is very talented and has a lot of valuable information to share with all of us.
In fact, I should mention that After The Session – the name of this podcast, yep – I owe credit to David Cole for that name. He came up with it after a conversation prior to the podcast, and it stuck.
If you guys have been enjoying he shows up to this point, do me a huge favor and rate us in iTunes and share the podcast with your friends. That’s really how we’re going to find an audience, is via social media by you guys sharing if you like it. So definitely, if you like it, let people know. I hate to ask, it’s kind of cliché and all that jazz, but I guess it’s sort of par for the course.
Having said that, let’s move forward. I’m going to play three or four snippets of music from David Cole’s discography. Here you go: After The Session, Season 0, Episode 5, with producer/engineer/mixer David Cole.
CHRISTIAN: Welcome to the first-ever After The Session podcast. You’re David Cole. Thank you for being on the podcast; I really appreciate it.
DAVID: Thanks. Pleasure to be here.
CHRISTIAN: As I mentioned earlier, I appreciate you helping me hash this out, figure it out.
DAVID: It’s all good. I think there’s a lot of information out there that people might be interested in, and if I can help you seed this project, then I’m all for it.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s the first step on a big journey for me.
DAVID: Right on.
CHRISTIAN: Do you mind talking a little bit about yourself and where you came from?
DAVID: Do the elevator speech?
DAVID: I got my start playing in bands in high school. I played guitar and sang. But I figured out when I was about 18 that it wasn’t going to be a career. I enjoyed music, I loved music, I grew up listening to tons and tons of music; my parents had a turntable, I would listen on headphones and was just engrossed in how music was made and how it was put together. But I didn’t think I could be a traveling musician. That didn’t appeal to me.
I was on this track to be a photographer and was this close to going to photography school when I made the mistake of recording with one of my bands. We went in this crappy little outside and recorded stuff, and I looked in the booth and I saw this guy – the Wizard of Oz with all the cool gear. He was directing us in how to sing and perform and which way to address the microphone. I thought, “This is the coolest thing ever! How is this a career?”
Well, I did some research, I knocked on every door in Hollywood, I got thrown out of a bunch of studios, and finally got some advice which I thought was pretty brilliant: go get an Electronics degree, because there’s lots of signal flow and impedance and frequencies and numbery stuff that you need to know. So I went to school and I got an Electronics degree.
CHRISTIAN: And they were right.
DAVID: Yeah, they were totally right. I got enough experience under my belt that when I did go back around after graduating, I got my foot in the door at Capitol Records. It was to make tape copies, so not a very glamorous job, but I was in the round building, and that was Mecca for me.
CHRISTIAN: Capitol Records, if you don’t know what it is and you’re listening, Capitol Records is the big round building in Los Angeles proper.
DAVID: That’s the one that always collapses in every disaster movie. It’s the first thing to go.
CHRISTIAN: Gets destroyed or blown up, yeah.
DAVID: The UFOs aim for that, and the Hollywood sign is next.
CHRISTIAN: There’s corporate offices in there – I don’t really know what the layout is in there currently, but there’s a big recording studio in there, obviously.
DAVID: Yeah, the first two floors are all recording studios, editing rooms, mixing rooms, mastering rooms. It was my post-graduate work there. I got to learn how to do disc mastering. I was a part of some classical recording sessions; lots of rock, pop, R&B stuff came through there. It was a great place for me to grow up, really.
CHRISTIAN: Who were some of your mentors at Capitol when you first got there? Also, if you’re not aware of Capitol, it’s got a really elaborate history. It’s been there for a very long time.
DAVID: The building itself was 1955, I believe. Before that they were at Radio Recorders down on Melrose. One of their first records was the Bozo the Clown record.
CHRISTIAN: [laughs] Really? How about that.
DAVID: Certainly Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. I mean, come on, it was…
CHRISTIAN: All that happened at Capitol.
DAVID: All that happened through Capitol Records, though I don’t think The Beatles ever set foot in the building as a group, per se.
But you asked me about mentors, and the guy who took the time to interview me as a young, wannabe up-and-comer was a guy named John Kraus. He was an engineer at Capitol; he was managing the studios at the time, and was kind of on that end of the curve of his career. He got a couple of Grammys for engineering the Stan Freberg records. Stan Freberg was kind of the early Weird Al/political humorist, and those were done at Capitol as well, Stan Kenton and lots of other stuff.
But John spent the time with me and saw something in me that validated him hiring me, the idea that I was going to be an engineer someday. He saw something and gave me a shot.
CHRISTIAN: An intangible X factor he saw in you.
DAVID: Yeah, which was cool. They had staff producers back then who would come into the studio and use the studio. They’d want to cut demos and stuff to see if they wanted to sign an artist. So every now and then a producer would come downstairs – they didn’t have a budget for an outside engineer; they just used the staff guy, and that was me lots of times.
So I got to do a lot of projects with a guy named John Carter, who everybody just called “Carter.” Carter signed The Motels back in the day, he did Sammy Hagar. He signed Sammy to the label, co-wrote and produced a bunch of those hits by Sammy, and years later he would manage Sammy during the Chickenfoot era.
But Carter and I did Tina Turner together. I did a bunch of demos with him and Tina to try and get her signed. People didn’t want to sign her.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, let me ask you about that. What was the story with Tina Turner? Can you give me an approximate timeframe here? When was this happening?
DAVID: Oh jeez. “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” It’s that album, so whenever that is.
CHRISTIAN: I don’t know. So this is around that time period?
DAVID: Yeah, the Private Dancer album, the breakout single was “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” She was post-Ike & Tina and was doing hotel gigs or whatever to just make ends meet. Everybody thought she was on the other side of her success curve, but Carter was nuts about her and had an idea and a vision.
In order to get people to even submit songs for her to record, we had to go in-studio and show people, “this is the kind of stuff we’re looking for.”
DAVID: We did covers of a bunch of songs. They all ended up being B-sides for singles and stuff, so they got released eventually. But Tina was a real trooper. She was the real deal.
CHRISTIAN: It goes without question that she can sing.
DAVID: Yeah, she’d just go out there and kill it. I’ll tell one story. She had to leave at one in the morning to hop on a plane to do a gig. She was going to Japan to do some corporate gig. We were finishing up a vocal, and she was using an old U47 and it went out. I don’t know what happened to it, but the mic quit working. We had to finish the rest of the vocal, and we didn’t have a spare mic.
I went back to the tech shop and said “Do you have any idea what we can do?” They said “Well, bring it back here. We’ll see what we can do.” They had a full-time tech there. I told Tina, “I’m sorry, we’ve got to finish this, and if we finish it with some other microphone, it’s just not going to sound the same.”
She said, “Oh, that’s fine. I’ll just hang out. I’m just going to catch a little nap.” She literally laid down on the rug in the studio, out there by the microphone.
So I took the microphone apart, ran it up to the tech guy. He went through it, he found something was wrong in the proprietary cable, fixed it – 45 minutes later, something like that, I bring it back down to the studio and Tina’s asleep. She’s dead asleep.
I hook it back up again, warm it back up again, and it sounds good; it’s not noisy, everything’s working. “Okay, Tina, we’re ready to go again.” She said “Okay, cool.” She gets up – “WAAOO!” She just sings, she just picks it right up where we left off and kills it.
CHRISTIAN: [laughs] That’s awesome. That’s so great.
DAVID: Just totally kills it.
CHRISTIAN: That’s amazing.
DAVID: Finished her vocal, hopped in the car, boom. Tina Turner, ladies and gentlemen.
CHRISTIAN: That is Tina Turner. And the rest was history. So this was in the process of trying to get her going?
DAVID: Yeah, this was trying to get her signed and to get publishers and writers to even submit songs for her. They wanted to keep it for Bonnie Tyler or somebody else, Kim Carnes or whatever. I think when they finally got “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” that Terry Britten wrote, it was like “oh, okay, this is going to be something special” and everybody jumped onboard.
CHRISTIAN: Right. So that was one of the demos? “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
DAVID: That’s not one of the ones we cut. I think somehow Carter got to Terry Britten, and he wrote that song, and the rest is history. She won a lot of Grammys for that album, and it was just a great success story for her.
CHRISTIAN: I just love the fact that people weren’t interested.
DAVID: Carter tells a story that he literally had to get on his knees in the president’s office. The president didn’t want to pick up the option; he wasn’t interested. Carter said, “Look, I know you and I don’t agree on everything, but you’ve got to give me this. You’ve got to do this.”
CHRISTIAN: And she became an international superstar, made a lot of money on her music.
DAVID: So Carter was my guy. He definitely taught me a lot in the studio. He was not a musician. He was a songwriter, but mainly lyrics and was a record-hook kind of guy. He knew when an arrangement was right and all that. He couldn’t tell you what was wrong with this chord or did something need to modulate or is this the right key or whatever. If his foot was tapping, we were doing something right.
He was a vibe kind of producer. He was the guy who definitely set the tone in the studio that “hey, this is going to be fun, and if it’s not fun let’s go home.” I learned a lot from him.
CHRISTIAN: And you feel like that translates in the process? Like people are having fun, it translates into the music?
DAVID: Oh, it’s the loudest thing on any microphone. It’s the attitude. If the musicians are hearing themselves properly and they’re grooving on the music they’re making and it sounds good on playback, everybody’s having a good time, it comes out loud and clear. If for some reason somebody shows up to the studio and they’ve got a black cloud over their head…
CHRISTIAN: You can hear it.
DAVID: You can hear it, and it permeates the rest of the room. There are guys – I’m not going to name any names, but there are guys who are A-list players, awesome musicians who I would say, you know what? I’d much rather have the B-list guy who’s got the hunger and the attitude and the passion for being there. That’s the guy who’s going to give 110% to the project and be a fun hang.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah. It only takes one person to just wreck a session for everyone.
DAVID: Groove anchor. That’s what we call that guy. Somebody who just…
CHRISTIAN: Sucks it down into the black hole.
DAVID: Yeah, weighs everybody else down.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, I know that feeling. So you were part of this process with Tina. Was that towards the beginning of your time at Capitol?
DAVID: Yeah, must’ve been. I was there for 11 years. I was in the studios for nine years as a staff engineer, and the first year or two I was doing nothing but tape production work.
CHRISTIAN: Is that where you cut – obviously you cut Bob Seger’s stuff there, but you cut Abracadabra there, right?
DAVID: Steve Miller Band, my first gold record. Steve had been on the label and had lots of success; obviously The Joker and Fly Like An Eagle – that’s definitely before my time. So I was a fan before I got to work with him. I knew his music.
But Steve had had a real rollercoaster career. He would have a hit record and then a huge dip and then a hit record and then a real lull period and then another hit. He was a huge draw on the touring circuit. I think he was one of the first guys to go out and play the baseball stadiums and pack them in. He definitely did big business, putting on the big show.
But I got to engineer. It was one of those deals where Steve said “Oh, staff engineer? Sure, fine. Whatever.”
CHRISTIAN: Right guy, right place, right time.
DAVID: Oh yeah. It was right when my engineering chops were coming on.
CHRISTIAN: You were probably pretty gung-ho.
DAVID: I was ready to go. Steve came in, we set up the band. Gary Mallaber played drums, Gerald Johnson was on bass, Steve was on guitar, Byron Allred played keyboards. This was his core band.
CHRISTIAN: Who was producing?
DAVID: Steve. He did bring in an executive producer, John Palladino. John was a staff producer at Capitol, and he was pretty much Steve’s contact throughout his tenure there as an artist. He really just wanted John to hang out and be in the room if he had a question or wanted to bounce something off of.
CHRISTIAN: Kind of a safety net, like he’s expecting him to speak up when there’s an issue.
DAVID: Yeah. “If you heard something, let me know.” I think it was also his ploy to involve the record company.
CHRISTIAN: That’s pretty smart.
DAVID: He also wanted to be able to say “I had your guy in the studio and I made this record, and you guys should promote it.”
CHRISTIAN: Yeah. “If you don’t like it, you’re complaining to the wrong person.”
DAVID: Exactly. And John was the perfect guy for that job. John was an awesome engineer at one point and a producer in his own right. A real song guy, very much an arrangement and musician –
CHRISTIAN: I’m sure he knew where he needed to be sitting when he was in that session in advance.
DAVID: Yeah, back in the corner.
CHRISTIAN: Paying attention.
DAVID: Out of the way, paying attention, and just taking it all in.
John taught me a lot about single edits because he was the in-house guy when a project came through – band is on the road, they need to edit a single to get it on the radio. The original is 4 minutes and 52 seconds and radio wouldn’t play anything beyond 3 minutes or 3:10 or whatever. Somebody had to chop it down, because the band made their art and now we have to compromise that art for the sake of commerce.
CHRISTIAN: “Compromise that art for the sake of commerce,” I like that.
DAVID: Right? So John was the guy who they trusted to chop down that 16-bar intro and make it 8 bars or 4 bars.
CHRISTIAN: You need to have trust to be that guy, to pull it off.
DAVID: He would look at the music – he had a stopwatch and a pad of paper, and he would just listen to the song once and make notes about how long each section was, and he’d look at the double chorus and he’d say “let’s make that a single chorus.” And me, as the young engineer with a razor blade in my hand cutting tape, it was like “Where do we cut it? It’s a double chorus. Do you want me to get rid of the first half or get rid of the second half?”
CHRISTIAN: “Or do you want me to get rid of the third and fourth bar of the first half?”
DAVID: Yeah, so we get rid of the middle half. He taught me about that. So you’ve got the intro, the first part of this…
CHRISTIAN: The fill in and the fill out.
DAVID: Or cut at bar 7 instead of bar 9. Cut before the repeat. Stuff like that.
CHRISTIAN: I have to interject – a lot of listeners to this podcast never have used a tape machine. It seems obvious to us to talk about editing with a razor blade, but that’s something that’s not around that much these days, if at all.
DAVID: Not so much.
CHRISTIAN: When you sat there and made those edits for him, you felt pretty confident at this point to slice tape up, and this was something you’d been doing for a long time, I’m sure.
DAVID: Yeah. Fortunately, when you’re cutting up a single, you have two tape machines: one to play back and one to record. You make a copy.
CHRISTIAN: Right out of the gate, yeah. [laughs]
DAVID: You make a copy and you’re chopping up the copy, so if you do screw it up, you can do it again.
CHRISTIAN: And you’re cutting up the half-inch or whatever, right?
DAVID: Yeah, exactly. We’re cutting up the stereo mix. But yeah, in the studio, if we needed to edit the multitrack, it was two-inch tape. Very exciting editing.
CHRISTIAN: What’s the weirdest edit you’ve seen someone do on a two-inch tape?
DAVID: Oh, window edits and stuff?
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, that’s where I was going with it.
DAVID: I think the craziest editing story was Eagles, “Heartache Tonight.” I didn’t work on it, but Bob Seger co-wrote the song with them, and he told me that when they were in the studio, you’d look back at the 24-track and it was black, white, black, white, black, white, black, white. White is the editing tape.
CHRISTIAN: [laughs] Oh my God.
DAVID: That’s how many edits were in that song. Doong-ja-ka-doong-ja. Black, white, black, black –
CHRISTIAN: Like the groove was edited? The whole thing?
DAVID: I don’t know. There was a lot of time spent. There may have been chemicals involved. I don’t know.
CHRISTIAN: [laughs] Probably. That would take some serious focus and time.
DAVID: Focus, yeah. That’s the word I was looking for.
But Steve Miller Band, in the studio, Abracadabra, six weeks of recording, mixing, done, finished, out the door. Hit record. It was a total blast to make the record. Tons of fun.
CHRISTIAN: Six weeks from beginning to end?
CHRISTIAN: So in the door, six weeks – on the radio?
DAVID: Six weeks in the studio.
CHRISTIAN: Six weeks in the studio, and then into the release cycle, whatever that was.
DAVID: Exactly, which was pretty quick in those days. People would easily spend six months making a record and indulging their whims and camping out and tracking drums for 10 days to get one song and stuff like that.
CHRISTIAN: Two-week drum setup.
DAVID: Yeah. We cut the song “Abracadabra,” and it was a take one. It was one of those, “Okay, let’s just lay it down.”
CHRISTIAN: That’s awesome. Whole band in the studio?
DAVID: Everybody in the studio. Steve kind of did a ‘lala’ vocal track. He didn’t quite have all the lyrics together, but he knew what the hook was going to be.
CHRISTIAN: When you tracked everybody in the studio at the same time, where was he singing in this process? I’m trying to visualize everybody’s setup in the studio for this.
DAVID: I think he was out in the room with the drums. I think he was there. I might’ve had him behind some gobos.
CHRISTIAN: Just cutting into like a –
DAVID: Yeah, singing into a 58. He really wanted to be in the room with the band, near his amp and whatnot. We cut the track, and I looked around at John Palladino and he looked at me, and Steve looked at John, John looked at Steve, I looked at Steve, and it was like “What just happened?” “I don’t know.”
CHRISTIAN: “But we got it.”
DAVID: We got it. To use the cliché, it was magic. It was an awesome track. We looked around and Steve says, “Let me finish the lyrics. I’ll go out and sing it.” That was it.
CHRISTIAN: Boom, he went out and did it.
DAVID: That was the track.
CHRISTIAN: Can I interject? On that particular song, the drum sound is really – what’s the word I’m looking for? Kind of legendary?
CHRISTIAN: Crunchy, maybe.
DAVID: I’m okay with crunchy.
CHRISTIAN: Do you remember what you did? I’m a drummer, so I notice these things.
DAVID: It’s the squashed room mics. Capitol Studio B is where we tracked that, which is a great tracking room. It’s got hard floors, it’s got the old school diffusers around the wall, it’s got the acoustic tile on the ceiling, high ceilings. We put the drums up on a riser and did the usual kick, snare, hat, tom-tom, overhead, overhead, and then a couple of room mics.
CHRISTIAN: Why the riser?
DAVID: Why the riser? Why did we do risers? Why did we do drum risers? It was to get the drums up off the floor. They projected better. Line of sight. I don’t know, that was the thing. I don’t know why we did that, but it was a thing.
CHRISTIAN: And you had room mics going up?
DAVID: Probably a pair of 87s in omni, and then I either used the 1176s set for stun, or I used – we had a wonderful stereo Fairchild. I probably smashed it with the Fairchild.
CHRISTIAN: Just timed it right.
DAVID: Yeah, and set the release time to pump with the music, and there you go. We spent a good time getting the guitar solo. Steve had this idea of this ri-ro-ri-ro, wa-wa-wa-wa. I said, “Let’s do it in pieces.”
CHRISTIAN: Did he try to explain it to you first? [laughs]
DAVID: He started messing around with the solo and I said, “Ooh, you know what? Let’s put part of it on one track, let’s put part of it on the other track, and then you can pan one to one side, pan the other to this side. Then when you do the ‘wa-wa-wa’ part, do that on both tracks.” So we spent some time figuring that out and getting that. It does a little stereo thing.
The other thing we did with that track which was kind of unique was we had this whip sound, right?
CHRISTIAN: So memorable. So memorable.
DAVID: The synth guy, we had him dialing up – Byron Allred, he came up with – it was in two pieces – the windup of the whip and then the crack of the whip. I remember we timed it to the track. He performed it once, and then I put it off on a two-track and then flew them all in, one at a time, from the two-track onto the 24-track. This was before samplers.
We’d just cue it up so that when I hit one, two, three, four – you’d hear (whip sound). You just always started from the same spot.
CHRISTIAN: You didn’t just click “quantize”? [laughs]
DAVID: There was no quantize. There was no undo. It was on 24-track back then.
CHRISTIAN: That’s cool. I really miss the world before quantize existed. The ability to tighten things up I think is part of what makes a lot of music that I cherish so beautiful to me. It’s the human aspect. And I’m not knocking quantizing tracks, because I do it all the time, and people like it. That’s a thing, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. I just wish there was more of the other thing in the world as well.
DAVID: The one thing I learned from Bob Seger was you track as much of it live as you can. He’ll sing live, he’ll have extra guitar players on the session, couple of keyboard players, percussionists, the background singers – everybody blowing at once, and you can hear the record, you can hear the arrangement. It’s kind of like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Back in those days, there weren’t a lot of tracks. If you wanted a lot of density, you had to cram everybody into the room and play it once.
CHRISTIAN: Feel so connected.
DAVID: But the thing I learned with Seger was you get something. You get something that you don’t get if you just piecemeal it together. Everything we do, every time we make an engineering choice or a production choice, it’s a compromise. You gain something, you lose something else.
What you gain in having everybody in the room and playing together is that interaction. They’re looking at each other, they can see each other, they challenge each other, they push each other. Yeah, you’ll get some notes that are a little off or a little this way or a little that way, but it’s the ebb and flow of the live performance that I think is what you’re talking about.
As opposed to the erector set of let’s track together, but then we’re just going to keep the drums, and then we’re going to go and edit the drums for four hours, and then track the bass, and then track the guitar. It’s a different thing.
CHRISTIAN: Which is kind of how, I would say at the moment, a lot of productions are made right now in 2015. I would say the majority of productions are made that way, the vast majority. Not all; I mean, there’s some really cool stuff going on out there that my friends are doing and stuff. Don’t get me wrong.
DAVID: There’s no right answer. It’s whatever works for the moment. Aging, you’ll gain something that you’ll prefer – hopefully that’s why you’re doing it, because you’re making a choice – and you’ll lose something else. You never get everything in one style because it’s impossible.
The thing I don’t understand is programming, sequencing a bunch of stuff to a click or to a drum loop or to a drum pattern and then replacing this, that, this, that, and that – and at the eleventh hour, recording the drummer. The last thing in the chain. To me, that’s the foundation. That’s like building the first floor at the end of construction.
CHRISTIAN: Back to Abracadabra real quick. So you finished the Steve Miller record, it went big, and that was your tipping point?
DAVID: Pretty much as an engineer. I definitely was on the map as far as Capitol was concerned. I was the skinny kid with the long hair in the studio, and now I was the skinny kid with the long hair in the studio that had a gold record, and maybe we should throw something else at him, see what else goes up.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, because that worked out. All of a sudden you’ve got income, I’m guessing, and you’ve got success – with that probably came a little bit of ability to pick your path, right?
DAVID: Not so much. I think I never really conspired to carve out a career. I’m not saying that with regret as much as I am I was fortunate that things just came along and fell into my lap.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, but that’s not how it works. I bet if you could have a different perspective on that, or an outsider perspective on that and view that through that lens, you wouldn’t see it that way. You definitely made your own success. I know you as a person, and I know you’re a talented guy.
DAVID: Yeah, I suppose. But what I’m saying is I never sat down and wrote out a hit list of “I need to work with Peter Gabriel, I need to work with this guy, that guy.” It wasn’t really a conscious effort to say “in 5 years I’m going to be here, in 10 years I’m going to be there.” It was “oh, that happened, okay.” And then I did three other albums with Steve Miller. I continued to work with Bob Seger.
CHRISTIAN: You did a bunch of Bob Seger records?
DAVID: Bunch of Bob Seger.
CHRISTIAN: Can you just review which ones you did?
DAVID: Oh boy. Stranger in Town was the first one I worked on, 1978. I was an assistant engineer. John Arias was the engineer. It was one of those projects where you’re sitting in the corner and you’re looking at the compressor and you’re looking at the EQ and you’re listening to what’s coming out of the speakers, and I was like “Oh man, really? Really? This is what we’re doing? Are we doing this?” It was tough for me to watch and listen.
And one day when he didn’t show up, it was like “Here, you’ve been here this whole time. You know where the track sheets are. Sit down.”
CHRISTIAN: “Let’s get going. We’ve got to do some recording.”
DAVID: So I kind of worked my way into doing overdubs. Later I would mix something for them. Then I was the first engineer, then I was the co-producer.
CHRISTIAN: On the same record, you’re talking here?
DAVID: On various records as we moved forward. I co-produced “Like a Rock,” which you might’ve heard once or twice on a Chevy commercial.
CHRISTIAN: Is that technically his biggest hit?
DAVID: Ironically, his only #1 was “Shakedown” from Beverly Hills Cop, which – was it Giorgio Moroder? One of those dance guys produced it. It was one of those Hollywood put together, “hey, let’s get him to produce this track and we’ll get Bob Seger to sing it.” But it was technically a big hit for him.
CHRISTIAN: That is a little outside of the box for his work.
DAVID: Yeah, it was not one of my favorites. But I got to work on “Against the Wind,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” “Heartache Tonight” – oh, that’s the Eagles. What’s the other one? Eagles came and sang on “Fire Lake,” and the Eagles came and sang on another one of his tunes. I can’t remember. That’s when I got to meet Don Henley and Glenn Frey for the first time – and Timothy Schmit, who later I would produce when I was at MCA. I did an album with Timothy.
So yeah, I was definitely starting to make some inroads at Capitol. The A&R guy Bobby Colomby who was there – Bobby was the drummer from Blood, Sweat & Tears back in the day; he was now an A&R guy – he and I worked on America together and a number of other projects.
He said “Hey, I signed this young pop guy. He’s doing a record with Humberto Gatica. Hum is producing it, and they’re kind of butting heads. Maybe you want to go in the studio and cut a track or two with him. You’re kind of a rock guy, and I think it would give some nice edge to the project.” So I met him and listened to this music and I thought, “Yeah, this guy’s really talented. He writes really good songs and sings his ass off.”
We went in the studio, did another take one with a song called “Don’t Mean Nothing.” This was Richard Marx. We had Michael Omartian on keyboards, John Keane was on drums, I think Randy Jackson played bass, Bruce Gaitsch was on guitar, and Richard sang live.
CHRISTIAN: Yes, Randy Jackson was the bass player.
DAVID: Yeah. I worked with Randy way before that on R&B records up in San Francisco. He’d played on Frankie Beverly & Maze. I did a bunch of those records for Capitol, too. But this was another one of those take ones where we all kind of looked at each other – we all got dressed, we all came down, and we’re here. We tried a take two and it was just stupid. It was like, no, that’s it. So, “Well, thanks everybody. There’s two hours left on the session, but see ya later.”
I made the bulk of that debut album with Richard Marx. Humberto I think did some songs, maybe three or four songs. “Endless Summer Nights” was one of his. And we had a bunch of hits. Richard Marx and I produced the second album, which had more success and sold even more records. We did a little piano song called “Right Here Waiting” that was a big hit for him.
CHRISTIAN: Huge hit.
DAVID: Can I tell the story? Are we doing okay on time?
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, absolutely. Please.
DAVID: Richard Marx is on the road. He has a #1 single, he’s got albums moving up the chart, he’s getting offers to go play this, he’s going to play Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. Things are on fire, and his manager is just pouring gasoline on it. He says “I’m writing songs for the next album. I’ve got this one ballad that I wrote, but it’s not really for me. Can you get it to Gladys Knight? Because I know you’re working at MCA.” I had since left Capitol and gone to MCA to do a similar staff producer gig.
So he sends me this song, and it’s “Right Here Waiting.” He’s on the road, he sends me a cassette of it. I’m listening to it in my car. I had to pull over. I was crying. I heard the song and I’m like “Dude!” I called him up, I said “You can’t give this song away. This is huge.” He goes, “No, no, man, I’m a rock guy. I don’t want to load up the album with a bunch of ballads. I’ve got other material. Don’t worry about it. Get it to Gladys Knight.”
Well, luckily Gladys passed. He tried to pitch it to Barbra Streisand, and Barbra says “‘Right here waiting’? You know, if you change the lyrics – I’m not waiting for anybody!”
CHRISTIAN: Really? That was her response?
DAVID: Yeah. So we’re doing the second album, Richard’s off the road. We’ve tracked all the songs, we’re well into the mixing stage and we’re almost done with the album. I said, “Hey Richard, what about that piano song?” “No, I’m not doing that. I’m going to give that to somebody.” I said, “Let’s just cut it. It’ll take us half a day. Let’s cut the song, you’ll sing it, we can put it in the can. Doesn’t have to go on the album. Let’s just have it in case you’re on the road and you need one more song or whatever.”
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, why not? What can it hurt?
DAVID: Let’s do it.
CHRISTIAN: Take a little studio time. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. Whatever.
DAVID: So CJ Vanston comes in – he was our keyboard guy on this project – and killed it. I mean, the whole record is CJ Vanston playing the bass, the keys, the strings. He’s the record. Bruce Gaitsch came in and played the lovely nylon string solo, and Richard sang his butt off on the vocal.
It was all recorded, and Richard said “Okay, but you can’t mix it.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” “Nah, I don’t want you to finish it.”
CHRISTIAN: Is he just afraid that this thing’s going to get out in the world and it’s going to mess with his career or something?
DAVID: He wanted to be the rock guy. He’d had success with up-tempo songs and didn’t want to be characterized as whatever, “the ballad guy.” I understand that.
CHRISTIAN: You know, I think of him a little bit as a ballad guy. A little bit.
DAVID: Sure. Exactly. Rightfully so.
CHRISTIAN: And I maybe wouldn’t have prior to that.
DAVID: He’s had a lot of hits as ballads. He’s a great pop writer.
CHRISTIAN: I’m sure in hindsight he’s okay with that?
DAVID: Yeah, I’m sure he’s okay. We’re mixing the album, and the way we mixed – I was working at Lion Share – I would work on the song all day long by myself. He’d come in after dinner with whoever he was out to dinner with – some of his friends from the band Chicago and LA/Hollywood people and whatever. It was “Hey, let’s go check in and see what’s going on at the studio.”
He’d come in and listen, “What are you working on?” “I’m working on ‘Satisfied.’” I’d play the song “Satisfied,” which was the first single. That did really well on the radio as well. Everybody’s like “Oh my gosh, this sounds great. This is your new album? It’s really cool.” “Hey DC, play them ‘Angelia’,” which was this kind of Def Leppard big massive ballad, noisy ballad. Everybody’s like “Oh my gosh, that’s a smash. That’s huge. Is that the first single?” “No, no, no.”
“Play this other song that you did last week.” I’d play another song, and everybody was freaking out about how awesome the record sounds, how great the songs are, how awesome a follow-up this is. This is the sophomore effort; there’s always that concern.
CHRISTIAN: Sophomore slump.
DAVID: Yeah, there’s always that concern that it’s not going to measure up. As everybody’s about ready to take off, I reach over and I slip into the DAT machine. I said “Hey, do me a favor. Listen to one more song.” Richard looks at me like “What are you doing?”
CHRISTIAN: Uh oh.
DAVID: I hit play, and here comes the rough mix of “Right Here Waiting.” [singing] “Wherever you go, whatever you do…” The girls are crying, the guys are high-fiving each other, and it’s like “Oh my gosh, that’s the first single!” And Richard’s like, “You asshole.”
It took me, his A&R guy, and his manager to wrestle him to the ground to say, “Look, put it on the album. Make it the fourth single. Whatever, but you’ve got to put it on the album.” And it was his biggest single to date.
CHRISTIAN: And that record was his biggest record. It was huge.
DAVID: I’ve got a platinum 45 on my wall from that record. That’s a great song.
CHRISTIAN: That is a perfect example of good producing on so many different levels. A lot of things went into that whole thing happening. I wasn’t there, but it seems like you definitely orchestrated a good part of that.
DAVID: Well, it was a team effort for sure.
CHRISTIAN: I say that with respect to those that you worked with too, because I’m sure – I know it’s not always one person.
DAVID: As Richard will tell you, it’s all about the song, and at the end of the day he’s 100% correct. We could’ve released the demo. We could’ve taken the cassette, regardless of production ideas or whatever. It’s a great song. A hit song is a hit song, and there’s nothing like a hit song when it comes to success.
CHRISTIAN: What would be your definition of a producer? I would imagine a lot of students that you deal with come up and ask you, “Hey DC, what’s a producer do?” I know that might not be a quick answer. Or maybe you have one, I don’t know.
DAVID: Producer to me is the combination of a director on a movie and a producer on a movie. The director works with the talent and figures out how to get the best performance out of an actor, and then the producer is the one who figures out the logistics and how are we going to get this done, who are we going to hire, how much is it going to cost, how long can we do this? You’re wearing both of those hats in the studio.
The other analogy that I use is it’s like you’re an Olympic coach. You’re working with an artist; you have a sense of what they’re capable of and what they can do, and they can jump 11 feet, 6 inches. So today when they jump 11’6”, you raise the bar a bit and you say “Cool. Let’s try it one more time. We’ve got that. Let’s keep that, let’s put that on the playlist. What else you got?” Let’s push them to see what they can do.
CHRISTIAN: And find that spot where it’s where it needs to be, or it’s not going to go any further. You’re not going to jump any higher.
DAVID: You need to be their sympathetic mirror in the studio. You need to hold up the glass and say, this is what I’m seeing right now, this is what I’m getting from you. Is this the best we have? Is this the best lyric? I’ll challenge somebody to rewrite the third verse or to have a better payoff at the end of the chorus.
CHRISTIAN: But you’re not saying “here, let me do that for you.” There’s probably instances where you know, or at least you feel, that you could probably write a better lyric than maybe the other people in the room, but it’s not your job. Your job is to push them to try to get them to do their thing, to create a better lyric.
DAVID: I think you offer up solutions and you offer up encouragement for them to be the best they could possibly be. Whatever that takes. I’ve seen some producers who get great performances out of an artist by antagonizing them and by badgering them and storming out of the studio and saying “Hey, when you’re ready to not suck, I’ll come back.”
CHRISTIAN: I guess that’s one approach.
DAVID: That’s not my style.
CHRISTIAN: Doesn’t sound like much fun.
DAVID: No, it’s not my style. It works for some people; there are some artists who need to be slapped around, apparently. [chuckles] But it’s not my MO. I get comments from singers who say “Oh man, I really like working with you in the studio. I really like how you get my vocal to sound the way it is and get the best performance out of me.” That’s a great compliment.
I understand and empathize with what it is the artist is trying to do on that side of the glass. If you’ve never been on that side of the glass and you’re interested in making music, go out there and put on the headphones and perform something, and listen to yourself.
CHRISTIAN: Wait till that red light starts blinking at you.
DAVID: Yeah, experience it and understand what it is they’re doing. Most creative people are wonderfully in need of reassurance. I’m not saying they’re insecure; I’m saying they need validation. That’s why they’re doing what they do. They stand on a stage, they open their heart, and they say “This is me, this is who I am, this is how I feel, this is how I’ve been treated. Does anybody else relate to this?” And when the audience goes “YEAAAA!”…
CHRISTIAN: It’s that cathartic moment that drives them right there.
CHRISTIAN: I have two quick questions before we’re over. First off, what are you doing these days? You’re doing a lot of mixing at home, right?
DAVID: Yeah, I’m mixing in the box.
CHRISTIAN: You have a website, right?
CHRISTIAN: So if someone wanted to get in touch with you, that’d be a good way to do it?
CHRISTIAN: So you’re doing a lot of mixing at home, in the box. I’m assuming you have a nice studio at your place?
DAVID: I do. I have a room that’s set up specifically for mixing. I’m not going to be tracking there. If I need to do a vocal or whatever – I can certainly do pre-production there.
CHRISTIAN: And you don’t just work on music. You do film projects.
DAVID: Some film projects. Haven’t done one in a while.
CHRISTIAN: We didn’t touch on that. I wanted to touch on that. We ran out of time. That’s okay, we’ll get to it another time.
DAVID: My dear friend CJ Vanston works with Christopher Guest. He’s part of the Spinal Tap group, and they’ve done some comedies together that I’ve been a part of.
CHRISTIAN: Yes. Huge fan. Huge Christopher Guest fan.
DAVID: Me too. You should talk to CJ. We should get him on the podcast.
CHRISTIAN: I definitely want to talk to him. Hopefully he’ll be into it.
DAVID: He’s got a story or two.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, I bet. What would you say one of the craziest things you ever saw in the recording studio was?
DAVID: Oh wow.
CHRISTIAN: That’s kind of a tough question to answer, I’m sure, because you’ve got a bunch of options there. One that you feel like sharing, how’s that? There’s probably a few you don’t feel like sharing. [laughs]
DAVID: It’s like “nope, can’t talk about that, no…”
CHRISTIAN: “Not going to talk about that, don’t want to upset that person.” Do you want me to frame it differently for you?
DAVID: I’ve got one. We had an assistant engineer at Capitol whose name was Steve Himelfarb – better known as “The Farb.” Steve was a wonderful guy, very passionate and really wanted to learn. He was just a regular guy. He was an assistant setup guy and whatever.
One day, I’m in the studio and I’m working on a vocal. I’m trying to think of who the artist was that I was working with, but they’re out in the main room and their mic is set up, the lights are all down, we’re working on this song. To my left is a booth that normally has a grand piano in it. They’ve emptied out the grand piano and it’s in the other studio, so it’s an empty booth.
I look over out of the corner of my eye and I see something enter and stay there. I’m like, “What’s going on?” I look over there, and I hear: [muffled sounds]. It’s Steve, who’s been duct-taped to one of the roll-around carts.
The guys in the tech room had duct-taped him to the cart, they ran him up the elevator to the 13th floor, to the executive floor, they ran him back down, they brought him down the hallway at Capitol and wheeled him in and shoved him into my session.
CHRISTIAN: Okay… [laughs] What was his role in the joint at this point in time?
DAVID: Setup guy.
DAVID: Assistant, runner, “plugging this in.”
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, whatever you need at that moment. That’s funny, man. I’ve heard some great hazing stories from people in that neck of the woods.
DAVID: It’s not how I came up, and it certainly wasn’t my idea.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, that’s cool.
DAVID: He went on to work with Daniel Lanois. He was an engineer for Daniel Lanois in New Orleans. He survived the whole flood thing there.
CHRISTIAN: Did you untie him?
DAVID: Oh yeah.
CHRISTIAN: Okay. [laughs]
DAVID: No, he’s still there. [chuckles] Great guy. He’s got a bakery now in New Orleans.
CHRISTIAN: That’s awesome.
DAVID: Has a bang-up business. He got smart and got out of the music business.
CHRISTIAN: Right on. Well, I have to thank you for doing this.
DAVID: My pleasure. This was big fun.
CHRISTIAN: Obviously you and I were in here talking pretty recently; you’ve been very helpful in helping me develop this whole idea. This is the first podcast, technically, that we’ve done.
DAVID: I hope it’s the first of many more.
CHRISTIAN: I do too.
DAVID: I would love to hear what everybody else has to say. And if somebody can get 30 seconds’ worth of inspiration out of the last hour, I think that’s awesome.
DAVID: I’m a student and a lifelong student myself. I’ll watch Pensado’s Place and listen to podcasts and listen to other stuff. I think anything you can do to broaden your horizons keeps it interesting. There was a time in the ’90s when I kind of got burned out on making music. I was making the same record, working at the same studios, and just didn’t get a buzz off of it.
CHRISTIAN: It’s the same thing every day for hours and hours and hours and hours. I mean, long, long hours.
DAVID: I tried to find something else, and I couldn’t find anything that gave me the same goosebumps. It comes back to those goosebumps on the back of my neck are louder than any VU meter, any peak meter. When I’m in the middle of the speakers and those are going off, it’s like “yep, this is what I need to be doing.”
CHRISTIAN: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate you coming on like this.
DAVID: Sure, buddy. My pleasure.
CHRISTIAN: There’s so much stuff I wanted to cover with you that we didn’t get to. I’m sure we’ll be hopefully doing this again.
DAVID: Let’s do it again.
CHRISTIAN: All right, thanks a lot.
DAVID: Thank you.