Analog rules, and so does American Fiction: An interview with the legendary Eddie Kramer

 

If you don’t know who Eddie Kramer is, you have clearly never bothered to actually read the liner notes of any of the albums you own. A South Africa native, Eddie got his start working as a sound engineer in London in early 60s just as that whole rock ‘n roll thing was getting going. Fifty years later, his engineering and production credits basically read like a list of every single person in the rock ‘n roll hall of fame – Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Kinks, David Bowie—hell, even KISS!—etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

So imagine the surprise Memphis singer/guitarist Chris Johnson felt when he sent Eddie a cold email with demos by his band, American Fiction, attached, and Eddie not only responded – he wanted to work them. After sessions in Nashville, Memphis, and L.A., the band—Johnson, guitarist Landon Moore, bassist Blake Rhea, keyboardist Pat Fusco, and drummer Peewee Jackson—wrapped up their eclectic debut LP, Dumb Luck, with Eddie producing. The album, which seems to touch on just about every form of musical expression Tennessee has to offer, was released back in June, and is available now on iTunes, Amazon, and maybe even your local record store! If you’re into that sort of thing. The irrepressibly charming Mr. Kramer was kind enough to chat with me from his home base in L.A. about the making of Dumb Luck, his recording process, and why earbuds suck ass.

 

You decided to work with American Fiction after they sent you an email totally cold.

Well, we have to correct that. The story is – I love the backstory. The story goes that Chris sent an email to another email address, which arrived on AJ Newton’s—my lovely partner, my better half—on her email. And she gets a bunch of stuff anyway, so she was going through – because I don’t look at the Facebook or any of that stuff, we have a really wonderful social media guy who takes care of that stuff. But AJ loves to look at that stuff. And she said, “Hey, you should check out this email I got from this guy Chris, [they’re] pretty neat songs.” I said, “OK, fine” and she sent it to me and I listened to it and I went, “WOW. Who is this guy? I love the way that voice sounds.” And that was the first thing I heard, which was the demos that he had put together. I think the rest sort of happened rather quickly. I seem to remember calling him, and I think he almost needed several pairs of Depends [laughs]. Because he couldn’t believe he was getting a call from me for some reason, I don’t know why but there you are. It started a really nice conversation, and I said, “well, you’ve got to send me more material,” which I listened to, and I said, “You guys are great, I really like what you’re up to.” And then it started rolling from that point.

Then I started to hear about Jake Erwin who, I guess, one could call him the manager, which is in essence what he is. He’s the de facto manager, but I think really he’s taken over that role very efficiently. He used to be an attorney – he still is an attorney. He started to put it all together. At first, I believe the concept was, OK the band’s in Memphis, I’m in LA, let’s find – I suggested a common ground place to them like Nashville, which was close for them and reasonably close for me, and I knew there were some very good studios there. And they decided – I think in the beginning, Jake’s idea was to film the whole thing, like a journey from Memphis to Nashville, then to LA and film the whole thing. I think that kind of went by the boards pretty soon in, because I think from a budget point of view it just wouldn’t have worked. So we made the decision to record in Nashville, which was a hop, skip, and a jump for them and a journey for me. I booked them in a place called 16 Ton Studios. The studio’s great, I’ve recorded there before. Do you know Robert Randolph, have you ever heard of him?

Yes, of course.

Yeah, I recorded him there many times, and the Slide Brothers and stuff like that. I just love the sound of that room. And it’s an all tube console, which is very rare. So we brought the boys in there and got a bunch of tracks and did a bunch of overdubs. Then they made the west journey all the way to LA where we did vocals and extra guitar bits, and then I mixed it. That was a hell of a… [laughs] during the time they were in LA they just enjoyed themselves. Instead of renting a car, Jake managed to buy a beat up old early 80s Lincoln town car, white – oh my god, with ripped seats, it was horrendous. They ended up spray painting it and burning rubber… Actually, apparently one night where they were staying, they had laid so much rubber on the road and it was causing so much disturbance, they had a helicopter overhead, a police helicopter [laughs]. They were becoming the sort of Southern hip rock ‘n roll guys doing the LA thing. There’s nothing like the LAPD after you with a freaking helicopter.

That’s how you know you’ve made it in the rock world.

Well, you’re beginning to make it. So it was a lot of fun. After that, we took a while to digest everything, and I felt that they were improving so much as players and writers and the band really began to gel. And we decided to cut some more tracks. Because there were some – not necessarily better songs, but definitely more improved and better executed, I think, as the band began to gel even more. And so we cut 3 extra songs at Ardent in Memphis, which was fantastic, I really loved it. That was an exciting four days, because it was also my birthday and they surprised me with a birthday party and AJ, my better half, was flown in secretly undercover of darkness or whatever and surprised the hell out of me when they were doing this little party. The whole vibe there was just great. I mean, the place may be falling apart, but my goodness, the sound!

Is it really falling apart? That’s too bad.

Yeah, I mean, the console was falling apart and all of that. But we still got great sounds, it just ate into our creativity a bit. Other than that, it was fantastic, and Memphis is so cool. Have you ever been there?

No, I’ve never been, but I like a lot of bands from Memphis. There’s this band called Lucero that I really love, they’ve recorded at Ardent too.

Yes, in fact I think Lucero are gonna have [American Fiction] open for them at some point. That was a discussion that was being bandied about. We met the guys from Lucero, they really like the record.

Oh, no kidding!

Yeah, they came to the studio one day. There was something about the vibe about that room – the fact that it was from the 60s. The acoustics in Studio 1 are really good. We basically tracked three brand new songs – actually four, and did all the vocals, all the overdubs in a matter of like two and a half, three days. Then Chris came out to California and we did some more vocals and mixed it, and that was the album. It’s a done deal. I’m really happy with it. The guys are playing fantastically right now. That’s the long and the short of it.

It’s quite a saga. Since that email thing worked, I hope you’re ready for every unsigned band in the world to start sending you unsolicited demos.

They do anyway! Which is interesting, because my social media guy, he gets stuff, and AJ sort of filters through some stuff for me, and occasionally something comes through that’s really undeniable, and that was the case with American Fiction.

It’s interesting that part of the album was recorded in Memphis, because it’s such an eclectic record with a lot of different styles on it, but one thing that really shines through, I think, is a Memphis soul, Stax Volt vibe. Is that something you were conscious of?

Absolutely conscious of! And [we] really wanted to play that up. In fact, we did it on the ballad [“Crystal Key”], which was kind of an unusual song, the way it twists and turns and it gets to the break at the end where you hear that “Da da da da, da da da da” with the strings. And it sounds just like what I wanted, which was a 60s throwback. To me, it sounds like a cross between the early Philly sound and some of the Stax sound all melded into one.

How collaborative were the arrangement decisions and things like that? Was the band more deferential to you or did they have a good idea of how they wanted the record to sound going in?

I think that was pretty much left up to me. But I think what happens in a collaborative process – when I record bands, I do not try at all to stumble over them. I want the band to speak for themselves, and I encourage a democratic opinion. I often feel there’s so such thing as a bad idea, there’s just certain ideas that just won’t work [laughs]. We try a lot of things, and the fact of the matter is that the band, as you said, is so eclectic and the players are so damn good, I can get a thousand ideas out of them in a minute. So it’s up to me to sort of sort through the ideas and say, “No, no, no, no, this one is what we’re looking for.”

Now Landon – oh god, he’s great. They’re all very creative, but Landon has a unique talent for guitar tones and weird chords and things like that. And I said, “Now, Landon, you could play this way or that way and it’s maybe fantastic by itself, but listen to what happens when I put this fabulous guitar part you’ve just created in with the rest of it. See how it clashes? There’s so much going on. Simplification is the art of the game here.” And I’ve learned how to sort of control their baser instincts [laughs], and try to mold it into this shape, which I hear in my head when I hear the song for the first time – I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s gonna sound like in the final analysis. That’s true for Pat, who’s a wonderful keyboard player, a great classically trained guy, plays gospel. And you pointed out the R&B/funk strain that’s running through the musical influences – it’s all there, the gospel, the blues, the Southern rock thing, it’s all mixed in there. And of course Landon adds this eclectic folkie kind of thing to it as well. So I think the band just bloody well works together! You couldn’t ask for more disparate characters, both musically and psychologically.

So you mentioned the tube console, which is pretty cool. But how did you record the album? Was it all analog tape? Did you use ProTools?

No, I used a wire recorder from 1948 [laughs].

That would be impressive.

No, it’s all tape. I love analog. [We] printed it on analog tape and then we dumped it into ProTools. If you want to get technical and geeky, I can give you the process of how we do it.

Sure!

Basically, there are very very few analog to digital converters, which I like, and the best of them is this device made by Burl. They have this thing called the Mothership, which is basically a multitrack A to D and D to A converter. And the reason it sounds so bloody good is because it’s got transformers in it, and it beats everything out there on the market. Forget the 192s and ProTools, that’s all junk as far as I’m concerned. I started using it about five years ago when they first came to see me in LA while I was mixing some Hendrix stuff, and they wanted to show me how good their converters were. So I played a Hendrix master tape multitrack and put it through the Burl, and I was stunned at how good the end result was – it sounded just like the tape. And from that moment I was sold, so literally everything I do goes through this Burl device. Once we’re in ProTools, we’re now in the digital realm, but then I use a lot of analog gear before it hits ProTools. And then when we mix, we mix through an analog console, and using all the stuff in the boxes. We use plug ins, of course, but we use loads of analog gear. And then we print on tape for the mix. And then we take the tape and play back the tape through another Burl back into ProTools. So we’ve got analog-digital-analog. That’s the whole flow of my concept. And it works!

Being from the era you are, what do you think about the resurgence of analog recording and vinyl?

Oh, I love it! It is just so exciting to see people actually getting to grips with it again. And you know, it’s a fallacy that tape is expensive. Yes, it is for one reel of tape – it’s about 300 bucks. But hey, what do you pay for a really good hard drive? $250? $280? OK, so you’re paying another few bucks more, but guess what? You can use that tape quite a few times before it starts to deteriorate. So I encourage a band, if they have a small budget, budget in 300 bucks for a roll of tape. We print everything, we track, as soon as we’ve got the track, boom, you drop everything into ProTools and you move on. You can wipe the tape a couple of times and pretty much get a whole album’s worth on it. To me, it works out. There is nothing like the sound of tape, I don’t care what anybody says.

You may be right about that.

Oh, I know I’m right. And, by the way, that’s not only me – pretty much every record producer out there wishes he could [record analog]. There has been such a huge shift – the Foo Fighters, the Black Keys. And by the way, talking about that, did you know that the Black Keys sold 100,000 copies of vinyl? 100,000!

Yeah. I think the new Jack White album that just came out broke the record for the most online sales of a vinyl album. [Correction: it broke the record for most overall first week vinyl sales since 1991, when SoundScan began keeping track].

I can imagine. I heard it was about 40,000. It proves a point: people want to hold something in their hands that is tangible. They want to look at the double gatefold, if that’s the case, or the beautiful front and back of the 12 inch record and hold the vinyl in their hands and put it on a turntable and listen to it. And it sound so much better than the CD, oh my god! We’ve raised this current generation, who are listening on earbuds, for god’s sake, and mp3s, which are terrible to begin with, and then the earbuds are even worse. You think about how much time and energy and money you spend in the studio as a band and a producer and an engineer trying to create fabulous sounds with analog tape, and you go, “Oh no, you’re not gonna play it on that, are you?” But hopefully that’s changing. Hopefully kids are now getting into decent sized headphones. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of Beats, but at least they’re better than the damn earbuds. So there’s hope yet.

I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I’d love to delve into the past quickly. Above all things, I’m a huge Stones freak, so I’d love to hear some of your memories about recording Satanic Majesties and Beggars Banquet. So first of all, is it true that you played percussion on the song “2000 Light Years From Home”?

I was one of quite a number of us in the studio playing percussion. I cannot remember specifically, but I’m thinking it was probably Mick, who was obviously very good at maracas and that kind of stuff, myself, probably Keith – there was quite a few of use banging away at various instruments.

What do you remember about the Beggars Banquet sessions?

The history of it is that, because of Jimmy Miller, I got to do that as the senior engineer, because I was obviously the assistant engineer for Glyn Johns prior to that. And as soon as Jimmy Miller was called in to do the Stones, obviously because of the work I had done with him and Traffic, I think that was the call. He was wonderful. Jimmy Miller, I would say, was hands down the best producer they ever had. Jimmy and I created the basic sounds for Beggars Banquet on “Street Fighting Man” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which was also done at the same time even though it appeared later, I believe [Ed. note – the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” single was actually released about seven and a half months before Beggars Banquet, in May 1968]. But “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Parachute Woman,” “Street Fighting Man,” they were all—and I hate to use this word—cut from the same cloth, but they really were. There’s a couple of stories that are in contention with one another – I have my story, and other people have their stories. But I have to say, my reservation about telling you more about that is for the very simple reason that I’m writing a book. I’m in the midst of it now, it’s called From the Other Side of the Glass and it’s about my life story and obviously all the bands I’ve worked with. I’m sort of right into that Stones chapter right now, and I’m hoping to try to keep some of these stories for the book, if I could.

Fair enough. Since we were talking about analog versus digital and all that stuff, were you at all involved with the new Led Zeppelin remasters?

No. Obviously it was a lot of my stuff that was in there. Mr. Page does that in England with somebody he uses over there – I haven’t worked with him for quite a while. We remain to this day very good friends. I’m very glad they put that stuff out, it’s very cool shit.

You’ve done a lot of Hendrix remasters and all of that, and a lot of remasters are always coming out. It’s interesting, because there will always be people who say, “You’ll never beat the original mixes.” What do you think modern remastering techniques add to old material?

Let’s set the record straight here – any of the Hendrix stuff, I’ve never remixed an original mix which has been released. I have remixed alternate takes, absolutely. I have remastered them where you go to a remastering lab and do the vinyl and re-EQ things. Sometimes we were able to find the original quarter inch master before it was copied many times – that we have done for years. But when it comes time for new material, unreleased material, obviously I’m going to try to do something that reflects back upon what he liked and what we liked in the beginning, but bring it up more in terms of where we are today with technology at our disposal. I’m able to, as I explained to you, every trick in the book, analog and digital. I told you the process, and that’s exactly what I do with Jimi’s material, is to give it a new lease of life, breath some new life into it and hopefully make it sound possibly better than it was originally.

 

Cross-posted on No Depression



2 Comments

  1. Emily wrote:

    What a delightful interview! Well done. 🙂

  2. victoid wrote:

    Great to hear from a legend who had his hands on so many of the sounds that defined the only era of rock that really matters. Just seeing the words ‘Satanic Majesties” and “Beggars Banquet” commands my full attention for whatever follows. Only wish he had opened up just a bit more. Hope he finishes the book.
    Thanks for asking the right questions. His detailed and animated responses are credit to your leads.

    In the early 90’s I worked for the great engineer/producer Gerry Brown, near the beginning of his career, who was working at the time with Vanessa Williams, Brian McKnight and Jonathan Butler. He too believed only in analog. He would not record with anything without tubes, and had me combing the NYC region for specific old amps, instruments (try finding a working Mellotron) and even analog consoles and tape decks. Loading a 500 lb Tascam studio machine into the back of a van and getting it out without destroying it or your body is a challenge. He too sent tracks through pro tools but mixed to tape (always in a dark studio with his collection of lava lamps providing the only light). Not sure what converter he used. Anyway the albums he produced had as warm and immediate a sound as anything I’ve ever heard. Never heard him mention Eddie Kramer, but he obviously is (or at least was) a believer in the same recording philosophy. Gerry couldn’t stand CD’s either, but vinyl was already gone by then. Glad it’s comin back.


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