L.A. GRAPEVINEDropped in at Sunset Sound's Studio One, where I found songwriter/guitarist Richard Thompson in mixing his upcoming Capitol release with producers Tom 5/01/1999 8:00 AM Eastern
Dropped in at Sunset Sound's Studio One, where I found songwriter/guitarist Richard Thompson in mixing his upcoming Capitol release with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf. Roth-rock/Schnapf, perhaps best known for their cutting-edge work with artists such as Beck, Elliott Smith and Foo Fighters, have their own independent label (Bong Load) and were hooked up with Thompson by Capitol A&R exec Kim Buie, who had long thought that the three would make a good team.
"I've been a big fan of Richard's since '81 or so," says Schnapf, "and I was always very interested in doing something with him. Kim has been trying to get us together for about five years, and finally the time was right."
"It was a bit like a job interview when we met at my house," recalls Thompson with a laugh. "Although I guess it was more like, 'Who's interviewing who?' I thought it was great that there were two of them. I knew if I had a falling out with one, there was always another I could work with! It's turned out very well. We made the record I wanted to make, without trying too hard. It was fun, and comparatively easy to record. We got really lucky with the musicians-I don't have a regular band; it's more of an irregular band, and this was it: We had [drummer and Fairport Convention alumnus] Dave Maddox and [upright bassist/ex-Pentangle member] Danny Thompson, with Atom Ellis from the [Bong Load-signed] band Dieselhed on electric bass. That's the core-and my son Teddy Thompson sang and played guitar, as well."
Recorded at Capitol's Studio B over a three-week period and titled Mock Tudor, the CD is scheduled for a June release. Although not, according to Thompson, a "theme record" per se, the album does have a leitmotif: It was inspired by his recollections of growing up and living in '60s to '80s London-hence, the title, from the architectural style of the row houses that dominated his neighborhood. "It's not actually about nostalgia," he says. "It's more about the things that drive you, the things that, years later, can still sometimes make you wake at night in a sweat."
Rothrock and Schnapf are frequent denizens of Sunset Sound. "We like Sunset Sound because we like the vintage stuff," Rothrock says. "The consoles, the couches...and we like API consoles a lot. They're American and they don't break much. It's kind of like driving an old Ford vs. other vintage consoles that are more like old MGs."
The duo also work on an API DeMedio console at their private studio in Northern California, where Rothrock, who attended Humboldt State University, hails from. "It's kind of a retreat studio," he says. "We usually do a lot of work up there in the summer when it gets hot and smoggy in L.A." The idyllic-sounding and "state-of-the-art '70s" facility also features a Stephens 24-track. "We try not to be up there in the winter because it's just mud," Schnapf adds. "It's in a barn with lots of windows and natural light, on a river, in the redwoods by the ocean..."
The two do their own engineering, trading off chores as needed. "Rob and I both have engineering backgrounds," Rothrock explains, "so there aren't really defined roles, just a way of working. We've been working together, kind of exclusively, for ten years, so I'd say we have a routine. ["Although it's sometimes hard to figure out what it is," says Thompson.] A lot of times it's not discussed. One of us will be running the tape machine and get up and move to the other side of the room. The other person will walk by, sit down and start running the tape machine. There's a lot of back and forth that's just understood. We're definitely not haphazard, though, and it's not a happy-go-lucky free-for-all. There are defined areas of responsibility, but there's not a defined way things have to go down. You can be flexible while still being in charge."
Rothrock and Schnapf's association began when both were working at Record Plant. Rothrock had dropped out of college with the goal of finding work at a studio; Schnapf had arrived in L.A. from Washington, D.C., with his band, and when the band broke up, he also decided on a studio career. "We both ended up working at Record Plant on Sycamore within a year of arriving in L.A.," Schnapf says, "not as assistants-they wouldn't let us be assistants. We were making coffee and sweeping up. The good thing about Record Plant at the time was it had Stage M, the scoring stage, and a remote truck, so we both gained invaluable, all-around experience."
How did the two start working together? "It was Christmas Day 1988, and I'd just finished producing a little five-song indie recording that I'd been doing on the side at Cherokee Studios," Rothrock recalls. "Record Plant had a tradition that there was at least one staff member there 24/7, and that Christmas I was the guy. Rob dropped by to see what poor schmo was stuck there, found nobody at the front desk and me in a studio with two DAT machines dubbing this EP. I had headphones on and he kind of scared me when he said, 'What are you doing?' 'I'm dubbing this thing I just produced,' and it was like 'What? You're the janitor-how did you produce something? 'Well, I met these guys who had a band, and I told them I knew how to record.' He listened and said, 'This is the kind of stuff I'd like to produce!' So I said, 'Well, I've got time upstairs at Microplant, and my roommate's got a band...' You can't be too fussy in the beginning. If a band has some good quality about them and there's something you think you can bring to it..."
The two continued honing their chops in that classic studio tradition (seemingly not so prevalent these days) of bringing in bands to record on off-time. "There was a space above the main Record Plant called Microplant, run by Steve Deutsch, who would let us work in there anytime it wasn't booked," Schnapf explains. "We'd drag bands in, and we started amassing all this material. We were producing, but it was always considered just demos, until we got sick of that. No one would put the music out, and Tom had always wanted to have a label, so that was the launching ground, the birth of Bong Load."
With Beck's smash hit "Loser" to their credit (Beck was signed to Bong Load prior to being picked up by Geffen, and "Loser" was a Rothrock/Schnapf production), one would expect that the team would have it made. "It was interesting," muses Schnapf, "the Mellow Gold experience. It was kind of a weird record, so it's not like our phone was ringing off the hook. It was an idiosyncratic record at the time-it still is, actually-or, well, it's just Beck. But at the time I think it confused some people. It didn't fit into column A or B, and people couldn't really recognize a thumbprint of ours. A lot of producers have that kind of style imprint, but our whole thing is to try to maximize what the artist does, and I think that can be hard for some people to get."
"When we're looking for stuff to work on," Rothrock says, "we pay most attention to the songs. That's why we can go from Elliott Smith to Richard Thompson to Moby, and hop around genres, because we really are just looking at the songs each time-the songs and the task at hand. We've been lucky, if that's the right word; you meet a lot of people who want to be working in the opposite genre from what they're already doing, and we've been able to avoid that. Maybe having our own label helps, and also the fact that we'll work on something at any level keeps us from getting pigeon-holed."
The duo definitely still enjoys getting in on the ground floor with artists. "That's the fun part," Schnapf comments. "It's cool to be able to find something early on and get to maximize the good things about it before all those other agendas start to happen. It's like you're in it for the right reason, just for the music."
Working with a seasoned artist like Richard Thompson gave some different perspectives. "We've worked with a lot of young bands," Schnapf says, "and a lot of them could learn from Richard. He's a master of the craft of songwriting, and he has a great work ethic. The process was very streamlined; it was get in there and work, work, work-have a good time, but always be productive. Then you take a break, then you work some more, and when you're no longer productive, you go home. As opposed to people farting around all day and just wasting time."
Upcoming Rothrock/Schnapf projects to look for besides Mock Tudor include Moby's new release (featuring some vocal cameos from No Doubt's Gwen Stefani), and an album by Sony 550's buzz artist Carl Hancock Rux.
In a very convenient Beverly Hills-adjacent location I found The RecRoom, where partners Michael Skloff and Giorgio Bertuccelli were laying down cues for the Friends television series soundtrack. Composer/keyboardist Skloff and producer Bertuccelli are a busy team; they also score for two other top NBC sitcoms, Veronica's Closet and Jesse, as well as doing work for film soundtracks and TV movies.
The RecRoom complex is utilitarian and comfortable-an industrial-style space with concrete floors, exposed ventilation ducts and plenty of translucent-shaded natural light, with walls a combination of plywood and some rather indescribably avant colors (although the amiable Bertuccelli made a search for paint cans to pinpoint an accurate name for a certain green I was curious about). The control room features a Vincent Van Haaff/Waterland Front Wall room-within-a-room construction surrounding a Euphonix CS2000/3000 console (2000 frame, 3000 electronics). On the day that I visited, engineer Doug Rider was recording direct to Pro Tools the regular Friends' band-Rocket Ritchotte on guitar and Greg Bissonette on drums, with brother Matt Bissonette on bass and Skloff on piano. This rather amazing collection of studio cats routinely lays down 30 to 40 cues in a seemingly laid-back three-hour weekly session and has a good time to boot. These guys make it look effortless!
Skloff spent ten years in New York working in musical theater, while Bertuccelli was producing and engineering, working with synthesizers and bands. They met when Skloff came to Bertuccelli's studio in Hollywood's historic Taft Building to record some songs from a live performance he was working on. "The project never came to fruition, but Giorgio and I just sort of stuck together and started doing a lot of stuff together," he says.
"I'm self-taught and Michael went to Carnegie Mellon for composition," says Bertuccelli. "That's kind of what we offer each other."
The RecRoom is a relatively new space; the studio design came about in part because Waterland Design's offices were beneath those of Bertuccelli's studio in the Taft Building. "After we started doing Friends about five years ago, we jumped around a lot from studio to studio," Bertuccelli says. "Finally, it was time to get our own space. When we first talked to Vincent, the original drawings were of a conventional room. He had a 3D rendering on his desk of the Front Wall, and we said, 'Hey what's that?' We like having open spaces."
"It's a lot bigger and more fun; that's why we call it the RecRoom," adds Skloff. "It's great not to have so much separation between people. It's the best of both worlds-we have this great sort of experimental open space and the three isolation booths that keep us safe when we need to keep tracks separate. There are mic panels in all the rooms [a drum kit is also set up in the high-ceilinged lounge] with video link in all those panels, so we can potentially record an orchestra here when we need to."
Although Bertuccelli and Skloff have for the past few years been concentrating on their highly successful soundtrack career, they are also branching out-a recent session at the RecRoom consisted of three days with Phil Ramone working on Barry Manilow's version of "Strangers in the Night," and the two have been recording material for artists that will be released on their own imprint. You'd think they'd be too busy, but, you know that old saying: "If you want something done, give it to a busy person to do."