The Bill Price Interview

PART 2 Guns N' Roses, The Sex Pistols, Elton John and more...We continue our two-part interview with engineer/producer Bill Price. See October Mix for
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PART 2Guns N' Roses, The Sex Pistols, Elton John and more...

We continue our two-part interview with engineer/producer Bill Price. See October Mix for Part One.

As your career as an independent progressed, you often found yourself being called in to mix material that had been recorded by others. The one that sticks in my mind, rightly or wrongly, is a single by Sparks called "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us."

Yeah. I worked with [producer] Muff Winwood on Sparks a hell of a lot in AIR. We did quite a few songs. "This Town...," I remember, was one that happened to have been started somewhere else and never finished. I wasn't aware of it being a remix situation as such. We did quite a lot of recording on it, as well. They were great, Sparks. When I met them, I'd never seen anything like them before, or since. They were a real treat. I loved doing them.

What's your attitude to mixing tracks by others? You never set yourself up in the way that Bob Clearmountain has, who seems to do nothing but mixing - or maybe you have?

There is an attraction in mixing and not recording. Over the years, I think the time it takes to record a band has increased almost directly in proportion to the number of available tracks. I can tell you that one day after my 50th birthday, I realized an album I was working on was taking six months, and that represented one percent of my whole life, during which I had to give that band 100 percent of my attention. Not just during the day, but at 4 o'clock on the Sunday morning when somebody rang me up, or whatever. That's when I started saying, "Well, I don't think I can do the recording, but I'd love to mix it." I have done more mixing than recording of late, but I don't think anybody can really specialize in mixing without being totally grounded in recording. Even now, when I do record, I'm still learning stuff. If nothing else, the new technology that's in use. So, I wouldn't recommend anybody trying to specialize in one or the other, really.

I've never really minded it when I've heard something I've done being remixed by somebody else. To be honest, it's always sounded completely different from how I could ever have imagined it, because somebody else has done it. By definition, to me, that sounds fantastic.

THE GUNS N' ROSES SAGAHow did you get involved with Guns N' Roses?

Oh, God, this is a long one. Originally, I was headhunted by Tom Zutaut, Guns N' Roses' A&R man, to make Appetite for Destruction, their first record. Negotiations were well under way to record at Wessex, in London, and I was really looking forward to doing it. I'd heard demos that sounded great. Then, all of a sudden, Geffen got cold feet. Guns N' Roses was growing a reputation for being quite wild in Los Angeles, and, probably quite rightly, Geffen didn't want them out of their sight. David Geffen himself insisted that the record was made in Los Angeles. Geffen asked me to go to Los Angeles to make it, and I turned him down. I had a young family at the time and also responsibilities at Wessex, and c'est la vie, mate.

But they came back to you how many albums later?

After Appetite for Destruction they had a 50 percent live record, a bit of a stopgap record, because they hadn't done very much work. Then they started work on their huge Use Your Illusion project with the same producer/engineer, Mike Clink, that had done Appetite for Destruction. This involved about 40 songs, and it was going over budget, overtime, pretty much over everything, really, and Geffen wanted it finished. They got Bob Clearmountain to mix it in one studio whilst Axl was still doing vocals in another studio and Slash doing guitars in a third. Which was, quite obviously, a recipe for chaos. I think Bob mixed about 20 songs, but he had absolutely no contact with the band, because they were recording other stuff in other studios. And basically what happened, if Axl liked the mix, Slash didn't, and if Slash liked the mix, Axl didn't. So Bob never really had the chance to work with the band. Geffen was pressuring to get the album finished, so Tom Zutaut persuaded me to come out to L.A. and mix it. Not even actually to mix it, but to audition for mixing it.

How does that work?

Geffen pays my flight and my hotel, and I do a mix of something and wait and see if anybody likes it or not, to find out whether I'm hired. So I did my "audition" on "Right Next Door to Hell." I think it opens the first CD of Use Your Illusion. It's a very straightforward, up-front rocker, so I did a loud, in-your-face, heavily compressed mix of the backing track and then added Axl's vocal on top, post the compressors, so that you could hear what he was singing. Everybody loved it, so they hired me. I then embarked on a very long period in Los Angeles working my way through this huge amount of material. I had fantastic help from Mike Clink, who'd produced the original backing tracks, and day-to-day support from Jim Mitchell, his engineer, who was very helpful. I had alternate visits from Slash, Axl and various other members of the band and sent everybody else DATs for approval. I happily worked my way through 20 or 30 songs.

Which were all finished, or were there still vocals coming in?

What happened was, having got my way through about 20 songs, I was then in the position of waiting for the next song to be finished. For example, on "November Rain," which was a bit of a baby of Axl's, I had Mike Clink's original 24-track master, which had just drums and maybe a bit of bass on it. I had a 24-track slave that had a load of vocal ideas on it and a 24-track slave that had a lot of guitar ideas on it and a Sony 48-track slave that had a hell of a lot of vocal and keyboard work that Axl had been doing in his studio. I had another 48-track slave that Slash had been recording on in his studio. I tried a telephonic method of working out which tracks should be used and couldn't get anybody to agree on what of this huge amount was going to be used. I decided that the only way would be to run them all together. We were in Skip Saylor's studio in Los Angeles, which had, if I remember rightly, an 82- or 84-channel SSL. It was a pretty big desk. So we hired a bunch of tape machines in, and, of course, they didn't run in sync, but the Los Angeles hire companies have got some very good technical engineers, and some hairy bloke in shorts arrived with a homemade interface and managed to plug all the machines together and get them to run in sync. Then I could play every track that everybody had recorded on.

Then I decided that the only way to find out which tracks to use would be to get the entire band in the studio at the same time, which seemed like quite a normal thing to me. When I mentioned this to the band's management, they were totally horrified. The thought of Guns N' Roses all being in the same room at the same time was too much for them to bear. [Laughs.] They warned me against it, but I couldn't think of any other way of doing it. So they all arrived, and we got down to a mix. They were very gentlemanly. Axl walked in and said, "Good afternoon, Slash. I know it's your guitar, and obviously you have the main say in it, but I do love that lick there. Do you think we could have it a bit louder?" Total gentlemen. We finally got the mix done.

It must have taken many, many hours, if not days or weeks?

It was a very long process. That mix was on the board for a good week, ten days. DATs were going backwards and forth, and harmony lines were being changed and different guitar licks were being put in. You name it. That's about the most complicated mix, both musically, technically and people-wise, I've ever done in my life. But what impressed the band when they walked in was that to get all of these machines synched - Saylor Recording had a separate machine room, which was just full of tape machines, and obviously there weren't enough tielines to get them all onto the desk - there was this elephant trunk of cable coming through the door and wending its way to the desk. Everybody just went, "Oh, my God. What's that?" It looked like something out of a science fiction movie where the machines take over.

So you mixed it all at once, but it was released as two albums [Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II]?

It was released as a two-album set, although they were packaged separately and sold separately for whatever reason. You could buy just one or the other, or both, whichever you wanted. But it was everything that they'd been working on and thinking about for the previous three years tied up into one huge project, in answer to the record company saying, "You haven't been doing very much for three years."

To continue the story a little longer, they still hadn't finished the album when their massive 18-month world tour started. So the last half a dozen songs were recorded, overdubbed, vocal'ed and guitar'ed, what have you'ed, in random recording studios dotted about America when they had a day off between gigs. My mixing mode then switched into flying around America with pocketfuls of DATs, playing it to the band backstage. Which was great fun, actually. I enjoyed that.

So you wouldn't actually do the recording sessions?

No. Mike Clink was on the road with the band, trying to get them in a recording studio wherever he could and whenever he could, and I was back in L.A. at the desk waiting for DHL to bring my next tape through the door.

Sounds like a lot of waiting around.

It was great fun. We were kept quite busy.

SEATRAIN BY THE SEATo record Marblehead Messenger with Seatrain in 1971, [George Martin producing] you went to Marblehead, Massachusetts, and set up a temporary studio in a house. Was that difficult?

It was great, the Marblehead studio. Was it hard to set up? No, it was actually a piece of piss. We got this, what are they called in America, realtor, however you pronounce it. She found us this beautiful house, and we hired an API desk and a 3M machine from a nice little company in Rhode Island, and they trucked it up for us and set up the studio in a lovely, wood-paneled library in this big Colonial-style house in Massachusetts. We even had use of a private beach - very nice. That was until the next-door neighbor noticed that the keyboard player's girlfriend was black and complained to the real estate agent and tried to have us slung out. And this wasn't Alabama - this was the Northeastern United States in the early '70s. I was quite taken aback that that sort of business still existed. That was the last time we used the beach. I was quite shocked.

So what did you do? You recorded it all 16-track, and then you mixed in London?

No. In fact, for whatever reason, I was forced to mix it in a less-than-desirable New York studio in a bit of a hurry, rather than taking it back to AIR. Which is something I forever regret, because just playing the 16-tracks back at AIR sounded better than the mix I'd done on the early homemade desk at Electric Lady. They had that very strange desk that they built themselves, before the equally strange desk that they built in combination with Rupert Neve. That one they've got now works very nicely, but this other one was a pig, and the monitoring was awful. For some reason we had to do three songs a day, or whatever it was. I was not happy, but I am very fond of Marblehead Messenger, and that particular piece of vinyl has got pride of place in my collection.

But you did come back to AIR with a bunch of tapes of the Paul Winter Consort. Which was mixed and released as Icarus.

Oh, my God, yeah, that Paul Winter thing that just went on and on and on.

It seemed like you whizzed through the mix fairly fast, considering what you had to do.

The stage of it at AIR was a tenth of it. Because we'd already done a hell of a lot of work - we spent more time in the Marblehead studio working with Paul Winter on an album that he'd already started elsewhere in New York - than we spent on the Seatrain album. And then he spent more time without George [Martin] somewhere else in America. We ended up with the whole mixture of it back at AIR Studios, which is where we got into this crazy business of editing together 16-tracks from different studios.

Not only were they from different studios, but they'd been recorded with different track layouts and different musicians playing different instruments!

Absolutely. Paul Winter had tried the same song five times going, "Oh, well I like the middle eight from that version and if we could use the introduction from the Marblehead studio, but use the chorus we did last week." In fact, he was somebody who was after total control before the technology really quite existed to give him that control. So it was done with a razor blade.

FUN WITH THE SEX PISTOLSI've got some better quality questions coming up, but here's a rather silly one. Got any good Sex Pistols stories?

Yeah, I've got a good Sex Pistols story. [Laughs.] I tell you, the best stories aren't really printable. It was when I was mixing "God Save the Queen" at Wessex. I remember we were expecting the band, who were at the A&M head office signing their new contract at A&M Records. Have you seen The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle?

No.

There's a whole cartoon sequence which depicts this riotous event at A&M's head office, where Steve Jones has the pleasure of the managing director's secretary in the lavatory and breaks all the plumbing. It's a cartoon portrayal of it, but I think the cartoon was probably quite accurate.

Some time in the afternoon, the band arrived at Wessex in a Daimler limousine, the sort the Queen uses. Everybody had a bottle of A&M's vodka in their pockets. Unfortunately, it was just at the time when the primary school next door to Wessex was on a break. The combination of seeing Johnny Rotten in a Daimler limousine was just too much for these primary-school kids. They were literally hanging, 12 feet up in the air, off the wire fence that separated the studio from the primary school. The headmistress came out and started screaming at them to get in and get away from these dreadful Sex Pistols characters, and Johnny Rotten treated this lovely lady to quite a lot of verbal relating to right-wing dictators and farmyard animals. She started strutting around the playground screaming, "Call the police!" et cetera, et cetera.

I was working in Studio One, but I tucked the band into Studio Two, out the back, and awaited the arrival of the police in Studio One. Unfortunately, her call had been answered by a member of the SPG, the Special Patrol Group. They were a police unit that used to patrol London in the '70s in white Transit vans with wire mesh over the windscreens and wearing riot gear. They arrived at the front door of Wessex, and I ushered them, complete with their body armor, into Studio One. Failing a better idea, I just launched into the standard, "This is how a recording studio works" lecture as if they were a group of Japanese tourists being shown around the Tower of London. Believe it or not, they were quite interested. A couple of coppers played guitar, one was a drummer, if I remember rightly. And I got into more and more detail. We were talking about Fender amps and miking up, blah, blah, blah. Eventually, the sergeant, who presumably was not a musician, got fed up and said, "Let's get out of here." They completely forgot about the Sex Pistols. I walked back into Studio Two, where we'd put the band, and they were just sleeping like babies. Empty vodka bottles still in their hands. [Laughs.]

Sounds very sweet.

It was. You want an Elton story?

Yeah. You started with Elton on The Fox, or had you worked with him before?

No, the first thing we did was half of The Fox. And then we did Jump Up! and Too Low for Zero, both in Montserrat. I can't remember which of the two Montserrat albums it was, but we'd finished recording. Hadn't mixed yet, but we'd finished the bulk of recording. The band was going to leave in a couple of days. Elton arranged a dinner for the whole crew in a small, local restaurant. Elton arrived absolutely impeccably dressed in a black dinner suit, sporting this diamante brooch the size of a dinner plate. I later found out that no way was it diamante, and he'd bought it in Cartier's in New York for so many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Anyway, there were I think about 12 to 18 of us having dinner, and it's a small restaurant. There's half a dozen local customers in the restaurant as well. There's this young girl playing very subtle cocktail piano in the corner. Playing very nicely, actually, very quietly. Toward the end of the meal, she played a really beautiful version of Elton's "Our Song." Elton was quite visibly touched by this, and he left the table and joined her in conversation.

A few minutes later, the piano resumed, and we turned round and were quite surprised to see that the pianist was Elton - he was now the cocktail pianist in the restaurant. He started in cocktail style, but he slowly built up from the bass end up, as Elton does, until about half an hour later, he was singing "Saturday Night" at full volume. Enjoying absolutely every minute of it. He's completely unfazed by the other half a dozen customers, who were actually quite appreciative. He'd been locked in the studio for six weeks, and he was just dying to give a performance. He had a real-live audience in front of him, and he couldn't resist it. That's the secret of Elton's success, the fact that he's an inveterate entertainer. Nothing makes him happier.

PARTY OUT OF BOUNDSIs there any correlation between the enjoyability of a recording session and the subsequent success of the record?

Well, I've done a lot of sessions where there's been a bit of a circus - drugs and alcohol being consumed by everybody - and they've enjoyed themselves thoroughly, but we didn't even bother to play the tapes back the next day. That's one side of it. But the object of a recording session is to get the best performance out of an artist or a musician, and you can't do that if they're nervous or tense, or if you blind them with science. If you're working in a studio every day of your life, it's easy to forget that it could be the first time that the band has been in the studio. Or even if it's not their first time, it might be the most important day of their lives, to them. They might be just about to embark on recording the best song they've ever written that could make them famous. So you do have to show an artist that you're going about the job in a calm, unhurried way, and that nothing they want is too much trouble. You want them to be relaxed and enjoying themselves, and that's the way they can do their best.

Notwithstanding all that, have you ever had the experience of great art or great work being produced under unfriendly circumstances?

I've got experience of great art or great work being produced under difficult circumstances, but never unfriendly circumstances, no. On All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, Pete Townshend was going through a lot of personal problems and was quite a tortured character throughout a lot of the recording, but he still managed to make a great album. But this wasn't in unfriendly circumstances, this was in very caring, quite supportive circumstances. Which is a bit different. It certainly wasn't necessarily a joyous time, but we were all batting for Pete.

I've been in recording sessions where there's been a decidedly unfriendly attitude, and they all got redone, because no matter how good the track or the mix was, whoever was involved in it just got a bad feeling about it. So everyone thought it could be better.

MIXING WITH ROYALTIESHow did you make money as an engineer? Or is it only possible to make real money as a producer? Can you charge points for remixes?

It's hard to survive in any business as a freelancer, particularly as you get older. You get married and acquire children and mortgages. Life gets harder. I used to find it impossible to book a family holiday because of the fear of turning work down and then getting home from holiday and sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring for a month. In fact, Pete Townshend helped me greatly with this. He got me to do the same as he does, and now I just tell everybody, "I don't work in August. No way. Not even a day. That's my family's time." I say that all year and it's worked really well. I'll be booked from September the first. That was a good way around that.

But in terms of making money, one of the most important things is to have a good manager. My manager is Joyce Moore, and she's sorted out loads of stuff for me. If nothing else, it's difficult to have a conversation with a musician one day about the emotional content of their performance, and then try and discuss with them the next day that you're increasing your day rate and you need a better hotel room, or what have you. So it's really important to have somebody working for you on the business side.

But it's all down to royalties, really. That's the important thing. I don't know if you've noticed, lately, in the film business, quite a few movies have been made where the whole crew has been working on absolute minimum wages, but they've been offered a small percentage of the profits. There's no reason why this shouldn't apply to records, whether you're a producer, engineer, remixer or even a tape op. I think if you are working for somebody for a small day rate and an agreed royalty percentage, that's got to show the artist that you've got confidence in the project. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a problem with this that I've come across a couple of times. You can't really rely on a gentleman's agreement on a small royalty, because what you tend to find is if the album goes Platinum, they stop being gentlemen. You do have to have a contract, and unfortunately, as the law goes, this contract has to be negotiated by what's called an accredited music business lawyer. Otherwise, it won't hold up in court. These are the guys that charge $200 an hour. I was once charged $2,000 for negotiating the contract on a single that I never heard again after I finished mixing it. That's the downside. In fact, I think it would be very helpful for the business, and particularly for younger people working in it and trying to make a name for themselves, if there was some sort of standard, short-form contract that all the parties could sign to provide an engineer, tape op, mixer or producer a small royalty on that record without having to have a high-powered lawyer putting in a huge bill every time just to produce exactly the same contract with exactly the same clauses in it. But that's a small bee that buzzes around my bonnet occasionally. [Laughs.]

When was the first time you did get a point or a fraction of a point on a record?

Oh, way back while I was still at Decca. I used to do a lot of work for an easy-listening music company that wanted full attention, and the way they got this out of their engineers was to give them a small piece of the action. It made you work your bollocks off.

I've got one more question. Have you heard any good records lately?

Yeah, I'll give you one that's my favorite from yesterday. Play by Moby. I found myself really impressed by that. Somebody was telling me about it, and I thought taking those old blues vocal lines and looping them up to dance rhythm would completely take the soul out of them. But I heard it, and it's the exact opposite. Every time each of those vocal lines comes around in the loop, it gets more and more intense; you hear more and more in it. I think it's brilliant. I love it.