Neil Kernon at Rax Trax Recording, Chicago
Neil Kernon is a man driven by passion. He has worked with acts ranging from Queen to Hall & Oates to Cannibal Corpse, collaborating with musicians he likes, regardless of the dollar signs attached to them. Based in Chicago since 1997, the British native says he has worked on more than 500 albums, including at least 350 that he has produced.
Born into a musical family—both his parents played piano and encouraged him to start around age 3—he picked up guitar by age 7 and played in bands throughout his school days. Later, a gig at publishing company Essex Music lead to him working at Trident Studios (London), where he ascended from tea boy to tape op to engineer. He got the chance to work on Queen’s II and Sheer Heart Attack albums. In the ’80s, his co-producing work with Phil Collins’ fusion group Brand X eventually led him to produce three hit albums for R&B crossover stars Hall & Oates, two releases for progressive-metal progenitors Queensrÿche and two big records for Sunset Strip rockers Dokken. By the early ’90s, his sensibilities shifted to harder industrial metal and thrash acts (such as Clay People, and Flotsam and Jetsam), and by the turn of the century, he was tackling progressive metal and helping death-metal veterans like Cannibal Corpse and Nile gain a thicker yet also clearer sound.
Even though he began his career in the major-label world, Kernon is steadfastly indie these days. He has often turned down more lucrative offers to focus on the music he loves. In this interview, Kernon talks about some of his classic recordings and death metal, and why drive, passion and enthusiasm will always win him over.
You did three albums in a row with Hall & Oates. What are your best recollections of working with them?
I was already a big fan, which has always been very important to me. The ideal situation is if you’re really digging the music, then you’re always going to do a better job. So this was perfect because I loved the band and the music. I was a big fan of what they had done prior, so I was getting involved with something that was a dreamlike situation rather than something that you’re hoping you really can turn into something special.
They were very professional. I think the first album I did with them was actually their tenth record, so they knew that what they were doing as far as the process. It was really natural and instinctive. We didn’t spend ages and ages going over the stuff. Daryl [Hall] had sketches that he would bring in on cassette and play for the band—which was Jerry Marotta, John Siegler, G.E. Smith and Larry Fast—and knock together the arrangement right then and there, on every song. It was like that on three records.
You gave them a beefier sound, particularly with the drums on a track like “Private Eyes.” It’s something that you applied to many different recordings throughout the ’80s with rock and metal groups like Streets, Kansas, Queensrÿche and Dokken. What inspired this approach to drums and percussion?
It’s kind of funny. Coming from Trident there was always something of a tradition to uphold, which was the Trident drum sound, even though the drum sound that I preferred—the drum sound that I would hear in rehearsal with my band—sounded nothing like what was coming out from Trident, because back in the ’70s, everything was really dead. Space was created with reverbs and stuff. The walls of the Trident drum booth were carpeted so there was no liveness to the sound at all.
After my time in Trident, I did a bunch of other things, including going on the road. I did front-of-house sound for Yes for a year-and-a-half. I had this feeling that the liveness was important. I started working in a little demo studio in London doing a lot of punk and new-wave stuff, which was one of the things that Jerry had pointed Daryl toward when talking about me. He just liked the punchy, more aggressive, in-your-face [sound]. It wasn’t metal, but it was aggressive and still poppy, and Daryl wanted to get away from the slick, polished approach that they had been using, which was almost like disco.
I was given free rein in that they wanted something that was powerful, which meant that drums were going to be prominent and probably not too terribly guitar-heavy, but at least more guitar-heavy than their old stuff was, which was very slick and kind of L.A. It gave me something to bring in that they’d never had before.
To be honest, after three albums, so much of that element—the excitement, the live approach—had been strangled out of the stuff. There was pressure from management and the label to concentrate on the crossover. We had a few songs that had done well on R&B radio like “I Can’t Go for That,” “Your Imagination,” “Kiss on My List” and “One on One.” It was starting to get a bit soft, and the guitars were coming further back, and the drums were not so bombastic. It was pretty much smoother, and it was at that point that I opted to [leave]. There was never any bad feeling, but we were growing apart a bit. I wanted it to be more aggressive, and it wasn’t going to happen because they were seeing this gigantic crossover success. Private Eyes was probably my favorite in terms of it just being bashy and having lots of guitars in there, but we were still able to get on the radio because it wasn’t an offensive amount of guitar, if you like, which was always the issue back then.
With Degree Absolute’s Aaron Bell at Robert Lang Studios, Seattle, Wash.
Photo: Courtesy Robert Lang Recording Studios
You produced two of the first three releases for Queensrÿche, including Rage for Order, which was heavy on sound design. What did you learn from working with them?
Rage is still is one of my absolute favorites and might still be my favorite collaboration. The thing about that record was the timing of computers becoming really a part of music. I was really big into computers anyway and carried my own Mac around back in those days and was getting into the integration of MIDI with live stuff, and sequencing. With Rage for Order, we were really able to experiment and explore those lines by integrating all of that stuff into pre-pro. That whole album was heavily sequenced—not in terms of the way to do it these days because everything was played live—but we had underpinnings of sequencing.
That was the beginning of a very optimistic phase for me in the sense that I’d always wanted music and computers to somehow align or help each other. I wasn’t really a fan of using computers for mixing, just because they were really underpowered back in those days, and I wasn’t convinced that they were replaying all my moves correctly. I would rather have done it manually because I knew it would be right. Of course, slowly as systems became more powerful, it was obvious that it was doing exactly what I’d put in. It was a very exciting time in that we were able to embrace the new technology.
When we met before working together, Queensrÿche had wanted to make a record that was essentially cold sounding: cold and high-tech and cyber. It was before that really existed in music. There was a certain amount with Gary Numan and artists like that, but that all really sounded programmed. They had the drum machines, and we wanted to do it with live drums and still have sequenced elements that meshed with that. With Rage, everything we tried worked. It was incredibly positive. We would try it, and it would work. So the whole thing went from strength to strength.
Have you been asked to do a lot of songwriting for people in the studio?
Yeah, I actually co-wrote several albums over the years. I was working on the Aviator record for three or four years. I also worked very closely with Michael Bolton on his record [Everybody’s Crazy]. I call myself a one-stop shop. I’m able to help out with song arrangements or come up with parts if they need them or lay down the foundation or set people off with homework to do between pre-pro. I can do as much or as little as necessary. With one of the Dokken records that I worked on, it was really a matter of cobbling all the ideas together because they were pretty fragmented at that point. If a band’s really got their stuff together, it might just be a matter of fine-tuning bits here and there, but if there’s a lot of work to be done, I’m more than happy to get my hands dirty.
How much credit do you get for that?
To me, it’s all part of the same thing. Admittedly, if someone says they’d like to write an album with me, I go in with a different mindset. But if they ask what the song needs, if it’s a little bit that I can help out with, I don’t mind. For me, it’s all part of getting the job done. It’s easy to do. I’m not really a credit grabber.
You worked for Chicago-based label Slipped Disc, which led you to producing death-metal band Macabre in 1997, which in turn led to work with Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Nile and other groups of that genre. At the same time, you jumped into the prog-metal world. How did that dichotomy work for you?
When I got the opportunity to work with Nile, I had already done the Spiral Architect record. It was very technical. It’s all inextricably involved in a sense. I’ve always gravitated toward technical music, which I suppose is where the prog stuff comes in. I don’t like to do only one thing; I like to do lots of different things. It keeps me fresh and makes sure I don’t keep making the same record over and over again. I don’t like two bands to sound alike. I like the bands to sound like themselves rather than like a Neil Kernon production. So I go down these rabbit holes for a while where I’m sort of oblivious to what’s going on in the rest of the music world. My focus is really intense in a certain area, but then when I come up for air and discover what’s been going on, I have to backtrack and learn what else has been out there.
Given your preference for indie releases, how do you balance things out financially and how do those decisions affect what you work on?
I’ll give you an idea of pay scale. My first solo production in this country was for EMI for a band called Spys in ’82. It was a great, fun record. It was the band’s first album, and they had the Foreigner connection [with two former members], and the budget for the album was $150,000. That was kind of typical, to be honest. That was the budget for a couple of months’ work. Fast-forward to the Skrew album I did in ’95, and the budget was $30,000. Obviously, Metal Blade had never really had huge budgets other than for bands that were a complete dead cert. I think the budget for the first Flotsam and Jetsam record was $7,500. If I wanted to work on it, then I’d have to adjust my fees accordingly. Of course, I had been over the years, from the $300,000 Lynch Mob budget to the $30,000 Skrew budget. If you want to work on something, you’ve got to make it work. I’m more than happy to do that. As long as I’m working on stuff that I like, I really don’t mind how much I make as long as I can survive.
The sixth and latest Nile album, Those Whom the Gods Detest, is your third straight collaboration with them. This one has resonated with many fans who think it is their best-sounding album ever. It definitely is their fullest-sounding record. How did you transform them this time out?
It’s been a process of learning for me and for them. They had done their previous records at the same studio with the same production team. They were getting better and better sounding as they went, but I remember in my discussions with [group leader] Karl [Sanders] they were looking for the sort of clarity I got from Cannibal Corpse and Macabre. They still wanted to be as heavy as they are, but they wanted to be clear.
I had never worked with anything that was as crazily fast and involved in terms of the drumming or the riffing as Nile when I worked on Annihilation of the Wicked. But I knew what we had to compete with because I was also making Cannibal records. Annihilation was a step in the right direction, but I knew even as we were finishing that record that there had to be ways of making it clearer, so the next record ended up being way, way clearer.
The band had lived with the previous one and felt that maybe it was a bit too bass-heavy, so we tried to thin it out and have lots of guitars, drums and vocals, but be easy on the bass. While the second album [Ithyphallic] is definitely clearer and you can hear everything, apart from the bass, it just sounded a little anemic, so this third one needed to have fat low end but super-clarity. This album [Gods...] took 80 days to do—66 days of tracking and 14 days of mixing—with a lot more work and attention to detail. Just getting it right was the key. There was no blurring. We went over and over the stuff. Carl even said in a couple of interviews that I really pushed them on this record. We would get a really good take and keep it, but then we would have another go at it. That music is so fast—there are speeds up to 280 bpm—with insane riffing. We recorded four tracks of guitar, so it’s got to be tight; otherwise, it just becomes so messy. The guys worked really, really hard on what they do, and for me it was a matter of going bit by bit and perfecting every section.
Do you work at home at all?
One end of my living room is where I do my mixing. I do lots of mixing at my house, which is why I can still remain competitive in terms of cost. With Nile, I mixed at the local studio just up the road from here.
But you recorded the last Nile album at Karl Sanders’ house?
Yes. I took all of my gear from my studio down to South Carolina. We did the drums in Florida, and then we moved to Dallas’ house to get the drums all sorted and reinforced. And then to Karl’s house, where we had two rooms. We had a little control room that I spent a day soundproofing and treating so we wouldn’t get weird reflections. Then I set up my Pro Tools rig in that place, and we were there for two months. I mix many albums in my house. I have been using the same monitors and amps for 30 years. Adopt, adapt, improve. This little Singaporean guy once said to me, “You know what you need to do, Neil? Keep your head down and think a lot.” I always thought that was so wise. You don’t wander around clueless. Just make sure that you’re prepared, keep your head down and get yourself together and hunker down. You’ve got to do that, especially in this day and age.
Bryan Reesman is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.