Analog Dialog: Jerry Harrison is Just Getting Started
I believe in being a fan and I enjoy it. Not celebrity worship, but just enjoying someone's work and following their career and being interested in them. I think too many adults are afraid to be fans-like its not cool or something. I think being a fan is one of those fun things we get to do as humans. Being a fan is also about seeing the best in people-being positive.
Marsha Vdovin and Jerry Harrison at his Studio
The thing is...What happens when you get to know someone from one of your favorite bands of all time...can you still be a fan?
I got to know Jerry Harrison from the Talking Heads when he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early nineties when I was working at Opcode. I can definitely say the Talking Heads was my favorite band in my college years and I've probably seen them perform live more than any other band. They were so much fun! Well, now, I'm friends with Jerry. One thing that's great about him is how much he enjoys music and playing. A couple of years ago, I watched on TV as the Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They played together live for the first time in years and you could see the joy in Jerry's face. He later told me how much he loved the experience and also expressed how happy he was to have his kids see the Talking Heads play live for the first time.
He's my friend, he's a part of my community, we have friends in common, plenty to talk about but still... I'm AM totally in awe of him.
To begin with, he is very intelligent, well spoken, and educated (Harvard). He has had an extraordinary career that's FAR from over-two albums with Modern Lovers, sixteen albums with Talking Heads, two solo albums, and has produced over forty albums from various artists. And on top of that, he's powerfully charismatic, relaxed and down to earth all at the same time.
The problem with interviewing Jerry is that there is so much to talk about. Historically, he has so many war stories to tell; I decided that I had to have a focus or I would spend two years on this one column. I chose to focus on his most recent project as producer with the young Detroit rock band, The Von Bondies. Pawn Shoppe Heart
is an outstanding album, currently moving up the charts, which really let Jerry's talent and experience as a producer shine.
He got involved with the project in a less than ordinary manner. Jerry heard that Seymour Stein, who had signed them to Sire Records, had mentioned him because the Von Bondies reminded Stein of early Talking Heads. Jerry flew down to LA to see the band play at the Troubadour.
"I wasn't even on their list of people to possibly work with, but I think my enthusiasm and maybe the fact that the impetus was really coming from me, rather than someone in between, made a difference. I thought they were great. They are one of the bands that I was most excited about working with in the last few years. At their Troubadour show, I immediately saw what was wonderful about them. They have this charisma on stage, this excitement and they seem like they could have followed Talking Heads or the Ramones at CBGBs. They have the look, sort of like Tom Verlaine singing with two Tinas."
"The Von Bondies was a project in which we wanted the sonic references to be to older records but we didn't want it to have a pristine new sterile sound. They have a quality of their writing that reminds you of Screamin' Jay Hawkins or old blues songs but it's not like they copied old records. Jason [Stollsteimer] is able to write a song and it's so definitely his song. Even though you can recognize riffs and things from previous songs, you don't feel that he studied some old song and then tried to rewrite it. It's more like he absorbed the essence of those songs and he went out and wrote a song and it just happened to sound that way; Which I think is one of his great accomplishments, that the music sounds fresh and new. It definitely has a punk quality to it, but you can play it to someone who has a good knowledge of the blues and they'll say 'that's sounds a little bit like Smokestack Lightning
with I'm a Man
thrown in there.' That's been true of the blues for the last hundred and fifty years. They recycle old riffs and feelings but somehow in the great songs, they're all brand new again. I think that when you listen to records I've produced, there's a consistency about them. They all have a great sonic quality and allow you to get close to the artist."
Undoubtedly, Jerry's experience as a musician with the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads has made him a better producer.
E.T. Thorngren, Marsha Vdovin and Jerry Harrison on the roof deck of Jerrys studio in Sausalito overlooking the harbor.
"I definitely think that my experience made me a better producer because in both bands, I had a role that I was very happy with which was one of enhancing the vision, which very often began with David Byrne and Jonathan Richman [Modern Lovers]. In Talking Heads because we had so many different ways of writing records, that wasn't always the case. But when I joined the band, it was often the case of 'what does this song need?' Does it need new parts, is it an incomplete song, does it just need help with the arrangement, or does it just need another instrument to fill things out? So I think that process of thinking that I did in both of those bands is pretty similar to what I do as a producer. The other thing that has helped me is having worked with Brian Eno, who certainly taught all of us in the Talking Heads that the studio is just another instrument."
"When I first began making records, it truly was the sense of the guys in the white coats on the other side of the glass, recording the band on this side of the glass, there was this real sense of division. And of course that began to break down, and Eno was one of the first people in pop music to really think of the studio as a large synthesizer. That experience makes the studio seem first of all fun, but also something to experiment in, and not something to have an overly reverent attitude towards."
Jerry grew up in Milwaukee and has worked with many bands from all over. He moved back to Milwaukee in the eighties for a while, and produced his first album for Milwaukee boys, The Violent Femmes. "There's something about the Midwest, or kids from the Midwest-- a certain kind of down to earth quality, but also a sense of climbing out of--you might say, a fairly less culturally exciting atmosphere. It's not that there aren't interesting things going on there; Right now Detroit has some of the best bands."
"I think a lot of times, a great scene happens because there is a great club. I think that without CBGBs, the New York Punk Scene would never have happened. And I think that the fact that Hilly Krystal basically gave the bands the door gave people either the opportunity not have a day job or have less of a day job. It made the scene happen. What was so great about the punk scene in New York is that it was so ignored by the record companies for at least 2 years. So the bands weren't competing in the world of the record companies, we were just part of this underground scene. It really felt underground. Everyone knew each other, and everyone helped each other up until the point where everyone got signed and then it became really competitive."
Jerry and his frequent engineer E.T. Thorngren tracked the Von Bondies at Studio D in Sausalito, but the most of the guitars, vocals and overdubs were done in Harrison's personal studio.
"Studio A at the Plant is sort of a brighter drum sound and Studio D is sort of an earthy drum sound, which I actually thought was the most appropriate for the Von Bondies. Don [Blum] is such a good drummer that he would sound good in a lot of places."
Drawing secrets out of E.T. and Jerry wasn't easy, but they did use a special drum recording technique on the Von Bondies. E.T. likes to use two bass drums. He miked the first drum with an AKG D112 and ran that thru the Ampex 9098 at Studio D and onto tape. He then took another bass drum, put it in front and sealed them together. He used a Soundelux FET 47 on the second drum. The effect creates a super low end.
They used Jerry's vintage 1176 for all vocals, and LA-4 in the mix. On the guitars, E.T. likes to run the guitar to a direct box and record one track thru the 1176 directly, and then send another track thru the guitarist's effects to an 1176 and then straight to Pro Tools. He generally used 4:1 compression and with a really quick attack, which makes the direct signal really thick.
The day I was there he and E.T. were remixing the classic Talking Heads album Remain in Light in 5.1 for a DVD-A release on Rhino Records (a project we may explore on video in the upcoming UA DVD). They've added two new LA-2As to Jerry's collection of vintage UA gear; plus a black-face 1176, silver-face 1176 and LA-3; and the Universal Audio TDM plug-ins. They've set up a dedicated computer to author one offs (in 5.1) of the mix to send to David, Chris and Tina (the rest of the band) for approval.
I can't wait until those albums are released! Stay tuned for more from Jerry Harrison and check out the Von Bondies at http://www.vonbondies.com
- Marsha Vdovin
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