Tea With... Craig Leon - Part 1

In this first part we cover Craig’s first experiences with sound, the early New York period, his work with the Ramones and Suicide, krautrock, studio love, prized first editions…a motherload basically…

Tea With... Craig Leon - Part 1

In this first part we cover Craig’s first experiences with sound, the early New York period, his work with the Ramones and Suicide, krautrock, studio love, prized first editions…a motherload basically…

Craig Leon has been an arranger, producer, and artist in his own right in numerous spheres; sometimes ridiculous (Revenge of the Nerds Soundtrack anyone?), sometimes era-defining, sometimes exploratory. From Sire Records to Red Star, from the Ramones to Suicide to Blondie, he’s had his hand in those records which almost seem trite in their greatness in a contemporary context; mammoths in New York punk and pop mythology. For whatever reason; prestige in the NY scene, productive nous, his approach and personality (perhaps on account of all of this and more besides) he’s also attracted a fair heft of eccentrics over the years, working with Mark E Smith, Jeffrey Lee Pierce (of Gun Club fame), and Arthur Brown (that ‘GOD OF HELL FIRE!) on projects which have only further strengthened the illustrious and idiosyncratic character of his career to date. 
 
He’s extended his activities into the classical realm and this forms most of his recent work, but along the way he’s indulged his own visions and curiosities, creating and producing two works based on the space lore of the Dogon people of Mali; an ancient tribe who possessed an uncannily accurate intuition of cosmology. These records; Nommos & Visiting, have rightfully received renewed interest after being picked up for a reissue series by RVNG INTL. This was the promotional front I used to have a two hour conversation with him, touching on those incredible records, as well as the rich and fascinating diversity of his career and experiences. Surprisingly enough, for someone who had been involved with such success, he proved affable, loquacious, and punctuated a tangential, anecdotal conversation with guffaws and chuckles, altogether displaying an engaging, incandescent enthusiasm. I deliberated on the transcription for a ridiculous amount of time, but decided that it would be best left unabridged, warts and all, with all the 'unnecessary’ asides included in order to give a fuller and more human picture of the conversation. I pretty much just sat back and let him rove.
In this first part we cover Craig’s first experiences with sound, the early New York period, his work with the Ramones and Suicide, krautrock, studio love, prized first editions…a motherload basically…
 

 
Craig: So this is an interview for a blog…?

Yeah

Okay, well I wasn’t sure how technical we were gonna get.

Oh well I’m not the most technically minded, more from a literature background, so I won’t go too in depth about that…I’ll try to but I’ll probably fail…

Literature! That’s cool, I collect all kinds of literature if you can say you ‘collect’ it. I collect only things that I read but I have a lot of books in the house. 

Yeah, I do the same but I do have a lot of books which I haven’t read…

Did you specialise in any era…?

Well, I think the thing that I most enjoyed was this module which we did; ‘America & the Avant Garde’ and it started off with the Beat Generation and then it went, it did all sorts, went in to John Cage and Abstract Expressionism…so it was everything really…

Cool, I knew a lot of those people when I was in New York, towards the end of their careers…

Oh, really…?

Yeah, a little bit. John Cage was the music for Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe. Karole Armitage was the last principal ballerina or so to speak if you can call her a ballerina…principal dancer of the Merce Cunningham troupe, inherited it when Merce Cunningham passed and she calls it the Armitage Gone dance thing now and they did something last year in New York. Partial bit of it in the ballet version but she still wants to revive the whole thing. So yeah, its kind of interesting…haha, its hard to get off on that… But when you start talking about literature sometimes its more fun for me than music. But the American Avant Garde is something that has always interested me and literature…I’ve done an outline…actually the people pre-the Beat Generation are quite interesting to me…going back into the 1880s and the people who brought over bohemianism from France and were influenced by it, looking at Hart Crane and people like that. I’m very fascinated because I live in Europe and spend a lot of time in France, virtually as much as I do in England…

(One of Craig’s fascinations; Hart Crane – photographed by Walker Evans)
 
The expat American writers in Paris interest me a lot. The ancestors of Allen Ginsberg and that, you know…yeah, I’ve got a picture of Allen in my studio. 

Brilliant, yeah. I was big on him at university. And talking of American expat writers, I’m reading Henry Miller at the moment, would he be one of the ones you were interested in…?

Yeah, as one of the guys in Paris, yeah, big time… Almost anything that was published by Olympia Press. Well, Olympia Press had a lot of porn in it. But yeah, Olympia Press in Paris and anything that appeared in the Evergreen review in the 50s and 60s in America. Probably worth checking out…


(Porn peddlers)
 
I don’t know how we’re getting into this all of a sudden, could be interesting for the blog instead of ‘Lets talk about the Ramones’…in any case, well they’re part of all of this believe it or not but in any case…Miles Landesman’s father..trying to remember his name…anyway…the Landesman’s were this older couple…Fran Landesman was the poet…but for some reason his name has gone blank on me and he wrote three books but in any case they lived in Islington in a big old house here and friends of ours who were from the old Bohemian scene in New York came to visit us and insisted we go and meet the Landesmans, and we spent an afternoon there. Anyway, they had a magazine called Neurotica, in 1948, and they were the first people to publish Ginsberg and Kerouac and all of those guys but yeah, definite London connection too. They moved to London right around the time of the Beatles because somebody told them…I think it was Peter O’Toole…no wait…it was the guy from Derek and Clive…not the little guy but the tall guy…famous comedian
 
[a couple of minutes pause and mental strain whilst myself and Craig try to grasp at the name, salvation found via a google search]
 
Peter Cook! Of course. 

Yeah, of course!

Well, he said, ‘you’ve gotta move here, because we have this thing called the Beatles and its gonna revolutionise everything’…so they were like ‘OK’ and moved to Islington and lived in a big old house there for the rest of their lives but yeah, you should check them out, if you’re interested in that, and you’re not too far from North London, their place wasn’t too far away. They’re not around anymore but the books are really interesting…
 
[pause whilst Craig looks up the Landesman name that previously eluded him]
 
Jay Landesman! That’s the guy’s name. He’s got three books about the early beat scene and the early English avant garde as well. Him and Barry Miles were kind of like ‘the ones’. 
 
Sorry, haha. I got way off there…

No, no, it’s great. Its exactly what I want interviews to be anyway. I suppose a good place to start would be musical roots, what your earliest memories of significant experiences with music were…?

Well, my mother played piano and I used to sit under the piano and hear all the noises that would come out and try and make them myself and reach up and do it, we’re talking really young here. I kind of picked out little things on the piano, you know, when I was about four, or maybe even earlier, I dunno, I’m bad with dates to begin with much less those kinds of things..haha. Musically there was a lot of classical music in our house but a lot of other kinds too. I grew up very rural in Florida, which is around the Gulf of Mexico, where I lived was more akin to Louisiana as opposed to the Port of Florida – when people think about Disneyland and Miami and things like that. Where I grew up was very isolated and swampy, had alligators in the backyard and this kind of stuff. 
 
But my parents loved all kinds of music and classical music and I was fascinated by it. Well somebody asked me the other day, the first records I knew and the first records that my parents gave me were a couple by Beethoven, the Beethoven 6th…on the American version, on Angel, I remember the big Angel on the label. Stuff like that, and the trios, early string trios of Beethoven which for some reason I really loved and played them over and over and over again. They’re pretty obscure ones, they’re not the well-known piano ones or the early Beethoven ones. But yeah, those were the earliest ones…!
 
But because of where I was, I used to get subjected to a lot of country music and other music on the radio, especially [the latter] because I didn’t used to get much sleep when I was a kid, so late at night I would turn the radio on and cruise up and down the dial. I found out a lot of different people who got into music around the same time, the same age as me, did the same…because we were on the Gulf of Mexico we’d get really great reception on the radio from all over the place, and I was fascinated to hear things from far away and so I’d hear Cuban music, Haitian music, and there were very powerful stations that went all over America. Country music came from Nashville, where they had the Grand Ole Opry, which I listened to quite a bit. And my favourite DJ was Howlin’ Wolf on the one out of Arkansas…

(Grand Ol’ Opry)
 
And the first record I made my parents buy me that wasn’t classical, because I started studying classical when I was very young…they saw that I had an affinity for piano and I started taking lessons when I was incredibly young, almost right after they discovered the affinity. Anyway the first one that wasn’t classical, was Smokestack Lightnin’, you know, I thought it was a horror movie, I thought it was great to hear ‘ooooo’ [mimicking something ghostly] 

(Howlin’ Wolf)
 
 
And that sound stuck with me for a long time. Those were pretty much the first kind of things. Not a lot of rock’n’roll per se, which was kind of new when I was a kid. We’re talking at about age 6 and stuff now. When Elvis was around, I wasn’t that fascinated by Elvis, you know, it was only until a little later when I got into rock’n’roll itself. You know, more into the big produced rock’n’roll, the Girl Groups, you know, cause I fell in love with all of the singers in the Girl Groups you know…
 

Oh right, and that obviously feeds into the Ramones as they were big on their girl groups weren’t they…? Phil Spector and the like…

Yeah, Blondie too…all those people. If you take the classical and the ethnic part of what I grew up on out of it, we all kind of had the same things at various stages growing up cause we’re all about the same age and we grew up not so much in big urban environments…well the Ramones were in suburban queens but it was definitely suburban…it wasn’t hardcore Manhattan or anything like that…but again that unified everybody because music was something which wasn’t as fragmented as it is now, and if you had a record which was a hit, somebody in California would know it and somebody in Florida would know it, and if you meet up hitchhiking on the highway, being hippies, you’d both know what that record was. It was a kind of identifying bond thing, and it was that way when you met people later, musically. It was very, very important to everyone. I guess that sort of explains that… I mean with the New York Rock scene of the time, when I finally got up to New York…

How old were you when you arrived in New York…?

Well I’d been to New York from about the age of 17 or so but I actually moved up to New York permanently to go and work for a record company…

And that was Sire Records…?

Yeah, well I actually tried to work for a couple of companies but Sire was where I ended up. I had a studio in Florida and I worked at a bigger studio down the road which was quite famous called Criteria and one of the engineers from Criteria and me built a little studio to do demos in because people and bands couldn’t afford to go into a big time studio like Criteria and there weren’t that many studios in Florida…anyway I’m skipping around here, I moved away from the West Coast where I lived and went to work in Miami as a kid, summer holidays and stuff, and ended up staying there, and through a number of circumstances built a studio there and I was discovered by somebody who knew me from playing piano on a couple of records, this was a guy from Sire Records, and he brought me up to New York. But I produced some people, along with a lot of other people, and their demos, you know, a couple of bands, and was trying to sell them in New York when I went up there to play, and Sire was where I ended up. It was originally Paul Nelson from Mercury Records that took an interest in me as a producer and tried to get me some gigs around town, but very early on I went to work for Richie Gotteher and Seymour Stein at Sire. 
 
Boy! I could tell you about one of these things I produced which is really funny because it goes for like a fortune on ebay. But anyway, the band were pretty much a country rock, normal band of the early 70s called Southern Steel… Well they did these three part harmonies…nice songs and everything…but nothing groundbreaking, they were just very typical of the late 60s, early 70s…but they did a little local record in Florida, they did it at Criteria and because nobody was working on anything else, everybody worked on it on a particular weekend so it had…if you look on the credits on the back…its got me, Ronnie and Howie Albert (who were major producers later on with Stephen Stills and a bunch of people), and Alex Sadkin (who was my friend growing up, who helped me in the studio, he went on to engineer Bob Marley, produce Grace Jones, and Duran Duran and all of these things) so the production credits are super on this band…haha…who had like no airplay, no sales, so they printed about a 100 copies on this little label which was run by these guys who built a studio and they fronted the studio I was doing and managed bands and such. That record goes on ebay for like £500 or something now…no exaggeration, its unbelievable…some guy in Russia bought one for like 1500 dollars once…
 
I may have one or two copies of it but I can’t find it without digging through thousands of records, as well as books. I’ll have to take it out and play it…

Definitely. Lot of records go for crazy money at the moment, like more of your own ones; the original copies of Nommos and Visiting going for quite a lot aswell…how do you feel about that kind of thing…?

Well I felt badly about it…I was planning to put Nommos out and Visiting quite a long time ago actually. I got permission from one of the original owners of Nommos to put it out but it got rescinded later by one of the newer owners which at that time was the motivation for me to painstakingly re-record the whole thing which is the version out now. I didn’t want to have one of these obscure records or two of these records which are known primarily because you can’t hear them. 
 
Because I also wanted to hear them and they’re a great part of my musical makeup, more so than production quite honestly and I still do a lot of work in classical or I guess what you’d call ‘serious’ music, which those records, they belong in that kind of category more than in pop. So I wasn’t too happy to see them costing a lot of money. It’s the same thing, because they’re hard to find, the mono mix of ‘Sex Offender’ (later titled ‘X Offender’) by Blondie goes for like four times, five times, six times what a reissue of it is. In some cases, like that one, they could be better, but I don’t know if they should be worth all that much. Having said that, I do collect a lot of first edition books, and I’m more than willing to pay extra money for a book which was actually proofed and supervised by the guy who wrote it, I think that’s very important. Its kind of like the authors final commitment to a book and then in later editions they get all screwed up, you know…

Yeah…what’s your most prized first edition just to digress from music again for a moment…

Money wise, or otherwise….I don’t know…

Well you can mention a couple if you like…I’m quite interested

Well I got a signed edition with a dust cover of A Clockwork Orange that Anthony Burgess dedicated to me…haha

(Anthony Burgess in Craig’s world; aboard the NY subway)
 
 

Wow…

Yeah, that’s ONE (!) if you’re talking about a rarity, but I’ve got many, many, many books like that, a few other things, a couple of early Johnson dictionaries...erm…gosh, relics…let me see…yeah, Charlotte Brooke, Relics of Ancient Irish Poetry from 1787/1790…that one’s a good one, it’s a signed first…they go back even further! And I’m really into, and you can tell from Nommos and all that, speculative fiction and supernatural fiction and alternative philosophies of religion, so a lot of older books I have deal with that. I probably have one of the larger collections of Arthur Machen who was a supernatural and speculative writer from the turn of the last century, he’s quite a cult figure…


(Arthur Machen)
 
He was a Welsh, supernatural writer who dealt with a lot of alternative writing techniques which we probably couldn’t go into now…
 
A lot of his books are in very small, limited runs that he participated in by printing them up himself or having publishers print and they’re very, very hard to find but if you’re haunted by Machen, you find him. All of a sudden I found all of these books over a period of time just in second hand bookshelves. I mean you start looking for something after finding out about it…you almost WILL yourself into finding it…like when I was a kid; ‘I’m gonna find Chuck Berry on a Silver Top on Chess’ and lo and behold you’d find it, maybe three days later…

I’ve got to start doing that…

Yeah so I would be ‘yeah, I’m going to find something by Machen today’ and when I first moved to the UK it was a lot easier to find books, there were a lot more places and it wasn’t all Abe and Ebay where everybody was so hung up about the price. I mean I never paid a fortune for any of the Machen books that I bought or many of the books that I’ve bought actually. Now they’d be unaffordable, particularly Machen and some of the other things I was mentioning earlier but you know, you can find all of these sorts of things. But yeah, turn of the last century stuff fascinates me…

Yeah, okay, cool! Well I should probably get back to talking to you about music…just to go back again, we’d got up to the point where you’d just arrived at Sire Records…I’d heard at this time that you were trying to license European music, especially Krautrock, I was wondering if there were any artists or albums in particular…

Yeah, Sire was a very small label. There were these two guys, Richie Gottehrer, who was a producer, and Seymour Stein, who was a great promo guy, who are both still great and active. In any case, what they would do, was go around Europe and look in the bins of all the record companies, looking for things that all the American affiliates of those European companies weren’t interested in releasing…

They did this for quite some time, if you look at their record history, due to their connection with this guy, Mike Vernon - who was a great blues producer at Decca and at CBS, and who had his own label, Blue Horizon (with Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack on it and a load of other bands)  - they would put out whatever they could , things which they could get for nothing essentially, or very cheap. Then one of their records was a hit, they signed a band from Holland called Focus and they had a single called ‘Hocus Pocus’
 
(‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus)  
 
[writers note – be wary, lots of bad hair, masturbatory solos and yodelling]
 
They were on Eurovision. It was a guy yodelling; a prog rock Eurovision band…
 
Well actually that one single is totally different to whatever else they (Focus) did. They’re really great musicians, and a really good prog rock band…not my taste exactly but they did this yodelling novelty record which was a big hit in America so they had money to expand. One of the ways Richie wanted to expand was to hire me, or somebody like me, and he chose me luckily, to help them search out bands and stuff, maybe get some American bands in. So I would get all this stuff when Seymour would come back from a trip, a big box of vinyl records and I’d go through all of them and say what I thought was cool and what I thought wasn’t...well I loved all the Krautrock bands, unfortunately the ones I wanted we never got, for various circumstances…but yeah…people like Can, and I wanted to bring in Neu too, the entire Cosmic Couriers label…I had them up there in the office, that was Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and…erm…stargirl...erm…hippies in star trek uniforms!…. And Ash Ra Tempel  and Wallenstein…it goes on and on and on…I think they had a whole slew of those groups…and I’d give those groups a big yes…oh wait, and Kraftwerk too!


Producers of the Cosmic Couriers; Gille Lettmann and Rolf-Ulrich-Kaiser)
 
 

Oh, really?

Yeah, because of the interest we exhibited in them, their label - they were on Phonogram or Philips in Europe which put them on Mercury in America – then decided to actually release their album so we didn’t get them…I wanted the Kraftwerk album with the cone on, not the autobahn one [note - self titled album, released 1970]
 
I mean we would have got autobahn if we could have...I was just having a joke about that recently actually because I just played with Kraftwerk in America…anyway, there was them, you name it, and we came close on some of them and some of them Seymour didn’t want in the end because he didn’t think that it was marketable and unfortunately he’s probably right.
 
But it didn’t matter to me, I didn’t think about money, in fact I still don’t, you know, if I liked it, I wanted to do something you know. And that’s how I go about looking for bands to produce or when I write something or whatever…its not ‘I’m going to make a hit today’, if you do that, you’re gonna fail for one thing. Yeah, so all of those bands because Sire was known for putting out those kinds of bands and it had a sister label called Passport which they owned with a company called Gem who imported records. And they imported a lot of the early Virgin Records into America, like Henry Cow and Slapp Happy and Tubular Bells and Hatfield and the North and all of these kind of things.
 
Gem would create an audience for those records by selling the imports…it became a really cool thing to do…to buy Virgin imports and German imports and Sire would follow that up and actually release the band. The bands that ended up on Sire were bands like Nectar, not quite as out there as the ones that I wanted…a later incarnation of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come.
 
They were really cool labels at that point, Sire and Passport, and I would have to master those records for America, in some cases, remix them for American radio because American radio was definitely a different sound than European radio and we’d actually try to get things like Nectar on AM radio which was like a folly but we did it, what can I say, so that was what I was first doing at Sire.

Cool, so when did you first come across people like Blondie, Richard Hell, Talking Heads, Ramones…?

Very early on, even before I went to Sire, I saw Suicide…
 
[Pause while Craig inquires how much time there is to go into all of this, humbly states that he doesn’t want to bore me to which I reassure him that its quite the opposite and I don’t care about how long the conversation goes on for and that hopefully some people will still read it despite the duration]
 
…anyway Paul Nelson had taken an interest in this production job that I had done and had met me and liked me, he had signed the New York Dolls to Mercury, was one of the first people to champion Bob Dylan as a writer very early on, and was Lou Reeds A & R  guy at RCA, so good track record you know. I was just flabbergasted that he liked my stuff and he was trying to help me, sending me round the record labels, and there was an affiliate of theirs that had an A & R position and I went to see them on a Friday afternoon and I said ‘well I’m going to be seeing some bands over the weekend’ and they said, ‘I tell you what, come back and I’ll see if we can make you an assistant, you tell me what you liked over the weekend and we can talk about it’. 
 
So I saw Suicide that night, opening up for some horrible glam rock band and they were in a very assaulted mood and Alan was whipping the front tables of Max’s Kansas City with chains.

I’ve heard stories about this, naturally people used to stand like 10 feet back at Suicide gigs…

Yeah, you couldn’t stand at the front otherwise you’d get whacked.

(Suicide at an early performance at Max’s Kansas City)
 
And I thought, yeah this is a band for me. So of course on Monday morning I have this follow up meeting for this job and I’d already been told by Richie that I could have the job at Sire, so I went to see this guy at this ‘unnamed’ company, and the guy asked whether I saw anything good over the weekend…and I said, ‘yeah, there’s this band, Suicide that I want to sign’ and then silence. There’s the door. Haha. So end of job there. So I said I better take this Sire gig while I can. So I was aware of those bands pretty early on. At that time it was the New York Dolls, Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps and the Velvet Underground in a weird incarnation were playing around…
 
But talking of Blondie, there was a band, the Stilettos that had three girls in it, Debbie (Deborah Harry) was one of three – they played at Max’s (Kansas City) and further downtown and at CBGB’s eventually. Richard Lloyd who had got the job of booking bands, unofficially booking bands at CBGB’s because their manager and the mentor of Television was Terry Ork – who is actually the unsung hero of the Lower East Side and the New York scene – Terry ran a cinema memorabilia shop called Cinemabilia actually, they all worked there to earn a living and he developed Television down there, and Terry talked Hilly Kristal into allowing bands to play at CBGB’s, and the interesting thing about Terry Ork and the band, Television was they were not particularly a rock band, they were more like an intellectual (though I think they’d hate that word, its probably true) exercise and closer to the New York jazz bands but using rock as an idiom. But because of them and their friends you would get people like Patti Smith playing there, and Richard Hell who you mentioned, who was in Television originally…


(Television)
 
All of these guys were in each others bands for about an hour. Prince Smith who was in Television, was in Blondie…and it goes on and on. So anyway, I was seeing all of them, going down to that area, mainly to look for Patti Smith and I’d known Lenny Kaye because he worked on some reissues with us at Sire and I’d read some of what she’d written and saw her playing. She was the first artist where I was like, ‘okay I’d like to see if they’d sign her’ but my track record if you were thinking back in those days, like Can, it would have been the coolest label in the world but would have made absolutely no money…
 
In any case I went down to CBGB’s to see her, as she was playing some gigs there, and I find out that she was already hooking up with a major label and at that time Sire was a very little label, it wasn’t what Seymour built it into later, with Warners. It was virtually a little house up on the Upper West Side of New York, it was an indie label and we would have never been able to compete with the label she was signing with. But then I did find that there were going to be other bands so I talked to Terry Ork about it, and he was interested in Television coming to our label because he was wanting a lot of money on a big label – which they got, they got Elektra – and I could see that, but he was saying that these bands were good…’why don’t you check out the Ramones when they play down here or when they play at performance studios’ and he’d tell me, like, ‘Talking Heads are playing down at the Kitchen or whatever…’; he was really on top of the scene. And Hilly [Kristal] didn’t really have a great affinity for the music that was playing in his club but if somebody was doing something interesting and out of the ordinary he was all for it. His own taste was more conventional, and in fact he did almost like ‘country’ songs, country novelty songs as a performer as well. Anyway, that was kind of what the whole New York thing was about, so to make a long story short…the New York scene was kind of ‘in place’ and I just gravitated to it because my own personal taste was towards what they were doing. They were all very literary bands…

And you mentioned it was all very art world, art and pop mixing together…

Yeah, well they weren’t out of place with someone like Allen Ginsberg as much as Herman’s Hermits, haha…and the Ramones were like performance artists, like one big song for twenty minutes not fifteen songs in twenty minutes, they would only stop when they had so much rage they were just about to kill each other, at that point the set would be over. 

That’s interesting, they were a big band for me in my teenage years, I had always thought of them as purely pop, pop distilled in punk, so its quite strange to hear them classed as performance artists…

Well, Tommy was studying film and it was his brainchild and his concept in terms of performance art and they were all friends and neighbours and they had been in bands before. He was originally the manager actually, and kind of the ‘Svengali’ who put together these performance art things. On some Spinal Tap level something might have happened to the original drummer…haha…but he ended up being the drummer. But don’t get me wrong they really powered what they thought was pop, the power pop thing was exactly where they were. On a radio show the other day I played the ‘Roots of the Ramones’ which is in a lot of ways; Herman’s Hermits. If you listen to Henry the 8th by Herman’s Hermits; downstroke guitar, 200 bpm…its not as loud but its pretty much the same thing. And they nicked it in ‘Judy is a Punk’ with the ‘second verse, same as the first’ kind of thing so they loved that and they loved the Bay City Rollers, a lot of British pop…and girl groups obviously, the kind of ‘tough girl’ image, Mary Weiss’ band, The Shangri-Las and all that kind of stuff, and the Beatles, they were tremendous Beatles fanatics. Their name is taken from a Paul McCartney stage name on the first German tour that the Beatles did, a fact which Paul McCartney was mindblown by when I sent him the album when it came out…

Wow…well, you mention the drummer, he was into film, I heard you also mention recently in another interview something about cinema verite being associated with the Ramones and what you were trying to do on the production side…

Yeah, well it was black and white, minimalism, stark kind of thing. There was no name for the New York scene in those days. None of the bands were even like each other except they were much based in this 50s bohemian, existential, French, literary background. You would find more in common with Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in terms of the bands than you would in any of their relation to American rock bands. They loved English rock bands, English pop bands, and the English art school glam scene, like Roxy Music, but more or less they were more into a literary kind of thing. So for that sound to work you’d have to apply the same kind of techniques that French film directors in the 50s, who had been pioneering the non-involvement of the camera. So that was what I set out to record and I’ve actually pretty much done that ever since. Whatever’s going on in the studio goes on the tape (or these days on the file) There isn’t a lot of manipulation on my part. There’s a lot of manipulation in terms of working out the arrangements, what actually goes into the mics…

(The Ramones)

But once it is arranged there’s no kind of embellishment after that…?

Very little, there are overdubs, I’m not gonna bullshit, but where it counts. The point is you’re not gonna be hearing those overdubs as distinctly there. There are things which are effected and delayed, there are about two or three effects and delays which I like a lot which I’ve used on a lot of records but they become part of the sound, you don’t notice them as anything that’s artificial…at least I hope not. In the earlier versions of those records, because the remasterings have been so bad over the years – things like the Ramones records are a lot more hard-edged and leaner than what we hear on the reissues today. Bigger and leaner, its interesting, on one of these shows I did recently, I had a tape transferred to digital of one of the mono mixes we did of the Ramones album – which is one of the ways it could have come out but the record distributor didn’t want it that way – anyway, it was astounding to me how pristine that mix was and how overpowering it was at the same time.
 

That’s interesting…well I was going to move on to how you’ve mentioned in the past (in relation to the Ramones album) how the room or the space you recorded it in was quite pivotal to how it turned out, but have you found that the case with your other work, has there been any other spaces which have been really important to how a record has turned out…and what have been your favourite spaces to record…?

Well its places which have a distinct ambience within the room. You don’t actually have to use a lot of effects to get an ambient, round sound and those are usually the places which work for all kinds of recording and the studio where we did the Ramones was like a big box in the sky, it was a rehearsal studio for the NBC symphony and was of classical proportions; very tall, very long, acoustically ‘live’ and those are the kind of rooms I like, as long as it’s a room like that, or a hall, I’m usually happy with it, not a big fan of confined, smaller, deader studios or even bigger, deader studios. Its usually the old time studios made for recording orchestras. Abbey Road is my favourite in the world for a studio, also the studio which I was talking about, which I loved – Plaza Sound- doesn’t exist anymore otherwise it would be up there, Electric Lady is a smaller studio but it has that ambience in one of its studios. Paris had a couple studios. Davout, is a studio which I love, Talking Heads have done some recording there, and I’ve also recorded there amongst people like Edith Piaf...haha…so those big kinds of spaces where you can get a lot of air between the microphones and the instruments and you could let things leak in as part of the sound. It’s the same as orchestral. I had a conversation – I ruined this girls hustle unfortunately – she had the unfortunate luck to call me about this…


(Inside Electric Lady Studios)
 
She was doing a phd on ‘Why punk records were deliberately made to sound bad’, that’s what she was saying, that may have been the case with some people but with the ‘punk bands of New York’ that wasn’t the case at all. And it wasn’t the case with people like the Sex Pistols either, Chris Thomas would never set out to make anything to sound deliberately bad and we’d all do the same thing, we were all trained in sort of the same way, by engineers and producers and in my case by arrangers; taught by composition teachers to do things by the book and what went into the mics is what came out and this girl was saying all about that really chainsaw kind of sound, but that was probably because she was listening to some crappy mp3 remaster, you’re not listening to the real thing and she said ‘well what mics would you use?’ so I said ‘here’s the mics I used with the Ramones’ and I gave her a big list of all the mics we used but I said ‘that’s not really important, its what they were playing which is important’ and she asked what mics I was using with the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) – I was doing a session with them at the time – and I said ‘it’s the same ones!’…hahaha…I mean, all that technical stuff doesn’t really matter that much, to me anyway. Getting a sound in the room that’s correctly represented and has an arrangement that works sonically within a frequency spectrum that makes sense, to me. It doesn’t make sense to anybody else but it makes sense to me…

That’s quite interesting, there were a lot of contemporary bands, there was a kind of scene which was vaguely called ‘lo-fi’ at one point. It was hard to know whether the bands were purposely having a shitty sound or it was part and parcel, them economically, not being able to produce ‘pristine’ records and once they got successful they got on, and produced cleaner material which hinted that they didn’t purposely do that. But I do agree that there is a fallacy there, when people say they purposely used shitty or inferior equipment…

Any musician when they know they’re making a record or recording, and recording is capturing a moment in time, and what they’re doing and their ability…I think there’s very few that would set out to do it deliberately crap but if they wanted to make a sound, if it works in their mind for the song – if they want to make a sound that’s particularly nasty or out of the ordinary, well that’s cool, that’s more than cool, that’s great but I don’t think they sit there and go ‘I’m going to make a horrible sounding record’…nobody I’ve ever worked with has ever expressed that they’ve wanted to do that. I do have a couple of horrible sounding records, but that could have been because the band were too stoned or there wasn’t enough time in the studio or something like that but not intentionally. 

No, no, of course. Well, that’s good to hear anyway. I think I’m going back in the chronology here, to the Suicide record, because I’d heard that they didn’t use synsthesizers for one, and that Martin Rev’s drum machine – it was obviously modified – was previously used for Bar Mitvah’s and he found it somewhere and rewired it…

Yeah, well that’s their setup, a load of found stuff rewired by him. He was right in there with the early avant-garde guys, the closest to LaMonte Young and people like that, and John Cage would be Marty Rev. He probably doesn’t admit it but he’s very well educated, well-educated in serious composition and all that ‘serious’ music. But yeah, there were these machines which were built into cheap organs, like electronic organs, that would be used in cocktail lounges and peoples homes for parties and things like that and he found a detached version of that but what it was, was a little thing which had like twelve settings and a tempo variant and one set of oscillators that put out a very small beat - like Casio’s would do this later on - …where you get a preset rhythm, you could make it go slower and faster and that was it. Well he took that and put it through all kinds of fuzz making devices like guitar amps and radio amps and things like that. I you take something like ‘Cha – Cha’ and turn it up all the way and hit go, you’d get the track of a Suicide record, but it was treated with all these things. And so he modified it in that way, I don’t know how he exactly modified it, I never really had a technical discussion with him. I know what the end result was, basically, the rhythm tracks for the Suicide record. But they weren’t programmed or anything, that was the setting that would come out. I think he worked out a way to programme them eventually but I don’t know how. In the very beginning, when they first started out live, it was just like rumba or cha-cha, done at various tempos and thrown into an amplifier or various means of amplification. 


(Suicide)

Cool. Well I was going to get on to your own involvement in the Suicide record but I wanted to get your thoughts. Bit of a curveball I suppose, I was thinking about New York at the time, I’m thinking specifically of Suicide here – I’ve seen in documentaries how they’ve mentioned how volatile and desolate certain areas of New York were at the time. I was wondering whether you recognised where they were coming from in terms of your own experience and whether that effected your own production on that record or any others you made at the time…


(Street life – Suicide kicking back in the squalor)
 
Well, where you are effects what you do as anybody in the world, as a craftsperson, a producer is more of a craftsperson than an artist. And there is a definition between those two things. But in any case the Lower East Side at that time, the farther east you got, the less inhabitable it was…but yeah it makes a lot of sense. I don’t want to get into a whole other theory of mine but I might as well…what I thought the New York scene was in terms of music was an intellectual ‘art scene’ and writing scene that collided with the street and what you hear in the music is kind of like the folk music of that neighbourhood. Folk music is traditionally music which comes from someone from the streets, and it goes to somebody else on the street, they put their thing onto it and it goes onto another person and it goes back and forth and all of its intuitive, none of its written, and that’s pretty much what you got in New York. So, to answer your question, absolutely that had a lot to do with it. But again it’s the same thing, you go back to Paul McCartney growing up in Liverpool in the time after World War Two and the sailors bringing in R & B music and him mutating that and bringing it into his own music along with music hall and the music in all the pubs and all of that; that created the Beatles. So I think ‘rock’ in general has been that, up until recently. Now its getting quite academic, maybe not all, there’s just so many bands out there that I don’t know but there’s a lot of reflection of older times, it isn’t taking something and making it your own, that I can see, that’s the difference now. 
 
 

To be continued in the next part, where we cover Craig's time in Jamaica, his interest in dub and reggae, the Nommos/Visiting records in full, his time working with eccentric personalities and more...watch Donkeys Bearing Cups in the meantime.

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