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Michael Been discusses the recording of Red Moon

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as featured in the September 1990 issue of The Call's Notified fanzine

Hello fellow Call fans! Talk about timing! This issue of Notified is arriving in your mailboxes just days before the Call's seventh album, Red Moon, hits the stores - and the date to circle on your calendars is September 18 1990!

Red Moon is an album that plays directly into the Call's musical roots. Not that the band are waxing nostalgic - not even near it! This is the Call now, with a decade of record making to their credit, playing in the musical vernacular they grew up with and were inspired by.

Red Moon covers many musical bases. How's yer blues? (my passion for blues/rock was certainly indulged). There are moments of jazz, some fleeting, some ponderable - with equal parts of head and heart. Great harmonies; tasteful, well-arranged horns; and some of the best percussion I've heard by anyone. It's all here under this rubric called rock 'n' roll, and all within the framework of the Call's own distinctive sound.

This time out, Notified devoted all space to a recent interview with Michael Been. Michael spoke candidly with me about the music of yesterday and today. He also lucidly describes the recording of Red Moon. So consider this issue sort of a companion piece to the album. With that said, read on!

P.S. U2's Bono sings on this record. Bono shares vocal harmonies with Michael on the album's first single, "What's Happened to You", which will be released to radio on September 12, 1990.
Red Moon is a wonderful album and I think it's unique because it seems to be a real studio album.
Well, these days that's a little misleading. The way most records are recorded today is they'll go in and just have two or three musicians lay down a track, and they'll play with a drum machine or click track and keep recording it until at least one and hopefully more instruments have played it well. Let's say the bass player played great, but they didn't think the guitar player or drummer played that great, so perhaps they'll keep the bass track because the bass will be locked into this consistent clock time. And then the drummer - if, in fact, there even was a real drummer, since most records you hear, especially Top 40, are drum machines and not a human drummer at all - will go into the studio by himself and play just to that bass guitar and that click track until he plays it the way they want it played. They'll then bring in the guitar player and he'll play to those two people. Usually nobody is really in the studio together playing at the same time.

That sounds rather boring. But what I meant by studio album is that once the basic song is recorded you take advantage of subtle techniques - add lots of interesting things to the song.
Right. With this album there were more overdubs, more "production". It was exactly the same process as Let the Day Begin: We went in with a P.A., no headphones, and played the basic tracks live. Although, we didn't play loud this time - Let the Day Begin was played very loud at live volume. But the nature of these songs didn't call for that. We wanted a lot of little subtle interplay, so we set up in this tiny area, a corner really, of this big studio. We were all right next to each other. With Let the Day Begin, we were going for the way it would sound in a live concert; whereas, with this one we were going for the way it would sound if we were playing in your living room for you.

What the Call does in the studio is we play a song until everyone has played well. Sometimes we've played until three of us have gotten it right, then we'll have the fourth guy fix his part. But we've rarely fixed on entire part. There might be a section where someone didn't play it well or thought he could play it better, and he'll fix that section.

This album is so diverse - it has everything from funky blues to jazz. This is the first Call record that the lyrics are almost secondary to me. Not to say the lyrics are inferior - they certainly aren't, they're incredibly moving - but it's a musical album. With each listen the music just washes over me.
I think we were inspired by the sounds we were using. We used old amps, old drums, keyboards, everything. We intentionally didn't want to use anything made after 1970, except for some synthesizer sounds that we modified to get away from that standard sterile synth sound. There's an inherent quality with the modern sounds. There's a tonal quality that the old records have that the new ones don't have. The new sounds are considered better in a certain way, but I personally question whether or not they're really better. On this album we used Mellotron and Chamberlin, which were sort of the first synthesizers; but they used tapes.

I'm not a fan of the new technology. I recently saw Steven Spielberg being interviewed, and he was asked whether or not he wanted to use, or looked forward to using, the modern advances in technology in his moviemaking. He said, "I think I have all the tools I need. If I can't make great movies with what's available today, which is basically what they used twenty, thirty, and forty years ago, then I shouldn't really be making movies." He went on and said, "Can you make a better baseball bat - without cheating?" I liked that.

I remember Mellotron from the Beatle days. Didn't the Beatles pioneer instruments like Mellotron and Chamberlin? Companies would make new, innovative instruments, and the Beatles would use them in the studio.
Yeah, but it wasn't really companies - it was this guy Chamberlin. They're the most incredible instruments you've ever seen - very primitive. Chamberlin, in the early 60's, recorded symphony musicians - not as a group, but individual instruments, like a violin, a cello, french horn, every instrument of an orchestra. He recorded them onto a tape recorder, using quarter inch tape. And he had great microphones, those old 40's tube microphones that are so ambient. He would have, for example, the cello player pick a note or bow across the string forward and back for 8 seconds or so. He did this with each instrument plus other sounds like a dog barking and all kinds of things, but the main thing are these instruments from the orchestra. He then put each tape on some sort of electric pulley system with a weight, so when you hit the key it releases the weight and the weight goes down and pulls the tape over the tape head. So you hit the note and it plays, and when it stops you have to push it down to start the tape again. It's a rather awkward way of playing, and you rally have to master the touch of it. Jim played it on this record for the cello and french horn sounds.

But, regardless of the technology of it, the reason the Call used it is because the sounds are so fantastic. They're the old sounds before digital came in - this beautiful, rich sound of an acoustic instrument.

The way that most music is going today, technology-wise, is sonically unacceptable to me. If you hear the sound of an actual cello - say a cellist goes out in a room and runs a bow across a cello, and you have a nice microphone on it - compare that to the digitized sound of the cello setting on a synthesizer, and the synth is so inferior. It's the difference between fresh peas out of your garden, and frozen processed peas. And I think it's a good analogy because we're getting so far away from a natural approach that the music is losing it's humanness. I personally feel it would be best to use an actual cello player or whoever.

But that's not always desirable if you want to keep a band fairly self-contained. But I think you can use an acoustic instrument or Chamberlin-style organ and still create great sounds.

I think many of today's musicians naturally gravitate toward synthesizers and drum machines because computers and their technology have become so ensconced in our everyday lives.
Computers and technology are taking over our lives in all kinds of ways. We've been warned about this for years - that the more technology comes in, the less the human being will be involved. It's like the difference between the great old hand-drawn movie cartoons and computer cartoons. How can you compare them? One is wonderful and one is cheesy.

I guess I'm on a crusade to ask musicians to avoid using drum machines and these tasteless synthesizer sounds that are so sizzly and thin. You can get good sounds out of them, but it's very difficult. Many of the things being recorded now are so synthetic it's destroying our hearing. Synthesizers can create overtones and extreme highs that people are getting used to and our senses are getting dulled to natural tones. Musicians and engineers are saying, "I need more high-end, I need more high-end" - it's like a drug - "I need more, I'm not getting off on it anymore." It's like an aural addiction. I think it's best to stay within the acoustic instrument sound range, except for maybe the occasional special effect for dynamics.

I'll tell you a story. They were recording Elvis Costello's album and they had a synthesizer player in the studio, and he had access to like literally a thousand different sounds through Midi-ing up all kinds of synthesizers. And they were in there, going through all these squeaks and beeps and blips, trying to find a sound, and they're getting frustrated because none of the sounds are right. And what happened is somebody goes out into the studio and hits a note on a piano and they all go, "What was that? That's fantastic!" True story.

But, Michael, some people will tell you it's a matter of taste ? that these modern sounds are superior to the old ones.
I don't think so. Those drum sounds of the 40's, 50's, and 60's were so wonderful, so real - they've got a very primitive quality. And a drum set is a primitive thing - there's supposed to be a wildness to it. But instead we have all these synthetic, triggered sounds - a lot of which is just gated white noise. They take that sound and mix it together with the sound of an actual drum and all kinds of digital reverb sounds. I just find it to be abrasive and unmusical.

I agree. But if you were to ask anyone who frequents a dance club, he or she would tell you that they like dancing to the drum machines.
Drum machines keep perfect time - it's like dancing to a clock, it's unhuman. But that perfect time is also addictive. People don't even know they're addicted to it, it's very subtle. And I don't think it's good for dancing, it's too inhibiting. I suppose you can do the latest choreographed steps to it, but you can't really lose yourself in it and just move to the music. It's very disco to me. It's self-conscious, posing-type dancing. Real drummers, on the other hand, speed up and slow down continuously, following the dynamics of the song.

I was driving home today and on the radio they played "Stand!", by Sly and the Family Stone, and oh, it's just brilliant - it has this trashy ass primitive drum feel. And musicians, especially young musicians, here and in Europe, and terribly inspired by this soul feel - Motown, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone. The drum beat at the end of "Stand!" is the drum beat used by most dance music currently on the radio. It's this high hat playing 16th notes - clanging around, kind of sloppy and flying by the seat of the pants. Now these musicians took this drum machine that reproduced that drum beat in a most clinical way. Instead of it being sloppy ad wild and funky, it became very clean, mechanical and robotic.

People who use these machines should go back and listen to those old records, and hear how twisted and soulless this interpretation of it has become. Young drummers are even trying to play like drum machines. Think about it. It's ridiculous.

And it goes through the whole synthesizer spectrum. You know, you should be able to get almost everything out of different organs by adding outboard sound effects, like choruses, flangers, and harmonizers, or the old original analog digital domain it's like, "we went too far guys, let's go back." I've been tempted by it myself. We've experimented with a lot of those sounds on our albums, but it isn't satisfying to me anymore. Now don't get me wrong, I like many of the bands who use this stuff.

But I know they would be infinitely better if they used real drummers and more natural instruments. I think this equipment being used is ultimately a dead end.

When you use a real instrument the sound and interpretation of that instrument will depend entirely on the style and soul of the player, so the possibilities are as infinite as the differences between each human being. But these machines take away so much of the style of the player - anyone who sits at them is basically going to sound exactly the same.

Now someone like Garth Hudson or Jim Goodwin can use synthesizers and create exciting, original sounds because they're aware of these inherent dangers. They know how to EQ all the undesirable tones out of these instruments. But remember these men are professionals, so don't try this at home (laughs). Seriously, though, in the hands of a lesser keyboardist who maybe didn't even learn on an organ or piano, the results can be disastrous.

Some people, young people in particular, might argue that much of the music of the 60's and 70's sounds exactly the same to them.
Well, I hated most of the 70's sounds. But if a person would go back and listen to the instruments of the 40's, 50's, and 60's, and actually studied them, I don't believe they would think that. I don't think all the old sounds were great on every record, but far more than now.

I really liked some of the early 70's heavy metal bands. I thought AC/DC was great.
Yeah, they were - but I don't think of them as metal. For me it was just a louder, exaggerated version of the blues - bands like Zepplin, Hendrix, Cream, T-Rex - that was a wild, sometimes drug induced, interpretation.

Talking about drums, I remember in the 60's there was so much cymbal.

The Beatles did that for effect - they liked it. Another reason for it was that musicians and engineers didn't know miking techniques well enough to keep the high hat and cymbals out of the snare drum and tom tom. But even that I like better than what they've come up with today. For example, this loud overdone bass drum sound, where you have all this music playing and then sitting out on its own is this kick drum to show you where to tap your foot. It's stupid.

Did you put any effects on the drums for this album or did you record them differently this time ? they sound so great.
Scott used a 1957 Gretsch drum set and an old Ludwig set. The old drum sets were lightweight so that the set would kind of rattle when you hit it. For us it was all very intentional to get back to a real set of drums, no samples. The modern drums are made of really heavy, very thick wood, and the whole reason for that is to get each drum to be such a self-contained sound so that it doesn't ring into another drum. And they are designed for effects to be put on them. But they don't sound like a trap kit, where everything should connect to each other. When you hear them they sound like you've taken each drum and put it in a different part of a gymnasium. So, what we did was we got this old drum set where when you hit one drum the other drums resonate - they're lightweight and they all shake so that you get the sound of a real drum kit.

You added a lot of additional percussion on this album like wood blocks and maracas and lots of horns and vocal harmonies. How will you duplicate some of the songs live?
We really can't totally duplicate it live unless we bring in other players. And for some shows we may bring in a small horn section for a few of the songs.

I think your first and second albums were more like Red Moon as far as studio albums. After that it was more in the synthesizer vein.
Yeah, well, Jim brought a lot of that in and it was good because he's very creative with programming. But he's starting to dig the more natural instruments.

You have a lot of high separation on this album.
That was really from playing quietly. You can get separation by gating instruments or by putting amplifiers in different rooms, but we got it from just playing quietly. If you turn it up loud on your stereo, that's probably louder than we played it.

Aren't there double tracked guitars on this record?
No, not double tracked exactly, but Tom and I overdubbed quite a few guitars.

I counted four guitars plus bass on «A Swim In The Ocean». You come in on guitar to start the song, then Tom on slide, and then the wah-wah, and there's also one more guitar.
There are actually only three guitars on that song. That's not a guitar through a wah-wah - that's Jim playing a clavinet through a wah-wah. Then I overdubbed another guitar playing some licks and fills. Also, that song doesn't have a bass guitar on it. It's just a floor tom, and I think Jim may have added some low piano or clavinet.

On "The Hand That Feeds You", what is that synthetic crash sound at the beginning of the song?
It isn't synthetic. I hit the inside of a grand piano with a drum mallet. I was looking for an ominous kind of sound to set the mood in the introduction. I played percussion and piano on that song. I used the piano as a drum and we put a lot of reverb on it. It was a grand piano with the lid up and I hit the strings and the music stand with a drum mallet.

You don't usually play bass chords, but in the song "Family" you did.
I have done it before, but on that song I do it a lot.

What song has the backward guitar?
"Floating Back". The solo is Tom. It's actually two different solos playing at the same time. We turned the tape over so that it came out backwards. It was Tom's idea to do that - to fit the song "Floating Back". It was a great idea.

The bass on "What A Day" is so great - you play a lot of high notes. Your bass reminds me of Jack Bruce on that song.
I played a little Ibanez fretted bass - it felt right for that song. On the rest of the album I use my Ampeg fretless bass.

What microphones did you use for this album?
We used old stuff. We recorded at Oceanway Studios, and they've got one of the best selection of microphones in the world.

T-Bone Burnett was involved with this record. How did you meet him?
Scott and I have known T-Bone for about fifteen years. Last March we started talking with him about music and that we wanted to make a different type of record this time; more natural, more organic. He agreed with our approach, mainly about the things we've been talking about in this interview. We talked about him co-producing the album with me, but he was already producing his wife's, Sam Philips, album and Tonio K's album at the same time. So, we booked Oceanway Studios in L.A., where he was working with Sam and Tonio. Oceanway has about five different studios in one building, so he could at least pop in and be involved. He'd come in from time to time and offer his opinion and suggestions. He had some great ideas; for example, the horn line on «Like You've Never Been Loved» was his idea. He's a very talented guy.

Bono sang with you on "What's Happened To You". How did that come about?
Well, Bono came into town for a vacation, but he wanted to record this song he had written. It's a country song and I think he wrote it with Willie Nelson in mind. He tried recording it a few different times and couldn't get it to feel right with the musicians he was playing with. T-Bone heard the song and suggested to Bono that he have Jim and I play on it - it was during the mixing of the album, so Tom and Scott had gone home. So Bono came in and we did the song. It's a really beautiful song and it sounded quite great. After that he wanted to hear some of the things we were doing. He told us he was "a fan from afar". T-Bone wanted him to hear «Floating Back». He liked it and wanted to hear more. We played «What's Happened To You» for him and at the time we didn't have the harmonies, only my lead vocal. So I said how about singing on this one and he said sure. So he and I sang the chorus and the la, la's, and the voices sounded really good together.

Bono doesn't do a lot of harmony singing - his voice is so distinctive. But we wanted the voices to blend like a chorus - to create a dreamy effect. And I knew he would be great on the la, la's because it's kind of an Irish melody. He was a very nice man, and it was good to meet him after all these years.

Did he mention anything about when we can expect a new album from U2?
They're working on songs, but from what I gathered they are not going to put anything out until 1992. I think they want to get into different types of music, and if they make a new album now there wouldn't be a big enough difference from what they've done in the past and what they want to do in the future. I know Edge is listening to a lot of different kinds of guitar playing. He's just recently been influenced by many of the old blues players and country players, and I think they want to take their music in a different direction.

I've loved them since 1980 and I know that they certainly weren't schooled in music.
That's right. And I think that was a great value because if you're not schooled you come up with something really unique and your own, but it's also a limitation after a while. It's great for a time, but then you can't do much other than that. And if you're a serious musician, and I think they are serious musicians, you'll want to expend your possibilities.

I read an article around the time the Sun City album was being recorded in which Bono told a story of how one night he was sitting around with Keith Richards and several other musicians playing songs they had been influenced by - songs they had loved in their early days. Bono said that he had felt so removed from that moment because he really had no major influences and no songs to sing from his past. He then decided he would learn all he could about the early music of the blues greats. He also said that he regretted not studying Gaelic, and becoming more proficient in his history through Irish folk songs.
Yeah, we talked about that. To be able to continue and grow musically you've got to become a student of it, a fan, that sits and listens to it. You've got to study it with the diligence that you study anything else.

There are some young artists who are going back to the early sounds and instruments. I really love the Lenny Kravitz record. I saw him line and he was incredible. He had these wonderful blues players with him. He's so 60's in his approach to music in the way you've been describing.
Lenny Kravitz is really getting some wonderful sounds. He's thrown out the modern stuff and I respect that. And I think it's a consciousness. All of a sudden you wake up and go, "Wait a minute. All this modern stuff is weak."

Recording has gotten into the hands of computer people, people who get off on technology. They're not musicians - they don't have good ears. They're going more for efficiency and quantity of choices. Rock 'n' roll to me was always about primitive expression and limitation - limitation in a good way. "Here's the instrument, make something out of it" - rather than - "Here's a synthesizer with a thousand sounds - pick one you like."

The good things about the digital world, however, are CD's and digital audio tape. Once you record a song using real instruments on analog equipment, the reproduction onto digital is quite good. You lose some of the warmth of vinyl, but it does have great clarity.

You play an old electric Gretsch hollow body guitar on this album and it sounds so good. Rather than having that short, twangy sound of the Telecaster, the Gretsch is still twangy, but it has more style and body. It sounds better than your Telecaster because it has more tonal value.
That's right, and tonal value is what we've been talking about.

You told me a little while back that Red Moon is the kind of record the Call would have made years ago, before you had to concern yourselves with what record companies want and what will sell.
An interesting thing about Red Moon is that this is the first record that we've made in many years that I did not think one thought about whether it's commercial, whether it will sell. I was talking with our engineer, Jim Scott, and it simultaneously dawned on us that if we don't resurrect this approach, records are not going to be made this way anymore. It will be a forgotten art. We have to do it, because not enough people are doing it. But we're hoping it will create a consciousness. If we can at least get this through to the musicians, if we can get them to hear what we're talking about, I think they'll know it.

I've always found it so interesting to learn something about each song on an album, such as who played what instrument and who sang on what songs. Tell me about the instrumentation and vocals for the songs on Red Moon.
Well, on "What's Happened To You" Jim played Mellotron and electric piano. Tom played guitar and solo. I played the piano and bass and Bono and I sang it. And, of course, Scott played the drums.

"Red Moon" is Jim on a grand piano. Scott played the drums with brushes. Jim and I and Scott sang the harmonies. I played a short bass solo. Jim played Chamberlin and Tom is on guitar.

"You Were There" has Tom playing the guitar solo, one of my all-time favorite solos. Jim played all the horn parts on saxophone. It was so great watching him do it - he's a one-man horn section.

On "Floating Back" Scott played drums and overdubbed maracas. Tom Played two tracks of backward guitar and made it work as a solo. I had some chorusing effect on the bass. And Jim and Scott and I sang the vocals. Jim also played an old ARP string ensemble.

On "A Swim In The Ocean" Tom and I played guitars. Tom played slide guitar and I overdubbed another guitar. Jim played piano and overdubbed a clavinet. I changed the sound of my voice on this song. Scott played drums. I really love the feel of that song.

"Like You've Never Been Loved" has Jim on saxophones and electric piano through a Lesley speaker. Scott overdubbed wood blocks. Other than that, it's pretty much straight ahead. T-Bone sang background vocals with us.

"Family" was recorded basically like "Red Moon" - bass, drums, guitar and grand piano. Jim then overdubbed Chamberlin and Mellotron. The pedal steel sound is the Chamberlin. Jim also played a KX-88 synthesizer, but we eliminated all those tones that are equated with that sizzly synth sound. We EQ'd it all out to create a flute-like organ sound, and ran it through a Lesley. It's Jim and Scott and me singing once again.

"This Is Your Life" is the next one. Recording it was fun. We had a lot of our friends in the studio that night and everybody was screaming and yelling and having a good time. It was just the kind of energy we needed - a celebration-type song. I overdubbed a twelve-string guitar and Tom played the solo.

On "The Hand That Feeds You" Jim and I played piano. I played bass and percussion by using the piano as a drum. I wanted the song to sound kind of jazzy and dark. Jim played saxophone just beautifully - it reminds me of Chet Baker. Tom played guitar and that's me on the short guitar solo. Jim also played organ. Scott played the tom tom drum pattern.

The basic track for "What a Day" was recorded during the "Let The Day Begin" sessions. Tom really liked the guitar, so I was busy writing words as I was singing them, Jim overdubbed a Chamberlin playing trombones.

One last question, Michael. Much of music now is very short term - one trend after another. How have the Call maintained a philosophy of seriousness in their music, an attitude of credibility as a band, in today's musical climate?
We play according to a tradition. It's a tradition where music is not a fad, or a trend, or a style. It isn't theatre, or a beauty contest, or a fashion show. It can be used, or rather abused, to serve those things because music can't defend itself. But musicians can.