Part 2: A Conversation with... Terry Brown
Transplanted Brit record producer Terry Brown in this second of a two-part interview with Bill King recounts working with the Bonzo Dog Band, recording the first Rush album, working with Blue Rodeo back in the "Try" era...and his involvement with Klaatu.
Bill King: You were part of the big British pop thing. You come to Toronto and its R&B based music. You roll into that Beatlesque period with Klaatu. There’s now a 40th anniversary box set. Did you have a hand in this?
Terry Brown: I was there for some of the re-mastering.
B.K: Originally everybody thought it was the Beatles playing games with us.
T.B: It’s a funny story. I was looking for an assistant in the studio and this fellow John Woloschuk came in my office and said he really wanted to work in this studio and brought a cassette tape of some things he’d been working on. He played me this cassette tape and my jaw dropped, it was amazing. Overdubbed and overdubbed and overdubbed cassette to cassette. I was so impressed I told him he got the job. Then we started entertaining the idea of recording this fictitious band Klaatu, and it took a long time. Doug Riley was involved doing arrangements for us and playing piano.
B.K: Did you go into this with that Sgt. Pepper sound in mind? Even bands like Oasis copped a bit of that style.
T.B: The only band I knew that was similar was called the Pillbugs out of Toledo, Ohio. Mark Mikel. They were absolutely amazing. We got the limelight.
B.K: How well did these recordings do?
T.B: Amazingly well at the beginning. There was a journalist in the States (Steve Smith) who was thumbing through some records one day and found a copy of 3:47 EST – it had no credits on it at all. We were sick and tired of everybody putting everyone from uncles to all sorts of stuff on records at that time. We decided; no credits. If they like the record, they’ll play the record. It was pretty naïve but we believed it.
We put it out and he discovers it and asks, ‘what is this?” It didn’t say anything on it other than the record manufacturing company. So he played it and said it’s got to be the Beatles! He got a hold of Paul McCartney’s office and various other Beatles and asked if this was the Beatles. The answer was – no comment.
B.K: Had the Beatles heard the album?
T.B: No. So the press went wild with it and we sold 200,000 copies in another two weeks. We had sold maybe a hundred to ten thousand before that.
B.K: You didn’t realize you had a hook to this project?
T.B: That’s not strictly true. I remember one night in the studio with the band and I said if you didn’t know any better you’d swear this was the Beatles. It was just an off-hand remark. The album was put together so good. I think "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" is a masterpiece. Even though I was involved in it, I still love it.
B.K: Max Webster and Rush. Which came first for you?
T.B: I believe it was the very first Rush album. It was one of those situations where Rush had been recording in town doing the graveyard shift. They had a whole bunch of stuff recorded on eight-track and didn’t know what to do with it so they came in and saw me. We put together three new tunes and mixed the album in like two days.
B.K: Recorded where?
T.B: Toronto Sound. Overlea Boulevard. You needed a passport to get there. We ran for eight years.
B.K: It was busy...
T.B: It was active. We did a lot of records out of there. Holy smokes.
B.K: Why did it close down?
T.B: It was a struggle, a lot of competition. There were three or four studios that started up and possibly three were really well financed. We were struggling right from the very get go. I had a hard time keeping it open.
B.K: You’re busy chasing clients?
T.B. Yes. I’m still chasing clients. We would do jingles during the day then do what I would say was the more creative work, making records and the things that we loved to do in the evenings and overnight. It was like a twenty four-hour job.
B.K: What was it like working in the studio with Rush and did the recordings take longer to complete over time?
T.B: Yes. The first album we made after the Rush record which was more like just putting together and assembling, Fly By Night, was ten days from pre-production to finished mix. As we went on it got a little more elaborate but not much more studio time, and then we went to England to do A Farewell to Kings and spent six weeks on that; a month recording, two weeks to mix.
B.K: It must have seemed like a long time?
T.B: It went by very fast. There’s a lot of music on that record, it’s pretty deep.
B.K: Did you sense the band would one day garner international acceptance?
T.B: I didn’t have the vision of mega stardom but right from the very get go I thought they were amazing. I remember the very first time Alex doubled his guitar. I was like, "Wow, how can he do that? That was incredible." So accurate. I was in love with Geddy’s voice. Nobody I worked with sang like that. It was a love it or hate it voice.
B.K: Love "Tom Sawyer" – did you produce?
T.B: I didn’t engineer that record. Paul Northfield did, I produced it with the band.
B.K: Love the sound.
T.B: That was pretty damn exciting and still is. That was the first digital record we did. It was recorded analog but mixed digitally. I always had a problem back in those days of losing the punch on the kick drum and tightness in the bass going analog. It’s a personal thing. I embraced the digital thing right at the very beginning.
B.K: I find it’s still an issue.
T.B: I don’t know if it’s an issue, more a taste thing.
B.K: I’m always zeroing in at Raptors games when they play current music at Air Canada Centre, especially the definition on the snare and bass drum. Then you hit iTunes and hear these mid-level recordings and that is lost.
T.B: It’s a different technique — the whole analog thing. I was listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the weekend, a hi-rez digital copy of the analog and it was absolutely stunning, I would have to say. Everything about it, his vocal presence, the stereo, the sounds and arrangements were amazing.
B.K: Do you listen to much music today clueing in on the recording techniques being employed?
T.B: Yes. The fidelity these days is so different. There is a lot more clarity, then again we’ve sacrificed other things for that. When you listen to my early recordings they aren’t the hi-rez sound but there are the idiosyncrasies, character and personality that sometimes gets lost today with the ability to change every little detail and make it right. Sometimes making it not quite right is good.
B.K: Do you prefer live to machines?
T.B: I don’t use machines. I always record live with drummers. I do quite of bit of programming but I do it as if I were a drummer and steal from the best.
B.K: Are you tough on vocalists?
T.B: Not at all. Not on good vocalists. I don’t do a lot of that. Normally, I will gravitate to somebody who really grabs me I think I can work with who sings so well. There’s no point going in spending months and months with somebody who can’t sing unless of course you are developing someone who has a certain magic and ability that just needs bringing out.
B.K: You recently watched the Adele special.
T.B: Amazing. She’s a wonderful singer. In fact I thought she sang better on the tune she co-wrote with the Canadian fellow (Tobias Jesso Jr.). I thought she sounded better on television that she does on the record. I’ve only heard that once on record. I was immediately drawn to it. I thought she was wonderful.
B.K: The audio on these shows are remarkable.
T.B: Unbelievable. I kept scratching my head thinking this doesn’t sound possible. A big orchestra, beautiful arrangements reproduced flawlessly.
B.K: Blue Rodeo, were you there from the beginning?
T.B: I wasn’t around the ten years they developed that album and wrote those songs. Jim and Greg were working in New York developing who they were or wanted to be. It wasn’t until they came back to Toronto that we signed them to the record label, Risque Disque. We put the label together with mutual friends and signed the band.
B.K: "Try" was such a big hit.
T.B: The late Mike Jones engineered that.
B.K: At McClear Place.
T.B: Which was RCA.
B.K: I’ve been asked by David Farrell to ask you about Bonzo Dog?
T.B: I was first introduced to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band at Lansdowne Studios with Gerry Bron. He brought them in to finish off one track they were working on from their very first album, Gorilla. They were totally crazy. Lyrically and musically they were zany for one thing, very clever. Have you ever heard their “Jazz, Delicious, Hot Disgusting Cold”? You have to play that. It makes me cry laughing every time I hear it. It’s absolutely brilliant.
I went on to do A Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse at Morgan studios which I put together just before I left to come here, with the late Gus Dudgeon. He did all those Elton John records and he did David Bowie’s Space Oddity, too.
B.K: It was a time when I had to know where and who produced and engineered a record. Tumbleweed Connection killed me.
T.B: Isn’t it brilliant? Those recordings are unique, you can’t really replicate that. There are nuances and idiosyncrasies that are built into those people.