David Kershenbaum lets rip on his affection for rhythmic mixes in a natter with Our Dread.
Fred Dellar discovers how bespectacled David Kershenbaum, musical diplomatist par excellence, made A&M good for FM, taking them out of Tijuana and into the limelight.
Odds are, if David Kershenbaum hadn't been a producer, he would have become a diplomat of Kissinger-like proportions. As affable as they come, eager-beaver in his willingness to answer all questions, and possessing an obvious sincerity, he is, nevertheless, a difficult man to pin down.
He's worked with more stars than the Astrologer Royal — but throw up the names of Joan Baez or Cat Stevens, to name just a couple of the supernovae Kershenbaum's pointed in the right direction, and the defensive I-must-not-reveal-anything-about-my-clients mechanism comes into play. 'It was an honour to work with Joan,' he'll say. Or: 'It was a great experience to work with Cat.' Then finito.
Whether Baez burped her way through her first takes or whether the young Mr Georgiou stomped on the Steinway in his socks we shall never know — at least, not from David Kershenbaum. The Official Secrets Act has obviously been signed. Sometimes it's a hard road for a journalist.
Anecdotes about employers apart, Kershenbaum is a pleasant enough guy to spend time with. His voice is somehow reminiscent of Woody Allen's. But whereas Woody has often been the all-time loser, Kershenbaum is Mr Lucky, the one who usually gets things right. He claims his ambitions began early in life.
'It started when I was just six years old. Even then I knew I wanted to be a record producer. I had this terrific desire to play with sound and had a room filled with offensively loud equipment that my parents were nice enough to put up with during my growing-up years. I remember that I used to put speakers outside and work on little radio shows and things for the kids in the neighbourhood. That was in Springfield, Missouri — part of the mid-West — where the Ozark Daredevils (with whom Kershenbaum has worked) came from. Steve Cash (the Ozarks' lead singer) and I lived about a block apart and knew each other all the way through school. It was during this period that, through a family friend, I got involved with a country music show. It started out as a small, local affair, but later grew into a national programme that featured Red Foley, Brenda Lee, Porter Wagoner and all kinds of country people.
'But country, much as I enjoyed it, didn't seem like the area in which my interests were really heading — so I began fooling around with bands all the way through school and then, after two or three years, started out for California, which, because I'd never been west, seemed like a giant diamond glittering in the sky. There I met a manager who was closely tied in with Mike Curb. Curb signed me to make records for his Sidewalk Productions company during the sixties and the records came out on Capitol and Bell. I sang and played guitar on these, most of the songs being written by Wayne Carson Thompson, who penned a lot of the Box Tops' hits (including The Letter, Neon Rainbow, and Soul Deep).'
Kershenbaum knew nothing about production techniques at this period, but learnt much from working with Bob Summers and Mike Curb. And though his career as a recording artist proved as successful as igloos in the Sahara, he picked up enough know-how to eventually land a job in Chicago, where he produced radio and TV commercials.
'I guess I was about 20 or 21 at the time and thought this would be nice and comfortable. I'd just gotten through school and though I felt music was fine, it really hadn't happened for me as a recording artist — and I hadn't the contacts to become a record producer at the time. So I thought I'd use a bit of my business background allied to some of my production background and then get into something congenial to both.'
He persevered in the world of superhype for a while; then, finding that old age was approaching with some rapidity — Kershenbaum was 23 at the time — he moved back to California with some tapes of acts which he hoped would interest various record companies, his eventual aim being to become a staff producer. RCA and CBS both expressed interest, the former winning out because they were the first to offer the then broke producer some cash, CBS being somewhat delayed due to the fact that their office was in turmoil following an earthquake during which their ceiling had fallen in! So David M — his productions in those days were always credited to David M Kershenbaum — became an RCA staffman and was promptly transported back to the company's Chicago-based A&R department.
'I figured that was a pretty good deal because I knew the area real well and also figured that I could make my mistakes quietly and modestly — which I did.'
The first act that the Missourian signed in Chicago was B W Stevenson who, hailing from Texas, had moseyed around with Waylon'n'Willie, Michael Murphey, Steve Fromholz and the rest of the Austin mafia. The Kershenbaum-Stevenson connection proved effective, the partnership scoring initially with Shambala in '73 — though this number was covered more successfully by Three Dog Night — following this with a top 10 hit in My Maria and another chart single in The River Of Love. After two years in the Windy City, Kershenbaum made the mistake of venturing off to Cleveland to check out a band. By the time he'd got back, RCA had closed the Chicago studio.
'I then knew one of two things could happen,' remembers Kershenbaum. 'Either I'd be looking for a job, which was difficult in Chicago because there were only two major record companies there, or else they'd move me somewhere else. Happily, RCA decided to move me to California, which was a great break because I was then able to work with a high standard of musician and arranger, while the studios too were great. And so I became totally entrenched in production.'
During his stay with RCA David M did a stint in Nashville, co-producing the final Everly Brothers' album, Pass The Chicken, with Chet Atkins, and also working with John Stewart, David Clayton-Thomas and The Hues Corporation. But somehow he felt stuck in a rut and decided that in order to have more latitude he would have to become an independent producer. So, with the aid of friend and attorney Abe Summers, he split from RCA and attempted to make it on his own, scoring immediately with Diamonds And Rust, hailed as Joan Baez's first really commercial album.
A&M were grateful that Kershenbaum had been able to produce a money-spinner from the problematic Baez, whose previous Gracias A La Vida, an album sung entirely in Spanish, had been something of a financial disaster. And Kershenbaum, in turn, decided that he liked the set-up that Alpert and Moss had created.
'I've done an awful lot of work for them since,' he admits. 'I thought a great deal about A&M as a company and after I did Cat Stevens' Izitso (Island in the UK, but A&M in the States) we made a production deal together. I then did the Breakaway album with Gallagher and Lyle, plus some more for Hoyt Axton, Richie Havens and others. It just seemed that I kept on producing their artists.' Nevertheless, Kershenbaum claims that he's not an A&M staff producer. 'Though I guess I'm close to being one. I have this production deal and base myself out of A&M's offices — but from time to time, I still produce artists for other labels.'
Since leaving RCA, Kershenbaum has seemingly trekked around scores of studios, rarely turning up in the same place twice. He says that there are both advantages and disadvantages to this.
'The big advantage is that by going to certain areas you can have access to the musicians out of those places and meet engineers who work in different ways. When I was at RCA, I was compelled to use the same studios all the time — and though I'm not consciously rebelling against that, I do enjoy the freedom of moving around and going where I want to. I found out that when I was using the same studio frequently I tended to work the same way and so my records really started sounding alike. They had the same bass sound and the same drum sound, even though I used different engineers. But it's difficult to move around unless you're perfectly sure what the monitors are like — you can get fooled sometimes. One way out is to take things back to a studio you know very well and do your mixing there. That's what I've done a lot — gone back home and mixed things at Producer's Workshop, a Hollywood studio I know very well. That way things are okay and the problems are not too big.
'One thing though — it's important where you record from an artist's point of view. Certain studios are good for certain kinds of music — there are places I wouldn't dream of taking some artists into because I know the whole set-up wouldn't be right for the sort of people they are. Environment has to be right. A record is about the way people feel — and the comfort and general atmosphere that a studio provides has a lot to do with the way people feel when they're working there. The lighting, the way the monitors sound — they all play their part.'
Work with Elkie Brooks, Gallagher and Lyle and, more recently, The Tarney-Spencer Band, has meant that Kershenbaum has become increasingly familiar with the British studio scene.
'I'm really impressed with Eden Studios, the place that Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello have been using a lot. I recently found a band that I've considered signing — they have a lot of accessible material, but with a raw edge — and if we sign them, I'll probably take them into Eden. TW is another good studio that I've seen, another studio for younger bands and one at which The Stranglers and Ian Gomm record. Air is fine and has some good engineers — I've used that place a lot — and CBS is fine too. I went in there with Elkie, with Mike Ross doing the engineering.'
Such other American producers as Kenny Laguna and Matthew Kaufman have always raved about Ramport. I mention this to Kershenbaum and check for reaction.
'Ramport was the first London studio I ever walked into — that was when I was thinking about Gallagher and Lyle. I liked the studio at the time but I wasn't fond of the JBL monitors they were using then. The thing I liked about Eden and CBS is that they have the newer JBLs, the 4350s, which I like a lot. The older JBLs, like the 4320s, I had a lot of trouble with them because I was raised on Altecs and have grown up learning 604s and that system. The Tannoy I've found to be comfortable — I've adapted to that and have finally ended up owning Tannoys at home. But I mean, monitors have got to be right or I'm dead. If those monitors aren't just so then I'm gonna make a mess of things. First thing I do is to put on my test tape and see if that sounds all right. I usually take a tape around with me that I know real well — and if that sounds okay and the room feels right, then I'm home and ready to work!'
In my opinion David M is a craftsman of some quality — his productions being clean-cut and worthy of an A rating soundwise, yet possessing a warmth sometimes missing from other masters of the more clinical school of production. But, just for the sake of controversy, I put it to Kershenbaum that to many, sound perfection equals boredom and that the somewhat abrasive approach of say a Lowe or an Edmunds could find many more takers in the era ahead. The bespectacled one nods in agreement.
'It's true. We've gotten so technical and so much into using all those new devices that have come on to the market that records have become real precise and truly perfect — because we can now get them perfect. Perhaps there have been times when I've been clinical, and I'm aware of that. However, I feel that certain artists require that type of production. But, on the other hand, there are people who refuse to believe some of the things I've done because they're so opposite in sound technique and presentation to many of the things I've been associated with. Times change though — I've been in production work for around five years now and though that's not a long time, I'm anxious to move on. Obviously you have to spend a lot of time reaching a certain proficiency and knowing how to work a studio. I spent a great deal of time learning how to become an engineer because there are times when you hear things that you can't explain to others — you've just got to have the ability to get that sound yourself.
'But having become established, there comes a time when you have to think about changing ways, otherwise you just get into a rut and everything comes out sounding the same. If you do get that way, then things are just gonna pass you by and everything you do is gonna sound old to everyone. Nowadays I'm just as picky as ever I was about the kind of artists I want to produce as far as quality goes, but I'm getting increasingly flexible about the way I want to present them. Having had the experience of that perfect kind of sound — which I spent so long trying to get — it then becomes easy to go back and try other avenues. Other people have fallen into that purely by accident, or they've ended up with something rough and raw but still full of character and possessing a lot of charm. And sometimes it's happened purely because they didn't know their way around a studio and consequently made mistakes — but it's those very mistakes that have provided the charm.
'Sometimes I feel we should all let it happen just a little bit more in a studio. It's all part of the cycle and patterns thing really. In the Sixties, what we had was rough — I mean, just go back and hear it — then things softened up at the beginning of the Seventies. And more recently everything became real slick. Now, if people aren't going to get bored with things, then everything's got to go around again.'
Thinking back over the history of the house of Kershenbaum, I opine that The End Of The Beginning, an album by Richie Havens, represented one such attempt to change direction. Again I receive the Kershenbaum nod.
'Richie's album was a fun job and different because, well, Gallagher and Lyle were a band and Joan used studio musicians, but with Richie we had to figure out how we had to do things. Then Smitty (keyboardist/arranger William 'Smitty' Smith), who'd just appeared on A&M as a solo artist, came along with a group of New Orleans guys — keyboards, bass, guitar and drums — and we started putting them together with Richie. Things began to burn and we decided to use mainly great songs by others: Van Morrison's Wild Night, Steely Dan's Do It Again, 10cc's I'm Not In Love — plus some of the stuff that Richie himself had written.
'The result was that the album went down real easy — most of it was done live and there wasn't a whole lot of overdubbing. It was just what it sounded, the energy of that group of people.'
Apart from Smitty's band, The End Of The Beginning featured some tracks on which Havens was supported by Booker T & The MGs. Kershenbaum rarely employs the same back-up musicians (it would appear that he enjoys shopping around), but I mention that MG bassist Duck Dunn has appeared on at least three of David M's sessions.
'Yes — after Duck played with Richie I had him on the two Joan Baez albums (Diamonds And Rust and Gulf Winds). He's tremendously sensitive yet punchy at the same time. Another musician I used a lot in the early days was Larry Carlton. He was only just becoming a successful studio musician at that time and I guess I was the first person to use him as an arranger. In a way we kind of grew up together — which is why he contributed to an awful lot of stuff on Diamonds And Rust. Jimmy Osborne was on a lot of my earlier stuff — and so was Joe Gordon. But then I've tried to use all kinds of combinations. I've always been one to experiment and have never liked being locked in.'
One of Kershenbaum's reasons for his latest trip to London is to find local talent that can be added to the A&M roster, bands that have something new and vital to offer but also are melodic enough to appeal to the current US soft-rock market and those who buy Linda Ronstadt, The Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac.
'Even Jefferson Starship have gone 180 degrees, but that allows a lot more people to be exposed to them. Where it's gonna lead I'm not sure, I don't think anyone is sure. But it's fun for us to see what is coming out of England because people are taking more chances with their music over here. It's coming out fresh, with a lot of rawness and unpredictability. If only these things can be harnessed and directed then things will explode in the States. The situation is very similar to that of the early Sixties and the beginning of the Beatle era.'
Obviously A&M have utilised the Kershenbaum talents in order to make such British acts as Gallagher and Lyle, Elkie Brooks and The Tarney-Spencer Band more acceptable to the American market. But how different are US production techniques? Kershenbaum offers no clear explanation on this point.
'The techniques are different. The approach and the mix is certainly different. You automatically get different echo too — even the same echo chambers sound different over here. Who knows why, but the general vibe of cutting in London with one group of people is entirely different to that which surrounds that same group making that record in New York, Nashville or LA — each of which has its own characteristics. So there's a difference of geography and whatever that implies, there's also a difference in the way we treat things, like there's a certain way I go about getting a drum, bass or vocal sound and a certain presentation in the way that I lay mixes out.'
Vague that. Let's get down to specifics. Tell us more about those drum sounds, David M.
'They're real important — the way you present the drums often makes or breaks a track. The rhythm track has got to stand on its own and be interesting even before you do any vocals or add any kind of sweetening. Bass and drums are the emphasis of the whole thing and you've got to be careful about the way you make them sound. It's frightening that you can just sit there and change the snare drum maybe 2dB between five and seven thousand cycles and come up with a whole different attitude. You can ruin things if you don't get that right. Maybe my ears have become too trained, but if I'm listening to a record and I hear something where either the bass, guitar or the drums seem wrong then that whole thing is ruined for me. Most people can probably hear beyond that, but at the same time, I think everyone reacts to rhythm far more quickly than they do to anything else — it's the thing that moves them one way or another. So rhythm tracks are the most important things you've got to handle, and they're also the most difficult. Rather than doing a vocal or guitar track on which you'll use two or maybe three mics, with drums you're using God only knows how many mikes — plus at least four channels!'
He has a point. Rhythm has become more important than ever before. So much so that the whole religion of disco has been founded on the bass and drum sound — with maybe a little help from the rhythm box. Kershenbaum agrees.
'It's fun to use rhythm box, there's something hypnotic about it. We used rhythm box on Be Positive and Since You Went Away, a couple of tracks on Elkie's Shooting Star album. If you listen closely, you can hear it. With Tarney-Spencer we began with the drums and Trevor Spencer played right to the drum root, creating that hypnotic effect. Albums like the Fleetwood Mac and some of the other more recently successful discs are very simple, the rhythm pounding in heartbeat fashion. Once you're locked into it, then you can't stop listening. What you put underneath those kind of songs is important. Using a rhythm box or loop forces you to stay within certain parameters and creates a hook in itself. I'm sure that the Bee Gees make their records that way. Jerry Knight, the bass player who worked on Elkie's album, told me that when he worked on Bill Withers' album (Menagerie), they made the whole track before they put the drums on. So it seems that things are moving that way for rhythm or dance records.'
Comes time for the final one for the road, so I throw a stock question David M's way and ask him to indulge in the name-the-producer-you-most-admire game. As usual, there is no direct reply.
'It's hard to answer that one because you never know how much was contributed. There have certainly been projects that I've admired, these being the final results of contributions by artists, arrangers, engineers and producers. But it's very difficult to say for certain that the producer was responsible for everything. What you can say is that the combination was great and that everyone contributed and that the producer at least directed in the right manner. I suppose what it really comes down to is that if everything proved successful, then you can say that the producer had good taste — but if it didn't, then the producer had bad taste and the whole thing was all his fault. Producers are always the people in the middle. But there are certain producers like Peter Asher who continue to come up with commercial things that, at the same time, show a lot of taste. I mean, he doesn't make tricky records by any means. He doesn't use undue gimmicks or other such things. He just shows consistently good taste. And I admire that.'
Interview by Fred Dellar
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