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DON WAS: Producing For The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bob Dylan

Interview | Producer By Paul Tingen
Published November 1997

The skills of world‑class producer Don Was are constantly in demand. But, as he explains, years of taking care of someone else's work can have a disastrous effect on your own. Here, he reveals to Paul Tingen why (and how) he released a record of his own for the first time in seven years.

Don Was is one of the most famous and fêted producers on the planet today. Over the last 15 years, he's collected a list of credits so long and impressive that it makes you gasp: The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Wilson, Kris Kristofferson, Stevie Nicks, Jewel, Randy Newman, and so on, and so on. In 1995, he was awarded a Grammy for Best Producer of the Year, and two albums he produced, Bonnie Raitt's Longing In Their Hearts and The Stones' Voodoo Lounge, also received Grammys. In 1996, he was again nominated for the Best Producer Of The Year award. On top of all this, during the '80s, he was highly successful as an artist in his own right, with his idiosynchratic band Was (Not Was), who were responsible for worldwide hits such as 'Walk The Dinosaur' and 'Spy In The House Of Love'.

And yet, this man, who is widely credited for having "the magic touch" when it comes to production, was just recently telling me via transatlantic telephone that he has only just discovered what making good music is about: "That 'magic touch' stuff is just what people write; I don't know what to make of it. I've made some good records and I've made some shitty records. And I didn't necessarily know why some records turned out to be shitty and others turned out to be good! Accidents happen. In fact, I'm 45 now, I've been playing music since I was 13, and I feel that only in the last year have I finally started to learn how to really play. What I've learnt in the last year is double of what I've learnt during the past 20 years. And one of those things is to be able to recognise when you have truth on tape and when you have bullshit on tape."

I think that using a drum machine in a song has the same effect on the emotion of the song as a compressor has on its dynamics.

Listening to his two most recent releases, you can get an inkling of what he means. The Stones have always grated on this writer's ears, but their brand‑new, Was‑co‑produced effort Bridges To Babylon is actually highly listenable, with some excellent songs and performances captured in a solid but engrossing production. But Was' new‑found musical insights are most evident in his first effort as an artist in his own right since Was (Not Was)'s last album Are You Okay? back in 1990. This album, by the new Orquestra Was ensemble, is called Forever's A Long, Long Time. Released earlier this year, and based around a number of songs written by '40s and '50s country legend Hank Williams, it's a gem. Even though Was (Not Was) became steadily more commercial and mainstream during the second half of their career, they were known for their leftfield musical approach and taste for the bizarre, always employing the weirdest song titles, lyrics and musical juxtapositions. Orquestra Was take this tradition even further; Was' statement that he's "taken some liberties" with Williams' songs on this album is one of the understatements of the year. For apart from the straight country homage 'I'm So Tired Of It All', sung by Merle Haggard, the other songs are such a radical deconstruction of Williams' originals as to render them almost unrecognisable. Was has chosen to frame them in lazy but infectious hip‑hop/funk grooves, with soul‑tinted vocals, striking brass arrangements and jazzy instrumental improvisations surfing over the top. And his complementary, half‑arranged, half‑improvised instrumentals sound like outtakes from Miles Davis' wildest electric periods.

"The album didn't get bad reviews, it just got bewildered reviews", recounts Was, "they clearly didn't know what to make of it. So instead of writing about the music, they kept writing about circumstantial matters." It's easy to see why the album was so hard for reviewers to grapple with; in revamping Williams' songs, Was has come up with a truly fresh and innovative musical vision. On first listening, the whole thing sounds totally peculiar, but soon the slow, burning grooves, arresting brass lines and intense vocals create a mood that's irresistable. The amazing thing about this album is that's it's not only the result of Was' recent re‑invention of the way he makes music, but that it also comes out of the depths of the deepest musical identity crises that he's ever suffered. Forever's A Long, Long Time sounds like the accomplishment of a man with a clear and well‑developed musical vision, and yet, as Was explains, it was produced in a time when his production work nearly killed off his own musical impulse. In 1995, having just completed work on a film about the life of Brian Wilson, the troubled founder of The Beach Boys (the acclaimed Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made For These Times), Was took part in an Internet‑based discussion with Wilson to promote the film and the accompanying album of Wilson's songs, which he had co‑produced. Asked whether he might ever produce another solo record, Was responded in light‑hearted vein, but the answer nevertheless betrayed the depths of the difficulty he found himself in at the time: "Since I started charting out Brian's music in 1989, I've been plagued by a severe case of writer's block. Each time I get halfway through a song, I ask myself, 'What's the point? Brian did this so much better 25 years ago'. Perhaps if I can regain a shred of self‑respect, I'll make a new record." Now, he re‑affirms that statement: "I was dying as an artist. I'd been working with these really great, profound storytellers, like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, and I started to feel like I was nothing in comparison to them. Every time I picked up an instrument, I thought: 'there's really no point playing my own music. I stink. These people are so much better. Why don't I put on a Keith Richards record instead of playing the guitar?'".


So here was a strange situation, to say the least; one of the world's most successful musicians suffering from a first‑class inferiority complex, induced by what he calls "going weak in the presence of beauty". The answer Was found lay in going back to his roots. During our conversation, he explained how he arrived at the bizarre blend of country and western, hip‑hop, jazz, soul and funk music that's at the heart of Forever's A Long, Long Time: "I had to go beyond the confessional criteria for storytelling that epitomises the work of people like Dylan and Nelson. Really, what every artist is doing is taking something that's a part of themselves, and sharing it in the hope that it triggers an emotional response in someone. And there are literal ways of doing that, and more impressionistic ways; Miles Davis' Bitches Brew is as evocative as a Dylan lyric. So I thought about what was unique in me and in my musical experience, and what I could share. And I realised that it was the fact that I grew up in Detroit in the '60s, when it was an incredible place. The MC5 and George Clinton played in my high school; The Stooges, Bob Seger and all the Motown artists were local people. There was a lot of jazz going on, and I saw Pharaoh Sanders improvising with the MC5. It was amazing. People were continuously breaking down walls and creating new music. And with Detroit being the Motor City, many people, both black and white, came up from the South to work in the automobile factories, so there was a lot of blues and country and western around too. I remember wearing a cowboy hat and going to see Merle Haggard play."

Record companies don't know how to handle this esoteric stuff any more — there's no record company in the world that can market this kind of music.

Somehow, the thought of this dreadlocked, hippyesque man in a cowboy hat at a country concert is as bizarre a juxtaposition as the ones that are found in his music. And that is exactly the point. Exercising a limitless and all‑encompassing musical taste, and combining many seemingly disparate and opposing musical elements is the essence of his approach. And he can therefore work with artists as diverse as George Clinton and Neil Diamond, or Maxi Priest and Paula Abdul, without batting an eyelid. This was exemplified in a project that laid some of the foundations for Forever's A Long, Long Time, namely the Rhythm, Country and Blues album (1995), on which he produced tracks that saw meetings between soul and country singers, like Al Green and Lyle Lovett. Was picked up the story: "I've always felt that there was very little separation between R&B and country in terms of songwriting. These singers can perform each other's material without stretching at all. However, I do regret that I only started to be adventurous towards the end of recording that project, when we ran hip‑hop beats underneath these country songs, messed with the chords a lot, and really re‑invented the songs. Forever's A Long, Long Time is in a way an extension of that."


Several more elements contributed to the making of Forever's A Long, Long Time. Was stumbled upon a book with Hank Williams lyrics, and was touched by "how vividly Williams paints a picture of universal loneliness in the simplest of words" — probably one reason why he's one of the most frequently covered country artists. Don also had a meeting with the famous movie director Francis Ford Coppola, who was interested in doing longer‑form music videos, or short music movies. Was had already directed the 1995 Brian Wilson film, and jumped at the chance to make another. The resulting 15‑minute, moody black and white film (also called Forever's A Long, Long Time) concerns a man (played by Orquestra Was singer Sweet Pea Atkinson), who strays from his girlfriend and gets put on the right track again by what's billed as "the ghost of Hank Williams" (Kris Kristofferson in a white cowboy outfit), and is included on the CD, accompanied by excerpts of the album's songs and instrumentals.

Though the film was made after the music, it influenced the way the music came out. Was: "I tried to choose the songs from the almost 170 tunes in Hank's catalogue that related directly to the narrative of the film, and that were fairly obscure, so that my versions wouldn't force comparisons with his own or other people's versions. To me, the film and the music comprise one piece, and are inextricable from each other".

The film also influenced the making of the album in an equally important, but far less tangible way, and this has to do with the way Was has re‑invented his relationship with music during the last year. He stated that the making of Richie Sambora's solo album had a "major impact" on him in this respect. The album, by Bon Jovi's guitarist, is expected to be released in January, and Was described how, working on this project, he learnt to approach production in filmic rather than musical terms: "Richie was trying to find his own voice outside of the band, and so we took a long time making sure he did. It was about self‑discovery, about the question 'who am I?', so that every word he was singing was really from the heart and not some sort of cliché. It really was like making a film. We talked about the motivation of the character: where is this guy sitting when he's singing this song, is he in New York City or is he in a tent in the woods? What does it look like where he is, how does he feel, how do we make it sound like this place? Music, the actual licks that you play, is all secondary to the story that you tell, however impressionistic. It was a whole new way of approaching music."

Another influence quoted by Was was Keith Richards, whom he credits with teaching him about "loosening up, playing in the moment, and spontaneity. He's changed my whole approach to music, and to life, allowing me to be inside of music in a way I've never been before, with time seemingly standing still. Afterwards, I listen to the stuff I've been playing, and sometimes don't even recognise myself."

Putting It Together

And so, filmic images played a big part in the making of the Forever's A Long, Long Time album; the dark, brooding, late‑night '40s atmosphere of the film is apparent on the tracks. With one of them clocking in at 13 minutes, and others at between 6 and 8 minutes, they're graced by extended instrumental jazz‑like improvisations over minimalistic hip‑hop beats, featuring (most notably) Herbie Hancock on piano and David McMurray on saxophone. In these moments, the music has echoes of late‑night urban jazz from the '40s. In the wilder, more avant‑garde instrumental pieces, it conjures up images of New York (probably Detroit if your name is Was) jazz clubs in the mid‑ to late '60s. It's easy to hear how the music took shape in Was' mind when he was thinking about the images and atmosphere that he later captured in his film. He described how he went about writing the music and arrangements for the album at his studio in his home in Beverley Hills (see the box on his two studios elsewhere in this article), beginning by laying down hip‑hop rhythm loops: "I've always written to grooves. During the early Was (Not Was) years, there weren't any serious drum machines available, so I would have a drummer come into the studio and play some beats for me. I would find a couple of bars that I liked, cut the 24‑track two‑inch tape to create a loop, put the tape around a mike stand two feet away from the tape recorder and run the loop for five to 10 minutes or so, bouncing it back onto another 24‑track tape. Then I'd write to that. Everything was groove‑orientated. A couple of years after that, the Linn 9000 drum machine came out, and I started using that instead of live loops. But the problem is that drum machines are stiff; they essentially put an emotional compressor on your music. I think that using a drum machine in a song has the same effect on the emotion of the song as a compressor has on its dynamics. It can build to a certain level of intensity, but not beyond. You only have a very narrow window of expression, as far as laying things behind or before the beat is concerned; you really can't use time as a means of expression. Every record we made like that with Was (Not Was) felt stiff. It was a trade‑off for the repetitiveness that we felt the dance groove needed."

What I've learnt in the last year is double what I've learnt during the past 20 years.

Was didn't want this "emotional compression" on Forever's A Long, Long Time, but the problem remained; how do you combine the mesmerising repetiveness that's needed in dance grooves with the flexibility and feel that comes from live playing? He found an interesting solution, inspired by the huge percussion sections that are at the root of much African music: "I'd been listening to Sunny Ade, for example, and thinking about how that African groove has been re‑invented in a funk context by people like George Clinton. So I stumbled on the idea of having a percussion section playing the drum parts, with one person playing just the bass drum part, on some deep ethnic instrument, another person playing just the backbeat, with something that made a slap‑like noise, another person playing the 'hi‑hat' part with a shaker, and so on. I had already made the 24‑track demos using loops from hip‑hop records and samples, and programming myself. I had also done the arrangements, and played and recorded them, using guitars and keyboards, and a copyist had written out all my brass arrangements. So the basics of the songs were arranged, but then I gathered a big group of 13 musicians, including five percussionists, in Ocean Way Studios, played them the demos, and gave the scores to the brass players. The percussionists listened to my demos and played the parts on them."

Three, long, stretched‑out tracks were recorded like this, featuring a top‑class percussion section headed by Sheila E: 'I Ain't Got Nothing But Time', 'Forever's A Long, Long Time' and 'Lost On The River'. A fourth track, 'Never Again', was also recorded in this way, but Was found that his demo "felt better" than the 13‑musician live version, and so he used the original on the album. "In this case", he comments, "the rigidity of the machines helped the song". However, the slow‑burning feel of the three tracks recorded live in one room is simply gorgeous, the most striking aspect being the enormous amount of space that's in the rhythms. Was talked about this appliance of groove‑science: "These songs are really the meat of the album for me, and they have no machine loops at all. My original funk and hip‑hop grooves were played by the five percussionists, each of whom has a slightly different feel. So the bass drum is landing in a slightly different pocket, in terms of timing, than the snare drum, and so on. And yet, all five of them are great percussionists, so the end result had the hypnotic, repetitive feel of a loop, but also the feel of individuals playing together. It's just like with Charlie Watts. I only discovered whilst recording Bridges To Babylon what a great drummer he is, with unbelievable technique and feel. And in his case, the feel also comes from laying the bass drum in a slightly different pocket than the snare drum and the hi‑hat. The space that is created between the different timing grids, if you like, gives other musicians a pocket to play in."

Despite this pleasing effect, the recordings made with the percussionists also had a drawback. Was: "They were too good. They locked so well that time didn't move. It had a great mood to it, and gave us a great pocket to play in later, but it didn't really have the dynamics and movement I was hoping for. So I had to go back and put some more excitement in, and for that I got drummer Harvey Mason to overdub some parts, like cymbals and snare — not to give a backbeat but to impart some colour. Conversely, the grooving instrumental tracks on the album were recorded with the percussion loops that I'd made on my Linn 9000. They were written by me trying to imagine a score to my little film. For those, a small group of musicians played live in my other studio, The Chomsky Ranch, to the machine loops. For these tracks, I was really inspired by the sound of Tony Williams' Life Time album (1965) which featured John McLaughlin on guitar. I tried to match that vibe and sound, and I compressed the hell out of those tracks in the mix, using two Fairchild limiters, to really make the room speak."

Hang In There

And so Forever's A Long, Long Time turned out to be one of the most leftfield cocktails of music that has come out this year. The reinvented Hank Williams songs and the two pastoral piano‑based instrumentals that Was wrote ('Once Upon A Time In Detroit', and 'Detroit In A Time Upon Once') are simply sublime, and explore new musical territory. The instrumentals are great fun but less ground‑breaking, and range from the noisely abrasive excitement of 'Excuse Me, Colonel, Could I Borrow Your Newspaper?', to the more soulful and atmospheric 'You've Been Having A Rough Night, Huh'. However, the critical reaction to all this excellent but unclassifiable music was rather confused, and the audience reaction has been even more unresponsive. "It's done terrible", admitted Was, "but I'm proud of every note on it. It's the first time in my life that I feel that way about a record. I didn't do it to sell 10 million copies. I guess I'm in a fortunate position, where I can fund these recreational trips through my Rolling Stones royalties, but it's nevertheless a great triumph for me; I wouldn't change anything on it. The problem is that the record companies don't know how to handle this esoteric stuff any more. Short of me stopping what I'm doing and personally marketing this record, there's no record company in the world that has a machine in place that can market this kind of music. That's the reality of things, and I don't care."

I was dying as an artist. Every time I picked up an instrument, I thought: 'there's really no point playing my own music. I stink'.

Well, from the sound of it Was actually does care, because at several times during our conversation he lunged into strong and impassioned criticisms of the way things are in the music business at the moment: "The whole music industry has gone towards making quick bucks. It's really the result of the modern business's corporatism. The old days of music‑loving entrepreneurs like Jac Holzman, who started Elektra Records, have gone. These guys believed in and supported music they liked, and they had long‑range visions about artists' careers. Now people working in record companies have to make quick money and get quick hits, otherwise they lose their job. It means that only music that conforms to the lowest common denominator gets signed and promoted, and music that's different, which no‑one has ever heard before, is no longer encouraged. That has dire consequences; last year was the first in 25 years that there was zero percent growth in the music business. The reason is simple: during the last decade, the larger share of growth and profits came from the sales of back catalogue from an era when people put a premium on integrity. But most people have now replaced their vinyl records with CDs, so that well of profit has dried up.

"I asked Leon Russell [famous '60s piano player] what he thought was the difference between making music in the '60s and today, and he said that if you walked up to someone in the '60s and said: 'man, I really dig your new record, it sounds just like so and so', that was fighting talk; the worst insult that you could land! Today, when you bring your finished record to your label, they panic if they can't say 'great, it's just like a cross between Mariah Carey and Bush' or whatever. So artists are under huge pressure to conform. I know, because I've succumbed to the same game. The first two Was (Not Was) albums were also very jazzy and pretty out there; they weren't that different from Orquestra Was. But they didn't sell, and the record company then started to say: 'if you could just clean it up a little, we could sell this stuff...'

I blame no‑one but myself; instead of holding our ground and going for the long run, we opted for the commercial move, and veered from our vision in a series of bad judgements. I've come to realise that having hit singles isn't the ultimate goal, because afterwards, you're compelled to deliver again. And when your hit singles don't come from deep inside of you, aren't your natural musical habitat, that gets pretty hard. What I learnt from that experience is not to compromise my music just to get it on the radio for a quick buck. You have to hang in there, and develop stuff that's real and truthful to yourself over a period of time. And people will eventually find your music. That's my lesson of the last 20 years as an artist."

Don Was' Studios

Don Was has two recording studios. One is a 24‑track demo studio in his home in Beverley Hills, the other a larger, professional studio in a house adjacent to his residence. Was wrote the music and arrangements for Forever's A Long, Long Time in his demo studio, which comprises, he said, "a Mackie console, with a Tascam DA88 and a bunch of keyboards and samplers. The synth I use most is the Roland JX8P, but I also have an Oberheim OBX8, a Sequential Prophet 5, a Roland JD800, a MIDI Hammond organ, and an Emu Proteus World module. My master keyboard is a Roland RD1000, which Elton John bought for me. When I worked with him he used it himself as a piano. It had wooden keys and felt great when I tried it out. He noticed I liked it — and the next day one turned up in my garage! I also have some Akai samplers, S3000s, and an older Roland S550 sampler. I have a Kurzweil MicroPiano, which is a little half‑rack box with 30 piano sounds and a couple of string patches. It sounds great; better than any grand piano I can record, unless you're doing serious classical stuff."

Was' sequencer and drum machine of choice for more than a decade has been his Linn 9000. He wrote all the arrangements for Forever's A Long, Long Time on it, but he has since switched to the Akai/Linn MPC3000. "The Linn 9000 is a great drum machine; the key pads have a great feel. It's a fantastic machine when it works; it gives you that wonderfully, laid‑back feel, just like Charlie Watts' drumming. A lot of the great R&B guys still use it exclusively, like Jam & Lewis and Babyface. But what I'm getting really sick of is that it malfunctions a lot; it crashes all the time. The loops still feel great, but I'm about to give up on the machine. So I've bought the MPC3000. The problem with that is that I have to learn it, and I don't have the time to learn new machines. That's what's holding me back with my new record."

Was's other studio is called The Chomsky Ranch, after the famous linguist Noam Chomsky. Was recorded sections of Forever's a Long, Long Time, and also mixed several of the tracks there. He described what it looks like and what's in it: "The whole point was to have a studio in a normal house, so you're not feeling as if you're in a recording studio. It's been in use as a recording place since 1992, after Bonnie Raitt suggested that I put some equipment in. We knocked the walls out between two bedrooms, and now have a very long control room, with an additional window into the living room, which is the recording area. I have a great old classic early '70s Neve desk in there, the 8078, which is a weird mixer. It's actually two broadcast desks that were used at CBS TV City combined. It's interesting that all the great desks are British, isn't it? But how important is it to have a good desk? I've had great‑sounding records that didn't sell at all, and shitty‑sounding records that have been compressed and SSLed to death and were big hits. My biggest hit, 'Walk The Dinosaur', was recorded on a Fostex B16 reel‑to‑reel half‑inch in my house."

When I queried Don Was further about the exact nature of his equipment at The Chomsky Ranch and his preferences and opinions, he got a bit impatient. "I'm into everything. It's just gear, so whatever works will do for me. Also, there's different gear for different types of records. If you're looking for warmth in a record, there's nothing like the sound of these great old Neves. But maybe you don't want that sometimes. I wouldn't recommend recording Kraftwerk on an old Neve, for example! My feeling about gear is that it's just tools — I'd rather worry about writing good songs. If you wrote 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', would it matter whether you recorded it on analogue or digital? Of course not."