Despite having produced a string of successful albums by artists as diverse as Crowded House, Suzanne Vega and Elvis Costello, Mitchell Froom still strives for a fresh approach to each new project and refuses to sit back and sink into a formula. Paul Tingen talks to him.
Imagine a successful American producer, who's been responsible for strings of bestselling albums that are also highly regarded by the critics. Imagine going to interview him, expecting to meet a man unequivocally proud of what he has achieved. Imagine instead hearing the story of a man who felt that he had been selling his soul to the devil for many years, who reckoned he had been much too commercial and conservative, and who, frustrated, had decided to quit his profession. Sounds unbelievable?
Two years ago this was exactly the scenario that was described to me by producer Mitchell Froom when he revealed his artistic identity crisis and subsequent resurrection, and how artists like Los Lobos and Suzanne Vega benefited from this. Their 1992 albums, respectively Kiko and 99.9 F°, sounded astoundingly fresh and original. They were artistic breakthroughs for band and artist involved, and belonged to the undisputed musical highlights of the year. (For extensive coverage see Recording Musician, March 1993). Luckily, the 40‑year old Californian keyboard player decided to postpone his plans to quit until further notice, and a multitide of other productions by him have since been released. Amongst them are albums by Richard Thompson and American Music Club, and most recently the well‑received Brutal Youth, by Elvis Costello, Jimmy Scott's striking jazz album, Dream, and a project that will undoubtedly prove to be the most outrageous sounding album of 1994: Latin Playboys. The latter is a collaboration between Froom and his longstanding engineer Tchad Blake with two members of Los Lobos: guitarist David Hidalgo and drummer Louie Perez. Much of the Latin Playboys album was recorded in Hidalgo's kitchen (at night, after the children had gone to bed) on a cheap, battered portastudio with badly‑aligned heads and neither Dolby or dbx. Unsurprisingly, the CD sounds like nothing else: rough, unpolished, aggressive, chaotic, wild and exciting. An American reviewer was suitably impressed, remarking: "they may sound puny by the light of day, but after midnight the Latin Playboys are mighty men."
Mitchell Froom started his long march through the musical institutions at Berkeley College in California, where he studied harmony and jazz piano. After making a living for a few years as a keyboard player, he made his only and now forgotten solo album, Cafe Flesh (1984). But the production of that album was remarkable enough to land him a job as a producer for the Del Fuegos. This in turn led to his production of Crowded House's first album, Crowded House (1986), featuring the classic single 'Don't Dream It's Over'. He then found himself in great demand as a producer and his career maintained a solidly upward curve, working with the likes of The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, and Paul McCartney. On the latter's album, Flowers In The Dirt, he co‑produced the four songs McCartney wrote with Costello. And there was, of course, also Crowded House's international breakthrough album, Woodface. It was the kind of career most of us can only dream of, but, strangely, Froom was getting depressed and felt that he had arrived at an artistic dead end.
This interview with Mitchell Froom is culled from several conversations. Two years ago there were two long transatlantic phonecalls. Then there was a meeting in Croydon, before Suzanne Vega's excellent concert in the middle of 1993. Froom played in her band, and was also acting as musical director and arranger. Finally there were another two lengthy and animated transatlantic phone calls during the Summer of 1994. The American talked with great passion about his work, and managed to combine an irreverent sense of humour with an attitude that can only be described as uncompromising. This became evident when he took me back to that moment in 1991 when he was thinking of throwing in the towel. "As a producer I had, until that point, often felt that my function was to do the best job I could for somebody, and that it was OK if that meant occasionally allowing myself to think slightly conservatively, thinking that I had to deliver something with which an artist commercially had a chance. I'm still very proud of most of the records I've done, but looking back I felt that for me personally, whenever I'd been conservative, I'd failed. Also, looking around me I saw a music industry where pop music had gone from, say, 100% of its potential to maybe 2%. For me the whole thing had come to a point where I felt like I was going to have to go down in flames. I didn't want to be part of a more and more conservative movement, and thought: 'well, I'll just go out with a bang and find people who want to do the same'."
The difference in emotional effect between a track recorded digitally or analogue, on an SSL or Neve, or with this or that mic, is nil.
Froom found these people in Los Lobos, the LA band who had enjoyed many years of success with their original mixture of Tex‑Mex and R&B, but who were starting to feel that they were repeating themselves. Together with engineer Tchad Blake, Froom and the band embarked upon a great adventure, approaching music with a radical, all‑or‑nothing attitude. The result was the widely acclaimed Kiko — the band sounded fresh and rejuvenated, courtesy of excellent songs, innovative arrangements and a very sparse use of reverb. Froom: "Working with Los Lobos was like a re‑invention of what I'd done until then. Artistically it was a breakthrough record for both Tchad and myself. The roof blew off! It was the first time that we had the feeling that we got to the bottom of the songs and what an artist is about and managed to express that in a way that was distinctive and where we had not settled for something that was maybe easier or commercially more agreeable."
Euphoric about his big bang, and slightly bemused by the enthusiastic response of Los Lobos' record company, Slash, Froom was approached by Suzanne Vega. She also felt that she had reached her limits with her previous and third album, Days Of Open Hand, and was keen to try something new. Froom listened to her digitally‑recorded demos, very much in the same vein as Open Hand, and told Vega that he felt that they didn't have enough vitality, that they sounded too ordinary and that the rock 'n' roll drums were a big mistake. An intrigued Vega decided that Froom's comments "made good sense". So Froom and the New York singer/guitarist retreated for two weeks, accompanied by her acoustic guitar and Froom's Roland MC50 sequencer, Sound Canvas, Proteus World module, some keyboards, plus an old battered JVC ghetto blaster with built‑in mic, with which Froom recorded everything they did. It was a pre‑production approach that had also proved highly effective in his work with Crowded House's Neil Finn. Froom: "The ghetto blaster is a really great device, because it compresses the hell out of everything and you can hear whether you're making a good noise or not; you can completely focus on the structure of the songs and the arrangements, without technical distractions. With Neil, most of the time what we did was just getting the basic structure of the songs and then the band would take it from there. With Suzanne what we did was much more specific. That period was the most fruitful. We were being as radical as we could and mapped out most of the album during those two weeks. It was during this time that most of the basslines and rhythms were written." The result was a record that's already regarded as a classic. Froom opted to bring Vega's voice and acoustic guitar to the fore and weave a web of swinging bass lines, bizarre percussion and his own collection of crazy old keyboards around this, with sharply panned instruments and a sound picture that contained much distortion and an absolute minimum of reverb.
Even though there are similar elements in the production of Los Lobos and Suzanne Vega's last records, Froom emphasises that every production job is completely different. The American is also very reluctant to be pinned down to any kind of overriding preference as far as equipment or recording methods is concerned. "I prefer to concentrate on 98%, rather than 2%. The difference in emotional effect between a track recorded digitally or analogue, on an SSL or Neve, or with this or that mic, is nil." And about his incapacity to remember recording specifics he adds: "This is really Tchad's area. But also, we continuously try things out. In many cases there may have been four or five ways that we tried recording something, and I may be telling you just the method I remember, not actually the one we used. There's this tendency to focus on technical details all the time; I wonder whether they will do anyone any good. For example, when I was working with Bob Clearmountain, I heard that someone stole his mixing notes, like all his EQ and reverb settings. That person must apparently think that if you put another tape up and treat it with the same EQ and the same reverbs that it would sound similar to Bob's stuff.
In other words, much better to try to re‑invent the wheel for yourself and develop your own recording language. But between the lines it's possible to read that Froom does have some general preferences and dislikes. For example, he's hardly sympathetic to digital reverbs and the super‑clean sound that's a feature of most modern records: "I'm a fan of anything. Anything can work. But I don't like always hearing the same thing. So many people now use the same samples and the same reverbs that it's killing music. In general I don't like bright, sizzly digital reverbs, particularly if there's more than one going on at the same time. They're usually in stereo as well, and things start happening to music that you can't even anticipate. You get huge amounts of clatter and jitter with all these reverbs clashing with each other, and the tone of the instrument itself is lost. It's the same with the other modern cliche: extreme amounts of high end on records, giving you this very sugary sound.
During mixing Froom and Blake are therefore very careful in deciding which instruments will carry high frequencies, and they will generally take the high end out of other instruments. One, or at most two reverbs, usually of the spring or plate variety, are applied to maybe one or two instruments, whilst other instruments remain dry. Almost all instruments are recorded in mono, contrary to the current tendency to record many instruments in stereo and pan them wide in an attempt to achieve a big sound. Froom: "When you record things in mono and give them a clear place in the stereo picture and frequency spectrum, your mix will sound much larger than if you record everything stereo and add a lot of reverb and high end. To me panning is a very emotional thing. There has to be a reason why you pan things in a certain way. You have to listen to what fits together in the arrangements and pan things accordingly. In jazz, rhythm guitar, bass and brushes are traditionally panned together, and that's because that's where the groove comes from. If you panned them apart you'd ruin the groove."
So with Kiko and 99.9F° Froom had, instead of going down in flames, made a statement written in neon letters. But few would have predicted that his experiments would have resulted in a CD as extreme as the recently released Latin Playboys. Formally speaking, this is not a Mitchell Froom production. On the cover of the CD the Playboys are identified as a collective consisting of Hidalgo, Perez, Blake and Froom, all sharing production credits. Nevertheless there are many echoes of the production approach of Kiko, whilst the bizarre sound of Latin Playboys is largely courtesy of the productional decisions of Mitchell Froom. The CD is so different that it's almost shocking. From the out‑of‑tune sax sounds which start the opening track, 'Viva La Ranza', to the unreal cellos of 'Manifold D'Amour', the shrill, distorted guitars of 'New Zandu', the surreal sound collage of 'Mira!' and the kitchenware percussion of 'Lagoon', it sounds like a kind of 1990s musique concrete. The songs — if you can call them that — often end in complete chaos, clicks, drop‑ins and drop‑outs are all over the place, electric guitars are so in your face that it's almost frightening, the bass is gigantic and most of the percussion so unconventional as to be completely inidentifiable. Froom tells the story: "85% of the music was recorded on a 4‑track portastudio in David Hidalgo's kitchen. I don't remember which portastudio it was, but I do know that it was the cheapest one you could possibly find. After we finished Kiko, David had many left‑over ideas, and he started putting them together in his kitchen using distorted drum machines, spoons, distorted guitars, de‑tuned violins, and generally whatever was lying around. He gave the demo tape to Louie, who wrote a huge volume of words to it — not lyrics, just impressions. Then they gave all this stuff to me and asked me what I made of it.
To me panning is a very emotional thing. There has to be a reason why you pan things in a certain way.
"I just thought that this was the best demo tape that someone had ever given me, with great personality, feeling and atmosphere. At that stage there was no singing on it. So I called them up and asked them what they wanted to do with it. I also played it to Tchad and he suggested that we simply transfer it to 24‑track and see what happens. So we went to Warner Brothers and said: "we don't know what this is, but we just need two weeks studio time. Nobody is getting paid, so it's not a big outlay — we don't want to put any pressure on this. Luckily they told us to go ahead."
So Hidalgo, Perez, Blake and Froom spent two weeks in Sunset Sound Factory studios in Hollywood, working on one song a day. The first day Blake transferred all demo tapes to a 24‑track analogue tape (without Dolby) and they recorded overdubs during the day and mixed in the evening. Very little was added to the original demos: Hidalgo overdubbed vocals and bass to most tracks, Perez sang on two tracks and did a few percussion overdubs, Froom did some keyboards, and Blake went manic with stacks of environmental tapes, often ancient compact cassette tapes of parties or street bands, which added to the collage‑like nature of the album. Froom: "Tchad is particularly good at flowing with what is. His motto is: don't fight the sound, don't try to turn anything into something that it's not. If we'd tried to redo the guitar parts that David had played in his kitchen, they might have ended up more in tune or more in the pocket, but they wouldn't have had that real off‑beat, loose feel. The only problem was that we didn't have much separation, so Tchad had to do some phase manipulation to get separation between the four tracks. But virtually everything that was on the demos was used, like the baritone saxes in 'Same Brown Earth', which were played by David on a guitar synth. 'Manifold' featured bowed cellos recorded by David at home. The plucked cello was replaced in the studio. The bass on 'Rudy's Party' is a violin tuned all the way down. For that track David was inspired by a Taiwanese beauty pageant that he was watching on TV one night and that had a really bizarre‑sounding backing band playing on it. The only thing we added to that in the studio was some ambience by Tchad. Tchad also added things like a parade sound recorded in India in 'Mira!', the water noises in 'Pink Steps', and the opening sounds of the album are from an old cassette recording from David."
Froom stresses that part of the album's power lies in the fact that, in the middle of all this low‑fi mayhem, Hidalgo's vocal overdubs were done with a good vocal mic, Froom's favorite Telefunken 251, in a good studio: "It's like some of the stuff that we did on Kiko, where you have more distorted or lower fidelity sounds that are set against really beautifully recorded sounds. That can have a powerful effect. When you hear David singing on the album it sounds incredible. It makes the voice sound much bigger and present, because it's the only hi‑fi sound and contains most of the high frequencies. As I said before, a big sound has mostly to do with simplicity of arrangements and being careful about ranges of frequencies that things are in. I think that a lot of people get into problems in 24‑track studios because they put a lot of low end on everything. But the bass on 'New Zandu' was recorded in David's studio on his 4‑track. You can get a lot of low end out of cassette recorders and make things sound really big, especially when your other tracks sound relatively thin. And these 8‑track cassette machines have amazing low end."
Froom is amazed by the strong positive reactions he gets to the album, and finds that they have challenged his perceptions of the whole recording process: "Because of its extreme nature the record hasn't sold that many, but I have more people coming up to me and saying that they really love it, more than any other record I've done in recent times. I thought it was great too, but it makes you think twice about the necessity of recording studios. This thing has completely shaken me out of any kind of formula that I still might have had in the back of my head about how to record an album. If I get another great demo sent to me, I'd be happy to use it — with the increasing sonic quality of demos today one actually finds oneself trying to make the final product sound worse than the demo [laughs]. Latin Playboys was certainly a radical experience. And you know that an experience is good when it is this disturbing."
And finally there's Elvis Costello's Brutal Youth, his much‑heralded return to working with The Attractions. Froom's connection with Costello goes back to 1986 when he played keyboards on King Of America. He also played keyboards on Spike (1989), and co‑produced Mighty Like A Rose (1991), together with Costello and Kevin Killen. Brutal Youth was co‑produced with Costello and marks that rare occasion when Froom doesn't play on an album he produces. Costello's non‑Attraction albums tended to be lavishly arranged affairs, with up to 12 musicians playing on one song. Brutal Youth, on the other hand, features the straightforward pop‑quartet of Costello on guitar, Pete Thomas on drums, Steve Nieve on keys and Bruce Thomas on bass — the latter at times replaced by Nick Lowe. In many ways the album sounds like a re‑emergence of the angry young Elvis of old, with 15 songs ranging from the biting to the melodic. Froom explains that Costello's original aim was to make a hard‑hitting album featuring just himself and Pete Thomas, with no Froom involvement, but that things didn't quite work out. "'Kinder Murder' and '20% Amnesia' remain from those original 8‑track sessions. I think that he was wanting to make an album that was raw and completely aggressive and over the top, but that he eventually moved away from that idea. After I joined, and once Steve Nieve had moved in on to play keyboards, it became clear that it was really a matter of letting the personality of each of the musicians come through in a small band setting. But it was never pre‑meditated as an Attractions album. One of my big jobs was to convince him to consider using Bruce Thomas — there had been a huge falling out between them in the mid‑'80s. Bruce had played really well on Suzanne Vega's record and when I heard several of the songs it was really hard for me to not hear him play on them."
When you record things in mono and give them a clear place in the stereo picture and frequency spectrum, your mix will sound much larger than if you record everything stereo and add a lot of reverb and high end.
According to Froom, Costello came to the sessions with demos made at home, consisting of just guitar, vocals and bass. The demos weren't suitable to do a 'Latin Playboys' with, so the band rehearsed the songs over a two‑week period — one week with Bruce Thomas, the other with Nick Lowe — after which the songs were recorded largely live at Olympic Studios on London: "Elvis's portastudio‑style demos weren't of the same nature as Latin Playboys. They were meant as a rough sketch, and sounded as such. In order for things to sound right to him he has to overdrive everything. But there were some great bass lines on his demos which were used by the band. The backing vocals on the whole album were done by Elvis. We ran some of the backing vocals on 'Clown Strike' through a weird little speaker cabinet, which created a ghost‑like Leslie effect."
"For the recordings in Olympic, the band were all together in one room, so they could see each other whilst playing. Elvis was in a glass vocal booth, and his guitar amp was placed in a little closet somewhere. The speaker cabinets for bass and keyboards were also in other rooms, and the drums were in a separate glass booth, so that we got a fair amount of separation. Tchad recorded much of the drums with his Neumann head for overheads. Often he only used two or three mics on the drums. You get into a lot of problems when you use too many mics. All kinds of phase cancellations happen and the sound can get really bizarre.
"For vocals, we used the Telefunken 251 for the softer pop songs, like 'London's Brilliant Parade'. It's got a really great high end and a really smooth, airy sound. But when Elvis sings too loud he shuts the mic down. We tried an 87, but that also shut down, so I think Tchad used a dynamic mic for that stuff. The whole band always played live together, and after that we went back and replaced things where necessary. There were quite a few songs where we kept the live vocals, like on 'Still Too Soon To Know'. But on others we replaced everything, or parts, because when Elvis sings he really goes for it. He'll never hold back, so sometimes by the time the band get the track right his voice is a bit shot and there's at least part of the song that he wants to redo."
All three 1994 albums, the Playboys, Jimmy Scott and Elvis, were recorded on analogue 24‑track without Dolby of any kind. "We've had some problems moving from studio to studio with Dolby," he explains, "and I think that Tchad and I have loosened up about this quite a bit. There may be a little hiss on the Jimmy Scott recording. But I think it's a beautiful sounding recording, I really like it."
It's clear that his role as a producer varies wildly with the different projects he does, from choosing songs and keys and serving coffee whilst recording with Jimmy Scott, to challenging artists to go out on a limb, to simply helping them to get the best out of themselves, as with Elvis Costello. Froom: "A large part of the job is simply figuring out what to do and finding my place in the dymamics that are going on. With someone like Elvis, he's definitely the man in charge. He's like the general leading his troops, even as he's open to ideas. My job there was simply to assist. But with other projects it's clear that an artist wants me to lead the proceedings. They really need someone to say: 'you need to redo this.' So it's an incredibly varied job."
Probably the best illustrations for Froom's 'no rules' approach are his recent productions of Jimmy Scott and Elvis Costello. 'The Legendary' Jimmy Scott, 70, is a jazz singer who was well‑known in the '40s and '50s. Eventually he disappeared out of the picture, and was brought back into the limelight by Lou Reed on the latter's Magic & Loss (1992) album. On first hearing, his Dream album sounds much like a traditional jazz CD, with an instrumentation of drums, acoustic piano, upright bass, vibraphone and saxophone. But closer inspection reveals that Froom and Blake couldn't leave experimenting alone. For starters, the sound is dark and mysterious; you can almost imagine the band playing in a smoky nightclub well after midnight. It's a far cry from the bright and crisp sound of most modern jazz records, more remniscent of jazz recordings from the '50s. Froom remembers how it all came to pass: "Jimmy had done an album before with Tommy Lipuma as producer that had cost a lot of money, so his record company was considering not doing another album. Basically I got the job because I was willing to do it cheaply and maybe also because I was a rather oddball choice. Getting the record together took an incredible amount of meetings, trying to get the right songs, the right musicians, the right studio and so on, but the recordings themselves were done in three days. Everything was recorded live and mostly we used the first take. Jimmy fixed a couple of lines in one song, but that was it. The musicianship of people like Milt Jackson and Ron Carter was just amazing to me. I found it hard to believe. There were no rehearsals, they just came in and played it. How much credit can you take for producing these guys? Once they were in the room and played I felt my job was to get everybody coffee."
Nevertheless, Froom was the man behind some important productional choices: "The only thing we did at rehearsal was sit together with pianist Junior Mance beforehand to finalise the songs and the keys. When he sings live, Jimmy often showcases the higher end of his voice, but I felt that it was really important to lower the keys as much as we could and get a really intimate sound. When he then goes up to the higher range it's a much more dramatic effect. The record's dark, atmospheric sound with the extreme panning is deliberate, because to me there's much more emotion in it. I hate the sound of most modern jazz records. They're simply not emotional. They have the piano, and other instruments, in stereo, and lots of high end and reverb. But the panning on Dream gives much more space for Jimmy's voice. We recorded him with the 251, which sounded great. The drums were recorded with the Neumann KU100 dummy‑head mic, one of Tchad's favorite mics. He also distorted the drums slightly with a fuzz‑box or something and made them very dark and moody sounding, taking out much of the high end. Again that gives much more space for the vocals. There's probably the tiniest bit of reverb on the instruments."
It's not only Froom and Blake's approach to mixing that makes their work sound distinctive. Froom stresses that it's primarily the arrangements that determine whether a track sounds large or not. So his radical approach starts at the pre‑production stage, as exemplified in the ghetto‑blaster method, and the recording stage. Kiko and 99.9F° both featured very inventive rhythm tracks and were almost completely bereft of more orthodox drumming. For the sessions for Vega's CD, Froom told Jerry Marotta, known for his big drum sound with Peter Gabriel, that he wasn't allowed to play a normal drum kit. Instead he was encouraged to try anything that he could lay his hands on, from kitchenware to African hand drums. On top of this, Tchad Blake would continuously warp and distort almost everything that went to tape. Sound innovators like Rupert Hine and Thomas Dolby have publicly declared that they think that trying to be original with sound has become a lost cause, because of all the millions of patches and samples that are now at everyone's disposal. They've therefore decided to focus on writing good songs. Froom explains that he does occasionally use samples on the records he produces, but that he avoids digital keyboards like the plague. "I haven't found any of the new synthesizers to be even playable. The general tonality tends towards these bright, glossy, fizzy sounds that are competely soulless. They all sound like endless variations of the same bad chip. These synths have no overtones, no eccentricities, no uncontrollable distortion. And the problem is that there's this real smug attitude that many keyboard players, especially session players, have developed. They seem to believe that if enough 'hip' sounds are stacked or MIDI'd together into a big, glorious wash, somehow they can bask in its reflective glory. In reality, what they have achieved is to smother all possibilities for any real character and personality to emerge. It's gotten to a real pathetic state."
Froom prefers instead to use old analogues like the Oberheim Xpander or the Jupiter. But most of all he loves funky old and obscure keyboards, like the Chamberlin, Stereophonic Optigon, Vox Continental, Calliope, Cox Organ, a Wurlitzer '50s electric piano, a Hammond Perry Owlsey chord organ, a Hohner Clavinet, a Clavioline, a '30s Hammond Novachord and so on. It's this eccentric collection that made an important contribution to Kiko, 99.9F°, Woodface, several Elvis Costello records and the Tom Waits live band, of which Froom was once a member.