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Interview | Artist/Producer By Richard Buskin
Published June 1997

If you remember seeing fresh‑faced popsters Altered Images bouncing around the TOTP stage back in the '80s, you may already have seen Stephen Lironi. Nowadays, though, he's all grown up and carving himself a production career with the likes of Space, Jon Bon Jovi and Brian Wilson's singing daughters, The Wilsons. Richard Buskin finds out about the new image.

"I've had success playing with bands," says producer/writer/musician Stephen Lironi. "I was on Top of the Pops when I was 18 and that was fine for me, but I don't need to do a photo shoot, I don't need to sit and do make‑up, I don't need to have somebody crimping my hair. That's not the bit I enjoy. I enjoy the creative part in the studio, so I think I'll stick to that."

Lironi shouldn't have any problems in that respect. An earnest, straight‑talking Scotsman with a flair for sparking exciting performances and a sharp ear for what makes a recording work, he is currently cooking up a hot reputation, courtesy of his collaborations with a variety of artists ranging from Jon Bon Jovi, Space and Black Grape to the infectious commerciality of Hanson and The Wilsons. He kicked off his musical career during the punk era of the mid‑to‑late‑'70s, drumming with different bands in his native Glasgow, prior to joining Altered Images as a guitarist. Lironi subsequently also doubled as the drummer in the band, whose studio sessions in turn afforded him the opportunity to observe the working methods of producers such as Mike Chapman and Tony Visconti. After leaving Altered Images, Lironi then spent about six months trying his hand as a composer in Los Angeles. While there he wrote a song entitled 'One Night In Heaven', which was a number one hit in Japan for a band named Wink — "who were always one letter away from disaster," — as well as quite a lot of other R&B‑style material resulting from the combination of his diverse tastes for dance music and punk rock "and trying to meet somewhere in the middle."

Writing In LA‑LA Land

Having arrived in the USA, this no‑nonsense Brit found himself less than enthralled with the whole LA songwriting scene. "It's very political and very formularised," he says. "I could do it, but it wasn't really the reason for me being in the music business in the first place."

Which was (and is)? "Just a kind of passion for the music itself, really. It's hard to describe." But why the move away from performing towards songwriting? "I was never crazy about touring. I didn't mind being on stage, but I hated the amount of time it would take to get there. I love to travel but I don't like to sit and wait for an airplane, to sit in a hotel and then rehearse. I can't stand rehearsing!"

When it comes to his studio work as a producer, Lironi is certainly very keen to rehearse an artist or a band, but again this is simply as a means of preparing properly. "I like to get results quickly. To me, when a project drags on there's a problem somewhere. Either you don't have the songs or there's a problem with the musicians, but mostly it's a problem with politics..." Politics, the bane of Stephen Lironi's professional life — or at least it would be, if he allowed himself to get dragged into such situations. "As far as I'm concerned, if there's a problem, don't go into the studio," he advises. "Go to a rehearsal room, let the band play, work on the material and figure out a direction. You can't completely impose a direction on a band, because they're going to love it when they're in the studio, but then the minute they're out of the studio and have other external forces around them — the label, their management, their friends, their fans, if they have any — they're going to say, 'Well, why did we do that?' It's just a waste of everyone's time. When you're in the studio you should be focussed and all heading towards the same goal."

A Move In The Right Direction

After his short writing stint in LA, Lironi dabbled in songwriting, production and playing. Then, in 1993, he moved back to London, encountered manager Shannon O'Shea and edged his way into production. O'Shea steered Lironi in an alternative rock direction, which he now asserts was "exactly right," and after a number of small projects, including an album with Annabella Lwin (former lead singer with Bow Wow Wow), he hooked up with Sean Ryder of Black Grape, co‑wrote a couple of songs with him and ended up producing the band's first album alongside Danny Saber (featured in SOS's February 1996 issue). On the heels of that project, Lironi then found himself at the helm of an album by British band Space. Entitled Spiders, this has just gone double‑platinum in the UK. The recording took place at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool, the mix was done at Mayfair in London, and the engineer was Jeremy Wheatley, who embellished the album with his characteristically contemporary, hard sound.

"I like to work with someone who, during the mix, I don't need to be constantly looking over his shoulder," says Lironi. "I like someone who is musical and understands the dynamics, because when I am producing I put the dynamics into the recording, and I don't want to have to sit down and argue if someone is going to flatten that out during the mix. As far as I'm concerned, as soon as the guy mixing puts the faders up it should be obvious to him what I'm going for. I mean, if I've recorded a part all the way through a song and then I don't want it once I'm building the track up, I'll just erase it off the tape. That way we're not constantly listening to something and hearing it in a way that it shouldn't sound. There's no need to mute things, so when you put the faders up it should really sound pretty much the way it's intended. That includes guitar effects, delays and so on. If they're an integral part of the sound then I'll print it that way, because otherwise it doesn't make any sense."

If there are mistakes, as long as they're not glaringly obvious, they're left as part of the performance. I hate things that are too perfect.

As for the ingredients that are required earlier on in the whole routining and recording process in order to transform a musical idea into a workable piece of material, Lironi feels that his background as a drummer gives him just the right perspective. "At the outset I usually like to get a bit of a groove going, but for me the most important thing is a great song, and I think that being a drummer helps you to understand the dynamics of a song. You're always the one in the band to go, 'OK, here comes the chorus. Let's build it up.' Then you drop it down, and so you know what it's about, which is what Butch Vig, for instance, did so well with Nirvana. You know — loud on the choruses, quiet on the verses, which is the basic sort of thing if you want to over‑simplify it."

Often writing for the artists whom he produces, Lironi employs different tools when composing, sometimes starting with a guitar and at other times a drum loop. "I'm pretty much going to fall back on a certain number of chord structures that I know will work," he explains. "Not that I resort to them immediately, but I just always end up with them. That's what sounds best, but it always takes a while to simplify the material and get to the core of it. Then, when I hear the simplified version, I inevitably think, 'Why didn't I do that to start with?' It's always really obvious once you get to the end result, but you can linger in murky water for quite a long time before you arrive there."

Tracking Brian

A case in point is a single by The Wilsons, sisters Wendy and Carnie, whose father, legendary Beach Boys writer/producer/performer Brian Wilson, appears on their new Mercury Records album. Stephen Lironi produced a couple of tracks for this project at a Hollywood facility. Music Grinder. One of these was 'Monday Without You', written by Carole King, Paul Brady and Mark Hudson. Lironi spends his time during sessions taking care of things musical rather than technological and, accordingly, on 'Monday Without You' he not only arranged the track but also played all of the instruments. The result is what Brian Wilson himself has described as "the perfect record".

"I heard the Carole King demo and it was a killer," recalls Lironi. "It just had 'hit' written all over it, and the thing about working with a great song is that it just makes everything easier. The chord structure inherently moves in a way which helps the dynamic of the song, and that means that it is going to work emotionally, because it'll excite people during the chorus and then release tension during the verse. That makes it easier to produce." So, produce it he did, along with a track called 'Good About You', over the course of a week at Carnie Wilson's house and in Music Grinder's Neve room. Analogue 48‑track was the recording medium, Doug Trantow was the engineer, Francis Buckley took care of the mix and Steve Lironi was your regular Mr Do‑It‑All.

"When we started work [at Music Grinder] on 'Monday Without You' Carnie was moving house, and so I even had to do her guide vocal, which was laughable," he says. "I basically began building the song up with a Martin 6‑string acoustic, recorded with a Telefunken 250 and a little B&pencil mic, and I tracked it up six times and bounced it into stereo. That way any imperfections were ironed out and it just had a nice, broad sound. I then put down a guide [Precision] bass just to make sure that the groove was what we were looking for, and I also played an amazing 12‑string Jerry Jones electric guitar going straight through a Sansamp processor and a Rocktron effects unit.

"After that I had Vox Continental and Jaguar keyboard sounds coming out of an Emu Vintage Keys module. I was going for these '60s‑type organs, such as Farfisas, and trying to stay away from the Hammond, which would have had too much of a rock feel for this kind of record. I wanted more of what The B52's would use... I love the sound of those real cheap‑sounding things.

"For the drums, I brought in Nick Vincent, and then I cut the bass again to the drums, played a little bit of percussion — tambourine and a shaker — and that was it. We recorded the vocals along the way, making a separate slave as the girls did so many harmonies, along with their dad. So we'd just do a stereo mix and then have a full 20 tracks of vocals. Wendy was recorded with the Telefunken 250 and Carnie with a Neumann U67, often singing together with a screen in front of them and facing each other. Then, when Brian came in, everything that he did was triple‑tracked. He sang some lead lines and two‑part harmonies, and he was great, even though he does get nervous being in the studio with people he doesn't know. He was very open to suggestions and he also came in with his own ideas, such as a bit in the chorus where he did a high falsetto in the style of The Beach Boys. You hear it and you say, 'Oh, that's Brian Wilson!' It's his trademark and it was just great to get it on this track. When it's played on the radio people will go, 'Wow, it's summertime!'"

Middle Of Nowhere

Another recent writing/production assignment for Lironi has been a pop/R&B album by Hanson entitled Middle Of Nowhere, released on the Mercury label and featuring the talents of three brothers: 16‑year‑old Isaac on guitar, 13‑year‑old Taylor on lead vocal and keyboards, and 11‑year‑old Zachary on drums. Recorded at Scream Studios in Studio City, close to Los Angeles, the album was engineered by Niven Garland on an SSL G Series console with two 24‑track Studer analogue machines. Lironi initially heard a demo of two songs — one of which, 'MMMBop', is now the first single off the album — and was immediately hooked. "I loved the songs and the vocals were just unbelievable," he says. "[Taylor had] really great phrasing, really soulful, and sounded like a really young Michael Jackson back in the days when he was singing things such as 'ABC'. Remarkable." Not least because these are three white kids from Tulsa, Oklahoma. "It really was a privilege to work with kids who are that talented," Lironi continues. "We did, of course, have to use other people to augment Zachary's drum parts. He played some parts, but when you're 11 you don't have the stamina to hit really precisely. I mean, I was playing at that age and he's a lot better than I was, but while maybe 50 per cent of your snare hits are going to be great you're probably going to miss the rest of them." As for the producer himself, he actually managed to miss all of the drum hits. "Drums are the one thing that I never play on anyone else's tracks," he says. "That was my first instrument and it's just impossible to produce myself playing them. It's hard enough producing myself playing acoustic guitar, because I'm out in the studio, but when it comes to playing drums it's so hard to hear what I'm actually doing, since I'm physically in a different room. With everything else, I can work in the control room.

"At the same time there can also be a tendency to be too self‑critical, but that is something that I've learned to relax about. Now most things for me are done from top to bottom in one take. I just go for the feel of it, and if there are mistakes, as long as they're not glaringly obvious, they're left as part of the performance. I hate things that are too perfect. Things became way too perfect in the mid‑to‑late‑'80s and that took the soul out of a lot of stuff. Certainly my favourite album of recent years has been the one by Beck, just because it's imperfect yet it still sounds amazing. In fact, I love the imperfections on a lot of my favourite records because they give character. I mean, listen to a singer like Billie Holliday. There's no way that she ever sang a note in tune, she was always under the pitch, but that was the soul of it as well. Being sharp is a different thing — it will kill you — but being flat often has you singing these blues notes."

Jon Bon Solo

Not that this was ever a consideration for Stephen Lironi when he recently came to produce seven of the tracks on Jon Bon Jovi's new solo album. "He's really a great singer," he asserts. "His pitching is great, his phrasing is great, he's got a really powerful and consistent voice, and he just likes to do maybe four takes and comp out of those. There might be the odd one that he's not happy about and which we will fix, but mostly we'll take maybe a couple of hours working on the lead vocal and then we'll move on." While the remaining tracks on Jon Bon Jovi's album were produced by Dave Stewart and Desmond Child, Lironi produced the majority of the album, with Niven Garland, once more, seated behind the console, a DDA located in the basement studio of the artist's home in New Jersey. The studio was designed by his mixer, Obie O'Brien, and houses two 24‑track analogue tape machines. "The sound of that studio is great," says Lironi, "and that's unfortunate, because it means that you end up in a basement 14 hours a day! It has three screened‑off recording areas, mostly constructed with wood, and then a smallish control room.

"Jon had demo'd the songs while he was on the road with Bon Jovi. He's a real workaholic, and so he would rent a truck and have it parked outside the hotel where they were staying. The band would play on the demos and Obie would record them, and they therefore ended up sounding like masters. When I became involved with the album at the start of August '96 we began work on two of the tracks ['Janie, Don't Take Your Love To Town' and 'Learning How To Fall'], and first of all I had my equipment shipped over from London. [See 'Gear — Home And Away' box.] This meant that we had to rewire the studio, because it had been set up to record the band, and therefore everything had to be re‑plugged through my sampler and sync'd up.

"For the first two days Jon was tapping his fingers and wondering what we were doing, because he's used to the band going 'one‑two‑three‑four' and getting the bass, drums and rhythm guitar down for five or so songs! He works really quickly, but at the end of the third day he started to get where it was coming from and by the end of the week we had two tracks done."

Listen to a singer like Billie Holliday. There's no way that she ever sang a note in tune, she was always under the pitch, but that was the soul of it as well.

Where it was 'coming from' was the approach of methodically building one layer on top of another, with guitars being added after drums and bass had already been recorded. "Using Cubase on the Mac we'd start with a bunch of loops just to get a basic groove going, a basic keyboard pad would outline the chord structure and then I'd analyse the song with Jon," Lironi recalls. "He might say, 'I don't think we need this bit,' or 'It would be better to get to this part sooner,' and we'd just be able to cut and paste on the computer, working with the groove, the keyboard structure and a rough program base.

"I would build up the basic structure playing the keyboard, but it wouldn't necessarily end up on the finished track. It was just there so that we could work out where to go, and while some of the songs don't have keyboards, most of them do actually have Hammond organ. We'd build up organic sounds, because I like to mix organic and electric sounds together to provide a little texture."

The achievement of a rough structure would be followed by the addition of rhythm guitar and, as soon as possible, a guide vocal, so that the participants could ascertain whether or not their efforts were working out. Still, even though Jon Bon Jovi's guides utilised the same mic (a valve Neumann U47) and compression as for the proper vocal takes, none of these guide efforts were retained for the final mix. There was no need.

"He usually performs amazingly, so you don't have to worry about any flukes," says Lironi. "He's very consistent." After completion, the first two tracks were taken to Right Track in New York for the mix. Stephen Lironi then spent the next seven months working on the Hanson album in Los Angeles, before sessions with Jon Bon Jovi resumed on January 5 back in New Jersey. These five tracks took about a month to complete, with the respective Bon Jovi members filling in on bass, keyboards and rhythm guitar, together with Lironi also playing some of the rhythm guitar parts, Bobby Bandiera on lead guitar and Kenny Aranoff on drums. In line with Lironi's own preferred work method, each of these parts was recorded separately, allowing him more control and the ability to remove whatever was deemed necessary in the name of improvement, before starting to rebuild again from the ground up.

Both Sides Of The Pond

Based in London, Stephen Lironi is nevertheless planning to continue with his frantic work schedule on both sides of the pond. "I like it over in America," he says. "I think Britain is just a little bit too much pop in terms of the charts right now, although that isn't a true representation of the music there. The UK needs a radio station like a K‑ROCK on which it can play alternative music, which is what Britain is great at. There are so many great guitar bands coming out, but they're not supported, apart from by the NME and a few DJs." In line with this view, Lironi has been spending the little time he has between projects to concentrate on a less‑than‑mainstream project of his own, entitled 'The Revolutionary Corps of Teenage Jesus', which is on his own Creeping Bent label. "Creeping Bent is a type of Scottish grass that grows in the Highlands!"

Confirming the fact that there is more to this successful writer/producer than necessarily meets the ear, the 'Revolutionary Corps' project sees him veering away from conventional song structures towards a more noise‑based sound. "When I'm working with major labels and artists who are very song‑orientated, I've got to be very disciplined," he says. "However, I also have this other side to me that I want to express; a kind of noise and groove‑orientated thing, using samples that are running off my computer, lots of distortion, lots of dub echo. So far I've released two singles and both of them have been Single of the Week in the NME, but while this project is appreciated, it's certainly never aimed at gaining major record sales or radio airplay. It's just something that, if the A&R guys have been driving me too crazy, has enabled me to go and do something artistically fulfilling. The music is the thing, and whenever there's a danger of me being dragged away from it, I have to make sure that I drag myself back!"

Gear — Home And Away

Lironi's home setup, which also accompanies him to a variety of studio locations, comprises Cubase running on an Apple Mac, a fully loaded Akai S3200 sampler, a Clavia Nord Lead, Emu Vintage Keys, Sansamp guitar processor, a Rocktron guitar effects unit and a Mutronics Mutator filter, as well as a Fender Strat, a Telecaster, a Precision bass and a 1960s Guild guitar that was given to Lironi by Jon Bon Jovi, and which the former describes as "a Gibson SG on acid. The body's all distorted out of shape and it even has a flip‑out stand built into it.

"I like the Nord Lead because it sounds like a synthesizer," says Lironi. "I get sick of keyboards that just sound like samplers and Fender Rhodes. If you want a Fender Rhodes sound you should get a Fender Rhodes. Even the Vintage Keys never sounds like a Wurlitzer or a Hammond organ. It's alright, but if you want a Hammond organ sound then get a Hammond organ — if you've got the budget — because nothing sounds like it. In fact, Hammonds don't even sound like each other, which is why you need to get a good one, and that's what we used a lot of on the Hanson record."