Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Other Side - Neil Nathan and The Go's Bobby Harlow Interview Each Other!

Welcome to The Other Side; a new Blog feature (they just keep coming!) that highlights the people "on the other side" of musicians and their albums. These pieces may showcase producers, engineers, booking agents, band photographers or online radio DJs. For our first installment of The Other Side, we wanted to talk to Bobby Harlow about producing Neil Nathan's forthcoming album The Distance Calls. Instead though, we thought we'd go all Interview style and have Neil interview Bobby himself. And boy these guys can talk. They talked about the incredible musicians brought into the studio to record, musical breakthroughs for Neil, Olympic swimming and the local grocery store. P.S. Harlow said "LOL."

Neil Nathan:  Hi Bobby. I sent you about 25 tunes to choose from, how did you choose the songs that made the record?

Bobby Harlow: Hi Neil. I was deciding whether or not I would be able to lend my creative energy to your songs, and if that would result in a cohesive record. It was a smart decision to send an overwhelming amount of demos. I just popped the demos on and in 30 minutes, had your record mapped out. I simply chose the jams that caught my attention in the first 60 seconds. Simply put, I went with my gut feeling and didn't second guess it. How did you feel about those choices? Were there any songs that you would have preferred on your album over the ones that were selected?

Neil Nathan: Wow, I'm impressed with your ability to go with your gut Bobby. Though I can't say I do that in all facets of my life, I definitely did that when I reached out to you to work with me and I think it paid off in spades. For me, the whole thing was a giant test to let go of my control freak tendencies and get out of my own way. And since I knew I liked your taste, I didn't really question your song choices at all. If you recall, there was only one tune I really wanted to try out that wasn’t on your list and that was Disappear. I had recorded it a few years back and was never quite happy with it.

Other than that, a sugary rocker like "Too Late" seemed right up your alley, but I didn't know you'd be down with that acoustic blues demo, "Better Be Goin'", and I certainly didn't expect it to come out like the sexed out glam beast it did. Watching you and Joey find your way to that guitar sound and solo was a twisty treat. That was one of the biggest and best surprises for me, as was "California Run". I recall you popping in the rehearsal disc when you picked me up from the airport and I was blown away by the breezy natural groove you guys had going. It was miles from the melancholy ballad I sent you. I didn't know you wanted to do that one ‘til I arrived in Detroit.  Good stuff.

Neil Nathan: Why/how did you choose the musicians for the studio band?

Bobby Harlow: That was a simple process. I called upon people who were going to be able to move quickly, efficiently, and who would pride themselves on their high level of professionalism in the studio. Oh yeah, and everybody who walked through those doors were wicked musicians. What was it like for you to walk into a situation where your songs were interpreted by strangers? That must have been fun. Did any of the arrangements catch you off guard?

Neil Nathan: Wicked and chill and humble. I was pleased as punch with all those guys. Don't get me wrong, I love NYC, but they just don't make 'em like that here. Most cats are filled with strange ego and attitude. So in a weird way, I had to travel to Detroit and leave my home town, to feel at home recording. As soon as I walked into Tempermill Studio and saw the Dali paintings all over the walls, one of which I had in my own bedroom, and the Tiger Stadium seats (I'm a lifelong fan), one with my favorite number 11 on it, I knew I was in the right place. It's a little disconcerting to know that you are exactly where you should be, doing exactly what you should be doing. I tried not to think about it to be honest.

One of the things I've always loved about your stuff with The Go is how lived in and organic the songs feel and you pushed some of my more undeveloped demos in that direction by having me add a verse here and there, a bridge, extend an outro, etc. Other than that, writing a few lyrics on the spot and collaborating with you was a joy for me and kept things alive and in the moment, which is how it should be.

Neil Nathan: How was it different working with a solo singer songwriter versus when you produce The Go or when you produced The Pizazz?

Bobby Harlow: When I've worked with a group, be it my own or The Pizazz, there's a team of people who are emotionally invested in the details. With you, there was only you. It's apples vs. oranges. We were able to crank that record out quickly. Because all of the musicians were approaching it like a "session" rather than a monument to their own creative expression, they seemed to be having fun and were rather detached from the notion that it was a testament to their individual, artistic voices. That allowed me to focus on your personal energy and psychological state. I think that's why we were able to spend so much time on the nuances of your vocal and performances. When working with a group of bandmates who are desperately attempting to elevate their sound and production into the stratosphere, it's more of a challenge to try to get the magic snapshot of the unselfconscious artist. So, it seems to me that artists approaching a "session" are best when they're completely focused... and artists approaching art are best when they're caught off guard. That's my opinion, anyway. What was it like being "produced" vs. working on your own? Pro’s and con’s?

Neil Nathan: Your opinion was certainly born out in this case. There's a photo of you and I chatting during the session that perfectly encapsulates that "off guard" feeling you're talking about. My eyes are wide open and I'm looking a bit off kilter while I'm trying to take in what you're saying and incorporate it into my vocal performance.

As far as being "produced," there's the mystical chair you had me sit in while recording the vocal for "Gone (Fly Away)" off Motor City Recordings, the first time we worked together. What resulted from that moment was a giant breakthrough for me as I was finally able to marry that pretty/intimate vocal approach with the rock songs. Definitely psychological manipulation magic on your part.

Only working with a singer I respect could have produced that in me and allowed me to simply listen to constructive criticism/advice/direction. Beyond that, leaving my daily world/home town and being liberated from the responsibility of managing personalities/musicians/engineers, allowed me to relax and remain totally focused on soaking up the experience and delivering the goods. Hitting it off so well with Engineer Jim Kissling contributed to that relaxed feeling too.

Neil Nathan: What song was the biggest surprise of the session?

Bobby Harlow: The biggest surprise of the session is that we walked away with a record. Haha no joke! Ya never know. The universe was sending a lot of energy our way. A lot can go wrong and it didn't. I guess, if you're referring to the music, "Don't Walk Away" was a real gem. As I recall, we worked the lyrics out a bit, kept it stripped down, and Dean Fretita laid that meandering piano on it, which lifted the whole song into the air. That one turned into a sublime, textural homage to melancholy. Good one.

Neil Nathan: Yes, The Blessed Sessions they were. "Don't Walk Away" used to be called "Walk Away". I recall you saying something about the importance of being positive. That one took me back a bit at first. I mean I do have a bit of the NYC cynic in me! But, we changed the chorus from "Oh, Oh leaving today, Oh, Oh Walk Away to Oh, Oh Even Today, Don't Walk Away". A seemingly small lyrical change totally transformed the message of the song. Good producing!

Neil Nathan: What was your favorite aspect of the session?

Bobby Harlow: I enjoyed the strict regiment. What was yours?

Neil Nathan: Being ripped out of my everyday experience and playing with musicians whose records I am a fan of. In a lot of ways, it was like rock fantasy camp for me. It was quite a trip for me to be playing my tunes in that live room with John [Krautner], Kenny [Tudrick] and Joey [Mazzola] with you in the control room. I was indeed a pig in shit.

Neil Nathan: What is your favorite tune on the record?

Bobby Harlow: They're all good. I like "Sweet Darlin" for its ambience.

Neil Nathan: What do you think is special about this record?

Bobby Harlow: I like the dynamic of it. It's quite diverse. You know, I'm a big fan of records like Revolver and Gorilla so I'm really into the ones that can't sit still. It's definitely not a record that stays the course.

Neil Nathan: Yeah I remember you calling me a schizo singer once. I always dug that term. I think my writing is a lot like that too. I'm still amazed that the record sounds coherent with all that diversity. Definitely a tribute to your song choices and production skills.

Neil Nathan: What new learnings did you take from the session as a producer?

Bobby Harlow: You know, it's like anything else in life... learning about others, one's self, the terrain, behavioral studies... actually, it's a real behavioral study. I mean, sure, I've picked up a few more equalization preferences. That's cool. It's all a work in progress. Asking what I've learned from any experience working on art is like asking to describe every detail of everything I've seen since birth. I've just absorbed everything. Who knows? How about you? Learn anything new in there?

Neil Nathan: Well I'm afraid to ask what you learned about my behavior ;) I learned a lot about the power of subtlety vocally and about listening to what the song wants from me, as well as the importance of letting go. I’ve never let someone else pick my vocal takes. That was a Herculean feat of self-control for me. Watching the Tigers sweep that series in the other room kept me distracted and entertained. Had it not, I probably would have stuck my head in the control room more and you would have had to forcibly remove me!

Neil Nathan: How did your experience as a rock singer inform your production choices for me as a singer/for vocals and recording them?

Bobby Harlow: Well, since we're unique individuals - but pretty similar - I guess I was just sensitive to the atmosphere of your experience in relation to my own, i.e., lighting, privacy, sound reflection, headphone levels, how your tonsils were holding up, your mood, all that. I'm pretty fussy, when it comes to recording my own voice, so I think I'm a bit of a mother hen when it comes to helping with somebody's performance. For example, I want the headphones to be exciting before the vocal session starts, not half way in. The first moment is the one that counts. If the initial take isn't under ideal circumstances, I've found myself struggling to maintain energy, for the long haul, while attempting to recreate the initial enthusiasm for a performance. It's a slippery slope. We went down that road a few times, as I recall. How did you like working with a vocal coach? Ha ha. Was there a time that you remember feeling vexed?

Neil Nathan: I think working with a rock singer that I've respected for years pushed me to new heights vocally. That’s an inherently motivational situation right off the bat. As far as specific songs, I recall "Highways" being a little vexing as I kept wanting to belt it out rather than sing it more intimately. Eventually I found the voice and tone when I re- tracked it a day or so later. "Never Enough" was also a challenge. That one is an entirely different tone than I’d ever used before. I was banging my head against the wall for a while before you took me outside, massaged my ego, and gave me a speech about the casual NY cool of Lou Reed and the sexual appeal of Marlon Brando. I think we settled on Steve McQueen and Pacino in The Godfather as the approach and magically that bizarre conversation jogged something in my head and I nailed it right after; possibly my favorite vocal performance on the record.

Neil Nathan: Where do you get your limitless energy and enthusiasm from?

Bobby Harlow: LOL! Thanks, Neil. I like that. I dunno. Reaching for the heights, I guess. I love making music. That's what I do best. God made me a bit nuts, and it works in the studio. Believe me, you want me to produce your record, not operate on your spine. Haha. On second thought, I'm sure there's plenty of spinal surgeons that drink a gallon of coffee and yell about the genius of Lou Reed right before they cut you open... or, maybe not. Anyway, I love what I do. I love other people who love what they do. I have an immense amount of respect for people who don't love what they do, but do it anyway... I just hope I don't meet any of those people in the recording studio. Haha

Bobby Harlow: What about you? What are you doing all of this for? What's the point? Why don't you go get a real job? Haha

Neil Nathan: I’ve got this Dr. Seuss book called My Book About Me and you fill the thing out when you’re five-years-old with inane things like how many forks are in your house and how many steps it is until the nearest tree. There’s a question in there about what you want to be when you grow up. I wrote an Olympic Swimmer or a Professional Singer. It seems the Olympic Swimmer dream has passed, though I did try out for Mark Spitz’s trainer when I was ten-years-old and he wanted to work with me! I cried for days when my folks weren’t down with the intensity of training everyday for the rest of my childhood. But that’s another story entirely. Anyway, I’ve just always wanted to sing and knew it was in me. The songwriting part came much later. But I was rocking my 45’s of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me”, Neil Diamond’s “Desiree”, and Shaun Cassidy’s cover of “Da Doo Ron Ron” on a loop at that age. Bizarrely, I don’t think my musical taste has changed much since then! I think I’m just eternally trying to get back to age five. But I digress, and I do love digressing. There’s just nothing that makes me happier than writing, recording, and performing my tunes. Nothing. It’s that simple.

Neil Nathan: Who do you credit with teaching you how to be such a gracious host?

Bobby Harlow: Oh, sure. Thank you. That would be William F. Buckley Jr. and Pat.

Neil Nathan: What is the deal of the week at the Hazel Park Kroger's?

Bobby Harlow: Sadly, I haven't returned. My best guess would be something made from corn that will wither your thyroid and quietly kill you.

photo by Fabrizio Costantini


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