Interview by Cathy Genovese
Part I

Where are you originally from?

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Did you listen to a lot of music while you were growing up? What were your favorite bands?

I started to listen to music a lot when I was a teenager. That was the time of the Beatles and the British invasion. So, I listened to a lot of British music. I wasn't a big aficionado, but I did like all the Motown hits. But I would lean toward British rock music when I was growing up. The Beatles were my favorite, probably by far. And then came the psychedelic era of Jimi Hendrix and Cream and everything just exploded on the music scene.

And what were you doing during that time?

I was just trying to figure out what I was gonna do. I did a lot of everything. I managed a band; I worked in record stores. Luckily, I could write and I could take photographs. That helped me a lot. That's really what I did before I went to work for Atlantic Records in 1974.

How did you get the job at Atlantic?

Well, I did whatever I could to write or photograph anything about music, and eventually people started to hire me and pay for it. Atlantic Records was spending tons of money on having bios written about artists, as well as getting the best pictures for the artists. Earl McGrath decided he could save a lot of money by hiring me because I was a newspaper freelancer in Philadelphia and had done some work for Atlantic. He came up with the genius idea to hire me for whatever it was—like $300 a week. He said, "Do you want to come work at Atlantic and move to New York?" And I said, "Sure." I wrote the bios; I took the pictures; I wrote the bulletin for the employees.

Tell me about Atlantic and discovering Foreigner?

I went to work at Atlantic as a writer and photographer and in those days they would see how much work they could give you, and how much they could torture you before you would quit. Obviously, after about a year I must have made the cut, so I just worked all the time. I still reviewed concerts on the weekends for the newspaper in Philadelphia. I went back and forth from New York.

Then in the spring of 1975, Jerry Greenberg [former President of Atlantic Records] said, "Well, you can listen to tapes if you bring in your own cassette machine, as long as you do your other work," which I didn't think was that weird at the time, but if you think about it, it's pretty funny. A couple of months later I saw a tape laying on his assistant's desk of a band called Trigger. I had just gone to see a band called Trigger and I thought they stunk. But I had never seen the tape, so I said to his assistant, "Let me hear the tape. I just saw this band." Obviously it wasn't that band, it was what became Foreigner and the first song on it was "Feels Like the First Time."

So I left a message for Jerry Greenberg. I said, "I got this tape off your desk and I thought it was this band I went to see, but obviously it's not. We should pay attention to this tape." Then he called me and said, "Yeah. We should because this guy who's the manager is due to have something and we should go see the band in New York City." We went to see the band, and he said I could sign the band, but the problem was my boss at the time had passed on the tape, so he wasn't too happy about it. They signed the band anyway and let me A&R it. There was a job open at Atlantic in California, and that's why I moved. They wanted me to get out of there and see if I would make it or they would fire me.

So what happened in California?

I moved to California and I worked on the Foreigner record. Then the next winter it came out and it was immediately successful. So, all of a sudden, I was a famous A&R guy.

Then Jerry Greenberg left and I was able to leave Atlantic. I was going to go work for Columbia Records, but David Geffen called me and wanted me to come work for him. So that's what happened.

Tell me about the Geffen days, getting Aerosmith back on top, and having Cher's success with "If I Could Turn Back Time."

The Geffen days were far more complicated because there was a whole period before then, a whole other era of starting the company and signing Sammy Hagar, Asia, Wang Chung and all those bands, all those hits. Then there was a sort of cold period for 18 months where we didn't have any hits. That was late 1985 until early 1987. I was busy trying to get David Coverdale to finish the Whitesnake record in 1987. I finally convinced Cher to make a record. I was trying to work with Tim Collins to get Aerosmith off of drugs, which he did. Then I made a horrible record called Done with Mirrors with them and I had to re-think how to do everything. They were screwed up and I had no control over it. It taught me a good lesson: that if you're going to do this you'd better have control of at least some of the parameters of making the record, the songs and how they're going to be done. That's why I became even stricter about people making records for me because of the experiences I had when I had some failures. You know, that system worked for a long time, up until the late '90s—being very hands-on and very opinionated about the music that my artists were making. Eventually, with the way it is now, I don't know if it's appropriate anymore... maybe. It's a different environment doing it now. You're going to risk being disliked by everybody.

How did you sharpen your skills as an A&R person? Did you have a mentor?

My mentors were Clive Davis, [Arista Records] who I did not work for, along with Ahmet Ertegun [Atlantic Records] and David Geffen [Geffen Records], who I did work for. But in what I did, there was no one to teach you. You could only learn by failure, and only learn by being focused and having luck. Eventually I learned how to work with artists and producers, but it was just by trial and error.

It's very interesting, because that's where the luck comes in. Obviously, if I didn't have artists who were great and producers who were great, I would have failed, because I didn't really know what I was doing because there was no one to teach me. I'm not a musician and I'm not an engineer. I'm a listener who is allowed to voice their opinion while things can be changed. So it's a very complicated and strange thing that I do.

I had another A&R person say during an interview that he felt that artists can always do better and that's where A&Ring comes in—an objective voice.

The A&R person is correct. Most artists can always do better, especially ones who are extremely talented. If they're pushed, they can always do better. But they don't really like it, and in general they don't want to do it because it's painful for them. The artistic process of making music is painful, it's not joyous. That's a misnomer and wrong. The creation of recorded music is not joyous. It seems like it's a pretty horrible process, especially if something's good; it doesn't seem very pleasant for the artist.

When our members of TAXI submit their music, they get critiques back from our A&R staff. I can imagine that it's hard to hear constructive criticism or just suggestions about songcraft.

It is hard, and what's interesting is that the bigger stars tend to be easier to work with, but that doesn't mean that they have a different opinion about it. I mean, I'm working with Billy Idol now, and he's very easy to work with because he's very good at taking criticism and comments. But I know from his manager that it doesn't make him very happy, and I have to try to be sensitive to that on the other hand. However, if I just go there and jerk him off, it's a disservice to him because then it's not giving him what it took me all these years to learn how to do. He hasn't thrown me out, and he still wants me to come back, so obviously he's interested enough to try. He's one of those cases where he is so talented, the more he's pushed, the better he does. It's completely true. He has a huge range of talent so he's capable of a lot. Just like Steven Tyler.

He's capable; he's so talented he can take a lot of criticism and he's able to change his music, which is very unusual.

How did you help Aerosmith in creating Permanent Vacation?

They created it. I just challenged them to do the best they could at the time.

I mean your opinions and your criticisms...

Well, they listen to them. As witnessed by that they don't work with me anymore, obviously they were all too happy not to have to listen to me.

No future plans?

It's up to them and Columbia Records. I'd like to work with them again, but I think that the artists were all too happy to get rid of me. That's the real truth.

But some of their greatest successes have been under your A&R tenure.

That's absolutely right. I mean, I worked with Shawn Colvin, and she had her biggest record. Then she won all these Grammys, and the second she didn't have to talk to me she didn't.

It's just that you're criticizing their art and it's personal for them. It's taken me years to accept it. Even now I don't know if I'll ever understand it. It's a pretty ugly thing actually when I think about it. Like when I was sick with thyroid cancer, no artist really gave a crap about me. That's really sad, isn't it? But it's true.

But I would venture to say that a lot of them would have said that you have been an important force within their careers.

I think you're right.

Certainly Steven Tyler.

Yeah, and David Coverdale, Cher. Although she's a thoughtless ingrate. But she's Cher and she's a star. You were there, so you saw how it happened. She's a star and she's a great singer and she sang the songs. I found the songs, I picked the songs, I found out what her key was, I cut the songs. She sang the songs and she was great. Then I mixed the songs; I mastered the record; and then I fought with her about the artwork. It came out and it was great. She was great. Every A&R person should work with someone who's that talented. Trust me. That's an A&R person's dream. I mean I'd love to work with Jennifer Love Hewitt or one of those actresses who could sing, because they're stars and so they're able to promote the music. But you pay a price because they're the stars and you're not.

What projects are you currently working on?

The Billy Idol record, and there are a couple of new artists that I'm working with. Then I work with a lot of acts that are already signed here, like Tesla, and advise them on the making of the records. I still work with some Columbia Records artists that they need me to work on, like an upcoming Journey DVD with Steve Perry. So it's a wide range of things.

What band would you most like to work with that you never have?

I'd like to work with Dave Matthews; I'd like to work with John Mayer; I'd love to work with the Goo Goo Dolls with Johnny Rzeznik—people like that, people that are really talented.

Are those the type of artists that you think have longevity?

I do, yeah. I think John Mayer has huge longevity. I think Dave Matthews, yeah. I'd like to work with Michelle Branch. I think she has longevity. And I'm really glad that Norah Jones made it, but I don't know if I could have seen to sign her. It's really cool. That shows you that not every A&R person's gonna know everything. I mean, I swear to God, Linkin Park is one of the worst bands I have ever seen in my life. I would have never signed them, ever. And look how big they are, and that's great. But I wouldn't have known it.

Do you like the kind of music that's out now?

Generally not. I like some music that's out; I like some of the bands; I like some songs. It's all depends on the songs. I like some Britney Spears songs. I like some Christina [Aguilera] songs. There's always a pop song that I'll like, and there are always bands that I'll like. I went and bought Jet's album from Australia. I went and bought Maroon 5. To me that's a real record.

In the vein of metal and then grunge, boy bands, pop, and now hip-hop and r&b sort of encompassing the sounds of different eras, do you have any ideas of what you think the next sound is going to be?

No. I never think about it. I don't have any answer to those questions because I never actually think about it. I've never thought about it ever, not once in my whole career. Because who would know? It's impossible to tell. When you're an A&R person, you're just trying to make great records. The problem is some time you're in the wrong era. Then you're making the wrong record for the wrong time. It's art. That's what happens.

Since Sanctuary has a lot of catalog material, if you were to look for a new band, what kind of artist would fit into the Sanctuary home?

I don't know. What fits into my home is anything that's a great artist. Like, I signed this band that sounds like the Black Crowes meets Bad Company, and they're British and they're 19, 20, 21. Then I've been working with a young songwriter who's 20 who sounds like Jackson Browne meets Michelle Branch. So it's the same thing that I always did. It just happens that I want to work with younger artists because it's just my own preference at this point in my life. I mean, I would be glad to A&R Aerosmith's record or Van Halen's record or the Eagles or Bon Jovi or anybody else. I'm not sure that anyone's gonna ask me, but I'll be glad to.

Coming from Columbia to Sanctuary, is there an advantage being at a smaller company?

No. It's just a great company. There are great people here. It's the business of the future because it's based on a different business model. But Columbia Records is the greatest label ever. Geffen Records was a unique situation, and I couldn't be more lucky to have worked there, and Columbia Records is the greatest powerhouse record company of all time.

Sanctuary is a whole different thing, Sanctuary is the future of the music business because of its well-involved management along with music publishing and whatever else needs to be done. Yet it has the killer distribution of BMG, along with an independent-minded spirit that runs the company. So it's a real great place to work. I'm lucky to again have another chance, but there's no advantage to leaving Sony Music, in my opinion, for anybody.

What makes Sanctuary so successful, and how do you see yourself fitting into their model?

Well, Sanctuary is so successful because of their ability to be in all businesses and be flexible and, on the record side, to limit costs and spending. Therefore you can make a profit by selling far less records. I don't prefer to make records for $60,000, but that's the way it's gonna be, and that's how it will happen. I made this rock band's EP, Hurricane Party, in the U.K. for $10,000. Now, anyone who would tell you that they prefer to do that is just a liar, because that's bulls#*t. But if it takes that to have a great young 20 year-old British rock band recorded, I'll do it, and Sanctuary is smart enough to put the record out.

That's the key, actually putting it out after you've done it.

Exactly, and really being enthusiastic about it. That's the key to Sanctuary's success, because Sanctuary also puts out records from a lot of older artists that nobody wants who still have fairly important audiences who buy CDs. That's why Sanctuary is successful and smart, because no one wanted to do that, and Sanctuary not only does it, but does it really, really well. And they really pay attention and respect the artist, and artists love that.

I'm just about to go meet with a fairly big middle-level singer/songwriter who wants to be on Sanctuary. That's the future. People want to be here. In the past they had to be here. Now they're gonna want to be here because of their independence and how Sanctuary cares about their music and sort of lets them do what they want.

How did you find these acts? Are you listening to unsigned bands?

Yeah, I am. You know that's an interesting question because with Hurricane Party, the manager was determined that he knew that I should sign the band so he got the demo tape to my scout, Rod Kukla, and he didn't send it to anybody else. He wrote a note to Rod [Smallwood] to say, "We're from England. You should listen to this because John will want to sign the band." Which happened to be the truth because I guess the manager was a student of the record label.

A couple of artists that I have signed, or want to sign, are from things that have been sent and Rod listens to them, then we go see the bands or the artists usually. So I still go out. I just don't listen to as many demos as I used to, and I don't go out as much as I used to. When something tends to be good, no matter what stage of life you're in, you'll still listen to it, especially if it's my interest of music. There's no way that I would sign Linkin Park or Eminem. I mean, I just wouldn't, even knowing their success. But I would still want to sign Nickelback if I could, or bands like that who are good musicians with good songs. Or Three Doors Down. I would want to still sign any of those bands.

Read Part II of this interview in the Oct., 2004 TAXI Transmitter.

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