Interviewed by Bud Scoppa

You didn't know Tom Petty until preproduction for the Wildflowers sessions—but it seems as if you and Petty have something in common, this pervasive understanding of musical history and roots.

Totally. I love his songwriting. When I was a kid in bands, we used to play his songs. I was never the songwriter in the groups, but I'd use him as an example to the guy who was supposed to be writing the songs. Like "Hey, this is what a bridge is. See how exciting it is?" Especially when Damn the Torpedoes came out; it was such a perfect record in every way. I always hold it up as a milestone of something to strive for. Everything was really thought-out, everything really made sense and happened for a reason. It was inspirational, that record.

On Wildflowers, you're credited as "consultant on anything really important." What was your specific role in the making of that record?

I'd go down to the studio and just offer my opinion up. It was a pretty casual thing. I'd go down maybe two or three times a week and hang out for a couple of hours and see what they were doing. I can't think of any major production contribution. It became this thing where I would just show up and expound—whether they wanted to hear it or not.

But something must have clicked for Tom and Mike Campbell, because they asked you to executive produce the upcoming Petty box set.

I think we have the same sensibility.

How did you pick up your musical knowledge?

My parents listened to a lot of Greek music, because I'm Greek. But then my mother used to buy all of the Dick Clark repackaged oldies records, and they were great. She used to play them in the house, and she used to sing "Earth Angel" to me. That's really what I listened to when I was very young. That, or Simon & Garfunkel, the stuff of the times.

What instrument did you play in the teenage bands you were in?

I started playing drums and then I played bass, because there were no bass players in junior high. There were a lot of drummers but no one knew what a bass was. It was kind of a weird instrument. My parents got me a bass for Christmas when I was in seventh or eighth grade, and it was a very strange thing. Nobody who had bands at the time had bass players, but they all knew you needed one—and no one knew what it did. I didn't really get too good until later on. I was kind of playing it like a guitar for a long time—pretending it was a guitar and making a lot of bad noises.

When you enrolled at NYU, where you met your longtime colleague Rick Rubin, you'd already been in bands, and you were a combined music and business major—a savvy move for a 17-year old kid.

[Laughs] It was the only way I could go to NYU. My parents didn't want me to go there. They wanted me to go to either Syracuse, where my brother had studied business, or to a state school like Albany. I knew I wanted to be in Manhattan and I wanted to do music, and the only way I could do that was if I said I was going to do this program, music/business.

Did you want to be a musician at that point?

I wanted to be in a band more than anything else, but I didn't get into a band until the second year I was there. The first year I just kind of went out. It was really different in the city. It was a great place to be a teenager and experience that time. It was '82—new wave was happening. I went through this club thing and started hanging out. You had the rock/new wave thing, and then you had the dance stuff. It was really cool and interesting.

But what you wound up getting involved with in the studio was rap.

It was weird, because Rick was the DJ at the dorm, and I had started dating an old girlfriend of his. She introduced us, and I started helping him with the parties. He said he was starting this label, and I said I'd try to get an internship and get credit, and I would work with him and we'd do something. I'd been in a studio once, but a real cheap studio on Long Island, like a demo place. The place we went to was not that much better, but it looked better. I didn't know what I was doing and Rick didn't know much more, I don't think. He was just paying for the studio time and kind of had a vision. He would write these beats, and the studio was totally manual, so you had four or five people on the board holding things down, waiting for something to come up. "Is that coming? OK, next one." You might accidentally put the kick drum on half a beat early, but it would be okay. You always broke it down to the high-hat at one point. There were certain things you just automatically followed. There would be a guy yelling in one room and a drum machine and a lot of reverb. You never knew what was gonna happen.

Were you knowledgeable about any black music idioms before that?

Just what I liked. I loved black records and R&B records and soul records from the radio, oldies stuff. Rick would have guys come and DJ, and they'd play something interesting like the Ohio Players, and we'd go get that record. Or we'd get a lot of Parliament records. That's when I started learning about that kind of stuff, more in college. Then, when they made the Def Jam deal with CBS, I became friends with this A&R guy Joe McEwen [now VP of A&R at Warner Bros. Records]. He turned me on to a whole new thing. He'd make tapes for me of his radio show that he had once a month in Jersey. He'd tell me about certain records, point me in a direction and I'd come back with ten of them and he'd tell me which ones were good or bad or experimental. He was a great inspiration. He's like an encyclopedia, and he taught me a lot about records.

So a lot of your knowledge stems from Joe.

Definitely. I knew the big songs, and then he would teach me about the more greasy stuff, or the real outside stuff, the weirder stuff.

In terms of your musical apprenticeship, it sounds like you happened to get on the train at this one station...

and it kept going. I'd just learn things, like, "Wow, why is that kick drum doing that?" Or I'd hear something crazy in a song, and it would inspire me to listen harder, or listen to other things to find out what other people were doing. Like I'd know about Booker T. & the MG's from "Green Onions," and then Joe would explain about Stax Records. Then that book Sweet Soul Music [by Peter Guralnick] came out—it was like the Bible for a while—I read it three or four times just to get all of the information. I'd study a chapter and then find those records, and I'd learn what was going on, I'd learn the players—it was really intense.

How do you apply this knowledge in specific studio situations? Like you were saying before about noticing a particular kick drum sound—that somehow it sticks with you, right?

And you want to use it. You make records that you want to hear, and the records I want to hear are the records that I loved. I like to break new ground, maybe not by pushing the envelope but by doing something weird and different in some way from what's going on now. I don't think you should do something just for the sake of doing something new, so you can say, "I'm different." I think you should do something new if it makes sense, if it's a good, interesting sound. I really liked that Breeders' "Cannonball" song a couple of years ago. It was just crazy. It sounded like someone dropped a needle on it in the middle of the record. I really liked that. That, to me, is exciting. I can't say it's the newest thing, but it's the newest approach. It always killed me. That's the kind of thing I really like. And I try to find that kind of thing. It's hard because you know what works— eight bars to an intro, and then you start the vocal, or it's a drum break, then intro. It's hard not to get stuck in those patterns, because they work. But I really respect when someone has no regard for convention. I like a lot of lo-fi stuff, but I think they need to get better songs. Everything sounds really cool and weird and homemade, but you're waiting for a payoff.

What's the specific nature of your A&R role, as opposed to your staff producer aspect?

I haven't signed anything that I haven't made a record with. The reason I like to do that is that you can develop the thing at its own pace. I think you have a little more control, which can work against you also because the band usually starts to resent you faster. You're the one saying, "You're not ready to go in yet," as opposed to just being hired to produce after the label has already sat with it for a certain amount of time. That's why I don't do too many outside projects: I don't feel I have as much control over it. It's like they say, "These are the 10 songs we want to do, and we'll make these as good as we can." As opposed to, "These are the six songs you should do, and we need four more." You can do that to a degree , but after a certain point, if you're not their A&R guy, you can always say that you don't think a song is great, but it's tough to say, "See you in six months." Then they'll find someone else who'll say that these 10 songs are great—let's go now. Because someone will always say that—but you have to be honest.

Most A&R people—and in fact most record companies in terms of the way they're run from the top—tend to take what they can get out of artists. Like saying, "OK, these are the songs you've come up with; let's talk about which ones are the strongest." And that's pretty much as far as it goes. It's rather unusual for an A&R person to pull the plug on the process, if only because there's a certain momentum that builds up during the course of the standard cycle: making a record, touring, coming off tour when the record is over. Then the cycle begins again with the songwriting process—unless you've got a band that can write songs in vans or on buses, which is unusual. Your approach seems more rational, but you have to be a tough guy to do that. Are you?

Yeah, I do wind up being the guy who says no. Who wants to do that? My big line is, "Look, I'm just a mirror, and if you don't like what you're seeing in the mirror, look in a different mirror. I'm not telling you anything that's not there. I don't make it up for my own sake. I'm not saying I'm always right, but this is what I'm feeling, and if I don't tell you, then it wouldn't be doing anybody a service."

You can only do that effectively if you've earned the band's trust.

That's the thing. You become very friendly with them and you gain their trust. You court the band, you talk to them, you spend a lot of time with them. You discuss records you like, records they like, then you talk about the songs. So by the time you start recording, they trust you, they know where you're at. They know you're not just saying something because you have to be right about everything. Or you're not just saying it to them just to hear yourself speak, or having an opinion just to have an opinion. You're expressing an opinion because that is your opinion.

I think it also helps to sign an act that nobody else wants—bands that have never been in a bidding war, or that six labels have to have. Then you start selling yourself and say, "Hey, come with us, because those guys stink," or whatever. Before I signed the Black Crowes, I encouraged the band to talk to whoever they wanted to—they should talk to everybody, just make their own decisions. When no one else is interested in them it's a little tougher.

You've signed the Black Crowes, the Jayhawks, the Freewheelers; what else?

That's it. I don't really sign that many things, because I take a long time developing them. It's very time-consuming if you do it right.

What's the most important single aspect of a record?

I think in some ways if the song is OK and it's a good song, the rest of it doesn't matter. There are a lot of great records that sound like shit. I don't even care about sounds anymore, really—I'm over it in a way. Anybody can have a good-sounding record. Everybody's got a good-sounding record, everything sounds good on TV or on the radio. So I think you've got to have good songs, or deliver them in a certain way—the way you present them, as opposed to just what it sounds like.

Do you have an office?

Sometimes I go into the American office, but I don't have my own office. Never have. I listen to a lot of the stuff that comes in. I can't say I listen to it all, but every couple of months I'll make a real effort to get through as much of it as I can. I go there maybe once every two weeks or so and pick up stuff, and they also send the tapes to my house. Actually, I use Rick's house as an office. He uses that as an office and I use it as my office too. If we need to do something there or go over something, we do it at his house.

How do the tapes get to you? Do you take unsolicited tapes? Do you listen to everything?

It depends. I usually listen to stuff people I know send me first, or if someone recormmends soemthing. But I go through a phase where I'll say, OK, the next few days I'm going to try to get through as many tapes as I can. We don't send them back. They'll know if we like it.

Have you ever signed anything off a tape?

I haven't. I've heard a couple of things that I've followed up and gotten stuff back, and realized that whatever the one thing was that I liked was probably a mistake. Like they had a good idea and didn't know what the idea was. I haven't really gotten too many interesting things out of the mail. Although Rick got L.L. Cool J out of the mail. He came in and listened to it and called him up the next day. You never know.

Do you have any advice for aspiring bands and artists?

Wherever you are, stay where you are—don't come to L.A. and don't go to New York. Wherever you're from, you should stay there and play as much as you can, do some kind of residency, maybe. If you excite people, people will start talking about it. Someone will hear about it. Otherwise I think it's forced—it's not natural.

Bud Scoppa is a veteran rock journalist (Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy) with extensive A&R experience. Most recently he headed the A&R department of Zoo Entertainment, where he was involved in the signing and A&Ring of such artists as Matthew Sweet, Procol Harum, the Odds, Little Feat and Neal Casal.

Bud is also a member of TAXI's A&R Team.

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