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Interviewer: Michael Laskow

Jonathan Cain (left) told some great stories about his career, Journey, The Babies and pitching songs while TAXI’s Michael Laskow and a packed ballroom hung on every word.
Jonathan Cain (left) told some great stories about his career, Journey, The Babies and pitching songs while TAXI’s Michael Laskow and a packed ballroom hung on every word.

When you were on your break from music and you were selling stereos in the Valley...
It was Cal Stereo, and they would give me this little blue-jean vest, and it said, “Musicians clean the toilet at the end of the day.” And I’m like, “Oh no.” You know, they wanted me to sell these lousy speakers to people. They were made in Mexico, and they weren’t worth dirt. They were terrible, so I wouldn’t sell them. I’d say, “You don’t want those, look at these JBLs over here, and there’s a Marantz over here.” I saved people a lot of grief there, but the store owners didn’t like it because they made more money on the junky ones.

What are your favorite monitors today?
Oh boy, I’m really diggin’ the Genelecs. The Genelec people have been really cool in Nashville to us. I was a big Adam guy too. I like the Adam line, but the Genelecs... And they’re getting better. They’ve really worked on it, and they continue to evolve. We have these big monitors [in my studio in Nashville]; they’re just beautiful. If anybody wants to hear Genelecs, come to Nashville and we’ll give you a playback...for free.

Some of your favorite outboard gear—vintage, modern, whatever?
You know, I still like the EMT plates. We have two EMT plates. I love the Lexicon 224X. It sounds amazing. I like all the Bill Putnam stuff, United Audio. I’ve got a bunch of Neve 1073s. Trident A-Range now makes a module that’s amazing. The SSL compressor...on and on. And you know, I have a 24-track machine that still works. My MCI JH-24 with the Auto Locator I from 1976. I actually recorded my single on it. So this tape machine found its way from Torrance, California—it was at Quantum Audio—went to Sausalito, where I bought it at Harbor Sound.

You know what MCI stands for? I used to have them for years. Munchy Crunchy Inside. At least that was the console. Every time you hit a button...
Yeah, the consoles weren’t so great, but those tape machines still sound good!

They were workhorses. And they did, they sounded good!
Vince Gill came in to our studio and did his Claim Jumpers recording there. He’s got a bluegrass band, and they did a whole live recording straight to 24-track, and it was amazing. They did no overdubs. It sounded incredible.

I loved doing sessions like that. I lived for doing sessions like that. The best.
Roll tape. There’s something beautiful about those old recordings. How many people in the audience still like vinyl. Right? I mean, you put on a vinyl disc you haven’t heard for a while, and you went, “Oh, it’s supposed to sound like that?” It’s pretty amazing.

My wife just got me a turntable in September for my birthday, and I’ve been taking out a bunch of my old vinyl and listening to it, and it’s visceral. You know, I don’t know that somebody who didn’t grow up with vinyl would have that same feeling. But there is something about the surface noise on a piece of vinyl that actually adds...
Well, the one thing I found out about vinyl is that it faithfully reproduces frequencies between the nooks and crannies, where digital will just round off numbers. So 336 cycles becomes 338, because it doesn’t have 336. Well, a record plays all the frequencies, so it’s a real replica of the original frequency, not an interpolation, as they do with digital. But now we have 96k, so it’s getting really good. In the digital world, it’s like going to 4k on TV. You say, wow, that’s really beautiful now. So we’ve come a long way in the digital world, I have to say.

And just having all the memory and the automation has got to be great on the road—especially for front of house on the road.
It’s amazing what we are able to do, the consistency we get. We have a snapshot of our show, you know, so no matter where we go, we are up and running like that.

And if you’re back to the same venue three years later, you could hit recall and there it is!
It’s there, yeah. We recently did a recording at the Budokan in Tokyo. You know the Cheap Trick album At Budokan?Well, Journey played Escape & Frontiers at the Budokan, and we had problems with the room mics. They were kind of in the wrong place. So my friend got a sample of the Budokan room; it was a model of the Budokan, and he just plugged it into the mix. We had our ambience back, it was great—it sounded just like it. So they can shoot a room and get the room. You know, at Capitol, the echo chambers are famous. And United Audio now will offer Capitol Chambers.

Jonathan Cain proudly holds up his Lifetime Achievement Award at the TAXI’s Road Rally, while Michael Laskow congratulates him.
Jonathan Cain proudly holds up his Lifetime Achievement Award at the TAXI’s Road Rally, while Michael Laskow congratulates him.

He’s talking about live echo chambers. How many of you guys know what a live echo chamber is? Okay, quick history lesson. Back in the day, even before they had EMT Plates, reverb was done in a room that was basically built to the specifications of an elevator shaft, with a sloped ceiling, very, very smooth walls—usually like Italian plaster or something—and they would put a speaker on the floor and hang a microphone from the ceiling. If you clapped your hands, you’d hear [Michael imitates the sound of reverb]. But to make the reverb shorter, you had to throw moving blankets on the floor, or lower the microphones closer to the speakers, and you would bring that sound back in console. But Capitol Studios in Hollywood has, arguably, the last live chambers left anywhere in the world, and they rent them out via high quality audio lines. So you can actually use the Capitol Chambers while working in other studios.
And we have a small one under my parking lot in Nashville. It’s 8-by-10. We did the very same thing. We had a guy tune it, and it is the most incredible little chamber. It’s very short—about 1.6 seconds—but it’s hauntingly beautiful. It sounds great.

I can’t wait to come visit!

How old were you when you wrote your first real song?
Oh, goodness. Probably in my 20s. I came here [to L.A.], and I wrote a song called “’Til It’s Time to Say Goodbye,” and it made the top charts just in L.A. You know, we had the Gavin charts. You remember the Gavin charts? So I was bubbling up on the Gavin charts, and I made it to Billboard at 40, then that was it. That was the sort of first successful commercial song. And I ended up on the American Bandstand with Natalie Cole singing it back in 1975. So that was the first big song. I finally got something that was memorable; it had a great melody to it.

But before that, I wrote a song when I was 19 called “God Made Woman for Man to Love.” And a guy in Nashville heard it, and he signed me to my first record deal—Buddy Killen. So Buddy Killen was a famous record producer in Nashville. He was co-owner of Tree Publishing, and he signed me to Tree. So I’m 19 years old; it was a little shape of things to come. I didn’t know how big Tree was until I looked it up, and I’m like, “Oh my.”

Buddy was a maverick. He was amazing, doing Joe Tex in Nashville back in the ’70s. Nobody did soul music in Nashville. But he liked this white guy that sang these pop songs, so he signed me, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.

I got to tell ya, I’m gonna make a little confession. This is the first time I’ve heard Buddy’s name in a very long time. The phrase “independent A&R,” I stole that from Buddy Killen. I remember reading it somewhere. He used the phrase I think in an interview in Billboard. And I remember when I started this company and my friend Rob Chiarelli said to me, “Well, what is the company going to do?” And I said, “Independent A&R.” So thank you, Buddy.
He was a rule-breaker. He broke all the rules. I asked him at the time, “Should I move down here and write with these guys?” And he goes, “No, you don’t want to write with these guys; you’re doing fine.”

"Nashville; it’s the only town where you can die of encouragement."

It’s a tough town. You know, the level of craft in Nashville is so high. I don’t know if this is exactly true, but Ralph Murphy used to say to me, “At any moment in time, there are about 9,000 songwriters living in Nashville that had a charted hit.” So the competition is insanely high, and nowadays you have got to be in a camp, which is pretty true for pop music...
And there are a lot of gatekeepers—you guys should know. Like, I want to get a song to Rascal Flatts. Well, Rascal Flatts will never hear your song; it gets heard by a gatekeeper. And if the gatekeeper doesn’t think it’s worthy, then it never gets heard by Rascal Flatts.

For example, we were trying to get “Faithfully” to Garth Brooks, so I cut this great country-western version of “Faithfully.” With no piano, it was all acoustic, with fiddle and mandolin. And I found this guy that sounded just like him, and I thought, “This is gonna be a win.” But he had it on hold, and he recorded a lot of other crazy songs. I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t sing that, because I knew he liked Journey. So it’s hard—even when you’re Jonathan Cain.

Really, I got turned down at Sony. I wanted a publishing company to pitch to, and they had just bought EMI. They said, “We have 40 writers we don’t know what to do with, and we can’t sign you.” I went, “OK, what did they write?”

Nashville; it’s the only town where you can die of encouragement. But I’m still here. And I built a studio in spite of it. So I thought, “I’m gonna build my studio, and they are gonna come to me. If they want to play this way...” Because that’s what I love. So I left my print there, you know, and I have a place where I can go and make my music and I don’t have to answer to anybody. So they’re comin’ to my place, goin’, “Wow, Jonathan had a pretty good idea here.”

I started listening to the file of songs you sent to me the day you sent them, then I finished the rest of them the next day. Every single song just wreaks of craft. I mean, you are a craft person. Back in the day—in the ’70s and ’80s—it’s almost like the bar wasn’t as high. Incredible songs came out of that era, don’t get me wrong, but the bar wasn’t that high. The gatekeepers weren’t as strict, and stuff had more of a chance than it does today.
But you could still get a cassette heard by somebody. I mean, Mariah Carey got discovered—somebody gave her cassette to the right person. Steve Perry was the cassette that came to our manager through a pot dealer. He delivered his bag of weed, and there was a cassette in the bag. It was Steve Perry. I’m not making this up. [laughter] So our manager put it on and his mouth and jaw dropped and he said, “Well, that’s the voice I’m looking for.” So he plays it for the guys in the band and they’re like, “Ehhh, we’re not feelin’ it. It sounds like a girl.” Our manager Herbie brought Steve to Neal’s hotel, and he said, “Neal, I’m sending up Steve Perry; you write a song with him.” So they went up there, an hour later they came down with a song called “Lights.” And then Neal said, “You know what, Herbie? He’s pretty cool; I think we should check him out, man.” Funny story.

They say the best way to get better writing songs is to simply write more of them, and that’s great advice. But I’ve known hundreds of songwriters who have been writing for decades, and yet they never seem to get better, because they keep repeating the same mistakes. Do you have any sage advice for these folks that might feel stuck in that rut where it’s like, “You know, I keep cranking it out, but it just doesn’t get better.” How did you get better? How did you hone that craft?
I studied the songs. I study them, and I look at opening lines. I kinda take songs apart, early on especially. Like when Elton first came out and I was listening to “Your Song,” I thought, “That’s the song I should’ve written right there.” But Bernie’s lyrics would go from one scene to the next. It’s almost like having an open house; you are staging an open house and you’re asking the listener to come in and look at your house. So what the first thing that the buyer wants to see is something nice, something grand, something inviting, right? Give them a reason to stay to see the rest of the house.

"When Springsteen came out, I felt his lyrics move me. When I heard his music [sigh]... He made his neighborhood a temple; he turned it into his own little temple, and he praised it, and he sang about it."

That’s Ralph Murphy’s classic line: “Invite the listener in.”
Invite the listener in. Those kinds of things... I highly recommend modeling yourself, like, who do you really gravitate towards? Who do you think you are close to? And of course, when Springsteen came out, I felt his lyrics move me. When I heard his music [sigh]... He made his neighborhood a temple; he turned it into his own little temple, and he praised it, and he sang about it. “I come from, hey, this area in Jersey,” you know? And I thought, “Yeah, I’m from Chicago; I feel that.” So finding your identity through trial and error, and also looking at the songs that move you.

Don Henley is a big influence on me. I think Don is one of the greatest lyricists on the planet. He has written some incredible, insane songs, and I studied them. And J.D. Souther, same thing. “New Kid in Town,” wow! Simple but heartfelt stories.

There’s not a wasted word. Not one.
No, and that’s one thing. But I also think that it’s good to get with somebody who also writes, and maybe somebody that’s a little more down the road. Like when I got with John Waite, John had written rock ’n’ roll songs that I had only dreamed about. Writing with him showed me a lot of pathways I was missing.

Give us an example.
Spontaneous. He was so spontaneous. OK, how many people know the song “Back on My Feet Again”? Well, when it came to us up at Sound City... Anybody see the movie Sound City? Well, The Babies recorded their albums there, and they brought this song in. Chrysalis sent this song from Beau Hill called “Yesterday’s Heroes.” You know, the lyric was very questionable. I heard it and I was like, “Ah, we are not yesterday’s heroes, we are The Babies. We are young, we are cool. You know, we wear cool clothes. We are not yesterday’s heroes; we’re like the cool stuff.”

So I set about to arrange the thing, and I came up with this real cool intro. We did the track, and it started morphing into this really rock anthem. And then, when John got it, I said to John, “You could do better than that. Why don’t you go home, let’s come back, and I want you to throw these lyrics away and write a new lyric.” And Keith Olson, who was our producer said, “John, if anybody could do it, you can. This is a great track, but we’re not going to put this lyric on it.” And I said, “And Beau Hill will have to get over it.” And John came back with “Back on My Feet Again,” and that was our first hit. I mean, it was amazing. That’s how good he was. He was able to just take a song that had a sub-junky lyric, if you will, and make it exciting. [John sings the song.]

Was he a natural at lyrics?
Amazing. We would jam in a room, and he would write a song on the spot, not even writing it down; he would just think in his head. We were in North Hollywood with Bad English on Sunday, just jammin’ with Neil, and he writes this crazy-cool song. And no one was there, so I produced it; I just started recording. The producer came in, and I said, “That’s John for ya.” He’s just very poetic. So find someone who’s poetic, is what I’m trying to say. John was a tortured poet, but don’t get a tortured poet; find a happy poet.

Don’t miss Part 3 in next month’s TAXI Transmitter.