The Interview With Hootie Producer: Don Gehman
Very once in a while, nice guys really do finish first. Don Gehman is one of those people. I had the pleasure of working with Don at Criteria Studios in Miami when I first began my career. Don was an engineer's engineer. He was meticulous, knowledgeable, and most of all, he was a gentleman.
All of us who worked with Don found it easy to respect him. Not only was he great at what he did, he was also very humble about it. I haven't spoken with him in more years than either of us would care to remember, but even after having worked with such diverse acts as John Mellencamp, Barbara Streisand, REM, and now Hootie And The Blowfish, Don is still a gentleman.
Where did you grow up?
How old were you when you first knew that you wanted to go into the music business?
What was it that got you interested in being in the business?
I was learning how to play electric bass in a rock band that I had just joined. I was the only guy in the band that could figure out how to run the PA system, and gradually worked my way into the whole electronics thing, and figured out what makes sound systems work.
What was your first real job in the business?
I was Sound Engineer for Claire Brothers Audio.
How long were you with them?
What kind of gigs did you do for them?
I did live sound for pretty much everyone of that era (circa early 70's). The Four Seasons, The Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, James Brown, Loggins and Messina, Stephen Stills, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago...
That's pretty substantial. Did you ever work with anybody famous, Don?!
I'll have to work on that.
How did you make the transition from live sound guy to studio engineer?
Stephen Stills was very instrumental in that. I had been on the road for about seven years - off and on. Well, actually, quite consistently for about three years, I and was getting pretty burned out. The conditions working on the road in the seventies were really horrible. Nothing like it is today. I just felt that if I was going to live, I'd better find myself another job. I started asking around. Stephen mentioned he was working at Caribou Studios in Colorado on a new solo album, and needed some help.
What was the name of that album?
I remember it well. A jar of home brew on the cover, right?
If I remember correctly, Stephen took you in the studio and kind of locked the door and the two of you didn't emerge for a week or something, is the story?
That's pretty much the way it happened.
How did you make the transition from engineer to producer?
Actually, it was more of a transition from producer to engineer, 'cause the first thing that I did, he (Stills) actually gave me a co-production credit on. Quite frankly, the quality of that record was so poor that it scared me right out of the producing business, and into the engineering business. The engineering thing was actually something that was pretty easy for me, because that's what I had been doing for years. I didn't know how to make a record, but I knew how to run that equipment from being on the road.
I put the producing business on the back shelf, and decided I'd better work with people that knew what they were doing, as much as possible. That's kind of what the next few years were. I'd gotten a job at Criteria Studios in Miami as an engineer. I didn't have to work my way up through the ranks, per se, because of my experience on the road. I was also bringing in clients, and that gave me little bit of clout. But I really didn't know what I was doing. I learned whatever I could from every producer who came into the studio. Some of them were the best in the business--Tom Dowd, Phil Ramone, and Bill Sczymczyk, just to name a few.
Have you seen a shift in the producer's role in the last decade?
Yeah! Actually I have. It's kind of been back to the way it used to be. Especially in the last few years. The idea that a producer and engineer all rolled into one person is once again considered to be a good package. That's what I've been doing for the last few years. Before that, I used to try and market myself strictly as a producer. I was trying to break out of the mold of being known only as an engineer. I think the alternative "movement" and it's smaller budgets and indie labels have probably helped bring the producer/engineer back to the fore.
Do you spend more time in pre-production and less time in the studio these days than in the past?
Probably. I don't spend too much time in pre-production, but I think that's mostly a function of me choosing projects that are pretty much ready to go. It's not so much that I wouldn't spend the time on pre-production work, but frequently much of it's already been done. And yes, I used to spend three to four months on average making a record, and now I spend about five to seven weeks making a record.
How much of that time is spent on cutting tracks, how much on overdubs and how much on mixing, in general?
I spend about a day per song making the records, and about a day per song mixing.
Do you work on arrangements with the bands?
It depends. I'm capable. Yeah, I mean ... well, with Hootie, we worked on arrangements. We made things shorter... Yeah. I do. It just depends. My style has always been to fix what needs fixing, and If things are working, I usually leave them alone. If I see a song hidden inside of something, I'll re-arrange it. But I'll tell you, within the confines of time that we all have to work in these days, things are more and more frequently taken on face value. I select projects 'cause I like the songs, and that usually means I like the way they are. So I don't change things that much.
With a new band or artist, does the producer or the label call more shots these days regarding which songs are going to get cut? Or is it the band?
I'd say it's a joint decision.
Are bands today better prepared when they go into the studio because they have access to home studios for prep work?
That probably helps - it certainly doesn't hurt. Everybody that's a songwriter has a home studio... a four-track or whatever. I'm sure they play a role in writing tunes and making demos.
You mentioned earlier that you choose projects that are fairly close to being ready to go. How do you choose a band? How do people find you? Can you elaborate on that for our readers?
A couple of different ways. My manager, Sandy Roberton sees just about everything that there is to see. Whether it's signed or unsigned. He knows the kind of things that we might be looking for. We try to keep a balance in the type of projects I work on... things that we think are commercial, versus things that we think might be interesting creatively. Or acts that are established that would be good for me to be involved in, like the Tracy Chapman record I just finished. A little bit of all of those things. Every now and then, established artists will request me because of my reputation.
They just don't know you all that well, right?
That's right. But I squeak by.
I'll leave that out of the interview. What are some key elements your dream home studio might consist of?
That's a tough one. I don't have a dream home studio, Michael. It's not exactly something that I'd want to have.
I don't mean to bring bands into your life at home, but if you were going to fire up a room for you as a writer , what kind of console would you buy? What kind of tape machine? Your six favorite mics? That sort of thing?
Well, in a perfect world, I'd have a barn, with a live room, and four iso booths. I already have a collection of tube mics, that are pretty much my work horses. I want to use a Euphonics console. Probably a Studer 2" analog tape machine. Oh yeah, and a rack of old Pultec MEQ's.
Hmmm... a man with expensive, but good, taste. When a label's considering signing a new band, will they call you first to see if you're interested in producing the band? Or do they sign them and then track you down?
Usually, it's the latter. I have people who call me that want me to be part of a "package", but I try to avoid those situations. It's not a good thing for me to be part of the band's signability. I don't think it's good for anybody. I'm very interested in working with new acts, but I find it's best to work with acts that have full commitment from the record label. This is a gray area.
I want people to know that I'm very accessible to new bands. In fact, I prefer working with new acts to existing ones. In some ways, an existing act is a liability in this world today. We've all pretty much seen the industry turn right upside down on it's head. Where Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp are not having the success that they once did, and there's a new bunch of kids on the block.
How involved does the A & R person get with the actual sessions?
Usually very little. There are different styles of A & R'ing. I'd like to take whatever I can from any and all sides. A & R people definitely have opinions, and they're involved in the choice of material, but they usually don't get very involved in the recording process other than maybe bouncing ideas around for a particular track....whether this version is the right one or not. That's about it.
Is it a lot more work to engineer and produce, than just being a producer, or do you find that wearing both hats is more efficient and gives you more control?
Second one. I'll take "B" please.
Are aspiring artists better off trying to get their tapes to an A & R person or to a producer that they would like to work with?
I'd say neither. You're better off looking for probably a lawyer or a manager.
Why is that?
Because, it's gotten to the point now where the A & R people are so inundated with unsolicited material, that they just ignore it all. In order to for you to get anybody to listen to it, it needs to have an invitation. People who have invitations are people who already know the person that you might want to get it to. In most cases those are lawyers or managers... people who already are connected with the A & R community and know how to place bands with particular A & R people. That's where I see the most success.
Do you personally accept unsolicited tapes, or does your manager accept unsolicited tapes on your behalf?
I don't know.
Is it safe to say that virtually every tape that you get, comes from your manager or somebody you know well in the industry?
Pretty much. I don't publish my address. Let's put it that way.
Okay, I won't publish your phone number.
How did you end up working with Hootie? Can you elaborate on the process of how Sandy found out about that?
Well, my career was kind of in a slump. I was looking for a way to work into this whole alternative, new band movement. Figuring it was not much different than what I had been doing for a long time. I was making the rounds of new A & R people, that I had yet to meet. One of them was Tim Sommer, who had just signed Hootie to Atlantic. He wasn't sure yet if they wanted to remix an existing CD the band had made, or make a new one. He thought that I might be interested in the band. The band had already expressed an interest in me. He played me the tape, and I liked it. They sent me off to meet with the band.
Did you see the band perform live at all before you worked with them.
What did you think of them?
I thought they were really good. I heard a lot more songs which showed me that there was good songwriting there. Seeing a band live is a great way to get to know the personalities involved. That's what that whole experience is usually all about. As you're working with young talent, it's pretty raw. And what you're seeing is whether or not the personalities are such that you feel you can all work together. You're seeing if the chemistry is right. You might see another element that you didn't get by just listening to the music on a demo tape. In Hootie's case, it was all there. A really nice bunch of guys. In fact, an excellent bunch of guys. Just as good as it gets.
Is it easier to work with a self-contained band than it is to work with a solo artist?
A little bit, yeah.
For what reasons?
When you're working with a solo artist, you're working with someone's supreme vision. Therefore, there's very little room for your own vision. When you work with a band, the supreme vision is the one which is the collective consciousness of the band. It's not anyone's total vision. It's a vision of a group of people together. A producer in that role actually has more freedom to interpret the collective vision than he has with an individual vision. So yes, working with a band is more fun.
Are there any common mistakes that you see young bands make all too frequently?
They work too hard. I find that with young bands, it's often just like the neurotic energy of a first child. It's very similar. You tend, through your nervousness and fear, to overlook the charm of the first performance. If they relax and allow all that "stuff" to happen, and if they're talented, a lot great stuff can come through. But young bands have a tendency to think that nothing's any good. They want to do it over and over. They work too hard. Consequently things get destroyed that are worth a great deal. I spend more time with new bands, taking first performances, and making them come together by just patching them up.
Do you think it's easier or harder now for a new producer to break into the business than it has been in the past?
Probably easier. I would say easier, because there are more opportunities. There's more going on in this business than there was when I started. There's more money. There are more labels. There are more records.
Still only 100 slots on the chart.
But that's not really true! There are a lot more charts. There are more radio stations. There are more format. We didn't have R & B, Country, Alternative, Triple-A, CHR, and College. We just had Rock.
Is it true that Hootie did about 300 dates a year for several years before Atlantic signed them?
What advice would you pass along to the fledgling producers who will read this interview?
Just keep working at it. That's really all it takes. That stick-to-it'iveness. Some people in this world are lucky, and they get there quicker, but if you keep on hammering away at it, and you're talented, sooner or later something will crack.
What advice would you give to a fledgling band trying to get themselves a deal?
Find a good manager.
Where should they start looking?
That's a good question. I don't know. Maybe I should change my advice. Write good songs, and then find a good manager.
Any sage advice for songwriters?
Write from your heart.
If you had it all to do over again. Is there anything you'd do differently in your career?
I don't think so. You know. I'm sure that things could have been different if I had maybe grown up quicker. But I've got to believe that life is what it is, and we all come through life in an order as it should be. It's all a growth process. That's really what we're all here for anyhow. The rest of the stuff is kind of an excuse for being around.