The Hole Truth

I recall the conversation as if it were yesterday: “You really need to produce this band. They’re going to be HUGE!”

Bruce Pavitt, one of the two principals at SubPop Records, was calling me from Seattle, long-distance, back in the day when long-distance was enough of a big deal that folks jockeyed for position to be the recipient, not the originator, of the phone call. Long distance was expensive enough that I have a hazy recollection of budgeting $400/month for my phone bill–and a very clear recollection of asking record company execs to call me back if I was working outside California, so that they would pick up the tab after the conversation went beyond a few minutes.

“Michael, I love the work you did with L7–you really captured their soul and energy. Plus, you’ve proven that you can work well with girl groups.  You’ll be a perfect fit for these gals.  They’re heavy and arty. They call themselves Whole,” said Bruce.

“Right on, Bruce,” I responded. “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m curious, though… How did you know that I’m a vegan, granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, yoga-practicing hippy at heart?” Man, did I totally misread the pitch! I thought Bruce was pitching me on an equality-of-the-sexes, self-realized New Age Metal group that perhaps sharpened their used razor blades under glass pyramids in the energy vortex of Sedona.

“Uh… I didn’t know that about you, MJ,” said Bruce. “Let’s start over. There’s nothing holistic about this band. It’s a grungy girl band, without a “W” in their name. It’s just Hole. It’s a girl band. Hole… Figure it out, buddy. Got it now?”

We made a deal. I was excited to begin working with the gals, and finally the first tracking date arrived. I had no idea that my world was about to change.

To fully understand this story, one must be aware of the context. In November 1990, we were still feeling the effects of the ’80s, which included big hair, Lycra Spandex pants, shoulder pads and knit leg warmers inappropriately sported outside the dance studio. In the recording studio, bigger was better: multi-tracked instrument overdubs, long vocal echoes, and perhaps most conspicuously, massive drum sounds with electronic Simmons drums to beef up the tom-toms, and “gated” reverb made famous on the Phil Collins hit “In The Air Tonight.

A typical way to record a commercial rock band would begin by striping a 2″ reel of magnetic analog tape with SMPTE (pronounced “simptee”) time code. SMPTE enabled us to synchronize multiple tape decks and computer based sequencers. (Anybody remember swapping a small stack of floppy disks to load Opcode Vision or MOTU Performer in a $4000 Macintosh SE with 1 MB RAM? That’s not a typo–one megabyte was state of the art!) The sequencer contained “sequences” of MIDI information, which was used in order to print to tape a click track (metronome pulse) and multiple keyboard tracks and drum samples that were performed and edited during preproduction. It was actually pretty cool to connect your Mac to a tall rack of synthesizer, sampler and drum machine modules, and listen to a dozen or more premixed and pre-panned stereo parts being triggered live to two tracks of a 24 track tape recorder! This was a huge time saver: we could do in five minutes what used to take days.

The good news is that we could then blow the entire savings on recording one musician at a time, in isolation, without the other band members. (Yes, you do detect more than a hint of sarcasm.) The pinnacle of this practice was to record one drum at a time. No, not one drummer–one drum! It should be easy to find video of Mick Fleetwood in the studio, recording a kick drum to the click track, before moving on to the other elements of the drum set, one piece at a time. I guess the thought was that isolation would allow us to surgically deploy the gated reverb effect to specific elements like kick, snare and toms, while avoiding the cymbals. Or perhaps it was to get the best possible performance of each part and subpart of the record. Or to sound like a precise machine, devoid of human imperfections…and feel. The (real, not sarcastic) good news was that we had a new benchmark for sonic clarity; the bad news was that we had no idea if our record would feel good until we heard all the overdubs together, which might require several days per song.

The previous old-school way to record a band was to have the musicians perform live together in the same room, or at least in isolation booths with line of sight to one another. Even if we might want to add copious overdubs later, we knew immediately if the we had a record that felt good. If the basic tracks–the foundation–got everybody excited, we could proceed to the next task.  If not, we would simply record additional takes until we got one that we liked, or a few partials that we could edit together into a righteous composite take.

Enter Hole. Four musicians, three of them women. I introduced myself and asked them about their music so that I could determine where to set them up in the studio. Radio Tokyo Studio was a small cottage in Venice Beach, California, converted to a carpet cave den of musical discovery. Due to SubPop’s limited budget, I already knew that I had to capture the band as “live” as possible, without resorting to tedious overdubs, so inspiration was the name of the game. And I knew that we needed to get the band into the inspiration zone quickly.

Hole’s excellent guitarist, Eric Erlandson, had a couple surprises for me. First, he was a guy. Not that it mattered, but Bruce Pavitt repeatedly referred to the group as a girl band. Second, and more important, was the fact that he was a sonic sculptor with a vision. He showed me his rat’s nest of stompbox pedal FX at his feet, precariously DIY connected, without regard for impedance or noise issues. My first thought was, “Uh oh,” and the second was, “We better tidy up the mess of cables before somebody trips on them and sues the studio.”

Eric then asked one of the most pivotal, game-changer questions I’ve ever heard: “Should I use my cheap FX, or shall I unplug them and use your expensive, hi-fi, rack-mounted studio effects?”

I asked, “Do you like your tone? Is there a reason you want to change your sound?” As enlightened as my reply seems, it was in large part the result of a pragmatic consideration. Eric had a dozen pedals connected in series. Delays, reverb, fuzz, distortion, overdrive, chorus, flanger, tremolo, etc. Frankly, I wouldn’t know where to start, and I could imagine us slipping down the rabbit hole in pursuit of an artistic (as opposed to traditional) effects-laden guitar tone. We simply didn’t have the budget to risk going there.

Fortunately, Eric said, “I love my tone!”

MJ: “Okay, let’s hear it.”

EE: (Plays some riffs that are nearly indecipherable through the wall of art-noise.) “What do you think?”

MJ: “I think that your tone is unique, and I’m not convinced that I could beat it with the expensive studio stuff. Let’s start with your pedals. When I hear your sound in the context of the band, I’ll tell you if I have any suggestions for improvement. Cool?”

EE: “Wow, that’s awesome! You’re the first person who has ever allowed me to record with my sound. Thank you!”

Although I didn’t understand Eric’s textural sound in a vacuum, I must say that in context it truly enhanced the emotional impact of the songs. It beautifully complemented Courtney Love’s urgent rhythmic drive. My world changed in an instant. No longer would I complicate the process simply because it was expected. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I would henceforth take the path of least resistance and be open to serendipity.

So… What about Courtney? Is she talented, or did all the good stuff come from Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan? I’ve been asked those questions for years.

I still remember the day I met Ms. Love. She had a sense of style, perhaps one that could be called Thrift Store Chic. Green crushed velvet sundress over a white T-shirt, paired with white bobby socks and black Doc Martin oxford shoes, not the logger’s boots, nor the flannel shirt, that would soon become de regeur for Seattle’s music scene.

While we were setting up the band’s equipment, Courtney’s conversation was mostly quiet and understated, and had little to do with music. She talked about how she was being portrayed on Page 3 of the British tabloids, thanks to her celebrity status gained from her acting role in the film Sid and Nancy. And then I heard her sing.  Holy cow!

SubPop didn’t mail me any demo tapes before the recording sessions, so I had no idea what to expect, other than the band was a gritty Hole, not a New Age, bliss-ninny, colon-cleansed Whole. I knew that this band was important to Mr. Pavitt, so I signed up for the job. Anyway, I pressed Record, and the band fell into a trancelike atmospheric mood piece with quiet vocals. The sonic texture was so hypnotic that I became totally relaxed, at one with my studio chair behind the console. I wondered if this was similar to the experience of ingesting magic mushrooms or other hallucinogens. I became the chair–with a human head. Whoa… what a trip!

And then the SCREEEEAAAAMMMM happened, completely without warning! I swear to you that I nearly launched like a rocket from my chair-body-thing. Felt like I was lucky to have not cracked open my skull on the carpeted ceiling. Almost had a heart attack.  I heard myself say, “This is truly epic!” And it was. Courtney’s intense delivery made me actually feel something from the band’s music. (I find it interesting that, 25 years later, Adele’s “Hello” is the current poster child for vocal performances with conviction. Super Producer Michael Beinhorn, who produced Hole’s successful Celebrity Skin and is a beacon of truth about the current state of the record business, might have some intriguing then vs. now thoughts. Check out his excellent blog, How To Save Popular Music.)

Courtney definitely had talent. As I wrote earlier, her rhythm guitar playing drove the band. Not fancy, but visceral. Her vocal performance got my body moving, quite literally. She and Eric were writing about rape, incest, child molestation and women taking the blame despite being the victims. I knew she was going to be a rockstar the moment we met. Frankly, she already was a rockstar, only the world didn’t yet know it.

As a postscript, I’ll mention the sad news that sometimes there is a hefty price tag attached to talent. Artists often see our world from a different perspective than the mainstream populace. According to the media, Courtney had her demons, which she attempted to vanquish with chemical assistance. I cannot personally confirm this because she wasn’t high during the “Dicknail” and “Burnblack” recording sessions, but I can say that her one of her husbands, who was a VP of A&R at Geffen Records, personally told me that there was a five year period of the ’90s that had become “a blank” for Courtney, completely erased from her memory. The guy was still happily married to her at the time, so he wasn’t bashing his wife. We shared a rare moment of silence (well, rare in the context of an A&R meeting) contemplating how sad it was for someone so young to flush such a big percentage of life experience down the chute. Fame ain’t easy.

MJ Puerto Rico guitar 1986
The ’80s were good to me. Arecibo, Puerto Rico, 1986.
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Fly Your Freak Flag! (Thoughts on Nirvana, Adele, Innovation and Emulation)

Rosie goofing off, having a blast!

Sometimes you just have to let go of whatever “the grownup you” thinks you should do, and instead do what “the happy you” wants to do.  Kids, just like Rosie The Studio Cat, are full of awe and wonder; adults, including most recording artists and technicians, are shackled by heavy responsibilities and the need to fit in. 

Uniqueness is much more interesting than conformity. When we march (or dance) to the beat of our own drummer, we show the world our true selves, unique individuals who are probably a lot like the children we once were. Those kids knew how to have fun. 

When we have fun—even if we’re digging ditches—we attract other likeminded people. If we show the world who we are, we’re likely to attract others who have the same taste we do. Some folks will love us, and others won’t. Focus on those who already do. 
This is especially true in the record business and the arts in general. Innovators, not emulators, are the ones with longevity. Remember Nirvana? Of course you do. But what about Candlebox? 

Nirvana didn’t predict the next trend and tailor their sound to it—they were a unique badass band with great songs and a fresh sound that would inspire the birth of Modern Rock. A great artist doesn’t follow the trends, it sets them. Kurt Cobain spoke for a generation of folks who were going through the same shit as he was. He connected with his fans, the folks who loved him. Damn those who didn’t. Life is too short. 

Believe it or not, Nirvana was not universally adored at the time. Seattle’s scene was hot, with Soundgarden and SubPop, but Grunge music was for bands who weren’t real musicians. (Not my opinion, but the prevailing one in the early ’90s.) Nonetheless, Cobain’s songs were indeed radio friendly unit shifters, so countless emulators emerged. 

Beyond the obligatory flannel shirts, the signature formula included massive dynamic shifts. Quiet verses exploded into bombastic fuzzed out choruses. In contrast to the harmonic devices and voice leading of great songwriters of the time, like Neil Finn of Crowded House, the emulator bands often created tension and release without any change to the chord progression such as going to the relative minor or major chord. They simply stepped on the Big Muff fuzz pedal as the drummer bashed quarter notes on the crash cymbals. Perhaps primitive, but it worked. Especially for Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, who had similar sounds, but were very different bands. (Check out the Pumpkins’ chord progression of “1979”—it uses harmonic resolution to create the sense of release into the chorus.)

Formulaic trend following, however, is not the path to a long career. Go ahead and pay tribute to your influences, but distill their essences through your own filter, and incorporate them into your art in unique novel ways. Dozens of major label bands in Nirvana’s wake learned this lesson the hard way. Trust me: I was head of A&R at Warner/Discovery, and I passed on literally hundreds of competent bands because they all sounded the same! They were good, but Nirvana was better. And Nirvana came first. 

Anything unique was a breath of fresh air, so that’s what stood out from the blur. When I say unique, I don’t imply batshit craziness that doesn’t fit into a pre-existing genre. I’m talking about something that’s 90% familiar and 10% unique or fresh. Adele’s new single, “Hello”, is a current example of this 90/10 concept. To folks my age, the sound is nothing new, but the conviction with which Adele sings is brilliant, and it makes the song believable. It feels honest, not formulaic, so it will be a big hit. It stands out from the blur and it resonates with listeners, so they will actually pay real money for it. 

As a parting thought, you don’t have to try to make friends if you just be yourself. Those who are meant to love you will organically find you. You can’t please all the people all the time, so be an innovator, not an emulator. Live your own life and make your own art, not someone else’s. You’re welcome. 

Rosie completely relaxed, with her goofball human guardian and his freakishly sexy giraffe print yoga pants.