Interview with Producer Michael Beinhorn
From Ultimate-guitar.com Interview by Steven Rosen
When I call producer Michael Beinhorn at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, he answers immediately. But his voice is a little bit muddy and indistinct so I ask him if he’s on a speakerphone, which tends to make for a bad phone connection. He tells me he is not but that much to his chagrin has recently discovered the headphone jack of his new iPhone 6 isn’t working. I am more amused by this than bothered by it. A man who makes his living with sounds – the sound whisperer – is now talking to me over a distorted phone line. I find it funny.
But what isn’t funny is the body of work Beinhorn has created. A talented keyboardist in his own right, he was a longtime musical partner with bassist Bill Laswell. He’d ultimately end up working on Herbie Hancock‘s “Future Shock” album and most notably co-writing “Rockit,” a key track in introducing hip hop to a broader market.
He’d go on to work on albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“The Uplift Mofo Party Plan“; “Mother’s Milk“), Soundgarden (“Superunknown“), Marilyn Manson (“Mechanical Animals“) and others. Along the way, he’d run headfirst into situations where he had to deal not only with musical elements but personal ones as well.
“You’re dealing with a situation that’s just fraught with all sorts of intrigue and potential and roadblocks even,” Beinhorn says about the production process. “Because you’re not just talking about people who come into the room with a unified vision in mind. You’re talking about the neuroses and the personal agendas. You’re talking about the personal relationships of everybody in the scope of that particular project coming together and working.”
Here in this lengthy and funny discussion, the producer/engineer/mixer talks about those records, his unique approach to production and why a good album hasn’t been made in 20 years.
MB: His job by definition although there doesn’t seem to be an established one is to be the person who helps focus on the artist’s vision as much as he possibly can. There are a few cases where he’s obviously trying to add his some of his own [ideas] in there as well where it’s pertinent to the artist’s vision.
A producer is a facilitator?
Whenever you’re in a roomful of creative musicians, anything can happen. You have all these things happening at once and it’s a pretty heady brew. What’s interesting to me is not so much that there are problems on a recording project but that a recording project ever gets completed successfully. You look back and go, “Holy crap. That’s good.”
That is absolutely true.
I have a friend who had the same analogy about cellphones and stuff like that because I used to b-tch and moan about how mine didn’t work. He was like, “I just think it’s a miracle when they do,” hahaha. This is tough.
You made a comment online about how you’ve had to fire drummers along the way. Certainly those weren’t easy decisions to make but in the end you were just serving the vision. Right?
This is tough. I just feel like I have to be ready to turn on a dime. My responsibility though and I always have to try and keep this in mind is first and foremost to the process. To me the process supersedes even the recording project itself and for that matter sometimes the desires of the artist. I’m not gonna say the needs of the artist because the desires and needs are two completely separate things.
You don’t try and give an artist whatever he desires?
Sometimes what the artist thinks he wants is not the same as what he needs, hahaha. That’s why a person like me in this sense is in the mix to be able to help him make that distinction. Or to be able to at least help him refine what he’s doing to the extent where he can look back and go, “Oh, sh-t. That’s what I was trying to do.”
You must truly understand what a musician wants – or needs – because you are also a very adept keyboard player.
Well, don’t get carried away with that.
Your early career was spent playing keyboards with bassist player Bill Laswell, right?
Yeah. I met Bill when I was about 17 and we just started jamming around together with a couple of other friends. We created this group Material and eventually started playing gigs around New York. We managed to rub shoulders with a lot of really legendary and luminary people in the whole downtown New York scene. So I feel very fortunate to have done that.
Who were some of those people?
Along the way, we did work with Brian Eno. We were gonna have a pop band basically with Brian. It was me, Fred Marr who was the drummer, Bill on bass and Bob Klein who played guitar with Richard Hell and the Voidoids. So it was kind of an all-star downtown music thing.
You were playing live with Eno?
We just played these jams. One day we came to the studio and Brian was all despondent because one of his records had come out and he’d gotten not-such-great reviews and he decided he didn’t want to make rock music anymore. We did an ambient record instead, which was “On Land,” the fourth of his ambient series, and there was a song on there called “Lizard Point” and that’s the one Bill and I are on.
What happened after working with Eno?
We did a couple of records with a woman named Nona Hendryx who had been in Labelle. It was a bunch of stuff like that. Then we got to work with David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and people from the GoGos.
You worked with Daevid Allen from Gong?
Oh, that was much earlier. We did a New York Gong [offshoot of Gong] record [“About Time“]. We actually toured the country and that was our first big tour in an old beat up school bus we drove from one end of the country to the other. It broke down many times along the way and was quite an adventure actually.
It sounds like your original pursuit was to be a keyboard player in a band and not a producer.
Not a keyboard player; really more of a synthesizer player because I was more drawn towards the sounds. I didn’t really care so much for tonal stuff, hahaha. I had a little Micro Moog like a real cheap synthesizer and that’s really what I started playing. It was basically using the synthesizer as more of a texture in a band and you could get away with stuff like that back then. Not having a whole lot of gear and playing in a band. So, yeah, that was really the start. I did a lot of programming with modular systems in the city [New York] so I gradually built my skills up in that department.
So originally it was going to be a career as a musician versus a career as a producer?
Well, here’s the thing. You didn’t really think that far ahead. At the beginning of this, I was like a teenager. I’m not thinking about a career. I’d just left home and I had to money and I was basically living in other people’s houses and kind of scraping by on whatever I could. I was just thinking about what I was gonna do tomorrow. I had no idea what I was gonna do for the rest of my life.
Nobody really knows what they’re going to do when they’re that young.
Actually to tell you the truth, I was thinking I might be a medical illustrator but my grades in school weren’t good enough so I couldn’t.
In 1979, you record “Temporary Music,” which was the first Material album. Are there influences of King Crimson and Capt. Beefheart in there?
Hahaha. Anywhere in there is applicable. Certainly we were listening to stuff like that. There’s a lot of other stuff that would have been influential too. I loved some of the King Crimson records and definitely the Beefheart records are outstanding.
Eddy Offord [Yes] engineered that record?
I think that’s pushing it a little bit. Eddy Offord did that because he was a friend of Giorgio Gomelsky [produced the album and was manager of the Yardbirds]. Giorgio was basically the person under whose aegis Bill and I met up because it was his place we were jamming at. So Giorgio really provided us the space to get together and do what we were doing. He knew Eddy and somehow wheedled some time out of him. I think it was Levon Helm’s studio but we recorded it on Eddy’s live system. Whatever he was using when he went out on the road with Yes.
That sounds cool.
It was pretty interesting actually. I don’t quite remember what it was but it was definitely some custom job.
What was that like working with Eddy Offord?
The thing is that all Eddy did was put some mics up and then he’d kind of leave us alone and Giorgio made us some meatballs. I think at that point we were like, “Do we even need people to do this? Maybe we can do it ourselves.” That’s kind of how that went.
Then in 1983 you do Herbie Hancock’s “Future Shock” album with “Rockit” on it. That song would kind of introduce hip hop to a much larger audience. How did you get involved with that?
This was sort of a shot in the dark more or less. We kind of had all the free reign we wanted to do whatever we wanted. So we created this track for Herbie and free-associated it a little bit. We tried to imagine what it would be like if the guy who had this illustrious career working with Miles Davis and was one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time and probably the pioneer of electronic in jazz music, had continued on that particular career trajectory minus all the sappy pop records he’d made along the way.
That’s how you approached the writing of “Rockit”?
Yeah, and coming face-to-face at one point with hip hop music, which was in its nascent days at that point. That’s the basis on which we created the first two tracks, one of which was “Rockit” and the other was called “Autodrive.”
That was an amazing way to create that track.
We got it over to Herbie in Los Angeles and most of it was finished except all the top line stuff [melodic lines]. We built the rhythm track; we did all the scratching and the percussion; all the bass. All the middle noises that are on the track at our studio in Brooklyn. Then we went to LA. To work with Herbie.
What did Herbie think when he heard the track?
When we got there, I think he wasn’t really prepared. He kind of rolled with it a little bit. He was a little bit like a deer in the headlights the whole time though. He didn’t really know what to make of it ’cause it really was outside of his purview to be fair. I just remember myself, Herbie and Laswell standing outside Herbie’s backyard studio for about 15 or 20 minutes humming a melody until we came up with the melody for “Rockit.”
The melody was written the three of you?
It’s pretty much what he wound up playing.
That incredible melody just came out of three brilliant minds working together?
Did you know as the melody was developing that it had something special?
There was something definitely. I didn’t make it with the intent of, “We’re making a hit record.” But you can always feel if a piece of music has a certain kind of vitality. It starts living and breathing on its own even before it’s finished.
I’ve heard that description before.
You just know that and this piece of music definitely had that. It was the kind of thing where I always like to listen to something I’m working on like, “You know what? It doesn’t matter what happens with this. I love this. I think it’s brilliant. Something about it feels amazing to me.”
That’s how you felt about “Rockit”?
“Rockit” definitely had that. It’s funny because it was the standout. I really liked the other song too but it just didn’t have the same kind of vibe to it. It certainly didn’t have the same kind of quirkiness either.
“Rockit” won the Best R&B Instrumental at the 26th Annual Grammy Awards in 1984. You’d been writing for a while but it still must have felt amazing.
Not that long then. That was like five years of playing synthesizer in a band and before that pretty much messing around in my house with a synthesizer for a few years prior and not really knowing much of what I was doing. So it was quite a leap from this kid who’s not really having any clear path in life to getting a Grammy and having the biggest-selling 12″ in Columbia’s history.
This was early days for hip hop but this song really did make the genre much more popular, right?
It focused a lot of attention on hip hop and there’s no question about it. I think the other piece of music that really did that was “Buffalo Gals,” the song Trevor Horn did with Malcolm McLaren. I think it came out a year or so before our song did  but the two don’t really resemble each other.
Not at all.
The other similarity is they’re both hippity hoppity more or less. It’s interesting because two things came out of “Rockit.” First of all the track and the awareness it focused on hip hop. And the other thing was it was the first actual use of the fresh scratch on a recording.
Talk about how the fresh scratch happened?
I actually created it two-years prior and not realizing it was gonna become the most used sound in hip hop music. It was just kind of a way to fill in the space really. It was at the end of that “Change the Beat” song by Fab Five Freddy. We were just gonna put something in and someone suggested and I can’t remember who actually but me or Bill suggested let’s have someone say, “Ah, this stuff is really fresh.”
That’s so funny.
I hooked up the Vocorder [a device that sort of reproduces human speech] and we had this guy who was working for us go, “Ah, this stuff is really fresh-h-h” into the mic and I just made a random sound on the OBX-A. I just put my hand down and it could never be replicated this way and that was it.
It was just a random sound you picked.
That was it. Then it got used and that’s when Grand Mixer DXT used it on “Rockit” and then everyone else started scratching with it. It was really funny actually and I was like, “What?”
In 1987, you went in the studio with the Red Hot Chili Peppers to do the “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan” album. Was that your first significant production?
I’d done a couple on my own after I left Material but they weren’t really any major things to speak of. I feel like they were more my fledgling attempt to strike out on my own as a producer.
What was that like being in there with the Chili Peppers? Certainly you knew their background and the music they’d made previously?
I didn’t really, hahaha. I remember hearing them one time on the radio and going, “Oh, this is kind of interesting.” But then I later realized I had been listening to the wrong song. I thought I had been listening to a Chili Peppers song when it was actually a Jim Foetus song, hahaha. I had no idea what the Chili Peppers sounded like until sometime played the demo.
What did you think when you finally heard the band?
At that point I was kind of like, “OK. It’s messy but it could be worthwhile.”
Anthony Kiedis was going through a heavy heroin addiction at the time so that must have made those sessions pretty hard, right?
It was interesting because it was really what I needed more than anything at that point in time. It was a true baptism by fire. I went from being someone with very, very little experience as a record producer [into a project like this]. I remember going around to people and trying to get them to hire me. One guy said, “To hire you on a record right now, Michael, would be a crapshoot.” I was like, “What?” but in hindsight the guy was not wrong. I didn’t really know what I was doing.
What were those sessions like?
Here I am with this band that basically their record label can’t stand. On top of that, the minute I land to go to work with these guys – I can’t remember who it was who picked me up and I think actually Jack Irons picked me up at the airport – someone along the way casually mentioned, “By the way, two of the guys have got little drug problems.”
That must have freaked you out?
I was kinda like, “Oh.” I was a naive, innocent young man and I’m not sure what this means. I figured, “Well, maybe they’re smoking a little too much pot or they’re doing a little too much coke.” It turns out I’m smack dab in the middle of dealing with a semi-functional and a completely non-functional heroin addict, hahahaha.
There were two guys on heroin?
One of the guys was Hillel [Slovak] who was shooting dope. I think he did it to the extent where he was able to kind of go to work and at least show up and do stuff. But Anthony was absolutely AWOL. He wouldn’t show up for weeks at a time.
Yeah, it was bad. When he did, he would come into the studio and his face would be green. He was all pockmarked from scratching and stuff. He’d have a bag of candy with him and be there for like 20 minutes and go into the bathroom and get sick and leave.
How did you get through that?
It was really tough. It was really tough and it really kind of put me in a high, high stress environment very, very fast. I don’t really recommend that to most people but to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, “No man winds up in situations he can’t handle.”
Thank you. Again, I wasn’t expecting miracles out of the thing. I was like, “If we can just get through this and everyone is alive at the end of it.” I was like, “I have to make it as good as possible.” I wanted to get them as far away from being too self-indulgent.
What do you mean?
I felt that was one of the things that had plagued them in the past. That they really were not focused on account they used all their influences in a very diffuse kind of way. There wasn’t a focused band sound to them. I thought it was really important to try and find ways to distill what they were doing.
You did push them into different areas to try different musical ideas?
Just in some ways simplify it more and focus it as much as possible.
They must have liked what you did because they bring you back two years later to do the “Mother’s Milk” album.
All of a sudden the band dynamic had changed considerably. You’ve eliminated two key people in the band [Slovak died of a heroin overdose and close friend Jack Irons left because he couldn’t deal with his friend’s death] who are part of this network of friends and some of whom have known each other since before high school. I’m pretty sure most of them went to high school together [Fairfax High School]. They all knew each other from the time they were pretty young so that creates a really, really profound dynamic amongst people. Sometimes it’s a dynamic that keeps people in a really good place and sometimes you might be able to do better.
When John Frusciante and Chad Smith came in on the “Mother’s Milk” album, that really changed the dynamic in the band?
Chad was very experienced as a drummer and he was extremely good. It’s so funny because I had to twist those guy’s arms to hire him too.
Is that right?
They wouldn’t do it, hahahah. They were just hemming and hawing because he was too rock ‘n’ roll for them. I was like, “You’ve gotta be joking. This is the absolute best drummer that’s been into audition and probably the best you’ve played with in the last two years. You’re crazy if you don’t hire this person. Someone is gonna snatch him up in a heartbeat.”
That’s amazing the band didn’t recognize Chad Smith’s talents from the beginning.
He looked all silly and he had a headband on. After a week, they were like, “OK.”
What was it like working with John Frusciante?
John is a different story. He was like this little kid. He was like 17-years old when he joined the Chili Peppers and he spent a lot of his time in his room at home with his mom. I’m pretty sure he’d taken lessons but he apparently sat around transcribing Steve Vai guitar solos for hours. He was a real muso.
Was Anthony Kiedis still doing heroin?
A lot of things had changed. Anthony had straightened out and there was a lot of animosity between him and Flea.
It didn’t help things at all. Yeah, it was really bad actually. They never dealt with it at all. They never went to one another and sat down and were like, “Look, dude. We’ve known each other too long for this to affect what we’re doing.” I really kind of had to keep the show going especially since the two principals, the two original guys in the band and one of whom was the singer, didn’t come to the studio ever.
Anthony and Flea wouldn’t come to the studio?
Hahaha. It was an interesting thing but it was funny because all of a sudden they were the cause at the record company. All of a sudden the president of the record company is going down to visit us at Ocean Way Studios and it’s like, “Oh, sh-t. He only does this for the really big artists. I guess he’s got a lot riding on these guys all of a sudden.” Through EMI Manhattan and they were expecting great things from them.
In 1991, you worked on the Violent Femmes’ “Why Do Birds Sing”? That’s an album that was maybe overlooked a bit in the wake of other alternative music records that were coming out at the time?
Thank you. That one wasn’t easy either.
Certainly the approach with the Violent Femmes was more acoustic-based and more of an organic approach?
It was more of an organic approach in some respects. In the end, we wound up doing things the old-fashioned way. The not old-fashioned way – we wound up overdubbing a lot of stuff. We originally wanted to do it so everything was playing in the same room but I don’t think they felt comfortable in the long run. It was a band who had a tremendous amount of success at the beginning of their career and it was starting to wane. I think they were a little bit embittered about that aspect of things.
That’s hard when you find success early and then can’t recreate it.
They seemed kind of jaded about the whole experience, which was unfortunate. Still a very talented band. It got funky sometimes, hahaha.
In 1994, you produced Soundgarden’s “Superunknown,” which is generally considered one of the best records ever made. Did you know much about the band when you started working with them?
One of my great assets is not knowing anything about the artists I’ve worked with before I work with them. It kind of gives me a really good perspective on it. I sort of like the idea of working with people whose music I don’t know so I don’t have too many pre-conceptions about it. Which is kind of difficult on the one hand especially if you want to stay versed in what’s popular. But I definitely as I said gives you a very unique perspective on stuff.
You didn’t know anything about Soundgarden?
I’d only heard one Soundgarden record. No, I’d heard two and the “Temple of the Dog” album.
What did you think?
I thought, “Yeah, it sounds really cool.” Then this record came up and I saw a really unique opportunity to work with a band who were probably going to explode.
You had that sense that Soundgarden were going to be big?
At that particular point in time, you could tell who was going to make a really successful record. The next record was gonna be really big and they were definitely the band. I just was like, “I wonder what would happen instead of resting on those laurels and just kind of going with it, we just amped it up.” Instead of being like, “Yeah, the next record will be good. It won’t be as good as the last one but they’ll probably sell a little bit more maybe ’cause everyone wants to hear a great Soundgarden record, what if this record is extraordinary?”
So there was no pressure – you just had to make an extraordinary record.
I guess we made it extraordinary, hahaha. A lot of work went into that obviously and it wasn’t just something that kind of happened.
Chris Cornell had said you were almost anal about the sounds?
There was a lot of times spent on sounds and layering?
I think they wanted to make a record really fast. I think that was one of the bases on which they hired me. I think they thought I was going to do a record them in a few weeks and it would be out and done and then they could go on tour and do whatever they wanted.
Soundgarden were in for a big surprise, right?
I think they made a mistake when they hired me, hahaha. They said, “This is not the guy we brought in to do our record at all.” I wanted to make something that was incredibly refined and had an immense amount of subtlety but had a message of extreme emotional intensity and even brutality. I wanted to create something that had as much subtext going on as well things happening on the surface.
How did you create that?
The only way to do that at least in my experience is to create subtlety. That is where the sonics came in. To me it was all about trying to hone the sound so that they precisely embodied an emotion effect. So that the combination of all the sounds together would amplify one another. They would play off one another and create this monumental effect.
Which is exactly what you created.
I think once we got in the flow of stuff, setting up amps and things like that happened a lot more quickly. There was really a lot of focus that went into exactly how this is gonna work sonically. Obviously the band were outside this conversation.
The band didn’t want to be involved in a discussion about sounds?
They didn’t really care and they wanted to make a quick record and I knew they weren’t gonna see what I saw. They were very p-ssed off about the mic I used and how far I got into recording drums and how far I got into trying to record guitars, bass and vocals.
Soundgarden didn’t have the patience for that?
The thing is if you listen to all the different elements on the record and in the band, there are things that if you didn’t try to depict them you wouldn’t know it. That’s the thing. You’d feel it though. It’s not something you could be conscious of.
What type of things?
For example, when Chris sings he lets go of a breath and it goes like ahh because he’s putting so much emphasis into that. Now if I record him with a microphone that only picked up the ahh on his voice – all the air, all the screaming and the notes – but doesn’t get that bottom thing, which is really sexy that thing down there, which is that expulsion of breath – and if you miss things like that, you miss something very riveting and emotional that belongs in the song. It humanizes it and it makes it something people can relate to more. That was something I really [wanted to do] and I wanted to focus on nuances like that.
What is that saying? God is in the details.
I knew if they weren’t there, I would miss them and if I missed them even though someone wouldn’t know, they would feel it. Or they wouldn’t feel it. It’s by giving the listener something back, you enhance their experience of the song.
That is so cool.
I thought so, hahaha.
It’s a great record. At the end of the day, anyone can say whatever they want about me or the way I work or the way I worked on that record. But the bottom line is that record had its 20th year anniversary last year. They released it in a massive limited edition thing with a 75-page gatefold book. People don’t do that for records unless they really, really matter in life.
That is absolutely true?
And you know what? I wanted that record to matter. It wasn’t specifically for me and it wasn’t even specifically for them. It was for people like you who are gonna listen to this thing and they’re gonna be affected by it. That’s why records like that get made. It’s the duty that people like us have.
It’s like you felt this responsibility or this need to create something really special?
I don’t want to put this on those guys because they can look at it however they want but this is their duty as well – to make the best possible f–king record they can. It’s my job to help them get to that place as well and do something that hopefully will stand some kind of test of time. I think in this day and age, a 20-year lifespan for a record that still sells? It’s not so bad.
You worked with Ozzy in 1995 on the “Ozzmosis” album. What was that like?
It was a very long, very hard record to make. I have always loved Black Sabbath and I think Ozzy‘s got one of the greatest and most distinctive voices in all of rock. I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that.
Though you were an Ozzy fan, “Ozzmosis” was a difficult record to make?
It wasn’t an easy record to make. I wasn’t pleased with the outcome. I didn’t feel that the mix really reflected what the music was [David Bianco mixed the album]. But I think there were things about it that were a lot of fun.
What were the fun parts?
I got to work at one of the nicest studios I’ve ever been at. This place in Paris [Guillame Tell Studios], which had one of the most extraordinary drum rooms I’ve ever been in in my entire life. I got my first shot at using this 8-track machine I had designed. It performed beyond anything I could have possibly thought. It was a really remarkable experience in that sense.
You’re talking about the Ultra-Analog machine you developed. The “Ozzmosis” album was the first time you worked with it?
Yeah. It was a Studer A800 8-track machine. It was a Mark I, which means it only had 15 and 7 Ð… ips instead of 15 and 30 ips. What I did was I took off the one-inch headstock and commissioned John French who is sadly no longer with us to build a two-inch 8-track headstock, which had not been done before, which I couldn’t really understand.
That is strange because it’s such an amazing idea.
I guess with my passion [spoken with a French accent] for excess, afterwards I kind of figure out why. My experience had been going from a 24-track machine to a 16-track machine was kind of a luxury.
It seems like the reverse of that would be true.
You lose tracks but you gain in terms of low-frequency and transient response because a 24-track machine is sort of the equivalent of 24 very high quality cassette machines playing at once. The track widths are about the size of a cassette machine. So I figured if you went from 16 to eight and expanded the track width proportionately to fit on the two-inch head block, you would get some kind of exponential change in sound recording and sound reproduction and it turned out I was right.
Yeah. Kinda, sorta. To me it wasn’t about musical genres or style at that point. It was more about the intensity. To me the emotion that record embodied and what the potential or for it was was immense. To me it seemed like it was just as much as anything else I’d worked on before.
Was it different working Courtney Love in terms of being a female and not a male vocalist?
Actually because there were female voices involved and some of which are rough like Courtney‘s obviously, it created a lot of potential for me for a lot of interesting harmonic ideas and different types of distortion I hadn’t played around with yet. So I was pretty psyched about that.
Was Courtney different from the public persona we saw?
Courtney was like everyone else I guess, she had her flighty days and her very focused days. The thing about her is I don’t really think she’s best when she’s trying to concentrate on stuff because then her brain starts working. If you’re in a creative situation and the brain is on, you’re not gonna really be able to get anything that’s great.
The brain gets in the way of creativity?
She is a fantastic performer so we tried to make sure everything she did was as much of a performance as possible. When she lets loose, I don’t really think there’s anyone quite like that. I was very, very happy with the vocal performances she did. She’s a very talented person and one of the best lyricists I’ve ever worked with and certainly on that record.
That is high praise coming from someone like you.
I felt that her lyrics were extraordinary.
You worked with Sean Beavan in ’98 on Marilyn Manson’s “Mechanical Animals” album. He said you two bonded over Frank Sinatra’s album “Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim.”
Haha. It’s really funny actually because when he gets down to it, he was certainly one of the most professional people I’d ever worked with. The problem is when he doesn’t want to get down to it and he’s got something else on his mind, he can definitely drive a major wrench in the works of whatever’s happening, hahaha.
There were some tough moments with Marilyn?
But it was his recording session so you have to ride it out. I enjoyed making that record. What was cool about was he definitely had a lot of his ideas plotted out in advance so the pre-production process was not so bad.
What was that pre-production process like?
We took about a week-and-a-half to go through everything and kind of rework some of the songs and rewrite stuff. Everyone in the band played really well. They are such good players. Ginger [Fish] is a fantastic drummer and Twiggy‘s a great guitar guitarist and great bassist. Zimmy [Zim Zum] was very good. We just had a little problem getting a sound for him because he didn’t play quite the same way Twiggy did.
How would you describe the difference between Twiggy and Zimmy?
Twiggy’s got a very meat and potatoes style so if you hook him up with a Les Paul and a few Marshalls, it’s like, “Here you go.” Manson really had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do vocally. He knows himself or at least when I worked himself, he knew himself very well.
What was it like working with Sean Beavan?
I loved working with Sean as well. He’s a stellar person and just an absolute pleasure to have around.
Another important album you worked on was Korn’s “Untouchables” record in 2002. Again there were drug problems within the band with which you had to contend?
I think there are two things that [happen] with projects like that. They were one of many bands who actually came to me because they had some idea I would make the best record they ever made.
So your reputation was spreading.
On more than one occasion and actually when I met with them, I heard, “We want to make our ‘Dark Side of the Moon.'” So I guess I was the person people would reach out for when they wanted that kind of thing. No holds barred, full-on recording like that.
What kind of record was it to make?
It was difficult. The personalities and the guys in the band were pretty unruly and I think they weren’t used to much order. The process went on for a long time. The thing about it is when push comes to shove and you get these guys in the studio, they’re really good performers.
At the end of the day, Korn was a really good band.
They could all play very, very well so they could pull it off. I was given carte blanche to make the best possible record I could and that’s what I set out to do. The other thing is to me and I think to those guys as well, that record was sort of like the dying of the light so to speak.
What do you mean?
It really signified the end on a much larger scale of that whole movement. I think it was the last really big-selling record of that genre of music. I kind of had that in the back of my mind the entire time. I was like, “These are guys who have sold lots and lots of records. What I need to do and what my job has to be here is to give them something that will at least take them through to the next record. So they can stay on track and hopefully sell a lot of records and at least maintain what they’ve done. It might not be quite what it was but at least it will be close enough so they won’t feel like they’re losing everything.”
That was your mission statement on the “Untouchables” album?
I had to work as hard as I could to insure that was gonna be the case. Like on any project where that’s your mission statement, you just can’t let anything get past you.
You worked with Mew for the first time in 2005 on their “And the Glass Handed Kites” album. Was making an album like that any more difficult than working with bands like Korn or Soundgarden?
No, not really. Because what you may make up for in one area, you’re gonna kinda lose a little bit in a different area. Some of the personalities in the band might be more pro active than others and some might dig their heels in sometimes trying to fight with you or fight with other people in the band. It’s a really weird blend of personalities, agendas and all this kind of stuff. Managing it is a very interesting job.
Which might be another definition of producer, right?
On all these records, I’ve had to deal with [problems] and to some extent quite a bit. You’re talking about people who are very complicated individuals who are very interesting and everyone’s got a really extraordinary story about what their life was like. I’m not trying to be facetious by saying that. It’s something kind of riveting where you go, “Holy crap.”
Musicians are amazing people.
It can’t really make you look at them like they’re a freak or something like that. You have to take a step back and go, “This is a human being. I have to honor who they are and at the same time I also have to honor this process we’re all involved in.” It’s kind of like you’re walking a trapeze to do these things.
I think everybody – fans, business people and even producers – sometimes forget that musicians are human and fallible.
At least that’s my take on it. I don’t like to come into a situation and just say, “These are my rules. This is how I work, blah blah blah. In the end if you don’t like it, f–k off.” It’s more about what do these individuals need? What is it that I can bring to them? That’s usually the way I find into a project.
During the mid- and late-2000s, you stepped back a bit in terms of working with high-profile bands?
Not really, no. If you see my resume, there’s a lot of people. So you just kinda roll with it I guess.
You’re working a book called “Unlocking Creativity: A Producer’s Guide to Making Music and Art”?
Whoa. How’d you find out about that?
I do my homework.
You did research this.
I did. Thank you. Can you talk a little bit about what we will read in there?
I certainly can. My book is non-technical as an overview. It’s a non-technical book about record production. Whereas just about every book I have ever seen how been almost exclusively about the technical side of recording. I do get very, very involved in mic placement and what kind of signal path are you using. Even down to checking the voltage to make sure that’s OK. All the little things. It’s interesting because with the advent of home recording and stuff like that, you’d be amazed as to how these things actually affect the sonic character of your equipment.
You just plug something into a wall at home, it’s not gonna be the same as if you take that same piece of gear to a recording studio that’s got conditioned power. All you need to do is get a good voltage stabilizer and a power conditioner and the sonic character of what you’re using will change drastically. It’s crazy. To the extent where I’ve hooked a power conditioner and a voltage stabilizer up to my stereo at home and my wife – she’s got good ears, I have to give her this – was like, “Why does that sound so much better?”
I’m telling you, man. It’s noticeable. Getting back to my book, I feel like the conversation of what record production has been kind of hijacked over to something that is really for me periphery. When people write books about it’s all about this compressor and that EQ and, “This is what I like to do to get that snare drum sound.”
That is important.
Sure, that has to with how the production comes up. When you’re producing a record, there are so many other ingredients that go into that people don’t talk about. Like the psychology of it and the criteria one uses to discern pieces of music.
What do you mean?
Like, “Why isn’t this working here? How does the song make you feel? Am I able to get into it?” Which should be first nature with people. I worked with an artist a short while ago who had very, very limited funds and a very limited time to work. But they also had a lot of songs that were in complete disrepair and I was like, “OK, so when do you figure we’re gonna do pre-production in the handful of days you have to record?” They’re like, “Uh, well, in the afternoon before we go in to start recording with you.”
What did you think about that?
I was like, “Uh, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” It really brought to me and something I’ve been aware of for a while but not 100 percent sure but people don’t even really do pre-production anymore in a lot of cases. They’re willing to jettison that in favor of just going into a recording studio and getting something done.
That’s not the right way to approach an album?
You couldn’t be making a bigger mistake if you go into a record that way. Will you get a finished record if you don’t? Yes. Will it sound like a record? Sure, it’ll sound like a record. But could it have a million times better if you spent the time in pre-production? Most definitely. I’ve never been in a recording project where that wasn’t the case. It always made a difference when you did pre-production every time.
You’re right when you said albums today are made without pre-production because of costs and time.
It is preposterous to me that that part of the process is being slowly and systematically eliminated just because of financial limitations. People don’t really take a long view on this stuff. One of the issues here is the fact that they see themselves as like, “We just gotta get this done fast.” It’s like, “OK, how fast do you want your career to matter to someone? The sh-ttier your next record is, the quicker people will forget you. So the less effort you put in now and the fewer ways you find to try and make your next project as good as it can possibly, I guarantee you will be taking that sh-t job you tried to avoid a few years ago a lot quicker than you want to just because you didn’t put the time in now.”
You’re right. Bands and artists don’t think that way.
I wanted to address some of this stuff in the book. I also wanted to take it from a very philosophical angle as well because I feel people really treat recording now as a job. They doan’t treat it as a calling, which to me it still is and it lways will be. There’s nothing about this work to me that’s a job at all. If it was, I don’t think I would be able to do that.
On your site you were talking about “feel” and you referenced Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” Was that the ultimate feel in a track for you?
It’s all feel-based. The thing about “Rock and Roll” like I was trying to point out is it’s all eighth notes. If you quantize those eighth notes and if you did it in a contemporary fashion that people use to make records now, it would be like those types of records I’m talking about where there’s no pre-production. People try and compensate for no pre-production by quantizing sh-t.
You’re exactly right.
No rehearsing? “Let’s quantize it.” No pre-production? The song structure’s dead? “Let’s quantize it and maybe move this chorus around over there. Let’s fix it as we go.” If everyone in the world did things like that, this world would be falling apart. That’s the way it is, hahaha.
All those records you made with Soundgarden, Korn and Hole had feel?
I don’t think I would have been able to make them if I didn’t have that kind of feeling. On Soundgarden, I was working with one of the best drummers in rock. Matt Cameron is a brilliant drummer. On the Ozzy record I did I was working with Deen Castronovo from Journey who was really interesting because it started out really rough on Ozzy’s record with Deen. He really pulled it together. It had never been put to him to play differently and to throw down more of a groove. When he started to play like that, his whole thing and his whole pocket and his whole approach just opened up.
All of a sudden the songs started to breathe and came to life. But he’s a really, really good drummer and there’s always the point when you know you’ve gotten the best performance.
You do know when you’ve gotten the magical take?
Everything’s clicking and you’re like, “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that’s the one.” It’s like feel literally is a feeling. You know what I’m saying? It transcends and it’s communication. When it hits you the right way, you just know.
Which is another description of what a producer must know?
That’s part of my job: know when something’s hitting me the right way.
Everything starts with the drummer?
That’s the foundation of everything. If you don’t have a great drum track and if you don’t have structure and support underneath everything else, everything you put on top of it is eventually gonna weigh it down and it’s gonna collapse like a house of cards. Everything has to be integrated properly and everything has to be balanced properly. If you’re a Taoist, that’s one of the natural aspects of the entire universe. It’s balance. You can’t have a s – tty supporting a bunch of really good music. All of a sudden it’s not good music anymore.
Can you fix that at all digitally?
You can try and fix it all in Pro Tools and you can tighten it up and quantize everything and make it all sound like a drum machine but at the end of the day it’s not the same as if you’ve got a drummer who plays with confidence and authority and is communicating through his music. That’s the difference and you will never, ever hear that in a quantized drum track. Ever.
You obviously feel strongly about that and I totally agree with you.
It’s true. Check it out, man. Listen to 10 records where you supposedly have live musicians playing that have been done recently and then go back to 10 records where you know for sure they were live musicians playing and see which one’s better.
You’re preaching to the choir.
It’s proof positive right there. People are always like, “Oh, you know there’s so much good stuff out there. You’ve just gotta look for it.” But it’s bullsh-t. Find me something, hahaha.
On your site, you listed what you called “great” albums and included the Beatles’ “White Album,” “Led Zeppelin IV,” “Disraeli Gears” and “Are You Experienced“? Some of those albums were made almost 50 years ago so where are the albums coming out today we’ll be talking about in even 30 years’ times?
To me that’s a main thing. That’s important. These things have to stand the test of time. Basically all I listen to at home now is baroque music. It’s from a very specific period in musical history but it’s all very evocative of that period and it will never, ever get tired to people who really want to hear it. In that same way, music that was made 30, 40, 50 years or something like that, there’s a lot of it that is never gonna go away. Someone is always going to be listening to it somewhere.
Which accounts for all the recent Led Zeppelin reissues and why we talk about Jimi Hendrix still to this day.
I will be very interested to see if in 10 or 15 years people are still listening to “My Humps” by Black Eyed Peas. I can see more people hearing it who were fans of it at one point going, “What did I ever see in this stuff?” And wrinkling their noses like ewwww, hahaha.
What have you been working on recently?
After that Mew record [“+-“], I’ve really been doing a lot of smaller projects and nothing really major to speak of. The main thing is trying to finish my book. I mean trying to be present with it as it’s being released and published and all that. Doing some public speaking here and there.
It’s a different period in history for people who make records the way I make them. Music isn’t treated so much as a communicative medium anymore. It’s treated more as a commodified medium. You can’t make it stick as well if you treat in another manner than what it was designed to do.
The advent of the Internet and digital recording has made recording more accessible but it has also turned it into a commodity. It’s all disposable now.
I developed a reputation as someone who takes a very, very long time and spends a lot of money making records. I feel a lot of people don’t wanna play around with that, which is fine. That’s their prerogative.
How that impacted you?
I find I don’t work very often. But I think at least having a voice about this kind of thing, it still gives me a dog in the fight so to speak.
Can we ever get back to that point when music was such an essential part of our lives?
I ain’t no fortune teller but I will say this: I feel personally that where we’re at with music is a kind of systemic aspect of much larger issues that affect society in general.
What are you talking about?
I do think those issues could be dealt with if there was better music as strange as that may sound. But I think it’s gonna take a tremendous and very concerted and very focused effort on the part of anyone who wants to make music. It also really comes down to people looking into their own hearts and going, “Why am I doing this? Am I doing this because I have a natural ability and because I have something I want to say? Because I love this so much and I can’t do anything else? Or am I doing it because, ‘Hey, I’m actually proud that I’m very good that I can also figure out how to make a lot of money at it?'”
A lot of people I’ve seen who are in it right now are doing incredibly well but they’re not making any real statements with it. I feel if the statement isn’t there then the music ultimately isn’t gonna stick. It’s not gonna have any lasting value. I think that statement’s gonna be borne out over time.
Which goes back to our conversation about which albums being made today will have meaning 30 years from now?
I’ve said nothing anyone’s done in nearly 20 years has really had that kind of lasting value.
A final fun question: the aliens land and find the Michael Beinhorn time capsule. Which three albums would they find inside?
Don’t ask me that. I have affection for quite a few of them for different reasons. It’s kind of like, “Which of your children do you like your best?” You know what I mean?
Thank you for indulging me and answering all my questions.
Oh, sure. It’s my pleasure.
I hope you make that next great record. I didn’t mean your earlier records but something you might be soon working on.
I know what you mean. The nice thing is life is long and it’s far from over. I’ve got a lot of hope for popular music and for what we’re doing. I honestly believe ultimately it’s gonna prevail because people desperately need music in their lives. More than at this point they even know. I just wanna do everything I can to help that awareness be spread and for as many people as possible to be afflicted by it. You know what I mean?
I do. Play all the good notes.
Haha, I’ll do my best. Thank you. Take care. Bye-bye.
To learn more about Michael Beinhorn, go here.
Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.com (C) 2015