Craig Leon

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Sound on Sound (1998): Craig Leon, Recording the New Blondie Album

It has been a long time since the world bopped to classic Blondie tracks such as ‘Sunday Girl’, ‘Picture This’ and ‘Heart Of Glass’, but despite their long absence, the band (Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke, and Jimmy Destri) appears to have lost none of its appeal — which is why the big wheels of BMG’s publicity machine are now beginning to roll in anticipation of No Exit, Blondie’s latest album due for release on Beyond Records in January next year.

I don’t suppose I’m the only ageing Blondie fan who is pleased to see the return of the band. But what is surprising after such a long absence — caused primarily by guitarist Chris Stein’s health problems, which took him the best part of a decade to overcome — is that Blondie decided to record their new album in a basement instead of opting for some swanky, New York studio full of mod cons.

One would imagine that Blondie might have been keen to get back into a ‘proper’ studio, especially as technology has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. According to producer Craig Leon, however, it was the band’s choice to record the bulk of the album in Chris Stein’s New York basement, and although new technology was used they also hunted down some pretty esoteric equipment in order to capture that unmistakable Blondie sound.

“Chris’s basement was an unusual choice,” admits Craig Leon, “but it worked very well because it gave us the freedom to experiment. We weren’t on a shoe-string budget — far from it. Basically the budget was whatever it took to make the record. But when you are paying £1,000 a day for a top studio you do become very aware of the clock ticking, and this in itself can be a bar to creativity. What the band wanted was a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, and they felt the best place to find that was at Chris’s house, so that’s where we did it.”

How The Project Began

Craig Leon’s relationship with Blondie is almost as old as the band itself, and included producing their first two albums — for the full story see the ‘Ancient History’ box on page 164. During the years that Chris Stein was ill, Leon stayed in touch with drummer Clem Burke and keyboard player Jimmy Destri, and actually worked with Clem Burke on a number of other projects, the most recent of which was the Mark Owen album he recorded last year with John Leckie.

“Through Clem and Jimmy, I was in touch with the band during the 1980s. I’d see Debbie every now and then and we’d always say that one day we would get back into the studio and do another album,” he says.

Songwriting The Blondie Way
Although Blondie’s early hits are rightly regarded as classic pop songs, the band’s composition technique is highly experimental, as Leon explains. “Chris and Debbie’s background is very much tied in with Warhol and William Burroughs. During the 1960s, Burroughs worked with two composers in Tangiers — Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin — and they came up with a technique called cut-ups. Basically, they would record on a Nagra tape recorder, chop everything up and then put it back together again as different arrangements with Burroughs talking over the top. Chris has collected quite a few of these works and has incorporated this sort of cut-up technique into the way Blondie records. The only other artists I know who work this way are David Bowie and, to an extent, David Byrne.

“If you have never come across this technique before it can seem very confusing, as you certainly can’t produce this type of music in a conventional way. You don’t say right, let’s put a hook line here, because to begin with you have more hook lines than you know what to do with and very little substance. The music develops gradually, with the band making decisions about what they want to keep as they go along. It sounds crazy but with Blondie it works really well, because what you get are these very groove-oriented Phil Spector kind of tracks with lots of instrumental hooks.

“Once we’ve recorded the entire backing track, Debbie takes it away and does what she wants to do vocally over the top of it. This does make the process quite complex from a production point of view, because in order for it to work you have to leave space for her vocals, even though you don’t know what the vocal line is.”

Of course for many years Chris Stein was simply too sick to even contemplate a return to work. Leon says, “Chris is a very resilient man but he was incredibly ill and in a great deal of pain. It wasn’t until he began to recover that the band started talking seriously about doing some more recording, and even at that stage I still thought it would never happen.”

But then last year, during the Mark Owen sessions, Leon met the top brass from Leftbank, the management company that Blondie had just signed with, and they asked him if he would be willing to produce a few tracks.

He says, “Initially they only wanted me to do a couple of tracks, on the basis that they were going to use a variety of producers. But we ended up doing 14 tracks and we are planning to do a couple more for some future release. Just what will end up on this album has still to be decided because we haven’t mastered it yet.”

In true rock & roll style, once Blondie had signed a new distribution deal with BMG they called Leon and asked him to be in New York to start recording within a matter of days. “As they had waited nearly 15 years since their last album I couldn’t quite see the urgency,” he laughs, “so I finished the project I was working on and went over a few weeks later. During that time I tackled Chris to see how we were going to approach the project, and that was when he suggested recording the album at home. He had quite a good studio setup in his basement because he had bought the contents of Blank Studios in New York when it closed during the 1980s. He told me that this included an old MCI desk and various other bits and pieces, but when I actually arrived at his house a few weeks later, even I was surprised at what he had in there.”

Stein’s accumulation of gear included a 40-in 24-out MCI 600 console, an MCI JH24 multitrack, a Linn 9000 sampler/sequencer, a pair of JBL 4311 monitors, a pair of Tannoy powered monitors, a pair of Yamaha NS10s and various delays, guitar effects boxes and samplers, plus some sequencers that he was using for composing.

“It was bit above your average home studio,” says Leon, “but what was great was that it was very similar to the setup I use in the UK. This includes an MCI 500 console and an MCI JH24, but I’ve augmented my setup with a whole load of modern gear that I’ve accumulated over the years. I usually use Cubase as a sequencer and a starting point for writing and arrangements. And I’ve now got a 24-track Otari RADAR hard disk recorder that I absolutely love — to the extent that I can’t imagine making a modern record without it. The best thing about RADAR is that it’s a technological device that doesn’t sound digital. To me this is important, because I love the old analogue sounds and would never want to work exclusively in the digital domain. I certainly wouldn’t want to do drums digitally, because I don’t think digital can provide the right depth and clarity at the top end. But we used RADAR for pretty much everything else.”

Because Chris Stein’s home studio complimented Craig Leon’s, he didn’t need to worry about shipping too much gear over to New York. He says, “I took over my RADAR and my Yamaha 02R, which I use mainly for monitoring. This is a really efficient, reliable, inexpensive means of monitoring in remote-recording situations because it adds very little, if any, sound coloration. It’s useful, too, and has a lot of features that you wouldn’t expect at its price. On the Blondie project we used it primarily for monitoring and bouncing down tracks digitally once they were recorded and transferred to the RADAR. Our inputs were pretty much analogue, so we didn’t use the mic amps of the 02R all that much. However, there have been other occasions where I have used the mic amp side of the 02R and have found it quite effective. I’ve also done a few remixes on it at home and found it more than adequate for that sort of thing.”

Apart from the RADAR and O2R, Leon also shipped over a selection of standard microphones including a Neumann U87, a pair of AKG 414s, a Shure SM7 and SM57 and a pair of Sennheiser 412s. Through an equipment dealer called Michael Block in Philadelphia, Leon managed to locate a 12-in, 4-out Studer Mark 3 recording console with four Studer compressors, two Neve 1073 equalisers, a very early stereo Al Smart compressor and a UREI 1176 compressor.

He says, “Michael Block deals in esoteric old equipment and was very useful when it came to finding some of the more unusual items that we needed. I wanted the Studer console because I’d used it before on one of my wife’s projects and I knew it sounded really good on alto voices. I was also after the first Al Smart compressor that I wanted to use over the stereo mix buss. Michael also supplied a few vintage valve mics, but we didn’t use them in the end.”

As well as his MCI desk, Stein also had a whole array of esoteric synths and hardware sequencers, including an old Roland rhythm composer. “Chris loves that thing and had written a lot of ideas on it, so I took MIDI out of it and was able to incorporate everything he’d done on it into the sessions,” Leon explains.

Alongside the Roland rhythm composer, Chris Stein was also using an old Linn 9000 as a writing tool — a method of working that Leon describes as idiosyncratic but perfectly effective. “Chris is very technologically oriented but in a bizarre way. He was using his Linn 9000 to make up very long loops, and we used these as a starting point. We also used some of Jimmy Destri’s compositions which had been done on a Kurzweil 2500 sequencer — another really fiddly piece of gear, but one that had a great sound. So basically we started the project with hundreds of bits and pieces. I loaded all the loops through MIDI, then put them on the RADAR and got the band to play live to them. We didn’t use any sequencers on the actual record — it was all done live.”

Work on the album began almost as soon as Craig Leon arrived in New York. “It was just like the old days,” he laughs. “They had quite a lot of stuff already written, but most of it mutated radically in the pre-production stages. We started out with a pile of stuff ranging from complete, finished songs through to little bits and pieces of ideas that they were keen to do something with. At that stage we had no vocals because that’s how Blondie tends to work (see box below for more on this). Sometimes the melodies are written very early on, but most of the time they are not. Leon adds that the initial confusion was all part of the fun, because any song could be remixed at any stage and turned into something completely different. “What tended to happen was that each song would gradually shape up into a version that everyone liked. It wasn’t so much a committee decision — just an instinctive feeling that we were on the right track.”

The Basement And Beyond

With so many ideas to work with, Craig Leon decided that the best approach was set the band up in the basement, bring in a session bass player and gradually start going through the material until something began to take shape.

He explains, “We put everything we did on the RADAR, and at the end of each day I’d go through it and see what we wanted to keep. After about a month we had worked up about 25 ideas, some of which were very much like the original demos and some that had mutated into completely different songs.

“Once we had all that, we began to move quite quickly. I had rehearsal versions of the band playing to the MIDI which I then dropped out, leaving only a click. From there, we worked the ideas up into live arrangements with the whole band, then we moved into Electric Lady studios for eight days so that we could do the drums. There was no way I was going to record the drums in Chris’s basement, because it just wouldn’t have worked.”

Ancient history

Craig Leon’s association with Blondie extends right back to their earliest days as a struggling New York art-rock band, when he was influential in getting them their first record deal. Together with producer Richard Gottehrer, Leon was behind the band’s first two albums, Blondie and Plastic Letters, released in 1976 and 1977 respectively.

Leon explains: “I’m originally from Florida, and that was where I got my first job in the music business — at Criteria Records, working on R&B projects with people like Alex Sadkin, who was a mastering engineer at Criteria before he moved into production with bands like Duran Duran.

“In the early 1970s I built a little studio in Florida which was mainly used as a demo facility. Richard Gottehrer, who owned Sire Records with Seymour Stein, came down to listen to some demos I had done for The Climax Blues Band and was sufficiently impressed that he offered me a job in New York working in Sire’s A&R department.”

Having Craig Leon on board worked very well for Sire, because he was responsible for discovering and signing a number of early New York punk bands, including Talking Heads and The Ramones.

“I produced the first Ramones album, and also concentrated on licensing adventurous European records that the majors were unwilling to release in the US. It was a good period for me because I learned a great deal — not least the skills I really needed for production, which was eventually the direction I decided to go in.”

It was while he was working at Sire that Leon discovered CBGBs, a biker’s bar in a rough area of New York that had become popular with bands like Talking Heads and The Ramones. He says, “I initially went to CBGBs because I was trying to sign Patti Smith. She went with Arista because they were a much bigger label, but while chasing her I noticed that there were all these other bands playing at CBGBs so I started going there regularly to check them out.

“One of these bands was Blondie and although they were very chaotic and sloppy, I really liked them. I just couldn’t get Sire to sign them because, to put it quaintly, they were incredibly rough around the edges.”

As time passed and the Punk scene took off, many of the other bands playing CBGBs found themselves record deals. But Blondie continued to be overlooked. Eventually, Richard Gottehrer left Sire and set up a production company called Instant Records with Craig Leon and Marty Thau. At about this time Hilly Kristal, who owned CBGBs, put up the cash to record a Live At CBGBs album and asked Leon to produce it.

Leon says, “Blondie was begging to be on that album, so every night when I soundchecked our equipment I did a Blondie set, because they lived right across the street and were literally always available. While I was doing this I was becoming more and more convinced about the band — particularly Debbie, who I thought was fantastic. One night when we were working in the remote truck, Richard Gottehrer called in to pay a visit. He heard the Blondie set and later met Debbie, who managed to persuade him to put up the money to record one single. I was given the job of getting it on tape.

“That turned into about a six-month process of routining every song they came up with, because no matter what we did we just couldn’t get them a record deal. Basically, by the time they did get a deal, they already had enough material in the can for three albums. We had about 40 tracks, most of which ended up on the first and second albums. Some of it even ended up on Parallel Lines, the third album they recorded with Mike Chapman in 1978. ‘Heart of Glass’, for example, was recorded very early on. It just didn’t have any lyrics at that stage.”

At first glance, Blondie’s chaotic and haphazard early years might not seem particularly relevant to their most recent project, but according to Leon it was their idiosyncratic roots that spawned the recording styles and techniques used on No Exit.

He explains, “Blondie has always worked in a totally unique way — one that might seem pretty modern now, but was very unusual back in the early 1970s. At that point there were very few ‘studio’ bands as such, because most bands were just recording ‘live’. But Blondie were different. They were attempting to record as a layering and sampling band before there were even samplers. They would do a riff and we would work that into a verse. Then they would do another riff and we’d work that into a chorus. Then we’d chop them together, mix them about and arrange them into a whole track. After that, Debbie would take the track away and come back a couple of days later with the lyrics. We were blagging studio time everywhere we could — mostly at Plaza Sound in New York, which doesn’t exist anymore, and also at Bell Sound which is now Walter Seer Studios, and Electric Lady which we revisited when we recorded the new album.

“Most of what we did back then — the routining and so on — was done in the loft at The Bowery. This was a very rough building where the band were also living. In fact it was so rough that you literally wouldn’t know if the body in the hallway was drunk or dead. We used to rehearse there and routine the songs before moving into a studio to lay the tracks down. I think it is partly because of this background that the band has no qualms about working at home. After all, they were well used to the concept, because in the early days they didn’t have the money to do otherwise.”

At Electric Lady, the band played live using a guide keyboard to represent the MIDI sounds. Leon says, “We used Electric Lady to record bass, drums and two guitars. We ended up mutating everything we recorded there, including the drums, which I put back into the RADAR so I could move them around. After that, it was back to the basement to put on the finalised bass parts, some of which were a composite of the rehearsal sessions and the recordings we made at Electric Lady. We did the same thing with guitars. With Chris’ guitars we were recording virtually a riff at a time before deciding where they should be in the song.”

While the band were at Electric Lady, Leon still had no vocals to work with, although he had an idea of the key of each song because he’d been working with Debbie Harry to get at least that much sorted out.

He says, “Chris and Jimmy have some lyrical input, but Debbie has the final say because it is her lyrical stance that defines the band. The process starts with Chris and Debbie listening to the backing tapes and coming up with melody lines and the odd word — just snippets really. Then Debbie takes the tape away and writes the full lyrics, and soon after that we put the vocals on.

“Once we had the vocal melodies, she worked very fast — she certainly doesn’t fool around. She knows what she wants and will do lead vocals for the whole album over the course of two or three sessions. We worked background vocals in later, using a sort of layering process. Then it was just a question of going through everything and ironing out what we had on each track.”

The vocals were recorded in Chris Stein’s basement, in a makeshift booth that was literally a cubbyhole lined with cheap acoustic panels and a few curtains to deaden the sound. “There was nothing technical or expensive about it — we just used the cheapest stuff we could find,” Leon says. “Later we re-did some of them at Chung King — not so much for the sonics but because Debbie had written new lyrics. We also used Chung King to record a horn section and re-record some of Chris’s guitars where we felt we needed a big room sound. The basement was fine for virtually everything but with the horns in particular the sound was too direct, and there wasn’t enough air.”

The main vocals were recorded with a Neumann U87 microphone. “We tried several different mics but that was the one that sounded the best,” Leon says. “We used 414s on acoustic guitar and valve mics on amped guitars and bass. But a lot of it was a combination of amp, DI and synthetically treated guitars bounced down to one track to make a composite guitar sound, so I couldn’t say there was one specific guitar mic on any one sound, because it was a combination of so many different things.”

Mixing And Monitoring

All producers have their favourite monitors, and Craig Leon is no exception. At home he uses EV Sentry 100 nearfields, but he didn’t take them to New York because he was happy to hire in.

He says, “In Chris’s studio we had a fairly nasty old pair of Yamaha NS10s and some JBL 4311s, plus a pair of self-powered Tannoys that we hired. At Electric Lady I used EVs and Tannoys as main monitors and Pro Acs as nearfields, while at Chung King I used Pro Acs, the proper NS10s as nearfields and a custom-built Dynaudio Acoustics system as the big guys. I really liked the Dynaudios and we used them a lot, especially when we went back to Chung King to mix.”

The bulk of the album was mixed at Chung King using a Neve Capricorn digital desk. Leon says, “What I like about digital is that you can recall everything so easily that nothing has to be final until the very last minute. The technology is so flexible that if you are doing everything properly, you can change almost anything right up to the moment of release. Let’s face it, these days you can master off a Pro Tools system. In fact you can actually take a RADAR into the mastering facility and change your record as the engineers are working on it.”

With the Blondie album, Leon tried to use very little EQ in the mix, because he prefers to do things in stages — not over-EQing in the beginning, but fine-tuning as he goes along. “As part of this process I ran certain things back through a Focusrite console, which is a fiddly desk but has a great sound,” he says.

Leon says he picks studios on the basis of the live room and atmosphere, not the desk. “I’m not a gear head and I’m just as happy working on an SSL, a Neve or a Focusrite so long as the atmosphere in the studio is right. If you get the right music and the right feel it doesn’t matter what equipment you use, because in the end the equipment is only a tool. I might make an exception for monitors as that choice is very personal, but in terms of the desk, it really doesn’t matter what I use. After all, if I don’t like the EQ, I can always bring in my own.”

So What Comes After Blondie?

Given Craig Leon’s production credits, which include The Fall, Jesus Jones, The Pogues, The Levellers, Flesh For Lulu and many, many more, it’s easy to forget that he is also an artist and composer in his own right, with three albums to his credit. Now that he has virtually completed the Blondie project, he is thinking about the future and what to do next. First on the agenda is a recording for Decca Records which involves working with a new vocalist, Isobel Cooper. Other plans in the pipeline include completion of an album for Virgin artist Cassell Webb, who also happens to be Leon’s wife, although with the Decca project now looming he expects Cassell’s album to go on hold for a while.

With a background steeped in punk, indie labels and alternative music, it’s not surprising to learn that Leon mourns the death of the truly independent record label — the kind of label that was once prepared to take a risk on something a little more experimental.

“I’m desperate to find that kind of label now,” he says. “What I’d like to see are a few more labels that are prepared to take a chance on something new, and perhaps allow producers like myself to work with bands experimentally in the way I originally worked with Blondie. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just with the labels. The bands themselves are often reluctant to work experimentally because it is such a long process. They want deals immediately — even when they only have three songs.”

However, Leon is undeterred and is now actively hunting for artists that are a little off the beaten track. “A number of publishers are responding to my requests, and I’m finding some interesting sounds,” he adds. Whether he finds anything worth recording remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure — if there’s another band with as much potential as Blondie out there, then Craig Leon’s just the man to spot it.

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