The Art of Suggestion

David Kahne on Producing Paul McCartney
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Producer David Kahne’s career has zoomed from engineering San Francisco obscure punk and new wave acts in the late ’70s for 415 Records, to becoming an A&R executive at Columbia and Warner Bros., to producing vocal legend Tony Bennett and one of rock’s icons, Sir Paul McCartney. As he helped mold 2001’s Driving Rain and last year’s Memory Almost Full, Kahne is, in fact, one of the few “repeat” producers McCartney has enlisted besides George Martin. Here, the versatile producer—who revels in guiding artists without imposing a personal production sound—relates what it’s like sitting in the studio with a Beatle.

Some producers have a vision and a sound in mind that requires the artist to fit into their world.
I’m definitely not that guy. If the artist is capable of delivering a great performance, well, that’s why I want to work with them, so I wouldn’t want to impose any methods that would prevent them from being comfortable. I also don’t put any restrictions on an artist as he or she works through a challenge, or reaches for a goal. Here’s an example of that hands-off approach from Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full. We first recorded “Nod Your Head” as a piano song—just Paul playing piano to a click track—and I loved the dissonance of the A in the bass and an Eb on the right hand through most of the song. I didn’t specify anything to Paul, other than an opinion that the dissonance got me hoping the song might be way more aggressive than a piano and vocal. So Paul grabbed his old Epiphone Casino—the one he played “Day Tripper” and all that stuff on—and plugged into a Pete Cornish overdrive pedal and a Marshall, although he usually played through a Vox amp. The pedal was cranked, and when he hit it, the guitar went insane! Paul’s tech rushed over to turn off the amp, but Paul stopped him, and he started moving around the room to try to control the feedback. I think I told him, “Just start playing and it will quit.” He was playing the Eb as I hit Record, and he started playing to the track as soon as he heard the groove come in. It was a very aggressive guitar sound, and it inspired the way he played drums and sang. The final track had the vibe I was hearing myself, but if I had pushed too hard at the beginning to get there, he may have been a bit resistant. Letting the song take shape his way was the key.

How does one critique and collaborate with a legend like Paul?
I’m not going to say it’s like working with anybody else in the world! But if I think something could be better, I have to say it—even though I can’t wipe away who I’m saying it to [laughs]. It’s a little tricky sometimes, but Paul wants the truth. When he’s working on a new song, he’s completely open. There’s absolutely zero complacency in his musical life.

As he has an amazing grasp of rock history and styles, and can do so many things brilliantly, how do you focus all of that varied talent into a cohesive production concept?
Well, Paul knows what he wants, so you kind of have to follow his cues. But when I first met with him, I said I really liked the raw vibe, aggressive guitar sounds, and zooming around on the bass that he brought to “Oh Woman, Oh Why” [from Ram, 1971]. So we went for that vibe on Driving Rain—although the results weren’t as cohesive as on Memory Almost Full—and then he did Chaos and Creation in the Backyard with Nigel Godrich, and we continued with the approach on Memory. I really like the grittiness of “Mr. Bellamy,” “Only Mama Knows,” “That Was Me,” “Vintage Clothes,” and “Nod Your Head,” because I love it when Paul is really singing his ass off. He’s completely unique when he does that. I mean, he can obviously sing beautifully in many different ways, but that aggressive approach was more what I wanted.

I remember hearing your Pearl Harbor and the Explosions single in 1979, and, as a snotty San Francisco musician at the time, I thought it sounded awful. But when I listened recently to your 1979 production and the cleaner re-recording you did for the band’s 1980 Warner Bros. album, the aggro indie version kicked the crap out of the major label track.
That’s actually the example of my production life! I engineered six songs, and there was tons of stuff I didn’t get right, but I thought, “Wow, this feels really good.” Nobody would sign it. Then, Howie Klein put out “Drivin’” on his 415 Records [a San Francisco indie label], and it did really well, so all the labels were back offering ten times the money they could have got it for in the first place. Of course, once the Explosions got signed to a major label, we had to go in and re-cut everything—which took a long time because it was all done very carefully—and it didn’t feel right to me at all. I was the producer, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I hate that concept of, “Oh yeah, we can improve on this,” because, most of the time, you can’t. When something is getting real reactions from people, there’s always a reason for it. But getting signed can be like when you’re going to marry someone, and you say, “I love you. You’re amazing.” Then, you get married, and you say, “Could you change your hair and get some fake tits?”

Sad. . . .
I’ve seen bands ruined by that sort of thing. When I was head of A&R at Columbia, I would hear the A&R people say the weirdest things to artists. I would see the artist’s face fall, and I’d think, “Wow. You don’t want to crush that guy’s spirit, because it doesn’t have to slip away very far before the music starts to lose its distinctiveness.” To me, once the artist’s commitment goes away, it’s over.

This is one reason that I hate compromise. I want to be 100 percent happy, and I want the artist to be 100 percent happy. I once had a conversation with someone about a mix. The guitar was really bright and in the foreground, but it made the voice sound way bigger. In fact, I wasn’t even listening to the guitar—other than noticing it made the voice sound great. Well, this person thought the guitar was too loud, and asked, “Can we just tuck it back a little bit?” I hate that phrase, and you hear it a lot. “Just tuck it in a little.” It’s one of those phrases I always assumed was in some ’80s TV movie where the A&R guy was on coke, but somehow it got put in the A&R handbook of “things to say in the studio.” Anyway, I said, “No. If I do that, the mix is going to fall apart.” He said, “I’ll meet you halfway—can’t you turn it down just a little bit?” But if I turn down the guitar 2dB, I’m changing the whole foreground of the mix. I ended up pushing the guitar back, and giving the person a reference CD. He came back and said, “You know what? You were right. You just moved the guitar a little bit and the mix fell apart.” I felt that was a great moment, because I had a really strong idea of what something should be, and I figured out a way of maintaining that idea, rather than putting it somewhere between one idea and another idea. That’s the spirit of compromise, and it doesn’t often work too well in music.

When I was finishing Memory Almost Full with Paul, he said, “When you put out a record now there’s all this crap you have to go through. I finish my record, and I’m happy with it. It sounds good to me. But when I turn it in, I feel like all I do is disappoint people.” [Laughs.] But Paul will not compromise one molecule of his music. Not for the record company, and not for anyone else. To see that commitment to self-expression in an artist is fascinating. Sometimes, it feels pretty hopeless to try to get that going with an artist in light of what record companies need today. When I get the opportunity to work with somebody as great as Paul, you can see that self-expression and the emotion that’s pouring out of the music. When you can experience somebody really going for it, I just think it’s the greatest thing in the world.

The Kahne Method

Utilizing a Dangerous Music Mixer and a RME MADI system, David Kahne concocted a best-of-both-worlds scenario where all his analog and digital processing is immediately available at all times.

“I have access to my Federal AM-864 and Fairchild 670 tube compressors, my Chandler compressors, my hardware SSL XLogic Alpha Channel, my Roger Nichols plug-ins, the Neve 33609 plug-ins, and a bunch of hardware and software EQs,” says Kahne, whose main audio engine is Steinberg Cubase 4 running on a PC. “It’s pretty seamless—I don’t have to patch anything. It’s all wired all the time because the MADI system is so flexible.”

Kahne uses four Dangerous Mixers (a total of 64 channels) for summing direct to an Alesis MasterLink because he doesn’t like mixing in the computer. “I could hear a lot of phasing and weird stuff in the summing output, and the headroom was really low coming out of the computer, so the mix would start to crap out,” he explains. “When I got the first Dangerous box, I could feel the audio open up completely.”