Steve Berlin

It is difficult for even the most successful artists to pull off serious producer careers — at least at the same time as their own music careers. Those that do tend to take long-ish breaks between their own work and other works they are producing: Brian Eno, Todd Rundgren, and Ric Ocasek all come to mind. Steve Berlin is a longtime member of Los Lobos and also an extremely accomplished producer in his own right. Before joining Los Lobos in 1983, he was saxophone player for The Blasters and was also a very much in-demand session musician in Los Angeles, playing on many recordings including Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland.
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To say Berlin has been busy recently would be a huge understatement. Late last year, his group Los Lobos released what many consider to be its most artistically challenging album: The Town and the City. He also produced a startling record by Jackie Greene, one of the more promising new artists in pop music today.

American Myth sounds like it could have originated from the soul of a Memphis-bred bluesman with many years of experience under his belt. Instead, Jackie is a California-based 27-year-old at the dawn of a brilliant career — the sincerity and authenticity of An American Myth made it one of the more exciting records to come out in 2006.

FROM THE DEMO ON

By the time Berlin received demos from Jackie for American Myth, the songs were already fully developed. “The first time I heard ‘Hollywood,’ ‘So Hard to Find My Way,’ and ‘Just as Well,’ I thought, ‘These songs are so done!’” he says. “He gave me a tape with five songs on it and I remember driving through Los Angeles one rainy Sunday — I got so excited that I would pull over, call my wife and say, ‘Listen to this one! Holy crap, here’s another one!’ Each song was so amazing.” From the very beginning, Berlin knew he was working with some very solid material. He honed in on getting the right players together to create the right mood, and then all he had to do was let the songs speak for themselves.

A picture began to develop that would help crystallize what Berlin was trying to help Jackie achieve: “The record I had in the back of my mind was The Faces’ [Rod Stewart’s] Every Picture Tells a Story. I wanted to use a band that had played together for a long time.” Berlin appreciates The Faces’ approach on the album: “They were taking chances on every song, yet were just so loose, so tight. It sounds like it’s a party that just happened to have a 16-track machine capturing it.” The vibe he wanted was loose, but very coherent.

CALLING IN THE CREW

With this in mind, Berlin recruited the L.A.-based band Jack Shit to help out with backing tracks. Drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher, both formerly of Elvis Costello’s band, provided the backbone while modern-day guitar virtuoso Val McCallum handled a range of stringed instruments — including some very impressive slide guitar work. Jackie himself was no slouch with instrumentation, covering guitar, dobro, piano, harmonica, percussion, and of course, vocals. Jack Shit was able to emanate a distinctive signature on the album, says Berlin: “That decision was probably the best call on the whole record — they got it right away.” This contrasts what can often occur when producers pull in band members from a variety of places. “In my career you’re often like, ‘Let’s put this guy, this guy, and this guy together.’ Sometimes this works great — but other times, and for no particular reason, this guy doesn’t get along with that guy, or this guy is playing too much.” Berlin says that this time, everything fell into place. “They really wanted to experiment, everyone had ideas, and it was just about as fun as you could possible make it.”

COMING TOGETHER

After Berlin had scouted many different locations, tracking was finally done at Stage and Sound in Hollywood. The vibe the studio projected seemed to personify the artist: “Jackie doesn’t have a whole lot of use for stuff that happened over the last 20 years — the ’70s was really his era. [Stage and Sound] is quite literally frozen in time in 1976. I know, because I worked in there in 1976, and it was exactly as it was in every way as it was back then.”

The studio selection ended up putting all the players, including Berlin himself, in precisely the right frame of mind. “It wasn’t that we wanted to make a ’70s kind of record,” he says, “we just wanted to capture that pre-Pro Tools, pre-‘let’s put it on the grid and line it up’ sort of mentality that modern record making has come to. Not that that’s all bad, I’m as guilty as anybody fixing stuff in Pro Tools.” Berlin was after quality live performances, which was far more preferable to him than building up a record piece by piece. “It worked. Everybody really responded to it and we stayed on tape for about 90% of the record. We weren’t going to go into the computer, cut stuff up, and make up something that didn’t actually happen on the floor.”

NEAR IN SESSION/CLOSER IN SOUND

Among American Myth’s best attributes are its intimacy and immediacy. At times, it seems like the artist is right next to you or whispering over your shoulder — songs like “Love Song 2:00 AM” or “Marigold” both have this quality. Berlin elaborates: “These tracks were cut live as can be, generally with the players close together. The idea was not to maintain separation because we were going for performance. On “Love Song 2:00 AM,” for example, the guys were within five or six feet of each other, with no baffling — there was a lot of leakage, a lot of bleed.” According to Berlin, all the “quiet” songs on the record were done in one of the first three takes: “’Marigold’ was take two, ‘Just As Well’ was a first take, ‘Love Song 2:00 AM’ was a first take. Really, it was about getting a great song played by great players in a moment of high inspiration.”

Berlin describes inspiration as the moments in which “one person takes an unexpected turn and everybody else follows him for a little while.” Overall, the sessions seemed to move along at a good clip: “When things go better than planned, time often whizzes by.”

RUNNING THE STREAMLINE

Something that Berlin strives to avoid with any session is bringing in a pre-determined agenda — in fact, he rarely brings in his own equipment as many other producers do. He simply wants to “share the moment” with his artists, rather than offering divine guidance. “I’m not one of those producers who says, ‘Follow me kid, this is a wise path. I’ve been here a million times so just walk where I walk, just do what I do.’” Instead, he regards every record takes a new journey and he tries to bring as few bags as possible along the way. This requires having astute senses and being tuned into everything that’s going on around you, he says. “I try to have my eyes and ears and antenna as open as possible to every single thing that’s happening, and that’s all I ask of the people I work with as well. Let’s experiment: No idea sucks until it’s proven to suck.”

However, Jackie Greene complemented Berlin’s style of working, because he came prepared and was focused — therefore the project got done on a reasonable time scale. “I’m not the guy to call if you plan to spend nine months making a record, because I don’t have nine months to make a record. The projects that I’ll accept will be people who want to make their records on the fast side of reasonable, which is five, maybe six weeks.” Artists should be well rehearsed with songs that have a beginning, middle, and end before entering the studio, Berlin believes — this is based on first-hand experience. “I’ve been in situations with Los Lobos when we’ve been trying to write a record in the studio: You’ve got four songs, but you need 12. Trying to write those other eight in the studio isn’t pretty — you tend to lose focus really fast.” Therefore, he is adamant: “I will not go into the studio if somebody doesn’t have [their songs] ready to go. You can’t tear them apart and put them back together if they don’t exist in the first place.”