An Interview with Bob Ezrin
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An Interview with Bob Ezrin

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An Interview with Bob Ezrin

Following is an unabridged version of the Bob Ezrin interview featured in the 2011 Long & McQuade gear guide.

Bob Ezrin - the "Producer's Producer"
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in April 2004 and into the Canadian Music Industry Hall Of Fame in 2006, Bob's resume reads like a who's who of the music and entertainment industry. From Alice Cooper to KISS, Lou Reed to Pink Floyd, Bob Ezrin has undoubtedly left his mark on the planet's music scene.

Bob recently sat down with Long & McQuade's Scot Buchanan to talk about such topics as the infamous School's Out intro, Bob's commitment to community, his dream producing gig and more.

Scot Buchanan: You're a strong advocate of music education and the importance of music in the developing mind. What took you down this road?

Bob Ezrin: Well, being a father of five kids took me down that road. Being as involved as I was in their growth process, I realized how important things like music and arts were to the development of a kid. I know how important it was in my life, and obviously because I do it for a living it was fundamental to me. I was exposed to music at such an early age and had the benefit of so much music education, both through school and at home.

Then I started getting involved with kids' organizations, dealing with inner-city kids in the US and Toronto. What I realized was that some of the things that they were lacking in their lives could have been provided through the school system with one simple addition, one simple reintroduction of a subject into the curriculum, which was music. What they didn't have in their life at all was the experience of working as a team while owning their own part: the experience of taking an abstract concept and turning it into a physical reality. They didn't have the experience of practicing something over and over again until it went from awkward to beautiful. They never had that feeling; they never got that feeling of accomplishment, the repetition of something until it got really great. Except through possibly sports, and sports were far less a collaborative effort. Even things like football and so-called “team sports” and so on, the collaboration is kind of twitchy and really fast.

The thing about music is that you are in a collaborative state for the entire process of creating, and the entire process of playing. And then, finally, the thing that music education provides for kids is an ability to use their imaginations and to experience the joy of creation. Because everything they do, whether they write it or they play it, everything they do is creating something from nothing. If I put a piece of wood with some metal filaments in your hand, it has no inherent value until you actually make it do something; you create the sound that comes out of it. That's a fantastic thing. And taking that away from kids I think robs them of a very important formative experience. When you look back historically, this culture, our culture, is the only one that didn't learn through music. Our current culture is the only one that hasn't been teaching things through music. And everything else, when you talk about religious education, or talk about Asian talk about the verbal traditions of primitive cultures and so on, they teach through song. They teach through music: song and dance. We don't. We teach through sitting at a desk looking at two-dimensional objects and saying things out loud, or reading them on a page. We would be so much more effective if we could introduce that back into the process of education. But it's not “evolved enough” for our society.

SB: You've almost got to “devolve” it at this point.

BE: No kidding. Well, I think it's more highly evolved by a mile. Than sitting on flat pieces of paper. We're like cavemen. We're there with rocks... beating rocks on the ground.

SB: What led you to create Nimbus School of Recording Arts?

BE: Self defense.

BE: When Garth [Richardson, co-founder of Nimbus School of Music] and I came up, Nimbus (Nimbus 9 studio in Toronto in the 1970’s) was not just a production house but it was actually a teaching studio; it was a training ground. Everybody that came into the company was taught by the senior members, taught a craft and put through their paces, and made to do things. When I first went to work for Jack (Richardson, Garth’s father and Guess Who, Bob Seger, and Badfinger producer) I didn't know whether to scratch my watch or wind my elbow. [Laughs] Jack basically threw me into the fire on my first day on the job, basically sent me into the studio to record.

At that time it was commercials as well as records. He threw me into the studio doing Coca Cola commercials. Of course he didn't just set me loose without telling me anything, but watched me and corrected me and let me stumble and told me how to fix it next time. Everywhere I went with Jack, we would go to different gigs and I would do pre-production for him with his bands. Wherever we went I had a notebook and I asked questions about everything. And Jack told me everything that he knew, or anything that I asked about.

He even paid to send me to school at the Eastman School of Music. During the summer I took a two-week production course from Phil Ramone and Dave Green. Not bad teachers. The whole culture of the place was about teaching. Just teaching us a craft so we'd be good enough. And not just because he was a good guy, but also because he wanted his company to be at a certain level. He wanted that quality for all of the projects that were being done by Nimbus.

When we opened our own studio, we hired people who really didn't have much in the way of studio experience and trained them – our way – to do our kind of records.

Phil Ramone was teaching these courses at Eastman because A&R Studios in New York – his studio – had exactly the same philosophy: it was a teaching studio. When you went to work at A&R you started in the library logging things, just so you'd know what things were. “It's a two-track tape.” What is that? How does that work? So you'd start in the library. Then you'd go work in the mastering room because you had to know what the end was, in order to know how to do the beginning, and to know what things ought to sound like at the end. Then they would work you through the studio as an assistant – well not an assistant but a T-boy – and then an assistant engineer and then finally an engineer. By the time you went through all those rungs at A&R and you became an actual A&R house engineer, you were really experienced. That doesn't exist anymore. Most studios can't afford to do that, the economics are just not as they used to be. Everybody's got sixty-five jobs, they can't afford to train. They need people to come right out from wherever they are, walk in the door and be ready.

That is why we started the school. Because most of the other schools that were doing this – were purporting to do this – weren't really preparing their students for the real world. Even the ones that claimed that it was “real-world” education. Although I must say, the best people that I had worked with that came out of schools did come from Full Sail in the United States; that was the best of all of them. But even many of their graduates were missing something. It isn't really the real world, it's a school campus. You're only doing things in a student-like way. We go back to our history and we realize the best teaching ground is the actual studio itself, it's the production company itself. We decided to open a school that was a working studio, or actually a number of working studios and had a production company and had stuff coming through the doors all the time. The students were working real projects from the day they got here. And it really shows because the kids who come out of here are prepared.

One of the most important things that we learned coming up through Nimbus 9 was – never mind the technology and all that other stuff – but more important than anything: we learned our place. We learned how to act. We learned what was expected of us. We learned it because we got the crap beat out of us a lot of the time. Not literally, but you know. In those days you didn't have to be politically correct; you could yell at somebody if they were wrong. So, you got yelled at a number of times, you'd stop making that mistake, and you were very respectful. You learned respect from the very beginning because the big guys knew what they were doing and it was very clear that you didn't. And your aspiration was to get as good as them, so you did what you were told, you watched everything, you learned everything possible. That's the atmosphere we have here at the school.

SB: What type of recording engineer are you trying to produce at the school, and what influence do you want to have on your students?

BE: We're trying to create more than recording engineers here. What we want to do – and this is where Kevin (Williams, co-owner of Nimbus School) is really instrumental as the head of the curriculum – he's always adamant about making sure that what we turn out of here are people who can actually function in today's music business.

We're not just turning out recording engineers, we're turning out people who are aware enough of what's going on in the real music business so that they can compete. If there are jobs available, they can get them. Or if there are no jobs available they can begin to create their own stuff. They know how to do that, and they know how to market. They know how to create it from the beginning. It's very important.

SB: So either work for somebody or just do it yourself.

BE: We're really turning out more than just engineers. Although, I know we have separate courses and stuff, we're actually talking in the future about blending things, because I think – and Garth and Kevin and I are in complete agreement on this – in the modern world, you have to wear many hats in order to succeed in this business. Just being an engineer may not be enough to make a living.

SB: Where did you meet Jack Richardson?

BE: I met Jack because his partner, Allan MacMillan, was the music director on a musical review that I was the script editor on. The decision was made early on to do the review as a rock show, meaning we needed a rock band and rock material. Allan was far more pop-oriented, stage-oriented, and I was more the rock guy. So I got conscripted to work with him on the music. I ended up finding a band, which happened to be a band I was producing at the time, and found a lot of the material. In fact I think I found all of the material for the show, so I worked on the arrangements. Allan was great on the big stage arranging, all the vocal arrangements and stuff, and I just did the rock stuff. But he liked what I did with that and said “I want you to meet my partner, Jack. He could use someone like you.” So they set up an appointment and I went in to see Jack and said I wanted to be a manager because I thought that's what managers did, and Jack said “I don't think you want to be a manager. I think what you want to be is a producer.” So I said, “Okay. Yes, sir.”

I think Jack was the first complete Canadian producer. The guy who could do it all. And, really, he invented modern Canadian record production. I think all the rest of us, from David Foster to Bob Rock to even Danny Lanois, we learned from the things that he did. And I think the whole industry owes him a huge debt for taking us out of the parochial and making us truly international and world-class.

SB: What advice would you give an aspiring artist who says “Gee, I've got all this fantastic gear. Where do I go next?”

BE: Well, the first thing I would tell a starting artist is: Don't get a whole bunch of fantastic gear.

BE: Sorry, Long & McQuade! Get the basics. And more important than anything, before you get the gear, you gotta know that you're actually good at something. You can write, you can sing, you can play. Whatever your chosen artistry is. Or you can flow, or you can create beats. But you've got to know that you're good at something. And you've got to get good before you get lost in the weeds of too many choices and too much good equipment. Once you know you're good, then go out and get the best stuff you can, but get as little of it as you actually need to function. It's too easy to get lost. If you get way too much stuff, you find you're spending all of your cycle time, all of your brain time, figuring out gear and not making the music. So first things first: get your music chops together. Make sure that you're really good at whatever it is that you do. Then get the equipment you need, and only what you need, to support that. And then, when you start having success, buy a bunch of toys. Which is what I did. Get all the toys in the world, one you know you're actually good at something.

SB: I don't think that's bad advice, even for Long & McQuade. It’s important that people get the right equipment for them.

BE: The problem is that it is almost affordable, whereas when I was starting out it wasn't even close. Forget it, you know. Having a console or a tape machine. Nobody would even dream of it. The best we could manage was a guitar and an amplifier.

SB: What's your number one goal as a producer and how do you stay focused on it through a project?

BE: Well, my job as a producer is to help – no, it's not even to help – my job as a producer is to deliver a marketable product to an artist and their label, so that they can actually sell something. That's the reason that they want to do it. That's not sexy, and it doesn't sound very artful, but it is the bottom line. We have to turn in something that people will love. That's our job.

So knowing that, my way of doing it is to try to do it in a more artful, more sensitive, more character-filled way than maybe some other producers would do. I'm really into interesting characters, I'm into strange sounds and soundscapes. I like big dramatic stuff, so all my stuff is big and dramatic. But that's my goal: my goal is to help the artist to connect with a bigger audience. That's my job as a producer.

SB: You have a strong commitment to community; Music Rising, Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, Young Artists for Haiti , MusiCounts... Was there a moment you started going in this direction, or did it just happen gradually?

BE: I'm born into a family that was always very community-oriented and it was always about helping other people. Our house was where all the strays came, and we fed everybody and took care of everybody. My dad's a doctor, and I'm the eldest of eight kids, so it was always community. There was never any question. There was no “moment” in which this started to happen; it was just part of my life.

SB: Do you have to change your approach when you're working with artists as diverse as Hanoi Rocks, Fefe Dobson or Pink Floyd? Do you suddenly have to do a lot of things differently for the personalities, or do you pretty much work the same all the time?

BE: I approach everybody straight ahead, in a very honest fashion. I try to be sensitive to who they are, but I do like to push people to achieve their highest potential. In that sense, I approach everybody in exactly the same way. But every artist has different needs in terms of the environment that they require to create their best, the kind of dynamic that they need between them and the producer. And in that sense I'm totally adaptable. There is no “my way or the highway,” - I don't subscribe to that. There's no “Bob Ezrin Method,” I don't have a set-up factory where you plug into my amps to get my guitar sound or you play on my drums. Every gig I treat as a different creature. But there are certain fundamental principles that I bring into everything, and the most important principle is honesty, and putting my ego aside.

SB: A perspective that somebody could take in the past few years is that the music business has put a lot of emphasis on being famous and perhaps less on the music. Do you think most artists are focusing on the right aspects and are the big companies helping or hurting with that right now?

BE: Well, do I think most artists are focusing on the right aspects? No. I don't think most people in society are focusing on the right aspects of their lives. We've been marketed to death, we're overwhelmed by media and expectation. We're overwhelmed by our aspirations which are actually fed to us. We don't develop our own aspirations; people tell us what we're supposed to aspire towards. And they hit us with so much imagery and so much messaging, every day, all day long, that it's not our fault that we end up owning the aspiration as though it was our own creation. ASo I think a lot of us are motivated by the wrong things culturally. And that's kind of sad.

In our business, the motivation... here's the deal. When you say “a lot of artists,” right away there's a contradiction in terms, as far as I'm concerned. I think even in times when the people are pious, God may give us two or three real artists in an age, like real Artists with a capital 'A'. There aren't very many “real artists.” There are a lot of singers, songwriters, great performers, and terrific emcees and great DJs, but, artists? Not necessarily. When you run into an artist, they are always motivated by the right thing. A true artist has an absolute burning compulsion to express something. They can't help themselves; it's beyond their control. And sometimes it is to their great personal peril that they pursue this, but they have no choice. They're born with it. And those people are motivated always by the right things. Everybody else, the rest of us mere mortals who are doing it because we love music, we're all... I think our motivations have been polluted somewhat by modern marketing and modern media. We're much more interested in the fame before we actually ever spend any time on the craft. Or on the “art” itself. And that's kind of sad. I wish that it was like a driver's license: that you had to pass a certain level of proficiency before you got a license to get out into the real world and create. But there is no such thing, it's now completely democratic. So the good news is that anybody can do it. The bad news is that anybody can do it.

SB: I always felt wang bars should be like that: they should come with a license.

BE: You're absolutely right!

SB: You've recorded some really legendary guitar parts direct, like the intro to “School's Out “and the solo in “Another Brick in the Wall.”

BE: Well actually, yeah... the “School's Out” intro, it was direct, yes. I over-drove the input of the console. So the console created the distortion and not the direct box. That was something we discovered, but not by accident. Roy Cicala showed it to me at the Record Plant; he said, “Hey look at this! Look what happens when you turn this up.” So we turned the input gain all the way up and you could hardly push the fader up. I think the fader was like a centimetre off the bottom, and it was “bzzzzzz.”

SB: What makes you decide to approach a part like that, because probably most guitar players would go, “No, it has to be an amp,” but you've done these really famous parts that are done direct.

BE: I knew what sound I wanted. And that's not the only stuff I've done direct. I've done lots that way; it's just that those are the most famous ones. And not just direct; there are a million different ways to record things. And an infinite number of tones and shapes that you can make with musical instruments.

I guess in my case, almost all of the time I know the sound I'm looking for. And because I've done this so often and for so long I usually know how to get that. But every once in a while I don't know how to get that and I just experiment until I reach it. With both of those, I knew what I wanted. I knew what the sound needed to be. It was just a matter of finding the way that made it work the best. In the case of “Another Brick in the Wall,” we'd already done that before. I just wanted to do it again for the solo, slightly differently. So it was a different guitar but it was the same sort of double compression, you know a D.I. thing with a little bit of delay on it and it pops like crazy, doesn't it?

SB: Who haven't you worked with that you'd like to work with musically? I know you're into so many other things.

BE: I would love to produce Arcade Fire. I think they're just the most inventive and interesting band I've seen in longer than I can remember. And I think that I would bring something to their records that would be interesting to them as well. But, who knows. They're not doing too badly for themselves the way they are right now. [Laughs]

And my friends and brothers in U2. Somehow our paths continue to cross in different ways but we've never actually ended up doing an album or anything like that together. I would love at some point to do that with those guys because I love that band. And they're good guys.

SB: One last question: you've recorded multiple legendary albums and started internet radio companies, created video companies, have been involved in films and done so many community causes, started a recording school. Do you have any other projects on the horizon, or do you just go where you see fit at the time? Or do you think “I'm going to be doing this in a few years.”

BE: That's an interesting question. Like John Lennon said, “Life's what happens when you're busy making plans,” so one of the things I learned a long time ago is that every time I planned two or three years out, it got screwed up. It just would never happen right, and I'd regret it. So I'm always about a year out from any given time. Give or take a few months, I have a pretty good vision of what the next year is going to be like.

So yeah, I've got a couple of things already lined up that are going to be very time consuming. But, by the same token, I also think you have to be flexible these days. You have to be able to call audibles from the huddle when the circumstance requires. I try not to be so rigidly booked that I couldn't enjoy a wonderful opportunity when it came along.