Sunday, November 2, 2014

Lou Whitney R.I.P. - From the archives, an interview with Lou Whitney

[Over 10 years ago I first encountered Lou Whitney as a free-lancer doing a story for Springfield, Mo's Community Free Press Midweek. Over the years Lou became more than an interview subject - he became a friend. The tall man in the engineers chair, leaning back with his chin resting comfortably on his hand,  is how I remember him most in physical appearance. But there was so much more to Lou than that - his incredible grasp of history, his ability to talk intelligently on a wide range of subjects, his unique and defining sense of humor. His manner of speaking in rhythmic sentences and part sentences - the first clue that he was a bass player that understood where the pocket was. His no BS approach. Whether talking as an interview subject or just as two friends, you never got the image of a man. You got the man himself. The last time I heard from Lou was during the early Fall when he sent an inquiry about a photo he needed to track down - one of him in downtown Springfield that somebody wanted to use for an article. I knew the one he was talking about - it graced the cover of CFP for the issue that contained this interview. I didn't know who took the picture, but gave him a starting place to look. The thought crossed my mind that Lou's wife is a photographer and could easily replicate or even surpass that image. "Probably needs a period photo" was my conclusion. I made a mental note to get my ass downtown for a visit - something I hadn't done in a couple years. I never got the chance. What Lou didn't tell me was that he was in the final stages of cancer. Lou passed away last month. Unpacking boxes from a recent move, I found the article this week. So, after 10 years, here it is for the first time on the internet. It still stands as a pretty good picture of who Lou was and a lot of still pertinent information for any budding musicians.]
-by Bill Glahn, first published in the February 4, 2004 edition of Community Free Press Midweek-

"I think the conclave around Springfield is important, even if not on the level of mainstream success. Lou Whitney and D. Clinton Thompson are wonderful musicians and, to some extent, visionary in their perspective on what matters in rock and roll. The artists that have worked with them - most recently, Hadacol and Kristie Stemel - are remarkable talents that are far under appreciated." (Danny Alexander, associate editor of Rock 'n' Rap Confidential)

Lou Whitney's recording studio, called simply enough, The Studio, is the epicenter for much of what gets recorded by local and regional artists around Springfield (MO). When I stopped by The Studio to arrange an interview with Whitney, I quickly found out that music wasn't the only thing that flowed through his blood. Whitney spent his childhood in Phoenix, Az., the grandson of a mayor and the son of a politically active lawyer. A simple introduction quickly evolved into a two-hour discussion on national politics, Whitney staking ground somewhere left of center and proclaiming that the left owns humor these days. I wish I had a recorder on for that conversation, because it would, no doubt, have made a fine entry into the CFP Opinions page. As it turned out, my interview on Whitney would eventually turn to politics anyway. It can't be helped when two old codgers get together.
Bill Glahn: How did you land in Springfield, Mo.?
Lou Whitney: I got into juvenile delinquent-type trouble in the '50s. So they sent me off to live with Step-relatives up in the mountains of East Tennessee. So it was quite a culture shock. I went from Phoenix, which was sort of a test-market L.A. in 1958 to 50 miles from the North Carolina border where they raised hogs and I went to school there. It was either that or go off to a reformatory. I went to high school there and back to Phoenix for college. Then back east to finish college. When I finished college I took a job in Springfield.
BG: When did you first start playing in bands?
LW: I first started playing in bands in college. I started recording at home. With a couple of reel-to-reel tape recorders and bouncing track back and forth making home recordings... writing and singing songs and making demos back in the '60s. My first record, an independent thing, came out in the late '60s.
BG: The first thing I was aware of was The Morells' Shake & Push record in 1982.
LW: Yeah, well that was the first thing that ever did anything. Everything else was kind of local bands making records where you paid for everything yourself. We had a little support on that record. But I was playing for a living before that. When I first came to Springfield I only lasted a year in that job before I drifted back into playing. I played lounges... traveling around playing Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns, wearing jump suits doing Top 40 songs and disco things. But always gravitating towards different guys that had more of an interest in... I always liked rock-a-billy and I would buy all kinds of records. I'd listen to Commander Cody and old Sun reissues. I'd see a Liberty reissue of Eddie Cochran's stuff. And I would buy that at the same time I would buy a Uriah Heep record. The Morells were probably the first band of mine that gained national prominence. We put out a record that sold about 10,000 records independently through distributors. It got four stars in Rolling Stone. reviewed in Playboy. It made noise. We got gigs. It got a lot of airplay in Chicago and Minneapolis and places like that. The first brush we had with anything interesting, I guess, was Donny Hobson and I... We recorded some sides, home recordings, and one of them was called "Driving Guitars." We were out playing with Steve Forbert. He had hired us [as his touring band]. We gave a copy of the record to Vince Scelsa of WNEW [influential New York radio station] and he started using "Driving Guitars" as the theme music on his concert hotline that he used to do for WNEW for seven or eight years! Then we did a cover of "Double Shot of My baby's Love" in a band called The Symptoms that pre-dated the Morells. It got picked up by a little independent label called Ambition Records out of D.C. and New York. It did pretty well. I mean pretty well for us. It got airplay. We got gigs! This is 1980. We were doing this type of thing - just oddball goofy surf-a-billy stuff. People liked it. Around then I met Donny [D. Clinton] Thompson. Playing lounges was getting kind of old. Brewer & Shipley hired him and he went out there with them and saw kind of how things worked out there in the real world. And he comes back and says, "You know, I think we can maybe put together a band that doesn't have to, like, just play lounges." We would always spice up our lounge act with things like Kool & the Gang, then we'd do a Who medley from Tommy. Or we'd do "Double Shot of My  Baby's Love." And people liked it.
BG: That was a pretty popular way to approach it back then. I remember going to clubs in New Jersey back then and there would be some pretty good bands doing hits and familiar stuff that people would want to dance to. But all the really good ones always used to play something out of left field and...
LW: And people would accept it! And that's how you kinda learn that the crowd is going to accept things that are not necessarily mainstream, if they're presented well. So we kind of got into that mode. Donny was the guy that had more good ideas. I'm more of a team player. He had good ideas. I just followed along when he played. Well, you saw those guys play last night [backing Brian Capps at the Outland]. How good do you want a couple of guys to be? Donny's a good guitar player, right? Lloyd's (Hicks) a good drummer.
BG: When did you start The Studio?
LW: The Morells went about as far as we could go. We were offered a record deal and as soon as we were offered the deal, like on a Wednesday... We were supposed to finalize the deal on a Monday and the guys that signed us got fired on a Friday. It was literally like that. It was like, "Oh, we've got it made." Then it was like, "Shit, you mean we've got to start this all over again?" We had a record out. We were starting to work on records and this and a lot of other things came up. So we just hung it up. Where we recorded the record, and the guy that helped us out, a guy named Jim Martin... I was hanging around the studio that he owned at the time. They had an engineer that ran off. So I'm one of those guys - I said, "I'll see if I can help you out." I started learning my way around the studio, freelancing. And I just went into that after The Morells broke up. And I worked for those folks for about 5 or 6 years. That kind of fizzled and the folks that owned it split up. I just took advantage of an opportunity and bought the studio and then wound up moving down here with the stuff around '93 or '94. I've been here ever since doing records regionally.
BG: You do a lot of producing. How does that work? Do you seek out the bands?
LW: It works like this. They come into The Studio. They want to record. They know that I have a studio that has done some things that have made it to labels. And they know I'm reasonable. So they just come down here to The Studio and they get me (as engineer). And I'm in there and I'm one of those guys. I'm going to stick my two cents in. So a lot of the time, at the end of the day, they'll say, "We want to include you in on the production of this thing because you've chipped in ideas and we think you've helped us." So it is production. I'll join the band! I'll say, "Let's take a look at this bridge. Maybe we can change the beat right here. Maybe we can rock this up a little bit. Maybe we can cut that guitar solo in half." The kind of things that producers do, mostly on the music end of it. Plus the engineering, so I'm wearing every hat. Now if they don't want my input, I'm still not going to let them trip. So "production" is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I get hired to produce some bands and get a fee for it on occasion. But not that often.
BG: I think if you ask ten different producers what their job is, you can get nine or ten different answers.
LW: There's a definition of the term "producer" in the record industry. The term has definitive duties. Number one, you're usually hired by a label. Let's go back to a definitive time. A label signs a band because they think they can sell some records. They want them to make a commercial recording. So they engage a producer, a guy who knows all about the record business, to help this band select their songs, come up with a studio that is affordable, a budget to work within, an engineer that fits within the budget, an arranger if need be, keeping track of things that need be, like getting a budget together for strings & sticks, food, lodging.
And overseeing the project to make sure the engineer doesn't screw up. But mostly, optimally, it's musical. Helping the band get a good record out. And then keep track of the credits and then get all that information along with a commercial master back to the record company by a certain date.
That's a producer right there. A producer in the modern day and age? It usually means a guy paid for something, but, "producer" nowadays is a term that gets thrown around a lot. It can be anything from a guy that lays on the couch at the front of the console and wakes up every 30 minutes and says, "Sounds great! Need more donuts?" or a guy who tells everybody every note to play. Optimally for me, it's a guy who joins the band for awhile.
BG: So this is your career now? Running The Studio and producing?
LW: (laughing) Let's talk about the term "career." This is a tough business. I play around quite a bit with Brian Capps. I need that playing money. This is what I do though, yeah. The Studio - I try to keep it afloat.
BG: I would imagine that all this new technology, these affordable digital boards that bands can set up in their basement, a million dollars worth of gear that's now reduced to a thousand dollar computer program...
LW: On the surface you would say, "Yes, that's hurt me." A lot of guys come in here and spend several hundred bucks on doing some recording and they say, "Man, if we just add another 300 bucks to that we can buy a Sound Turret 880 and we can record at home." But they don't realize that there are other things that go into it like expertise, how you mic things, a good bunch of microphones, and a room that sounds good.
There's a learning curve. What you record on, that's not really that important. It's how you do it, what it sounds like. It's a results driven business.
BG: I think the problem with some of these homemade CDs is that you get some bands that haven't even reached first base yet and they're already putting out a CD. Many have never worked their material out in front of an audience yet.
LW: I'm 61. When I started playing nobody wrote their own songs. The bands that played were the bands that did the best renditions of the popular songs that you heard on the radio.
So if your band played Otis Redding songs and Beatles songs better than any other band, you worked. I learned early on... who's the good singer? Who's the good guitar player? What gets the job done? You know, a bass player tries to surround himself with these kind of folks. My strengths in the band are that I've always been a good P.A. guy. I learned at a fairly early time about how to make a band sound good. If you sound bad, you're screwed. Everything I say, you've got to underline "codger." Because I realize when I listen to myself talk, I'm a codger. I'm an old school fuck-head codger. That's what I am. But that's ok.
BG: A lot of artists that have recorded at both The Studio and other places say they like the sound that comes out of here.
LW: I've got a good room to record in and I've kind of got my drill down. My thing is - I got it out of my system pretty early on - the need to put my palm prints, my DNA, on everything that comes out of here. I've learned to listen to a band and take advantage of the effort that they put into it. Let the quantitative analysis set in. Get familiar with it. Come up with options instead of gripes. I'm pretty organic. Drums sound like drums. Guitars sound like guitars. So it may not sound like the flavor of the month. If I can capture what this is all about and get it down, and not in the way of it, then it's up to somebody else to decide if it's up to the moment or not. On the production side of it, if I hear something that... "hey, it might be cool if you went with this here or that there," and they accept it and incorporate it then... Great! Maybe it's something they didn't think of or that they're so close to it that they can't step outside the arena and take a look at it. The main thing with a professional studio is that you can take the entire band and set them up with their equipment and let them play their way completely. We can record everybody all at once and still maintain a degree of separation that allows us to go back and do it with a live feel. They learn their songs live. They rehearse live. So I set them up much as they would rehearse. Make them comfortable. Everybody can play at once. I've got enough microphones, high quality cabling and wire in the building, and tracks on the machines to make that work.
So they can come back and listen to it and mix it to their discretion. That's what separates a professional facility from a project facility. Digital-analog converters come into play because a lot of the stuff is recorded digitally on a computer.
Those converters can range in quality from a pair at a mastering lab that cost in excess of $20,000 for just two, left and right. Or you can buy a sound card that has eight of them in it for $125. But that's not what they're used to hearing on the radio and that's not what you're used to hearing on professional recordings. Professional gear, together with people involved in the chain that mix for a living, record for a living and master for a living... those are the recordings that wind up making it to the radio. Some recordings that are made at home do make it to record. But that's pretty rare. That's a person that has some savvy and some intuitive drive to get the project done.
BG: I get a lot of recordings for review that are made-at-home projects that strike me as vanity recordings. Like vanity publishing. My advise to some of the artists that send out these CDs would be to get out and play. Learn their craft first, before even thinking about making a recording. How do you feel about that?
LW: I would say that would be really good advise. But also that it would be considered old codger advise because that is not the norm for today. I kind of like this term about "doin' business." I'm rubbing my fingers together right here in the international cash sign. Doin' business. Can you draw three, four, five hundred people to see you play on a given Friday or Saturday night in Springfield, Mo., at the Rockwell or some other fine establishment? Well, that's doin' business.
That means people are listening to what you've got to say. Right now there's only a couple of [local] bands doing that. Big Smith. Happy Endings. That might be the only two. There's a lot of people back in second place, but they're way back. You've got to be able to blow people's dress up just by playing. Because, bottom line, it's the music business. Not the haircut and attitude business. Not the video business. It's not the posturing business. It's not the anything business. It's the music business. My advise to young band if they want to record? Go get The Beatles at The BBC. Listen to that!
BG: Or their Hamburg tapes.
LW: Yeah, listen to that shit! And when you're that good maybe somebody at EMI will... Shit, they were playing six sets a night. SIX sets a night for two and a half years! Playing everything from "Besame Mucho" to Al Martino songs to waltzes to polkas to covers of American blues stuff. They played it all. Listen to those guys. Listen to those harmonies. Listen to those guys play. And  they were just, like, a band at the time. There's more bands these days, but there aren't any more people that are that good. There's no more gifted people now than there has been at any other time in history. It's genetic. I know it.
You can teach yourself to do anything, really. That's the great thing about being a human being. If we work at something we can even become good at it. But we'll never be gifted.
Being an old codger is like being a bottom line guy. When the electricity goes off, can you still pick up a guitar, sing a handful of funny songs, entertain some people on the corner enough that they'll throw some money in the box so you can buy a sandwich? Can you fall out there with, like the Marx Brothers, on the sidewalk and do something to knock people's hats off? Be creative. Be an unbelievable, fantastically organized act.
BG: Final thoughts?
LW: I'm 61 years old. I keep waking up every day and think that the Republicans are going to make what I do for a living illegal. You'd be amazed at how much conservatism has crept into rock music. And Libertarians? The mugwumps of the 21st Century.
BG: Maybe you have a question for our Ask the Mayor column.
LW: I'm acquainted with the mayor. I got a lot of respect for the guy. You can't be a raving liberal and get elected in Springfield. But I know Tom is a good guy. Let's see (laughing)... I would like to ask the mayor, "did the city council breath a collective sigh of relief when the Assemblies of God dropped their request to change the name of Booneville to Ashcroft Blvd?"

1 comment:

  1. Very nice interview. Thank you for posting. I learned a lot of things about Lou and others that I did not know. Watching Lou and Donnie perform was one of the real treats in my life.