RC: You work with these artists for such a long time during pre-production and recording. It must be inevitable that you develop a close friendship with them after a while. In a way, doesn’t it become harder to be critical of their work?
VG: It becomes easier, the more familiar you get with them, because the barriers and defenses go down. It’s easier for me to be frank with Martha three years later, than it was the first month, because: A, I was afraid of hurting her feelings; and, B, afraid of what she was going to think of me. Is she going to think I’m a tyrant?
No, the more familiar you become, the more open the lines of communication. You’re more comfortable with the person, and there is less and less need for dialog. She knows what I want from her as a performer; I know, hopefully, what she wants, and we get to the point a lot quicker.
RC: I would also think that it provides you with an insight into knowing when to kick them forward, and when to dangle the carrot in front to get them going.
VG: Absolutely. I’ve known her so long that I know when to say it’s over; go home. Sometimes it’s five o’clock at night; sometimes it’s three o’clock in the morning. I know when the productivity level has peaked. That’s when I go, “Good night. See you tomorrow.”
RC: I noticed that you tend to rely on the same session players for most of your dates. Does that stem from the same sort of philosophy . . . that you know them so well there’s an extra efficiency?
VG: Sort of, but I think it has to do with more than that—a love affair with a great player. I’m sure that just as directors fall in love with actors and actresses, producers fall in love with musicians. I don’t mean in a sexual connotation, but on an emotional level. When I first heard Russ Kunkel play drums, I was in awe.
And he was a young man just starting out. But he had that thing that when you hear a great drummer, whether it’s in the early raw form, or the finished polished form, you just know when you hear it. At least I do. So I worked with basically the same 10 musicians for 10 years.
When it came time for me to make a break with [producer] Peter[Asher], and start producing on my own, I knew it was imperative that I build my own little group of musicians, as opposed to using his. His were used to his method of operation. Although I learned a lot from the man, I wasn’t going to do it the same way. That’s when I started looking for the guys I wanted to use.
It’s hard, too, because when you’ve dealt with the Waddy Wachtels, and the Leland Sklars and Russ Kunkels of rock and roll, you’ve set a standard that is pretty hard to duplicate. But I did, although I still go back and use Waddy from time to time.
RC: What do you look for when selecting musicians for a session?
VG: I guess my own taste in musicianship. I know very few musicians who are feverish readers—playing noted parts that are written out. They can read their way through a rough chart, because most of the stuff we write out is just chord charts to give the people a guide to follow. I look basically for the feel they have for playing.
RC: Many producers and engineers prefer not to work with the same people most of the time, because they feel that they reach a certain point in their careers where it’s difficult to remain creative.
VG: That happened with the old group of musicians I worked with when I was with Peter Asher all those years. But [deciding] when it happens is not that clear cut. It’s not that suddenly they don’t become creative anymore, because their wonderful talent doesn’t go away.
It’s just that you fall into a rut. It’s like Steve Garvey playing for the [LA] Dodgers all those years, and last year he wasn’t playing that well. Then he goes to San Diego, and he’s killing them.
The same thing happens with musicians—familiarity breeds contempt. The temptation is to start getting lackadaisical. I know I can get a good drum sound on Russ Kunkel without turning up the speakers. I could leave them shut off, EQ them, balance them on VU meters, and know it would sound great, because I’ve worked with him that long. When you get to that point, you lose the fear.
When I make records, I operate under a fear premise that this project won’t sound good enough, won’t feel good enough, won’t something good enough. It’s fear. If I sit there and kick back, knowing I can get a great sound on these guys, because they’re all going to play great, I’ve lost that hungry, street-level edge that got me here. That’s what becomes difficult in terms of creativity.
Here’s the difference; you’ve got the Phoenix Sun Devils and the New York Yankees. I’m sure there are days when the New York Yankees do not feel like playing baseball, but they do, because they’re professionals. The same thing holds true in this business. When you’re a professional, and you’re good, you’re respected, and you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency, you then have to figure out how to motivate yourself day after day. I have trouble with it.
I’ve been sitting in a control room for 15 years looking at a pair of speakers. It’s hard for me sometimes to go in there when I would rather be out in the sun sailing to Catalina, or playing gold at Riviera. I have other interests. But I have to get that fear of, “Is this going to be a hit record?” Well, it’s not going to be a hit record if I don’t work on it. And it’s not going to be a hit record if I don’t put into it what I put into the last one.
You have to motivate yourself. That’s how I do it—with fear. There’s that guy right behind me; he’s right on my heels. Until I decide to move into another area, I have to keep motivated. I have to keep up with the technology; keep my ears and eyes open all the time.