Monday, October 28, 2013

"Lou hates it!"

Lou Reed had a rep as a cantankerous old goat who did not suffer fools. In his obit, former sparring partner Robert Christgau—the Village Voice music critic who was one of many targets of Reed’s on-stage ranting, heard on the Take No Prisoners live album—said, “Artists can be irascible motherfuckers, and all indications are that Lou Reed was more irascible than most.”

But that was with critics. What was it like to work with him?

Michael Phillip Wojewoda is one of the greatest musicians and producers in Canadian music of the last 25 years, primarily known for his work with the Rheostatics; he also served behind the boards for some of the best-loved recordings to come out of Toronto’s underground in the late ’80s, and he’s helmed recent records by Barenaked Ladies, Lemon Bucket Orchestra and Anvil.

Here, he writes about attempting to capture Reed’s magic on tape—and why Lou always knows best.

The Guest
by Michael Phillip Wojewoda

Sitting in the mastering room I realized that Lou was right. Humility rears it beautiful head and gives me a wink. I sink into the oversized leather couch at the back of the room and enjoy the tradition of "letting go" that only a mastering room allows a record producer.

A month earlier I had been in a Manhattan studio setting up to record guitar overdubs for a new Kevin Hearn album. Although Kevin might be best known as a member of Barenaked Ladies, he is also a prolific solo artist in his own right. I have had the privilege of producing most of his solo efforts. The tale of Kevin's journey through cancer and recovery is perhaps best left for his memoirs, but suffice to say that it was these events that led to his friendship with Lou Reed.

Kevin eventually became Lou's bandleader and piano player of choice. Having a guest guitar solo was a sweet exchange between them. With all the amps and guitars setup and ready to go, I saw a leather-clad man with a cane walk in, rake thin and frail. I recognized the hip pain in his gait. Perched on top of this humble body was the unmistakable head of Lou Reed. 

The stories I had heard about his temperament were absent in our session. He played with creative enthusiasm and the tracks sounded interesting and full of life. Perhaps it was the presence of his wife, Laurie Anderson, in the control room that had a tempering quality on his mood. Earlier in the day she had laid down some violin tracks as well. After playing for almost two hours he eventually came into the control room.

Everyone was preparing to head off to dinner. I didn't expect an invite, but once he heard some playback he got very excited by the sound of his guitar tracks. I was then asked to join the party. The evening was warm and friendly. I enjoyed listening to Lou gently mentoring Kevin about working one’s strengths as a vocalist. An almost paternal quality could be seen. When Kevin went to the washroom the table bonded over how lovely Kev is as a person. Much wine was consumed.

The guitar solo was to be played on the back third of the song. To expedite the process I ended up looping a four-minute section of the outro and had the solo played across it. My intention was to then edit a "best of" guitar solo and trim the section back down to about 45 seconds, then fade. During the session a solo was performed across the whole four minutes. Our only note was, "Do with it what you will."

It was only after we mixed and mastered the whole album did a call come from New York: “Lou hates it! Please send the hard drive down and his people will mix it.”

The funny part was that I was actually flattered to finally get some of the legendary difficulty coming my way. It was like spending a pleasant evening with Don Rickles and finally getting insulted as I'm leaving. I was honoured. We waited a few days to hear the results. As it turned out they recalled the computer session from the day we recorded, the very sound he heard when coming into the control room. Turned up the guitar solo and said, "print it!" The only way to describe the solo was... four minutes, no edits, Holy Shit Loud. It made me laugh. Sitting in the mastering room, the task of matching Lou's mix to the body of the song we mixed fell to Joao Carvalho. He did a great job of matching Ted Jenson's original mastering.

When the stitching was complete we listened to the whole song. It sounded fantastic.

Lou was right. Damn.

The song, “Coma,” is the lead-off track from the 2009 album Havana Winter by Kevin Hearn.

Hearn shared his own memories of Lou Reed with CBC here.

UPDATE: Here are Emily Haines's brilliant words about her relationship with the man. 

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