What do The Tragically Hip’s Day for Night, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, The Neville Brother’s Yellow Moon and REM’s Automatic for the People have in common?
For the last 30 years, Howard has had a front-row and behind-the-scenes seat for some of the music industry’s biggest talents, working with Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Neil Young and countless others, producing some of rock and folk’s classic albums.
But he never had a chance to sit and think about his career, the albums he made, the people he’d met or all the great music he heard, until he was diagnosed with melanoma a while back.
With a sudden break in the action, Howard started taking stock and putting it on paper, sketching an outline for what has become his new book, Listen Up!, just published by ECW Press.
He was encouraged by another Canadian author fresh off his own book diving deep into one of Canada’s most beloved bands: Michael Barclay, who had just published his book on the Tragically Hip.
Barclay and Howard will be teaming up again on Wednesday, when they discuss the book and Howard’s incredible career as a record producer during a book launch party at the Horseshoe Tavern. (It’s free! And Howard will be signing books after.)
Howard attributes his longevity in music to what might seem an obvious approach to recording, but one that many artists have shrugged away: He builds studios in rooms with high ceilings and then has all band members play together in the same room at the same time.
“That’s my trick,” he laughed. “If I record in a room that has a high ceiling, it allows me to track everybody all together without having leakage. Normally in the studio, you have to put an acoustic guitar player in a booth, a drummer in this booth, the bass player in another booth… People can’t believe you can be in the room with the drums and there’s nothing leaking in them. The high ceilings – all the sound goes up.”
It changes the feel and dynamic of a performance if a band plays and tracks as a band, he said. It’s an approach that results is richer, more engaging and more cohesive sounding songs and one that kept some of music’s biggest names coming back.
“Dylan’s record Time Out Of Mind, there were 15 people playing at the same time – two drummers, a keyboard player, a guitar player, it was like a circus,” he said. “And Bob changes the key on every take. You’ll do three takes in a row.”
In addition to sharing the stories of being behind the console while recording dozens of albums, Howard’s book also provides insight into how his recording studios were arranged. Most times, he’d scout a new location for a studio at the request of Daniel Lanois with whom he’s worked very closely since the beginning of his career.
Howard would rent a house, former church, cave or other building, and build a studio from the ground up, soundproofing windows with rubber linings and plywood and hanging rich tapestries or other materials around the room to provide an exotic feel. He’d test the acoustics to make sure no errant hums would interfere with the recording and would work with a team of movers to make sure all the equipment was in place, sometimes wrapping up the last electrical cords just before the band arrived. He details this process in the book, giving some technical insight into the daily demands of a producer.
He also liberally sprinkles in stories about these legendary musicians, including how he got Bob Dylan back on a motorcycle for the first time since the wreck that nearly killed him and how a member of REM stared drunkenly down the barrel of not one but two guns while in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
One of the biggest tricks of the producer trade is learning how to communicate with musicians when they’ve got a sound in their head they want to emulate but they’re using their own phrasing to try and get the point across. Tom Waits once said a drum sound was “too beige,” and that another part of a song needed more “hair” on it. What does that mean!?
“He can’t particularly tell you in technical terms how to do something, he had to say ‘put a little more hair on it,’” Howard said. “Oh, ok, more hair? Here’s the hair button,” he laughed.
Another one of Howard’s tricks was setting up cameras in his studios and setting the shutter timers to take random photos and long-exposure images. The cameras were situated in such a way that they were unobtrusive, allowing him to get tons of photos of masters at work without them being aware of or distracted by them.
By no means is Howard hanging up the headphones and leaving producing in the rearview, but he is adding a few other items to his illustrious resume: He’s working on putting together some concerts and promoting them, including an event June 1 at the Music Hall in Hamilton to raise money for the Melanoma and Mesothelioma Research at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, where he received treatment that has now given him a clean bill of health and a 95% chance of being cancer-free for the rest of his life.
When he received his diagnosis about 18 months ago, Howard said it wasn’t great. “It didn’t look good for a while, but somehow I made it,” he said. “I went on this treatment here in Canada, the doctor is one of the head melanoma specialists in North America. I was lucky to have him take a look at me… I changed my diet, tried eating cannabis oil and doing yoga. I don’t know how but it all worked.”
He’s working with some of his famous friends for the event, including Dave Rave of Teenage Head, Tom Wilson, Jon Harvey of Monster Truck and the evening will be hosted by Coyote Shivers, possibly best known for his role in the movie Empire Records.
“I have the power, musically, to pull some of these things off and I’d like to create a foundation to help raise money,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”