An Interview With Bob Rock

 

Michael Brauer

Bob Rock has produced one of the world’s best selling records of all time, The Black Album by Metallica, which according to SoundScan has sold more than 16 million copies in the United States alone.

Bob has also worked with legendary bands such as The Cult, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi and Michael Bublé. In this interview, Bob opens up about how performance is key, how to manage different inputs and feelings from band members, favourite failures, the story behind the production of St. Anger, challenges and stories behind The Black Album, and so much more in this wide ranging interview.

I hope you enjoy this interview and let us know what you think in the comments below.

How important is it to make the artist feel comfortable in the studio, even if it means you have to do things that are a bit unconventional, like putting big subs behind the drummer, which you did during the recording of Mötley Crüe - Dr. Feelgood for monitoring purposes?

I think it’s the most important thing to do. For example, I’ve recorded a lot of guitar players and drummers who are phenomenal but when they get in the studio they freeze up. So, to get them to relax and get the best performance out of them it’s best to make them feel like they are playing in their bedroom or living room. With Tommy, he had to feel the subs and I always put the performance over the sonics. However, when I was an engineer the sonics were the most important thing, but as a producer, you have a different outlook and it becomes about performances and the overall feel, which is why putting subs behind the drums worked. Also, by putting the subs behind the drums, they got picked up by the microphones and filled up the room so it gave the record this weight which you can hear on the album. A lot of people talk about the bottom end on Dr. Feelgood and that’s, besides Tommy’s drumming, how we got it. It was all about satisfying his drumming and right up to the mix he wanted to keep pushing the bottom-end, way more than I had done before. They had a vision and a feel of what they wanted to accomplish and I’m there to help them get their dream come true. It’s not about me, It’s always about helping them make the best album they can.

How do you solve that technically, with for example the subs?

When it got too loud it fed back so we had to find the sweet spot where Tommy felt good and it wasn’t stupid in terms of how much bottom-end there was. I had seen them live and when I heard the kick drum my kidney fell out and that’s when I realised what it was all about. As mentioned previously, it’s all about making them comfortable. For instance, James Hetfield used to record a line, double it and move on, but on The Black Album we captured his performance and I got him a sound where he felt free to do whatever he wanted. It wasn’t about doubling anymore, it was about his original performance and I told him I would get him a sound as big as his double. James also sang with speakers, not headphones, which helped him and freed him up. People might say, there’s leakage but I dealt with the leakage because the performance is more important than the sonics.

How can you see that an artist has a certain potential and that you want to work with them?

With, for example, Mötley Crüe, I was aware of them and I had listened to their records but what really sold me was when I got together with them and I could sense that they thought that they were the best band in the world and to me, that’s the most important thing. It wasn’t fake. Bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who and Rolling Stones, they were all competing to be the best band in the world and to me, that’s the right attitude. Be the best you can. That’s the seed that gets me excited. They don’t have to be big, I just got to believe them and if I don’t, it doesn’t work for me.

If a band is stuck during a recording session, what’s the best way to solve it and move on?

I was lucky that when I started out I did a lot of albums as an engineer and I was always watching what was happening in the studio. They are patterns and there are these things that happen in a studio, you pick up on them and you realize that you have to talk things through sometimes. People can get stuck. You can throw out suggestions and a lot of times maybe only 25% of them works but it’s the seed for them to move on. It took them somewhere. I was lucky enough to do Dr. Feelgood when they had just got sober and they felt that they had to make their best album of their lives. In terms of Metallica, I walked in at that point where it all came together for them. I was lucky enough that I was in the room when everything lined up. That’s the stuff you can’t control.

The Black Album was very well documented as seen in “A Year And A Half In The Life Of Metallica” and there is this moment where Kirk Hammett has to do The Unforgiven solo. It came out fantastic but it didn’t start out that way. How were you able to see that he had something better in him, is that something you had learned from previous experiences or you just felt that you could push him and that he had it in him?

I challenged him because that’s where my head was at. I was looking for more and so was he. During the recording when we did all the live takes on the floor, Kirk played a solo on every take of every song. He wasn’t thinking about what to do, he was just playing. I made cassettes of all those solos and gave it to him to listen to and he found all these things he didn’t know he had played. He took those ideas and made the final solo. Since they had never made an album like this before they were a bit frustrated because they were playing every song 30 times and Kirk was kind of pissed but in the end, it was a blessing. It wasn’t me being a genius, it was just an accident and I thought that it would be a good idea to make cassettes of all the solos and give it to him. Once again, It’s about inspiring somebody and getting the ball rolling.

During the making of The Black album it seems like you were tested a lot of times, how did you manage to get them to believe in your vision?

They liked previous albums that I had made, such as The Cult - Sonic Temple and Mötley Crüe - Dr. Feelgood. They particularly liked the sonic quality of Dr. Feelgood and they wanted that size and weight. Also, when we started working together their confidence in me grew when they saw what I did. It’s like trust and I had to prove myself to them but they also had to prove themselves to me.

Did you have a pre-production meeting with Metallica before The Black Album and what was the discussion like?

Yes, we did. It was tough because they had put together their arrangements themselves and no one had ever suggested that they should try different things. I always used to find the tempo and the key of the songs and about 6 songs in I realized that every song was in the key of E, so I said, “Do you guys ever play in another key and why is it always in E?” James just looked at me and said, “It’s the lowest note.” Which, of course, is what he would say to me. I replied, “Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and why Dr. Feelgood is deep and big is because they are tuned down to D.”

So they tuned down to D and we rehearsed Sad But True which made them go, “Oh.” At that point they kind of went, “Ok, every once in a while he has a good idea.”

Do you always start out by finding the tempo and the key of the songs when you start working on a new album?

With, for example, Metallica it wasn’t so much that I was searching for a different key, it was more an observation because I wrote down the key of each song. For example, with other bands I have worked with they might play their songs in the wrong key so the vocalist is struggling to sing it. You change key so the singer can hear the notes better and be able to sing. With Metallica, it wasn’t so much finding where James sang it was more to create a change when all the songs are in E it can be nice to create a contrast, such as Nothing Else Matters which is in A minor.

Besides finding the tempo and the key of the songs, do you have any other specific routines you liked to follow before you are about to produce a record, do you do a lot of homework about the artist?

My wife tells me I should do more homework sometimes because I have put myself in weird situations when I haven’t done my homework.

Back in 1991, I was really learning about production and being able to work with bands like Metallica and when you are leaning you are figuring out how to handle the personalities, make arrangement changes so you are not demanding and so that it doesn’t become your record. Having been in a band and an engineer in the past I saw so many times where the producer has too much influence on an artist and I never liked that. I appreciate great producers, but The Who and Rolling Stones always sounded like themselves, there was never this producer signature on it. Some producers are like that and it works well for them, but coming from a musicians point of view, I never liked that. I’ve always tried to when I go into pre-production to be sympathetic to what they are trying to do and only if I feel like they are missing something I will suggest something.

A long time ago I dropped my ownership of a suggestion because I don’t get married to the outcome, I make suggestions to inspire people, not because it’s my idea. I don’t own it and I don’t care if we don’t use it as long as we get somewhere in the outcome.

If you are working with a band, how do you manage all the different inputs and feelings from the different band members?

There’s no one answer to that because every band is different. There is always a hierarchy to a band, there's always the alfa male, or in a lot of cases, two alfa males. Soon you learn who is leading the pack and that’s where you concentrate.

Sometimes it’s not an easy thing, particularly with the smaller bands that I’ve worked with where there might be a player that is not that great. You just have to make them feel good and get the best you can out of them. These days, even with an OK take, you can usually get something pretty good. You can manipulate it a lot more. With The Black Album we took 12 months but if we would have had Pro Tools we could probably have done it in 6 months. We used to cut tape and we did 30-40 takes which are 10-15 roles of tape, times 12. It takes a long time to edit.

Do you have a favourite failure, as in something that set you up for later success in the studio?

I’m a sum of all my failures, I have learned from every mistake. For example, when I first started mixing and when I was doing my first mix I tried smoking pot, but it was awful and I have never smoked pot again. It didn’t work for me. Furthermore, I made a lot of mistakes as an engineer and as a mixer because that’s how you learn how to listen. When you start out you think it’s all microphones and EQ’s but you find out that there’s a lot more going on, for example, the sound source has to be good. You can’t get a great guitar sound with an awful amp and an awful guitar. You find out that there all these variables that you have to take care of.

Also, how I got my first studio job at Little Mountain was through not being afraid to make mistakes. I had taken a recording course for 6 weeks, every Saturday, where I learned the basic stuff and the reason the engineer who was teaching us gave me the job was that I was the only guy who answered, when he asked, “Who want’s to try?”, said, “I’ll try.” I wasn’t afraid to be embarrassed nor to make a mistake. This was so key because at some point when you want something you have to say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me, I’m going to do this.”

What has been your hardest decision as a producer?

Looking back, when I did St. Anger, I didn’t really make a great producer choice, what I did was that I made a friend choice. As a producer, it was the wrong move to get involved with something besides the music. However, I had been with them for 12 years and they were falling apart. They had to put themselves together and they couldn’t hire a bass player without being a band again, so I put aside that outside perspective and became a friend. In terms of a producer, it was a bad choice. I should have said, “Why don’t you write the songs and give me a call.”

I guess it’s hard when you have been with them for so long and you have made one of the best selling records ever.

Yes, we became close. Some would say too close and I would probably agree. There’s that point where you do cross the line. Although that’s me looking back; at the time I just went with my gut, I loved those guys and I didn’t want it to fall apart so I showed up and somehow, through it all kept the band together. St. Anger was definitely worth it.

The record St. Anger is great, everyone is talking about the snare drum, but the production and the songs are great.

I agree with you. At that point, we couldn’t just do the exact same thing again and we couldn’t set up the drums the same way.

The story behind the snare drum was that we were just starting to find our way again, James was back and we were just starting to play. We went out with the fan club, to this house in Oakland which they had all lived in at the beginning of their career. I saw the house and when we got back to the studio I asked Lars’s drum tech, Flemming Rasmussen, what drum kit he used and let’s take him back to that moment. They still had his first drum kit and I had bought this snare drum which I paid 50 bucks for and it was the only snare we had so we put it on the drum kit, nobody tuned it or anything. Lars would just stare at this drum kit for weeks but one day he sat down and played it. It inspired him so I threw 4 or 5 Shure microphones on it and we started making demos, we never meant to keep it. It was just an accident but it was refreshing to make music again.

That album is them without any of the niceties. It’s them in that house in Oakland, the snare drum is ringing, it’s not nice sounding, no harmonies, it’s kind of raw, in your face sounding, it’s the absolute truth.

Looking back at your career, are there any or several moments where you thought, “This is heaven, can’t believe I’m working with this artist/project"?

When I did Permanent Vacation with Aerosmith, Bruce Fairbairn, the producer, always used to go home at dinner and the first day when I had set everything up, Bruce went home and Mike Fraser, my assistant at the time, and I were sitting there and Aerosmith were jamming in front of us. You had no idea what Aerosmith meant to me and I felt that I could have died at that point because they were jamming in front of me. I have had a lot of moments like that since. I feel so blessed and I have no idea how all this happened. I just love making records.

Looking at the other side of the coin, has there been any moments where you thought that you can’t do this anymore?

Not really, because I think with the change in the music industry a lot of people stopped because there’s no money. When I was young I decided that somehow I was going to find a way to make records. This is who I am, I write songs and I think songwriters that write songs because they have to will always write songs, but if you do it for the money you will stop. I can’t stop because this is what I know and I love it. I’m OK with what’s going on now because I have been blessed with success but I cant see myself stopping.

Niclas Jeppsson

Written by Niclas Jeppsson

Read more interviews with Andrew Scheps, Vance Powell, Sylvia Massy and download your free guide, How To Get Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer, at: www.youraudiosolutions.com

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