Since the early '80s, Mitchell Froom has earned the distinction of being a producer of uncommon sensitivity and musical integrity. His track record includes a list of critically and (in many cases) commercially successful artists like Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Suzanne Vega, Crowded House, Del Fuegos, the Pretenders, Paul McCartney, Tim Finn, American Music Club, and others. Many of these artists have done more than one album with Froom, a testament to his ability to make the recording experience a positive one.
Froom also has enjoyed a long-term professional relationship with engineer/production co-conspirator Tchad Blake. The two have worked together for the last eight years.
Among Froom's latest productions are Thompson's Mirror Blue and Costello's Brutal Youth. The Costello album, which was cut at Olympic Studio in London, is notable for reuniting the artist with his legendary original band, the Attractions. It's possibly his best album since arriving at Warner Bros. five years ago. The title certainly conveys the raw energy of the band's chemistry on some of the tracks.
Froom, along with Blake and Los Lobos cohorts David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, will he debuting as the Latin Playboys on an upcoming self-titled Slash/Warner Bros. release. Both the Latin Playboys and Costello albums are set for release Tuesday (8).
Froom just completed production work on Sire jazz artist Jimmy Scott's second album, Dream, which is set for a June release on Sire/Blue Horizon.
It's good to hear Elvis back with the Attractions. Is this a one-off reunion?
I think they are taking it one step at a time. They are doing a tour. If they can get along and the music really works out great, then they will think about doing more. It is nothing that you want to make specific plans about. You just want to see how it feels.
Besides Bruce Thomas, Nick Lowe and Elvis played bass on Brutal Youth.
Yeah. We cast the bass role, which may be an unusual way of working on a record [laughs]. Nick takes more of an acoustic bass approach to his instrument. It is more of a bottom-heavy sound without much attack. He played on "Clown Strike" and "Rocking Horse Road." Elvis played on "Kind Of Murder" and "20% Amnesia." We tried Nick and Bruce on some of the tracks that Elvis had played on, but he's got the amateur thing going for him [laughs]. The bass line on "20% Amnesia" is particularly idiosyncratic. Bruce was the final guy to come into the sessions. When Bruce was playing, you really hear the notes clearly. There is a lot of midrange, because he plays very aggressively.
The Attractions have a raw energy that is captured very well on Brutal Youth. How did you go about recording their sound?
We worked really hard on Elvis' record to make sure that it didn't sound too good [laughs]. You don't want a big, polished-up record. Who wants that? The music and the mood is much more important.
We tried to get the sound we wanted to hear on the spot, live, and leave it unadorned. Basically, if there was any reverb, it was coming from an instrument's amp. We might add tape slap later on. Tchad engineered, and he tends to favor a lot of unusual, and sometimes cheap, compression and distortion devices that work particularly well with this band. We cut straight to 24-track analog at 30 i.p.s. non-Dolby. Sometimes a little bit of tape hiss is cool. I worked with Tom Waits a few times, and Tom said that tape hiss was the glue that held the track together [laughs]. The '80s was a really hard time to produce records, because everybody was caught up in the quest for achieving higher fidelity and more sonic power and space, but no one seemed to stop to consider whether an impressive sound was a desirable one. Does something sound good because it is bigger? Often it sounds much better because it is smaller and in your face. Many people's favorite records are older ones. If you are going to compare them fidelity-wise, top to bottom clarity, they don't have it, but they have a lot more thrust to them.
Explain the chemistry that operates in the studio between Elvis and the band when you are cutting tracks.
Elvis has to lead the track vocally. His voice guides the way everybody plays and dictates the intensity of the track; even the way it might speed up or slow down. It is all according to how he is singing, which can change radically in the course of a day. There may be a lot of tension in the air when you try to work that way, but it keeps things pretty exciting. That is why this band plays so well behind him. They are used to it and know how to do it. I was there at the first rehearsal, when Bruce came in to play. At that time, the Attractions hadn't played together for seven years. I think the first song we worked on was "Sulky Girl." It took about a minute and a half to gel, and then it sounded unbelievable. As a record producer, you don't get to see that kind of band chemistry very often. Each musician individually is great, but together it is something else again.
How did you approach your mixes on this project?
About four or five songs are live board mixes that we just liked and used; for example, "You Tripped At Every Step," "My Science Fiction Twin," "Rocking Horse Road," "All The Rage," and, I think, "Just About Glad." Later, when we tried a more formal mixing approach, we often didn't like the results as much, because it sounded all nice and mixed [laughs] You can get things a little bit clearer, but something gets lost in the translation.
That was the determination of this record. We didn't want to defeat ourselves through the process of' making sounds clearer and bigger. We just tried to react to the emotions of the music and the noise the musicians were making.