September 20, 2011

Kramer Tells All

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This weekend Eddie Kramer, the world-renowned sound engineer who has worked on literally tons of our favorite records by bands including Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, KISS and Santana as well as virtually the entire recorded catalogue of Jimi Hendrix, came through to Ithaca for an educational experience like no other. Set up by Cornell alumnus Brad Bershad ’06 with Theta Delta Chi’s Spectemur Agendo Foundation, Eddie Kramer gave a wonderful lecture at Theta Delta Chi (aka Thumpty) full of charm, personal photos and intimate stories about his recording sessions during the golden age of rock n’ roll. Later in the weekend, a handful of Ithaca College students and I joined Eddie Kramer to produce and record one song downtown at Pyramid Sound Studios with local band Mike Brindisi and The New York Rock, whose members include Rick Kline, Research Support Specialist at Cornell University’s Department of Astronomy, and John O’Leary, owner of Ithaca Ale House. I got the chance to talk with Eddie over the phone interview about his life, lessons and upcoming documentary film and book.

The Sun: I was hoping you could tell us a little about your upcoming documentary film and book, From the Other Side of the Glass.

Eddie Kramer: Oh, thank you for asking. I appreciate it. By the way, it was a real thrill to be part of the experience at Ithaca and Cornell together. The two colleges seem joined at the hip. The students were wonderful, the faculty members and that whole experience up there was wonderful. I really enjoyed the lecture. It was a very responsive crowd and I appreciated their enthusiasm.

Now, you want to know some stuff, huh? I mentioned it casually not knowing that there’d be so much interest and I’m very glad. This is something I’ve been planning for many, many years and I’ve finally got to the point since next year I’m celebrating, in 2012, my 50th year in the business plus my 70th birthday, which is kind of whacky but there you are. And I’ve decided to push forward with the book, at least trying to get that out for next year. I’m not sure if we’ll make the documentary film ready for next year but it will be in the process of being made. The book and the documentary movie are going to be called the same thing, From the Other Side of the Glass, based on the photographs that you saw.

What you saw was only a small sample of the many, many photographs that I have, which tells the story of the golden years of rock n’ roll from about ’67 to ‘72-‘73. It’s quite a story because I think rock n’ roll was at its peak and prime and I was very privileged to have been in the studio with some of these great artists and then, you know, I was just taking pictures of the band that I liked because I loved taking photographs. I didn’t realize what a treasure trove of photographs I had and we’re seriously in the process right now. The book is coming together. We hope to have a deal soon and the same thing with the movie.

Sun: Did you even have a feeling that it was the golden age of rock n’ roll at the time? Or was it just day in and day out hustling? Was there a sense that big things were happening?

E.K.: Yeah, when you’re in the thick of it, you know, working the number of hours that I did and going from day to day, session to session, you are not aware that you are making history except occasionally you get the feeling, “Oh man, the Hendrix record just came out, boy we’re on the radio — how about that!?” But you’re so bloody busy trying to get the next band up and running, trying to create their record that you don’t have time to think about it. So with the benefit of hindsight and being in the business all this time and looking back and saying, “Damn, that was a pretty special time.” It doesn’t come around that often. There have been moments during my career where I think, “Are we ever going to get that back?” And the answer is no, because it was a pretty special time politically, economically, socially. You know the whole world was different then. You know we’re in a different era right now, aren’t we? Look at the way music is recorded and look at the way music is listened to. We talked about that in the lecture.

Sun: Are there any modern recordings today you think still stand out, production-wise, that really call attention to your ear?

E.K.: Well, you know, some of the core bands from the 90’s are still doing great stuff, like the Foo Fighters, the Chili Peppers. People like that are fairly innovative. I was mentioning yesterday that there are a bunch of new bands that say, “To hell with Pro Tools! We’re going to record to tape.” And thank goodness they did because it’s changing the way the musical landscape is.

Sun: How did the prolific legends that you worked with — like Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin — fall into your lap? What was it like working with them?

E.K.: Well, I guess they did fall into my lap. It was being at the right place at the right time — you know, working at Olympic [Studios]. It was the perfect crucible of all of the influential, royal greats of rock n’ roll — the Stones, Traffic, Small Faces — I mean, it was just marvelous. There was no stopping, no breaks, just going from one to the other. And then of course there was the “crown and glory” — if you wanted to call it that — The Beatles. That was a marvelous opportunity. But you know, Hendrix was, as I described in the lecture, an incredible human being — very sensitive, very imaginative. You know, you could figure it out for yourself, but once you work with someone like that it’s very difficult to work with another guitar player. But you do because every guitar player is different, has a different approach. Jimi was unique and there will probably never be another one like him. But that’s not saying there were not great guitar players that I worked with — there were many. Several come to mind. Certainly The Stones come to mind. But I was lucky, like I said, that they liked my work and I liked working with them.

Sun: You had some really funny stories from your sessions. You mentioned a time when Ted Nugent was stressing out that he couldn’t get the vibe to a guitar solo right, so he decided that he had to strip down entirely naked.

E.K.: Thank God for large semi-acoustic guitars.

Sun: Another great story involved Hendrix asking you to make him sound like he was underwater. You had a runner (another term for a recording studio intern) go buy a set of cheap plastic speakers. You set the speakers up in a large bucket of water and set Jimi up to the mic to record.

E.K.: (laughing) The second Jimi sang, the speakers died and a little bubble burst came from the bucket. There ya go, Jimi.

Sun: Do you have any sound advice for prospective sound engineers, producers or musicians?

E.K.: Yeah — don’t give up your day job. Look, it’s a very tough business, as I said. There are so many schools putting up hundreds and hundreds of students each semester. It’s costing a bloody fortune and there’s no guarantee you’re going to get a job. So you have to be very inventive. Don’t turn anything down, no matter what it is — whether it’s radio, TV, live, concerts, DJing, backups, the monitor section, side of the stage, front of the stage, working on demos, working at people’s houses. You know there are a lot of bands out there that have their own studios. Find them! Record your own bands. Get them noticed, you know? Yeah, that’s it — stay with it. Stay with the program. Hopefully you’ll find a job, and good luck!

Check out Eddie Kramer’s intimate photographs of your favorite rock stars at http://www.kramerarchives.com/. His galleries are currently being exhibited at the San Francisco Art Exchange, Morrison Hotel Gallery Soho in New York and Proud Gallery in London.

Original Author: Justin Zupnick