Interview: Craig Leon

As a producer operating in a melting pot of punk rock, reggae, electronic, classical, pop and more, Craig Leon has carved himself a rare path. As A&R at Sire records through the ’70s, he developed the careers of the Ramones and Talking Heads and produced early records by Blondie and Suicide. In addition to working with Bob Marley, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Robert Fripp, The Bangles and a whole host of stellar artists on classic recordings, Leon produced his own records Nommos and Visiting, exploring afro-rhythmic electronics in two albums way ahead of their time. During the ’80s Leon moved to the UK, and continued a steady assault on the charts and the underground on records by The Fall, The Pogues, and soprano singer Izzy, among many others. In this excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, Leon talks about all of that and how he has more recently returned to his classical music roots.

When did you first get involved with music?

I lived in a small town in Florida and studied music to play piano and to write music, and went to the local university when I was very young. I moved to the big city in Florida, which was Miami, and through a number of circumstances was playing and recording some piano and doing string arrangements.

From there I met people who lived in New York who came to work in the studio, and I also built my own little studio because there were no demo studios in that part of Miami. One of the engineers from the big studio was a guy named Alex Sadkin and he helped me build a studio of my own in Miami. He was the mastering engineer at the big studio. Strangely enough, we both ended up in England many years later as producers.

One of the guys I knew from New York was one of the owners of a record company called Sire. He brought one of his bands to my studio to rehearse for their new album and for me to show them some ideas about blues music. I recorded them, he loved what I did and he said, “Come work for me in New York.” I sold my studio and went to work in New York for Sire Records.

I said, “You know, I saw this band called Suicide that I want to sign.” They kicked me out of the office.

In New York, you also started working as an A&R.

Basically, I wanted to spread my options around because Sire was a very small label, didn’t have a lot of money, and was very unsure how long they were going to last, and I was selling my whole life and moving to New York. I asked a friend of mine who was another A&R man up there, a guy named Paul Nelson, who’s brilliant in the history of rock. He’s actually the first person to ever write about Bob Dylan and he signed the New York Dolls and worked with Lou Reed and all of this.

He gave me some information of another label that might want me to work for them if I didn’t want to go to Sire. I had an interview there, and it was on a Friday afternoon, and Monday I was supposed to start and give an okay to Sire to go to work for them. They said, “Before you do that, give us some ideas. Look around New York and tell us if you see anything good. We want to know your ideas as an A&R man. Come to us Monday morning before you go to Sire and we’ll see, maybe you can have a job with us.”

I went around with a friend of mine, and we saw this terrible glam rock imitation, David Bowie band thing. I didn’t like them, but the opening act was Suicide – and it was Suicide when they were very much performance art. Alan was like beating people in the first row with a chain and scaring them to death. Marty looked like a statue. I said, “Well, I don’t like the big band, but the opening act I definitely want to sign.” On the Monday morning I went to this label and said, “You know, I saw this band called Suicide that I want to sign.” They kicked me out of the office and said, “Fine, good to know you. See you later.” I ended up working for Sire, which is good because that was the place where I belonged.

beat:repeat NYC - Suicide - Frankie Teardrop

Do you have a specific track of theirs that you have fond memories of being involved in?

The key Suicide track for me – because it’s the culmination of everything that they were supposed to be – was “Frankie Teardrop.” They had influences they didn’t know about, but I knew about them and I tried to help bring them out. Marty Rev came from the musique concrète scene and Alan Vega was loving soul music. But the idea of using this rockabilly and reggae repeat echo and having the echo feed into itself came from a couple of things that I wanted to copy. Sound-wise, it was “Monster Movie” by Can, and of course “Silver Machine” by Hawkwind, which was also part of the Ramones sound. This kind of punk prog, you might call it, was very much in mind for me for the sound, and on “Frankie Teardrop” we got that right.

You also famously worked with The Ramones.

Yeah, The Ramones were a band that I’d seen very early on in New York. I saw them in the rehearsal loft that they lived in around the corner from CBGB’s. I was watching them a long time. Finally around 1975, I’m bad on dates, but I think it was 1975, I saw them at a show with Talking Heads opening for them, and I thought, “Okay, this is now the time I’m going to go tell my bosses that they should sign both of these bands.”

I said, “Look, you should sign both of these bands because they’re funny, and that’s what rock and roll means to me.” Talking Heads was hysterical to me at the time. They weren’t really a soul band or anything yet. They had that influence and that wonderful rhythm section, but they were still very, very raw, but acoustic. They were acoustic raw. I went to my boss and said, “Well, look, we should sign both of these bands, but you should definitely sign The Ramones and I want to produce them.”

What is one of your favorite stories about Phil Spector?

I can tell many, but this is one of my favorite ones. Sometime in the ’90s or early ’00s, I was working in Studio One at Abbey Road, which is the big orchestra room, with the London Symphony, and there was a rock band working across the hall in Studio Two, which is the Beatles room.

Abbey Road is a very old place, it’s not like a modern studio. And it didn’t really have sound proofing or anything. It’s amazing. You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true. You can hear through the doors if something’s loud. I was recording very quiet classical music, and all of a sudden we would hear on our tape – coming from across the hall – the loudest drum you ever heard in your life with a giant echo on it. They kept doing it, so I called the engineer on the interphone in the other studio and said, “Look, please turn that down at least for a few minutes until we have a break and we finish this quiet piece that we’re doing.”

Wouldn’t have it. It actually got louder. Somebody more punk than me was in the next room there. Finally, I get on the phone and I said, “Let me talk to whoever’s producing this.” I said, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re ruining a session with a 100-piece orchestra that’s costing the label a fortune. Again, I don’t know who you are. You obviously think you’re Phil Spector and you’re not nearly as good, so shut up already.” I hung up the phone, and it went quiet and we did our thing. After the session, I found out it was Phil Spector.

Craig Leon - Nommos, Live @ Moogfest 2014

Would you mind outlining why you wrote Nommos and what you used to actually record it?

Nommos was actually an idea that came from art. There was an art exhibition in the ’70s of the art of a tribe called the Dogon who had a very specific religious and philosophical belief that many thousands of years ago they were visited by… the closest way we could say what it is, is what we would call angels. These angels taught them how to be civilized, how to have a city, how to grow your crops and use water and things like that. They had a representation where they had conversations with these angels and very extensive descriptions of what the angels looked like. They were very long, elongated creatures who could live in water and on the land. They called them Nommos.

It then came to me. If the Nommos brought them all of their ideas and religion and philosophy, then they must have brought their music with them as well. The earliest music of that part of the world would be music that these guys brought with them from outer space that they were listening to for fun when they were on their long journey to get to Earth. So I just took it one step further and said, “Well, here’s their music.” I made a very simple five-note scale system that wasn’t a normal pentatonic system, and I used repetitive drum patterns that are very simple. Then I put everything through specific distortion and feedback devices, and created this kind of folk music from another planet.

I made it pretty much on synthesizers. It was originally actually written out, and that’s how I can play it now. We had to use the synths because the label that hired us to do it didn’t have enough money to do it with an orchestra. Equipment-wise, it was all typical ’70s synths and whatever I could get my hands on. There was an ARP 2600, Roland Jupiter-4’s, there was an Oberheim six-voice and eight-voice that we borrowed. There was a Moog 15, which was a little version of the Modular. It’s all processed through these harmonizers that do the feedback. It was similar to what was done on the Suicide album that I did.

The Fall - Code: Selfish LP, presented by John Peel

You eventually moved to England and stopped being involved in popular music for a while.

When I moved to England I still worked in pop music or alternative music for a while. When I moved to England I did three albums for The Fall, an album with Jesus Jones, The Go-Betweens. Then finally in the late ’90s I did a Blondie record and I realized it was kind of a full circle. Then I went back to my original training and worked in classical music because I wanted to spend the latter part of my career doing that.

There was more venom about those from the classical people than there ever was about punk from straight rock fans in the ’70s.

I was called upon by a label called Decca, and then Deutsche Grammophon, to find new material for classical artists. They were running out of things they wanted to do. So I would take pieces from one instrument and have them redone in another way, although they were still classically correct. People think because I came from pop I was doing some kind of crossover. Because how could the guy from Blondie do something and have it be classically correct? Well, they can. It’s no big deal. In any case, that’s what I started doing and it paved the way for me to be able to get my arrangements of folk music and my new adaptations of folk music recorded. I got to make a record of early French troubadour music done in a modern way for synths, orchestra, and a female quartet from the members of Sequentia. I got to do modernizations of American and English folk songs for Andrea Scholl and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

People think because you’re doing something that’s quieter than The Ramones or isn’t angry, that it’s safe and you’re trying to be mellow or something. It isn’t. I think those particular albums that I did were perceived by a lot of proper classical critics as being sacrilegious. There was more venom about those from the classical people than there ever was about punk from straight rock fans in the ’70s. What can you say? You’re always in trouble, I guess.

Craig Leon | Bach to Moog

Can you talk about your Moog album?

Sure. I was given the opportunity to use my theories of synth and orchestra combined on a new “proper” classical record for Sony Classical. The idea, of course, was that the Moog introduction album for most people was Switched-On Bach. I wouldn’t ever want to reproduce that. But I said, “I’ll try and do something with Bach that’s different.” So we did an album with the reconstructed Moog 55 Modular. I did Bach arrangements with orchestra, solo violin, and myself playing the Moog, and then had the Moog process all the instruments to make a hybrid orchestra. It was a totally different thing to what you might think the Moog would do, but it’s still identifiable. Hopefully it won’t get mixed up with Switched-On Bach, which is a masterpiece.

You’ve talked about it being difficult to bring synths and strings in tune. How do you combine synthesizers and orchestras? What is the biggest problem?

It’s a little bit difficult to get synths and strings playing together because of intonation and tuning, and a synth by nature has got a very wobbly tuning, particularly Moogs. I did something different. Normally, you’d have all the oscillators feeding into each other to make that very specific identifiable Moog sound.

It wouldn’t work with the orchestra, though, because you would be processing an orchestra and the tuning would never match. For those things, I made very precise bounces of many different parses of the same thing on the Moog with different fixed-filter frequencies bringing out things that the oscillators would normally make to do a composite sound. But I had them all doing the same tuning, so they were matching with the strings.

It’s a very tedious procedure, but it’s pretty much the same way that the old stuff was done in the ’60s. It’s many, many tracks bounced down to one sound. When you hear a sound on this Bach Moog record for Sony, it isn’t just one synth patch that’s doing that, it’s sometimes six, sometimes ten, sometimes three parses doing the same thing to make a composite sound.

By Hanna Bächer on April 28, 2015

On a different note