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Alan Parsons - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 23 / 10 / 2015

Alan Parsons - Interview


Acclaimed award-winning engineer and producer Alan Parsons talks to Lisa Torem about working with Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Pilot and the Alan Parsons Project and his role in a series of master classes and lectures at Abbey Road Studios in November

"A lot of them will probably be Beatles fans who just want to set foot inside the room where they recorded. That’s kind of, degradingly, what I think is going to be a very high-quality event. The talks will also have some vintage equipment on display. It’s going to be moderated by a very talented British music journalist, David Hepworth (The Guardian, NME, Mojo). He’s going to put it all together and make it cohesive. It’s going to be tough. We’re going to be giving twelve talks on essentially the same subject, so it’s going to be interesting trying to keep it fresh. It’s a bit like an actor trying to play the same part every night.” That’s iconic producer/musician Alan Parsons commenting after I asked him who he thought would be attending his November series. Mr. Parsons will be drawing from archival photos, videos and a wealth of sonic memories whilst introducing participants to vintage equipment used in Abbey Road Studios for 'Sleeve Notes - From Mono To Infinity’. And a few lucky participants in the Masterclass Training Sessions will even get the chance to work on a recording with him at Abbey Road Studios. Whether you’re a classic/British rock fan or an audiophile, life doesn’t get much better than that. Parsons began his career in the 1960s as a teenage assistant engineer at Abbey Road Studios. He was even once vice-president. His career includes working with The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Pilot, Al Stewart and more than a decade with Eric Woolfson on The Alan Parsons Project. During their time together, they released ten concept albums celebrating Gaudi, Eve and Edgar Allan Poe. The album titles alone were breathtaking: ‘Tales of Mysteries and Imagination’ and ‘I Robot’ are two good examples, but that was just the tip of the sonic iceberg. Parsons worked tirelessly to translate universal concepts in unique ways, stretching the boundaries of standard recording equipment, whilst anticipating trends. Several first-time listeners responded to online tracks with the question: “Why aren’t they making music like this anymore?” Well, fortunately, they are. Since 1999, the band performs live as The Alan Parsons Live Projects, where many of their illustrious hits can still be cherished. Having garnered ten Grammy nominations and a host of other international awards, Alan Parsons is probably one of the busiest professionals in the industry and also one of the most congenial. PB: I’m sure a lot of people are getting excited about the November series at Abbey Road Studios. If I’m a nontechnical person, will I get a lot out of this as well? AP: I’d like to think so. It won’t be that technical. If somebody springs a question that’s technical, I’ll answer it, but it’s meant to be very general and using language, terms of recording, that anybody can understand. I’ll also be doing two two-day masterclasses in which people can participate in a recording session and I’m hoping to get Steven Wilson involved. PB: You worked with producer George Martin on ‘Abbey Road’, on which there were many expertly recorded songs, but I wanted to ask specifically about the lush vocals on ‘Because’. What do you recall about the decisions made to create that recording? AP: All I did was press the record button. I had no creative input to any of The Beatles’ recording. I was very young; nineteen and in training. I was a tape operator. That was my job, but my experience ultimately led to my working with Paul McCartney and somewhat with George (Harrison) as well. But, no, I take no credit for any vocal qualities or anything like that. It was all George Martin and Geoff Emerick, the engineers. PB: George Martin came from the classical world. Would you say that he approached recording pop/rock music with that sensibility? AP: He is a very talented musician and knows everything there is to know about recording. He was a great diplomat. He was the ideal producer for The Beatles. He gave guidance and through giving that guidance, that’s one of the reasons that The Beatles were so exceptional. They had his expertise to achieve things that perhaps could not have been achieved with any other producer. PB: On ‘Let It Be,’ you worked with George Martin and Glyn Johns. Was it more challenging working within a trio? AP: That was actually the first encounter that I had with The Beatles. The ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’ albums were released in reverse order to their recording. There were a lot of challenges, yes (Laughs). The rooftop sessions were a challenge in itself. All the cables for the microphones and the communication had to be run down the staircase into the basement. It was the top floor of the building, so long cables were needed. I was up there on the roof just to be sure that no microphones or equipment broke down. You can see me in a couple of photographs of the rooftop sessions. It was an amazing day. PB: In terms of working with Pink Floyd, you worked on ‘Atom Heart Mother’ in 1970 and then ‘The Dark Side of The Moon’, which became a huge success and which still inspires contemporary musicians. Why did you not then work with the band on ‘Wish You Were Here’? AP: They had made me a very attractive offer and it was a difficult decision to turn it down. Ultimately I made the right decision because I was already having some success with Pilot as a producer and Al Stewart was not far away either. So it was the right decision not to take up their offer because if I had done, I might have still been working for them just being an engineer. Ultimately my goal was to become a producer and that led to the formation of the Alan Parsons Project, which was a big career change for me. PB: You researched quite a bit for Pink Floyd, spending time in antique clock shops, trying to find distinctive percussive sounds, for example. After having done this kind of sound research, how did you present your ideas to the band? AP: It was very much a team; four of them and me. We worked together constantly. I did a fair amount of work in their absence, particularly doing rough mixes and so on at the end of the day. But the clocks were an idea that I came up with having already recorded them, in fact. I said, "I’ve got these clock recordings that I think will work really well in the intro of ‘Time’" and they heard them and said, yeah, this will be great. PB: You had brought in Clare Torry to vocally improvise over Richard Wright’s piano. What sparked that idea? AP: The brief that they were giving me was that they needed a singer that could wail and improvise soulfully over this piece. I said, "I think I know the perfect girl for this" and it was Claire. And there was no music and no written parts. She just went over it a few times and just did it. I remember the first track—she improvised some lyrics, “Yeah, baby", and at the end of that first take the band said “No words, just oooh and aaah" and so she did it and in another twenty minutes it was in the can. PB: Let’s talk about The Alan Parsons Project. You worked with a rotating group of musicians, which included vocalists Colin Blunstone and Chris Rainbow. Whilst the instrumentals seemed to be every bit as essential to the overall sound as the vocals, were there specific qualities that you sought out when selecting your singers? AP: There were specific qualities and there was also the fact that we knew each other. Colin and I had bumped into each other several times at Abbey Road when he was recording with Argent or as a solo artist. We also drank at the same pub in Northwest London. I knew Colin quite well. I had always admired his vocal talent. It was almost obvious that we would get involved with him. Chris Rainbow was on the EMI Records label, which was the parent company of Abbey Road, so once we had done one album with him, we did pretty much everything with him from then on. He was such a great talent. He, sadly, passed away this year. PB: During The Project, you released a series of concept albums drawing on themes such as La Sagrada Familia, Edgar Allan Poe and women’s issues. Unlike the world of classical music, there weren’t particularly any road maps for creating such recordings and for incorporating ambience, structure and energy within the piece, as well. AP: I think the classical influence from my past years in Abbey Road, working with classical artists, classical soloists—I think that rubbed off on the general approach on what was to become the sound of the Alan Parsons Project. I give Eric Woolfson the credit for the content and for the majority of the songwriting as well, but we worked hard to try and make the compositions fit into the context. Sometimes we succeeded and sometimes we missed miserably, but that didn’t deter us from always sticking to concept albums in the general sense. PB: Do you think that that is a lost art, considering that many music fans today seem to have a shorter attention span? AP: I think that’s the problem. You can’t get anybody to sit down to listen to three or four minutes of music these days. We’re the victims of playlists, MP3s and downloads and unauthorized YouTube videos. It’s just a very different market now. To get a person to download a full album and listen to it is a major achievement in this day and age, it really is. PB: Yet I have seen many comments online about Alan Parsons Project compositions, suggesting that the new audience is intrigued with concept albums, even though they may have few points of reference. AP: I think with the resurgence of vinyl, people are being less and less selective about downloading and listening to one song by one artist and one song by another one. I think hi-fi is coming back—the fact that vinyl is undergoing a renaissance I think means that people are beginning to care about quality again. MP3 is the worst thing that has happened in terms of quality. People are back to vinyl, back to stereo systems at home, big loudspeakers. That’s the way it should be, not listening to a little, nasty white ear bud on the train. PB: One of my personal favourites of The Project is ‘Eye In The Sky’. Can you walk us through the development of the recording? AP: I think Eric, at the time, had, after ‘A Turn of The Friendly Card’ album, an obsession with gambling and I think the strongest image, lyrically, is probably a hidden camera, a casino camera or a surveillance camera and I think that’s what ‘The Eye in The Sky’ is. When he played me the song, originally, with the band there, we struggled for a long time to try and get the right feel for it and I’ve never been allowed to forget the fact that I was ready to drop the song and say, "No, this isn’t going to work. We should drop it and go on to something else." PB: Why did you feel that way? AP: We just couldn’t get a good feel for it. It didn’t gel and then suddenly we hit upon this chugging feel, doom, doom, doom, doom, doom, which worked great and we proceeded with it (Laughs). Like I said, I’ve never been allowed to forget that. I was ready to just throw it in the bin. PB: I’ve spoken to a number of artists who have reimagined a few of their tracks, maybe creating an acoustic version from an electric, for example, or reworking the tempo. Are there any tracks that you would like to reimagine? AP: Well, we have the advantage of playing live, of course. Anything that I feel needs changing in the modern age, we kind of do it on the live stage, but generally speaking we haven’t made a lot of changes. The basic arrangements stay pretty close to the original records. The challenge, of course, is to reproduce the orchestral sounds when we don’t have an orchestra. It’s an absolute joy when we have an orchestra available to us to play along with us, because then the picture is complete: the band, the vocals and the orchestra. PB: What is the philosophy behind playing live as opposed to being in the studio? Do you look forward to improvising more or are there times onstage when you choose to be very true to the recording? AP: A bit of both. The guitar solos tend to be more improvised and sometimes longer because it’s live. On ‘Prime Time’ we do a very extended guitar solo on that song, followed by an extended keyboard solo. That’s one example of a very different approach to the original record. It’s a hit show. People want to hear the hits. If you tear the songs apart and then reassemble them in a different way, then I think people are going to be ultimately disappointed. I think they want to hear the band play reasonably close to the record. PB: You once talked about the role of music producer as being similar to that of a film director, like Stanley Kubrick. What are the parallels? AP: The only incorrectness is the word 'producer'. It really should have been recording director rather than record producer because that’s what a record producer does. He’s ultimately in charge, he’s the equivalent of calling the shots, making the arrangements, deciding what order to do things in, who plays what. It’s a very allied art, record production and film production. PB: Have you locked horns with artists because of your suggestions? For example, it was your idea to add saxophone to Al Stewart’s ‘The Year of The Cat’. Was that a tough sell? AP: He was surprised, but ultimately he thought it was a good idea. That was borne out by the fact that he hired the sax player that I booked for ‘The Year of The Cat’ to join his band. He clearly thought it was a good idea. PB: Did you know Pilot’s ‘Magic’ would be a hit? AP: I was pretty confident about it. Interestingly, that was their only hit in America. We had a top ten with it in the UK, but their next single, ‘January’ was number one in the UK, but made no impression whatsoever in America. PB: You worked with Steven Wilson on ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’. Steven comes across as a Renaissance man, a musician that would have flourished equally as well in an earlier era. What was your collaboration like? AP: We had a great time. He came over to a Hollywood studio. He had done demos in the UK. It was a great project to be involved with and the reason that he hired me to be an associate producer was he wanted to record the old way, to have everybody playing at once, with everybody interacting and playing together. PB; Has that way of thinking become an anomaly? AP: These days it is. Most people are into doing one instrument at a time, concentrating on it and adding the next instrument and the next instrument. Steven wanted to get the cohesive feel that you can only get when you have a band playing together. PB: Did you work on the album section by section or map it out in a general way? AP; They were well-rehearsed. They knew the parts they had to play. It was just a case of getting a good performance and adding solos. He did very little of the vocals at that time. He did the vocals himself at his own studio. But I have since worked with him as a singer. He’s a great singer and I’m hoping he’ll be involved in one of the masterclasses at Abbey Road. PB: Let’s say I’m a folk singer from Chicago. I’ve got six songs that are sort of loosely defined. What can I do to persuade you that I will do my homework and that I am worth your time if you agree to produce my album? AP: It’s all down to the songs. If I heard the songs and said yes, I think we’d have great potential, then I’d get interested. So at the end of the day you have to make commercial decisions as well as artistic decisions and I have to decide whether I have the right budget and the right time available and all of that stuff. But in creative terms, it’s all down to the songs; whether I feel they could develop into a record that in my opinion would have commercial success. There’s no hard and fast rule. No-one in the world can say, "That is a hit song". There are people that get very close to it, some of the people that I’ve worked with in my past were remarkably adept at picking hit songs: Mickey Most, in particular, Ron Richards, the Hollies’ producer, but if you can pick a hit song, you should be a very rich person. By the way, are you a folk singer from Chicago? PB: I have done that prior to this life. But since then, I’ve spoken to a lot of hopeful and accomplished performers. Where do you see technology headed? There have been so many drastic changes over the years. Is technology headed in a positive direction? AP: The sonic quality at the recording end is improving all of the time, which is good. There was some trepidation about the quality of digital in the early years, but I think that’s now been sorted out with high-resolution recordings, high bit-rate recordings. Tape machines have pretty much disappeared now, but the technology is there. Some purists argue that the sound of tape had a certain magic, but we’ve now got the technology to emulate tape and we can make a digital recording sound like tape if we so choose. As far as the consumer is concerned, yes, we’re in this MP3 doldrum. With high resolution downloads, that’s a positive thing. We need to have more integration with our computers and laptops into our sound systems. So few people have done that and that needs to be developed further. But at the end of the day, you can actually play very high quality music from an Iphone into a hi-fi system if you want to, but not enough of the people are doing that. PB: So what would be a perfect situation for you in the production studio, in terms of recording equipment and artists? AP: I think the dream artist is one who embraces technology and has the respect of all the people that they’re working with. If I don’t respect the artist and the artist doesn’t respect me, nothing is going to happen. Mutual respect is very important. We’re in an age where we have unlimited tracks. One of the engineer’s jobs was always to keep enough tracks available for whatever the artist was going to ask to put down: endless overdubs, endless solos, endless vocal tracks and so on. But we’ve got to that place where that’s no longer a problem. I think, possibly, we’ve suffered a little bit because decisions don’t have to be made until the last minute now, whereas in the early years, particularly in the age of the four-track, eight-track, sixteen-track, we had to make decisions and commit to sounds and balances between instruments which we don’t have to do until the final mix these days. It probably explains why mixes take a very long time these days (Laughs). You might have hundreds of tracks to sort out, especially if remixes are brought in. They’ve got to figure out what the original engineer was doing. I’ve been blissfully spared someone else remixing my stuff. I’m pleased to say that that really hasn’t happened at all. PB: With the news that there is water on Mars, and the possibility of life, if you could entertain the residents with one of your recordings, what would it be? AP: Wow. My favorite instrumental is ‘Sirius’ which is the opening to ‘Eye in the Sky’ and that’s been used by all of these sports teams, so I think that would be a good sort of anthemic contribution to say that this is what the Earth has been listening to, but of all of Eric’s songwriting contributions to the project, I think, ‘Limelight’ is my favourite song. PB: I’m sure you’ll create some lovely ambience on the planets. Thank you.

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Profile (2015)
Alan Parsons - Profile
Dastardly soaks up the atmosphere of Studio 2 at Abbey Road while Alan Parsons recounts his time there working with the Beatles and Pink Floyd

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