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THE IONIZER - Who is he? What is he? Is he real? So many questions..........
Part 1 (interview 1995) - Part 2 (Interview 1996) - Part 3 (his CD) - Part 4 (Interview 2007)
THE IONIZER - Who is he? What is he? Is he real? So many questions..........
Part 1 (interview 1995) - Part 2 (Interview 1996) - Part 3 (his CD) - Part 4 (Interview 2007)
Interview with R.S. "Bobby" Field- the Ionizer 5/2007
RS "Bobby" Field is a Nashville-based, Grammy award winning songwriter and producer. He has over sixty albums to his production credit and has worked with a veritable "who's who" of artistic talent including Mark Knopfler, Shelby Lynn, Kid Rock, Bonnie Raitt, Waylon Jennings, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Albert Collins, Nick Lowe, Mick Taylor, Jennifer Warren, Lea Nash (of Six Pence None the Richer), Raoul Malo (of the Mavericks), Jerry Douglas (of Allison Krause & Union Station), John Prine, Tim O'Brien, and Mark Lindsay. The interview was arranged and conducted by another very talented musician and songwriter: Mark Huff (thanks Mark).
1) What are you currently working on?
Getting more work. For me, my freelance experience has been just going from project to project. That probably sounds dull and tradesman-like, but I always try to work with artists whose music I at least like, and then I try to make it sound as famous as possible. I have been lucky with the people I've gotten to work with... and I have been able to do a variety of styles... more than I am probably associated with.
Since the first of the year, I've done a live folk rock & roll album for Scott Miller & the Commonwealth (Reconstruction/Sugar Hill Records) and a 3 month immersion with Mando Saenz, a songwriter signed to Frank Lidell's independent publishing company, Carnival Music. For a Big Time Operator, Frank has a genuine interest in writers that aren't so obvious in a Nashville that expects some pretty dreary, square and dopey songs. But he, Frank, has had considerable success with great, understated and timeless writers (like Bruce Robison). He also has the Music Row-oriented writers as well. We had a great budget for an indie in these days...plenty of time, the exact studios, players and fetish-gear we wanted (within reason). Lots of freedom. It was a great situation.
I am pretty much left alone these days to work with the artist to get whatever they can get me to agree it is that they want to do. Sometimes that independence comes from the authorities trusting you; sometimes from there being no authorities, but more often than not these days, in my experience it has been label ennui. I've done about 7 records for Sugar Hill and never even had a conversation with anybody there... except one time when they wanted me to take some electronica off of an Allison Moorer track on a Dolly tribute. I just serpentined and prevaricated until it was too late to do anything about it. I'm willing to stand (or fall) with my artists... once we agree what it is we are trying to do. Sometimes I'll try to save 'em from themselves. You always want to do what's best for the dream. On the aforementioned projects, one live and the other camping out in the studio, I tried to go for the same sonic qualities. Whatever the budget, I always try to go for what I think will give us the best sound and enough time. Sometimes you find yourself in a basement, but boys, it'll be a hell of a basement.
2) What inspired you to become a musician and how did you segue into production?
For me, the Beatles. I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. When I was 13 and home for Christmas from military school, I started learning to play my new Super Classic Ludwig drums to "Rubber Soul" and "Whipped Cream and Other Delights" by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. I'm not saying RS is the greatest album of all time, or necessarily even the best Beatles album, but it hooked me on wanting to have something to do with recording. Then came "Revolver." All the Who singles, The brown 'the Band' album, "Sticky Fingers" by the Stones... "Good Old Boys" by Randy Newman...the sum of the writing, playing and sounds, the different places they either went, or stayed, it all just got to me.
I played drums from junior high through college. I was always interested in guitar and eventually taught myself. When I wrote a song, even early on, I always wanted to write whatever the signature guitar-lick was. For the kind of informal music that I for the most part like, you can't have a great record without a great guitar lick (Satchmo, Louis Jordan & Mose excepted).
My first band right out of military school (1966) was the Phlowurz (the sound that makes scents). We were a teen center rave up band that worshipped the Kinks, Yardbirds and Who. Not enough good harmony singers to do Beatles terrifically. The mid to late 60's (and I know everybody, except for the truly objective enthusiast, prefers their own zeitgeist) has to have been the greatest of all times for the average teen rock & roll musician. It was before yowling Viking Rock, Kill Your Parents Rock, and Brooding Egg Head Rock. The best bands I ever played in, besides the Phlowurz, were the Howlers (Best New Band - Austin Sun/1976) and Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks. The former became Omar & the Howlers and continues to record. I did get to co-write with Omar when he was on Columbia.
Webb has done quite a few albums for majors and indies. I produced all of them to date and wrote the majority of the original songs. I got started producing with Webb. I quit playing drums right around the time of our first release, "It Came From Nashville." Then I never really played them again, much less in the studio, until 18 years later on Allison Moorer's "The Duel." When we did "It Came..." we put it out ourselves on vinyl only. It was my first 'production'. I think I just out-argued everybody. The first record I ever produced for a major (Island) was Webb's 2nd album... "Hybrid Vigor." Then I did John Mayall & the Bluesbreaker's "Sense of Place" for Island. I had never been to Hollywood. I am from Mississippi and I was 30 before I even got to Nashville. I had gotten a publishing deal.
Anyway... While we were doing Mayall, I learned, or at least started learning, about different gear and the color wheel of sound that different mics and consoles can give you. I have been an API loyalist since those early days, but also love good ol' vintage Neves and Helios consoles. I had an epiphany about what gear could help you do and how it was possible, with enough experience and working with really great engineers, to not absolutely ruin what it is you are recording and producing.
3) There's wide variation between producers and their area of expertise (ie, some are players, engineers, singers, songwriters, etc). How would you characterize your production style and what do you tend to focus on?
I remember some interview somewhere and they asked Nick Lowe about his 'production style'. He said something like "I mostly tell jokes and wave my hands in the air". He is one of my producer heroes and I didn't take him literally, but what I think he meant was he tries to establish a mood and working environment so that crafted magic as well as outrageous mistakes and experiments are all given an equal chance to survive. Like Nick, or at least so I think, I was a musician and a songwriter first, but I learned how to build records. With every disappointment or frustrating sonic result I would start paying more attention to what the engineer had to do or was doing. What 'choice' of mic and signal path got what result.
I am pretty hands on with my engineers although that statement might surprise some of the ones I have worked with most recently. The people I primarily work with now pretty much get what I am after with just a little bit of tech talk fused with the hubris-drenched romanticism of what I might be after on that particular album... or I guess that particular track would be more accurate. I am at the stage now where I at least have enough historical data on which converters sound like what. I get all involved with gear choices at the front end and just stay on the case, pretty much through mastering. I still prefer the sound of 2" tape and use it when possible. Often I will do the analog hybrid with RADAR or, due to the ubiquitous nature of its penetration or proliferation... Pro Tools. But HD is the only Digidesign product that I can enjoy the sound of. PTHD with Apogee converters is my preference. I think Samplitude sounds the closest to analog and it is the only platform that I have mixed on 'in the box' that sounded great, to me at least. I think RME converters sound great and they are affordable for the DIY'er. To date, I haven't done much 'in the box'. I usually always mix through a console, usually an API. I hate the sound of SSLs. That doesn't mean they aren't great and all that, they would just hollow things out for me the few times I used one. But the whole gear thing just becomes peripheral if the song sucks, the band can't play or the singer can't sing...or at least communicate believably.
4) On Allison Moorer's record "The Duel," how did Butch Primm (who wrote the majority of the songs) approach you to produce the record, and how did you first hear those songs? Did he play them for you on acoustic guitar - or did he and Allison give you demos etc?
By that time I had already worked with Butch and Allison on two previous records - Miss Fortune, which was fairly epic with a lot of variety style-wise, and Show - a live DVD and record. Allison asked me to do it. They were a team. They wanted to do something the opposite of Miss Fortune - less production and overdubs, fewer musicians, less expensive. Allison played guitar for the first time on record. We'd sit on Allison and Butch's porch and they would take turns playing me the songs and we would work on arrangements - loosely, and talk about how to approach the record. They told me what kind of drums they wanted and I decided I'd just do it myself. Hadn't played in 18 years. Tried to play like my heroes...Ringo, Levon and Kenny Buttrey. But good luck on trying to cop that last titan. Any of 'em really. But it was fun and it was cool to get to play.
5) Butch's songs are intense and personal, especially the title track, and the record sounds so rich and alive. What were your first thoughts about those songs and how best to capture that on tape?
I knew what artists and records they were into together. I was pretty into those things as well. We had two young guys - John Davis, formerly the leader of Superdrag playing guitar, bass and some piano and steel. Adam Landry was Allison's guitar player at the time. Besides the 3 of us, Allison played some and we brought in a sprinkling of Outsiders. We recorded it at House of David in Nashville - an affordable API room. The recordist and mixer was Richard McLaurin, a great top knob with ears like Dumbo. It was 2" from beginning to end, although we mixed dig through Apogees. We used Dolby SR...which will probably never be surpassed for sound as far as recording music with dynamics - or quiet sections. If it is not technically as 'quiet' as digital, it is quiet enough that a night watchman couldn't hear the difference. You don't need it for loud stuff, you don't get the same kind of tape saturation. The Duel probably sounds alive because we were making it up (the arrangements) as we went along, it was all analog - tape, Class A console, enough UA audio outboard to have no excuses, old Gibson acoustics, old Ludwigs w/towels over 'em at times, it was rootsy music with a screw it manifesto. But every record I do sounds different - I hope anyway.
6) You're a self-described studio-gear fanatic. What are some of your favorite tools of the trade and why?
I touched on some of that in one of the last questions. Sorry if I get off topic. I think, artistic content aside, starting with the musical instruments...what types of acoustic guitars do you have available? Which electrics? Have they been set up to tune? What brand drums? What year? All snares sound different and the one that sounded magnificent in the drum store might come off all anemic in the room you are cutting in. Real piano vs. digital plank. Can you hear what you are doing in the control room? I know you can 'fix it in the mix' and replace and enhance drums and blah blah blah. You can do anything and there are no rules. But I wont just automatically tune a vocal if it rings true to me without it. If tuning might help the artist make a house (or castle) payment down the road, or if tuning will make the lead or the backing vocals buzz better, than I'll do it. I think most contemporary music sounds too rubberized... whatever that means. Film sound can be pretty bad ass these days though.
Back to gear, I am coming to grips with the new DIYer era. I use to have an API sidecar and an Otari MX-80 2" in road cases and some other cool outboard, like original Trident A Range modules, an assortment of the vintage Neve pres and compressors, etc. Now I have nothing ha ha. I do have my own Samplitude rig, some Beatle-quality Sennheiser head phones, an RME Fireface, and the full blown UA plug in card or whatever the hell it is. If you are somewhere you can hear well, just this rig alone sounds great if the stuff was recorded well. I still prefer going to a studio, even if it is in somebody's house. I enjoy the community of experts a budget lets you bring together. I like hearing everybody playing at once. I would really like a lunch box, or a buffet table, of the new Helios re-issue modules, a pair of the powered ATC speakers, and a Phoenix stereo compressor. I like Crane Song products for humanizing digital, but Samplitude comes with great plug ins and analog modeling utilities. You don't have to immediately buy more plug ins like you do with Nuendo or my first Pro Tools.
For mastering, I always work with Jim DeMain at Yes Master. You can shoot-out a versatile analog chain against a versatile digital chain. Or some combination thereof. I am pretty sure we listen through Benchmark D/As. I am not sure what clocks what. For options, he has Crane Song, Weiss digital limiters and EQs, "L- whatevers" and so on. I guess at this stage of the game, I prefer a hybridized boutique shop of digital and analog for all stages of building a record.
7) I've noticed the nick name "Ionizer" associated with you (I'm assuming a reference to magnetizing tape)... is tape an absolute for you or do you occasionally indulge in the convenience of digital?
Actually, the Ionizer was my nickname back when I was playing with Webb Wilder and just starting to produce him. An Ionizer was one of those Sharper Image catalog gadgets that people were starting to put in their offices and in control rooms. I think they were supposed to suppress tension or generate some kind of calming reverse miasma by changing positive ions to negative ones...or vice versa. Something like the sublime emotional vibe you get right after a rainstorm or what have you. Anyway, I was pretty argumentative and opinionated back then, so I guess somebody picked up on the 'positivity coming out of negativity' equation as it related to my assertiveness. I am not like that anymore. Now I delight in symbiosis. Since the early Webb days, I don't think any of the subsequent artists I have produced (Sonny Landreth, Allison Moorer, Todd Snyder, Shaver, Scott Miller, Los Straightjackets, John Mayall, etc.) have called me that. They usually call me RS, Bobby, or "oh yes My Sultan".
As to tape vs. digital, I think that digital has arrived sonically and it is only getting better. If you have the experience to cherry pick your components, just like in digital photography, you can access the path to high quality with excellent results as far as tone, warmth, and depth are concerned. The versatility and dynamics of digital are undeniable. 'Excellent' is affordable now for the DIYer if they know what to get. Digital has too many affordable bells & whistles though, and not enough God-given limitations as you have with analog. If I had my druthers, I'd just go analog all the way if the budget and the music permitted. Definitely prefer tracking basics and vocals to tape though.
8) What are your thoughts on the general state of the music industry? (i.e., studio closures, major-label malaise, DAWs, MP3s, etc.) Have things really changed in terms of how you work?
I haven't done that much major label work lately, so I've already crossed that burning bridge with my flip flops smokin'. I think for artists who have managed to establish and keep an audience of any size at all, the 'crumbling business model' can be a good thing. With digital downloads, royalty chasing software, fulfillment companies like Amplifier in Austin, 'viral' marketing, e-commerce, Pay Pal, web sites and phenomena like You Tube and Myspace (if you're young)... all that would have to be pretty exciting for somebody starting out, or somebody with some rabid fans looking for new product, tour dates and merch. Everybody should own their own virtual gift shop. I can't say that I have mastered or even explored all of this new media much. But I am genuinely interested in it. It did take me three weeks to figure out my Myspace page.
The digital revolution, the computer and affordable internet access have made it possible to have, not just a studio in a box, but an empire in a box as well. But I guess in the brick & mortar world, or any studio, label, record shop or organization with big expenses, I think what revenue stream reliability there was has shrunken to such a degree that record companies of every size are understandably worried. It is making it harder for a corporation to make a living much less a killing. But outside of things like Myspace, TV commercials and so on, record labels still have the muscle to get an artist and their product out in front of people. It is all about getting through the clutter.
I gave up on commercial radio hitting my monkey nerve around 1973. For my taste, I think it has sucked pretty much since Rod Stewart moved to America, around 1974. The Faces might be the last rock & roll band that I loved. There's NO roll in rock anymore. The new media and resulting opportunities have created an exciting environment with more freedom for experimentation and innovation. But labels are much more cautious and reluctant to waste their money marketing things that don't serve their research. There is a ying for every yang though. Pop music may just become a way to sell t-shirts, even more than it has been to date. But now the labels want a piece of the T-shirt sales and such. I hate the whole American Idolization of pop culture. It's not the supposed democratization of it all that bothers me, it is the lack of f@!*&^%g originality. The Rock & Roll Trio played the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and Buddy Holly played the Apollo... not to mention innumerable African American musical titans of yesteryear. Now they have all these squares and chowder heads not only judging them, but they have stylists making 'em look like everybody else and puds picking there it might as well be beauty pageant songs. I hate it all. Television, except for TCM and CSPAN, has become rat wind. Yuck.
9) What are you listening to lately?
A CD of Elmer Bernstein scores. I love the To Kill a Mockingbird soundtrack. The Rushmore soundtrack. Waylon's "Honky Tonk" heroes. A cd of early Kink's singles. About the only new recording I have listened to for pleasure is Beck's "Sea Change". I just think it's great. Best of Slim Harpo... Best of Lee Dorsey... stuff like that. I listen to wind chimes a lot. That's my Phillip Glass. I would like to get into sound design. That would be fun for me at this stage of my career. I have heard an awful lot of G chords. I am writing my own stuff again as well, so I listen to that. Everybody, deep down in their secret heart, wants to hear their own music anyway. I really do enjoy helping people get their thing on though.
This interview was originally found at Sound Bites Dog so check them out!