Andy Johns Interview: The Man Behind the Sound of Rock n Roll

By: Matt Warnock

There are few people in the music industry who can claim to have a Midas touch such as that of famed producer and engineer Andy Johns. His work with bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Van Halen have made him a legend in the recording community, and after being involved in albums that have sold more than 160 million copies, there is no doubt that just about everything Andy becomes involved in is going to be special.

Though he is known for his work on such classic albums as Exile on Main Street, Physical Graffiti and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, Johns has also worked on some of the biggest records of the new millennium. Chickenfoot, Godsmack and Eric Johnson have all called upon Johns to work with them on recent projects, and the results have been stellar. Whereas many of his contemporaries from the early days have fallen by the wayside, Johns shows no signs of slowing down, leading fans to believe that his best work in the studio may be yet to come.

Guitar International recently sat down with Andy Johns to talk about his long career in the studio, working with legends like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and to get his thoughts on digital versus analog recording technology.

Andy Johns

Andy Johns in the Studio

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Matt Warnock: You worked on Chickenfoot’s debut album,which was released in 2009. After going into the studio over the years with many different working bands, did you approach working with a “Supergroup,” any differently than any other band that you’ve worked with?

Andy Johns: Well, I’d produced an album with Joe Satriani back in the early ‘90s and it did very well. We had a lot of fun together on that project. I had also worked with Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony back when I used to produce Van Halen. So, I knew those guys. It wasn’t new territory for me. Chad Smith, the drummer, is a very nice cat, great drummer, and so there weren’t really any worries.

We started doing some demos at Sammy’s studio and felt out some material. Then we went up to Skywalker, just up the road really because Sammy and Joe live in the Bay area. We were kind of still in the process of writing songs when we were there, and I felt that we were a little short of songs at that point. There was this one idea that Sammy had and I kept on him to hand it over, which he reluctantly did in the end and it turned out to be a great song.

Joe and I did a lot of work in the studio together, just sort of fooling around with the songs, after the initial tracks were laid out. I had a very good time with that project and working with those great musicians.

Matt: When you work with musicians such as Joe Satriani, Sammy Hagar and recently with Steve Miller, who are all legends in the industry and highly experienced in the studio, do you just guide them along the way or do you still get in there and work hands on with them through the entire recording process?

Andy: With Joe Satriani, we bounced off each other a lot. I participate quite a lot with Joe. With Steve Miller, we did a live DVD, but then we did a studio album of blues songs, actually we did two but the second one’s not out yet. I definitely had input during those projects.

I worked with the drummer during tracking, when necessary. Then with Steve’s guitar work, I’m fairly sure that I got some performances out of him that we would not have had otherwise. Various ideas for overdubs as well and he seemed very happy with all of that. We were supposed to work again this April, but he went on the road instead.

I’ve known Steve Miller since I was 17, and my brother had worked with him a lot over the years. I’ve always been a big fan of Steve’s music so it was very cool to work with him. When we were cutting tracks, as opposed to doing it like, “Oh, we’ll keep the drums and redo everything else one at a time,” and I’ll admit that I’m the biggest culprit of doing that as anybody. We went back to doing it with everybody doing it at once. We kept the keys, the bass, drums and the other guitar player.

We did add Steve’s stuff later on, but everything else was done together, and we had a very good time doing it that way. We eventually ended up at his house to doing the mixes and overdubs, which is a great place to work. He has a great place to work up in Sun Valley, Idaho so that was a great experience, once again, thank you very much. [Laughs]

Andy Johns

Andy Johns

Matt: You also worked on Eric Johnson’s much anticipated 2010 album Up Close. Can you tell us about that experience?

Andy: That was just mixing, but that went very well. Eric’s a very meticulous guy, but we got along very well. He was pleased and complimentary as hell. He has a great studio. It took me a few days to get used to, but it had everything that we needed. We spent probably a couple of weeks mixing that. It was very well recorded and his arrangements and parts were all in place, so I just had to learn what was there.

He’s a great guy, so it was an easy gig. I had worked with him years ago with a friend of mine in Austin on this blues song where he came by and played, that’s when I realized just how good he really is. A lot of people said, “He can be very anal in the studio,” but when we were working together he wasn’t. If he heard something he’d definitely say what it was, which is cool with me, because I want to make myself happy and in return make the artist happy as well.

Matt: Do you have a preference for working with someone like Eric who’s very meticulous about things, or for people who just turn everything over to you and let you take the reins?

Andy: It all depends. Obviously each artist is slightly different. It was helpful to have Eric there a lot of the time because there were a lot of parts and he could tell me what was there, what he felt was missing, how he had designed everything and put it together. Sometimes bands will just send me stuff, like Los Lonely Boys did about a year ago for this EP that they were doing about 1969. One of the songs was something I did with Blind Faith back then. That was fairly simple and I really didn’t need them there for that. I think I just did one keyboard overdub on one of the songs, and they loved it.

So, every situation is a little bit different, and sometimes I get driven up the wall by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Sometimes they’ll want to try stuff that looks good on paper, but that I’ve tried over the years and know it’s not going to work, but it’s difficult to turn around to somebody and say, “No, I’m not going to fucking bother with that because it doesn’t work.” [Laughs]

For example, the stuff I did last year with the Derek and the Dominos box set was material that I had recorded way back in ’71 and was listed as co-producer on the stuff. So, I knew the material inside and out and was able to just dive right into it, and I think it turned out great. I’m really proud of how that project turned out.

Matt: Looking back over your career as a producer, it seems as if you like to focus on one or two big recording projects each year. Is this a conscious thing, you like to only have one or two projects on the books at one time, or just the way things have worked out?

Andy: It’s really about who’s calling and who isn’t. In the last few years I’ve liked to do a couple albums per year, and I’ve also been doing 5.1’s for this other company that I’ve been working with for about nine years now. That’s a lot of work, because you have to do a stereo and a 5.1, but the recording doesn’t take that long because it’s only 1 gig or maybe 2. Something like the Steve Miller project though, working on and off, took us about five or six months.

Those kinds of gigs don’t come around very often these days because the budgets just don’t exist for them anymore. Most guys will call me up to mix, or we’ve got to do it quickly for not much money. It’s been tough. The last two years, it’s really sunk in for me that the business that I grew up in is gone, and it’s a bit disappointing.

Andy Johns

Andy Johns

Matt: You’ve been in the studio for many classic rock records, including Exile on Main Street, Led Zeppelin IV and countless others. Do you think that artists today could produce an enduring album like one of these in today’s economic climate?

Andy: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do know that a lot of people went out and bought themselves Pro Tools rigs, but the atmosphere is not the same as being in a proper, cool studio. That’s why it was great working in Skywalker studio on two projects, because I felt very at home. You’re surrounded by professionals and it drives you on a bit. So many people buy a Pro Tools rig and think they’ll record an album, but it doesn’t really work that way.

A lot of people will figure out how to get signal paths, mic the bass drum and then think, “I’m an engineer.” [Laughs] “Let’s put a tambourine on that. Great I’m a record producer as well.” But, it took me years and years to really figure it all out. The first record I produced was in ’69, and though it was a hit, I didn’t feel that comfortable with things back then. It wasn’t until the ‘80s when I felt good about doing it exclusively, which carried me through the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The Godsmack record I did was number one, Chickenfoot was I think number four. So, even when you’re having a bad day you can think, “Well wait a minute, I’ve got a record that’s at number one.” [Laughs] But, as far as sales go now, it’s abysmal, and to make money out of downloads can be tough. The money’s not really there anymore man. I’m still having fun in the studio, but the in-depth projects that I like to work on just aren’t bloody well out there anymore.

Matt: Since you’ve worked in the studio since ’69, are you still working with some analog technology or are you all digital at this point?

Andy: I’ve been all digital now for quite some time. I haven’t recorded an album on multi-track tape since, oh I don’t know five or six years ago I guess. With Steve Miller, he brought in all this tape and we started that way, but about half-way through he said, “Fuck it Andy it takes too much time, let’s just do it in Pro Tools.” I said fine, because the drums were just banged over to Pro Tools and it ended up sounded great. I actually got an email from Roadrunner records saying that it was one of the best sounding albums they’ve heard in a while, which is unusual because they don’t usually bother. I’m happy enough with Pro Tools, and it sounds great, as long as you don’t use it as a crutch it’s great.

I’m happy with the sound of tape, but a lot of people who haven’t used tape much say to me, “Andy back in the day when you were using tape didn’t it warm up the sound?” Well, no it didn’t, it didn’t do anything to the sound. In fact, more often than not you were struggling with the multi-track machine to get it to sound identical when you AB’ed it. If you’re overdubbing guitar and vocal for instance you don’t hear much of a difference. It’s only when you do everything together that the top end is a little more electronic. But I’ve done things digitally that I’m very happy with and they keep getting it better all the time. Tape technology can be very dodgy. The number of times that I had problems with tape machines over the years is innumerable.

2011 NAMM Josh Vittek Andy Johns Steve Grindrod

2011 NAMM Josh Vittek Andy Johns Steve Grindrod

Matt: Was there any one project, an album or a particular track, that posed a unique and hard to work out problem for you over the years that has really stuck out in your mind?

Andy: Well I suppose the one, which didn’t catch me by surprise but had I not been so keen could have been very difficult, was the Exile on Main Street album. That was a very unique situation where we were working in a basement at Keith’s house. It was really tough to record in that space. There was tons of waiting around, and being in the south of France in the summertime it was very hot.

The electricity kept going on and off, it was just a Stones thing, something always seemed to happen when those guys were around. That took nearly a year. Back then if you took more than three or four weeks to record an album, something was wrong, but that project took us just about eleven months to finish.

Matt: When you were in the studio working on Led Zeppelin IV, did you have a sense for how big that album and “Stairway to Heaven” was going to be when it was released?

Andy: Well, I didn’t think that 40 years down the road people would still want to know about “Stairway to Heaven.” [Laughs] I knew it was going to be a good record because those guys were phenomenal musicians and Jimmy Page really knew how to get things done in the studio very quickly. They were very fast because Page and John Paul Jones were very experienced studio musicians who had played on thousands of dates over the years.

I don’t think we knew that the album would have the legs that it had, and back then we didn’t think that Rock n Roll would have the legs that it’s had to be quite honest. You were thinking much beyond the next few years, it was just, “We’ll see what happens and go from there.”

Matt: You’ve worked with just about every big name in the industry during your career. Is there one person or band that you haven’t had a chance to work with that you’d still like to record with in the future?

Andy: Yeah, there have been some people. Tom Petty is obviously amazing, but he’s been working with the same guy for years and years. I’d also like to work with Sheryl Crow because I really relate to her songs. There aren’t really any young bands out there that I’m dying to work with, except maybe Coldplay, they’re pretty fucking amazing. I dig them. But I don’t really think in terms like that. I got to work with just about everyone I wanted to back in the day, except maybe Neil Young. I even got to do some stuff with Bob Dylan once on a movie. But, no not really, sorry. [Laughs]

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