#107 – Alta Sociedad: Producer Joe Blaney on NTVG, Charly, Calamaro and the magic of South American rock

Argentine rocker Charly García (center) and Blaney during the mixing of 'Piano Bar' (1984). Daniel Jacobson observes them. (courtesy joeblaney.com)

Argentine rocker Charly García (center) and Blaney during the mixing of ‘Piano Bar’ (1984). Daniel Jacobson observes them. (courtesy joeblaney.com)

For Anglos well versed in the who’s who of music production, Joe Blaney is the guy who produced the Ramones, Keith Richards’ solo debut, and the Clash’s biggest record. Latinos know these facts, but the things we love Blaney for are his albums with Argentine superstar Charly García; or Andrés Calamaro’s Alta Suciedad, or even his latest, No Te Va Gustar’s El tiempo otra vez avanza. Blaney is the dude who gave some of our biggest rocanrol heros the sound of a lifetime, a standard of excellence they continue to display in their new albums. 

He’s also a kamikaze, because he works only with bands he feels he can contribute to, instead of simply accepting a paycheck wherever it comes from. The new album by Uruguayan rock-pop megastars No Te Va Gustar was the excuse to call Blaney. A simple question became an hour-long chat in October, when Blaney talked about everything from whether he’ll record another album with Charly García, to why the Clash blew it when it got rid of Topper.

Did you know anything about No Te Va Gustar before you worked with them?

No, I knew absolutely nothing about them. They contacted me. I talked to their manager and I was very impressed. They seemed to have their business thing together… (laughs) I’ve had problem with that before. I worked with some pretty good bands down there: Los Tres from Chile, Charly [García from Argentina]… And lots of them, it seems to me, they haven’t been able to find people with experience in the music industry and haven’t handled their careers well. But [NTVG] was a whole different thing, their organization was good. I liked the energy of the band, their horn section, they kind of seemed to be building up an audience and still [were] growing after 20 years. They flew me [to Montevideo, Uruguay] and we met, and right away it seemed like a serious venture. And when they sent me their albums, I really liked them. I felt like I could contribute, that I could make something better.

I spoke to [NTVG singer] Emiliano [Brancciari] and he told me one of the greatest things you did on their album was to have them record everything together.

They had made a few albums in a more… contemporary way. I’m from a generation when I had to come to a studio to be a record producer. A lot of people now are people who are musicians in bands or people who learn to produce out of their computers. They start with the drummer… The last NTVG albums started with the drummer, then add one instrument at a time… It’s a bit of a mystical thing that we don’t really understand, but we get a different energy when everybody’s in the same room playing together. If you do it one part a a time, everything may be right, but you might lack a little bit of a certain spirit or something, you know? A lot of the greatest records of all time have little things, subtleties in the timing, when one guy might be speeding up a little at a certain point, but the overall thing translates to excitement. I saw [NTVG] play a show in New York and I could see they play good live, so I thought it was essential that they all played together. Even when I was talking to them about this concept, I told Emiliano, “You know, in the last couple of records, the times I went back and referred to the rehearsal tapes, you seemed to have a better performance than the song on the record,” you know? Up until the early ’80s, everyone made a record with everyone playing together. It was just the way it was done. The other thing is that I would listen to [NTVG] records and I liked the horn section, but I just kind of felt their parts were a little bit obvious, so we brought in a horn arranger [Juan Pollo Raffo, with additional arrangements by Benjamín Barreiro], and that helped a lot too.

Emiliano also told me they took you to see a murga, Agarrate Catalina! 

Yes, yes! I really loved it. It was powerful music. We were right in the front row and the sound of these people’s voices… I mean, it had great spirit, you could tell there was a lot of work that went into it even though they looked like people you see at a street fair. You know, the costumes, the painted faces… Musically it was extremely sophisticated. I really enjoyed it. I always enjoy discovering great music that’s either from another country or another era that I didn’t know about. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s great.

I’m the type that thinks with talent alone you don’t go anywhere. Unless you’re a genius, like Charly [García], who gets away with murder, to a certain point…

Right…

…but you immediately saw that NTVG had that other part together.

Yeah. And the talent too. I liked their music. But when I looked them up, I said, “What the heck is with this name?!” (No Te Va Gustar means “You’re Not Going to Like It”) There were certain things about them, I was curious. I always try to keep an eye on new things in the Latin market, because I had success with Charly, and Los Rodríguez, and Andrés Calamaro, Los Tres from Chile, we made a coupe of good records… I’ve always tried to keep in it, but I just haven’t stumbled across something special for me to do. And I also like to take a job not just for the work, but if I feel I can really contribute something to. In the case of these guys it was a good marriage, I could contribute but the main thing was to let them be themselves while making suggestions about arrangements and song structure. I just put them together to get a good take in the right tempo and they listened to me but I also let them be themselves.

Which is what a good producer does, instead of making them sound like you. Except very few cases (Jeff Lynne and, sometimes, Phil Spector), I detest those albums when you can say, “Oh, that’s probably produced by such-and-such…”

Yeah, you don’t want to impose something on them. The other problem was that the last two or three records were done … with a person looking at the computer screen as opposed to the band being together in a room. You listen to a record from years back and you hear the band speeding up, these are natural emotions that the musicians have. If you do it by measuring the beat, the beat with the exact same length, it’s like putting bricks in a wall. It sometimes lacks a certain energy or feeling.

What about the language barrier?

Nico [Fervenza, manager] speaks fluent English, there wasn’t really a problem. I asked for translations, and somebody’s friend translated so I could get an overview of what the songs were about. It went great. Three or four guys in the band speak reasonably good English, so does their stage manager, so it wasn’t a problem at all.

I don’t want to end the interview without speaking about Charly first. Can we go on…?

(laughs) I started with Clics modernos, Piano bar, Parte de la religión, Tango (with Pedro Aznar), Cómo conseguir chicas, Filosofía barata y zapatos de goma… The last one I did was the MTV Unplugged.

In other words, except for maybe Yendo de la cama al living/Pubis Angelical, you worked in all his best solo albums.

Yeah…

Now you saw him while recording NTVG’s latest. It was your first meeting since how long? How did you find him? You worked with him when he was supposedly very heavy into– 

Oh, I’ve seen him a couple of times. He came to New York for concerts and I helped him record a concert last year. It’s hard for me to talk about Charly, especially to a journalist, because… (laughs) I know too many things!

Just for the record: I’m a devout Charlista. I’m a friend. 🙂

Well, thank you, and he’s a genius and it was certainly a struck of luck for me when he came knocking on my door at Electric Lady. I didn’t know who the guy was, and we did Clics modernos, which is a very important record in Argentina. It came at a time when they were changing government in Argentina after the military. Not only musically, but culturally, his lyrics and everything, it’s a very important album.

It was a good marriage for both of us. At a certain time I had to stop working with him because… You know, he had problems with… you know, various, various forms of decadent behavior and I just couldn’t… I didn’t like it. I felt he was… I don’t know the word… Irresponsible, maybe? As an artist he was getting too drunk, or too whatever else to really concentrate and do the thing right. But the first time I met him, when he was in New York, for Clics modernos, he had been living in New York a few months. He was incredibly focused and clear. I wouldn’t say there was no evidence of drinking and drug use, but it was very moderate. The sessions were done in a mostly clean state of mind. Maybe towards the end he’d have a little whisky. But with each album it got progressively deeper and worse. I think with Clics modernos he partially came to New York to clean up his lifestyle a little and escape some of the pressures he felt in Argentina, also stemming from the years of repressive government. He stayed in New York for like six months, he wrote the whole album in NY, and we recorded it very quickly and efficiently, ’cause they didn’t have a lot of money. Back then all the studios were expensive, just before they invented thinks like the MIDI technology, computers… Nowadays anybody can make music, and that hurt the studio business. Back then, if you wanted to record at Electric Lady Studios you paid a lot of money. Then, for Piano bar, he came to New York, he plays me a cassette he had done in Argentina, and I thought it was a good record, but so different from the last one. So his manager sent over the 24-track tapes from Buenos Aires and we did some retouching to it, because some studios in New York had the newest keyboard stuff. Then he said, “I want to sing one song again,” so we went to a little studio with a good microphone, and he ended up singing all his parts of the whole album in one night, in like 18 hours and a whole bottle of Jack Daniel’s, that kind of crazy stuff. At that time it was OK because it was one night of crazyness and he did the whole album, so it was also impressive… (laughs) The Tango EP with Pedro [Aznar] in ’85, he had a bunch of very good songs in there. And he wrote all the songs in a couple of days and recorded it. Kind of amazing. The next one was Parte de la religión. He had worked on it for a long time in South America, mostly doing it by himself. When he came to New York we overdubbed his drummer and did some more overdubs and mixing. The next one was Cómo conseguir chicas. I went to Argentina, and that’s when we started having some big problems. His lifestyle, staying up for two or three days in a row, coming to the studio smelling like alcohol… It came to a point where I was growing a little bit impatient with him. A few times I said I wouldn’t work with him again, but there was always someone calling, like MTV [Latino], which wouldn’t do the unplugged without me, and I figured, “Oh, it’s only a couple of days…” So we did it. The first time Charly went to a clinic was 1990 or 1991, and that was the time when I feel he should’ve changed his life, and for whatever reason he couldn’t. I think he has a difficult time in Argentina, being so famous, and everyone’s kind of like… worships him. It’s difficult for him to keep his two feet on the ground with that kind of adulation.

Around the time of the MTV Unplugged I was producing a radio show for MTV Latino, and some insiders told me everyone was scared shitless, because they didn’t know if Charly could deliver. But he did it; apparently he was focused and the album was awesome, wasn’t it? How do you remember the recording?

Yeah… For me, I was nervous the whole time. By then, it was 1995 and I knew him since 1983, so there were several years of decadent behavior. He wasn’t all there, but it came together pretty good. During the Serú Girán medley he forgot part of the lyrics, but for the MTV Unplugged [show] they let you do a couple of songs over if you need to, so we did it and he still forgot part of the lyrics… (laughs)

It wasn’t without flaws, but it came off very well. Even in his worst times… Did you see the video for the song “Influencia,” where he’s very skinny? This is in a very decadent time, and he’s playing guitar and showing a quite extraordinary level of talent.

It’s hard to watch, all those years had an effect on him, and I don’t feel motivated to work with him because we’ve done such great work in the past that it speaks for itself, you know?

How was the Teatro Colón show [in 2013]? That was the last time you worked with him, right?

Yes. There were all kinds of complications. He wasn’t happy with the whole string arrangement; he had two strings quartets with his band and he wasn’t happy with it. We scheduled another show in February and he had to cancel it, let’s say it was for health issues… He still hasn’t modified his behavior, and it’s very sad.

But you saw him again during the recording of the NTVG album, right? How was he?

He was in good… He always surprises me. He looks like an old man, now, he doesn’t move as well as he used to, but he’s still very sharp upstairs, you know? I’m always happy to see Charly. I mean, I thought he was going to die in the studio when I was mixing La hija de la lágrima in 1994. We were in New York and he was just so out of it, that the people who came from Argentina to keep an eye on him all left. It was hard to be around him. I had these visions that he was going to die in the studio and next I was going to have the [newspaper] Clarín and everybody else calling me. But I’m happy he’s still with us.

Our own private Keith Richards…

Worse, though. People always tell me, “Well, you know these kinds of people, right?” Keith Richards never… Maybe when he was in his 20s or early 30s he’d stay up two or three days in a row, but from 1980 on ’till he met Patti Hansen, he’s more moderate, you know? The key thing is the amount. If you go to sleep and sleep eight hours every night you can probably recover from some of the things you put in your body, but if you drink and do cocaine and stay up three days in a row and take some pill that the doctor gave you to go to sleep, it’s really madness.

So, tomorrow, he asks you, “Hey, Joe, let’s make an album the way we used to.” What’s your answer?

Absolutely not. It’s just sad for me. When we did the No Te Va Gustar album, there was Hugo Fattoruso. Do you know him?

Yes, of course! I’m from Uruguay!

Oh, OK. He played a little keyboard and he sang and his voice sounded wonderful, and he must be close to 70 years old [He’s 71]. And his voice sounded great! Charly used to have a really great voice and now… And that’s all due to the decadent behavior. I’d rather work with someone younger who doesn’t give me memories of better times. There’s people like Iggy Pop who used to be a big party animal and now goes to the gym every day. There’s a point when you have to say, “My career is more important than this silly nonsense.” Somehow Charly could never make that decision.

You worked with both Anglo and Latin musicians, and sometimes we Latinos feel that our strength is our ability to mix our regional rhythms and sounds with rock, jazz and other styles, while the Anglos have better technique. But I spoke with Adrian Belew about this, and he disagreed. We were at one of the Latin rock festivals at the then-named Universal Amphitheater (now Gibson Amphitheater) in the ’90s, and he basically told me a Latino guitarist can play anything, from rock and roll to so many styles few Anglos will never master. What do you think?

It’s kind of true. I’m very impressed with the Argentine, and people from the tip of South America, with their ability to play rock, the way NTVG mixes milonga, and the way Charly’s compositions have some influences from the tango or harmonies you’d hear on a Piazzolla record. It seems to me there’s more passion there than Americans have. I’ve also worked with bands from Spain, people like Fito & Fitipaldis. I started over there with Los Rodríguez, and I’ve noticed that in Spain they don’t feel the rock and roll as well. The rhythm is a little more hard to find for them. They’re always a little rigid.

You don’t find that in Argentina, Chile or Uruguay?

No, no.

So this confirms what a major producer once told me: Spain has a lot of talent, but they lack swing.

Yeah, exactly. It’s a tough one over there. I was lucky with Los Rodríguez because the drummer, Herman, was a Puerto Rican kid who grew up in New Jersey, his father was an army guy. He was pretty much an American, Hispanic guy. But working with drummers from Spain is a little harder, they’re more… rigid. But in my experience, rockers from Chile, Argentina and now Uruguay have more passion and feel the music more.

OK, what are your three favorite albums you produced for Latin rockers?

Probably my favorite is Andrés Calamaro’s Alta Suciedad [1997].

The reason it is my favorite is that I made a little more contribution to it. I had made two records with Los Rodríguez and [Andrés] was determined to go solo and had a little studio in his apartment and had played everything himself. He didn’t like a lot of ’80s music, he preferred ’70s’ records. He’s a big fan of music, buys a lot of records and stays in touch with a lot of things. I suggested doing something like what Paul Simon or Steely Dan would’ve done in the ’70s, which is to hire some top New York musicians. So I brought him to New York and hired session musicians.

He chose the musicians?

Yeah. The guitar player, Hugh McCracken, he passed away last year. He played on records since I was a kid. He played on Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” the rhythm guitar in B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” he played on Lennon and McCartney’s solo records… These are the type of people that are around in New York. These are people who spend 12 hours in a studio making commercials, and when you play them a song they have so much experience that they’re intuition allows them to come up with these amazing parts.

I still think that’s his best solo album.

I think so too. Some producers hire session musicians but it all comes down as cookie cutter. It’s solid and professional, but it’s not special. You must find the right chemistry, always. With Alta Suciedad we gave those songs an extra glow, the performance…

Was it recorded live as well?

Mostly live. Always three people playing together. We recorded all the tracks in four or five days because it was expensive, we had to work quick. “Comida china” and “El novio del olvido,” [Andrés] did that on his own, afterwards, without the band, and they came out good too. He had good songs, good demos, and we hired the best people to interpret them, and I think he got inspired as well with the singing. It came together really easily.

Easier to work with than Charly?

Well, he had his decadent problems too, For the two albums with Los Rodríguez and Alta Suciedad, he was very clear-headed and professional. With Honestidad brutal, things were different. He wanted to record 100 songs, but I refused. I kind of stopped him, we fought a lot. The relationship with the producer is based on trust. With the previous albums, he completely trusted me, but for Honestidad brutal he was in a bad state of mind. He had been divorced, started to get into more decadent behavior. I think he thought Alta suciedad was too commercial and he was trying to show people he was a different kind of artist. It was very difficult to finish [Honestidad brutal]. It has some good songs on it, I think it came out OK. The next one, when I wasn’t around, he finally got to record his 100 songs [the five-CD El salmón]. At least I stopped him for one record! (laughs)

OK, two more.

I’d have to say my favorite one with Charly is Parte de la religión. I like Clics modernos and Piano Bar, they’re all different. Piano Bar has a band and a good rock and roll energy, but I think for Parte de la religión he worked on it a little longer. It has some really good songs.

One song that’s underrated from that album, I think, is “Adela en el Carrousel.”

Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s just a very beautiful harmony. Charly’s abilities go way beyond rock and roll. He has classical training, at key times he comes up with extremely original stuff. I mean, “Promesas sobre el bidet” [from Piano Bar] is an amazing composition.

And he has several songs like that. His knowledge of harmonies… He’s like a Brian Wilson or a Paul McCartney. He has a little more depth to what he can do with a chord, and knows more combinations than most of your average rock musicians.

One more.

Rght after Alta Suciedad I made Fome (1997) with Los Tres from Chile.

After Charly’s Unplugged success, I made [Los Tres’] Unplugged in 1995, and it was the biggest album ever in Chile. but that’s another case where management didn’t know how to develop the band. Mexicans loved them and Sony told them to spend six months in Mexico doing promotion, and they didn’t do it. Six years ago they were supposed to play at the Latin Alternative Music Conference, at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, they were headlining. And they cancelled because they didn’t want to fly to New York for one concert.

OK, what about your three favorite albums in English?

Probably the first album I did with The Clash, Combat Rock.

I was lucky. I used to work Electric Lady as a technician. The band stopped there a couple of times when they were doing Sandinista! (1980). They needed to finish the single really quick, “This is Radio Clash,” and I was there. I worked with them [on the single] and I did their next album. I think “Straight to Hell” is probably the best song I ever recorded.

Shortly before their demise…

Yes. They threw their drummer out because he had a drug problem. The problem was that this guy [Topper Headon] was a vital corner to the band. He had great musical judgment and incredible ability as a drummer. He kept the whole thing glued together. They threw him out right before they had a tour. They said, “Let’s get the other guy we threw out before Topper…” (laughs) They probably could’ve done a better job of finding a more suitable drummer, but they didn’t. You could feel it onstage.

But Topper did record in Combat Rock.

Yes. I recorded “Rock the Casbah” with him like in an afternoon. He played all the instruments on it. He wrote the chords, he came up with the music, and then Joe [Strummer] wrote the words.

Were Joe and Mick [Jones] on speaking terms during the recording?

Everything was great.  When I worked on Combat Rock, the band was in a very, very good place. But when we took a break in Christmas Topper went back to England with some heroin in his pocket and got caught at customs. He had had a couple of instances before, and Joe was determined that he wasn’t going to endorse that behavior, he felt fans would think it’s OK to do heroin. We all had people we grew up with who were dead now because of that stuff. I respected [Joe’s decision] but when they said they were going to put Topper out of the band, I said, “You can’t replace him.” Anyway, you asked me for three albums. Let’s see.. I like the first solo record with Keith Richards, Talk is Cheap.That’s a good one.

And I made a record with Prince called Lovesexy (1988) that I think it’s quite good.

Lovesexy

What are you working on now?

I just finished a new album by Fito & Fitipaldis. I produced their two previous albums. When they called me for this one, I was already pretty booked up, so this time I was the engineer for the basic tracking only and then I mixed it. Carlos Raya, who’s Fito’s guitar player and co-producer on the last record, was the producer of the new one. The record that we made in 2006, Por la boca vive el pez, was massively successful in Spain, selling over 400,000 copies there. He’s like the Bruce Sprinsgteen from Spain, he’s huge.

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