Larry Klein began playing bass at a young age, touring with famed jazz musician Freddie Hubbard, and has since gone on to produce records for Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Melody Gardot, Thomas Dybdahl, and Madeleine Peyroux. I crossed paths with Larry over a vintage Neumann U 67 he was selling, and being a very open, easy-to-talk-to guy, I asked him if he’d be up to speak with me for Tape Op. Larry is not only personable and fun to chat with, he’s also passionate and enthusiastic about music after decades of making records. Perfect qualities for a producer, right?

You originally started as a session bass player, right? How did you make that transition from being the bass player to the guy running the sessions and producing records?

I actually started with the intent of being the world’s greatest jazz bass player, with the goal of playing with all my jazz heroes. I started playing bass when I was about twelve. Somewhat quickly, I discovered the genre that would give me more room to develop as a musician on bass was jazz. I started out listening to The Beatles and playing all of the pop music on electric bass that was afoot during the early ’60s. Then I started studying with a couple of different teachers, discovered jazz, and became completely obsessed. I started playing upright bass and playing in community orchestras, as well as playing with jazz bands, and learning. I started the process of learning to play jazz, while also pursuing a formal classical education. By the time I was in college, at a certain point I finished all of my music requirements, and I started getting offers to go on the road with people that I had listened to in my bedroom and worshipped. I decided, “I don’t really want to be a teacher in a university, so I’m going to go do this now.” I started going on the road with Freddie Hubbard, Carmen McRae, Joe Henderson, and Willie Bobo – my first road gig. My path since then has been one of exploring and enjoying one facet, while also discovering that I needed to go elsewhere, or further, in a different direction. At a certain point I’d been on the road for nine or ten months of the year, for four or five years, and I started feeling like there was a narrowness in the jazz world that I wasn’t crazy about. Also, I didn’t like being on the road nine months a year, so I decided to stay in town and try to do studio work and learn about the studio. I wanted to really learn to use the studio as an instrument, and use it to get at what I was hearing musically. I stopped touring and started doing record dates. I had a whole set of studio heroes, too. Guys like Joe Osborne and Lee Sklar; the premier studio players at that time. I began to do more studio work. I did that for a few years, and then, at a certain point, I butted up against the limitations of that. When you’re a studio player, you get called for a record and you go play on it, whether it’s something you love, or some music that you’re not crazy about. That’s how you make a living. I also became frustrated with playing on records and then hearing the final product and thinking, “What happened?” Everything magical got buried. “It sounded great when we tracked, but there’s nothing left!” That’s when I really thought, “How am I going to be able to use everything that I know how to do and still learn something every day?” I decided that producing records was the way to unite all those interests, and do so in a way where I could really continue to develop in every area. Every project would be an expansion and a learning process for me. I started doing it for free, initially; for friends who were doing a few songs in the studio. I’d say, “Hey, I’ll produce it. You don’t have to pay me.” Gradually, work opened up in that area. I met Joni [Mitchell] on a date that I got called for. I ended up working on that record of hers, Wild Things Run Fast,for about a year, on and off. During that year, I was doing other projects and continuing this path towards production work. Eventually, we started working together and producing her records.

Do you think starting off as a bass player, which is a more supportive role than playing guitar or being the lead vocalist, helped you become more aware of how a song works or doesn’t work?

Yes; and I never knew this until I started playing bass, but even the first time I played bass in a group I realized that you’re right at the fulcrum with this instrument. Of course, the focus, and most of the attention in the group, a lot of times goes to the guitar player or the singer. Maybe the drummer. Never the bass player, right? But the bass player is actually at the fulcrum of what is going on in the group, because you’re meshed in with the drummer and controlling the way songs feel. If you’re a good bass player, you’re listening to the vocal and playing off of the vocal, while also working to offset what the guitar player is doing or the keyboard player. The role of the bass player is a very integral one, and compositionally at the center. I’ve talked with Don Was [Tape Op #113] and Marcus Miller, and we’ve done different panels about this. It’s because you inherently, by your role, have to really be listening to everything and thinking in a compositional manner if you’re going to do a good job.

Among the people I’ve worked with, as musicians who become producers and engineers, the bass players and drummers are usually better at making that transition, versus singers or guitar players, who tend to be focused on themselves. But, of course, that’s a very broad generalization.

I agree, to an extent, and I’m sure there’re tons of exceptions. Different people listen to music differently. For example, I remember having discussions with Joni where I was playing an Earth, Wind & Fire record for her and saying, “Listen to the way the rhythm section works on this.” She tilted her head and said, “I don’t know; it doesn’t do anything for me.” I said, “Well, what are you listening to when you’re listening to it?” She said, “The vocals, lyrics, and what’s going on up in the higher part of the song.” I said, “No, listen to the lower part of the track. That’s where the magic is on this record.” It was a revelation for her. She said, “Yeah, I’ve always listened to the higher part. I listen from the top down, rather than from the bottom up.” I remember us talking about that for several hours and realizing everybody hears songs from the middle, to the top and bottom, or from the top or the bottom. Bass players listen from the bottom up, but they listen through, because they have to integrate by the nature of their job in the band. I find that oftentimes the way that people listen to music affects how they produce and how they build songs.

You mentioned that you’d listen back to songs you tracked on and that everything magical got buried. Was it poorly mixed, or was it due to too many overdubs?

All of the above. I remember one record that I played on with Jim Keltner, who was playing drums. He’s quite a poet himself, in a spontaneous way. I grew up listening to him, and he was a big figure in my musical development. We finished a take that was obviously the master take for the song. He came out of the drum area and said, “Give me a copy of that now. It’s never going to sound like that again.” That is, in essence, the encapsulation of the feeling. The mix would be terrible, in one way or another, or it got overthought; picked apart and dissected, until the whole vibe and groove was not there anymore. I’d be anticipating, “Oh, this record that I played on is coming out,” and I’d hear it and go, “Awww!” Not all the time, but sometimes.

Larry Klein

What era was that?

That was around 1980, or so.

So even before people used Pro Tools they managed to overthink records? [laughter]

Oh, god; yeah. I remember working one time at Record One, which was Val Garay’s studio [Tape Op #112]. They had these old 3M machines and a very strict protocol, born of efficiency, I guess. They would cut the tape for every overdub; every punch-out. The 3M machines were so slow coming out [of record] that the only way you could make sure not to have an expanding punch-out that kept bleeding into other parts was to cut and put an “island” in. The engineers used to say, “I’m going to cut the tape now.” Their masters ended up as confetti. But it’s a human foible, right? To want to fix, “perfect,” and eventually take the blood out of songs.

I remember a project I was working on where it seemed like I should keep trying engineering techniques I’d used before. Then I thought, “Wait a minute. No. This sounds really good. Let’s print it.”

It takes a certain internal security with yourself to think, “These instruments aren’t hitting at exactly the same moment, but there’s something great about it.” I talk about it all the time with engineers or artists; that you get no points for being “correct.” Doing something that is just correct and precise; that doesn’t mean anything.

Who were some of the producers you worked with where you were happy with how the records came out? Ones you looked up to.

My god, there were a lot of those! There were quite a number that were really role models who I learned a tremendous amount from. Daniel Lanois [Tape Op#127, #37] certainly is one. [Robert] “Mutt” Lange, who’s a good friend and someone I’ve worked with a fair amount, is incredibly talented. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him, and his talent as a producer, songwriter, and arranger. Some were engineers. I worked with Elliot Scheiner early on; I loved the way he made instruments sound and how he laid mixes out, balance-wise. The headphones always sounded like a record the minute you put them on. He was one of the first guys who I worked for. There are so many people. Brian Eno [#85] I respect tremendously. I’ve never worked with him, but I’ve listened to his records obsessively. Of course, George Martin; all of what he did. I met him, but never actually worked with him as a session player. I loved what Thomas Dolby [#119] was doing. I worked with him on a particular record [Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog]; he has an idiosyncratic and wonderful way of looking at things musically.

I love the Prefab Sprout records he did.

Oh, yes. “Desire As.” That song!

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog was one of your first production credits.

I had done some records before then; but that was certainly one of the first, and it was an extraordinarily difficult record to start with, if that was my start. It was really a tough one. The way that record came about was that it was really the genesis of digital technology in music, at that point. The Fairlight [CMI synth/sampler] had come out, and it was a revelation. When I looked at it and saw what it could do, I was completely fascinated. I ended up going down to the office in West L.A. and working out a deal where I could learn how to program on the Fairlight before the office would open. I got one of the guys who worked there to open up at 5:30 in the morning, and he’d give me a lesson three times a week. Then I’d go home and go back to sleep. I had some synths, like a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet [V]. Eventually I got a Fairlight and was experimenting at home and writing with it. By this time, Joni and I were married and we were living out in Malibu. She would hear what that I was messing around with; occasionally she’d stick her head through the door and say, “I want that one!” I’d set that aside for her. She was writing towards a new record, and I was writing music and experimenting with this technology. When it came time to start thinking about making a record for her, she was really interested in exploring and finding out how her music and her writing would speak through this new technology. Though I was gradually developing proficiency with synths and with the Fairlight, I didn’t feel like I was facile enough to really feel comfortable being the head of that department. One of the people whose work I really was interested in and loved was Thomas Dolby. Thomas had just made a record called The Flat Earth, which I love. It’s a tremendous record, and one that transcends the time it was made. I looked up the folks who made it, Thomas and Mike Shipley [Tape Op #118], and I started talking with them. Thomas was a big fan of Joni’s. I got together with Mike; we hit it off and instantly became best friends. He was really an extraordinary talent as an engineer. It was worked out by her management that we would all co-produce this record. When people talk about the role of the producer, it’s often misunderstood and oversimplified. A lot of times when I go to schools and talk to young people about what the job is, they have a lot of misconceptions. One of the biggest being, “Oh, I’ll get to tell people what to do all the time.” In Joni’s case, she had made all these great records and she really hadn’t had a producer, for the most part. Henry Lewy had been her engineer, and, in a way, he was a producer with her. But she really is such a prolific and profuse thinker, musically, that the last thing she needs is someone else to tell her, “You could do this.” Her mind is always racing with different ideas and different ways of doing what she wants to do. The role of a producer with her, for the most part, is one of helping her edit through her ideas and desires, and figuring out the best way that those can be done and fitted together. Thomas came into the situation thinking otherwise. Thinking that he would be able to be more of an equal collaborator in a certain way, rather than someone who takes direction and then expedites. It was ambitious to try and adapt her music into this world, and to do it well without the trappings of someone sticking their feet into a new genre. That factor, plus the fact that there was a lot of friction with Thomas, understandably needing to work with an idea, to a certain point, until he was ready to turn it over. It became very, very tense. I spent a lot of time refereeing and keeping the peace between everybody and making sure the album didn’t blow up into a million pieces. At the same time, there were some beautiful moments. She was very stimulated by this world of synths, and excited by it. That record takes a lot of heat because people assume that Thomas – or the combination of Mike, Thomas, and I – dictated that she should go in this direction. I always say, “No one dictates anything to her. She knows where she wants to go.” It is difficult for a person like her to work with other people, because she’s moving so fast in her mind that it’s tough for her to wait for an idea to gestate. It was a difficult record. When I listen to it now, there are some elements I’m still happy with, and some that I’m not. It sounds very high end-y, as everything did during that era. That time was a ten-year exploration into high end, fueled by cocaine and other things that change the way you hear.

It sounds like trial by fire, but a good record to learn a lot on.

Yeah. All the records I did with her were like that. It was always intense, and sometimes difficult, but big dividends. A great way to learn. Working with her is intense and complicated. Right from the get-go, I was going straight into the master’s class.

It probably made other productions easier in the future.

Yeah, that’s true. I remember at a certain point I kept getting called to work with female singer-songwriters. I had a manager who was a very circumspect, quiet guy. I said. “All I’m getting called to do are female singer-songwriters. Everybody’s put me in this box. I want to work with bands and male artists.” He sat there and thought for a second, and he said, “It’s not that bad of a box to be in.” [laughs]

You’ve worked with a lot of singer-songwriters and artists in that tradition, but you’ve also worked with artists like Dinosaur Jr. [Tape Op #27] and Midge Ure. What makes you decide to say yes to working with somebody?

What they are doing musically has to intrigue, compel, and excite me in some way. That can happen all different ways. I’m attracted to singers who have voices that don’t connote ambition or a self-conscious display of technique or acrobatic range. I’m a connoisseur of honesty. I love to listen to someone sing who sings very honestly and without artifice. The person needs to be curious. I’m an obsessively curious person. If I meet with an artist, and I feel like they feel they have all the answers and they’ve cracked the code, so to speak, then I’m inclined not to want to work with them. “Why don’t you just do it? What do you need anyone else for?” But if they have a curiosity and adventurous spirit, and I feel like there’s a chance we’re going to turn over some fresh ground and do something exciting and different, then I’m in. It doesn’t matter what the budget is. I’ll make it work if I’m really excited by what the artist is doing.

You work on a lot of records with people playing together in a room, but what I’ve heard from you doesn’t feel retro or slavishly imitative.

The area for me that is the most interesting is the space between areas, like the nexus where things meet. The idioms you would call jazz, soul, southern soul, country, and early jazz, like ’30s jazz. Where these [sounds] meet, and I find artists who have come up and assimilated all of this music in these different areas, and they are between several areas. That’s much more interesting than trying to make a record that fits neatly into a genre, like, “I’m going to make a record, and make it sound exactly like a Stax record from the ’60s.” I’d rather go listen to a record from that era. While I’ve done work on films where we had to specifically emulate a track from a specific year, and I love doing that as a challenge, I’m not much a fan of records where they’ve specifically emulated every audio aspect of a time and a genre. It’s too specific. Don’t you want to do something new with that? People like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter don’t look at genre. They don’t look at the limitations. They’re my heroes. They’re the guys I look up to.

You’ve done a handful of records now with Madeleine Peyroux, which embodies that.

She’s a real case-in-point, because she came up listening to a lot of different music. Obviously, Billie Holiday and the music of that era, but also Louis Armstrong. She grew up in the south for a time and had an interesting life. She spent a lot of her time in Paris, so Édith Piaf and the French music of the ’40s and ’50s soaked into her. She’s an anomaly, in that she really didn’t listen to pop music in the era that she grew up in. I remember one time her actually asking, “Who is this guy, Led Zeppelin?” It’s like someone growing up in an insular environment. When I started working with her, she fascinated me. We started making songs together and experimenting. She’s a very adventurous spirit, so we keep intersecting. Sometimes we don’t speak for a year, and then we have a conversation and we’re off on some record, doing something new.

Larry Klein

I love the records you guys have been doing. Are you hands-on with the engineering, or do you have an engineer you work with?

I can’t imagine myself engineering at the same time as producing. It would be a debacle. If I’m producing a record, it’s really tough for me to be engineering in any way, because I’m so caught up in the musical end. I end up not doing much engineering. I’ve also been fortunate to be able to work with engineers a lot of the time. I keep saying I want to take a month or two off and work on my engineering skills, but the month never comes when I can do that because I’m off on another project! And it helps that I’ve got someone great who can push the buttons for me, and who I can interact with. I’ve even had to acclimate to the way that one has to be a producer right now, in that you have to get used to juggling various projects at the same time, in one state or another. At first, I found that really difficult. Now I’m starting to get used to it and acclimate to it. I generally have one person who I’m working with in any period of time. Then, for one reason or another, that ends and I go on to another person. Sometimes I’ll work at a studio and there will be a great assistant who seems ready to move on from assisting. I’ll say, “Hey, do you want to track this with me?” I like working with people who are at that point in their career where they’re ready to take the next leap. Right now, I’m working with a guy named Adam [“Atom”] Greenspan, who’s very good. He came up through the traditional system of seconding over at The Village and Westlake [Recording]. He also works with Nick Launay [Tape Op#105]; we share him. I just started working with him doing some mixing; that’s a developing relationship. I’ve worked with Tim Palmer [#99] a lot as a mixer, and he’s excellent. He really came up in those great English studios. The way he works was very familiar to me, because I worked for years with Mike Shipley who had come from that school. Al Schmitt is someone who I’m getting ready to work with. He’s someone I’ve respected and loved; both his work and his spirit. I started working with Stephen Lipson in the UK for the first time. He’s incredibly talented. We’re going to do something together in the future. I love so much of what he’s done. He’s an expansive thinker, sonically. Ed Cherney is someone I’ve worked with lately too. I love his mixing too. [This interview was conducted before Ed passed away.]

How do you use this room? Is this primarily the mixing room? Do you do overdubbing here on projects? It sounds like you tend to still mostly work in other studios.

Maybe it’s 50/50 between here and other studios. I don’t do tracking dates in here. I’d have to be a masochist to try and do that! But I’ve built this as a spot to be able to do vocals, overdubs, editing, comping, and mixing, if necessary. I’ve mixed in here, and it comes out good. I know the way it sounds, so it’s great for me to listen to mixes in this environment, when so many of us mix long-distance. For me to work with Tchad [Blake, Tape Op #16, #133] for instance, and have him send me a mix that he’s done over in Wales, I can sit in my studio and hear it and know what it means to the outside world. I’ve got a little vocal booth, so depending on the budget of a project I’m working on, I’ll sometimes do a week of tracking in an outside studio, and then I’ll come back here. Depending on the dynamic of the project, sometimes I like to do vocals with the artist right after we get a track; for the chemistry of the situation. Sometimes I’ll do vocals at the tracking studio and then take another whack at them here and see whether we can better it, or whether it gets at a different spirit. A lot of editing and comping is done here. I work a lot at The Village, and a lot at Sunset Sound or Henson [Recording Studio]. Those are my primary places I like to track. They all have great-sounding plates and, in the case of Sunset, interesting-sounding chambers. I’ll record the chambers and plates while I’m tracking. I’ve usually got a tape slap running, so I’m gathering all of that while we’re tracking. Once we come back here, we get everything organized and formatted in a way that we can work with it. Then I’ll either mix it here, or somewhere else. I’ve spent a very substantial portion of my life in those rooms, so I like working in those places.

I saw the Classic Albums documentary on Peter Gabriel’s Sorecord, and in it you mentioned you were hanging out in that area for a while and ended up on the record.

I was up there producing a record with Ben Orr; one of the singers and bass player with The Cars. Mike Shipley and I were working on that. We decided to do it at a residential studio called The Wool Hall, which was in a place called Beckington, about a half hour drive from Bath [Somerset, England], that Van Morrison used to own. It was mainly a machine record with various “played” elements on it. For the most part it was Mike, Ben, and myself out there for quite a period of time. It ended up being six months, in the days when you could do that. I discovered there was a lot of music happening in that area. At that time, the guys from Tears for Fears owned The Wool Hall. Peter Hammill [Van der Graaf Generator] had his studio there. Peter Gabriel had the predecessor to Real World, which was called Ashcombe House, where he recorded So in. There was all this cross-pollination going on, and it was a great atmosphere to work in. People would show up, you’d play them some tracks, and they’d have dinner with you at the studio. Then you’d end up working on something that they had. One day I was at the studio, and I got a call. The house mum came in and said, “Oh, Peter Gabriel’s on the phone.” I picked up the phone, half thinking it was a joke, and he was asking, “Would you have time to come over and play on some songs?”

I had been a big Genesis fan of the period that he was in the band, and a big fan of his overall, as well. I was thrilled. “Of course! I’ll come over after we finish here.” I went over there for one or two nights. He and Daniel [Lanois] were finishing So. They had some tracks that still needed bass, but very, very little else. I think they were already in the midst of mixing it. They put up these tracks, which were fantastic. One of them was a song about Anne Sexton, called “Mercy Street,” and I remember being so moved by it. I was a big fan of her poetry growing up. I ended up playing on some tracks, and that worked out great. I have another funny story to relate. I was there working on that record, and then Joni decided she was itching to come over, because we had spent a fair amount of time apart. We got a house in a neighboring little town, called Frome [near Somerset]. She got energized by the fact that there was all this music going on. Then Peter, at a certain point, volunteered to let us use his studio to start some recording on her record, what became Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. She started working at his place, so I would oftentimes finish work at The Wool Hall and go over and work with her into the night at Peter’s. Then it ended up that Peter was going to do this first Amnesty International [“Conspiracy of Hope”] tour, and he asked me to do that. He did that with this great band; Manu Katché [drums] and David Rhodes, who was playing guitar with Peter for a long time, as well as Ian Stanley, who was one of the Tears for Fears guys. We had a fantastic time. At one point, Mike and I were talking to Robert Plant about possibly doing something together. He was searching around for stimulation musically, and looking for tracks. In the off hours at The Wool Hall, I had been working on some ideas and putting some them down on tape. I sent him over a couple of tracks, and one of them he said, “Oh, I want to write to that.” I was thrilled. I was a big Led Zeppelin fan. But when Joni came over, she heard these tracks that I had been working on, and she said, “No, I want that! That’s mine.” I said, “You don’t understand. I’ve already agreed that I would give it to Robert.” And she said, “No, no. It’s mine.” That was quite an interesting experience, to go back to him and say, “Well, actually, my wife is claiming that song.” He said, “You know what? Anyone else and I would be incredibly angry, but for her, she can have it.”