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Home > All articles > 06. PR INTERVIEWS WITH MUSIC BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS > Neil Kernon - interview (2006)
Neil Kernon - interview (2006)
2006-08-10 | Katarzyna NINa Górnisiewicz and Brian Backlash | e-mail interview
NINa: To start, we'd like to tell you we really dig your various productions and this is what we are always looking for - angry industrial metal with dynamic power and straightforward guitars. Was it your aim to work in the studio and shape the music the bands create?

Neil Kernon: Thank you both very much. Actually, when I got started in the music business, I just wanted to work with music in some capacity. I really didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do at all, apart from knowing that I just wanted to be around music. That was the easy part.

Brian Backlash: How did you first become interested and involved in producing / engineering music?

I started working at a London studio in the 70s, and started off as a teaboy (at the bottom) and slowly worked my way up. From day one I was fascinated with being involved in sessions, and being around musicians (I'm one myself so that was often very inspiring). While I had started off as a musician, I quickly realised that in the studio I would be able to work in and around music, plus learn about sound and how the two work together and complement each other. Also, working on lots of different styles of music always excited me, as there was really very little danger of getting bored with what you were working on that way.

NINa: You were living in England for a long time. What make you finally move out to the States?

Yes, I'm originally from London. I was offered a gig working with a band called Orleans from New York. They had heard a couple of my albums and asked me to work with them. As a result I met some key people in NYC who helped me get into the NY scene, so the move to the States became inevitable at that point as I was quickly offered lots of work.

Brian Backlash: What role does a producer play in working with a band?

Well, there are many sides to production. First of all, you start with the songs/material. That has to be arranged and tightened up. Then you rehearse that until every kink is worked out and the new arrangements are all really tight. Then you go into the studio and start tracking everything. I produce AND engineer, so I basically do two jobs in the studio. While there are a lot of producers who are musicians, not all of them do the technical end of things as well. I find it a lot easier to do it all myself as I know the sound I'm going for, so I don't need to explain that to anyone. Along the way, there might be some hiccups, or occasionally some issues within the band, so there's quite a bit of psychology involved as well - keeping everything on an even keel, getting strong performances out of the artist. Human nature is essentially full of laziness, and a lot of the time, without someone really cracking the whip or cheering the team on so to speak, a performer will accept a so-so performance while they could probably do a lot better if they tried harder. My job is to not let them get complacent, but to help them get the best, most powerful or emotional performance on tape (or disk). After that there's the mixing.

Brian Backlash: Can you describe the process of working with a band for us? Pre-production, production, and post-production?

I might have covered some of this in the last answer, but basically you start in rehearsals, or preproduction. In that phase, the songs are tightened up and then rehearsed until they are really seamless, with no hesitation where new changes might have been made. Essentially, when you make a record, everything has to be as full-on as possible, in whatever way the music calls for that, so little hesitations, half-hearted playing etc. can easily be heard. The rehearsals are intended to get all the kinks out of the songs prior to going in to the studio. That keeps things moving forward faster, rather than having to go over and over the material in the studio, on the clock, paying expensive studio rates etc.

Production is basically doing the recording, getting great performances out of everyone, and deciding what goes where - how to orchestrate the music, where to overdub particular instruments etc.

Post-production, or perhaps mixing, is where you blend all the previously recorded elements together to make a final mixdown of everything. At this point, the individual sounds are finalised, and the whole track often takes on a life of its own in the process. After the mixing of the album is complete, the master is then sent off to be mastered, which is the final creative stage in the process, and where the mastering engineer maximises the overall sound of the album.

NINa: Your portfolio of work is impressive and it ranges from Queen to Red Harvest. Which artist/band did you find to be the most difficult to work with?

Well, to be honest, I've done over 350 albums now, and there have been very few difficult times. I've been very lucky in that regard. One of the most difficult situations was working on the first album I did with Dokken in the 80s. The guys were great, but what made things difficult was the fact that the singer and guitarist simply didn't get along at all, so there were all sorts of tensions and difficult moments due to that. However, most of the time, I find making records to be great fun!

NINa: One thing I've always been curious about are the bands Nihil and Rorschach Test. Not many people know about the bands even in the States where they hailed from. Do you know what become of those bands after you worked with them?

I'm not really sure about Nihil. I think Scott decided to take some time away from music and get married and settle into a new home. Hopefully he'll want to make music again in the future - I love his stuff. As far as Rorschach Test goes, the band was always mutating, adding and changing members all the time. For me the beginning of the end came when Ben Anderson and James Baker went two separate ways. I always felt that the two of them together were a unique blend of different flavours, so when Ben wasn't around for the Peace Minus One album things started to slide away from the classic RT sound. I did recently collaborate with Ben on the new album by Pamela Moore. He's a great guy - a very good friend.

Brian Backlash: I've seen on a few occassions how you would take a mediocre band (Rorschach Test circa "The Eleventh") then mold them into a very powerful force (Rorschach Test circa "Unclean"). Of all the bands you've worked with, which do you think you've had the biggest impact on?

Well, I am very passionate about what I do, and I only work with music I really believe in, so it's easy for me to give a lot to each project that way. I always try very hard to get as live and powerful a sound as possible (for heavier bands of course). It's hard to say what bands I've had the most influence on - possibly Queensryche on Rage For Order? I'm more of a facilitator really. I try to provide an environment, a bubble if you like, within which the artist can flourish and be as creative as possible during the project. That's the most important thing - to have fun making these records. I'm always happy to get involved and do anything that I can to help the process, whether it be to play some guitar or keys, do some programming, some orchestration etc. It's all a matter of putting the right ingredients in the cake - and being able to do that at the drop of a hat. I love it when the creative juices are flowing, and great work is getting captured.

NINa: Nihil's album "Drown" keeps its heavy vibe from the very beginning to the very end. Which song did you like the most of that record?

My favourite song on that album is "Hear Me". It was the first song I ever hear by the band and I was hooked instantly.

Brian Backlash: What, in your opinion, is the best sound recording technique to use?

By this, do you mean analogue or digital? I like both really. I've made far more albums on analogue tape than I have on digital mediums, but I do a lot of my editing and pre-mix and mix work in Pro Tools. It's a lot faster and more efficient, plus there are all sorts of sounds and effects that the digital realm offers that analogue cannot.

NINa: "You were born an original... Why die a copy?" This slogan welcomes at your artist developmenet company named Auslander. It offers different levels of working in a studio. Is it harder to find original artists now that it was in let's say, the 70's?

A very good point. I think that the essence back in the 70s was to simply make music. No-one cared what their contemporaries were doing, no-one looked over their shoulder or took a quick listen to a competitor's new album to get ideas. Everyone did their own thing. As a result there was a very wide variety of cool music around, lots of it still very original even today. These days I think artists tend to want to sound like someone else, which is beyond me.. When I was in bands I always wanted them to have their own style and not be copycats.

Brian Backlash: What does engineering entail?

Engineering is the actual recording and mixing of the album. It involves choosing and placing the best sounding microphones for the job at hand, and then making those recordings sound as good as possible. After that, once all the recording is done, the individual tracks are all mixed together, as I outlined in more detail earlier.

NINa: You've recently been working mostly with metal bands like Usurper, Ion Vein or Diabolic. Also Cannibal Corpse's new album "The Wretched Spawn" is out as well. For me death metal bands music sound a bit similar one to another, there's not much originality, and the bands often want to sound a lot like their influences. How far can a producer get involved with the music he's producing, before it results in making an ego stamp sort of "I produced that" and simultanously - keep the band's music different one from another?

Well, I don't honestly think it's a producer's job to make all his work sound alike. As you know, and as I've written above, I believe that every band or artist should sound like themselves. If I do everything the same way each time, and use the same sounds each time it doesn't really help the cause. Not to mention the fact that I enjoy lots of different styles of music, so that way I can avoid making the same album over and over again, as can easily happen. I think it's a trap that can be fallen into if you're not careful, and I don't plan on falling into it any time soon.

Brian Backlash: What is your take on your mainstream contemporaries? Do you think they overproduce the music they're working on?

I think a lot of the records sound very good, but I also think there's a lot of processing that goes on, autotuning vocals etc. and keeping everything almost metronomically tight. I think that can strangle music, and it starts to make things sound rather generic. I hate generic, so these approaches are not something I like to use too much.

NINa: You worked with Red Harvest. I find their music very original. They mingle death metal with industrial sounds, and the result is incredible. It gives them a fresh sound. I liked their 'Hybreed' album the most. You produced the 'SickTransit Gloria Mundi' record. What was the main feature that attracted you to the band?

I was introduced to Red Harvest by Asgeir Mickelson from Spiral Architect. I love all their stuff, and was interested in working with them for year. We were finally able to work together on STGM, and that was just awesome. I'd love to work with them again.

Brian Backlash: You've produced a wide range of artists from a number of genres - reggae, jazz, pop, to name a few. Is there a particular style or attitude that's the most fun to work with?
I'd say that I have several favourites, depending on my mood (as music should I suppose). I really enjoy jazz or jazz/fusion a lot. I did a lot of those albums back in the 70s/80s and they are always great fun to work on. I do a lot of technical stuff, such as Spiral Architect, and that is what has attracted some heavier bands to my work, like Cannibal, or Nile perhaps..probably because I work hard to make technically involved music sound as clear as possible. I think that comes from my fusion upbringing.

NINa: What compression do you use on the bass to keep the bass from getting whoofy and unrefined?

That depends on the bass, the style of player (pick or fingers) and the style of music of course. Some players have a very defined tone, while others have a boomy deep tone which might need more EQ or compression to get it to punch through. So, I don't really have one method I could recommend, as it will vary depending on the sound I am being given by the player, or the bass already recorded if I'm mixing an album. Compressors I like are the onboard one in the SSL mixing desk, plus I like to use Distressors as well.

Brian Backlash: What's been your most frustrating production experience?

The first Dokken album, as I wrote about earlier.

NINa: Are you always satisfied with your work when you finish the production or a remix?

Well, there's an old saying.. "No mix is ever finished... only abandoned". I think with every mix there comes a point where you've done everything you want to. Of course, sometimes it would be great to have a bit more time to get more creative with the mixing, but with budgets getting smaller and smaller that's harder to do these days. For most projects though, I usually have the time to be happy with the way things turn out.

Brian Backlash: You've said that you play keyboards and guitars - do those skills come in handy when working with a band?

Certinaly from a musical standpoint. It's always a good thing to be able to talk musically with musicians - there's often a need to get really into things in fine detail, so being a musician really helps in that regard. Also, over the years I've been able to play on many albums, which is always loads of fun. Sometimes, I'll be asked to play keyboards on an album by a band that wants some texturing in there but has no keyboard player. Also, every now and then someone will ask me to play a guitar solo or something, some acoustic guitar etc. I even played bass on a whole album once (that was on a Rorschach Test album by the way) That was a blast!

NINa: Have you ever thought about releasing your own solo effort of original music?

Not really, although I did make my own album years ago. I just HAD to do it, as I was always in the studio and had this burning desire to get the songs out of my head. It was a lot of fun to work on, but was never something I felt like releasing. Funnily enough, I am starting to record some new stuff at home - we'll see what happens with that.

NINa: Are you familiar with the band 16volt?

Yes, I know Eric and his music quite well. 16 Volt was signed to the label I was doing production and A&R for years ago, Slipdisc.

Brian Backlash: Of your collective body of production work, what would your top 5 records be?

Hmm... that's a tough one. Some of my favourites would include... Queensryche - Rage For Order, Flotsam and Jetsam - Cuatro, Skrew - Shadow of Doubt, Spiral Architect - A Sceptic's Universe, Red Harvest - Sick Transit Gloria Mundi, Cannibal Corpse - The Wretched Spawn, Nile - Annihilation of the Wicked. It's hard to pick 5 out of so many, but that's almost 5..haha.

Brian Backlash: You've mentioned you're a David Lynch fan. Is there anything about his work that you attempt to apply to the art of record producing?

Well, there probably is. I like really weird music the way I enjoy really weird films, so any time I can help add some wackiness to my work I'll do the best I can. Usually, I work with music that allows some weirdness, so I'll always try to keep the listener guessing as to what's going on... ear candy... odd sounds etc. I love that stuff.

NINa: We need more heavy industrial metal music with good loops and straightforward guitars, akin to Rorschach Test, Skrew, N17 or Nihil. Who could you recommend us some other up and coming groups to pay attention to?

I'd really like to see Industrial music come back around. I'm sure it will, but currently it's pretty underground, which it was when I first fell in love with it. To be honest, I'm doing a lot of work in the underground anyway, with lots of the weird metal stuff I'm producing, but I'm not really sure if I've heard much new industrial stuff lately. I'm a huge fan of Skrew and Ministry, so I always play those albums, NIN as well - brilliant stuff. I'm really drawn to a lot of technical music, bands like Sikth from the UK, Extol, Arsis, Alarum, Spawn of Possession, Psycroptic etc. I'm a big fan of anything Mike Patton does as well. Frankly, there's a lot of good stuff out there these days...sometimes it's hard to keep up with it all.


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