Rock and Reprise.net
Lost in space
The Epic Saga of Space Opera
The record company ran down a list of possible producers, according to Mann, but they were hardly on point.
“At one time, Columbia suggested Richie Furay as a producer,” he said, “possibly because they heard something in 'Country Max' which reminded them of Poco, but the band's reaction was so dismissive that Columbia dropped it. They never mentioned a producer after that. I agreed with the band's take on Richie, by the way, because that was definitely not the direction the music was going.
“Space Opera had never really worked with a producer,” he continued. “From the beginning, they were resolved that they did not need one. They did interview several producers interested in working with them, but no one really clicked.
“In my opinion, it was mostly a case of youthful ignorance. Then again, maybe the guys had had a bad experience. Regardless, we were all convinced that we did not need nor could we use a producer. I have since learned that just having the right producer's name on the album and them having their 3% or whatever can make a big difference.”
“Scott, Phil and I had had the experience of working with Cass Edwards and later T Bone Burnett as producers,” explained Bullock, “and both of those cases were collaborative and positive. What we wanted to avoid at that point was collaborating with a stranger, even one whose name on the record could open doors. We had faith that we could do it ourselves, with a good engineer.”
A producer's cut, and even the presence of a producer, might actually have been an imposition, hinted Claudia Wilson. The implication was that any outside influence would have changed the fabric of the album.
“Each of the three guys who wrote had their vision,” she commented, “and they wanted that. When they put the music together, I am sure that everyone contributed a little to it, but each wanted their own voice to be heard. Not in a selfish way. But they wanted their contribution included. When you get three people writing and they're all good in their own different ways, it seems reasonable to me that you do need artistic controls because you run the risk that it becomes a one person deal and not an organic, communal thing. With the band, it was all or nothing.”
In the end, they set up camp in Toronto, producing themselves.
“They went to Toronto, lived in a hotel, cut the album and gigged around there for awhile,” according to Claudia. “I didn't go to the studio, but I did go to some gigs. It was obvious they were going to be there for a very long time making the album perfect, so I went on back to Texas.”
“We always stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel while we worked in Toronto,” according to Bullock. “It was a far cry from the Waldorf in New York, but a lot of musicians stayed there when playing in Toronto. Kristofferson and his band stayed there, and I ran into my old pal Jerry Jeff Walker there one night. Funkadelic was working at Manta, too, and stayed at the Waldorf. The funniest thing, George Clinton asked if he could leave some of his stuff with Brett, of all people, while they were out on the road. If you knew Brett, it was so ridiculous to look in his closet and see a bunch of crazy-colored platform shoes and sequined jackets in there. The funky Waldorf was our home away from home, and we liked it.”
Space Opera rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
“I was recording the sessions on film,” remembers Rex Farr. “Michael and I were in and out. It just wasn’t a good idea. They were in working mode. They were put up at the hotel in Toronto by the label, but they were in the studio fifteen, eighteen hours a day.”
Both Mann and Farr returned to New York to work on the business side of things.
The deal included the run of Manta Studios. They were somewhat familiar with the studio, having recorded their live version of Guitar Suite not long before, but there was a lot to learn. Luckily, the band already had the basics, thanks to Sound City.
“Up to that time, we had been working on Sgt. Pepper's Ampex 4-tracks,” according to White. “We were already well-versed in bouncing tracks and sub-mixing because, in fact, the tapes we made for each other in Fort Worth on quarter-track machines never had less than ten or twenty tracks on them”
“That’s about right,” Bullock agreed, “although IRI and Exit 4 had Scully eight-track recorders, and the CBS studio in Nashville, I think that was eight-track, too. But Manta was the best studio we had seen. Studio A was a huge room, big enough for a full orchestra. There was a Neve 16-channel board and two Studer 16-track recorders, and all the best outboard gear. And we had Lee DiCarlo as our engineer. He shared our tastes in music and was well-suited to work with us. And Cass was there every step of the way as our engineering consigliere. We began recording on Thursday, May 4th. On that day, we laid down the band track for 'Holy River'.
“As on most songs, we recorded bass, drums, and guitars all together. If need be we would later re-do a bass or guitar part, and obviously we did a lot of additional overdubs on every song. 'Holy River' is a good example of that. Scott and I played our double-lead parts on the end, just as we did them onstage, and later Scott added several more 12-string solos on top, and in the middle break, using that cool distorted/limited sound to create a unique polyphony. We recorded 'Over and Over' the same way.”
Rather than work only with the instruments they brought in, they grabbed anything and everything at their disposal.
“A pump organ, already in the studio, was another instrumental color at our disposal,” remembered Bullock, fondly, “as was the harpsichord. The pump organ has a pure, organic sound that we loved, different from the Hammond organ that we also used. The harpsichord was played on 'Lookout' and 'Riddle'.”
Fraser introduced a trademark sound on “Guitar Suite”, one developed with Edd Lively in the old Mods days. Tuning the 12-string to 5ths instead of the conventional tuning gave the guitar punch and more of a modern edge.
“That happened for the first time on that old acoustic 12-string I had during the Fraser/Lively songwriting period. I don't remember which song provoked the tuning, but that tuning was never recorded until the Epic album.”
“A 12-string guitar has the usual six strings as its basis,” Bullock added. “The bottom four strings are paired with lighter-gauge strings tuned an octave higher. The two top strings are paired with identical strings tuned in unison. What Scott and Edd did was to tune each of the 'extra' strings to a 5th instead of an octave, which produced a very unusual and harmonically rich sound. The '5ths 12-string', or what I call Fraser Tuning (since he perfected it), isn’t suited for all songs, but it’s really effective where it works.
“I also used a novel tuning on 'My Telephone Artist'. On a Telecaster I replaced the bottom four strings with the octave strings from a 12-string set; in other words, it was like a 12-string guitar with the basic strings removed, giving a very bell-like sound. David Gilmour used a similar tuning on Pink Floyd’s 'The Wall' album seven years later, and I’ve also heard it referred to as Nashville Tuning. I don’t claim it as my invention, but I discovered it for myself in 1972.
“We had lots of fun with Phil’s song, 'Outlines'. The basic track included bass, drums, piano, and lead vocal. Phil went down to New York for a few days, and Scott and I went to work on the song. We added acoustic and electric 12-string parts here, a backward guitar phrase there, a choir of flutes, and some background vocals. Phil was amazed when he got back to the studio and heard what we’d done to his tune. He must have liked it because he kept everything we had recorded.”
One look at the record sleeve insert illustrates how involved the recording process really was. The band opted to use all 16 tracks, no matter what. Working at Manta prompted a later quote to the effect that they would never record on less than 16 tracks again. One listen to the album and you understand.
“That was my idea,” White boasted, “the track sheet from Manta Sound being the sleeve for the record. I just said, let's use that and that way everybody gets to see, exactly. Of course, it's not so clear that you're able to see all of the submixes. The track sheet, by the way, was written in the cursive hand of each individual composer. David wrote his, Scott wrote his and I wrote mine.”
More succinctly and according to Bullock, “One day in the studio, Phil said he thought it would be cool to let the people see what the actual tracking log looked like, as a representation of how we built up the sound. When it came time to do the album art, I decided to take some blank track sheets from the studio and cut and paste--- so they would fit on the 12” record sleeve, since every inch of the fold-out package had already been spoken for. Then, referencing the original sheets, I asked each member to fill out the track info for his songs in his own hand. That is why the handwriting is different for the different songs, to personalize it. Brett did the notes for 'Guitar Suite', since he co-wrote it.”
While the band worked, Michael Mann ran interference for them with the label. The album was taking more time than originally planned. Money became a problem.
“Because the album took so long,” he said, “it was a really stressful time for the record company and myself. It was stressful just trying to hold back the tide so the band didn't have to get involved with anything outside the studio--- so they could focus on recording.
“To be honest, up to that time we didn't give much thought about the budget because we were recording a masterpiece which was going to make Columbia and all of us a lot of money.”
“Our concept was that this was to be the first of many Space Opera albums,” Bullock said, “and we wanted it to be as perfect as we could make it. Later records could be more sparse and avant garde, but this one needed to be the bedrock. We recorded and re-recorded many tracks with no regard to what it was costing – not to be wasteful but to get it right. We didn’t know there was a problem and no one told us 'stop', so we kept going.
“Things between the band and the engineer were also getting tense. Lee didn’t agree with some of the reworking of tracks that we thought was really important, and I think the label folks were encouraging him to get us to wrap it up. We tried a few mixes, but it wasn't happening, so we moved to another studio. He was probably as relieved as we were when the recording was finished. Years later, Lee had the distinction of engineering John Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy, at the Record Plant in New York. In 1983, I produced some sessions in that studio. Lee had moved on, but when I mentioned the Space Opera project to the studio manager, he told me that Lee considered it one of his best efforts. So I guess there were no lingering hard feelings.”
“The last day of recording was Thursday, July 13th,” Bullock noted, “finishing vocals on 'My Telephone Artist'.”
Completing the recording was only part of the equation, unfortunately. Before the package could be handed to Columbia/Canada and, eventually, Epic, there was the mixing, which they did at Crystal Sound in Hollywood from August 16th through the 27th. Then a master had to be made and art work completed. For a short time, Space Opera had to embrace the business and push the music to the back. That short time began to stretch until the fabric showed signs of unraveling.
As for what the band thought about the album itself, Claudia remarked that she thought they were “happy with the results. Perfection was the goal and I think they felt like they got as close as they could. We all admired the cleverness of giving it the full sound--- the rich quality of the music when they did it live--- and they did it in the studio, pulling out all the stops.”
“We were a fast moving train,” remarked Fraser about those days, years later, “and pretty cocky. We knew what we were going to do and we got it done.”
ONE: The Beginning...