Editor’s note: A few months back, I made my first visit to New York’s modest, humble, yet quickly-becoming-famous Lakeside Lounge, a bar co-owned by Eric Ambel, who’s profiled elsewhere in this package of articles about producers. Ambel was gone that day, off in Chicago to play a gig with the Yayhoos at Schubas, but over the course of a couple hours and beers, no shortage of other interesting folks dropped by for a spell. It struck me as a fitting coincidence that I could shuffle around the room on this particular evening and talk with Jeremy Tepper, Mark Spencer and Greg Leisz, all of whom have been involved in producing records in some way or another even though none of them would consider themselves producers. Their various roles in the recording process help further define the meaning of the word “producer.”
It’s a bit mind-boggling how many times Greg Leisz put a pedal steel or six-string line to tape over the first half of this decade. There’s Leisz playing with Dwight Yoakam, Victoria Williams, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, k d lang, Matthew Sweet, Peter Case, Dave Alvin, Rosie Flores, Gilliam Welch, Grant Lee Buffalo and the Jayhawks (although the latter is debatable — it seems Greg Leese, not Leisz, is credited as playing on Tomorrow The Green Grass).
More well-rounded rock fans will note his participation on the most recent Smashing Pumpkins and Beck releases, as well as other alt-rocky entries such a Bad Religion and Tommy Stinson’s Bash & Pop. And then there are recent gigs with Brian Wilson, the Ventures, Percy Sledge, Anne Murray and Amy Grant. Some 200 in all, Leisz figures, over the last six years or so.
While considerable less frequent, you might have also noticed a producer credit. Leisz started wearing that hat a few years ago, as it was a natural progression to his collaborative role with artists such as Flores and Alvin. He has had a prominent role in the creation of multiple Flores releases, albums by Tom Russell and Lisa Mednick, and Alvin’s stellar King of California.
But the word “producer” is a title Leisz is not all that comfortable with. “The bottom line is, your name is in really small print, theirs is in really big print. I don’t really like to get too hung up on it,” he says, sitting at the patio table in the backyard of his home in Van Nuys, California. “If I start talking with people about doing a record, usually I’m thinking in terms of just collaboration. The p-word, I don’t even like to bring up.”
When Alvin asked Leisz to take the helm of California, Leisz told the songwriter that if he wanted to make an acoustic record, the first thing he should do is sit down with an acoustic and play the songs repeatedly until he was truly comfortable with them. “That was really the main part of pre-production,” he says. Then, “it was just a matter of getting people to play with it so it would still remain organic.” And at that point, “it’s really about trying to create a sonic landscape for the songs to live in.”
Leisz, who spend his youth checking out the Byrds and Burrito Brothers in the dingy clubs of Hollywood and Orange County, cites Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and early Band recordings as favorites, but he stresses that it’s more about the spontaneity of the performance than any creative knob-twiddling.
“There’s a sense of adventure that’s important to making a record. I’m not afraid to experiment and fail in getting something that’s different. The ideal thing is that you blend what you’re doing and what the other musicians are doing into the life of the song itself so that they become inseparable.”
The song, though, dictates the sound – not the producer, he insists. “The thing you remember about Phil Spector records is Phil Spector more than the Ronettes,” he points out. “It’s not necessarily the best thing for the artist.”