Note: Following are excerpts from the full interview. The interview was conducted by Kevin Booth, Auralex director of sales and marketing. Robb Wenner, Auralex director of artist relations, produces the podcast and jumps in with questions. To hear the full interview, subscribe to Auralex Creative Spaces on your podcast platform of choice.
Kevin Booth: What drew you to music initially?
Greg Wells: I was just obsessed with it from like from the earliest age. I was a little boy in the 1970s. That's not pre-electricity, but it's pre-Internet. I remember at one point we only had three T.V. channels. I remember it went to 12 channels and, I remember we got this weird cable box with a long wire to the T.V., and then we got 40 channels, but no streaming music. So I would record the Top-40 countdown with a little cassette player and then listen back to it. Lots of recording stuff off the radio. I was so bored as a kid, so bored. I was growing up in a town of about 60,000 people, and it was all about sports. And it was pretty conservative generally. There was like a small fraction of people who were real art lovers, but they weren't friends of my family. My dad was a pastor, and there was a lot of music in the church, but I didn't resonate with a lot of it. And so I would see little snippets of like James Brown on T.V., or I would watch Soul Train, out of Detroit, every Saturday, and I had no idea where Detroit was or what that was or that those were primarily black people. I just thought, whatever the hell that is, I want to be doing it. I want to be on that show.
K.B.: Are there any musicians that you modeled yourself after or that you grabbed hold of first?
G.W.: Besides James Brown, in the early 70s, The Jackson Five was kind of all over T.V., and they were on fire. Michael was just like, I mean, there's never been anyone that can kind of just even dance like Michael. Forget the singing; it's the energy and everything. And that was another big one. And then Jesus Christ Superstar! When I was three and a half years old, my mom took me to see a matinee show in the theater, which is a pretty intense thing to show a three-year-old! I'm not sure she realized what she was getting into. Judas hangs himself from the tree, and Israeli tanks are chasing him right before he hanged himself! But the music and the dancing and the energy of it blew my lights out. I was too young to understand the religious connotation of what was happening, and I just thought holy crap! I hear veterinarians talking about when they were kids, and some of them got bit by an animal, you know, quite commonly, bit by a dog. And then they wind up becoming an animal doctor. Jesus Christ Superstar was the dog bite for me. I just listened to that over and over and over and over and over every day for years. Unfortunately, the movie didn't date very well. It was very much ahead of its time, but it changed my life. I hold it in high reverence and it's why I'm talking to you guys right now.
K.B.: You are an accomplished multi-instrumentalist - what instrument did you play first? Was it drums?
GW.: We didn't have money for drums, and we didn't have money for any instruments, so I played the furniture! Every seat cushion and armrest, I knew what they all sounded like, including pots and pans. Then, finally, someone at my dad's church gave me a used snare drum. I was so excited to have it. It was like I'd been given a lightsaber or something, you know? I beat it into submission. And within a couple of months, the head broke, and out of total ignorance, we thought I'd broken the drum. We had no idea you could buy a new drumhead. So we never did. I put a towel over it and tried to tighten the towel as much as I could. I played that for another couple of years.
We had an upright piano that my mom had bought before I was born. It was a used upright piano, and I still have it. I love it. It's loud and bright sounding. So I kind of took to it, you know, because the piano is a percussion instrument. So I started banging on that. And then that led to my grandmother and mom showing me a bit about how to read some simple music. When I was seven, we luckily found a great piano teacher in my tiny hometown named Marjorie Engels, who recently passed away. She did half the lesson as classical music and half as boogie-woogie because I think she recognized I was a frustrated drummer. That got me on the path that I stayed on for years and years and years.
K.B.: We talk about the creative space in the room and how important that is, whether it's the physics of the room's acoustics, the gear, the space, how it feels, how it smells, how it inspires you or doesn't. What's your take on that?
G.W.: Well, you said the keyword, inspires, and not just inspiration in terms of inspiration, but inspiring confidence is a huge one. Because trust is the crucial ingredient in making any kind of recorded music, if the people involved don't trust each other, you can't get the boat away from the dock. You're not going to go anywhere. The canoe will tip immediately. So it has to be some kind of trust fall, and hopefully, it's a well-researched, well-educated risk of a trust fall.But it is a bit of a trust fall, even if you're working by yourself. You never really know how something's going to sound, and 30 minutes from now, when you keep working on it, so I have to feel like I'm not being lied to by my speakers and by the room that I'm working in. I didn't know about this stuff when I started producing records. And my first few attempts at having a studio weren't treated. I just put up speakers and just kind of went for it, and it bit me in the butt. I would play mixes in the car. We've all had that experience where you're mixing something, and then you listen to it somewhere else, and you think, why does it sound like that? That's not what it sounded like before.
I've got to hear music coming through speakers. I feel like I'm watching a live performance in front of me. I understand using headphones to check for things, which I never do, but the room has got to sound great when sitting in your chair. When you're mixing, it's down to trust. I just have to feel like I'm leaving the studio with a thing that I can play for anybody. For the artists, the CEO of their record label, and my kids, anyone I want to impress and like it. It's got to sound like it sounds here; otherwise, what on earth am I doing? Like, I don't go out and tour this stuff. They [the Artist] have to go live on a bus or a van or airplanes, promote this stuff, believe in it, and get on stage and feel invested in it. It doesn't work unless they feel all those things, and it doesn't work unless they feel like they're proud to have their name stamped on it. More than anything, out of respect for all of that, they're going to be on camera and in front of audiences that have bought tickets. I've got to give them something bulletproof, and beyond bulletproof, I feel like we're sort of building little rocket ships to go up into space. And I'm putting the artists in those rocket ships, and I want them to arrive, not just alive, but happy. Right. That's kind of how I feel about the music that I work on. It's got to be able to survive the radiation of space!
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