Steve Thompson: 'When Lars Asked Me, What Happened to the Bass in '... Justice', I Wanted to Cold Cock Him'

Legendary producer and mixer reveals the studio secrets behind "... And Justice For All", "Appetite For Destruction" and "Follow the Leader" and shares his unique philosophy about recording.

Ultimate Guitar

Producer Steve Thompson's resume is so extensive, eclectic and filled with so many landmark recordings that you'd swear he is making it all up. But he isn't.

This native New Yorker has produced and/or mixed everything from Guns N' Roses' "Appetite For Destruction," Metallica's "...And Justice For All" and Korn's "Follow the Leader" and Soundgarden's "A-Sides" to Paul Simon's "Boy in the Bubble" and "Diamonds On the Soles of her Shoes" tracks, Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and multiple songs for Aretha Franklin and Madonna. Along the way, he's also worked with Yoko Ono on the "Milk and Honey" album, RZA on Wu-Tang Clan's "Iron Fist" and Blues Traveler.

Thompson calls himself a chameleon and there's probably no better word in describing what he does. Realizing early on that he "kinda sucked at guitar," he became a DJ in clubs before the moniker ever became popular. Through his work as a DJ, Thompson was called on to do some dance remixes, which ultimately led to working with Whitney Houston.

In 1986, having grown a bit weary of working with pop artists, the producer wanted to do something with a rock band. Geffen Records A&R executive Tom Zutaut sent him the demos for a band called Guns N' Roses and asked him if he wanted to produce them. Busy at the time producing Tesla's "Mechanical Resonance," Thompson had to pass on the project but did offer to mix what would become "Appetite For Destruction."

"I absolutely loved it," he says of the first GN'R demos he heard. "I wanted to do it so bad. We [Thompson and engineer Michael Barbiero] were so burnt and they wanted us to go in and produce them right away. I said, 'Can you wait a while?' and they said, 'No, we have to do it right away.' I said, 'Well, why don't you get somebody to produce it and we'll mix it for ya."

Thompson may not have produced Appetite but he would go on to produce a multitude of albums that would strike major chords within the industry. In this lengthy conversation, he talks about GN'R, key projects, and his unique philosophy about what he does.

UG: You started your musical career as a guitar player?

ST: Yeah, but I finally realized I kinda sucked at guitar. It was kinda like Bowie-meets-Beck and more like glam rock a little bit. I always loved Beck and Mick Ronson's guitar styles.

So you fancied yourself a guitar player along the lines of Jeff Beck?

Oh, I wish I could play like him. I remember when "Beck-ola" and "Truth" came out and then the "Rough and Ready" album and it just blew me away. I knew I couldn't even play that so I didn't even try, hah hah hah.

How did you make the transition to being a DJ?

I was working in a record store called Sam Goody's in New York and what was interesting was I built up a huge record collection. So I used to go to clubs at night after my time off and I remember going to this club Leone's in Deerpark and there weren't really DJs at that time. They had live bands and I remember seeing Twisted Sister at Rum Bottoms way back in the day. I told the guy, "When the band goes off, everybody just hangs out and they kind of look bored. Why don't you put a DJ in there so when the band goes off at least they'll have music going on."

How did these club owners take your suggestion?

I get a call about a month later and the owner calls me up and says, "Hey, Steve, come to the club." I come to the club and they had a DJ booth and he says, "Will you be my DJ now?"

Did you know how to be a DJ?

I knew nothing about it but I had a good record collection so I became a DJ. I started getting more involved in DJing and I started to develop my craft. I remember joining the Long Island Record Pool and this guy Vince Michaels told me I sucked.

How did you respond to that?

That gave me incentive. I wound up DJing for a long time and I got real good at it. I started working at the top clubs in New York. I was very proud to guest DJ at the Paradise Garage and Studio 54.

Through your DJ work, you came to the attention of Clive Davis?

That was after. I first started doing dance remixes. I got an offer from Henry Stone at TK Records who wanted me to remix his artists. So I was learning on the job but I was good at hiring good engineers.

So you started out doing all these dance records?

Yeah, and then when the dance boom stopped, I took a break and went back to fulltime DJing. Then I started working for Stephanie Mills, Cameo, the Bar-Kays and stuff like that. Then I moved into what they called New Wave at the time like Talk Talk's "It's My Life," Ultravox, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Missing Persons and "Shout" for Tears For Fears. I started doing all these remixes and 12"s and then after a time I got a call from Ed Eckstine in the mid'80s.

What was that call about?

He says, "Hey, Steve. Would you be interested in working on a Whitney Houston song?" and I said, "Hell, yeah, I would." He goes, "The song is 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' and I said, 'Cool.'" I got in the studio and added some production work to it. I think I added some keyboards and I remember Ed saying, "OK, I'm gonna give this to Clive. Don't worry if he wants you to change stuff because he's always changing stuff."

What did Clive Davis think when he heard it?

It's funny. Clive Davis heard it and he didn't want to change a thing. He said it was perfect and everybody said, "Wow, that is rare." So I got to know Clive very well and he I did Aretha Franklin and George Michaels "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" and a lot of other Aretha Franklin songs.

What was it like working for Clive Davis?

I absolutely loved Clive because this guy had an ear. What I really loved about him is he would get his artists and he would handpick the songs and working with the top songwriters. He really A&R'd it. I just really learned so much what a great song was from him.

You were mixing these songs for Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin or remixing them?

Mixing and additional production. I'd bring musicians in to enhance what was there.

You also worked on Aretha's "Who's Zoomin' Who"?

I did "Who's Zoomin' Who" and "Another Night."

You worked with Madonna on "Open Your Heart"?

Yeah. Michael Ostin called me up and said, "Steve, we have the 'True Blue' album out and we're gonna throw one more single out there. We're getting ready to do another record so see if there's anything you can do with this song." I took the song and did a bunch of versions on it but I just really basically reproduced the song. I did a 10:25 version for the dance clubs so I said, "This will be the ultimate bathroom break song for DJs," hah hah hah. I remember Michael and Mo Ostin [president of Warner Bros. Records] go, "Wow, I can't believe this song is so interesting and it's 10 minutes long." Then I wound up doing the single version they put out for the radio.

What was the first album you actually produced?

The first big production was around 1984. I had this artist Belouis Some who was an English artist that sounded very much like Bowie. So I said, "Well, if he sounds like Bowie, let me see if I can get Bowie's band and put 'em together." I did. I got Carlos Alomar on guitar; Tony Thompson on drums; Bernard Edwards on bass; and Dave Lebolt on keyboards. I got the Simms Brothers and Robin Clark on vocals.

What was that project like?

The song that blew up was "Imagination." That was at Media Sound and we aced it. It was absolutely awesome. The cool part about it is even though I said I was a guitar player, I kinda knew how to communicate with musicians, which was really important. Plus I was working with Michael Barbiero at the time who was an amazing engineer and had great musicality. He kinda taught me the ropes on a lot of things like that.

In 1986, you switched over to doing rock albums and began working with Tesla?

This is weird. I was getting really sick of working on pop music. I mean everything was going number one and I needed a challenge. So we got hold of Tom Zutaut [Geffen Records A&R] and said, "Please. Give me some rock bands to work with" and the first two bands he gave me were Tesla who were called City Kid at the time and Guns N' Roses.

You recorded the first Tesla album "Mechanical Resonance"?

We did the first Tesla album at Bearsville Studios and what I really loved about them was we did not take a clinical approach with them. We got the essence of what they did and it was just a great vibe and we put that album together. In the middle of that, Zutaut starts giving me demos of "Appetite For Destruction."

So you passed on producing "Appetite For Destruction"?

We were so burnt so we ended up mixing Appetite. What was kind of interesting about that - it's probably one of the biggest-selling rock albums of all time - is I felt that's where rock music needed to be in that time and place.

Why did you feel that?

What I loved about the record was it had danger, excitement and angst. I absolutely loved it. I think the first song we worked on was "It's So Easy" and I was playing it so loud in the studio, I think I blew out three sets of speakers. I said, "You know what? This mix is perfect. Let's not f--k with it."

At a point in time, you must have come in contact with Guns, right?

Oh, yeah. In the studio, it was Axl, Slash, Izzy and Tom. So we worked closely together and got the vibe off them. We just hung out for two weeks and that's how we worked on it. It was a great time.

You got along with Slash and Axl?

I loved the guys. I wound up hanging out with Axl a lot in L.A. When I was out there and that's where I got hold of David Geffen who I absolutely respected like you wouldn't believe.

David Geffen was an important person in your career.

We had a Platinum party at Ed Rosenblatt's [Chairman of Geffen Records] and I hung out with David for a while. I'll never forget this. He goes, "You know Steve? My taste is not Guns N' Roses." He's more like Laura Nyro and that type of thing. He says, "But you know what? I love my people and I trust 'em to find bands like this." There was one story that really hit me. He points out the A&R guy and says, "See that guy over there? He hasn't really signed anything in a couple of years but you know what? I have faith and confidence he's gonna come up with something good." A year later he signs Nirvana and that was Gary Gersh.

When you were mixing the "Appetite For Destruction" album, what did you think of Mike Clink's production?

I thought it was great. 'Cause I remember a lot of the demos and after listening I felt the tempos were dragging a little bit. But after hearing Mike Clink's production, he nailed it. I just thought it was right for what the band does. But the one thing about is Guns N' Roses is they knew what they were doing. They knew their parts. I just think the production was amazing because it's exactly what it needed to be and the proof is in the pudding. We just kind of enhanced it.

Can you talk about how you approached that production?

We kind of approached it keeping it raw, in your face and as aggressive as we possibly could. Trying to get to hear all the nuances of the instrumentation and all the dynamics of the music. I'm a dynamics guy. If I can boost out certain sections of a song, that's what I look for. Make the song pulse and make it exciting.

Can you give any specific examples of that?

I remember when we did "Paradise City," Michael [Barbiero] and me we did a goof on Axl. There was a part in the song where it goes brrmm brmmm brmmm [sings three drum fills], "Take me home." They do this little fill to get into the next section. Well, we spliced the tape and doubled it up just as a joke.

What did Axl think?

Axl comes in and hears it and loves it and that became the record. We looked at each and said, "Wow, I can't believe that. We did it as a joke."

Any other interesting moments?

There was one part on "Rocket Queen," Axl wanted some sex noises. I said, "Sure, we can go get some porno tapes" and he says, "No, I'm want 'em real." So Axl picked out this girl who was hanging out in the studio and we had to mike it up in the studio and he's actually having sex and we miked it up. Those are the actual noises you hear on "Rocket Queen" in the break.

What did you think the first time you heard Slash's riff on "Sweet Child O' Mine"?

Well, yeah. That was such a signature riff. The hardest point is we had to edit that song for radio. I didn't really want to edit it but we didn't have a choice. I said, "At least the real version is on the album so let's edit it."

What did Slash think?

Slash absolutely hated the edit. I said, "Slash, it's out of our control. It's for radio." The interesting part of the album is Geffen probably spent over a year promoting this record before it hit and people don't realize that. This was not an overnight success record and obviously the song that broke the band was "Sweet Child O' Mine." We released "Welcome to the Jungle" and MTV refused to play the video. Then they got to a point where they played the video at three or four in the morning and everything buzzed up and that's what started it. Then obviously with "Sweet Child O' Mine," it just blew up like you wouldn't believe.

What kind of gear did you use to mix?

Basically, I believe we worked on a Neve 8068 console. The console had a 3-band and 4-band EQ. We mixed down to a 1" on the Studer A80. At some point, we also used a 15ips tape slap. On the multi-track, it was a Studer A800. We used two Studer multi-track machines because there were more than 24 tracks and we used an Adam Smith linkup to link the two machines together. We mixed down to Ampex 456 1" tape at 30 ips. We used Pultec EQP for top and bottom end EQ. We also used a Pultec MEQ, which took care of the midrange. We used AMS delays and reverbs. The AMS delay was set at 125 milliseconds. We used Lexicon and EMT plates.

What did you use those for?

We used it as a pre-delay/snare sound. We sampled the snare drum on "... Jungle" and we sampled it through an AMS delay and triggered it off the sync head, which plays ahead of the playback head and synched it with a delay back to the console. We used an MXR Flanger/Phaser on some cymbals. We also used the MXR on overheads.

What did you do for Axl's vocals?

We used the MX Flanger/Phaser on Axl's vocal on "Rocket Queen." We used a Urei LA2A on Axl's voice and also used the Urei LA3A on guitars. We used an LA2A on Duff's bass. We used a special vocal mic on Axl when he was doing "Rocket Queen," which was a U87. Vic Mix was our assistant engineer at the time and he helped me remember a lot of this.

There was no computer, right?

No computer. The mixing was done all manually with hands. That's it. No computers or anything and I was lovin' that.

It's a different world today, right?

Today, I go to studios sometimes and the computer's not working and I don't like mixing in Pro Tools. I like to mix on a console for a number of reasons. Number one, I get better dynamics when I do it manually myself. I had this one song that had 64 tracks on it and no computer so I said, "Screw it. I'll mix it manually." Everybody in the studio looked at me and I got it in like one take, hah hah hah.

What other kind of gear did you use on Appetite…?

Old-school Pultecs, AMS reverb and delays. Typical rackmount stuff. But we kind of kept it a little bit on the dry side than what was normally done at that time. Not adding reverb that much or effects or anything like that. A lot of that was Tom Zutaut. Zutaut had a great ear so he was a great help in the studio.

You were aware of the other kinds of metal bands around like Motley Crue and Dokken and the way those records were mixed?

Oh, yeah. I actually worked on Dokken's "Back For the Attack." But this was definitely different and you didn't want to overhype something. You wanted the essence of what they were about transferred sonically. I don't think we had any keyboards on that: it was like two guitar players, bass, drums and vocals. The riffs were so strong.

What about recording Steven Adler's drums?

I loved Steven Adler's drumming. It just had a swagger to it, which I really loved. We kind of blew up the sound a little bit. We made 'em sound as big as we possibly could.

Previously to working with Guns N' Roses, you had worked with Yoko Ono on the "Milk and Honey" record back in 1984.

Oh, that's a great story. I was working with Klaus Voorman [a friend of the Beatles and the designer of the Revolver cover] on a band called Trio from Germany. I didn't realize this but Yoko was actually looking for people to work on a lot of John's stuff and Klaus recommended me to Yoko.

Do you remember first meeting and talking with Yoko? 

I get a call and they tell me, "She would like to meet you at the Dakota." So I sat down and she interviewed me and she was reading her tarot cards while interviewing me. I was living in Long Island at the time so I took the interview and nothing happens.

You figured Yoko had passed?

I get a call about a month later probably about five o'clock in the morning from her assistant Sam Havadtoy. He says, "Yoko would like to see you now." So I jump, drive right to Manhattan and I don't even know if I saw her that day. He says, "Yoko would like to hire you for this project."

What did you think?

I was blown away. So we would get together and I'm listening to the songs and obviously they're all demos and a couple of demos were just recorded on cassette. So a bunch of 'em weren't even multi-tracked.

That must have been amazing to hear those.

Yoko's idea was to bring in Paul Shaffer [studio keyboard player] and whoever to enhance what was there. I told her, "Please, don't do that. We'll make these sound good the way they are. Let's keep the essence of these songs with what they were for this time and place. Don't bring additional musicians in. Please. I plead with you."

What did Yoko think?

I pleaded with her and she finally said, "OK, let's just go with it." I think the first song we worked on was "Nobody Told Me." I told Michael, "Hey, we gotta get that John Lennon vocal effect." We kind of blew it up and we started working on all these songs. I think Yoko had a birthday party at the studio and it was really cool. Harry Nilsson and Roberta Flack was there; Sean Lennon was very young and it was just a great get together.

Could you feel John Lennon's ghost there?

I'll tell you the truth: I really felt John being in that room when I was working on that project.

You really did?

I really did and I can't say that too many times. 

In 1985, you worked with Mick Jagger and David Bowie on their cover of "Dancing In the Street"?

I was just ready to go on vacation and Live Aid was going on. I forgot who called but they said, "Would you be interested in mixing 'Dancing in the Street'? And I said, "Hell, yeah. I would." I got the tape and I felt the guitars were kind of lame and lifeless so I brought in Earl Slick and I brought in Carlos Alomar to be Bowie's ear. We replaced all the guitars with Earl Slick and we added percussion and we did the mix on it. What kinda pissed me off is I didn't get the Gold record.

You were never paid for that?

No, because Live Aid was all charity, which I didn't mind. That didn't bother me at all.

Then in '86 you actually worked with the Stones on "Harlem Shuffle" from the Dirty Work album?

Yes and that was a fun experience. We got the track and obviously I grew up with the Beatles and the Stones. Can you imagine working with John Lennon, then Jagger and then the Stones? Pinch me - am I alive? I get the track and listen to it and say, "You know what? I have an idea. I'm gonna bring a horn section it to kind of give it a more soulful feel." I think I brought in the Uptown Horns. We charted the song out, they played it and it was brilliant. It sounded amazing.

You knew you had done something cool?

I remember Jagger walking in, listening to it and he says, "Stop the tape" and I said, "What's the problem?" He said, "What's that?" and I said, "Horns. Love 'em?"

What did he say?

He goes, "That's exactly what I didn't want," hah hah hah. They played great and it was perfect. I had to let the guys go and get rid of the horns. I remember finishing up the mix after that and everybody loved it but me. So I went back on my own time and fix what I needed to fix and that's where it went.

Your first meeting with Mick Jagger wasn't great but you'd go on to work with him on "Primitive Cool," which was his second solo album.

Yeah, I worked on a lot of Jagger's stuff after that. We got along great and hung out together. He's a control freak in the studio. I get it but I'm a pretty strong personality myself. I remember we were working in two studios at the time mixing the stuff while he was recording stuff in the other studio. Jeff Beck comes walking in [Beck played on the album] and Jeff goes to me, "Steve, ahh. Mick's driving me crazy." I said, "What's the problem?" and he said, "He's telling me what to play." I said, "What?" and he said, "He's telling me what to play."

That is amazing somebody would tell Jeff Beck what kinds of guitar parts to play.

I basically sat down with Mick later and said, "Mick, let me ask you a question. You're hiring all these great musicians. If I have Jeff Beck in the studio I'm gonna say, 'You know what? Here are 16 bars and put your personality in these 16 bars' and let it go. Because chances are it's gonna be a lot better than what you're thinking. If you want something precise, let's just hire a regular studio musician."

That's amazing.

I had this with Keith Richards. I was producing Phantom, Rocker and Slick and Earl Slick always wanted to be into the Stones. He knew I was working with Mick so he said, "You think Keith Richards would do a guest solo on our record?" I was actually going to a party that night and I was gonna meet Keith for the first time. It was a birthday party for Mick Jagger at the Palladium in New York and I met Keith and Woody in the bathroom. I said, "Keith, I'm doing this project. Would you mind if you did a little guitar bit on this?" and he goes, "No, not at all."

So Keith actually came down?

He comes in the studio and his roadie comes in and sets all his gear up. We had this one song called "My Mistake" so I'm in the big room and Keith is setting his guitar up and I'm playing the song over the speakers showing him where to play. I said, "Alright, Keith. You get the idea" and he says, "No, stay with me." So I basically had to play air guitar with him and singing him lines in his ear while he's doing his part.

What a remarkable story.

I wish I had taped that. That was so f--king cool, hah hah hah. There I am playing air guitar with Keith Richards because he's the type of guy I guess likes to play with people and just get that thing going.

Steve Lillywhite produced "Dirty Work." As you were sitting there listening to "Harlem Shuffle" and Lillywhite's production, did you pick up anything from the way he worked?

At times, yeah. But you have to understand the school I grew up with. At Media Sound there was Bob Clearmountain, Mike Barbiero and these guys were aces and we felt we got the best guitar tones in the world. But of course you learn on everything and that's why I've always been a chameleon in the studio.

Calling yourself a chameleon is the perfect description.

If anybody looks at my discography, they'll say, "This guy went from Johnny Mathis to Korn. How is that possible?"

How were you able to do that?

The reason being my tastes were always wide-ranging. I listen to everything and love everything and I didn't want to be a one-trick pony producer. I was very fortunate to work with so many different artists and I understand it all. The beauty of that is all the different types of music I work on, I can apply things from this style to this style that people wouldn't think about.

Is that one of the philosophies of your production approach?

That's what great about what I do because when I work with an artist, I want them to stand out from everybody. I'm not an assembly line producer. If I get a band who says, "I like Muse and U2," I'll say, "Well guess what? If that's what you want to be, you're gonna have to be better than them." That's my bar I set.

Is any particular style more challenging for you to produce or mix?

I love it all. I do my homework. If I'm gonna work on an EDM song, I see what's out there and I better it. Same with rock, pop, hip hop and R&B. I look and see what my competition is and again working on every different style in the world, I make it a point to know it all.

You mixed Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" and "Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes" for the "Graceland" album in 1986.

Oh, god. That was such a great experience.

Paul Simon is one of greatest writers who ever lived.

Oh, yeah. I totally agree. I get the tracks and I saw what he was going for so I decided I wanted to bring a percussion player that had African rhythms. I go to Bashiri Johnson and said, "I wanna get all these traditional percussion instruments to put on these songs." Paul liked what Bashiri did so much he put him on the road with him. How cool was that?

Was it amazing hear the tracks for those songs?

To listen to those singers in a cappella - they were flawless.

Did you get a chance to hang out with Paul Simon much?

That was a perfect record. Roy Halee was the engineer and I thought the production was stellar and anything I could do to enhance it, I was honored. We hung out in the studio.

When you mixed the tracks for Metallica's "...And Justice For All" album in 1988, was that a totally different experience than working on the "Appetite For Destruction" record?

Well, what I wanted to do and what Lars wanted to do was totally different, which kind of upset me a little bit. I loved Metallica and was very familiar with them. I said, "These guys are cool." We got the call to do it and went up to Bearsville Studios in upstate New York and the guys were on the Monsters of Rock Tour at the time. So what they would do is fly in by helicopter, a day here and a day there just to go through things.

Did the band know what kind of album they wanted to make and what they wanted it to sound like?

Lars knew exactly the sound and the parameters of everything he wanted on his drums. So he would actually bring his photos of a Klark Teknik's EQ [parametric equalizer] setup because he had a certain way he wanted the drums to sound. I said, "Michael [Barbiero], why don't you work with Lars and get the drum sound he's looking for? Call me when he's happy."

What did you think when you finally heard them?

They called me in and I listened to them and I said to myself, "These sound like a-s. Terrible sounding." I chased everybody out of the room and redesigned the drum sound and brought the guitars up. Jason [Newsted] killed it on bass. Perfect marriage with Hetfield's guitars.

Tell me about some of the gear you used with Metallica?

We mixed the album at Bearsville Studios in New York. The console was an SSL G Series with Ultimation. We used Neve EQs; Pultec EQP and MEQs; AMS delays and reverbs; and we used Lexicon on drums. All the Pultec LA2A and LA3As. Mixdown was definitely 48-tracks so there were two Studer multi-track machines and quite possibly they were A800 machines. We used a Studer A80 1" for mixdown at 30ips. When Lars recorded the drums, he used a Clark Tekniks EQ parametric.

Was James happy with what you were doing?

I'm putting all the other stuff up and everything like this and Hetfield gives a thumbs up. Lars comes walking in a couple minutes later and listens to about a minute of it and goes, "Turn that off" and I said, "What's the problem?" He said, "What happened to my drum sound?" I said, "You were serious?" or something like that.

Lars was not happy?

We had to get the drum sound up the way he had it. I wasn't a fan of it. So now he goes, "See the bass guitar?" and I said, "Yeah, great part, man. He killed it." He said, "I want you to bring down the bass where you can barely, audibly hear it in the mix." I said, "You're kidding. Right?"

He wasn't kidding?

He said, "No. Bring it down." I bring it down to that level and he says, "Now drop it down another 5 db." I turned around and looked at Hetfield and said, "He's serious?" It just blew me away.

What did you do?

I called my manager that night and I think I talked to Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch [Metallica's managers] and said, "I love these guys. I think they're amazing and they've created a genre of their own but I do not agree with the direction Lars is pulling me in. My name's gonna go on it so why don't you find somebody else?" My manager wouldn't have anything to do with that or Burnstein or Mensch.

But you were ready to walk away from mixing Metallica?

They talked me into being there and my only regret is that we didn't have enough time to at least mix it the way we heard it. I wanted to take "Master of Puppets" and blow that away. That was my sonic direction for "... And Justice For All." It was all there but I think they were looking for more garagey-type sound without bass. And the bass was great; it was perfect. I remember when Metallica got elected to the Hall of Fame, they flew us out and I'm sitting with Lars.

Did you talk to him?

He goes, "Hey, what happened to the bass in "... Justice?" He actually asked me that. I wanted to cold cock him right there. It was a shame because I'm the one getting the sh-t for the lack of bass.

Does that happen where you'll disagree with a member of a band about how an album should sound?

I worked with Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. I was working with Jon and he produced the whole record and used drum machines. He took the drum machines out and had Bill Bruford play to an existing track. I said, "With a guy like Bill Bruford, why would you restrict him?" I'm mixing the tracks and Steve Howe's guitars were amazing and Jon favored the keyboards over the guitar. I says, "Jon, no, no, no, no."

What happened?

At the end of the day, Jon was there and he was the boss and I had to downplay Steve's guitars and I didn't want to. So I get the sh-t for that too. Steve Howe says, "What happened to my guitars?" so I was the fall guy on this.

Any other stories like that?

Clive Davis calls me up and says, "Steve, I just signed a very exciting, revolutionary band, which I'd like you to work with." I said, "Great, Clive. Who is it?" He said, "The Grateful Dead." I said, "Dude, I respect them but I'm not a Deadhead and I don't like their music and I'm just not into that." He says, "Oh, stop, Steve. You'll be fine. Just work on this song." I think it was called "Throwing Stones [In the Dark]." He said, "Go into the studio and you'll be fine." I said, "Clive, I'm not into this" and Clive talks me into it.

What were those early sessions like?

It's Michael and myself and we're putting up the track and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir walk in. Mike goes to Jerry, "How do you like your vocal sound?" and Jerry goes, "That's not me. That's Bob." So I think Michael said, "I guess you can see what kind of a big bunch of Deadhead fans we are."

What did they think?

Ever since that comment they absolutely loved us because they'd never met anybody in the world who could give a f--k. We had the greatest time and they loved everything and it was a very easy session. I figured if I could get away with doing the Dead, I could do anything.

What was it like mixing Soundgarden's second album "Louder Than Love"?

Towards the late '80s, I was getting calls from all these hair bands who wanted me to produce 'em and I hated it. I go to my manager Andy Kipnes [AAM] and said, "Andy, if this is where music is going, I'm outta here. I hate it." Then I get a call from Steve Ralbovsky and he says, "Hey, I just signed this exciting band, Soundgarden. Would you work with them?"

What did you think of the band?

I heard 'em and I was blown away. We started mixing Soundgarden and nobody was in the studio but we get calls from Chris [Cornell]. They wanted a more dry approach instead of big snare sounds. They wanted it dry and they were very opinionated and I kind of gave 'em what they wanted. I'm on my honeymoon and I get a call, "Chris would like to change some mixes." I'm on my f--kin' honeymoon and I said, "Michael, go in the studio and change what he wants." Obviously he's very opinionated but at the end of the day what a great f--king band. You give it up to them.

Great band.

Chris's vocal, the guitar playing, the angst. Everything. I loved it better than Nirvana and I was a Nirvana and Pearl Jam fan. I was into grunge. I was one of the few '80s rockers that liked it because it was aggressive and had angst and I'm always an aggressive and angst guy.

When someone listens to a Soundgarden mix or a Metallica mix, will they recognize that both records were done by Steve Thompson? Is there connecting tissue between the projects you do, which are kind of your trademarks?

Hopefully not. My aim is to make each artist have their own identity. I don't apply what I did to Guns N' Roses to Metallica or from Whitney Houston to Madonna. I take each artist as a separate entity and that was always important to me. So I can't really say there's a signature sound. Obviously "... And Justice For All" does not sound like "Appetite for Destruction." I don't use the same tricks. I love working in different studios and I take each song for what it is and how can I make it great.

You worked with the Butthole Surfers on their "Electriclarryland" album.

This was when alternative was the number one thing in the music industry and the last person they would ever hire for alternative was Steve Thompson. Gary Gersh called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing Butthole Surfers. They were a really cool, underground band and I said, "F--k, yeah." I heard the demos and I said, "You know what? They're missing something."

What did you think they were missing?

I started to write the song "Pepper," which became the number one alternative song of the year. I started to come up with beats before I went into the studio. Gibby [Haynes, vocalist] was 30-days sober coming into the studio so that could be a time bomb. We started working on the record and the guitar player [Paul Leary] played so hard that literally his fingers would bleed. The cool thing about "Pepper" was personal computers started happening so I gave Gibby a lesson and we were working on "Pepper" everyday honing in on the song. I sang the melody to the guitar player and we put this whole song together.

"Pepper" did become a huge hit.

My biggest crowning achievement was watching David Letterman one night and he said, "And here are the Butthole Surfers," hah hah hah. That's the one thing that ticks me off because I feel I'm an anomaly in the music industry. I do my homework and nobody has to tell me when I'm done because I know the music of today better than most people do. I look ahead and I don't look behind. I'm always working with new artists and I'm all about music of today and tomorrow. It's great what I've done in the past but it's totally irrelevant for what I'm doing now.

What was it like producing Korn's "Follow the Leader"?

What was kind of interesting about Korn is I was going to L.A. To check out three bands: Korn, Buckcherry and Bolt Upright. Jeff Kwatinetz [Korn's manager] called my manager and said he wanted me to meet with the guys from Korn. I didn't realize this walking in and meeting them but they had actually interviewed a hundred different producers and were ready to go back to Ross Robinson [Korn's previous producer] so they were kind of done interviewing. I said, "Dude, I would be more than happy to work with you. Give me a shot" and I left.

It didn't sound like you really wanted the gig?

I just walked out of there because I didn't feel the passion there. I got a call from the manager and he said, "Steve, the band feels bad. Come in the next day and talk to them." I said, "I'll make a deal with you. Let's go in a rehearsal situation and pick one song, work on it together and see if there's a chemistry there." He said, "Great idea" so we wound up doing that.

What did the songs sound like?

I heard the demo for "Freak On a Leash," which was unrecognizable to where it is today. I got the song and said, "Let's try this part. Let's do this. Let's take this section and double it up." We worked for about four or five hours together and everybody sees the result and goes, "Damn, I like this." I remember getting their demos and there was seven songs that all sounded the same and nothing really there. I remember going in pre-production and saying, "Well, guys. How do you write songs?" They said, "Fieldy plays the bassline." I said, "Cool. How else do you write songs?" They said, "Uh, Fieldy plays the bassline." I said, "OK, we're gonna change this up guys. Head and Munky, come up with guitar riffs. David [Silveria], come up with some drum parts. Jonathan, come up with some lyrics."

You needed them to approach the music differently?

I wanted to change up their writing style and I would up spending two months in pre-production near Compton [California] and I was not going in the studio 'til I knew I had an album there. I think the first song we worked on was "Freak on a Leash."

But you still had to maintain the character of who Korn was, right?

They had a big following and it was, "How do I make a record that's worldwide and doesn't piss off their following?" That was very important to me not to sell 'em out. I had that seven-song demo and I was in New York and I had to be in L.A. On January 5th. I told people I was working with, "I am gonna drive to L.A. By myself with this demo and live with it across the country." I left New York New Year's Eve night like a f--kin' idiot to drive to L.A. By myself and try to figure out what I was gonna do. I think I spent four-and-a-half days on the road.

Give me some details on how you made that record?

We recorded at NRG Studios in L.A. In Studio B, which had a vintage Neve 8078 console. The compressors were Neves and we also used for total board compression an SSL compressor/stereo compressor. We used the Urei 1176 and the dbx 180 compressors as well. We used the Shure SM7 and SM57. Also Neumann U47 and U87s and an Electrovoice RE20 and Sennheiser 421. David had a triggered dDrum on his kit.

What kind of amps were in the studio?

Some of the amps we used included Bogner Uberschall and Ecstasy models; Marshall vintage; Mesa Boogie; and maybe some Orange amps. For bass, we used Gallien-Krueger and a sub-woofer and an SWR bass head. For guitars, I used a Tonebender pedal, which is like a Muff but a little cooler. On voice, I used an Expander pedal for certain things. We used an MPC3000 drum machine. We ran the system with Studer machines and used a new version of Pro Tools, which was new at the time. This was one of their first models. We recorded to tape, which were probably Studer 2" machines running at 30 ips.

Pre-production was important?

It's really important with a band like Korn to do good pre-production. You just can't walk in the studio with them and get it in there. Like I said we spent two months honing the songs and I was writing songs with Jonathan 'til six in the morning in the hotel.

You really were involved in the production.

Basically the studio sessions were a circus. Kwatinetz and Peter Katsis [co-manager of Korn] came up with a great marketing plan: let's do Korn TV every Thursday in the studio for the Internet, which I thought was brilliant. But the problem is they kind of sliced into our studio time. So it meant bringing Ron Jeremy in and do an S&M day; let's do nipple piercing; let's talk about crazy sh-t. Every Thursday it was a different scene: Marilyn Manson's people were hanging out; Orgy was hanging out; Primus and Steve Vai.

So you had to work around Korn TV?

But I remember the listening session for the suits right before the record was done. One of the guys in the company said, "Steve, this album's gonna be huge. We're gonna sell three million." I said, "With all due respect if you can't sell at least 10 million you're not doing your jobs."

You won a Grammy for "Freak on a Leash"?

Yeah, Best Video. Remember what I said about Guns N' Roses and that record needed to be there in that time and space? That's what I felt about Korn 'cause rock was dead and the charts were dominated by N'SYNC and Backstreet Boys.

I've always loved hip hop and to be able to bring in Ice Cube and that influence with the beats and everything. I always loved that stuff because of the work I did with Anthrax and Public Enemy. We did "Bring the Noise," which obviously "Walk This Way" with Aerosmith and Run DMC started it and we nailed it. I started working with bands like hed P.E. and I always loved the combination of rap and rock because it's aggressive, in your face and it was cool.

Talking about the rap thing, you worked with Wu-Tang Clan on "Iron Flag"?

I'm a big Wu-Tang fan and I worked with RZA on this. I went to the Hit Factory in New York and said, "Troy [Germano, CEO of Hit Factory], I need some bangin' speakers in here." He brought these speakers in that should have been on "Spinal Tap." They were so f--kin' big but they sounded so f--kin' cool.

What was it like working with RZA?

RZA's production style was interesting because he'd give me mono loops with basses on 'em. That frustrated me because I liked instruments isolated. My thing was make Wu-Tang's sh-t bang hard. I'm working in there and the manager goes, "Raekwon's gonna walk in but don't worry about him. He doesn't like anything. Don't be offended if he hates it." Raekwon walks in, listens to the track and says, "Stop that." I go, "What's the matter?" and he goes, "This is the first motherf--kin' time I walk in the studio and actually like what I'm hearing," hah hah hah.

Are there certain pieces of gear that have become part of the Steve Thompson arsenal?

Obviously everything is done in Pro Tools today and a lot of people just mix in the box today. My tool is I want a console because I will match up with anybody in the box and blow away what they're doing. You tend to overanalyze when you're looking at a screen all day. I go for the gut: close your eyes and feel the music and you do that on a console. With the advent of plug-ins, you can get basically anything you need.

A lot of times if I'm dealing with a record that's basically recorded in a basement, I kinda have to make things bigger 'cause a lot of times they use too much digital.

In what way?

They'll use a guitar pod instead of using a guitar amp. So what I have to wind up doing is going in the studio, bringing in a Marshall and re-amping their guitars. A lot of times I have to sound replace [SoundReplacer] drums just to get the crack better. I don't like doing that. If it's recorded well, I just like to fill it up. A lot of times people don't have these big budgets and they do what they do, I've still got to make it sound like a million dollars so that's when you have to come in with stuff. For bottom end, you use Pultecs or you can use Pultec plug-ins. Neve outboard gear I love just to give it that warm sound.

Would you like to go back to analog?

I would never go back to tape. I don't need to. I have the technology in my head to get that warm, fat sound going through Pro Tools and a console. The thing I always hated about tape was the hiss factor. I never used Dolby or anything like that to try to get it out of there 'cause that just took the life out of a track. Obviously the bottom end is better with analog but I found ways I can get that bottom end and not have the hiss.

The change from analog to digital wasn't a problem for you?

I was one of the first ones to use Pro Tools and I loved it. In fact we did it on the Korn record and it was pretty new. I would take the Pro Tools engineer, throw him in a closet and tell him what I wanted and I said, "Come out when ya got it." I always called Pro Tools a tool and not a performer 'cause people get lazy. It's like when a singer comes in and says, "OK, I'll sing one chorus and we'll fly in the same chorus everywhere else." I said, "No, we're not doing that. Each chorus should have a little different flavor to it."

That's old school.

I'm a stickler for performers. I'm not American Idol where every note has to be perfect. I want a vulnerability in a singer and that might mean a couple of off notes. Can you imagine Kurt Cobain on Auto-Tune? That's the art that's lost. To me, music is human and make it feel human. What's wrong with a drummer speeding up and retarding a little bit? Let it breathe. Let it have passion.

Liv Famous is one of your own projects?

It's gonna revolutionize the whole entertainment industry. That is my goal. I just want people to be able to be exposed to great artists and young kids record companies have neglected. All genres of music will be spotlighted and it's gonna be all about originals. I wanted people to be exposed to the new Pink Floyds and the new Marvin Gayes.

You're hoping to give new artists a chance to be heard that they may not have had?

These people haven't had a platform and they're getting distressed because you see YouTube is now the A&R department of the music industry, which is a joke. My motif when I make music is I want it to be contemporary and timeless at the same time and that's what I strive to do. And thank god, my history has held up that fact.

Talking about history, the aliens land and find the Steve Thompson time capsule with three songs in it. Which three songs are in there?

Oh, my god. I'd probably put David Bowie, which I didn't work on; "Dark Side of the Moon"; and Marvin Gaye "What's Going On"?

Right. Now which three songs of yours would be in there?

I'd have to put "Welcome to the Jungle" in there 'cause that always gets me in a good mood. I've been through so many interviews and so many people and I've never been stymied to answer a question. I loved working with Ziggy Marley. We won a people on "People Get Ready" and working with him and Bob's band was monumental for me. Obviously I would say John Lennon for the fact I had so much respect for what he did. I would put Blues Traveler in there. I would say "Freak on a Leash" because I sometimes feel myself as being a freak.

A very talented freak.

I'm a gut person. I know what's gonna work and what's not gonna work and what risks to take. I make it a point to do that. You've got to be hungry. The whole is never settle and don't look in the past. Don't look at your achievements; they're meaningless to me today. I feel like I'm the new kid on the block and I love that. I want to keep that hunger. Being a DJ, you're always looking to the future and having that background was very important. I don't look at what the trends are today, I wanna set the new ones of tomorrow.

That's an amazing philosophy.

The biggest thing about music? Have a great song. That's the one thing I'm kinda sad about today. Obviously every generation has a way of saying things. If you wrote a song today like "She Loves You/Yeah, yeah, yeah," they'd laugh you to the moon. Now it's "Let's tap that a-s" and "We're gonna hang out at the club."

It's a shame music has been so dumbed down to let's party time and this and that. That's all good but there's much more to say than just that. Let's educate a little bit. When hip hop was great, Public Enemy was out there with the lyrics saying, "This is what's going on." You're gonna try and tell me there's not enough things happening in the world you can't talk about instead of partying and booty shake girls?

What are you working on now?

I'm working with Criss Angel on music for his new television show called Tricked. I'm co-writing and producing. I'm developing and launching a revolutionary artist development and A& R company that employs a television show to scout the best original talent in the world. It will revolutionize the entire music industry. I just finished the treatment with Ken Kushner for a movie called Souls.

I also just wrote a sports anthem called "Get Your Game On," which marries EDM, trapt and rock together. It will be the sports anthem for today's and tomorrow's generation. Currently I am working with great artists and always looking for great new artists or established artists who want to make their best record ever.

Interview by Steven Rosen (C) 2015

6 comments sorted by best / new / date

    What an interview...The one time I do not check out the interview section specifically (because I know you guys put only gossip and top 15 lists on the front page), you guys at UG do this belter interview. And that too with someone who has such experience and still remains humble and is not out of touch with reality (unlike many of the people he worked with). Great job.....
    Captain Obvious in me says: When the volume in the studio is too loud, we humans have a different perception of frequencies and levels - especially on bass frequencies (/Fletcher-Munson). Maybe the volume level was not right at the time. I drop the listening level to bare-audible when someone wants me to drop the level of bass, because that's more or less the real world representation of the bass level in the mix. Or Lars was a difficult person to deal with at the time