Welcome to the Rocktopia Interviews Section (* For Members Only)
Interview with Mike Fraser about Bruce Fairbairn
20 February 2014
BRUCE FAIRBAIRN - Rock Producer ... an interview with Mike Fraser
Alister Strachan talks to Mike Fraser about the career of one of greatest melodic rock producers of them all.
Here on Rocktopia we tend to concentrate our attention on interviews and features with bands and artists but what about those all important men and women behind the mixing desk, the Record Producer? These often forgotten individuals who sprinkle their magic to make records not only sound great, but are integral to ensuring that the artists get the best out of their songs they record. In order to address this imbalance, I think it’s about time we talked about one of the greatest melodic rock producers of them all Bruce Fairbairn, whose favourite base of operations, Little Mountain Studios in Vancouver, Canada became the place to go in the 80s and 90s if you wanted a radio friendly, kick ass rock record. I’m sure if every visitor to this site went through their record collection they’ll find at least one album that has been produced by this great man.
Regrettably, Bruce is no longer with us but Mike Fraser, now a celebrated producer, engineer and mixer in his own right, who worked with Fairbairn as his sound engineer for many years was only too happy to take time out from his busy schedule to talk to us about Bruce’s career as a record producer. So with no more ado take it away Mike…
Before achieving worldwide recognition Bruce was already an accomplished and award winning producer in Canada wasn’t he?
Yes, Bruce was well known here in Canada for his musicianship and his production skills. In the early 70s, he started a band called Sunshyne that played a mix of pop, jazz and rock inspired by the likes of Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears and James Brown. Sunshyne included musicians Jim Vallance, Tom Keenlyside and David Sinclair, before Sunshyne eventually turned into Prism, which was what got Bruce’s production career rolling.
His early work with Prism, and later with Loverboy, showed that he had a keen ear for radio friendly, hook-laden rock music. Was he a big fan of this type of music at that time?
Yes for sure, Bruce was originally a horn player in Sunshyne and then later with Prism. When Prism’s sound developed to a point that horns were no longer a part of it, Bruce decided to hang up his trumpet and become a producer. Prism was his first conquest. It wasn’t long after that Bruce was approached to record Loverboy’s first record. They were another “pop” laden rock band that was right up Bruce’s street.
What types of music would you say Bruce was influenced by?
I would say Bruce loved any kind of well played music. He had something of a jazz/blues background and he loved catchy songs. With so much of rock music being “blues based”, it was just a natural progression for Bruce to work in that genre.
Did he bring those influences to bear in his work as a record producer? Being a trumpet player, he did like to use horns to fill out the sound on some of his records – most notably on Aerosmith’s ‘Dude Looks Like A Lady’…
Not only did Bruce’s blues influences show up in his productions, but his jazz background would pop up once in a while as well. Like you said for example in Aerosmith’s ‘Dude Looks Like A Lady’ or on The Cranberries record. There were many times that he’d get his old band mates to come in and play on some the records we were doing. We affectionately dubbed them “The Margarita Horn Section”.
As the mid 80s approached American and European bands such as Blue Öyster Cult, Krokus and Black ‘N Blue began to call on Bruce’s services but that big seller eluded him. Being a huge Black ‘N Blue fan I think ‘Without Love’ deserved better and stands as one of the more superior hair metal albums released back in 1985…
I never worked on the Blue Öyster Cult record (‘The Revölution By Night’), Bruce had gone out of town to work on that one but I do remember one story from that session. Apparently Bruce was looking for songs to fill out the album. Bryan Adams wrote one and submitted it. The band wasn’t sure it was right for them and declined. It was a great song so Bryan ended up keeping that song and using it on one of his records. That song was ‘Run To You’!
On the Black 'N Blue and Krokus (‘The Blitz’) records, I believe the lack of their success was more due to the changing flavours of the music buying public rather than the quality of the recordings. The underlying “anti hair band” feeling was starting to gain popularity by then and anything associated with “the 80s” was shunned. They are still great records when you go back and listen to them.
Although Black ‘N Blue’s ‘Without Love’ was largely ignored by the record buying public, it didn’t escape the notice of a certain Jon Bon Jovi did it?
I think ‘Without Love’ was what perked Jon’s ears up to what Bruce could do, yes.
I remember Jon Bon Jovi saying in an interview back then that he wasn’t sure about hiring Bruce because he didn’t have much to say when he listened to the demos of what would become ‘Slippery When Wet’. With that in mind, how much did Bruce get involved in writing/pre-production?
To be honest, I was never privy to what went on before Bruce brought Bon Jovi into the studio to record, but I do know that Bruce would not start a session until he thought all the songs were there. Sometimes he would hook the band guys up with different writers to co-write with, or even have the writer submit a song or two. Bruce would always try to keep it Canadian and “in the family” by using such writers as Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams, but occasionally he would go outside the stable and have Desmond Child or Diane Warren pen something. For each record Bruce worked on, he was the type of guy that wouldn’t leave a stone unturned until he found what he was looking for in a song or the vibe of a song.
A producer often has to bully, cajole and/or mentor an artist to get the best performance out of them. What would you say were Bruce’s best qualities as a producer in getting the best out of not only those who worked with him, but the eventual songs they produced?
I never knew Bruce to bully. Push, prod and mentor for sure, but he always encouraged an artist and never put them down. One of Bruce’s biggest assets was his ability to organise. He would always come in knowing exactly what was to be done that day, how long it was going to take, and who would be doing what. If one of the band members was having trouble on a particular day playing, or coming up with his part, Bruce had a “half hour rule”. He’d give the guy a chance for a little while to try to sort out what he was trying to do, but if it was wasting studio time Bruce would pull the plug and tell him to go back to the hotel room and work it out for the next day. He’d always be very encouraging, but he ran the session like clockwork and wouldn’t let things get bogged down or have anyone get too frustrated. Bruce was also a great referee when it was needed. Any argument that may have erupted between members was quickly doused and a compromise reached. Bruce always had a positive creative atmosphere on his sessions and I think that’s one of the main reasons he had so much success.
Bruce’s approach seemed to be very much around achieving crisp sonics and trimming the fat off songs to get to their true essence. From my point of view, he was very much a “don’t bore us get to the chorus” type of guy…
Bruce liked everything to get to the point. For commercial success in a song, the point is the chorus and Bruce was a master at trimming “the fat” to achieve this. On one session I remember the guitar player explaining to Bruce that he had one part that he would play the rhythm, another part that would have a bit of a melody, another part that would be just power chords, and another part that would have a bit of a counter melody. Bruce patiently listened to him as he demoed all the parts and explained them. Bruce then turned to the guitar player and said, “That’s great, now go back to the hotel room and learn to play all of that in one or two parts, not four!” And that’s how Bruce would work, trimming things to make it simpler and more streamlined.
Photo taken in late 1987 during the recording sessions for funk rockers the Dan Reed Network's
self-titled debut album which was released early the following year on the Mercury label.
From left to right: Ken Lomas (Assistant Engineer), John Webster (Keyboard session player),
Brion James (Guitar in DRN), Melvin Brannon II (Bass DRN), Dan Reed (Singer in DRN),
Dan Pred (Drums in DRN) & Blake Sakamoto (Keys in DRN)
Seated: Mike Fraser, Bruce Fairbairn
When ‘Slippery...’ hit and Bruce became the go-to guy for the remainder of the decade, and what with Bob Rock’s production career taking off soon after, Little Mountain must have been quite a place to work in around that time?
For quite a while during that period, Little Mountain was a nut house! One time, Mötley Crüe were in recording at the same time Aerosmith were there. Fans were lined up three and four people deep, often right around the building. Any time day or night there was always a group of them hanging out taking pictures, asking for autographs and so on. The bands were always gracious; they would pose for photographs and sign anything that was thrust at them.
The newly sober Aerosmith were next to call on Bruce’s services. When it came out I loved the variety of styles that were incorporated into ‘Permanent Vacation’ – I still do. Although they were forced to work with outside writers by Geffen A&R Guru John Kalodner on this album, I take it there a renewed vigour about them when they were working on those sessions?
I believe Aerosmith were about six weeks sober when they came in to Little Mountain to record ‘Permanent Vacation’; and they were like kids in a candy store! They were all so excited to be recording together again and, as Steven said to me once towards the end of the album, “This is the first record I can REMEMBER making”. With that kind of childlike enthusiasm; it was a fun record to make. There was not one stone left unturned. We would try any and all ideas that popped up. Once we even took a tape recorder down to the Vancouver Aquarium where Bruce had gotten permission for us to go down and record the Killer whales for one of the songs (eventually appearing on album opener ‘Heart’s Done Time’). I think the hardest thing on that record was leaving the session and go home each night!
Why would you say the three albums Bruce did with Aerosmith were, and still remain, the most successful of their career?
Bruce allowed them to be themselves and he coached them to not get too bogged down with too many options. When every single member of the band is as talented as they are, every idea can be a good one, but it can also dramatically change the direction of a song. So someone has to keep the focus of what that song is, and how to best get it there. Bruce was that guy; each member of Aerosmith respected him for that and would listen to what he had to say.
What was Bruce’s approach to recording? Did he track with everyone playing in the room or did he prefer to record everyone’s parts separately?
Every session was a bit different, but generally Bruce liked everyone out on the floor playing together. Bruce was a stickler about capturing the vibe and essence of the song. After getting a great take with everyone out there, we would often fix up some of the live performances or sometimes just keep the drums and bass, and redo the rest of the instruments. Later we would spend more time on extra guitar or keyboard parts and Bruce also liked to spend a good amount of time getting a great vocal performance.
Bruce never tended to engineer or mix the albums he produced. Bob Rock and you fulfilled that role on many of his most successful records...
Bruce was a musician turned producer and never had a desire to get technical. He did his job well and surrounded himself with others who did their job well: that was his formula for success. During mixing however, because there were no automated mixing desks back then, we would sometimes have four or five of us manually doing the moves. Once the mix was setup and ready to go, we would all be assigned different faders/buttons to move, or effects to turn on/off; it was quite a sight to see. The “dance” consisted of everyone reaching over each other trying to get your assigned moves done at the proper times and then having to run back to the other side of the board to make the next fader adjustment. Bruce loved being involved at this stage. Bob and I would sometimes have to counter his more enthusiastic moves – such as keyboard parts blaring so loud the vocals would get drowned out! – but we would always know what he was looking for and adjust things to achieve it.
As digital production equipment started to become available did Bruce embrace this new technology or did he prefer to stick with his trusty tape machines – much like producer Eric Valentine is still using with Slash – to retain that classic rock sound?
Bruce liked anything that would make things simpler: whether it was a simpler arrangement that made the song hit better or a piece of gear that would make his job easier. He hated things being complicated. We did delve into newer technology, but the times I worked with him he always stuck to the sound of analogue tape. There was maybe once or twice we recorded on a digital multi-track, but it was always mixed to analogue.
As the 90s dawned Bruce remained as popular as ever producing AC/DC and Poison, once again to multi-platinum success. What would you say that Bruce’s enduring qualities as a producer were that maintained this level of success?
Again, Bruce kept things simple: keep the song simple; keep the parts in the song simple and keep the workflow simple. Too many complications created delays and delays stopped the creative flow. Bruce believed that to capture magic in music, your work process had to flow. Yes, he worked hard at it; he felt if the flow was blocked or interrupted, the magic stopped happening. Bruce was all about getting the magic.
I take it no grunge bands came calling for Bruce’s services during that era. He was, after all, the antithesis to everything they were about...
I personally think that some people look at someone’s past work and mistakenly think it’s the only style of music they can create. Perhaps in some ways that is true, but because you’ve had a hugely successful career in producing some of the great 80s records it doesn’t necessarily mean that you would not be able to apply that same work ethic and belief into making some similarly great music in the 90s. For instance, all the bands that Bruce worked with, he helped achieve the record THEY wanted to make. Bruce didn’t write or reinvent their musical style. He only helped them make the best record they could at that time. He didn’t make The Cranberries or Yes sound like AC/DC, nor did he make AC/DC sound like Bon Jovi. Bruce just helped them make great records. I think Bruce could’ve done a kick ass grunge record!
Even during the 90s, which was a dark period for melodic rock music, he still managed to achieve multi platinum success with Van Halen and The Cranberries and even a gold record with the much maligned (unfairly in my view it has to be said) Kiss reunion album ‘Psycho Circus’. It just shows you can’t keep a good man down doesn’t it? How do you think he adapted so well to working in this entirely different musical climate?
Bruce stayed true to himself and always applied himself to what he was doing. He only ever wanted each project to be the best it could be. He loved the challenge of making a so-so song into a good one; and a good song into a great one!
Bruce was taken from us far too early in 1999, six months short of his 50th birthday. He has left us with a recording legacy that puts him well in contention as being one of the producers of a generation. Would you agree with this statement?
Absolutely! Bruce was a major player in rock history and he left quite a foot print.
We can only guess how we would have fared in the noughties when there was such resurgence in melodic rock music. I think he would have revelled in it don’t you?
Bruce would’ve loved it! He revelled in everything he did. From making great music to coaching his sons’ soccer teams: he did everything with a passion.
Mike Fraser (photo credit: Arthur Rosato)
Mike picks his 5 favourite Bruce Fairbairn productions:
"This is one of the first records Bruce produced. Even though it wasn’t critically acclaimed, I loved the sheer size of the production and really respect Bruce’s ability to take on that size of a production for one of his first production efforts."
"This album still stands the test of time and is “Classic" Bruce"
"All I need to say about this one is Thunderstruck!"
"I love how he married the classic old school Aerosmith to a newer version of themselves. Who would’ve ever put horns on an Aerosmith record and made it work? Bruce did!"
Dan Reed Network
"Poor promotion by the record company meant that this record never really got to see the light of day. But I think this was one of the finest records Bruce made. It was way ahead of its time and could have been a classic."