Just got word from Woodstock of the very sad passing of Bearsville Studios legend John Holbrook, a fellow Brit whom I first met when I lived up there in the 1990s – and whom I subsequently interviewed for my Woodstock/Bearsville book Small Town Talk in 2013. This is the transcript of the great interview he gave me over lunch up in Hudson that year. There’s a particularly good Isley Brothers story in there…
I was in a band in France, an Anglo-French band in about 1969, and the French ringleader of the group was Jean-Yves Labat, who had married a Korean-American whose mother had a summer cottage in Woodstock. She said, ‘You guys can go live in the cottage for a while’. Jean-Yves wound up washing dishes at the Bear, and everyone was going to the Bear at that point, so he met everybody. And he called me and said, ‘There’s all this stuff going on here and I’ve met Albert Grossman and Todd Rundgren, you’ve got to come over…’ So I came over, but Jean-Yves had sold me to Albert as, like, ‘the new Glyn Johns’ when I had done one recording session in my whole life! So it was a bit awkward, because they quickly realized I didn’t know what I was doing. But at least I was there.
Bearsville was running a p.a. system for artists like Todd and Butterfield, so my gig for a number of years was doing live sound for Butterfield and Utopia. That’s how I managed to hang in there. I had this sort of Spinal Tap experience of touring America with rock bands in the ’70s, and after I’d done that for a few years I came back to Woodstock and got into the studio thing.
The very first Utopia was Todd with the Sales brothers and Jean-Yves, but they never recorded. And just before that, I think, Jean-Yves did the M. Frog thing. When I came over, we did work on some of that. Jean-Yves’ personality meant that he could somehow steamroll. He got people like Todd, and Danko and Hudson, to play on the record. I don’t think anyone knew what the hell to make of him. It had nothing to do with the earthy Band aesthetic. He was there for a good few years. He’s back in France now. He went through several years of addiction and alcoholism, and he wasn’t a good drunk. Eventually he went back to France and got hooked up with some religious organization, dedicated to bringing art and religion together. He was going round Europe recording church and choral music, and that’s what he’s still doing now. He recently re-released the album we made.
You’d walk down the main street of Woodstock and there’d be bar after bar of people playing. And it seemed like there were more big-name people. You had your Jackie Lomax up there, and The Band was still there. Dylan and Van had moved on. You could go to the Joyous Lake on any night and hear amazing people – jazz people, funk people. Stuff was an amazing band. That’s where I first met Jack DeJohnette, who asked me to record a gig at the Lake. Karl Berger had his Workshop: Mike Manieri, Warren Bernardt. Carla Bley put a studio in her house in Grog Kill.
Once I came back from being on the road and started engineering, somebody would say, ‘We’re recording up at Carla Bley’s, can you come up and do that?’ And it mutated into the thing with Todd when he put his Mink Hollow thing together. Basically my life was driving from one studio to the next, but primarily I was a Bearsville employee.
I was intimidated by Albert. There seems to be a general view that he was a bit of a bastard, but he was a lot more complicated than that. He was great with kids, loved kids. You could see he wasn’t just all about being the badass rock manager. The frustrating thing was that he wouldn’t commit to anything. He wouldn’t give you a straight answer. It was always like, ‘Well, you know, we’ll have to just see… I don’t know, y’know?’ At first I was like the junior guy, but as time went on I kind of expanded my role and went on to produce several albums on the label, including my own Bryan Briggs stuff.
Around 1979 we got so tired of being in the claustrophobic Studio B. Here they were in the middle of a forest, and they didn’t even put a skylight or a window in. Studio A was basically a concrete shell that Albert was using as a storage space for restaurant furniture and other stuff.We had already done Randy’s second album, recording it in Vermont and mixing it in New York, and Albert said, ‘Why aren’t they using my studio?’ So I think he was amenable and said, ‘Okay, I’ll move my stuff’. The acoustics of Studio A became legendary, and I was partially responsible for it because I had read some textbooks on acoustic treatment. Somebody said, ‘What about packing blankets?’ So literally a truck full of packing blankets showed up one day and we hung them up piecemeal on the wall. Within a few days Paul Cypert put in these diffusion things I had designed on a napkin, sort of like a boat, and it was just luck that it worked out good.
There were two guys who had a remote truck: Aaron Baron, David’s dad, and Larry Dalstrom, who I think had put together the original board for Studio B.
I did three albums with the Isley Brothers. At that point I said, ‘I’d like to get a bit more of the action’. Forget it, it was a brick wall. You’re dealing with a family business, and you’re not family. Mark McKenna took the reins for the next album or two. I think they liked Bearsville because they could doodle around and nobody would be any the wiser. Another reason was that they had a winter cabin further upstate someplace they could go shoot their guns. I seem to remember Storyk bringing them up. They were always five hours late. First time we worked with them, we got there at noon and set things up, and eventually seven at night they showed up. The three young guys were the rhythm and they had worked out the tunes. So we would record with them and get the basic tracks, and then the older brothers would come in and argue and mess around the lyrics, and then Ronald would sing and they’d do some backups. At times it got pretty heated within the family, and they’d be yelling at each other. They were big scary guys. Rudy was the giant and kind of intimidating; I was never quite sure what he was even really doing there. Over the course of time we noticed that he had this briefcase and would occasionally flip it open. And once we saw that there was a shiny revolver in there. We said, ‘Wow, did you see that?’ And we’d heard a story through the grapevine that Bob Margouleff had done something to piss Rudy off, and the gun had come out. So it was like, ‘Woah, that’s the gun!’ So one time they’re working at Bearsville and there’s a big family row, and we can see them really going at it. And then we see Rudy storming into the control room and going for the briefcase. And he opens it and takes out… a cassette!
It was a great experience for me too, because I always had one foot in the R&B thing. It was in the same period as Parliament-Funkadelic, so there was that polyrhythmic funk between the drums, the popping bass, and the guitar and keyboard parts, and it was interesting to see what they went for. [Interesting white material…] For me the thing was to keep the impact of the rhythmic attack, so my approach was to keep everything super-clean so you didn’t get mush. It even went as far as discovering that the input channels on the Bearsville board were not so clean. We realized we got more impact running the mics through an outboard thing.
Butterfield was obviously a great player, but he was a bit of a handful. It was that period where Albert was doing stuff with Willie Mitchell. They’d record the stuff down there but we’d end up mixing it up here. There was also a Butterfield album produced by Henry Glover that I engineered. I think it was Mark Harman that produced the Muddy album. I did go on the road with the Better Days band, at least for one tour. Amos Garrett was an amazing player. Butter could be quite annoying. It was sad because he just didn’t take care of himself physically. He lived on Coca-Cola, tequila and potato chips. I think he got a hole in his stomach. I remember going to see him in hospital in New York, and it was just depressing. There was nothing anyone could do at that point.
We recorded part of the last Band tour, at the Academy of Music in New York, with a simultaneous FM broadcast.
The Woodstock Mountains Revue. When we figured how many people were going to be there, we put out a circle of chairs with a mic for every chair. But in the course of a few hours, mics and chairs got moved and as I went to each fader I realized it didn’t correspond anymore. Artie and I used to joke that we could part of the new thing – the Cyber-Folk Movement! They were all good players. I did an album with Sebastian that John Hall produced.
I didn’t know that much about Todd, though I’d heard things on the radio. When I first met him, he was doing overdubs on Something/Anything? in Studio B. Jean-Yves brought me in. Turned out what he was recording was that “Sounds of the studio” thing. Subsequent to that I think was probably on the road, though there were a few things he was producing at Bearsville, like Patti Smith. On tour the first time, I travelled with the crew. Second time I went with the band. Susan Lee was running the show, Bebe was around. Todd must have gotten Mink Hollow by this point. I got along with him okay, but I never had any big conversations or a deep friendship with him. With some people he could be quite cutting and sarcastic. When Moogy was in the band, he was the butt of everybody’s jokes. I remember talking briefly to a couple of the Psychedelic Furs and they were like, ‘That fucking guy, we’re never going to work with him again’. With Todd it was like, ‘That fucking sucks, let me do it’. The [Utopia] crew had t-shirts made up that said, ‘Fear and Loathing in Utopia’.
Utopia obviously wasn’t a commercial proposition. The albums weren’t flying off the shelves.
Albert still kept his hand on the tiller. He’d say, ‘Why are we working with this act?’, and he had people like the Paul Fishkins and Ian Kimmets who could answer that question.
I think Albert managed to put the whole studio together with his Ampex deal, when they thought they were going to get into the record business, and when they still had money. ‘OPM’ – ‘Other People’s Money’ – was a sort of mantra to him. So he maintained an interest, especially in things that were happening in the studio. He liked to be able to drop in and say, ‘Everything okay?’ [Keeping a paternal eye on things…] But there was more concern about decoration for the restaurants: ‘Do we have the right lights?’
The stuff that I produced was a weird mixture of things: my own Brian Briggs records, Randy Van Warmer, Nicole Wills – who was one of the gang from Woodstock and had a nice voice, but the record was a little bit saccharine – and some mixing for Tony Wilson and the Willie Mitchell stuff. Ian and I went down to Memphis, but I can’t remember what we went there for…
Re: Randy – Albert would have said, “Well, I dunno, y’know? But if you think he’s good…”
Randy was a funny guy, with a great dark sense of humour – which was good, because otherwise the music would have been too sweet.
I think Suzy Blosser is still in Nashville.
Nick Jamieson [sp?] was the one that made Foghat happen. The sound on those records was all him. They sold more records than Todd.
Vinnie Fusco was a character. All of a sudden he was on the Bearsville scene. He was a brash salesman kind of a guy.
[Story about Joplin’s siblings turning up to get Janis’ Porsche.] I actually worked with the Full Tilt guys. We had this rhythm section for a minute consisting of me, Richard Bell, Billy Mundi, Roly Salley, who’s been playing with Chris Isaak for years. We thought we could be an in-house rhythm section, but all we ended up doing was some songwriting demos for someone. Richard was a great guy. I get Facebook things occasionally from his ex, Susan.
Sally was always in India or Mexico. In the wintertime she found any excuse to go somewhere warm. They had a place in Mexico, and I think they had a place in Palm Springs.
Albert would go and see boxing with Barry Feinstein. There was this group of regulars at the Bear Café, some pretty shady characters. In those days there were lots of trips to the bathroom for mysterious purposes. I had my brush with that. It was hard to avoid. When the Stones came to rehearse, they were producing Peter Tosh – which I worked on. So we were recording Tosh in Studio B while the Stones were rehearsing in Studio A. We had to bring in extra woofers so we could get more bass in the studio. They had an expression: ‘Maximum bass at all frequencies.’ Mick and Keith would stick their heads round the door, since they were nominally producing Tosh’s album. At one point Keith came in with a big bottle of pharmaceutical cocaine and dumped a little mountain of it on the table. ”Ere, that’ll keep you going…’ The rastas weren’t too keen, though. They didn’t really approve.
There was a lot of rich French food. I remember going with Albert to the Bearsville market, and he buys a Sarah Lee Pound Cake from the freezer. And he said, ‘You have to eat it while it’s still cold’. So he took it back to the office to eat it.
As far as I remember I got there in 1973, though I had a pre-visit in ’72. And I was there through ’80-’81 and then moved to the city for the ’80s. And then early ’90s I got married and moved up to Stuyvesant, and now we’re not far from here in Hudson. Brian Briggs came out in 1978. The saving grace of the ’80s for me was TV-commercial gigs, when I made really good money until I couldn’t stand it anymore. When I moved back up here, you couldn’t send mixes by email so I had to overnight things to people, which meant other guys had an advantage. Also, I was not that into it.