Jim Moginie: After Midnight
He’s one of the greatest songwriting talents and performers this country has produced. Now, post Midnight Oil, Jim Moginie has been turned onto life on the other side of the glass.
Jim Moginie is one of the most iconic musicians in the history of Australian rock. For 25 years his musical contribution to the global political consciousness as lead guitarist, keyboard player and songwriter for Midnight Oil has placed him fair and square in the thick of some of the gutsiest political actions the globe has ever witnessed. The phrase ‘oils ain’t oils’ took on new meaning the morning the band played a guerrilla-style gig on the back of a flatbed truck outside the offices of Exxon in New York City, protesting the Alaskan oil spill the company looked for all the world to be getting away with. The gig put the disaster back on the front page and contributed to the company finally admitting liability, and ultimately changing its ways.
As a linchpin member of Midnight Oil, Jim has done more for the land rights movement, the environment and various other political and social causes around Australia than just about any other musician outside the band. He’s co-written and played on some of the most epic, politically charged albums in the history of rock ‘n’ roll and his legacy is not only the songs themselves, but also his contribution to the emergence of an Australian social conscience.
These days Jim combines his love of music and a solo career with his other passion – audio gear. He’s got more stuff lying around on the floor of his studio than most people acquire in five lifetimes and his ambition – or is it a pipe dream? – is to start up a hire business renting out esoteric instruments to unsuspecting bands.
The equipment list in his Sydney studio is long and class-A enough to turn most green(ie) with envy. The walls of the tracking rooms are comprised of a semi-random collection of recycled timbers, stone and glass – each with its own story to tell: “That timber up on the wall there,” Jim recounts, pointing up into the ceiling “used to be the floor of the old Royal Antler Hotel.”
There’s no doubting Jim practices what he preaches, but he’s not one to chew the leg off a chair with political diatribe. He’s softly spoken, empathetic and one hell of a guitarist. I caught up with him at his studio, Oceanic, to continue our recent conversation about audio production…
AS: Is it important for an artist to ‘discover themselves’ do you think – have the guts to be themselves, as it were?
JM: Psychologically that’s sometimes very hard because when people do that and find there’s nothing there, it’s terrifying for them – no-one wants to discover that! When there is something there and they can unlock it, it’s wonderful. But of course not everyone is a songwriter and there’s no harm in singing someone else’s song.
I did a recording in here with Sarah Blasko last year – a bonus disc of songs for a record she’d done in Sweden with Bjorn Yttling. We were playing songs from musicals like The Sound of Music, Fame… we even did a version of Xanadu! I know it sounds daggy but it was just beautiful. Those songs could be played in a rainstorm busking in a tube station and they’d still work! There’s something completely bulletproof about those songs.
She was in that corner over there singing [Jim points to where the drumkit is currently set up] and I was playing piano over here, and I swear there were moments where the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I thought: ‘This is why I’m in this business. This is so beautiful’.
So whether it’s your song or someone else’s, if the person in the spotlight is at all doubtful about what they’re doing, it’s going to be obvious to the audience. A vocal performance has to be sincere and compelling – it’s gotta be intense. It can’t just be half-arsed and you definitely can’t go into a recording session thinking: ‘We’ll put it together in ProTools and make it sound nice later’. That’s folly.
In the old days – and I do hate talking about the old days – in the ’50s the singer had one shot at a take… and then more recently one or two tracks of a 24-track tape machine. You had to step up at that moment and find something in yourself. What annoys me now is that things can take so long – people, musicians can be terribly indecisive. I mean I’m a musician and I can be indecisive – more than most other people – but I know musicians can prevaricate and the technology allows them to. It’s a sin! You’ve gotta control it! A song recorded with hundreds of indecisive overdubs? That’s my version of an unholy nightmare from Danté’s Inferno.
Discovering what they don’t want to put on their record is sometimes more important than what they do want
AS: How did you end up becoming a ‘gear guy’ Jim?
JM: I’ve always loved gear and I guess in some ways it’s an addiction. But as you of all people must know, it’s also a fascination. When I was in Midnight Oil we’d always be in studios in England or The States where there would invariably be an instrument lying around and we’d be like: ‘What’s that? That’s great! Gotta use that’.
When we did 10 to 1 with Nick Launay I got the number of this guy called Maurice Plaquet, who had a gear hire company in London. We were always getting marimbas and Hammond organs off Maurice, and the day I walked into his warehouse was when it all started. There were all kinds of instruments: harpsichords, theremins… some quite esoteric stuff. It looked incredible. When The Oils split I started to hoard instruments and hire a bit of the gear out, which was actually a lot of fun. It’s still in the back of my mind somewhere to take it a bit further and develop a warehouse collection of hire gear like Maurice, but I think with the state of studios and budgets in Australia being the way they are, I’m not sure it would work out! There are a lot of people recording but they don’t have the budgets to hire instruments. Budgets have just been killed.
REIGNING IN A MIX
AS: Now that you’re a producer of bands like The Fauves and The Break, I assume you take the mixing reins sometimes?
JM: I do and I’d say I’m okay at it. I can get everything balanced quickly, but mixing is something best left to other people sometimes. I like to get the performances right, and get some exotic sounds hopefully – I’m always learning. But you can’t do everything: produce the song, be the engineer, be the mixer – it turns you into a control freak I reckon. You’ve got to look around and think to yourself: ‘I should be doing this, he should be doing that’. If you can achieve that as a producer it helps you avoid that awful sense of dragging the album around like a ball and chain. Any company boss knows about delegating – producers should too.
GOOD COP BAD COP
Andy Stewart: Jim, we spoke recently on the Production Panel at AT World where you mentioned Midnight Oil had had a few run-ins with producers over the years. Does that now mean you’re Mr Nice Guy when producing others?
Jim Moginie: In the end it’s about honesty. You can’t always be nice. There’s a fine line between telling someone what you think and at the same time supporting them, especially with younger artists. It’s an ongoing process, and calling what I now do ‘record production’ is an interesting and perhaps slightly inaccurate term. To me a record producer is the guy who books the studio, chooses the songs and basically gets the performances out of people. That’s about it. That line’s become very blurred lately and my advice to budding producers is, if you’re going to get involved in someone’s record and call yourself ‘the producer’, you’d better be careful to avoid becoming the meat in the sandwich or the person who gets the blame if things go pear-shaped. “Hey, let’s get a producer so we can blame him!” I know that sounds mad, but with some projects, it’s a bit like that.
People often forget it’s a high-pressure situation this recording business. The artist is under pressure, especially if they’re trying to follow up something that was successful, but I think once you get into the music and you start playing, it all tends to dissolve pretty quickly.
AS: So do you try and take advantage of that pressure when you’re recording someone, or do you prefer to make an artist feel relaxed?
JM: I try and make them feel relaxed and just enjoy themselves.
PLACE WITHOUT A POSTCARD
AS: Being relaxed and enjoying yourself doesn’t sound like the experience you once had working with producer Glyn Johns years ago. Can you tell us a bit about that?
JM: I was about 23 when Midnight Oil made Place Without a Postcard, and at that early stage I’d never even been outside Australia. Suddenly we were invited by Glyn to his farm in Sussex to make a record and every day you’d be eating breakfast and looking up at all these gold records from bands like The Small Faces, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Joan Armatrading, The Eagles, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, you name it… gold records everywhere… and you’d be sitting there having your Crunchy Wheat thinking, “How the hell are we going to get up there?”
But there was something about the band that Glyn recognised – essentially it was our capacity for live performance. Personally, I couldn’t see it at that time but he thought we were a really great live band and just wanted to capture that. I remember thinking maybe we should make a record that was a bit more experimental like the other records being released at the time – you do get influenced by what’s successfully being released around you… and I was a young pup you see. Anyway, we went in there and made a very, very live-sounding album and Place Without a Postcard was the result.
I remember Glyn was a very opinionated, very forceful guy. He didn’t want you to play guitar in the room if he wasn’t recording it, didn’t want anyone near the studio if you weren’t recording, and loved the first take. He’d have a red light that he’d switch on if a take wasn’t going well, so when the light came on you’d have to just stop and start again. No words were exchanged; you just had to go from the top. It wasn’t much fun at the time, but listening back to the record now I think it’s one of the best things we ever did. It was simply the band playing at its best, without any bullshit going on: no machines, no click tracks… It’s got a real rawness to it, a raw honesty that at the time just seemed a bit daggy to me… but Glyn was like: “That’s good enough. That’s what you are. Go with it. Trust it.”
AS: So you didn’t enjoy making that record at all?
JM: No, I personally didn’t enjoy making that record at all.
AS: Not even when you were in the middle of a take?
JM: Well, obviously you enjoy that part of it, but Glyn was quite an intimidating guy. He was constantly saying things like, “When I recorded Let It Be, every time Lennon walked into the room he’d make some wisecrack… he was a funny guy you know.” We were intimidated that’s for sure.
But he got some great vocal performances out of Peter. There was one incident where things weren’t going very well and he just said, “Right, okay, stop the machine. Peter and I are going to have some time…” He went into the overdub booth… and well… I don’t know what he said to Peter but he came back after about an hour and a half and said, “I’ve got it.” He pressed record and Pete nailed the vocal in the first take. Lucky Country was the song. It was all about Australia and I think he must have talked to Peter about his family… and that came out in that take. It’s an extraordinary vocal performance that Glyn drew out of Peter, and he did it with psychology, and knowing the difference between someone merely singing along – la, la, la – and someone actually feeling it from the gut; actually living it.
That’s why I think when you comp things up with DAWs it doesn’t have the same effect at all. It might be ‘perfect’ and the singer might prefer it ’cause it makes them sound like they can sing in tune, but it’s cannibalism. It’s much better to have a verse that says it all, get focused and get it on tape – preferably live while the band’s playing. That will give it a sense of realism. It mightn’t be perfect but the feeling will be there. It’s that feeling that’s all too often lost when you comp a vocal.
The problem with DAWs is that because they allow you to fiddle with performance, you invariably do. To me the crucial thing is to listen to what you’re doing as a performer, and put down a heart-felt raw take. That’s always going to be more happening, and a punter who listens to a record – even though he or she won’t necessarily know the difference – will go: “I prefer that one… don’t know why. It just feels better.”
Everybody wants to be perfect these days and when technology feeds that mania you’ve got problems. When people are cool enough to leave things alone you usually get a much better result. I wouldn’t say it’s the case across the board but you’ll definitely get something that feels more human, and people will relate to that because it is human.
THE LIBERATION OF LIMITATION
AS: Implicit in this observation is presumably the ability to play instruments. But then again, the charm with some albums is the ‘inability’ as it were of the players. Would you agree?
JM: Yeah, and for me I’m just liking being around all of it. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a punk band or a pop thing with high production values, as long as I’m working with musicians and around that energy. I love that feeling of starting with a clean slate – where you don’t know what you’re going to do, yet somehow it all falls into place – for me, that’s what it’s all about.
I think the longer I do this, the more I’m convinced you have to get as much down live as you can. In fact, the more you can record things where people are being captured almost without them even knowing it, the better it is. And part of the charm of my new recording space is that when people walk in here they pick up some strange instrument and before they know it they’re playing music. To me that’s how production begins. From there you can easily embark on a conversation with the artist, where they might then say: “Oh well, I don’t really like electric guitar but I really like nylon string guitar” or “I really like upright pianos but not grand pianos.” Being surrounded by instruments naturally provokes those conversations – that’s how I like to start to formulate an idea of what the artist likes – discovering what they don’t want to put on their record is sometimes more important than what they do want.
Making some rules – and sure, rules are made to be broken – can make your life a lot easier. As a record develops, having a palette of predetermined colours that you’ve chosen beforehand rather than being open to literally everything makes things move forward quickly. There’s nothing like a well-chosen limitation.
GUITARIST BECOMES PRODUCER
AS: Can you tell me how you made the transition from Midnight Oil guitarist to producer? Was it any more complicated than Midnight Oil simply breaking up?
JM: I fell into it somewhat after I did a bit of work with Silverchair… some B-sides that we recorded in only a few hours. They sounded fantastic and it all snowballed from there. Silverchair was doing some music with Nick Launay – Nick and I are great friends and go way back. Nick’s a brilliant producer: part mad Spaniard, part analytical Englishman. Anyway, he actually said something like – and Daniel Johns was quite ill at that stage – “Oh I just thought Daniel might like to meet someone like you…” and I said, “Someone like me? What does that mean?”
“Someone who likes to fiddle around with gear and quite enjoys getting weird sounds out of it!” And he’s right of course – I do.
I played keyboards on a couple of Silverchair’s albums after that, and then just started working with other people – Neil Murray, The Fauves, Neil Finn, Sarah Blasko – and played on their albums too. That’s really how it is with all the albums I ‘produce’ these days – I’m usually playing on them somewhere. I can’t help myself. I get enthusiastic and think, ‘Oh, what about this?’ and ‘What about that?’ to which the band either responds: ‘Yeah, yeah!’ or ‘No, no. Please don’t!’
I must admit, I do get carried away sometimes – I want to be out there with the band.
AS: But you don’t want to literally be in the band, I assume?
JM: No, I certainly don’t want to be in the Tarago with them fighting about the tambourine overdub we did 18 months ago.
Sometimes I have to back off ’cause I know what it’s like to experience producer interference from a band perspective. We made an album once with Malcolm Burn – who’s done some work with Daniel Lanois – where Malcolm ended up playing a lot of the instruments on the record, and even though it was kind of interesting, it did make me think, ‘What if he’s wrong? What if we could have played them better?’ I mean, it’s our record after all.
AS: I think it’s kind of weird when a producer starts to live vicariously through another band like that – impinge on the band’s right to perform their own music…
JM: Yeah you’ve got to be respectful. You’ve got to understand the chemistry of the band and sometimes you’ve got to get right out of the way. Other times it’s necessary. A band might need another musical colour: somebody to pick up an acoustic guitar, even somebody to just hit something to get them in the mood. With a great band, like The Living End for instance, who were in here at Oceanic a few weeks ago, you don’t need to do anything much. I’d never dream, for instance, of jumping in and grabbing the guitar off Chris Cheney and playing it. In that circumstance my philosophy is simple: it’s the band’s record and they have to live with it. They’re going to be the ones out there on the road after all, and they’ve got to know it’s them playing it. You don’t want a Milli Vanilli situation arising…
The worst kind of producer is the one that goes: “To get a hit record you’ve got to a) make sure it’s less than three minutes so it gets played on the radio; b) make sure the guitar solos are no more than 10 seconds long; c) get this guy to mix it; and d) that guy to master it.”
My attitude is more like, “You know what guys? Radio isn’t going to play you anyway, so you’re free to do whatever you like.” And they go, “Oh, okay then. We’re free to be who we are?” “Yes, you’re free to be who you are. That’s fine with me.”
People come in here sometimes thinking ‘Jim’s going to give us a good record because he’s had so many hits himself’ blah, blah, blah… but really, I’ve got about as much clue as the next bloke. If it’s exciting to listen to, that’s great. If the band feels like they’re excited then that comes through in the performance. If there are some interesting sonic ingredients in there then that’s great too. But the most important thing is the song. First and foremost, the song must be there.
He bankrolled this hopeless bunch of kids and gave us the keys to a very expensive, well-kitted out studio, and told us to go for it
THE ART SCHOOL APPROACH
AS: I know you’re a great musician with a powerful imagination. How do you manage to produce albums with people and avoid racking up hundreds of experimental overdubs?
JM: I’m like everyone else: I like to discover new things on an album after repeated listens, but ironically this is one of the things that leads some people to recording 300 tracks on one song. Going down all the possible roads to make sure nothing’s been left out is a distraction, and recording 10 versions of every part is just plain criminal. Then of course some poor bastard has to mix it all! Personally, I think musicians that work like that should be taken out and shot! There’s a certain momentum in a session, a certain energy, and you’ve got to know when that’s run out. You just can’t keep texturalising a song forever.
I like to take the art school approach. With sculpture, for example, as with music, there are tools at your disposal: you’ve got chisels to carve with, hammers to beat things into shape with and saws to cut with. Instruments are like that too. Things can be made rough, things can be made smooth, and there’s a perception of depth and negative space where shapes are created by a hole. This enterprise utilises the same part of the brain that perceives three-dimensional space and it’s exactly the same in music: taking away things can be so much more powerful than piling more stuff on. Adding countless overdubs or layered sounds quickly erodes intimacy and the ability to draw the listener in. It’s like going to a party where there’s a thousand people yelling their heads off: you tend to just switch off, turn around and go home – or at least I do! If it’s smaller and there’s not as much noise going on you feel like you’ve been invited in. It’s more meaningful.
AS: Although, you must have wanted to put lots of layers on top of a performance to physically create that sort of scale before, surely?
JM: To me, overdubbing the same thing several times just smoothes things off too much, like sanding something back – you end up with a very shiny surface. It may be pleasing to some to create that mirror finish, but it’s not an aesthetic I like. I particularly dislike hearing a double-tracked vocal where the singer is using the word “I”. I take the attitude that when you’re recording vocals and someone says “I”, you don’t double-track it. If it’s “we” then okay you can have as many voices as you want. But if the lyric is: “I like the sound of surf crashing on the beach” then I want there to be only one person saying it.
Again, to me it’s like sculpting – I’m hearing things much more in those terms than I used to. Having embarked on a bit of a career as a sculptor recently I actually really like that idea of it just being pretty bony – not too slicked up. I think sometimes when you overdub a couple of backing vocals, those can sound good. But once you get three on there it’s a whole other world and now we’re starting to smooth it. Record four or five and suddenly all bets are off – it becomes too polished, or conversely, turns to mush. I prefer sounds being sharp and rough. Having said all that I’ll probably triple-track the next thing I do! (laughs).