Tim McPhate | KissFAQ
Award-winning engineer shares his vivid memories of recording “The Elder,” including capturing Gene Simmons’ memorable vocal performance on “A World Without Heroes,” recording multiple days of spoken word dialog, and how the album ultimately evolved into “Bob Ezrin’s show”
In conjunction with KissFAQ’s month-long NovElder retrospective, Juno-winning engineer Kevin Doyle has provided some fascinating insights regarding the recording of “Music From The Elder.” Among the topics Doyle discussed were the performances of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, including the former’s vocal on “A World Without Heroes”; his recollection of how “tons” of spoken word dialog was recorded with the goal to bridge the album’s concept between songs; and ultimately how the project became “Bob Ezrin’s show.”
The following are excerpts from Doyle’s interview with KissFAQ’s Tim McPhate:
The album’s spoken word dialog:
KF: Bob Ezrin was just coming off the mega-successful “The Wall” project. What are your general recollections of working with Bob during this time?
KD: Well, Bob is Bob. I’ve known Bob for a long time. He’s cooled down a bit now but he was pretty intense. Bob’s a pretty intense guy. He likes to work quickly and efficiently. Bob’s a great guy, a really, really smart guy. You know, Bob kind of met his match a bit when we did the narration part, which was with Antony Parr and Robert Christie.
KF: Kevin, you bring up an interesting lost piece of KISStory. Parr, Christie and Christopher Makepeace are credited on the album but there is really only one part of narration featured on the final album, and that’s it.
KD: Yes, I believe so.
KF: So more was recorded?
KD: Yeah, there was tons recorded — a lot of narration. The idea of the narration was supposed to bridge some of the songs together, with some orchestral and choir underscoring. And basically, more or less, in keeping with the idea of “The Elder” as a goal of being a seamless concept idea, almost kind of like “Dark Side Of The Moon” where side A is not really a bunch of songs, it’s one continuous play with no ending. That was one of the goals.
On Paul Stanley’s vocal struggles on tracks such as “Odyssey” and “The Oath” and Gene Simmons’ triumph on “A World Without Heroes”
KF: Well, to this day, Paul and Gene don’t mince words about their feelings regarding the project. Even recently, Paul had some negative things to say about “The Elder.” So it’s interesting that you would have sensed that back when they were recording the album.
KD: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you, I guess I’ll go on record, but Paul, I remember doing some of the vocals with Paul. And vocally, [the songs] were really challenging for him. I mean, you’ve gotta admit that Paul and Gene aren’t the greatest singers in the world, but they’re accomplished if they stay within the parameters of what they know they can achieve. I think Bob presented some ideas and an orchestral concept where Paul would be singing falsetto and really challenging his vocal techniques. And I’m pretty sure Paul was … I’ll tell you right now, there was one song, I can’t remember. Paul had a hard time getting past the first couple of lines because it was such a foreign way for him to sing.
KF: You might be talking about “Odyssey,” which is heavily orchestrated and a song he doesn’t feel is his best performance, vocally. In hindsight, he’s commented that him singing the song was “tragic.”
KD: Yeah. Paul couldn’t keep the timing and the meter. I remember very distinctly because you’re talking about guys who are used to having steady drums keeping the tempo and the meter. And now you’re asking them to get the meter and time out of orchestral [instruments]. In hindsight, I think Bob would have been better to put down drums for them to sing to and then take them out of the mix.
You know, it’s like asking Ace to go play a violin in an orchestra. I mean Ace is an accomplished musician, but it would be kind of a challenge for him so … this was a very challenging record, vocally, for these guys. I was really pleasantly surprised that Gene nailed “A World Without Heroes.”
KF: He really did.
KD: We did that song, he didn’t wear headphones. We put the music through the speakers so he could hear the song more acoustically, which is a departure from proper studio techniques. I remember setting up speakers for him and he needed an intimate sound. He needed to sing a lot softer. I mean, here’s Gene Simmons, the romantic vocalist, coming out in this song. You know, he nailed it. I think he did a great job doing it. It took us a while to make him comfortable with the approach and the environment of doing it, but he did a great job. We weren’t so lucky with Paul.
KF: With regard to Paul’s performance, what comes to mind when you hear “Odyssey” now?
KD: (plays sample)
Well, Paul double tracks the main vocal to create more power in the performance. Double tracking creates the idea that the vocal is more pontifical. It is understandable that the key of the song is too low for Paul — Paul’s vocal power is in a slightly higher key.
KF: Here’s another song Paul has expressed displeasure with regard to his vocals, “The Oath,” particularly the falsetto. Your thoughts?
KD: (plays sample)
The key is too high for Paul, which explains the lead vocal double. It is falsetto, which is about vocal control, which Paul is limited. There are intonation problems in the higher notes. When Paul descends in pitch his real vocal sound stands out, which has more sonic mid-range and is not pure and clean, which is the goal of falsetto singing. The turning point where Paul goes from falsetto to his natural range is quite evident and maybe a little embarrassing. [It’s] not one of Paul’s best vocal performances.
KF: You’ve cited “A World Without Heroes” as an album highlight in terms of Gene’s vocal delivery. In listening to this with fresh ears, what else stands out?
KD: Gene delivers a very subdued, intimate and well-executed vocal performance. The verse is controlled so the story is well-stated and the chorus is projected and sung out to give the message power and passion. The solo is very melodic and well-constructed. Obviously, the technology of today would make for a better sonic mix.
On Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons letting Bob Ezrin “run” with the project:
KF: Ace certainly was not enamored with the direction of the album, which surely explains his absence.
KD: Yeah. I have to agree with you. If he was really digging the record, he would have been more involved. And basically, it got to be Bob’s show, Bob Ezrin’s show. And I think with the fact of Gene and Paul realizing a lot of their earlier success was due in part to Bob, they were going to let Bob run with it until they became uncomfortable. Bob came from the Jack Richardson school of music production where bands came in and they virtually didn’t know anything about the recording process and you had to dictate total control.
Full Kevin Doyle interview:
Through a series of brand-new KissFAQ interviews, original features and related special content, NovElder will shine a spotlight on “Music From The Elder” like never before throughout the month of November. More than 10 hours of interviews were conducted with various individuals who either worked on the project or have a connection of sorts, including professionals who have never told their “Elder story.” These interviews will provide interesting insights and unique perspectives regarding the album’s creative process and this fascinating period in KISStory, in addition to fun anecdotes and personal recollections. A series of topical features will shed more light on KISS’ activity in 1981 and early 1982 and dissect the album further with in-depth musical analysis, biographical information on the album’s participants, a revised KissFAQ Album Focus, and much more. NovElder will also take a look at the climate of the rock genre in 1981 and look at the bloodline of rock concept albums.
The odyssey continues this November at http://www.kissfaq.com/novelder/