Producer's Desk: Neil Kernon

Sep 9, 2010 1:28 PM, By Bryan Reesman



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Neil Kernon at Rax Trax Recording, Chicago

Neil Kernon at Rax Trax Recording, Chicago

Neil Kernon is a man driven by passion. He has worked with acts ranging from Queen to Hall & Oates to Cannibal Corpse, collaborating with musicians he likes, regardless of the dollar signs attached to them. Based in Chicago since 1997, the British native says he has worked on more than 500 albums, including at least 350 that he has produced.

Born into a musical family—both his parents played piano and encouraged him to start around age 3—he picked up guitar by age 7 and played in bands throughout his school days. Later, a gig at publishing company Essex Music lead to him working at Trident Studios (London), where he ascended from tea boy to tape op to engineer. He got the chance to work on Queen’s II and Sheer Heart Attack albums. In the ’80s, his co-producing work with Phil Collins’ fusion group Brand X eventually led him to produce three hit albums for R&B crossover stars Hall & Oates, two releases for progressive-metal progenitors Queensrÿche and two big records for Sunset Strip rockers Dokken. By the early ’90s, his sensibilities shifted to harder industrial metal and thrash acts (such as Clay People, and Flotsam and Jetsam), and by the turn of the century, he was tackling progressive metal and helping death-metal veterans like Cannibal Corpse and Nile gain a thicker yet also clearer sound.

Even though he began his career in the major-label world, Kernon is steadfastly indie these days. He has often turned down more lucrative offers to focus on the music he loves. In this interview, Kernon talks about some of his classic recordings and death metal, and why drive, passion and enthusiasm will always win him over.

You did three albums in a row with Hall & Oates. What are your best recollections of working with them?
I was already a big fan, which has always been very important to me. The ideal situation is if you’re really digging the music, then you’re always going to do a better job. So this was perfect because I loved the band and the music. I was a big fan of what they had done prior, so I was getting involved with something that was a dreamlike situation rather than something that you’re hoping you really can turn into something special.

They were very professional. I think the first album I did with them was actually their tenth record, so they knew that what they were doing as far as the process. It was really natural and instinctive. We didn’t spend ages and ages going over the stuff. Daryl [Hall] had sketches that he would bring in on cassette and play for the band—which was Jerry Marotta, John Siegler, G.E. Smith and Larry Fast—and knock together the arrangement right then and there, on every song. It was like that on three records.

You gave them a beefier sound, particularly with the drums on a track like “Private Eyes.” It’s something that you applied to many different recordings throughout the ’80s with rock and metal groups like Streets, Kansas, Queensrÿche and Dokken. What inspired this approach to drums and percussion?
It’s kind of funny. Coming from Trident there was always something of a tradition to uphold, which was the Trident drum sound, even though the drum sound that I preferred—the drum sound that I would hear in rehearsal with my band—sounded nothing like what was coming out from Trident, because back in the ’70s, everything was really dead. Space was created with reverbs and stuff. The walls of the Trident drum booth were carpeted so there was no liveness to the sound at all.

After my time in Trident, I did a bunch of other things, including going on the road. I did front-of-house sound for Yes for a year-and-a-half. I had this feeling that the liveness was important. I started working in a little demo studio in London doing a lot of punk and new-wave stuff, which was one of the things that Jerry had pointed Daryl toward when talking about me. He just liked the punchy, more aggressive, in-your-face [sound]. It wasn’t metal, but it was aggressive and still poppy, and Daryl wanted to get away from the slick, polished approach that they had been using, which was almost like disco.

I was given free rein in that they wanted something that was powerful, which meant that drums were going to be prominent and probably not too terribly guitar-heavy, but at least more guitar-heavy than their old stuff was, which was very slick and kind of L.A. It gave me something to bring in that they’d never had before.

To be honest, after three albums, so much of that element—the excitement, the live approach—had been strangled out of the stuff. There was pressure from management and the label to concentrate on the crossover. We had a few songs that had done well on R&B radio like “I Can’t Go for That,” “Your Imagination,” “Kiss on My List” and “One on One.” It was starting to get a bit soft, and the guitars were coming further back, and the drums were not so bombastic. It was pretty much smoother, and it was at that point that I opted to [leave]. There was never any bad feeling, but we were growing apart a bit. I wanted it to be more aggressive, and it wasn’t going to happen because they were seeing this gigantic crossover success. Private Eyes was probably my favorite in terms of it just being bashy and having lots of guitars in there, but we were still able to get on the radio because it wasn’t an offensive amount of guitar, if you like, which was always the issue back then.

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