“Hi, is this Jeff?”
“Is this Jeff?”
“This is Jeff. Heya.”
“This is Jeff, too. All of a sudden we’re in a Monty Python sketch.”
“Well, you could be in my group, actually.”
“Oh, yes. I saw the video [for “Mercy, Mercy”, from Lynne’s new “Long Wave" album]. It’ll be the Jeff Group!”
So began my brief but memorable chat with Jeff Lynne, former member of ELO and the Traveling Wilburys and producer to George Harrison, Tom Petty, Paul McCarney, Ringo Starr and, of course, The Beatles.
Lynne was promoting two new albums, his first since 1991’s solo “Armchair Theater” and 2001’s ELO release “Zoom”. “I know I’m not supposed to start with this, but this is a real thrill for me,” I confessed to Lynne at the outset of our conversation. “You’ve made some of the seminal records of my life, and not just with ELO.”
“Ah, well that’s good,” he responded, jokingly. “It’s okay. I like it. Carry on.”
So while our chat was brief owing to Lynne’s hectic promotional schedule, it was loose and fun. And, best of all, Lynne promised me a follow-up where he’d share more about his time in the Wilburys and working on The Beatles’ and their various solo sessions.
Jeff Slate: So I’m of course curious about the story behind Long Wave, but I’m intrigued by your revisiting the ELO material too. When I listen to those new ELO recording they just sound fantastic. They still retain that magic that they had when I first heard them as a kid, but your voice sounds phenomenal and is really well recorded, so it sounds maybe better than the old days, and it does seem like from a producers standpoint that you’ve taken what you knew back when you made the original records and imbued the new recordings with 30 years worth of experience. So let’s talk about the ELO record and why.
Jeff Lynne: Okay, well you’ve almost answered your own question. I started out with “Mr. Blue Sky” because I’d been listening to my songs on the radio or sometimes playing the records, you know, and I just felt like they didn’t quite sound like I thought they did. You know, everything was a bit wooly and some things that I know were there you can’t hear or are very indistinct. So even though I still like them there were enough things about them that I thought something should be done about it. So like you said, after all those years of producing, for the last 30 years, I’ve had that much more experience. So I had an idea of what to do with them. And what you said at first, about how they’re now clear but they still retain the feel of the old ones, that’s what I wanted to try to do. I didn’t want to alter anything about them, because I liked the tunes the way they were and everything. You know, some people would be tempted to mess with them. But I wanted to be faithful to them but just make them sound better so I can be more pleased or proud of them when I hear them, instead of going, “Ooo, ouch!” You know, like “I wish that was a bit better. I wish I’d left that bit out”. But that is exactly why and there it is, so you almost said exactly what I would have said.
JS: But when you got in there, as a producer, and having learned all those lessons, did you find it was enough to get cleaner, clearer sounds? Or did you want to mess about with them? Because as both a songwriter and a producer you had to have gotten in there and thought, “I’ve got a different idea for a harmony” or “I’ve got a different idea for a melody line” or “Here’s a guitar part I didn’t think of in 1974”. So how do you both free yourself and constrain yourself as a producer and a performer?
JL: Well, what I did was just exactly what I did the first time around. Because don’t forget I played these songs on stage for years so I knew them inside out, and I didn’t really want to change anything. Because even though you do change things a little bit performing them over the years – phrasing and such doing them live – I noticed I had done that, just getting lazy or sloppy. So in going back I noticed that in listening to the original recordings my timing was a little different, but I wanted to get it just right, just the same, but sounding better and more punchy and a bit more clarity.
JS: So did you literally A/B them? Did you literally go back and try to recreate them note for note? Because you did and you didn’t try to capture the exact same tonal qualities. They are similar and yet it does take away that wooliness, so it is a different experience listening to these recordings, which opened up things considerably from a sonic standpoint. The palette of sounds is much larger but the parts are virtually identical. So did you study them or did you just know them that well?
JL: Well, I just knew them inside out and backwards because that’s all I ever did for years was play those songs in ELO.
JS: Okay, well the song choices to me or any ELO fan are fairly obvious, but as the songwriter revisiting that catalog did you choose them because you felt if you were going to hear them on the radio or in a movie or in a commercial you wanted to hear these versions so I’m going to go for the big hits, or were these simply the songs that were nearest and dearest?
JL: Well all these songs are dear to me, of course, because you go so deeply into them when you write them and they become like your little pals and you don’t want to seem them trodden on or anything. But actually I did enough for two volumes, so this is just the volume of songs I chose to use this time around. So I’ve been doing this ELO album and Long Wave for three years straight, six days a week. And it’s been great and I cherish each one because each album had its own amazing and unusual thing going on but this was really just rebuilding old tunes.
JS: Well, that gets us easily into Long Wave. I guess the one that shocked me – you know, “She” is such a perfect opener, it’s like you’ve turned on the radio in 1959 or something, so that one really puts you in the mood, but yet still gives you that clarity and feel we’ve been talking about – but then there you are a few songs in doing Roy Orbison. So was that a song you loved or a nod to Roy as a performer, or really was it a message to an old friend? Because I’ve spoken to Tom Petty about Roy, and when we did he just lit up. So I guess I wondered when I heard it if it was as much for yourself as for the listener? I suppose it always is, right?
JL: Of course. You do it for yourself in the first place, because you do it because you really feel a need to do it. But I always loved Roy Orbison’s stuff. It was unbelievable. And Roy actually told me – because I used to get him to play little bits of his tunes for me when we were just hanging about with guitars in between writing songs for the Wilburys or whatever – and he once told me “Running Scared” was his favorite one that he ever did.
JS: Mine too.
JL: Yeah, mine too! But what about all the others as well? So I said to him, “And mine. But what about all the others?” Because they’re all marvelous. So I did it as a tribute to Roy, really. He was such a sweet man. Very, very kind and funny. He was great. So I did it. And when I finished the backing track I went into the vocal room and I was really scared of even approaching it. You know, I was going “Oh my God. I’ve got to sing this now”. So I crossed my fingers and had a go at it. And I was dreading hearing it back, but when I listened to it it was actually quite good and I wasn’t totally blown away by how bad it was but in fact it was really good. And I thought “I can get this if I keep trying”. So I did about 10 or 12 takes, just trying to get it smoother, because you know it’s Roy and all. Because it was daunting and I did kind of think I shouldn’t be doing it because I’m not Roy Orbison. But I just loved the song and I actually ended up liking my version, so I’m very pleased with it now.
JS: It’s a little bit of Jeff and a little bit of Roy in there, isn’t it? Certainly from a fan’s standpoint. It’s a beautiful thing.
JL: Aww, that’s great. Thanks.
JS: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the lessons you’ve learned because I’ve followed your career for a long time and, you know, people always talk about the “Jeff Lynne sound” as though there’s something universal about it in every record and yet from my standpoint, as a musician/producer/songwriter too, I hear something very different every time.
JS: For instance, Armchair Theater is nothing like Highway Companion. And Zoom is nothing like the earlier ELO records. Although they retain that sort of fundamental “Jeff-ness”, they’re different. So ELO had the natural trajectory of a successful band. You know, Ringo always says a band shouldn’t last more than eight years. So while maybe you guys stretched that out a little bit it was basically that trajectory and every record built on the last. But then you get to the end and you’re looking around for something to do and you hooked up with George. I mean that album – the finished product, Cloud Nine – was a huge leap forward for you as a producer. It sounded very different, to me.
JL: Well, that was the greatest opportunity of my life, really. The greatest opportunity I could have wished for. Because for a while after ELO ended I just stayed at home, practicing in my home studio. I was learning how to really use the equipment; really know the studio. I was learning how to engineer and all and I actually got pretty good. I got the hang of the [mixing] desk and everything and I by the time I was ready, as luck would have it, I was having dinner with Dave Edmonds one night and he said, “Oh, George asked me to ask you if you’d fancy working with him on his new album.” “Um, yeah. You bet.” So I went up to George’s house and we had a meeting and he wanted to make sure we’d be good pals if we were going to work together. So he said, “You fancy going with me to Australia to the Grad Prix?” I said, “Ha! Yeah, okay.” I mean I’d only just met him like a few days before. And he said, “Meet me in Hawaii and we’ll go from there”. So that’s what happened. We went and we had a great time and it was fantastic and that’s where we wrote “When We Was Fab”, in Australia. So that was the start of ten wonderful years of making records with George.
JS: Did you ever ask him why he reached out to you through Dave Edmonds like that?
JL: Well, he didn’t know how to get hold of me and he knew Dave.
JS: Well, but I mean why he chose to work with you?
JL: Well yes I think I do, because in fact Olivia tells me in my little documentary that I’ve got [Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO]. She says that we both loved each other’s songs. I think that was the initial reason why he wanted to work with me because he liked the sound I made and he liked my style of songwriting.
JS: Okay, so then you’re driving in the car here in LA on Thanksgiving Day and you run into Tom Petty and you end up producing Full Moon Fever. And“Cloud Nin” was a big hit. So you’re going from strength to strength. But again Full Moon Fever sounds similar, but very different too. It’s not Tom doing George or you doing Tom doing George. It’s a whole different sound.
JL: Well, that’s the funny thing. Me and Tom sat together and wrote all these songs; all but one I think. And we’d never worked together before, so there wasn’t an attempt to create a sound. We just sat in a room in Tom’s house and made up these tunes. And they just happened to be really good ones. And we made a fabulous sound in Mike Campbell’s garage, of all places. That was where we recorded it. So it was a strange session, but the garage sounded really good. It’s just a garage with a concrete floor full of motorbikes and stuff, so whenever we recorded in there there’d be motorbikes everywhere. But it was a great but strange little atmosphere to record in so how could they sound the same?
JS: Well, that begs the question. I assume Friar Park is a full, proper studio whereas Mike Campbell’s garage would certainly not be as elaborate or fancy. What sort of mics and board and so forth did you use? Because you are getting a great sounds in both environments.
JL: Proper mics. All the proper mics and proper gear, except George’s studio was a real beautiful one obviously. It’s very ornate and has a lovely room to work in. And then Mike’s control room was just a spare bedroom in the house next to the garage. So it was a bit odd. But then of course we mixed in full blown studios. But to record them all we did them all in there.
JS: And did you ever run up against a problem where you couldn’t get the sound you wanted? Because maybe this is true or maybe not, but I think I remember you being quoted as saying you don’t like to use EQ, you like to get the sound that you want on tape and then work from that. Did you ever find that to be difficult, let’s say, in Mike Campbell’s garage?
JL: Not at all, really, because it’s the way you get things down. I mean, it’s not that I won’t use EQ, I will if I have to if something sounds much better by just nudging things up a little bit here or there in a few frequencies. Then of course I’ll do it. So I won’t avoid it just on principal. You know, “Oh, I won’t do that”. But what I don’t like to use is reverb willy nilly all over everything. I just do not like that. And I never have. So I only use it as an effect, or really as a joke maybe on the end of something. You know, to make a big bang. Claaaang. So it’s mainly that naturalness of the room I like to record that with a mic a little bit off whatever I’m recording so, you know, you get a little bit of the room sound and the air moving.
JS: Do you combine close and distant mics, then?
JL: Yes. Like for lead guitar I like to combine a close mic right on the speaker and a distant mic probably eight feet away or so.
JS: I know we’ve only got time for about one more question but I’ve got about 30, so I’ll have to ask the obvious question about working with The Beatles.
JL: Yeah, of course. Don’t worry we’ll catch up again soon.
JS: Great. So by the time you worked with The Beatles you’d done the Wilburys, some tracks on Ringo’s “Time Takes Time” album, and though you hadn’t yet done “Flaming Pie” with Paul you’d done a host of records with all these heroes of yours and you are asked to go to Paul’s studio to work on these songs. Technical problems aside, put the people reading this in the room. I mean many Beatles fans have heard you talk about this, but convey something that we might not expect that you observed or got from that experience.
JL: I suppose the experience of walking in the room with George and then being with the three of them in the same room for the first time in years and years, that was an indescribable experience in and of itself. Then sitting down with the three Beatles, it’s really just me and them three. That’s it. And I’m just sitting there listening to all this wonderful chat, you know, about the old days and stuff. That was so marvelous to hear these stories from their mouths, the real thing, you know? Not the edited version, but the real great stuff. So that was one of the most amazing things, to get involved and be in this little club with The Beatles. It was just superb.
JS: Did they make you feel like one of them? Or did you feel like an observer? Because who couldn’t help feeling that way?
JL: Oh no, they were totally cool with me. You know, I was in there. I was part of the team, you know? And I was actually the leader of the team, believe it or not. So there you go.
JS: How about that? So will we ever hear “Grow Old With Me” or “All For Love” or “Help Me To Help Myself”?
JL: I don’t think we’ll ever hear the extra one. There was one other song that we listened to and I think we may have played on it once – or they may have played once through it – but it was never done or finished or anything like that.
JS: Too bad! We’ll have to talk more about that next time. Okay, so you’re working on a solo record of original material, and you’re obviously promoting Long Wav” and the ELO set. Are you going to go out on the road and do some shows? Are you at least coming to New York City? Will we get to see the documentary in wider release? What’s next for Jeff Lynne?
JL: Hopefully, yes to all those questions. I haven’t got any plans to tour, you know I’m just trying to figure out a way to do it.
JS: Because I had tickets for the Zoom tour, so you’d better honor those.
JL: Ah well, sorry about that. But I have no plans again at the moment. But I’m going over to England tomorrow to do some TV shows and some things. And then I’ll be back here doing some promotion. And it’s going well. In England Long Wav” is the BBC Album of the Week, which is a really good thing.
JL: Yeah! So I’m really chuffed about that.
JS: So we’ll maybe see another volume of the ELO along with a solo album of new Jeff Lynne material sometime soon?
JL: Well, I have got 8 songs of new material towards the new album. And, you know, I probably need another three and so that’ll be ready for next year, I hope. And the thing about those other ELO songs I’ve finished already is, Craig my manager always wants bonus tracks. No matter what I’m doing or how many tracks I give him he always wants bonus tracks. So I’ll probably run out of those ELO tracks before I can make another album out of them!
JS: Well Jeff, it was a pleasure. I really appreciate it. And hopefully when you get to New York we can catch up and I’ll ask you the rest of my questions.
JL: Alright, well thanks Jeff. I’d like that. Be good mate.
This article is copyright 2013 by Jeff Slate. No part may be reprinted or referenced without permission and/or attribution. All rights reserved.