Posts Tagged ‘Keith Olsen’

Interview with Keith Olsen 8/9/77

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

Bob Weir, Keith Olsen, and Davd Gans

Photo by Ed Perlstein

Producer Keith Olsen has died.

Here is a partial transcript of the interview I did with him on August 9, 1977 at Sound City in Van Nuys CA, while he and Bob Weir were working on Heaven Help the Fool.

[Talking about interview with San Francisco Chronicle’s Joel Selvin, which took place just as KO returned from England with the Terrapin Station orchestrations.] I had just gotten back from England, and here I was with a whole bunch of stuff that the band had never heard: a 58-page score of strings and horns and a 32-voice choir…

The Grateful Dead were overwhelmed: “Oh my god, we’ve lost the band.” I [had done] a mix at Abbey Road… wanting to hear every note that everybody played. The strings and the horns were excruciatingly loud in the mix compared to where they should be. They’d never heard a string mix before… It’s quite a shock, especially when you have no idea what this short weirdo from Los Angeles, California is going to do to your song. All I could do with Jerry was sing him a bunch of parts that I heard, and say, “This is what I’m going to be writing with Paul Buckmaster.” Then you get over there, and Paul Buckmaster being Paul Buckmaster – what a mind!

Those lines are very much Jerry’s melody lines. The woodwinds and reeds are just a counterpoint to it. When he first heard it, we didn’t have the melody yet; the melody was his guitar, and we just had the strings. I said, “Don’t worry.”

We learned a lot in section rehearsals up at Front Street. They were learning a song, but something seemed weird about it. When everybody went off to get a bite to eat, I asked the drummers and Phil to come back. I sez “Okay, let’s run down the tune.”

“What? No guitars? No voices?”

“Sure. You all know where you are.” All of a sudden they had to start thinking… Billy’s going [whispers] “Mickey, how many bars til the bridge?”

I said, “Don’t worry about it – don’t count the bars – it’s got to be a unit.” In the section rehearsal, it just clicked. Without anything else happening in the room, Phil was the instrument that had to play the chord changes.

Phil is a very inventive bass player, and he’s also a super-intelligent person. Duty called! “My god, it’s me! I’m now the rhythm guitar player; I’m holding down the bottom of this tune; I’m also setting any internal rhythm of this tune – any focus on where the chord change is going is all focused on me” – and it clicked. He just fell right into it. To switch into a focused space, he was the easiest one of all. It was amazing.

It allows Weir to do a more inventive rhythm guitar part, where he doesn’t have to be down there at the bottom coppin’ the bass note, the low E string all the time, to make sure there’s a good fundamental; the fundamental’s there, or it’s passed through in a passing tone, always leading to what the next chord is, without any doubt in the listener’s ear. Phil got right into it, and Bob just said, “Great! Here I go.”

Working with two drummers took a long time at first. Being able to translate from live performance, when you can get away with a lot, to the studio – and these little extensions of our ears called microphones, that are a quarter of an inch off a snare drum, quarter of an inch off each bass drum head. Here you have two snare drums, two bass drums, eight tom-toms, 15 cymbals. That’s a pretty giant set! Where is the beat? The feel was inconsistent, depending on who hit first and hardest. I’m talking about milliseconds. The difference of feel between an upbeat and a backbeat… When you have a drummer that is naturally on the back side of the beat, and one on top of the beat… That’s the two colors of the drummers. Something’s got to give. You have to pick the person who’s right for the feel of the tune – which drummer’s doing to be the most solid, have that drummer be the pulse and let the other drummer be the color. That’s really the stuff that Mickey does the best: the color. I used Billy for snare drum and bass drum and pulse, pretty much on the entire album,.

On preparing to work with the Grateful Dead

I remembered what they sounded like when I heard them play live once, several years ago, and they blew me away they were so good. I always wondered why they couldn’t get that on record.

I listened through Blues for Allah once, and I think I gave it away to a friend. It wasn’t very well done, I told them. It seemed like they rushed through it, and then I found out afterwards that they spent five months recording that album.

Five months, really? Then Garcia said, “Let me rephrase that: we spent four and a half months trying to figure out what we should do first, and then the last two weeks recording.” Garcia’a so great. [laughs]

Production by committee is really hard; record-making by committee is really hard. It can work, but the instances of it working are very few and far between.

I’m really pleased with [Terrapin Station]. There were some trying moments, when we really had to grind away to figure out if what we were doing was right. It was a fine line. I didn’t want to dictate to the Dead, ’cause I would destroy a rapport. I didn’t want to let them dictate to me what was going to on the record. I wanted every performance to come out of them, but be open to ideas like… Tom Scott doing a solo on “Estimated Prophet.”

Jerry had never really done any harmony solos, and he got off doin’ ’em. “This is fun!” And he knows his electronics so well. He paid a bunch of money for that Slave Driver 360, which is a function generator that gave us that [sings line from the end of “Lady with a Fan”]. He had it sitting in here for three hours, idling, with signs that said, “Do not touch!” To let it get stable. That thing was crazy: when you play a note, you trigger a bunch of little ICs that say, “He’s playing an E and he’s wiggling it, so I’m going to give a control voltage to the oscillator in something down the line, and I will tell it to play an E and wiggle it.” It’s a most amazing piece of gear; it’s a frequency-to-voltage converter.

[discussion of Les Paul technique of playing a solo over the tape at half speed, used in “Terrapin Flyer”]

“Terrapin Transit” is there to destroy any thought you had about constant tempo – even though it was written and conducted in exactly the same tempo as the tune that preceded it. The violins were on, I think, an 8-beat cycle, the violas on a 7-beat cycle, the cellos in 6, and the second violins in 5… You can click your fingers right through that whole thing.

Weir is an accomplished rhythm guitar player. It’s an art that has been forgotten by too many people in this industry. Rhythm guitar is hard to play! It’s an integral part of making music….

Making the Grateful Dead accessible to people throughout the country in different walks of life and different musical tastes… Garcia has been such an underrated guitarist – he’s so melodic, and the ease of playing… I’ve seen that for years in the band, and I’ve just always wished that band could make a record that I could enjoy.