Anthony J. Resta in his element at Bopnique Musique Studio.
Anthony J. Resta: A Retrospective with a Progressive Producer
By Marshall Terrill
Music producer Anthony J. Resta is the kind of person who naturally inspires superlatives.
Iconoclastic, innovative, gifted, and perfectionist are but a few that come to mind. In addition to his duties as a producer, he's also a composer, soundscape artist, holistic music creator and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass, drums, synthesizers, flute) not to mention a devoted father and spouse, a hardcore fisherman and a very cool guy.
He has earned twelve RIAA certified gold and multi-platinum awards, and his discography is somewhere in the neighborhood of 300. His collaborations with artists reads like a Who’s Who of the industry. They include Duran Duran, Elton John, Collective Soul, Megadeth, Perry Farrell, Vinny Vincent, Sarah Mclaughlin, Missing Persons, Peter Wolf, Shawn Mullins, Del Marquis of Scissor Sisters, Green River Ordinance, Sarah Evans, Blondie, actor Michael Chiklis and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
In a massive five-part interview Resta discusses his musical roots, rise to stardom, experimentation with vintage machines, working with icons, his new foray into Hollywood and how he brings music to life a former textile mill in Boston.
Ladies and gentlemen, Anthony J. Resta...
Q: Almost every musician I've ever interviewed say their talent usually is in the genes. Do you come from a musical background?
AR: Not particularly. My grandfather played a mean harmonica and I used to jam with him on the drums, mostly Italian bar music and parade music.
Q: I seem to recall in another interview you started drumming in third grade?
AR: That’s correct. At age eight I started formal training with Jack Dudney, a jazz drummer in Houston.
Q: That's a bit odd for a child to like jazz...I've always thought of jazz as a very evolved state of music.
AR: My mom was always playing Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Coltrane, and others. There were piles of these records around the house and I used to play along to them. That was always in the background, but by third or fourth grade I began discovering the Beatles, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Yes, and so on.
Q: What did you do in your formative and teen years to cultivate your musical skills?
AR: I went to a musically oriented high school where my band director Blair Bettencourt put together a curriculum of ear training, music theory, solfege, and several ensembles. In addition, I took private lessons with different teachers, among them the jazz great Alan Dawson, and played in bands.
Jazz great Alan Dawson
Q: In your teens you began to migrate towards rock and roll. Who did you listen to, who were your main influences and why were you drawn to their music?
AR: By then I was fascinated with progressive rock artists like Frank Zappa, Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson and jazz fusion like Al Di Meola, Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty, Return to Forever, and others. I enjoyed the sound of people pushing boundaries and creating interesting, challenging music.
Q: If someone is considering a career in music, who are the artists they need to become familiar with in order to cover the basics?
AR: I think the Beatles catalog covers pretty much everything you need to know if you want a career in rock or pop. If you want to get into classical harmony and counterpoint I would start with Bach.
Q: You received your formal music education at Berklee College of Music, perhaps the best-known musical college in the country. How did they help formulate your musical talents?
AR: The harmony and arranging courses at Berklee opened my eyes to things like subdominant, chromatic, and parallel approaches to reharmonization.
Q: I'm curious as to why you were initially drawn to manipulating electronic sounds (“Soundscaping”), which is your stock-in-trade today as a producer/multi-instrumentalist.
AR: After doing a few major label records I became pigeonholed as someone who created massive textures with synths and guitar effects, however that is only one aspect of what I do. In fact, sometimes people approach me and ask me to produce their music that way when I hear something more stripped down and organic. I am fascinated by the endless evolution of technology in music and after hearing Rick Wakeman play with Yes on records like Close to the Edge, I was hooked.
Close to the Edge by Yes (Electra, 1972)
Q: From an outsider’s perspective, it seems as if you have this odd relationship with computers and electronics and somehow you're able to give them soul. How do you get those cold machines to produce music?
AR: I think electronic sounds have a warmth that’s not far away from what you find in nature, from rumbles to squeaks, like white noise, sine waves, the sound of distant thunder, jackhammers. The components of sound can be used in infinite ways.
Anthony J. Resta manipulating one of his creative sounds from a vintage machine.
Q: I have this picture of you in my mind’s eye where you’re sitting in your studio, playing with these machines for hours on end, producing sounds to accompany the music. Am I on the mark?
AR: Yes, and the holes in the knees of my jeans will attest to this. I spend a lot of time crawling around twiddling knobs on guitar pedals, tape echoes, and step sequencers.
Q: Once you graduated Berklee, what was your first professional gig and tell me how your career progressed?
AR: Although I attended Berklee for a couple of years, I didn’t graduate but ended up leaving early to both tour and work in studios. My first professional gigs were as early as the eighth grade when I played with bands at coffee houses, high school dances, and pig roasts! My career took off when I lived under a grand piano at Courtlen Studio in Hansom, Massachusetts, for several years, eating, sleeping, and breathing music.
Q: Did your musical career take on the path of musician-engineer-producer?
AR: Initially I did a lot of MIDI programming, arranging, and production while working alongside great engineers like Bob St. John, Paul David Hagar, Chris Lannon, Tom Soares, Phil Green, and most recently Karyadi Sutedja. I slowly picked up engineering skills.
Q: Let's talk about your professional alter ego, Ajax Ray O'Vrque. When and how did he evolve?
AR: That started in the early nineties when I began sampling odd bits into my KBS Akai 1000 and then adding spoken word, MOOG, and odd guitar textures. My first CD was called Demos of Saturn, which attracted Nick Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo of Duran Duran.
Demos of Saturn by Ajax Ray O'Vrque (Bopnique Music)
Q: One of your first known professional collaborations was with Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons around 1986. How did you meet her and how did that professional relationship blossom?
AR: She was auditioning drummers and her new guitar player Brian Alex was able to set up an audition for me. To prepare, I spent two weeks recording myself playing along with the Best of Missing Persons CD. I don’t think I ever played those songs as well as I did at the audition. I was a huge fan of Missing Persons and it was exciting to meet Dale.
Q: Dale’s band mate and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo began working with Duran Duran, which in turn led to your four-year association with them. Fill in the blanks for me. How did Warren's association with them give you a career boost?
AR: Dale asked me to send Warren a tape of music she and I had been working on. On the flip side I included selections from Demos of Saturn. What really turned their heads was the sonic impact of the mixes, which I had been putting together meticulously for months.
Q: You worked with Duran Duran from 1994 to 1998 and collaborated on approximately 30 songs. I remember in the '80s at the height of their career they were labeled by critics as a “manufactured group” that became famous as a result of their high-profile MTV videos, not their music. Can you refute this?
AR: Absolutely! They are super talented and creative thinkers that are constantly reinventing themselves by pushing the boundaries of fashion and music and what people perceive “Duran Duran” to be.
Q: I hear they are proper English gents. Can you tell me what they were like on a personal level?
AR: They were always very kind, gracious and appreciative of the work I did with them. They were really open to experimentation, that’s really the ideal artist to work with.
Q: The first album you worked with them was ThankYou, a collection of cover songs from a diverse group of artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Grandmaster Flash. How was the material selected?
AR: They picked the songs from artists they all admired. I played no part in choosing the material as I was not around for that portion of the project.
Duran Duran's Thank You (Capitol Records, 1995)
Q: Doing cover songs is always a tricky proposition for artists in that they have to stay true to the artist and yet put their own stamp on it…what was your thought process in trying to pull it off?
AR: I think that the sounds and parts they chose just naturally and seamlessly became Duran Duran. I was consciously leaning towards adding a subtle triphop/Sgt. Pepper-era Beatleness to the overall tone. it just all seemed to fit together right. The artist’s they covered LOVED the interpretations (especially Lou Reed). Critics just couldn’t get their heads around the whole concept.
Q: Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” was the single, but “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash was the standout. Sounds like that was a fun track to record?
"White Lines" by Duran Duran
AR: It was fun marrying my beats and synths/percussion to a live track without Pro Tools. We had to sample things and move them around, use tons of delays for smpte timecode offsets one bar at a time. It was not a visual process in those days. It was all just listening with our ears. I think that the visual aspect of audio editing a la “lining things up on a grid” in many cases is robbing today’s music of the soul that made music in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which was so powerful/sexy/emotional and vibey.
Q: Duran Duran’s drummer Roger Taylor, who retired from the band in 1986, surprised everyone his appearance on “Watching the Detectives” and “Perfect Day.” What did he add to the group’s chemistry?
AR: There were so many different drummers on that record – Terry Bozzio, Steve Ferrone, Tony Thompson, Abe Laboriel Jr., and myself. I think it all worked wonderfully together even though in theory it should have felt erratic in the rhythm department stylistically. I didn’t work on that track and didn’t get to meet Roger however.
"Perfect Day" by Duran Duran
Q: Thank You was recorded all around the world in places such as New York, France, Minnesota, London, Boston, while the band was on a 16-month world tour. Was that challenging for you and how did that have an effect on the end result?
AR: Bob and I sort of reinvented quite a bit of that record in post-production and mixing during phases in London at Metropolis, Sound Techniques in Boston, Bopnique Musique in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. We re-amped bass, cut new drums, moved vocals around, and added layers of rhythm and atmosphere. We were not around for the original tracking sessions in France and elsewhere.
Q: Thank You received a lot of negative criticism by the press despite the fact the album sold well. Looking back more than 15 years later, how do you view the album?
AR: I think it was a bold artistic statement and still sounds super cool. As I said before, the artists that were covered really liked the versions of the songs. That sort of wipes out any of the bad press it received. It was a winner. I heard “White Lines” pounding out of a club in Sydney, Australia, once, and it gave me chills to look in and the entire place dancing to it so many years later
Q: Medazzaland was Duran Duran’s follow up to Thank You, and again, saw your involvement. Right before you started recording, John Taylor left the band. Did that have an effect on the sessions?
AR: Actually JT is on some of the tracks on the record and we hung out in Boston, too. We are playing together on “Michael” for instance.
Medazzaland by Duran Duran (Capitol Records, 1997)
Q: TV Mania, which was really you, keyboardist Nick Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo, is the listed producer of Medazzaland. This was a first for the band given that almost all of their albums listed Duran Duran as the producer. How did you feel about this given that almost a decade before you were spinning Duran Duran records in a disco?
AR: Are you kidding? I was on Cloud Nine and pinching myself. I’m also thrilled that TV Mania is FINALLY going to be released with remixes bonus tracks. I can’t wait to finally hang it on the wall.
Q: “Electric Barbarella” was touted as the first song ever available for digital purchase/download on the Internet. However, it seemed this move annoyed many American retailers as they saw it as a way to squeeze them out of the picture and did little to promote the album. Did you know at the time this could possibly be the beginning of the end for physical product and bricks and mortar record stores?
AR: It wasn’t really even in the back of my mind then. So I guess the answer is no. I had just got my first email address and it seemed super futuristic.
"Electric Barbarella" by Duran Duran
Q: Speaking of changes in the industry, around the time you began hitting your stride as a producer. Pro Tools, Sonic Foundry and a couple of other music programs came into the picture. How did you view it at the time and how do you view it today seeing as they have become a staple of the industry?
AR: At the time I got a call from someone in U2’s camp, asking me if I was super fast at Pro Tools editing. I had never even seen or heard of Pro Tools, so I was at a loss for words. So I blurted out quickly, “Pro Tools is for sissies!” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. When I first saw it in action, it seemed like something just way beyond a miracle. To this day we still love the sound of tape and have found other tools to make Pro Tools sound much more like tape. I do think that “perfection” can be an addiction and it’s taken us years to let go and learn to let happy accidents happen. My philosophy is “Let’s try and let the music live and breath again.” I love being able to move things around, clone the magic. There are tons of great things about Pro Tools, but balance is the key. Truly, it is an endless open-ended journey.
Q: You came along at the end of an era when the big record companies still ruled, bands recorded in major studios with big budgets. We’ll get into the transition away from the big studios to home studios, but for now, tell me what it was like recording in that era?
AR: It was so easy to get spoiled having the best gear like Fairchild 670’s and anything else you could think of. It was a great time to experiment, not to mention catered food in the studio, first class or business class travel. Working on a big budget project was awesome. And why wouldn’t they be?! Being waited on like a rock star was so surreal. You grow accustomed to the finer things real fast. I loved the Power House in London. Gourmet food, great scotch and cognac. “Another cappuccino, Mr. Resta?” Those truly were the good ole days. I think lunch was on Michael Jackson for everyone working at the Hit Factory for a year or so when we were doing a lot of work there. It was so crazy. It’s still strange to me that shooting a video cost so much more than a record – and they only take days instead of weeks. With so many advances in technology and so many more powerful studio’s thriving budgets have shrunk in many cases by half or more, it has all changed…but it was fun while it lasted!
A bird's eye view of Anthony J. Resta's Bopnique Musique Studios, a converted textile mile near Boston, Massachusetts.
Q: You’ve always said your favorite producers are the ones who’ve taken chances. Can you tell me some of your “hero” producers that have inspired you?
AR: That’s a long list but I’ll give a few examples:
Jon Brion – I really love Jon Brion. He’s the kind of guy who plays “Tainted Love” on a vibraphone and “Stairway to Heaven” on an accordion. His chromatic quirkiness inspires me to no end. I think the Magnolia soundtrack is the consummate example of his brilliance.
U2 has a history of choosing innovative producers. Flood (aka Mark Ellis), Brian Eno, David Lanois, Jacknife Lee, Steve Lilywhite are all on my favorites list. The U2 catalog is a virtual encyclopedia of production techniques. The Joshua Tree with Lanois and Eno is a real standout for me. I also like the crazier stuff like Achtung Baby and Pop.
George Martin – Speaking of encyclopedias of production. Take your pick - Abbey Road, Revolver, Sgt. Peppers, Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album. Endless inspiration!
Gus Dudgeon – His work with Elton John and others is just tops. I could go on and on and on but ill stop there.
Q: What is your definition what a producer does and what his/her job is in the studio?
AR: It can be as subtle as making people comfortable and getting the best out of them all the way to writing the music and playing all the instruments. I’ve worked around and have been inspired by all different levels of this wide definition. I think the simplest way to explain to a non-industry person is to say that a music producer is like the director of a movie. They keep an eye on the big picture – song selection, tempo, arrangements, orchestration, instrumentation, and budget of time and money. They also have to target a market and help to shine a light on the artist in the most positive possible way. Making decisions, dozens of them, day in and day and out until the final outcome pleases everyone involved. Or you’re through…
Q: What’s the first thing you do as a producer when the artist steps foot in the studio and where does the process go from there?
AR: Getting familiar with what inspires the artist and what excites them sonically and musically BEFORE they step into the studio is ultra important. Then it’s all about the songs. Doctoring the lyrics and arrangements is the next step. Kill the clichés. Make the songs come to life both rhythmically and lyrically. It’s a team effort where rolling up the sleeves and really evaluating why certain artists are making the best sounding and most interesting (and successful) records. That will pay off in big dividends when applied to the immediate tasks at hand.
Multi-instrumentalist Anthony J. Resta loves his "toys" and making music.
Q: Most of the producers I’ve either met or read about are 100 percent control freaks in the studio, and in a way, I get that. I’ve heard one producer say that getting a group of musicians to do anything is like herding cats. You seem more collaborative than controlling. What’s your philosophy on that subject?
AR: It can really go either way so much depends on the experience level and “control freak nature of the artist.” If both artist and producer become control freaks, it’s going to be a long and painful journey. You can spend two days or six weeks on a song. Somewhere somehow, someone needs to drive the ship. If the artist is going to drive the ship then the producer shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. If the artist is familiar enough with the producers work and really wants that spin on his/her music, there is trust and all will fall in place.
Q: Does a record producer have to be the smartest guy in the room or the most prepared once the engineer pushes the record button?
AR: Since music is really open for interpretation and there is no clear-cut right or wrong way, the producer needs to think fast and trust his instincts. Hopefully his instincts have given him a good track record and earned him respect. Thinking too much is dangerous. OCD is a trait that comes in handy. Listening to the same song for 100 hours and pretending you’re hearing it for the first time is not for the faint at heart. Recognizing the “illusive” it is the skill that is the most important. That and a willingness to listen and learn from the artists you work with.
In part III and IV of this interview, Anthony J. Resta will discuss his artistic collaborations with other icons in the music industry, his home recording studio Bopnique Musique and his new foray into Hollywood.
For more information about Anthony J. Resta, visit his website at http://bopnique.com/