A peak into the mind of John Hampton

“Ear Haver”

When I was born, everyone remarked about the size of my ears. But on the Auditory Vigilance part of my A.D.H.D. Test, I flat out FAILED! Go figure.

Out there somewhere is a rockband (I call it Powerpunk) named ALL or Descendents; they are actually two bands, depending on who is headlining. If Descendents are more popular in a certain town, ALL will open for them. And vice versa. The only difference is, “Who is singing”? I’ll explain.

In the 1980’s there was Black Flag, a PowerPunk band that enjoyed large success … underground. These guys could easily play 200 packed halls, clubs, auditoriums, etc. a year and all the promotion needed was one announcement. From that one date announcement, word would spread, literally, like a wildfire in the hills over Malibu, and the gig would sell out fast. Part of this success was that their singer (singer?) was Henry Rollins; actor, poet extraordinaire, cultist, and an overall good guy. His bandmates, Bill Stevenson, Karl Alvarez (and Claire!), and Stephen Egerton were the core of it all, and when Henry moved on, they grabbed nuclear biologist/rocket scientist Milo Aukerman, and they became Descendents. If Milo had a rocket to work on, they grabbed Scott Reynolds or Chad (is right) Price, or C.H.U.D., and became ALL.  These guys are among of the most brilliant minds in music. I have worked with both bands and I am sure they can go on like this forever. In fact they are now ALL/Descendents.

So in the day of Mozart, Bach, and even todays classical musicians, there has always existed a language which modern music rarely (never) uses. Portamento, staccato, largo, legato, stromboli, JohnGotti,  … you get it. When I’ve been lucky enough to work with ALL/Descendents, an amazing part of our relationship is that we have developed our own language. And we use it seriously and often. We talk in terms that we all understand, but no one else can unless they learn the language. So one day Bill introduced me to one of the best adjectives ever. Ear haver. When we first started working together, I once heard something with my A.D.D. / hyperactive sense of hearing that the guys didn’t notice, until I pointed it out. (This can be a detriment if it gets taken too far, as you lose sight of the forest, or the song in this case, because all you see is trees). (Sorry, A.D.D. moment)  When I heard these tiny little sound “particles”, Bill and Stephen would finally notice what I was hearing and were, at first, stupefied that I had heard what I heard. “Cool ear haver“. That’s what they called me. Ear haver.  It simply means one with a keen listening prowess. More specifically it means one whose hearing is more trained or developed than average. It’s learned from being a recording engineer. “Cool ear haver”. It became another term in our language, alongside skink, krah, woob, pre-fire, and bizh.

There are many ear havers out there. At times when I’ve been affronted with statements like ‘Can we record to this instead of that?’, I have been known to (A) stop and ask them right then and there if they will go along with a little experiment. If they said ‘sure’, then I would (B) conduct a blindfold, A/B listening test on the spot. This is a test where I would sort of challenge this person, in a benign way, of course, to prove that they really heard a difference between that which they wanted to record to versus what I had chosen to record to. Please understand that I would never do this unless I knew the person well and I felt they really wanted to know for themselves. And if they chose the sound that they said they liked more …  as I switched back and forth between the two … more than 75% of the time, I would pronounce them ear haver. In my mind, 50% is a coin toss and tells me they could be making a blind stab at it. But 75% leans too far in their favor, in which case I would / will always oblige them. “Cool Ear Haver”.

Many engineers and producers out there today are up and running so fast that they haven’t had time to evolve this type of trained hearing. And I know from my own experience, that many of these “overnight” professionals will simply baffle their prospective providers of income, with pure, unadulterated crap. Once when I was looking for a place to record in another city when it was impossible to get the artist to come to me in Memphis, I was given a tour of a potential studio by the owner/engineer. And man, he could talk the talk. From bias oscillation transistors to the problems of certain classic microphones that he had modified. Talk TAlk TALk TALK TALK! This guy knew, literally, EVERYTHING about making a record. When I finally asked him to play something impressive that would suade me to bring him this hundred thousand plus dollar record, he went to a $4000 dollar turntable (‘better than digital’ … good), carefully pulled a record from it’s wrapper, gave it a quick static wipe, checked his stylus drag counterweight, and played me, at a very loud volume, THE MOST UNBELIEVEABLY HORRIFIC SOUNDING … MUSIC? … SOUND I HAD EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE on SPEAKERS that were very obviously WIRED BACKWARDS, and then he turned to me with a cocky, assured smile, scanning my face for expected amazement. And I must admit … I was amazed.

The thought of modifying a truly classic microphone, coupled with that terrifying speaker system, … and what in the Sam Hill are “bias oscillation transistors”? Here was a true EAR HAVER NOT. He has declared all out war on anything that sounds like … sound! I have no idea how these people make their way into ANY slot in professional audio. His sonic sensibilities transcend reality. And what is truly a nightmare is that the number of these sound pseudo-professionals is growing in our society at an exponential rate. Why? Because the technology that the pros use is now affordable to almost anyone. And the people buying into it are, in too many instances, people who think

that if you buy the stuff, the career will come with it automatically. And at the same time, in many instances, the naive, creative artist doesn’t know if it’s good or bad. Nor should he or she have to worry about the technical side of it. That’s the engineer’s and/or the producer’s job. The artist need only be concerned with what he or she or they  does best. So PLEASE, …  leave the technical part to the real “ear havers”.

Next question …

two woRds

I am forever confused by a 2 words on every movie ever made….


Are you wondering what that means? I am. I know what a Record Producer does. He does EVERYTHING! He is a babysitter, a chauffeur,  friend, a teacher AND learner. In fact, Bill Leen, Blossoms’ bassist, asked “Why doesn’t my bass get louder when I PLaY louDer?” I was in error putting a NO LOUDER on his bass. (I learned volume was a major part of their performance.)  He decides what songs are going to be on the record. He, hopefully, has or develops soon after the record starts, a big picture of how the artist will “come off” when the public hears it. In short, that’s what I do. Here’s an example:

At the end of the Tora Tora record, I, as a producer, went to Phoenix, remember, (at Brian Huttenhower’s request … AND expense), and heard Gin Blossoms. They were doing a live show that first night, and I went to meet the band before the show. Although they had a million questions concerning how I would make their first real record, for A&M, I told them I have no comment until I see, with my own eyes, what their live show is all about. I want to know what the strong points and not so strong points were, when it came to performance. Plus, I wanted to see some college girls.

That night at Chuey’s, a U of AZ hot spot in Tempe, they went on at 9PM. And they really did start at 9PM! That’s a good sign. They take it seriously. I watched the crowd to see how they reacted to the band’s performance as well, because these people in the audience ARE the general public, the real record buyers, and I bet that their reaction is directly proportional to sales. If they sing along with the band, those songs are the potential “hits” that eventually the whole world would sing along with. If they went to get another beer during a song, that song had a problem, like bad lyric, too slow, weighty arrangement , etc. It could be used as filler … or on the cutting room floor. Unless the producer can envision it as something else, like faster, in another key, … or on the cutting room floor. Overall, the crowd LOVED the Gin Blossoms. And I think I did , too.

The next day, I met with the band, and now, when they start asking their million questions, I have answers. What songs did you like? Should we even bother cutting this or that? Song X , the one that no one likes , should we try a different arrangement? These were great questions and I gave my responses. We ended up with ten songs that we should cut for sure, and five more that we should try a different approach on. and 2 that were bye-bye. (we say “next record”)

I HAD to get them away from Tempe to cut them. Way too many distractions. So we came to Memphis and just had a lot of fun cutting and singing, and just hanging around. I took them to see Poppa Willie , and they were awed. We went to Graceland. And as usual, they kind of snickered under their breath about Elvis’ style of living, but we ALL fell to our knees (metaphorically) upon entering the trophy room My goodness, Elvis was a god to the entire planet! We all gained a boxcar load of respect by the time we left.

In a nutshell, we had fun, cut a record, and the fun stuck to the tape. And the record buyers of the world sensed that fun, and bought it so that they could have fun with us. And I had just PRODUCED my first multi platinum record. Of course, I could fill a room with this story, and I plan on revisiting these sessions in the future. But for now, that’s enough to digest.

But there’s still ONE burning question. What does a movie producer do? It’s not what I do, according to wikipedia. In fact, I hereby launch my quest to change records from reading PRODUCED BY to DIRECTED BY. The director’s job is almost exactly what I do.

And so far I have done that for Jimmy Vaughan, Robert Cray, Audio Adrenaline, John Kilzer, Big Tent Revival, … a LOT of artists. and I love it!

Next question …

Tora Tora’s walking shoes take them to “Wild America”

When Brian Huttenhower from A &M Records came into my “office” (a couch in the hallway ) at the studio that day, the last thing I expected was his question. Tora Tora, the  first band we had signed to our production company, was nearing the end of another wearying tour, and, unlike most rock bands’ first tours, it seems to have done amazingly well. Their three certifiable mini-hits, “Walkin’Shoes”, “Phantom Rider”, and “Guilty” had indeed seen the light of day, and there were probably a few more in the hat. They had seen a boatload of cities, and they made me privvy to some road stories about groupies getting the royal treatment back-stage, with one special story about a deli-tray and bonus points for hitting certain body parts; a veritable backpack of backstage stories, which I thought were surely just rumors. Surely.

This degree of success at this early part of the boys’ career is what made Brian’s question such a surprise: “So Hampton, you want to do their next record?” My response was one of curiosity, since I thought their last record sounded great. “Why? Not enough low-end for mainstream rock radio?”

Now HE looked surprised, “No, stupid! (Brian and I were close enough that he knew he could get away with that.) PRODUCE their next record!”. Now I WAS taken aback. I was sure he was talking about my sonic abilities, not my song/concept musings. Hence the bass reference.

Produce them? Where I come from, if a record does as well as this had, it was unusual to change horses midstreamlike this. But then again, Brian wasn’t known for playing it safe. (A.D.D. moment– Brian had come in the studio that day wearing a pair of Nike athletic shoes that were probably called Atomic Air Supremacy Deluxe, Special Edition Quantum Accelerator GOLDS. After staring at them a minute, I looked at Brian and asked, “Brian, exactly what kind of shoes ARE those?” Brian looked at the shoes, which added a full inch plus to his height, then he looked at me, then the shoes again, and responded,”Whaddaya mean?” Eight seconds of dead silence. Then, as serious as cancer he looked up and replied, “Bitchin’!” THAT was classic Brian.

So why me to produce their next record? The first one did O.K. didn’t it?

“It did allright, I just wanted to try something different.” Brian could hear hit songs a mile away. He had signed Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Extreme, Tora Tora, and now Gin Blossoms? Plus he was looking at a couple of other bands. Brian is talented. So talented in fact, that if he wanted me, he had me. “Sure!”

Well, it seems that the band would also glad if I would agree to do it, I found out later. Whatever had led these guys to this decision was one question I didn’t care to ask. They liked me, I liked them … let’s go.

What I liked most about Tora was that right when you thought you were getting any hair-band USA, you got something much deeper, though it wasn’t obvious at first glimpse. They were yet another clash of cultures that yielded a unique artform. This time, it was LA big-hair-big-sound pretentiousness in a real, delta based soul package, complete with mud and mosquitos. “Phantom Rider” had always sounded like a Skynyrd hit, and “Walking Shoes” was a riff-rock powerhouse from the same tree. A story of a man who had been jilted for the last time, so he broke out the walkin’ shoes. If THAT wasn’t a common blues phrase, I nominate it. Along side “I hear my back door slam”, “left home for a brown-eyed man”, “down on the killin’ floor”, and of course “Who Let the Dogs Out”.         (a joke, son)

So this was the key to the band I had decided to keep to the forefront as we made their second record. They wrote, and we hammered the songs out in an unused building a block from the studio. The Pink House we called it. It had been the big, string and horn recording studio owned by a jingle mill named Pepper-Tanner, well known in advertising music. Pepper-Tanner also made a sound effects library, (sorry, another ADD moment) and one infamous entry in this library was a sound-bite entitled “Man shoots pig”.

Over the next few months we recorded, wrote, rehearsed, recorded, wrote, and rehearsed. Suddenly one day I looked up and there were 2 overdubs left until we were done. Everything else on our production chart had been marked through. WOW! Time flies when you are having fun. So, I called Brian and he showed up a couple days later.

In a pecan shell, Brian wanted more. Where we thought it was a ten, Brian wanted eleven. Now I was in a pickle. I had committed to start Gin Blossoms (also for Brian) in about two weeks, but I can never blame a person who wants more, as long as he is paying for it.

So I went to Phoenix to start Gin Blossoms first record, which was later named “New Miserable Experience”, and Brian had a guy come in to cut some more on Tora Tora. I knew it was headed for huge success. But we all failed to foresee the effect that a new type of music that was boiling just under the surface would have on bands such as Tora Tora, who was NOT another any hair-band USA. The danger I saw was that they could possibly be “thrown out with the bath water.” Only time would tell, but my favorite, “Nowhere to Go But Down” was already becoming a favorite with people at the label, which was re-assuring. I didn’t want to leave these children in a lurch, and Brian spoke highly of the incoming guy, but alarms sounded when it got around that his biggest claim to fame was Ratt, so I had a little sit-down with him to get my two cents worth in. And I left it in his “capable hands” as I headed out for Gin Blossom land.

On my return from Phoenix a couple weeks later, I asked my co-producer how it had been going. Turns out he wore a toupee and the guys had been having a ball with him, putting duct tape across the doorway right at head level, just waiting to catch that furry thing in it’s stickum! I laughed until I was aching. They said it was going okay, but he was trying to make them into a Poison meets Motley Crüe meets Slaughter thing, and they’d had been a few “rock moments”, but otherwise, all was well. Good. I had actually missed these guys, and we were becoming good friends.

Next time Brian came in to town, we all sat and listened. Wild America was born. And now, New Miserable Experience was in it’s second trimester. Two radically types of music heading to radioland at about the same time. When I first heard the genius of  Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit’, I began to wonder if the listening/buying public would equally embrace this musical expanse. Ah, just put it out and see what happens. Right?

Next question … yes, you … in the toupee …