Reelin' in Randall: An Interview with Elliott Randall
by Michael Meloni
It gives me great pleasure to tell you that Guitar News Weekly was lucky enough to speak with the legendary Elliott Randall.
Elliott has worked with so many master musicians, it's hard to know where to begin. There's The Doobie Brothers, Peter Frampton, Carly Simon, Art Garfunkel and of course Steely Dan, of which he is most well-known for his guitar solo on Reelin' in the Years. Not only that, it's reputed to be Jimmy Page's favorite guitar solo of all-time.
Through-out his career Elliott has been at the forefront of music technology, working as a independent consultant ever since the 80s for the likes of Akai, Roland, Korg and Yamaha on instrument and amp development, recording and sampling technology, software design, and education.
Most recently, Elliott released his Still Reelin' LP, a half dozen year project which rewards us with his very own take on Reelin' in the Years.
I spoke with Elliott about his new CD, his gear and his career, MySpace, as well as getting some advice for our younger players. His passion for making music is mind-blowing.
Let's get into it!
Michael: Your new EP Still Reelinâ€™ has been in the pipeline for some time. Going in, what did you most want to achieve from this release?
Elliott: A number of things â€“ I wanted to present to my fans a varied and up-to-date collection of my musical adventures. The EP is quite eclectic (no surprise thereâ€¦) and I thought it would be a cool way to say â€˜hello againâ€™ as an artist. Iâ€™ve spent so much time producing, writing, being involved in re-training analog folk to deal with the realities of the digital world, and even trying to be semi-retired, but the latter will have to wait a while longer. I also wanted the thrill of working with all these terrific musicians â€“ a number of whom I grew up with, and â€¦well, you know â€“ making music is quite the healthy addiction.
Another part of my objective was to fashion a mini-movie (a little trip, if you will) with these pieces, and Iâ€™m feeling very satisfied with that outcome.
M: Your take on Reelinâ€™ In The Years is one of the stand out tracks. The injection of Celtic instruments is one I hadn't imagined before. What was the inspiration behind this style?
E: The Celtic touch was in my head from the first moment Donald and Walter played me the original unfinished track. The harmonized guitars in the interludes preceding my â€˜mainâ€™ and â€˜end â€˜solos have always conjured up images of the Emerald Isle for me. So I decided to take it one step further. I flew to Dublin to meet up with old pal Paul Brady, who I knew would help me connect with the â€˜right peopleâ€™ â€“ and boy did he ever! He introduced me to Bill Whelan, the composer of Riverdance. Bill liked the idea, and so he turned me on to some of his finest musicians, who really made me smile a lot during the recordings.
M: Thereâ€™s quite an international set of artists performing on it and the female vocals adds a new perspective to what I think most people are used to hearing a male sing. How did you come about working with Tasmin Archer?
E: Ah, the frequent flyer miles I accrued on this one! I really wanted particular musicians, and in as much as it was incredibly cost-prohibitive to put all the same folks in the same room at the same time, I traveled to and fro â€“ from Florida to New York to Texas to London to Leeds to Roundstone (west-most Ireland) for the talent I wanted. Iâ€™d had the idea of a woman singing the song from very early on in the production concept. I actually did try it with two of the finest male singers I know â€“ but it just sounded too darned close to the original â€“ in the key of A (a must) the timbres of even very different vocalists sounded too much like Donald â€“ and the last thing I wanted to record was something that sounded like a â€˜coverâ€™ version! Tasmin and I have been friends for years â€“ I had the privilege of playing on her 1st CD (Great Expectations) with that incredible Australian producer/engineer Julian Mendelsohn. I just called her, asked if sheâ€™d do it and she said â€˜yesâ€™. Tasâ€™ unique vocal qualities gave Reelinâ€™ a very special â€˜extra somethingâ€™.
M: You have a few fans of your original piece to say the least. How have reactions been to this one?
E: Well, I daresay itâ€™s been a lot better than the furore caused by â€˜Dylan Goes Electricâ€™ â€“ there are so many folks who grew up hearing the original, you can see surprised expressions at the beginning of an initial hearing of my re-interpretation. Reelinâ€™ is such a mainstay of Rock music history. (Iâ€™m not being self-congratulatory here - honest! That Steely Dan record was popular because of the sum of its parts. From web-comments Iâ€™ve viewed, and the general feedback Iâ€™ve received to date, there are, as expected, a small number who donâ€™t â€˜get itâ€™ â€“ but thatâ€™s bound to happen. On the other hand, Iâ€™m really pleased that a whole lot of die-hard SD fans do understand that my objective is to pay homage to that song, and to produce it in a way that I feel is respectful, and is a sonic trip. So overall, Iâ€™m over the moon!
M: I've read you used the same â€˜63 Strat on both versions. What other gear did you use this time around?
E: Yup â€“ same guitar and same pickup (neck pickup â€“ 1969 Gibson PAF Humbucker). The differences are the amps and mics used. I first re-created the sound I got for the original record, but given that the overall timbre of this track is vastly different, I felt that the sound needed to be changed â€“ the nasal quality of the original just didnâ€™t fit. Also, my objective was to play virtually the same parts I did in â€™72, and the â€˜surprise/payoffâ€™ would be a completely different end solo. (This actually goes against my ethos of â€˜never play the same solo twice, because thatâ€™s not improvisationâ€™ but I felt compelled to honor the â€™72 version in this instance.) â€˜Wherefore art thou Romeoâ€™ just sounds weird when you say â€˜Yo Romeo, where you at?â€™ â€¦but I digress.
This time I used a Marshall setup. I had a 2x12 cab in the studio, and used my Valvestate 80 as the â€˜headâ€™. Simon Hanhart (my superb recording engineer) further enhanced the sound using an ADA MP-1 pre amp through two channels of his Focusrite 115 to fine-tune the EQ. The distortion came from slightly overdriving the Valvestate in the 2nd channel, and then, by turning my master volume knob up to eleven, I was able to take advantage of the speakers themselves distorting from the amount of sheer power (RMS) that was driving them. That last bit is a very important part of the equation. We employed a Shure 57 as the close-mic and, to finish it off, I did my usual (unusual?) â€˜ribbon at the back of the cabâ€™ thing. Refer to my article â€˜How To Mic A Marshall Ampâ€™ at http://www.elliott-randall.com/mods.htm
M: Youâ€™re a bit of a pioneer when it comes to taking on new technology, MIDI and the web in particular. MySpace is becoming a critical resource for artists and youâ€™re there making your mark. How has having a profile helped you?
E: MySpace, if itâ€™s able to keep pace with its exponential growth and hire enough technical staff to keep many folks from sputtering and cursing its slowed-down self, can be a great promotional resource. As of this writing they have 200 technical staff to handle some 90 million customers.
That said, itâ€™s been a great platform to introduce my music to a load of new folks for whom SD and many of my other projects are simply a piece of their dadâ€™s CD (or vinyl) collection. Like Martha says: â€˜Itâ€™s a good thing.â€™
Now for the alarm bells: About ten years ago, as the web was beginning to grow out of its infancy, a huge percentage of people venturing onto the Internet were AOL subscribers. They actually thought that AOL was the Internet, and didnâ€™t stray very far from the safety of its interface, thereby missing HUGE amounts of helpful, fun, interesting information. What I see today is a syndrome very similar with todayâ€™s young people, who find â€˜all they needâ€™ in the MySpace space. This is disquieting to me.
M: Taking a step back, did you ever have a plan throughout your career? Is working in the studio something you prefer over playing live?
E: Wow! The career plan has always been to make music and enjoy the process. I must admit that the naivetÃ© of my youth went on a little too long. The music business is a business, and like all businesses, it has its good and bad features. The growth of mass-media, far exceeding Marshall McLuhanâ€™s predictions in our lifetime, has presented us with so many new options; so many growth opportunities through a WORLD-WIDE-WEB. There are limitless possibilities! Speaking as a â€˜professional musician, the re-invention of oneâ€™s self is almost essential in this day and age. The â€˜studio musicianâ€™ is a dinosaur. Fuggedaboudit! And roughly 75% of my session work is now through the Internet. Iâ€™d much prefer to sit in a room and record live with great musicians, because nothing beats the spontaneity that only comes that way. But record company budgets, having been slashed, are making those events rarer and rarer.
I love playing live as much as I love making records. In many ways, different sets of skills are required. I donâ€™t â€˜play outâ€™ as often as I used to, but thatâ€™s because Iâ€™ve become more discriminating about the venues I play. I much prefer a concert environment, where people have come with the express purpose of listening to my music. Iâ€™m afraid that whatâ€™s left of the â€˜club sceneâ€™ is far less interesting to me now, although there are certain exceptions. This is not meant to be snooty! I totally encourage young people to play the club thing to death â€“ thereâ€™s no better training ground! But make sure you get paid â€“ club owners know that itâ€™s a club ownersâ€™ market, and they donâ€™t hesitate to tell you so, and sadly, in too many instances will take advantage of young musicians who want to play. Youâ€™ve got to draw the line.
M: Am I right in saying you started gigging when you were sixteen? What advice would you offer a sixteen-year-old these days hoping to head down the same path?
E: Another â€˜Wow!â€™ â€“ This is the topic of the next Blog I will be posting within the next week or two. Young aspiring musicians have never had it tougher â€“ not in my lifetime, anyway. But thatâ€™s no reason not to pursue your dreams. Harder doesnâ€™t mean impossible. I tell all those would go for it â€¦to GO FOR IT!
M: With all the big names you've performed with, who left the deepest impression?
E: There have been so many Artists that Iâ€™ve been fortunate enough to work with, who have left major outstanding marks on my psyche. The Doobie Brothers was the most fun Rock and Roll band I ever played with â€“ the band always gave 200% to the audience, and the return from the audience was one of the finest highs Iâ€™ve ever experienced. Now donâ€™t gasp â€“ some superlative shows in which I took part were a series of concerts with Liza Minelli back around 1981. She had half of the Sinatra crew â€“ musicians, tour management, the lot. (She used to call him â€˜Uncle Frankâ€™.) Unbelievable musicianship â€¦and showmanship â€“ this was Liza in her absolute heyday! Richie Havens is very special. And come to think of it, the band that Skunk and I put together in Australia back in â€™85 (called â€˜My Old Schoolâ€™) certainly had a great moment or two.
On behalf of our readers, thanks for taking the time to chat with us Elliott!
I'd like to invite you all to sample the contents of Elliottâ€™s new musical offering, Still Reelin'. Just click here to open your â€˜puterâ€™s music player.
Alternatively, hereâ€™s the URL: http://www.elliott-randall.com/cd.htm - to get even more info on the making of the CD.
Show some support by either downloading the 0â€™s and 1â€™s from iTunes (and other assorted e-distributors), or, even better â€“ order the hardcopy.
You can also check out Elliott on MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/elliottrandall