Cowsill Transcripts

Singers on Singing - Bob Interview
December 24, 2014
Host: Lisa Popeil

Lisa: Talk about “Hair” and how that came to be and why some people consider it controversial. I don’t know why that word comes up, at least on the internet.

Bob: I can do the controversial part first. It’s got a segment in it with the “National Anthem” “Oh say can you see, my eyes, if you can, then my hairs too short”

Lisa: It wasn’t in the original song?

Bob: yeah, it was, yeah.

Lisa: OK

Bob: That’s what made it controversial. So we put “Hair” out, so because of that “disrespectful section to the ‘National Anthem’ “ well they’re not going to play it on Armed Forces radio. I don’t know if any DJ cut it or anything, but that’s as much as it got … and it’s associated with a controversial play, musical, and a controversial phenomenon because - when we did “Hair” we’d never heard of the musical Hair. We’d never heard of any of these songs. Because we were asked to do it to be on a TV show, to lip synch. In those days you … lip synch was a good thing. In fact you insisted on lip synching because this TV show was going to destroy your sound if you didn’t. And that’s just how it was back then because they didn’t know what to do with bands on TV shows except for Ed Sullivan. And even he was a little weak. But to lip synch that was easy. We could go in the studio, just the four of us, no one is there from MGM, no parents. Nobody’s there. It’s us. We’re going to make a demo of a song to lip synch. This was like spring time. We’re going on tour this summer. The TV show was with Carl Reiner – Carl Reiner, the very famous comedian, he’s the one …. This is his idea because he booked us on his TV special. And he sent us this record, “You guys this is going to be great. Go in, cut something you can lip synch to this “Hair” song” and he sent us this album that was going to …. It’s the Broadway musical thing and we’re like ‘Wow look at this. This is wild’ And we heard it and it’s like that’s a funny song. But the mission was very precise. Make a demo you can lip synch to. So, in we went. We booked time at United down on Sunset and started. Now we had been using these studio musicians, not live, but you know. And now we had to record this ourselves, with us playing the tracks. So in we went and we learned very quickly that what you do live really has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re going to do in the studio to the same song. Because in the studio, everything is … it’s just highlighted. Every part of a song in the studio is highlighted to the point where it has to be perfect. If you’re putting a harpsichord on “Hair” it has to be perfect. If you’re putting …. So we start with the basic track. We’re not .. this is how we learned. It took forever to get that basic track to “Hair” because we’d never really done basic tracks. And John, our brother John will admit he was the culprit, our drummer, brother because look we had to play this thing, this 3 minutes and 28 second song and we had to play it absolutely right. So it took 101 takes to do the basic track. I think John thinks it was more but I at 101 …

Lisa: Well there’s pauses in it and are there tempo changes in it?

Bob: No, yeah (laughs) that’s what the first 100 had was … but no there’s not tempo … but the arrangement was a bit complex in terms there was segmented arrangement. But it wasn’t segmented to the point that we could record the basic track with this segment and then link it to that segment. You just had to play the song.

Lisa: Did you use a click?

Bob: No. We learned about click tracks later with a guy named Check Plokin. Up to that point it would never dawn on us to use a click track. It’s just like .. it was more of a feel thing. And I’m not saying that “Hair” is a perfect paced 3 minute 28 seconds, it probably isn’t, but it’s human. It’s OK if it goes and flows. It’s hot horrific. Because you’ve got to over dub to it. And a lot of times we thought we had the take. So you think you have a take and as soon as you start over dubbing to that take you’re going to find out every little movement that that track did because you’ve got to follow it. And then many times it’s “This isn’t good enough. I can’t even play to this.” But we’re new to hearing what we’re supposed to come up with here, you know. That’s why it took so long. Now as it’s building though, now we’re getting .. we’re thinking “This is cool.” Once we got the basic … once you get the basic track, then the fun begins. Because the hard, hard foundation that you needed to get is there. Then you just “OK what are we going to do with this?”

Lisa: Well how similar was your arrangement to the original?

Bob: Not at all. No, because the original I think was just lead vocal … I’d have to hear it to remember, OK. I know we weren’t trying to clone anything that we heard from that. By the time we had played the song …. I don’t even know if it’s in the same key … that’s a good question because I just don’t know. It’s been so long.

Lisa: I think it is in the same key. Also you decided to use a lot of re-verb on the background vocals. I was thinking about that.

Bob: Well we were thinking that … that intro for instances … we’re thinking that the background, the background part, the big vocal part of the intro was like a choir almost. Because Barry and John had such young voices and Susan was on …. Susan we brought in for one part of “Hair” but she wasn’t on the other part I don’t think. But anyway, they had these high voices and we had a real spread and by doubling and tripling we were really creating something there and we thought it was great. And then we thought why don’t we dry up the lead vocal here and … so the lead vocal has absolutely nothing on it and that group has EVERYTHING on it and it just seemed to contracts pretty cool, you know. It was just something we tried. It wasn’t like, “What should we do?” This isn’t, this isn’t a lot of pre-mediated, great thinking by artists. This is just trying stuff. You know, that sounds pretty good dry why don’t … no one hears the things I hear but even the very beginning we bring in this 12 string guitar but we fade it in. I mean it’s the little things that only we would know some of them. But the use of echo was a big deal to us, especially on a song like that because you could send the echo, you could put the part up but you could send the echo over hear or over there so it sounds big. So that intro really sounded big to us and then to bring in the dry lead was like “Wow that’s different. We didn’t expect that.” And that probably could have been that we forgot to put the echo on. I don’t know. You can’t remember why some things happen, but it did. And then we just started stacking the tracks. More guitars. I put harpsichord on. I did the piano, part of the piano going through that thing and Bill did a lead guitar. Look we just started really having fun with it then, trying this and that. Because once that track is done and you have the tempo and everything, that parts done, that’s a great day because you know you’re going to start over-dubbing. And then we built the track up enough that then we think we better get vocals in here before we do anything else cuz you’re going to start walking on each other. Instruments are going to start walking on because keyboards especially you have to watch that with vocals because they are kind of in the same range. So you have to watch your strings, keyboards and vocals, which is why we used vocals for them often. They are in the same range. Which was fine because we had a lot of strings and horns on our albums. But it all worked out. It was quite complex but it was fun. And it was all experimental. There was nothing to go on really. You’re just in there on your own. It’s try this, try that.

Lisa: That’s the joy of it.

Bob: Yeah, and I think it was good that we had to think ahead. We had 8 tracks. Now with “Hair” they had figured out how to take an 8 track machine and link it to a second 8 track machine. So we had 16. But once the tracks done, you had to mix down to open vocal tracks. You fill 16 quickly. I mean the bass drum has to be alone, the snare drum has to be alone, the tom … you got five tracks of drums of those. Then you got this guitar, that guitar, that guitar, that guitar .. now you’re running out of room. Alright. Now you got to mix down, so you’re mixing as you’re recording because you have to open room to keep recording. So now you have to think way ahead. If I mix this too low as we keep adding it’s going to get buried more and more so you got to always ….

Lisa: Nosier and nosier

Bob: Especially the bass and generation loss. Right nosier and nosier. Every time you’re going to consolidate you’re going to lose a generation. It’s going to … back in those days it was discernable in an audio….. you could hear it, you could hear it. You had to watch that. But man once we got to 16, man that was like getting 100 tracks from our prospective because we just doubled that issue and we could think about that way later. We get to fill 15 tracks or 12 let’s say because eventually you’re starting to mix drums together and open those tracks so you can use them, you’re putting guitars … but now you’re deciding “We got to mix these guitars, make sure that one goes there and that one goes there. Now get back to recording.”

Lisa: I imagine that some of the younger people - songwriters and producers - are listening to this don’t even know what we’re talking about. They don’t realize how much time went into “what am I going to bounce to what”

Bob: Yes

Lisa: And have to live with it.

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