Last week’s column opened by noting that, when you hear the name “Don Dixon,” you’re probably more likely to think of him in terms of his production career than for his accomplishments as a singer and songwriter. Although I followed this observation by noting that this tendency gets really annoying for those who’ve lived and loved to Dixon’s albums over the years, I also clarified that it should in no way be taken as a dismissal of his production work; the guy has had his hands on some of the best albums of the ’80s and ’90s, some of which you may have forgotten about. But, hey, that’s what I’m here for…
Popdose: I wanted to ask you about a couple of your production jobs…well, quite a few of them, actually, because I’m a big fan of a lot of the artists you’ve worked with. In fact, looking over your resume, it looks like you had a hand in about 7/8 of the American music I was listening to in the late ‘80s!
DD: I was busy!
PD: You were!
DD: And I made records quick. And cheap. That was the other thing. I made quick, cheap records.
PD: I’m a huge fan of the Connells’ Darker Days.
DD: I love the Connells. In fact, Arrogance just played with the Connells at an outdoor thing for a…well, it was kind of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing. And the Connells still sound great.
PD: They used to play the Boathouse every other week, it seemed like, and I think I was there for most of the shows.
DD: I think I was only at the Boathouse once. We were there when Marti was opening for Chris Isaak, and I did some of the shows on that tour. I was doing some projects, so I wasn’t on every date, but she did a couple of months with him, and I think I was…no, I know I was at the Boathouse show, because I can remember exactly where the buses were parked. The Boathouse was kind of an odd show, because it was mostly theaters on that tour, and at the Boathouse, it was hard to fit all three buses in the lot.
PD: I can believe it. I’m sure they were all lined up next to the water.
DD: Uh-huh. So, anyway, the Connells. Let’s talk.
PD: How did you come to record with them? Because that was their debut album.
DD: I think they made something before that. Maybe a local thing, a single or an EP…? I don’t know how I hooked up with them. I was just a local guy, and they were a Raleigh band…
PD: So probably the local angle, then?
DD: Yeah, I mean, I’m sure they just said, “Do you want to do it?” Because I think I only did a few songs on that record. Didn’t I do about half of it?
PD: Four out of nine tracks, yeah.
DD: It was one of those things where I had some time to do some songs with them, and their manager called up. I didn’t really know them, but I did know about them, and I knew a lot of people who’d been around them, and I knew they were doing well, and I liked them. It’s…90% of this stuff is that I’ve got a pile of cassettes, and my manager would send me the pile, and I’d go through them when I could and say, “I like this one,” or I’d tell them I couldn’t do it, or whatever. So I’m sure it was a combination of my liking them and them being local.
PD: I had mentioned downloading your latest record on eMusic, but a few months ago, I also downloaded The Long Acre, by In Tua Nua.
DD: Oh, now, see, I loved that record!
PD: And they certainly weren’t local. (Laughs)
DD: I’m trying to remember, but I think…that one came through Island UK. And I think the guy who contacted me about working them initially was just a fan of Most of the Girls Like to Dance album through its release on Demon, and through that he found out that I produced. They had me actually go over to Germany and see them play – they were on tour with U2 or something – and cut a couple of songs in Germany. So a couple of those tracks were cut in Germany. And I said, “Okay, I love this band. It’s going to be a real challenge, but this band’s real interesting, so I want to get them to the United States and get them in my joint”…which wasn’t really my joint, but it was Reflection Studios, which I used a lot…”and let’s try to figure this record out and make a cool, big-sounding record.” So that’s what we did. And that’s what they wanted. They were a big band, and they wanted a big sound.
PD: I think you succeeded on that front.
DD: Yeah, it’s definitely a big sound. The big problems with that…and I realize I’m using the word “big” a lot here, so now I’m going to try and use it as much as possible…is that they were using Uilleann pipes, which are the Irish version of a bagpipe. A few more notes than a bagpipe, but still a limited scale. And then they had a fiddle player. And the piper and the fiddle player hated each other, and they used exactly the same frequencies, so they had to really be working together, and they were constantly at each others’ throats. So the big problem with that was to try and get them to coordinate their efforts so it didn’t just sound like a big blur all of the time. With the pipes, you might as well have just had a guy with a fuzz pedal on full fuzz, playing the lines all the time, and you know what fiddles sound like, just sawing away. And they were largely a live band, that’s where their basis was, so they hadn’t done much recording, and it had all been that kind of English recording where it was one drum at a time. I wanted them to try and capture some of that energy and sound that I’d seen when I saw them live, but a big band like that is going to have a lot of personality problems and clashes. But I like the record. It’s funny, I just contacted a couple of them this year, and I hadn’t talked to any of them in a long time.
PD: Do you recall any specific favorite songs off the record?
DD: Not really. I mean, not off the top of my head. I love the title cut, which was sung by the drummer (Paul Byrne)…as opposed to the girl singer, whose name is totally escaping me at the moment. Oh, wait, it’s Leslie. Leslie Dowdall. She sang a couple of great songs on that record, too, though. It had some real songs; they were good about letting me help them sculpt them a little bit. But off the top of my head, it would be hard to come up with other specific titles. I remember we had one that we had been thinking about as a single, which was a little bit shorter, and Lesley sang that one. Maybe I can find the record around here…
PD: Hang on, I’ve got it on my iTunes. (Recites some titles)
DD: “All I Wanted.” That’s it. “Wheel of Evil” is pretty good, too, but “All I Wanted” was probably the one that seemed the most single-y for whenever that was. It fit in with the U2 crowd of the time.
PD: You also worked with Guadalcanal Diary quite a lot…in fact, with the exception of Jamboree, I think you handled their entire discography!
DD: Yeah, they made a record…was it Jamboree?…with one of those great Atlanta guys (Rodney Mills) while they were on Elektra, but they started off as one of those DB Records bands, the label run by Danny Beard, who had that Wax ‘N’ Stax record store down in Atlanta. They were from Marietta, and they were a great, great band. They made that first record really inexpensively, and it was fantastically fun and really fast. And then I made a wonderful solo record later with Murray.
PD: Actually, I interviewed him when he released that.
DD: Well, his first solo record, I didn’t get to make. I made the next one, which never came out, which in some ways is better than the first one, even though that first one is good.
PD: Yeah, sorry, I was thinking of In Thrall.
DD: Right, and that one was produced by Tony…someone.
PD: Oh, geez, Tony Berg. Yeah, and I knew that, too, because he was producing a bunch of other great records around that time. (Writer’s note: Seriously, he really was. The guy helmed Michael Penn’s March, Squeeze’s Play, and Aimee Mann’s Whatever.)
DD: I did actually work on In Thrall. I sang on it or something. I definitely went there for the sessions. But with the next record, we worked on it and worked on it and worked on it. I have a cassette of it where Murray refers to it as “how I spent my 30s.” (Laughs) We ended up recording 22 or 23 songs. But the original version of the record that we really loved and wanted to put out just has this great Southern Gothic sound that’s perfect Murray. It’s got a great dark vibe.
PD: What’s he doing now? I know Guadalcanal gets together sporadically to do reunion shows.
DD: Yeah, they get together to play once in awhile. I think he’s a computer nerd, like most musicians I’ve worked with. He does something with graphics, I think, and has some sort of computer job.
PD: I remember when I talked to him back then that he’d been talking about doing some sort of soundtrack work, and I was excited to hear what he was going to come out with next, but it never emerged.
DD: Well, if I can find it, you’ll hear it, and you’ll scratch your head, because it’s an unbelievably cool record…and they just didn’t like it. They wouldn’t put it out. They kept making us record stuff, and we kept recording stuff and doing more, and they eventually just never put it out.
PD: Given that era, I’d figure they were listening and saying, “You know, I’m just not hearing the next ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Can you help us out with that?”
DD: Well, there was certainly an element of that involved, but I think it was more…in his case, I think it was more just…I don’t want to say mis-management, because I like Russell (Carter), but I think Russell didn’t get the record, and consequently he didn’t work for the record. I just don’t think they understood what we were trying to accomplish…but I think you will. I think you’ll immediately hear what this record is about and why it’s good and how it really could’ve changed people’s perceptions of Murray as a writer, because I really am personally more interested in the songs than I am just in the sound of something. But I like to try and put the right combination of things together, and…it’s not easy to talk about. It’s just something you kind of have to do. But, yeah, it was very sad for me that it never got to come out, for a lot of reasons.
PD: Okay, since I’ve brought up Nirvana tangentially, I guess this is as good a time as any to ask about your great lost production that never came to pass: Nevermind.
DD: Well, you know, I don’t think anything got lost. I think the record they ended up making with Butch (Vig) is…I don’t think there’d be any difference. If anything, his is better, because I wouldn’t have insisted on the double-tracking, which I think is a powerful aspect of that recording, and I think Butch did insist on that. I’m not sure that there’s anything that would’ve been different. Maybe a couple of songs, where there were a couple of choices I would’ve encouraged them to make, but that’s just on the stuff that was available at the time. But as with most bands, my job is to stay out of the way and let them get the stuff down, and then I just step in where it needs a little whitewash on the walls, so I don’t think it would’ve been horribly different. The record sounds very similar to what the band sounded like. And even if I’d done it, Butch was going to work on the record with me, anyway. It was going to be me and Butch together, and they were smart enough not to pay the dumb Southern cracker any money and keep it all for themselves. (Laughs)
PD: I can still remember how weird it was for me to see Butch’s name on their record, because at the time, I was really only familiar with him for his work as a member of Fire Town.
DD: Yeah, and that’s how I knew him, too. Fire Town had approached me when they were on Atlantic; they came backstage at a show at the Bottom Line or something and talked to me about producing them. I liked them. I thought they were pretty cool.
PD: They definitely had a sound where I could imagine your production working.
DD: Yeah, they fit in to…they were one of those bands that was almost kind of like Arrogance, given that they were kind of caught between stadium rock and…college rock, to use a horrible and completely useless phrase. But, yeah, it was really disappointing, because I really liked Nirvana, and I hadn’t gotten that excited about a demo in a long time.
PD: Was that one that someone had sent to you, or did they approach you personally?
DD: It wasn’t the band, even though I think the band was…actually, I don’t know if I was on the band’s list, but I have to figure I was, at least to a certain degree. But the guy who signed them to Geffen is the guy who sent the stuff to me, and he had been familiar with me for many, many years. I mean, Murmur was already an old record by then. But, actually, one of the bands that Kurt (Cobain) brought up to me was The Smithereens, ‘cause they loved those Smithereens records that I’d done.
PD: Well, thank you for providing me with a perfect segue into both bands that I wanted to ask you about. When you were working with R.E.M. and the Smithereens, did you sense that either of them had a big chance at mainstream success?
DD: Well, Mitch (Easter) and I both…I was familiar with R.E.M. because of Mitch doing Chronic Town, and we both loved them, but college radio was an emerging thing at the time, and it was not very organized. I mean, there had been college radio stations for forever, but the idea of college radio having commercial impact and being worked by anybody was just sort of emerging as a concept. The goal was to get these bands that had fan bases in college markets and just sort of make a record that reflected what they were doing but that sounded good on the radio, that didn’t just sound completely like marbles rolling around in an empty gas can. It had to have some impact, to create this fan base that would spiral out throughout these college radio stations and into the college towns. That was the kind of loose plan that was sort of emerging as a concept at the time, directly out of the D.I.Y. movement that that started ten years before. The Smithereens to a lesser degree, but R.E.M. already had a club-sized following in the South that was pretty fanatical and pretty crazy, so we weren’t trying to pander to anyone. We were just trying to build on that. But we had no concept that it would be Record of the Year and that it would have the impact that it had. We did know that they were different, and we liked the kind of different they were and tried to preserve that with R.E.M.
R.E.M. and Don Dixon performing “Wild Thing” in 1985
With the Smithereens, it was more a matter of Pat being really persistent and, uh, kind of tricking me into agreeing to making the record. I was tired, they had a really tight schedule, they had no budget, but the fact that we were both on Enigma was a little bit of a help, and I really liked them. I liked the Connells, too. I liked a lot of bands, but it was just a matter of only being one human being! But Pat sort of cornered me when Marti and I were playing one night in New York, and he had a photographer show up along with the rest of the band, and he had this picture of me made with the band…and we’d been talking about whether I was going to have time and be able to help with their record, but the next thing I know, there’s a picture of me in Billboard, announcing that I was going to produce them!
PD: (Laughs) Nice.
DD: Hey, Pat’s a smart man. So that kind of made that decision for me. I mean, obviously, ultimately, I’m really glad I did, but…I think we made it the week following Christmas or something. It was an unbelievably tight schedule and a horrible time of year, when your children hate you because you’re gone, so it was in that kind of pressurized environment that we made Especially for You. And like I said, we had no money and no time, but we made a great record and ended up with lots of great little guest spots on it, and the record sounds good.
PD: I know you worked on Green Thoughts and A Date with the Smithereens as well, and the latter featured some guest guitar work from Lou Reed. Any specific memories from that session?
DD: As a matter of fact, I do have some memories of Lou’s time with us…
Okay, I hate to do this, but I cannot in good conscience share with you the specifics what Don said about the experience of working with Lou, owing to the fact that, after offering up his memories, he added, “I’m not sure that you should say any of the mean stuff…not that I care personally…‘cause he was very nice and I feel like I’m kicking a retarded turtle.” I’m not entirely sure what that means (although it made me laugh very, very hard nonetheless), but suffice it to say that it was a bit of a trial to incorporate Lou’s efforts into the proceedings, and that if you’re a fan of Mr. Reed’s riffs on “Point of No Return” and “Long Way Back Again,” you can probably thank Mr. Dixon for getting something usable.
As the contents to this week’s column and last week’s column display, Don and I talked for quite some time…over an hour, in fact…and yet I still didn’t get to tackle everything I could’ve asked him about. (He apologized for getting off topic so much during our conversation, but I assured him that he would’ve gotten bored with me peppering him with questions long before I ever got bored with listening to his responses.) As a result, I’m going to leave you with two collections of songs: one from albums that were discussed during our conversations, the other with albums that – due to lack of time – were not. May you enjoy them both equally, and as you do so, may you remember to give thanks to Don Dixon for all his hard work.
* The Connells, “Darker Days” (Darker Days)
* In Tua Nua, “All I Wanted” (The Long Acre)
* Guadalcanal Diary, “Watusi Rodeo” (Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man)
* Guadalcanal Diary, “Litany (Life Goes On)” (2×4)
* Guadalcanal Diary, “Always Saturday” (Flip Flop)
* R.E.M., “Perfect Circle” (Murmur)
* R.E.M., “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (Reckoning)
* The Smithereens, “Blood and Roses” (Especially for You)
* The Smithereens, “Only A Memory” (Green Thoughts)
* The Smithereens, “Miles From Nowhere” (A Date with the Smithereens)
* Dumptruck, “Back Where I Belong” (Positively Dumptruck)
* Wednesday Week, “Why” (What We Had)
* Richard Barone, “I Only Took What I Needed” (Primal Dream)
* Marshall Crenshaw, “This Is Easy” (Mary Jean & 9 Others)
* Kyle Davis, “Waiting For You” (Waiting For You)
* Pat DiNizio, “Nobody But Me” (Songs and Sounds)
* Emmet Swimming, “Arlington” (Arlington to Boston)
* The Hang Ups, “Caroline” (Second Story)
* Buzz of Delight, “Southern” (Sound Castles)
* Tommy Keene, “Back Again” (Back Again (Try…) EP)