Working on “American Garage” – Pat Metheny Group (1979)

Working on American Garage with The Pat Metheny Group (1979)
Dr. Richard Niles

I met Pat Metheny in 1974 when I was studying at The Berklee College of Music. Gary Burton hired Pat as a guitar teacher. We developed a friendship based on my understanding of Pat’s unique quest to find his own voice. Pat also saw a similar quest in my compositions. He also has a sense of humor.

I was living in LA throughout 1979 having worked in London since 1975 as a record producer, composer and arranger. I had worked with many stars of the time including Tina Turner, Cat Stevens and Leo Sayer. I went to see The Pat Metheny Group play the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and was looking forward to catching up not only with Pat, but with Danny Gottlieb who I had become friendly with on his trips to Boston.

Backstage, Pat told me he had begun to feel that rather restricted by the purist production methods of Manfred Eicher. The group was about to make a new album. “It’s the first record I’ve done without Manfred producing. You’ve produced a lot of records in England. Would you like to help us?” I agreed in a nanosecond.

Pat asked me to find the best recording engineer in LA and I suggested that I could ask the highly respected Humberto Gatica who I had met on Leo Sayer’s sessions. Unfortunately, Humberto couldn’t do the dates, but he suggested his friend Kent Nebergall who had recently done a Rita Coolidge album that I liked the sound of. So did Pat.

The album was to be recorded at Longview Farm Studio in North Brookfield, Mass. Kent and I were flown to Ney York City to see the band play and then travelled to the studio. The group Stuff had recorded there so I figured it would be a nice place to make great music. It was a residential studio housed in a big red barn, so I was looking forward to waffles, communing with nature and maybe even seeing Superman flying off on some mission.

But the first day was a little ‘bumpy’ for the band. By the end of the afternoon the MCI console and Studer 24-track had recorded nothing usable. We were trying to record a long (13 minutes) complex piece called “The Epic”. Kent and I looked at each other thinking, “These are some of the greatest musicians in the world. What’s wrong?”

What was wrong was that no one was comfortable. I took Pat aside and said, “That piece sounded great last night, but it really is an epic! But why don’t we just play that rock tune you guys played at the end? It was actually my favorite tune of the gig!”
Pat laughed, “Well, I’m not sure Manfred would want that tune on an ECM album…”
“Well, let’s play it just for fun,” I said, “I don’t have to record it. Maybe it will loosen everyone up.”

They rocked and everyone went crazy. Of course we recorded it. To me, this tune was what made that incarnation of the Pat Metheny Group unique—a joyous mix of rock and jazz creating a new single entity of its own. A + B = PatDannyLyleMark.

The tune had no name and we were reading a review of the New York gig. It said something like, “The Pat Metheny Group play like an extremely talented garage band..” I said, “How about calling the tune ‘Talent Garage’?”
I think it was Lyle who said, “How about ‘American Garage’?” and that was it. It became the name of the album. We even did a photoshoot for the cover with the band crammed into a local garage. Here is Rob Van Petten’s original colorized shot. The guys were actually playing some rock tune—it might have been “Louie Louie”.

American Garage - Rob Van Petten

American Garage – Rob Van Petten

After that, the other tunes went smoothly with everyone playing as magnificently as they had onstage the previous night. I didn’t have to tell these superb musicians what to do. Instead, it was my job to enable them to do their thing without any technological impediments. If they had ideas, I accommodated them. I was able to work easily with Kent because he knew his stuff. If I suggested more high EQ on the toms or less compression on the bass, he knew what sound I was looking for.

When a take was finished everyone gathered in the control room and discussed things. If someone made a mistake I explained we could simply ‘drop in’ to the track to repair it rather than lose a great group performance. The purist jazz attitude of ECM’s Manfred Eicher had never allowed Pat to do anything of this nature.

By this time Metheny had grown as an artist and needed to explore his own ideas, express his unique sensibilities. Although he was influenced by mainstream jazz (Miles Davis) and soul and blues (Wes Montgomery), he also felt the need to also express the youthful exuberant sounds of rock and pop (the Beatles). “Airstream” is a beautiful tune reminiscent of both Bacharach and country. Later, Brazilian influences would be heard.

Beyond the type of music he chose to record and his direction of the musicians, the production methods employed by Eicher had been rather limited. All music was recorded live with superb microphones in superb studios with expensive sounding reverbs. And… that was pretty much it. Great musicians played live and albums were completed in a couple of days. This was no different to how jazz and classical albums were produced in the 1940s.

But the techniques of production had developed from the 1950s with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll and engineers like Tom Dowd and Joe Meek. These pioneers explored overdubbing, experimenting with microphone placement, ‘flanging’ and ‘automatic double tracking’ using two tape recorders, overloading the tape (tape compression), creative use of compressors and limiters and new reverbs. George Martin’s production on Beatles records was another leap forward. By the mid 1970s when I began producing records in London, these revolutionary sounds had become commonplace. The recording studio itself had become a creative instrument.

I was able to suggest a few ideas to the band that I had used on pop records in London. On “American Garage” there was a moment where I felt it needed a more exciting crash than Danny’s cymbal. I overdubbed the sound of breaking glass. I filled a large cardboard box with empty bottles and put a Neumann U87 next to the box. I then got up on a ladder and threw a milk bottle as hard as I could into the box. Kent recorded that to 2-track and then ‘spun it in’ to the track on the cymbal crash. Today that would be easily done digitally, but I have to say it was more fun in ‘the old days’, lining up bits of tape.

At the end of “The Epic” I suggested that Pat slow the tape to half speed and play some picked arpeggios. This was to give an even more epic, orchestral feel to the end. Of course at normal speed, the picking was an octave higher and sounded sparkly and bright.

Another overdubbing idea was used on “The Search”. Pat played the melody on an electric 12-string and I suggested it might sound good in 3-part harmony. I discussed it with Pat for a few minutes and then offered to write out the harmony parts. Lyle (who had been sitting quietly playing chess against himself) said, “I’ve already done it. Try this,” and handed Pat the parts. It’s a sound I’ve never heard on any other record since.

The amiable Kent Nebergall scared us to death one afternoon when we heard a loud electrical click on the Ampex 24-track tape. I feared we might have to re-record a great take but he calmly said, “No problem. Give me a few minutes.” He rubbed the multitrack back and forth, muting tracks until he had identified, “It’s on track 17.” I said, “Then we’re doomed.” “No,” he laughed, just get me a pin.”

He marked the click on the 2-inch tape with a white Chinagraph wax pencil. He then stretched the tape tautly in the air and, to our horror, pierced the tape with the pin leaving a neat hole in the tape, exactly on his mark. I sputtered, “Kent??!! Are you out of your mind??” ”Oh, yes,” he smiled, “but your click is history.” Sure enough, the tape played perfectly with no click. That’s still the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in 50 years of recording.

My deep admiration and love for Metheny’s work has always been clear. But let me take this opportunity to say that the musicianship of Lyle Mays is quite breathtaking. A kind of luminescent, understated spirit shines from every note he plays or writes. He has a great lyricism mixed with a wry sense of humor—classy and louche, both slick and surprising. This is a man who could bring hope to a dying planet with a gentle, aptly voiced chord from his long fingers.

Danny Gottlieb is perhaps the most dynamic drummer I have ever had the pleasure to work with. The fact that he can sound great with both Metheny and the Blues Brothers gives him a versatility equal to plastic. He can float over the track with his trademark, delicate cymbal work or rock like a San Francisco doper wacked out on Acapulco Gold and acid in 1967. Very sensitive to everything going on around him, Gottlieb compliments the group vibe so well that he makes a band sound like one great player.

Mark Egan is a musician who can lead from behind. The intuitive communication of his bass with Gottlieb’s mercurial rhythms made their subsequent 30+ years no surprise to me. Like Danny, his sound and execution was always in service to the composition. I was happy to see this again when Danny and Mark lent their artistry to my two guitar albums in later years.

I was also fortunate to work with Metheny again on a duet with Silje Nergaard, a Norwegian artist I was producing for my own label. We had a #1 record in Japan with the song “Tell Me Where You’re Going”.

It was wonderful to be a small part of an important stage in the unparalleled development of Metheny’s artistry. Even though, or perhaps because we had used contemporary production methods, American Garage was the album that first caught the powerdrive of the Pat Metheny Group live onstage. It also pointed to a future that was to significantly influence the course of contemporary jazz. It was also a hell of a lot of fun.

©2014Niles Smiles Music

3 thoughts on “Working on “American Garage” – Pat Metheny Group (1979)

  1. Great article, I love to learn what’s behind the making of a record, to learn about the men who made the sound, who had the ideas. And I do love tales from ”studio recording sessions”. All of this surely help to better understand the spirit of the record, of its artists and of their music. As you surely can understand, I love ”American Garage”, this album changed forever my way to listen to the music and my music tastes. Thank you for your notable work and contribution to this album. Excuse me for my uncorrect english. Greeting from Italy. Bye

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