Joe-Boyd-Issue-No29JOE BOYD

From Clapton to Kubrick, this creative giant has worked with them all 

By Michael Gallant

“If you had told me 25 years ago I would be producing tribute concerts about Nick Drake’s music, it might have depressed me,” says Joe Boyd with a chuckle. Fortunately for Boyd the experience turned out to be “kind of wonderful.”

It’s a fitting project for the veteran producer. Having helped pioneer the British folk-rock movement, Boyd became impressed with Drake and produced the legendary singer-songwriter’s first album, Five Leaves Left, in 1969—along with his two subsequent records. Decades after Drake’s death in 1974, Boyd continued to bring his music to life—first as a series of live concerts, and this year on the album Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake.

A Boston native and Harvard University graduate, Boyd began his career in Europe working for noted jazz producer George Wein as tour producer for artists like Muddy Waters and Stan Getz. His first taste of notoriety came from producing the Powerhouse, which included Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Paul Jones. In what has become a singular career, Boyd has racked up impressive production credits including Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Richard Thompson, Pink Floyd, Taj Mahal, 10,000 Maniacs, Maria Muldaur, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Billy Bragg, the Flaming Lips, Four Tet and R.E.M.

Boyd, 71, has also made his mark on the film industry. As head of music for Warner Bros., Boyd oversaw music composition for A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance, including its hit “Dueling Banjos.” Boyd also produced and co-directed the 1973 documentary.

Jimi Hendrix, and he published a memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, in 2006. “I’m working on another book right now,” says Boyd. “It’s taking me a lot longer to write than White Bicycles took, but it’s a different sort of project. It’s a history of the phenomenon of world music, the wealthy, decadent, Western bourgeoisie and its thirst for exotic authenticity.” Boyd discusses quenching his own musical thirst, reinventing timeless songs, and earning the trust of A-list artists.

How’d the Drake tribute come about?

I’d worked on a recent spate of live tribute concerts—the first happened about five years ago. I did a tribute concert after [Pink Floyd founding member] Syd Barrett died, and I thought it turned out wonderfully. That tilted my psychology about the idea of live tribute concerts, so when I was asked to put together a celebration of Nick’s music at Birmingham Town Hall four years ago, I said, “Let’s try it.” And the audience thought it was fantastic, the musicians had a great time, and the singers loved getting their teeth into these songs—and they sounded so good singing them.

How did that become an album?

We’ve done about 15 of these concerts, and they’ve gotten better and better. The audiences loved them, and the songs flourished in the hands of singers, who were all very different from Nick. The BBC recorded the London concert, and then we went to Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recorded a couple of concerts. In both cases, we worked out deals with them to get access to the multitracks. I went back in and remixed what I thought were the best takes. Then I played them for the singers and musicians and asked, “What do you think? Should we put this out?” They all said, “Yes, great,” so here we are.

Did it turn out as you expected?

In some ways, yes. There was one song, “Time Has Told Me,” that, when I heard it on Nick’s demo tape in 1969, my first thought was to send it to Roberta Flack, because I thought that she should make it the follow-up to the “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” She never did, of course, but I always had in mind a soulful, possibly African-American woman singing that song. When I heard Krystle Warren perform in concert and went backstage after her show, I asked if she had ever heard of Nick Drake and she said, “Oh yeah, I love him!” When I asked if she would sing that song, she said that she loved that one as well. She does it quite differently from how Nick did it, but it’s exactly what I heard, imagined and wanted.

How did you approach the sound of the album?

Basically, I just took the multitracks and went into a studio I love mixing in, with an engineer I love mixing with, Jerry Boys, who’s a Grammy winner and has worked on projects like Buena Vista Social Club. The studio had great analog reverb and lots of analog outboard gear, and we just warmed it up and mixed it like it was a studio record. We were able to get such a good sound that we dialed out the applause, so you can listen to it like it’s a studio record, even though there are no overdubs and it’s all live. We put the applause at the very end of the record.

Why dial out the applause?

There was an interesting moment when I was playing it for a friend of mine and I skipped right to track five on the CD player. The song started clean and played all the way through, and then the applause came in at the very end. My friend was engrossed and loving the performance, but the clapping made him jump. He didn’t realize that it was live, and it kind of shocked him. That put the idea into my head. With the Nick record, because the arrangements are quite formal and the audiences were respectful, people seemed to let the last note die away and then erupt in cheers and such, so we felt that we could do it. Also, somebody told us that BBC Radio 2—the most important outlet in Britain for this kind of music—has a rule where they don’t play tracks with applause. Sometimes they dial it out themselves, but we chose to take it out instead.

If you were back working again with Pink Floyd in 1967, what would you change?

The main thing I’d do differently would be to somehow make sure that I could get a bigger advance from Polydor Records to compete with EMI and try to hold on to them! As to the actual process, it was great. I had a really good time with them, and we were all happy with the results. One of the strangest, nicest things anybody ever said about me came from an Austrian radio guy who told me that he’d just interviewed [Pink Floyd drummer] Nick Mason who said he had felt that Syd was very comfortable with me in the studio. He’d always wondered if Syd would have somehow had a less bad reaction to becoming famous and wouldn’t have gone off the rails so much if they’d still been working with me. If you could rerun history, it would be to keep Syd happy and productive.

How do you establish an artist’s trust?

The key thing for me is making artists feel that they’re recording for somebody who loves the music. When people feel you are totally committed to them and their work, and you share a vision of how the recording process is going to go down, that’s how you get people feeling relaxed and making the best recordings. Usually, you don’t get into the studio in the first place until you have a rapport, so in a way you have to convince people you’re the right person to produce their album, and that involves building trust and convincing them that you love their music.


With R.E.M., initially, it was [guitarist] Peter Buck who liked the idea of my producing the record. The other guys didn’t know that much about me or why I was working with them, so it took a little while to get them all to buy into the idea.

How did you handle that?

An interesting story: William Burroughs and Brion Gysin did a famous series of recordings called “cut-ups” where Burroughs read his poetry, they recorded it, and then snipped up the tape with scissors. They put the strands in a basket and scrambled them before reassembling them in random order. If you think about Michael Stipe’s lyrics in the first three R.E.M. albums, there’s a certain element of that—the lyrics seem like little snatches of thoughts, images that are strung together without a seemingly linear order. Stipe had been a little guarded with me in the studio at the beginning—he didn’t really know me and, unlike Peter Buck, wasn’t a student of Nick Drake records, so I imagine he was asking, “Why is this person producing us?” On the fourth day in the studio with R.E.M., somehow the subject of cut-ups came up and I mentioned that I had met Brion Gysin once in the ’60s. He stopped, dropped what he was doing, and stared at me. “You met Brion Gysin?” From that point on, I was fine. I had earned my credibility.

You’re not a fan of digital recording.

On the one hand, recent projects I’ve been involved in wouldn’t be possible without Pro Tools. Just hooking it up to the PA system and putting everything down digitally has huge advantages. It’s cheap, functional and efficient. But I got Richard Thompson’s new album through the post yesterday and listened to it. It sounded amazing, so much better than any new record I’d heard in ages. It jumps out of the speakers at you with warmth and clarity at the same time. I looked on the back and saw that it was recorded on 16-track, 2-inch analog tape and mixed to analog. It was nice to have all of my prejudices reconfirmed!

Describe your ideal recording space.

High ceilings and a nice, bright, live sound. It would be a big room, ideally with some baffles, so everybody could be in the same space at the same time, just making live music in the studio.

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