The Dylan Review spoke to producer and engineer Mark Howard about his book of photographs Recording Icons / Creative Spaces and his work with Dylan on Time Out of Mind and Oh Mercy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dylan Review: When did you start taking photos? And why did you start photographing recording studios?
Mark Howard: I started taking photos to document things in the studio, like what guitars people were playing, what instruments were used for other songs, and then it turned into a big file of all these amazing photos of the houses that I recorded in. I always take photos of the interiors of the houses as a kind of documenting. Over the years I had so much of it. I started filing through picking my favorite ones and it kind of turned into a playlist of photos on my computer to show people where I was working. And then I was working in New Orleans at a studio and the owner said “you’ve got to put a book out!” so I said “okay, I’ll start assembling,” and we put this book of photos out.
It’s taken with various cameras. It’s done with what’s called time lapse photography. I would put my camera on the console and it would take a photo every 30 seconds. So I would have hundreds of photos, still photos, and I would go through and pick the best one. I was capturing people in their natural habitat – It sounds like animals. If you hold a camera up to an artist in a studio they suddenly act differently. So I kind of caught them without them knowing.
DR: Is it like choosing from twenty takes of a song, when you’ve got to pick one photo from a hundred different shots?
MH: Exactly. Some of it was hard to edit because I loved so many of them. I captured so many great images. The photos of Neil Young are just fantastic. You would never be able to get that kind of shot with a photographer in a studio filming. So it was a cool way to document.
DR: Do you have a favorite photo?
MH: I would say it’s either one of Joni Mitchell sitting smoking cigarettes while I was recording her, or one of Robert Plant where he is working on lyrics.
DR: And what about Dylan? He certainly doesn’t like being photographed. It must be fascinating to get a candid take.
MH: On the Oh Mercy record, I had a Polaroid [camera] and Dylan said “don’t take any photos, taking photos is stopping time.” But I sneaked a couple out. I would have to take Polaroids of the console in those days to document where my settings were. So, I’d just do it on these Polaroids as it was an old desk with no recall in those days. So I was able to capture Dylan there with his hoodie on.
DR: Oh Mercy was recorded in New Orleans. How did you come to record in New Orleans?
MH: It happened because I was working on a record [in New Orleans] with the Neville Brothers who had recorded two of Bob Dylan’s songs, and Bono from U2 had been talking to Dylan and he said, “you should check out this guy Daniel Lanois, he might be good to make a record with.”
So while we were making the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon record, Dylan was playing the Audubon Zoo here [in New Orleans] and we got an invitation to go. After the show, Dylan invited us onto his bus and he asked us, “what are you guys doing here in New Orleans?” We told him we were making a record with the Neville Brothers and they cut two of his songs. He said, “what’s that sound like?” So we said, “well why don’t you come to the studio tomorrow and have a listen?” He came into the studio and heard the version of Aaron Neville’s “With God On Our Side” and that sold him on it. It’s like it was the most beautiful version he’d ever heard, you know, Aaron singing. So that got us the invitation to make the record there.
We were planning on leaving New Orleans and I went to New Mexico to find a location to make his record. I found Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Santa Fe and it was beautiful; a big old adobe house. It was amazing. Great big rooms, high ceilings, it’s perfect for recording. And so I came back to New Orleans, and I told Daniel, “I’ve found the perfect location.” He hops on the phone with Dylan and tells him that we’ve got a killer location to record in – Santa Fe, it’s Georgia O’Keeffe’s house – and Bob says, “what Santa Fe? I can’t go to Santa Fe. The altitude’s too high. You can’t sing that high.” So Lanois said, “alright, we’ll make it here in New Orleans, below sea level, and it’ll be good for singing.” So we ended up staying.
DR: How did New Orleans influence the record? Would it have been different if you’d made it in some hi-fi studio in New York?
MH: Totally. And it had a lot to do with the players we had drop in. Rockin’ Doopsie, he came in and played on it, and we had Cyrille Neville playing Congas. Rhythmically it really was impacted by the New Orleans sound and rhythms. Definitely.
DR: How much does the room, studio, or a particular city, influence a recording session?
MH: As you see in my book, it’s interesting locations that inspire people. I think it’s got a lot to do with people being comfortable in their surroundings.
DR: Where did the sound of Oh Mercy come from? Did Dylan or Lanois have a specific idea in mind, or was it a natural mix of these New Orleans influences?
MH: Once we got into the studio, we started with some beautiful instruments that would influence how the record would sound. We didn’t even have a band in the beginning. It was just Dylan, a Roland 808 drum machine, and Dan. “Most of the Time” and a couple of other ones just came out of the box that way. They were really more up close and personal. I’ve always preferred the sound of Oh Mercy to Time Out of Mind. I think that they’re both cool records, but Oh Mercy is still in my heart the most.
DR: Dylan’s famously unconventional in the studio. Was he a challenge to record?
MH: In the beginning, on Oh Mercy, it was a difficult situation because we didn’t know Bob and Bob didn’t know us. He was just trying to figure out how it was going to work. We recorded in the dining room of this house, in which the kitchen and dining room were all open in one room. We had the dining room set up with the control room and we ended up making the whole record there. He wouldn’t wear headphones, so we had to set up like a live situation, where he had a floor monitor in front of him and his voice would come out of that, and I would go and set up a mic while he was sitting. I would put the microphone in front of Dylan and he would turn sideways, so I’d put it over there and he’d turn the other way. I would sit on the floor and just follow him around with the mic like a film guy would do.
So it was kind of strange. For the first two weeks, he wouldn’t even acknowledge that I was in the room or say my name. And then – I’m a motorcycle enthusiast so I had a couple of Harley-Davidsons in the courtyard – one day, he walks up to me and goes, “hey Mark, can you get me one of those bikes?” I said, “yeah, sure.” And so he says, “well, I’ll work out the money for you and you can find me a cool bike.” I had a friend in Florida who sold some beautiful vintage Harley-Davidsons. So I ended up getting him this really beautiful 1966 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide. It showed up on Monday when we’re starting again, so he came in early to see the bike and I showed him how to start it and stuff like that. I took him for a ride around New Orleans, up along the levee and then down to the plantation homes. He was happy that I got him this bike and we just talked about motorcycles mostly. So it was kind of a cool situation between me and him in that world.
DR: How important do you think that is to record-making, not the technical aspects, but just making someone feel comfortable?
MH: Yeah, I think that and gaining somebody’s trust. If you don’t have their trust and they don’t trust you, it’s very difficult. But if you say “let’s try this” and it’s a winner and it works amazingly, they will say “well maybe these guys know something.” And so we kind of won his trust over in like the second week, I think it was. Before that, it’s not that he wasn’t liking it, but I think he didn’t really realize how it was going to work. He had written in his book [Chronicles], which I didn’t know about, that taking the motorcycle rides made him realize, “oh, I understand where these guys are going, it’s kind of cool.” I think that helps, you know, just having a motorcycle ride to clear your mind. When you’re stuck in the studio all day, sometimes it’s like having blinders on, you can’t see. So I think that opened up his thoughts on how it was being made.
DR: Is Dylan interested in the technical aspects of engineering? Does he care what microphone you’re using? Is he involved in the mix? Or does he just care about the feel?
MH: No… well, in a way.
When we started Time Out of Mind, I was mixing some live shows for him and one of the shows had him playing harmonica on it. He said, “can you make the harmonica sound electric?” I said “yeah” So, I took the harmonica and ran it through a distortion pedal into a little amp and re-miced it, so it had this grit on it. But right after the harmonica part finished his voice was coming out of there. He goes “wow, that’s amazing! It sounds great!” He loved these old blues records, like little Walter and all these amazing blues records that came out in the fifties and stuff, and he goes, “why can’t my records sound like that?” I said it can, we’ve just got to use old microphones and old techniques. I think that’s why Time Out of Mind has that kind of sound – a big open kind of concept – In a way.
So he loved this vocal amp and we used it all over Time Out of Mind. There would be two faders on the console. One would be this natural voice and the other one would be what I call the amp vocal. And he’d always sit beside me and say “where are we at with the ratio for the vocals?” and I’d say “we’re like sixty-forty; sixty clean and forty dirt.” He goes “make ‘em fifty-fifty!”, so I’d make it fifty-fifty. His voice had this special kind of sound on it, right? A you-don’t-get-this-every-day kind of thing. He loved it.
DR: The influences Dylan cites for Time Out of Mind are old blues records, but Daniel Lanois is, to me, a modern producer. Was it hard balancing those two things, making it sound like an old record but also making it sound like a modern rock album?
MH: I was just trying to make it sound as unique as possible. I wasn’t following any real forms other than using, like I said, older instruments and old mics and stuff like that. But I think it definitely did shape the sound of the records for sure, just having that in mind. But once you get in there certain tracks take over and become something else. Once you’re there with everybody in the room, it might take a left turn because it sounds completely different.
And with Dylan, we had like fourteen people in the room playing the same thing. And Dylan changes the key in every song just to see where his voice lands, if it just sounds better in a certain key. For a musician to change the key on the spur of the moment, it’s like learning a whole new song. So the band would come in to listen to the playback. People would be playing wrong notes and Dan just said “look, if you’re not gonna play the right note, don’t play at all.” He was very insistent with that! So it was kind of a difficult situation. It sounded pretty scary sometimes, but then other songs like “Love Sick”, this was in Miami, they were tracking and I put this cool little flange thing on his voice and a couple of other effects on guitars. So when the band came in I had this sound going on. So I printed that mix for “Love Sick” right out of Miami and I never bettered it, that’s the playback mix from that song. I got a certain sound that I tried to recreate and I couldn’t recreate it, so we ended up using that mix.
DR: When did you get the phone call to work on Time Out of Mind How did you end up recording in Miami?
MH: We got a call from his manager about mixing [a live recording from] this House of Blues place he played during the Olympics, I guess in ‘96 when the Olympics was in Atlanta. So we came out of mixing that into the making of Time Out of Mind at a studio called the Teatro, which was a studio of mine. I had taken a 1940s Mexican porno cinema and turned it into a studio. I had taken all the seats out and put a big deck in the middle and used the rest of the seats at the back for guitar stands. So we had quite a scene going in the Teatro and that’s where I mixed those shows from Atlanta.
When we started Time Out of Mind, Dylan was infatuated with this kid called Beck and he wanted the record to be like a Beck record. And so that’s where the loops and all that stuff started to come in. We started off just kind of like raw, with Dylan playing piano, and then we brought in this drummer from New York called Tony Mangurian, and he produced a lot of New York bands. One of them was this band called Luscious Jackson, they’re like this hip-hop girl group. So he’s a hip-hop drummer and was playing these hip-hop grooves against what Bob Dylan was playing on the piano. A more gospel thing. It was like the hair on my arms went up like, “wow this is special.” So it started that way and then Dylan says, “look I can’t work here, it’s just too close to home, let’s go to Miami to make a record there.” That’s how we ended up going to Miami.
DR: Do you think recording in Miami changed the way that record was made? Or how it sounded? I’ve heard it speculated that Dylan moved the session to Florida to take Daniel Lanois out of his comfort zone.
MH: Yeah, I really hated that studio. The room was really big and spitty and was like plaster. It was for making videos, really. It had a video wall in there. We had an awesome sound at the Teatro and I brought the same Neve consoles, the same microphones, all the same gear – and some motorcycles – and it just didn’t sound as good. I was embarrassed, really, about the sound of the record because of that. But after we left Miami, we ended up regrouping back at the Teatro and re-recording a bunch of stuff and so I think the Teatro may have helped it in the end, you know.
DR: There’s a lot of Nashville session musicians on that record – Jim Dickinson, Brian Blade, Bob Britt, Augie Meyers. Dylan isn’t a session guy. As you mentioned earlier, he often changes the key or the lyrics at will. Do you think that dynamic contributed to the record?
MH: Yes. The key changes are pretty vital, you know, especially if your voice sounds better in a certain key. But like I said earlier, with what we call the ‘Nashville people’, they weren’t used to that kind of thing. They were top session players. We had Brian Blade, who played on that record along with Jim Keltner, side by side, which was a cool sound. If you listen to it closely with headphones, one drum set is on one side and the other drum set is on the other side, which makes for a cool rhythmic quality.
DR: How much of Time Out of Mind was recorded live in the room Was there much overdubbing?
MH: Well, there wasn’t that much overdubbing, really. He changed a couple of lines here and there. But I think a lot of the sound of the room was going into the vocal mic, so that’s kind of why it sounds like that. You wouldn’t get that in the normal studio because you would have been in an isolation booth and dead, but playing with the band you perform better. I always base everything on performances. I’ll work the sound thing out later, but let’s get the performance down perfectly first. So always as you’re recording, you’re changing the arrangement and all at the same time. You’ll do a take then, in between verses, if there’s just too much filler we can cut that back. It’s always an ongoing kind of change.
DR: Did you know Time Out of Mind was going to be a classic when you were making it?
MH: Not at all. No, no. I don’t think that about any records. Because I’m the engineer but, you know, I’m also on the mixer too. So I’m always thinking about what I need in the mix or what we need here, a melody or something. So I never think about whether it’s gonna be hit or not. But a song like “Not Dark Yet,” just lyrically you listen to it. You think “wow, this is something special here.” When you have a song that’s lyrically amazing, you know you can do something.
DR: Do the lyrics affect the way you mix a song?
MH: Yeah. I always tried to mix vocals to be really present and then surround around them. So it’s more depth of field. I could reach into the mix and the hi-hat could be in the very back and some guitars would be very upfront and the voice is commanding, you know. These days I think everything is mixed, compressed, and pushed all in your face and it’s not very dynamic. So I try to keep it as a landscape, in a way.
DR: Dylan produced his own records after Time Out of Mind. Do you think you taught him anything?
MH: We just made it look so easy that he could do it! That’s what I figure.
Recording Icons / Creative Spaces: The Creative World of Mark Howard is published by ECW Press. It is available now.