Recording Engineer Obie O’Brien has worked with many of the most successful recording artists in the world. He was working at New York’s famous Power Station recording studios in 1980 when an ambitious kid named John Bongiovi got a job there sweeping floors, getting coffee, and running errands. The two became fast friends, and Obie and the guy who would become Jon Bon Jovi have been working together ever since. Fast forward 25 years, Bon Jovi has sold over 120 million albums, and Obie O’Brien shares production credits on several of them. Plus, he designed the studio on Jon’s property where the band records.
In late 1999, our Editor-in-Chief had the pleasure of talking with Obie O’Brien as Bon Jovi finished up the Crush album and prepared to head out on tour. Much had gone on in Bon Jovi world since our chat, so we caught up with Obie again in October 2003. He filled us in on the recording of the Bon Jovi album This left Feels Right (released in the US on November 4, 2003) told us what it was like doing Front of House sound on the Crush tour, and the process of going through over 20 years of archival material to create 2002’s One Wild Night live album and the Bon Jovi box set (which was released in late 2004 but hadn’t yet been released when the interview took place). When Obie’s not busy with Bon Jovi, he can be found in cameo appearances in Soraia videos.
MBADC: Tell us about This Left Feels Right, and about the process of making it.
Obie: Actually, this was Jon’s idea. Basically, I see this thing as something for the real fan, who knows this band and who knows the material. So Jon and the band picked some selected hits, and it originally started out as being just an acoustic record. And it was going to be a very straight-ahead acoustic record. And I didn’t think Jon, at the end of the day, thought it was a creative enough endeavor, and he wanted to give something a little different to everyone. So he brought in Patrick Leonard to produce this. Patrick Leonard is just a very, very talented musician to start with, and he has very eclectic ideas. And he came in, not really knowing the songs like, you would think you would hire a producer who really knows every song in the history. He came in not really knowing the stuff, and they would play things for him, and the next day would come in and go, “Let’s try it like this.” And would be so off the wall you’d be going, “this is great.”
MBADC: What was Jon and Richie’s reaction, as the songwriters?
Obie: Jon’s initial reaction was, I think he was into it. I think at first everybody goes, “wow” because it’s so out of left field. But as soon as you start the process, everybody goes, “Oh, I get this. This is very cool.” And actually, I’m glad Patrick wasn’t so married to the songs and the arrangements and melodies and chord changes. Some of the songs, he didn’t even want to hear the original version; he just asked Jon and Richie to get a guitar and just sort of go through the song, and play it and sing it, and he would start the process. I just thought it was great. A lot of unusual instruments, a lot of very organic, acoustic instruments, totally weaving the melodies in and out of these different chord structures. If you took the lyric out, you honestly would not know what song it is. I mean, we did “Wanted Dead or Alive, ” and it still has a signature guitar part…In a few places they kept something like that. But it’s quite an unusual vocal performance by Jon sound-wise and melody-wise.
From my end of it, I loved it. Because Tico just didn’t play the drums–we had bass drums laid on the floor, and Tico would actually play the bass drum with his hands. On a couple songs he played with brushes on a cardboard box. So I got to do all the crazy stuff I like to do: Just making an instrument. Or using sort of a mundane instrument you’d gotten used to in a very unusual way. A lot of odd tunings on the drum. Using a marching drum. All these little noisemakers that Tico sort of came up with…These pot-like items that you cup your hand over the hole and they make these odd noises. Some Indian instruments. I mean, for me, it was great. Because you got to go out and just have fun. And Patrick Leonard and the band were very open to let you try whatever you wanted. Patrick would say, “You know what I’m looking for? I think it needs this.” But the window was so big when he gave you what he was looking for, you got to go out and [play] around and try a bunch of stuff. So if you’re an engineer, and you’re sitting there and you want to try all this crazy stuff, it’s great.
MBADC: The method sounds very Tom Waits-esque.
Obie: Yes. Absolutely. And the way this band works, the [usual] process is, they write the song, you might just do a quick guitar-vocal demo. Then you come in the studio, and the band plays and you have that demo, and then you listen to that, and you make some changes, and then you go and you do the record. This one, most of the stuff–I’d say about 95% of the stuff–came together right there in the studio.
MBADC: Using Jon as an example, say Jon is in the middle of laying down an awesome vocal–the kind where it just blows everything right out of the water. As the engineer, do you hear that in the moment, or are you so busy getting down the physical, technical stuff that you become aware of it later?
Obie: You know that it’s magic when it’s happening. Because you know what? If you don’t notice it–if you’re so involved with the technical end of it–you should get another job. It’s still all about the art and the magic. And l’m way into the emotion of the stuff as it goes down–I don’t care if it’s a vocal or guitar or an accordion, or a harmonica, or a Syrian cheese whistle. You know? I don’t care, I want it to be happening. Because it’s like, well, another turned up guitar into a turned up amp is like, “yeah?” But when you get to do stuff like this–!
And I’ll tell you the other thing, you can’t make a record like this without really, really talented players. And to watch Richie come up with these crazy tunings, and these crazy instruments, and all these wild parts, and the guy’s letting me do stuff like letting me tape microphones to the backs of instruments…I’m telling you, you don’t make a record like this without the guy being capable of pulling off this stuff. And everybody knows Richie’s, like, you know–
MBADC: He’s one of the most underrated guitarists in recent music history.
Obie: I am such a fan of Richie Sambora, and I’ve worked with some of the greatest guitar players ever. Ever! And this guy never ceases to amaze me. Besides being one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, and he’s married to Heather Locklear. Are you kidding me?
MBADC: And people say Jon’s got it all
Obie [laughing]: Shed no tears for Richard Sambora, OK? That’s what I’m saying. Shed no tears for Richard Sambora. Compared to me he’s still young, he’s tall, he’s good looking, he’s rich, he plays great guitar, and he gets to see Heather Locklear’s ass. Come on! Aw please just shoot me in the head!
At this point the interview dissolves into laughter on both sides. When our Editor catches her breath, she asks:
MBADC: When we last spoke, you were putting the finishing touches on the Crush album and you all were getting ready to go out on the road for Crush. And you had said that you’d never been out on the road before. So what was that like, Obie?
Obie: Oh! No, I had been out before, what I hadn’t done before was–on the first part of that Crush tour, I worked the Front of House [sound]I had never been the PA engineer and let me tell you what, it’s a difficult job.
MBADC: Really? Difficult how, in comparison to the studio?
Obie: Well first of all, you have to stand up for 3 1/2 hours and really concentrate. First, I don’t want to stand up. Second, as your brain shrinks, it’s harder to concentrate for an extended period of time.
MBADC: With 20,000 screaming distractions
Obie: Yeah! Another thing is, you’re working the PA. I’m so used to being in a great environment acoustically–especially when we’re in Jon’s studio, because both of his studios are places I’ve built, so I was very comfortable there. So now I’m out there, wrestling an alligator with this PA, in these places that are toilets acoustically. I mean, they’re the worst. Everything you can do wrong acoustically, that’s how they built these places. The sound of a PA is never a contributing factor when you build these places; they’re sports arenas.
MBADC: Even the new venues are still bad?
Obie: Yes. Unless it’s a dedicated music place, yes. I mean, look at the Buddokan, you know? Shaped just like a toilet bowl…There are hard surfaces, and there are standing waves everywhere. When you first get there, you can still hear the band that was in there two weeks ago, the noise is still in there. For me, it’s stuff that I don’t know. And there’s all this stuff–hanging the PA, hanging the speakers, the height, the angle, power requirements, and I don’t know any of this stuff. You know? It’s just not what I do. So, Jon asked me to do it, because I had done a couple of things for him on his solo tour and we really liked it. And that was a much smaller stage, the venues were smaller, and I guess it sounded OK. He enjoyed it. So, I went out on Crush, and they actually had to have like a babysitter from the PA company, because it’s like the kid you’re afraid to leave alone because he’s got matches. And you know you’re going to come back from going to the supermarket and the house is going to be burned down. So they had a guy who was there to help me.
And the other thing is, these guys that work for the PA company, they work hard. They go in there early in the morning, they run cables, they hoist cabinets. Me? I’m flying in with the band. Sorry. I’m a prima donna, and I know it. You know? So you’re always the guy that everybody hates. They go, “Hey, how are you?” when you walk by and they’re “Mother f***ker”-ing you behind your back because you don’t do anything to help out. They do all the work, and you go in there like royalty…But I enjoyed it. After the first couple of ones I really enjoyed it. And you know, you think you’re doing a good job, but when we played Philly, two seconds into the show, somebody from up above me threw a whole large beer, it hit me in the head and went all down my back. So now I’m doing the show pissed off, standing up, having to pay attention, soaking wet, covered with sticky beer.
MBADC: And Philly’s your hometown, isn’t it?
Obie: Yeah. So I sort of expected it. I mean, that sort of makes up for me being from the town where they throw snowballs at Santa Claus. The other thing is, I would have guys that are engineers and producers that would come in and go, “Man, this really sounds good.” And then the crew guys that have been around for a long time would come up and go, “This sucks!” I mean, they would just tell you right out. So who knows? I didn’t have a good reference point, and then when we did Wembley Stadium on the Crush tour, I’m doing a dare and I’m thinking I’m making it kick ass. The next day in the paper, the guy who came to the show said the sound was “consistently wretched.” But I figure if it was consistent, that was like a compliment.
MBADC [laughing]: You’re right! It’s the same in journalism–consistency. If you’re going to spell it wrong, at least be consistent.
Obie: Right! I was going to have T-shirts made up that said “Consistently Wretched.” Because you’ve gotta look at the positive side. But, you know, it was an experience, and I wanted to go out and do a great job for the guys, ’cause I enjoy the band.
And my other problem was, you know, I still think [Bon Jovi is] one of the greatest live rock bands. I mean, I think their performances are phenomenal. And you start to get into it, and you’re dancing around, you’re singing along, and all of a sudden you’re not doing your job. You’re a fan in the audience, getting sucked into it. So you’ve gotta stay away from it, to a point.
The cool thing is, watching that crowd for the whole show. I mean, even at the upper levels of these venues, people are standing for the whole show going nuts! You know? And you go, WOW! So you’re more a part of the psyche of the crowd, which is cool because you can’t help but get into it.
MBADC: On the Crush tour, I was at some shows, and one of them was at the Forum in L.A. that year. It sounded like a stampede in that place!
Obie: Yeah! And you know when they would do “Twist and Shout” at the end? You know, I’m out in there in the audience, and I’m Twisting…People are coming over and I’m doing the Twist, but nobody’s watching the console, and I’m dancing…All of a sudden you look, and a couple of times Jon would see me. And after the show he’d go, “So, are you paying attention or what?” And I’d go “Yeah yeah yeah! Just, once in a while I lose my mind.”
But yeah, it was an experience, I tried to do a good job, I’m not convinced I did a very good job, and then they brought the guy in who did the [sound for the] end of Crush and then this last tour [Bounce], David Eisenhauer, who I thought did a great job. I really did–I thought he did a great job.
MBADC: When we last spoke, you had said for the Crush tour you were going to bring professional recording equipment out on the road and do Front of House through that. Is that what you ended up doing?
Obie: Well, I took a lot of studio gear out, because that’s all I know. I mean, I took Neumann microphones for the drums just like I do in the studio; I tried to make the transition of using the mics that I use in the studio out on the road. Some worked, some didn’t. I took reverbs that I use in the studio, I took compressors that I used in the studio which I really liked, you know? So I had to have a reference, and the only reference is that gear.
And the guys with the sound company would say hey, why don’t you put that R3M972 microphone up and I’d go, “I don’t even know what that is!” He would show it to me and I’d go, “I don’t even like the way it looks!” So I’m still telling the guy, “I want that AKG, the one that looks like an electric razor, that’s the one I want up.” So, some of it worked, some of it didn’t, and the stuff that didn’t I changed out. I might have gone a show or two longer than I should have with it, but I was just trying to dial it in. But some of the stuff doesn’t dial in because it doesn’t work well in the live venue. There’s too much volume, there’s too much leakage, whatever the problem is.
MBADC: Then after the Crush tour, you were a big part of putting the live album, One Wild Night, together. What was the process involved there? Did you and the band listen to a lot of tapes, or had Jon and Richie remembered certain performances?
Obie: Oh man. We’d recorded quite a few venues. I listened to every song at every venue. And the great thing about doing that record was, the guys let me pick out the stuff I really loved. Since I was a producer on the record, I had a lot of say on what we used. And my whole thing about that was, to not do tons of repairs. I mean, there are warts and mistakes on that thing, but that’s part of the experience. But I wanted it to have the impact–even though it’s being played on your CD player and on your regular speakers. I wanted to make the impact of a concert translate.
MBADC: I think you succeeded. I really liked it.
Obie: Well you know, I saw a couple of very nice reviews of it, which is unusual for us in the first place for the critics to give us a thumbs up. But I’m proud of that record, you know? I still listen to it and go, “I think this a great representation of the band.” Some of that stuff is from quite a while back, and I remembered the show in Johannesburg that we did when they did “Rockin’ In the Free World” [in December 1995–Ed]. And I remember when I was recording that thing going, “Man, this is phenomenal!” So I pulled that out, and there are a couple songs from the early days in Japan [in 1985 Ed], so yeah, there were some things I remembered. Not even writing them down–they just stick with you. But I thought that was a good representation of the band as they progressed as musicians and as songwriters and as performers. And I especially hear it in Jon’s voice, when they’re doing “In and Out of Love” and “Runaway,” those early ones, and you go, “Wow! He was a kid!” He was a kid.
MBADC: He sounds like, if Jon had a little brother that sounded like Jon Bon Jovi? That’s what it’s like.
Obie: Right! And you listen to him, and you realize, this guy’s voice has just gotten–as he’s matured his voice has got more character, and he’s got more control of the full range of his voice. He wasn’t a guy who, because of all the singing at all the shows, hurt his voice and lost pieces of it. If anything it was the opposite. I mean, it’s just like a guy who learned to play whatever instrument over the years. Playing experience and life experience all goes into that. Because you play with your heart, you don’t play with your brain.
Obie: I’m trying to approach this box set– which I totally think is going to flip people out–as, this is not going to have the hits, it’s going to have stuff that nobody has ever heard. I truly have found songs that no one–nobody–has heard. And I think people are going to freak when they hear some of this stuff.
MBADC: I’ve always been more of an album cuts person, so I’m really looking forward to it.
Obie: I’ve got some great alternate versions of stuff like early demos that we did that are so different from the final version–different lyrics, different melodies, just a whole different vibe about them. I’ve got songs that for whatever reason never made it to the final cut that you listen now and go, “Man how did we miss this one?” I mean that’s my [feeling]. Over the last year and a half I went through every tape that we had in our locker from this band from day one. Studio tapes, rehearsal tapes, live tapes. Outtakes. Some of the tapes were physically degrading and falling apart, and the thing you do is you bake them, and then you get another couple of passes out of them.
I archived everything–all the early stuff–to 48 digital and to hard drive and cataloged everything, where it came from…I’ve got some songs from ’84 that are just like little tiny demos that never went any farther, I’ve got a couple songs that are so cool, with guys playing with the band-horn sections, harp players, friends of the band doing stuff, just knocking stuff down. I’ve got such a great box set from these guys. I’ve got stuff from them playing cover songs at a show, just doing the sound check…Man, it was just a ridiculous undertaking. You can’t believe it.
MBADC: I can imagine. So what is the criteria when you’re looking?
Obie: I’m just looking for a cool factor about the song. Something unique about it. Every song has to have something. You know? It just has to have something unique. And you know, for better or worse, here’s the way I look at everything when I do stuff like that: I think if it were The Beatles when I was 20 years old, and somebody said, I’m going to put this Beatles record out, what do you want?” And this is what I’d do. I was such a fan of the Beatles. I still am. I listen to The Beatles every day.
MBADC: I listen to them every Sunday. It’s good Sunday music.
Obie: Yep. I mean, there are so many stations that do Breakfast with the Beatles or whatever. But, that stuff is timeless. And I think the same way of a lot of this band’s songs. I think “Wanted Dead or Alive” is one of the songs that’s going to be a timeless rock song. I don’t know, with any of the contemporary artists out there, if 25 years later you play the songs, you’re going to go, “Jesus, that’s like bellbottoms” I think Bon Jovi has enough songs that are just timeless, they’re like classic rock songs. And no matter when you play them down the line, you go, “Wow, this is still a cool song.” I can never imagine “Wanted Dead or Alive” not being, like, a cool song to play. I think it’s such a cool song. And that’s what’s cool about this band. You know? It’s not a disposable thing that you’re not going to play it, or you play it in five years and go, “Oh man, that sucks.” And I think where you really see that is, you see it in the people that come to the shows. You get people 10 years old, you get people 70 years old. That’s the truth!
MBADC: You’ve done several albums at Sanctuary II. If you had to build it all over again, is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Obie: Not a thing. Well, except I would have put it on the first floor.
MBADC: It’s on the second floor?
Obie: Yep. So when you have to move really big, heavy things it gets tight. But that’s the only thing I would change. I love everything about this studio…There are windows that look out over the property out to the river, and it’s just got a really great comfortable–it’s like putting a pair of sweatpants on. That’s what it’s like. And it works great, and the guys that came in and helped me do everything, all the wiring guys, and all the tech guys, everybody did a terrific job. And we have gear in there that we all like, that works, that makes sense. So there’s nothing I would do. I would put it on the first floor, but besides that, I would change nothing.
MBADC: What kind of design problems did the windows pose?
Obie: You know, there are acoustic things that you run into with that, but you work around them. And especially in the control room. I have windows in the big room–in the recording room and in the control room. Because I hate that rat in a box thing. I don’t ever want to be in a studio anymore without windows. You don’t know what time it is, you know…So there were a couple little problems, and you work around them, it’s no big deal. You take it all into consideration when you’re doing the construction.
MBADC: Is there anything special you have to do to the windows when you’re recording? Do you have to cover them, or is it all in the construction?
Obie: Pretty much. We have a very live room, and if I need it to be calmed down I have gobos–the isolator walls you put up and around. And the way the windows are designed is, they have an alcove where they sit, they’re double-paned insulated windows, and then I have a half-inch Lexan window that pops in a rubber gasket around it that was made by our fabricator, Jeff Saitto.
MBADC: This was a question written in to our Q&A, but I don’t know if you can answer it, because I think it might pose a security risk. I’ll go ahead and ask it, and if you want to skip it, we’ll skip it: When it’s time to turn an album into the label, does someone within the organization physically turn it in, or how does it get to the label?
Obie: The way the record is delivered has changed over the years. Because it used to be, you shipped pieces all over the world. And there was always that possibility that somebody would get hold of something. Anymore, you have totally secure ways of sending the stuff around the world. So they’ve really addressed that over the years. It’s much more secure than it’s ever been.
MBADC: In your years, has anything ever gotten lost?
Obie: We’ve been very lucky. The only time we ever had something not show up was, I believe Jon was in Mexico and it was a couple of mixes of B-sides. It wasn’t even anything important, and I sent it down to him on a disk–he was on a movie set–and he calls me later and goes, “What the hell is this you sent me? I’ve got a data disk.” I go, “What are you talking about?” Somebody along the line saw that it was a Bon Jovi CD, lifted it, and put just a disk of data in there. But thankfully it was nothing that was [of major importance]. It was some bonus tracks that were going on somewhere. If I remember correctly it was just some songs that had already been released. So it wasn’t too much of a panic situation, but it really let you realize that it could happen at any time.
MBADC: Did it ever surface?
Obie: No. It never surfaced. But you know, that’s the way the world is.
MBADC: Do you have a favorite track on the Bounce album?
Obie: Yes. “Undivided”. I loved that song from the first demo of it. I loved the story, I loved the approach to it. Every record you end up having one or two that you love, and they’re not necessarily always ones that are the big hits. But yeah, that is easily my favorite song off that album.
MBADC: Do you happen to remember which track maybe came the easiest, and which track maybe came the hardest off that album?
Obie: [ponders the question a few seconds] No, and I’ll tell you why: Because I think the band is to the point with their writing and performing that they know if you have to wrestle with something, and it’s not coming together, it’s just not right. You know? And everything comes together fairly easy. Some easier than others, but you know, if you’re struggling with it, I’m always going like, “Eh? Next.”
MBADC: Last question. I asked Jon this question in a chat on the Internet once, and he seemed to like it so much, we ask everyone now. The question is: God wants you to make the ultimate album. Bon Jovi are not available but God OK’s any other musician, living or dead. Also, God wants all the publishing and Jon and Richie will not go for that. So you have to find someone to write the songs, or you can use covers. So, who do you get to produce the album, write for the album, and play on the album, and if you use covers, what are a few of the covers you’d want to put on it?
Obie: I’ll tell you what I would do. I’d get Mutt Lange and AC/DC with Bon Scott singing. End of story. There it is.
MBADC: What is it specifically about Mutt that you like?
Obie: It’s not Mutt so much as that I think AC/DC is just like, if you look up “rock” in the dictionary, and AC/DC isn’t in there, there’s something wrong. I mean, come on, is this the greatest strip club band ever invented?
MBADC [laughing]: You’re probably right! I used to live next door to a stripper.
Obie: I mean, when my wife vacuums the house, she’s got AC/DC at 100. Or when she’s down doing the Tae Bo. Man, there’s something about it. Let me tell you, it’s one of those things. When I was doing Front of House, I used to have the guys call me when they were leaving the dressing room, when they were on that walk [to the stage]. And as soon as they called me, I’d play an AC/DC song.
MBADC: I remember that!
Obie: Yep, I played “Givin’ the Dog a Bone” or “The Girl’s Got Rhythm.” And if that crowd didn’t get up and rock, it was a dead crowd.
MBADC: Yeah! I knew the lights were about to go out when “The Girl’s Got Rhythm” came on.
Obie: That was my thing. I’m playing AC/DC just to kick everybody right in the ass right before the band comes out. Because if that doesn’t rev you up for a rock show, you are dead, my friend.
MBADC: That’s right, and the whole energy in the venue changed.
Obie: Yep. And that’s in a rock vein. And you know what? If it was just anything else, I would put The Beatles back together with George Martin. Wouldn’t change a thing. George Martin, The Beatles, Lennon-McCartney writing. So there it is. There it is for both sides for me.