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TONY SHANAHAN: MAKING MUSIC WITH PATTI SMITH, SAM SHEPARD, AND THE POPE
FEW MEN IN MODERN MUSIC TYPIFY THE CLASSIC ROCK BAND JOURNEYMAN QUITE LIKE TONY SHANAHAN.
Growing up in New Brunswick, New Jersey in the 60s and 70s, Tony knew early on that the Jersey cover bands dominating the local club scene were not for him. A musician, songwriter, and producer, his first taste of success came as the founder of original-music Jersey favorites, The Slaves of New Brunswick. Tony has since worked with artists like Michael Stipe, David Gray, Ryan Adams, Robert Plant, Ian Hunter, Faith Hill, Aimee Mann, Natalie Merchant, and Suzanne Vega. For 20 years now, he has served as a charter member of Patti Smith’s band. The song "1959" that he composed with Patti for her album, Peace and Noise Was nominated for a Grammy in 1998.
Tony is also a long-time SST client and operates his own studio within SST's Willow Building.
SST Studios' Willow Building, Weehawken, NJ.
This is going to be a freewheeling interview, Tony. I have no written questions. I thought we'd just let it fly. I've recently written a story with John Hanti titled “Missing the Beatles.” It's about his as-yet unsuccessful quest to meet a Beatle. Have you ever met a Beatle?
I have. I met Paul when I went to Jimmy Iovine's wedding a few years ago. Paul was there. It was a lavish party and it’s a lovely story. After performing a song for Jimmy's guests with Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, I leaned against the bar for my first drink of the evening. Most everyone else had moved into another area to go dancing. Patti came up behind me and said, "I'm sorry to do this to you, Tony, but…" She swung me around and there, standing right next to her, was Sir Paul McCartney!
Patti pointed to me and exclaimed, “He loves you!”
Paul stood there with open arms and a big smile. It was sweet. Nobody else was there waiting to talk to him. So, he ordered a Margarita at the bar and talked to me for about ten minutes. His wife, Nancy, was standing next to him, but she was deep into a conversation with Lenny Kay. Paul was free to talk to me. We talked about bass guitars and our influences and he was very nice. As the conversation closed, he gave me a big hug. I remember floating back over to Patti. “I can go home now,” I said.
I've met Ringo a few times, too. I once attended a dinner at publicist Danny Goldberg's house and Ringo was there. I’ve seen Ringo at some of his All-Star shows, as well, maybe a half-dozen times. He has always been kind to me. The first time I met Ringo, I told him what a fan I was and he said: “I suppose you have all my records, then?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Even some of your solo records.” He laughed.
I had yet another encounter with a Beatle in 1979 when I was in a band called Alda Reserve. We were signed to Sire Records, which was based out of a brownstone on 74th street, between Amsterdam and Columbus. The building was painted blue. We hung out there a lot. They had a small eight-track recording studio in the basement. I became friends with a drummer who lived uptown in that area. One day we were having a conversation, standing out on Columbus Avenue, when suddenly we see coming towards us John Lennon with another guy. I froze in my tracks. Holy shit! They walked past us and I spoke to him, “Hey John, good to see you out.” He smiled at me and said, “Good to be out.” That was it. That’s my John Lennon story.
At the time of Jimmy Iovine’s party where you met Paul, Iovine was on top of the world.
Well, he still is, but yea. He was head of Apple Music at the time. That party was at David Geffen's Beverly Hills mansion on Valentine's Day just a few years ago, and it was a star-studded event. Patti’s been good friends with Jimmy for years. He helped us do a 40th-anniversary Horses tour in 2015. We filmed some of the shows. Jimmy was there at the Los Angeles show. He helped us make the film and released it on Apple Music. Jimmy was the executive producer on the project.
He’s a good guy.
I recently saw my good friend, Andy York, who plays guitar with John Mellencamp. We went to a show at the Beacon a couple of months ago and sitting right in front of us were Jack Douglas and Jay Messina. I have met Jay quite a few times because he's good friends with my partner, Stuart Lerman, and he’s done some work in our studio. Jack, I have met a few times, but I don't know him well. I took a picture with him that night and sent it to Patty. Jack did a record with her back in the day.
Legendary production team Jay Messina and Jack Douglas
That studio you have with Stuart Lerman is in SST’s Willow Building. How did that come about?
I had heard John Hanti’s name before, back in the 90s. A friend of mine named John Condiracci was a singer-songwriter who lived in Hoboken and wanted to do some recording at a studio in Weehawken, which was SST. That is how I met John. I went in to play on the session and John and Roy Cicala were there. They had the big space downstairs, with the Record Plant remote parked on the side of the building. That was the control room. You couldn't sit behind the board because there wasn't a lot of room, so we’d sit in front of the board, right under the monitors. I did quite a few sessions there. I always enjoyed hanging with John and Roy. The sessions were always full of laughter and always a learning experience. Roy would teach us about things--what compression was and how to do this and that. John was always encouraging. He was trying to get the studio going and was very generous with it, always.
At one point, I brought in Lenny Kaye to work on a solo record that never came out. Patti had lost her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. I did sessions for Patti's record at that time and ended up in the band and that is when we did a record with Roy and John in ’97, which was “Peace and Noise,” The song “1959” from that album was nominated for a Grammy Award.
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One of your more illustrious friendships was with the late playwright, Sam Shepard. Tell us about him.
Sam was Patti's friend. He would show up frequently at gigs. He wrote great plays, he was a movie star, and he was such a character. He would often be backstage, joking and having fun. In 2007, Patti and I recorded an album of covers for which we did a country bluegrass version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Sam and his son Walker were there and they played on it.
Sam liked to come to those sessions and he would often come in before Patti arrived. We’d arrive to find him in the lounge playing guitar and singing songs. I would say “Hey Sam, you know, there are some microphones out there. Why don't we record some of that?”
It was in 2012 or 2013 when he was on a break from a film, coming back from Japan, that I met up with him in L.A. and we set up a recording session at East West Studios on Sunset, which used to be Western recorders. It was just me and Sam with my good friend Pat McCarthy engineering. We worked in the studio’s gigantic soundstage room where Sinatra recorded so many of his classic hits like “It Was a Very Good Year.” But the cool thing about it was that this was the room where they filmed Elvis’s ‘68 comeback special. I was excited to be there with Sam.
My Buddy by Patti Smith
excerpt, published in The New Yorker, August 1, 2017
A long time ago, Sam sent me a letter. A long one, where he told me of a dream that he had hoped would never end. “He dreams of horses,” I told the lion. “Fix it for him, will you? Have Big Red waiting for him, a true champion. He won’t need a saddle, he won’t need anything.” I headed to the French border, a crescent moon rising in the black sky. I said goodbye to my buddy, calling to him, in the dead of night.
We recorded a bunch of classic cowboy songs that were in the public domain. I brought the recordings back to my studio and worked on them quite a bit. My friend David Mansfield came in to play on it and we turned it into a record. Then Sam got sick. He had let us know what he wanted, even as far as the running order, before he passed away.
It’s a special record, but it’s still sitting on the shelf right now. I'm very proud of it and, hopefully, when it sees the light of day, the public will love it, too. Sam had such a beautiful voice. There are great moments between the songs that are so funny, just listening to him laugh. We left all that on the record.
Looking at the list of people you've worked with over the years since the beginning--Michael Stipe, Ryan Adams, Amy Mann, Natalie Merchant, Patti Smith—many of them have not been truly mainstream pop artists, but rather more eclectic, alternative artists. Does this reflect your taste in music? Was this intentional?
Who knows? Maybe that's just the way it all fell. Growing up in New Jersey, playing music, I was very lucky. When I first started, there was a big music scene, in Jersey, there were tons of places to all up and down the shore, but it was a covers scene and I was never interested in that. I wanted to write songs. I wanted to play in a band that was writing songs. That's what I searched out. When I was 18 or 19, I got a gig playing in John Cale's band. John, of course, had been in the Velvet Underground.
I was not even a year into college before I said, “Music is what I'm going to do” and went out on the road. Playing with John Cale was trial by fire. It was crazy, with all the extra-curricular activities on the road, being around the drug scene and all that. I learned a lot but I did not want to be like that.
It was 40 years ago this year—1979—from January to June. I came off the road then and went into the studio with Alda Reserve. It was the first professional record I ever made. We did it at RPM Studios in New York for Sire Records. We were managed by Marshall Chess, the son of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess. The record was co-produced and engineered by Ed Stasium.
That was an exciting time for me, you know, learning how to make records.
You've seen a lot of changes in the music business and the Industry since then. Do you think they've been positive changes? What is your opinion of the state of the music industry in the year 2019?
I think it's easier for younger bands today to have a physical presence because of the Internet. The Internet was the game-changer. I don't understand, though, how people make money these days making records or even how you even collect the money, although I do still get royalty checks, thank God.
The last remaining way of earning a living, as I see it, is by performances. All that stuff that we saw in the 80s when MTV happened and the stars aligned and there were still mega-record sales—that’s all changed and I don't think we'll ever see that again in our lifetime.
I'm 59 years old and I've been doing this professionally for 40 years. I have my own way of touring, I'm well taken care of. I don't, I couldn't, tour the way we did when I was in my twenties, with everybody in one van, not even knowing where we would sleep that night, crashing on strangers’ floors. That’s a young man's game.
In two weeks, I'm going to see the Rolling Stones. It still excites me that they're out there touring and playing music. McCartney and Bob Dylan are still touring. The joke is that Dylan is still on “The Never-Ending Tour.”
Have you seen the new Rolling Thunder Review documentary? There's some great footage of pre-Horses Patti where she does a poetry piece on the stage at the Bitter End, and there’s a scene where she’s on a stairwell talking to Bob. Very cool.
Speaking of the Rolling Stones, there was an episode at SST in May 2012 involving the Stones that you may remember.
Oh yes. I was upstairs in my studio. There is an airlock door between my studio and SST downstairs and if that door is left open, I can hear stuff from downstairs. I was doing vocals that day and there was sound coming up through the airlock door. I wasn't paying attention to it, but it sounded vaguely like some band playing the old song, Route 66. I called down and they said, “Sorry, we'll take care of that,” but it didn't change. I let it go for a while, but I was still hearing this band, now playing the Stones old song, Missing You, for like, 45 minutes. Finally, the phone rang and it was John Hanti following up.
“I'm cutting vocals, John, and I'm getting a lot of noise. Have you got the Rolling Stones downstairs or something?” I was joking.
Hanti laughed and said “You didn't hear that from me! I ain’t saying yes or no.” It was all very hush-hush.
One night that week I went down to take out the garbage about seven o'clock. There were some long black limos in the parking and Mick was standing there, looking around. He might have been on the phone. He looked directly at me and suddenly, security guys came running at me. “Hey, it's all right,” I said, “I know what's going on. I’ve got a studio upstairs and I'm taking out the garbage.”
Man, that a tight security operation. It was worthy of a President.
I once auditioned for Mick Jagger at S.I.R. to play on his record, Wandering Spirit, in ’91 or ’92. I played there for a couple of hours with Mick and a band he had assembled. It was great. Mick set me down on the couch and asked, “Would you want to go to London to make a record?” He wrote down my phone number and my name and we all high-fived each other, but then I never heard another word about it. I never saw Mick again until that night in SST’s parking lot.
Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye
You’ve had a long tenure as Patti Smith’s bass player and partner. How did that begin?
Because of Lenny Kaye. It was all because of him. I would not have this gig if it wasn’t for Lenny. He is my dear, dear brother. Patti is like my sister at this point, after 25 years. She's a great person. I can't say enough about her. She looks after the people who are important to her.
How much touring are you doing these days with Patti?
We just went to Europe for the whole month of June and we go back out in August, back to Europe, then we're going to South American in November. It's enough. It’s not Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour, but it’s enough.
Would you say that Patti Smith is more revered in Europe than in the States?
Oh, yes. Very much so. I think music is more appreciated somehow in Europe and different parts of the world. It's handed down through generations. We played to huge crowds in Italy, France, Spain, and Scandinavia. In America, we do well in big cities, but in Middle America, not so much. I don't know why, but when you say “Patti Smith” to somebody young in many areas, they either totally know who she is or they don't have a clue.
That did change somewhat with Patti’s book, Just Kids. That has broadened her audience much more in the last few years. We see a lot of kids coming to her shows now because they’ve read her book.
Talk about your work on the Pope Francis Man of His Word documentary.
Patti and I were in Berlin two years ago and the director, Wim Wenders, was there at the time, too, He showed us the documentary he was working on and he wanted Patti's voice in it, somehow. Patti asked him, “Do you think we could write a song for this?” and Wim said yes.
We wrote a song titled These Are the Words, that ran under the credits at the end of the film.
Do you have any advice for young artists trying to make it the music business these days?
TONY: Work hard. Stay focused. Don’t take your opportunities for granted. Some people are more in love with the image of the whole thing than with the actual work. You’ve got to love the work.
I’d like to add that the whole atmosphere here at SST is great. John is my landlord and he’s a good friend. He takes care of everybody. I can't say enough nice things about him and everybody who works at SST. Everybody helps each other. If you say “Hey, I need this,” they say “Sure, no problem.” Always. Working in the Willow Building is great, too. Ken McKim is on our floor and he runs a business called Trouble Report. He's the guy who brought back the console downstairs after the flood, along with Billy Perez and his crew, after Sandy. He can fix anything. We’re blessed to have him in the building.
Billy, Jeff, Johnny, John Hanti--the entire organization is awesome.