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Mark Neill Interview: The Sheet Iron Roof Chronicles

The Mark Neill Interview
Sheet Iron Roof Chronicles Volume 1
By James Calemine

Raised in South Georgia, Mark Neill exists as one of this generations pre-imminent producer/sound engineers. He grew up in Hahira, Georgia. He lived on a farm in an area called Snake Nation. Neill cut his musical teeth on Sun and Chess Records. His first recording studio was his tobacco barn. He began playing bass in Quartets during his early teens. Neill played a vital role in the Valdosta music scene in the late 70s before he moved to California.

Neill’s 25 years in the art of sound design ranks him as a sought-after tone guru, especially after the inimitable sound and earning a GRAMMY for producing The Black Keys' latest CD, Brothers that Neill recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound on Jackson Highway in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Neill has lived in San Diego for many years now, but after the Brothers-Muscle Shoals sessions, Neill intends to return to his Soil of the South Studio back to his Georgia hometown soon.

Neill’s expertise at building studios began many years ago with his Three Track Shack Studios where the great Ricky Nelson recorded as well as designing London’s Toe Rag Studios and building The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach’s home studio. Neill also co-recorded and mixed Auerbach’s successful solo album Keep It Hid in 2009.

Neill once said: “My dream is that one day American Southern music will be recognized for its importance to the development of American culture.” His understanding of how culture, the South and music all intertwine into a social fabric renders him a Swampland hero. In this extensive interview we discuss Neill’s south Georgia upbringing, his musical influences, old bands, the art of recording, his California endeavors, his friendship with luminary Jim Dickinson, the Black Keys Brothers album in Muscle Shoals, his current projects and his pending move back to Georgia. We’re proud to introduce Mark Neill into the Swampland rotation for what we’re calling the Sheet Iron Roof Chronicles

James Calemine: You were from right outside of Valdosta, Georgia, right?

Mark Neill: Yeah, I grew up in Hahira, Georgia. We lived out on a farm. We lived in an area called Snake Nation.

JC: Were your folks musical?

MN: No. My father is a professional race car driver.

JC: I suppose those early Sun Records were a heavy influence on you…

MN: That happened because my parents and uncles and aunts had 45rpm records. I was a toddler in the early 60s. I was a little kid—two years old and rolling around—this was way before the Beatles. They all listened to R & B like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and all that stuff. The problem was with the Jimmy Reed LPs. When the LPs came out of those in the late 50s they bought LPs and put all the 45s in a box. My parents were young. My mom basically had me as a teenager. So they were still young when I was two. I got the box of 45s. I got a picture of me at two-years-old with a stack of 45s and a little record player. They were my toys.

JC: When did you start picking up instruments?

MN: Right away—from the age of about 7 on I would tinker away on anything I could borrow. I did take violin lessons. Back then schools had programs for music. My kids unfortunately have a very limited version of that now. Back then schools had orchestras and bands. Then I went to tuba, but I always plucked around on guitars, but nobody really had them. Poor people didn’t have Gibson guitars leaning on the walls.

JC: Would it be safe to say guitar was the first instrument you became efficient on?

MN: I would say it was bass first because the gospel quartets in the south in the late 60s and 70s that was big business down there. These quartets were big. In the early 70s everyone started having their young ones play bass, and steel guitar with the old folks singing and that was the thing to have your family onstage. The Harmony Quartet in Tifton, Georgia, their kids I guess didn’t want to play, so they hired some 13-year old to play bass, and that was me. I was sort of the surrogate stand in for one of those kids.

JC: Did you tinker on piano?

MN: I can’t really play piano. I know where the notes are, but I can’t really play piano.

JC: So, you’re buying records all along…

MN: Yeah, all you had to do was go to Thrift stores and garage sales and you could get 45s for days.

JC: I’m sure the Beatles, Stones and Dylan began to creep into your musical interests after cutting your teeth on Sun and Chess Records…

MN: Yeah, well the Beatles were great. I remember my mom being young and screaming at the TV because the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. It was funny. O my g--I remember my mom and my aunt dancing to the Beatles’ first record, which was a VJ record, called Introducing the Beatles, or something. It wasn’t even the Capitol record yet. I think my mom and my aunt split the cost of the record.

JC: I know you were playing in bands already, but did you do any DJ-ing in Georgia? I want to make sure I have my facts straight…

MN: I never was a DJ, but I messed around a couple of radio stations and learned how to do it. There was a station called WAFT radio, which was a gospel station in that county. I used to go over there because I knew the Tidwells, and I’d just go hang out and watch, which was great and I just absorbed it. I got my FCC license by the time I was 14. I was trained to operate what was essentially a 50s radio station—WVLD—by Ron Irwin. It has the same RCA console and AMPEX tape machine as Sun Studios.

JC: How did your session with Ricky Nelson happen?

MN: That was a complete accident. My friend Pat Woodward, an upright bass player, he used to play with Billy Zoom and everybody in town. He was the only legitimate guy who could play that style. We’d become friends through Billy who I’d pretty much known him since 79. Pat just got the job as Ricky’s bass player, and he told Ricky about the place, and Ricky flipped and said ‘That’s a dream come true.’ So, that’s how it happened. Pat brought him over.

JC: That was at your Three Track Shack Studio, right?

MN: Yeah, I called it the Three Track Shack was because the multi-track was just a half an inch and three tracks. We didn’t have an official walk-in business. It was just our project studio--kind of like Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch. It was our own personal thing.

JC: Let me ask you this, I know a lot of musicians keep recorders around them so they preserve songs and remember riffs, but when did you take the actual recording process so seriously?

MN: It’s funny, before I could play bass and guitar very well I was literally building hi-fis out of tubes because you could get them cheap. I’d modify amps, speakers and boxes—taking something off one turntable and putting it on another. It was all mono. There was no stereo and I would just mess around. My next move was to get a reel to reel. I did and it was an AMPEX—it was a good two-track AMPEX machine. It had belonged to a school system. I got it and started messing with it by that time I could play anything on guitar I had a way to record it. Then George Eager—he has a missionary thing in Valdosta called The Mailbox Club, and he gave me a machine called a Woolensack, which was another machine that was small that the school system used. That’s what they recorded Arthur Alexander’s first two records on. I had no idea until Rick Hall or somebody told me that. It was a half-track machine with quarter-inch tape and it ran seven and a half IPS and it was for school systems. It was a little machine that had a weird sound. I used to bounce between that and the AMPEX.

JC: I know you’re playing and listening to music constantly, but for you building a recording studio became the goal. And soon that became a business…

MN: Well, the sticky point is I didn’t charge anybody for anything until 12 years ago. You have to understand, before that in project studios bands were in developmental deals. They would record demos with me, put out a 45 or an EP and that’s the way the 80s played. If you get signed to a major label then you can pay me for the time we spent in here. Of course, that never happened…(laughs)

JC: What was the first studio you operated?

MN: The first one was my tobacco barn in Georgia, but the first official studio that had an air-conditioner was in north Hollywood.

JC: Tell me about leaving Georgia for California. For a South Georgia fellow, that’s like going to Japan.

MN: It really is. In 1978 there was a thriving art scene of music—we didn’t call it New Wave yet—we didn’t know what it was. It was this weird stuff filtering in from New York believe it or not and it was coming in very slowly—the Velvet Underground and just a handful of people like The Modern Lovers…I think the record was called Modern World. That record was iconic. Peter Ivers and the Blue Communion with Yolanda Bavin was an insane record. It was a jazz set up and every single acoustic instrument had a pick up on it through a distorted amp. So, Peter Ivers played the harmonica sometimes the chromatic harp—it was all distorted, the drums were distorted, the bass was distorted. It was like the Modern Jazz quartet with pick-ups. There was this chick singing and she was great, and that record was really iconic. Don Fleming bought it at Woolworth’s. What was happening in the deep south you had one thing that went down in a club or frat house, and that was “Play Freebird!’

JC: Tom Petty once said something to the effect that if you were from Florida and didn’t play Lynyrd Skynyrd you had to go out West.

MN: It was insane. All we wanted to play was “Only The Lonely”, “Mustang Sally” and anything cool, but they didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t even like the good Marshall Tucker stuff. It was rough. People have this romantic vision about southern boogie rock and all these incredible bands—but I don’t have that romantic vision. It was like the dregs of Woodstock. It was awful. We just rebuilt. We saw some precedent from New York City. Some of it was Television and Patti Smith was doing some crazy poetry stuff. It was starting to come down to the south because Valdosta was a college town. Back then around town it was me, Don Fleming, Tom Smith and Bruce Joiner. Those four people were involved in a vague alliance in music down there. Bruce and me went out to San Diego in 1979. Don Fleming was still in the Air Force, so he was stationed up there by D.C. and Tom Smith went to Athens, Georgia. In my opinion Tom defined the Athens influence. A lot of that stuff that went on in Athens during the 1980s is like mimeographed its crazy. Tom was the Lou Reed of Valdosta. Valdosta—believe it or not—was smoking hot in 1978 for indie music. Nobody was in competition with each other. Nobody was mean. Everybody could form a band for some gigs. It was pretty easy going.

In 1979 the four of us left Valdosta. It was a sad thing because we didn’t know what we had. When we came out to San Diego there was actually a music scene here. Not now, but there was then. When we got out here we were really fascinated by the fact that people loved to document stuff. They had their indie music rags and there must have been four or five of them when we got here in 79. It was nutty, but the music and bands they were covering were weak. These bands were doing Elvis Costello covers. We just scratched our heads and said ‘What?’ It was bizarre. Bruce and me were living in my 60 Bel Air—we were homeless. People would say ‘What are y’all doing out here?’ We’d say we’re going to get signed to Warner Brothers’. They’d just roll their eyes. We didn’t know San Diego was a vortex and you couldn’t get signed here. We were corresponding with Warner Brothers in New York. We didn’t have any fear. We didn’t know better…

JC: How long did it take before you began to miss the South?

MN: One and a half years.

JC: Not long.

MN: No, I remember it. We knew what we had going on in the south was a lot better than what we had going on out here. Seven and a half years we were in California.

JC: Before you returned to Georgia, what kind of bands were you recording in California?

MN: I pretty much defined the Garage-Psych and Rockabilly market here. The records I made were the first Paladins record. The Forbidden Pigs. Telltale Hearts. Nashville Ramblers. The list goes on. There were tons of these bands like this—usually it was two songs. By 1987 I was ready to fly the coop. I couldn’t take it anymore. The only thing I could produce and record out here were these kind of insincere retro—I call it—where people are just trying to dress-up old school and had vintage instruments, but they really didn’t want to do their homework or learn to play. They just didn’t want to know. They wanted to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I recorded with Mark Neill and put out a record on that label.’ They just wanted a trophy for their mantle. They weren’t about the future, which is very heartbreaking. When you do something on spec as an artist development deal all they’ve ever paid for is a reel of tape or two. It’s a heartbreak to know these people are going to get day jobs and never even pursue it.

JC: There’s no concern for the craft itself…

MN: None. In fact, Jim Dickinson was great. We’d talk for hours and he’d say, ‘Those are Near Records’. I said, ‘Man I’ve got a whole decade of Near Records!’ and he laughed and said so do I.’ (Laughs)

JC: So, you moved back to Valdosta. I lived there about five months during the time you moved back. I remember your band The Unknowns from back then…

MN: Yes, well what I did when I built the studio in Valdosta…it was a larger room than what I had in California. It was invitation only. I was able to do a lot more projects that you, Jim Dickinson or me would not consider ‘Near Records’. If people came to Georgia from California or New York to record, they were serious. They weren’t kidding around. They were in it for the long haul and they wanted to get it right. That’s why On The Go by Big Sandy is kind of iconic. It was the first and last time those guys made a complete live record with that kind of energy level. That record in particular shaped rockabilly in the 90s, which was good for me because I was able to open doors and charge money. If it wasn’t for that Big Sandy On The Go record I wouldn’t have been able to open the doors and charge people for studio production. There was no more of that I’ll pretend to record your record if you pretend to pay me. Valdosta put an end to those days…

We stayed there until the late 90s. To be honest, I probably blew it by moving back here to California because we were doing very well. Our band was doing very well in the area. Unfortunately, we were convinced we could do that out here again. The plan was to come out here, set the recording equipment in a room and make records out here for a while, and then go back to Georgia. I was meeting with clients who wanted me to come out here. Just like The Black Keys wanted me to go to Muscle Shoals. I had clients saying, ‘It would be a lot better if you were out here.’ We packed up and came back to California and we kind of got stuck. I got married, we had children and the family tree develops. I’m coming back to the South because I love it, and I want my kids to experience it.

JC: How did you first meet Jim Dickinson?

MN: Well, it’s weird. I always admired Jim because Jim Dickinson is an enigma. His persona comes through. He spoke to me in articles he did all the way back to the 70s. He’d be interviewed off and on and you’d hear quotes. People would always quote Jim. The book Jim Dickinson wrote really ought to come out because it’s fantastic. His quotes, I swear was like having a conversation with a relative. Just his turns of phrase and opinions about the way human nature and music—it was like I knew him. I didn’t know why I thought that. Maybe it’s just the way he talks. I’m familiar with that vernacular. His quotes were just action packed. One quote from Jim Dickinson carries a lot of weight. Finally a friend of mine Phillip recorded a record with Jim and told me I should talk to him. That we’d really get along. I’d never met him, and I was a little hesitant because I had this image of him and I didn’t want to be disappointed, but once we met it was a pure pleasure. That was years ago. What’s funny about Jim—he utterly hated the kind of music I liked (laughs), but he loved what I was doing with it. Mostly…

JC: Explain the difference between the analog and digital influence on the recording process. You’re a master of sound, so talk a little about how this affects what everyone hears…

MN: It’s very simple. In 1979, we got ushered into 24-track recording studios. Let me say one name---that was prevalent at the time: MCI—they were a company in Ft. Lauderdale that made very affordable 24-track tape machines, consoles, 2-tracks. They were affiliated with companies like Express Sound who made independent studios that were all similar. So you go into a studio say in Georgia like Capricorn or FAME in Muscle Shoals out here in California at Western Audio and they were almost the same exact room. They had this same Yamaha grand piano—they all had the same drum booth. Everywhere you went in the country—it was the same studio. Generic. The problem is we could never get a kick drum sound like we did on The Black Keys’ Brothers. That same Gretsch drum set had the same heads it had back then. You could never get that sound on a 24-track that we did on this latest Black Keys record or other records I’ve made like that. It would never sound like that.

Back then we would play those drums in a room and we’d come back in and it sounded like Fleetwood Mac or the Talking Heads. We couldn’t figure it out. We’d make all our demos in the band house—my house. It was similar to what Dan Auerbach has now for his home studio. Little PA mixers and AMPEX machines and some decent microphones. We couldn’t release those records because they were mono. We’d put these demos on a chrome cassette at every San Diego and LA studio and they would press play and it would literally blow a hole in the back wall. They’d ask how’d I get that kick drum sound? That guitar sound? I’d say a Shure 57 (laughs). They’d say we can’t get that sound here. We don’t even know what you’re doing! I’d say I’m not doing anything and that’s the point. Fast forward to now, and everyone’s blaming Pro Tools. Hey man, it’s just bad taste. So, to put a fine point on analog versus digital—nothing ruins a good record like bad taste. Nothing fixes a bad mix like a great song…

JC: Earlier you mentioned you built Dan Auerbach’s home studio and co-recorded his solo effort Keep It Hid

MN: Well, let me back up. One of the things that happens to a person in South Georgia or the deep south is they over think everything (laughs). That’s why the Muscle Shoals rhythm section is probably better than they needed to be in 1965. I mean, what was acceptable in New York or Los Angeles for a soul record that would have been in the mind of Rick Hall? Those guys over thought everything. That’s what I did. I built my studio—I focused on the acoustics—mathematical acoustics. Jim Dickinson and I have the same problem where we see numbers backwards. I’ve always had that problem. What I would do is—me and Dave Doyle my bass player since 79—would sit down at a counter at a restaurant with these books on sound, a pocket calculator and we’d push the paper back and forth to make sure it was right. He was great at math. I decided many years ago that you couldn’t have a studio unless it was acoustically designed with the Rule of 18. The Golden Section. This deep math goes all the way back before Babylon. Solomon’s math. The Golden Section is the math of the universe. Acoustics apply to this and you have to design rooms using these non-divisible formulas. If you don’t, these rooms sound like metal barrels or empty bedrooms. I was convinced most people who were serious about making records had done their rooms this way. I was mostly wrong. I got good at walking into a room, no matter what it sounded like, and make it sound the way you wanted it to. I already versed myself so deeply with the section formulas. I could make a small room sound like a big church. In turn, I could make a large room sound tight by working with diffusion so you could work without baffles in the room and still get a really clean sound on the microphones.

So, I designed my studio and Toe Rag Studios and my studio as clones of each other as an experiment. Liam Watson—who owns Toe Rag—thought it was a great idea and that’s what he wanted to do. It’s all done on the Golden Section. Many years later when Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys visited my studio, and he loved it. He asked me how much it would cost to build the same studio in his home. I told him how much it would cost and he said that was really expensive. I said I understood, but you have to do it right or you’re wasting your money. You might as well leave it the way it is and record in your basement. If you don’t do it all the way—it won’t work.

You actually have to finish the job and do all of it. That means floating the floor, internal dimensional structure, floating the walls and isolating things so that don’t make noise out in the neighborhood. Even the way microphones and everything hooks up as a system. It has a design. It’s all based on common practice since 1958. That’s how Dan Auerbach’s studio was designed. Dan came into my room and he loved it. He’d visited Toe Rag Studios and loved that too.

JC: That brings us up to you engineering The Black Keys’ Brothers album in Muscle Shoals. It’s a great album and it’s getting a lot of attention. You contributed in a big way to that…

MN: Well, thank you man. Let me explain, I’m going to quote Jim Dickinson a lot because you interviewed Jim. This is what I loved about Jim. I used to feel very guilty about playing my record collection to people like Dan. I used to feel guilty about saying, ‘Hey—we really ought to use my Gretsch drums on this. I used to feel bad about saying give me your guitar I want to show you another way to play that chord pattern—it’s fuller down here.’ I felt bad about that for years. Jim liberated my thinking on that. He said, ‘All Bets are Off’. Record production is everything. You have to do it all. You just can’t do one thing. You’ve got to do everything. You can’t do too much at once. You gotta be pretty vague and pretty quiet about how you do it because it’s nefarious. The craft is nefarious. 

Dickinson said if it feels right and you feel like it’s got to be done, don’t be afraid to put cream in somebody’s coffee if they ask for it black and it helps them sing better. Don’t be ashamed to say put that cigarette down you’re going to do another take. The problem with The Black Keys record in Muscle Shoals for me was halfway through that situation—the process of making that record was everybody was thrilled with the soul music and heavy dark results. The other half of the process something turned. The worm turned in the middle of the process. We were almost done and the scary thing is the demos that we have—those songs we did here at Soil of the South Studios—was a completely different record in and of itself. I’ll be honest—the direction on that was killer too. I mean these guys are super talented…

JC: People don’t understand what it takes or the price you have to pay to make great art. You guys were in Muscle Shoals for a couple of weeks, right?

MN: Yeah, about ten days.

JC: I remember you saying a lot of electric and paranormal activity went on in the Muscle Shoals studio.

MN; Yeah, a lot. I knew it was going to happen because it happened in my cinderblock studio in Valdosta. It was the same thing down there. I would have to run them out sometimes it would get so thick in there. I never said there were ghosts there. What if it was just electromagnetic residue? I never said it was anybody’s spirit. Who knows?

JC: I’m sure recording at one of the studios were some of America’s greatest soul music retains it’s own mojo…

MN: Yes, absolutely. Jim Dickinson had just passed when we started the first song and I don’t know—I think Jim has gone to be with the Lord and I believe that—but something like an energy was there. It could have been what’s left behind when you go—who knows? But whatever it is there was a ton of strange physical things that went on while we were there. Dan has to wear glasses. He didn’t wear them while playing, but people who could see that were inside that room saw it. It happened. Even if you couldn’t see it you knew something was happening. You could feel it.

JC: You’re well versed in all the classic sounds and auras of Ardent, Sun, Capricorn, STAX, Muscle Shoals and beyond. The right producer procures and utilizes all the visible and invisible elements to create a timeless sound that crosses generations to exist in the here and now. Brothers stands as testimony to that…

MN: The vibe in that Muscle Shoals room was heavier than a Pentecostal snake-handling service. It was nuts. Those songs Dan and Pat played…”Everlasting Light” or “Next Girl” something stuck to that tape. If you hear these Muscle Shoals songs they sound totally haunted, different, greasy and crazy compared to the stuff recorded at Dan’s.

JC: I love the R & B stuff, but “Next Girl”, “Go Getter” and “Sinister Kid” rank as my favorites…

MN: The Black Keys songs are amazing. I’m pretty sure the people who were there with me all agree whether you like what I do or not it was an essential factor to what was going on in Muscle Shoals. My part of it all was flavor enhancer. There was some hard work going on there, which is a great back story and adds sparkle to an album that is already brilliant.

JC: What are you working on right now?

MN: I just finished that Hacienda record, which is the band Dan took out on the road for Keep It Hid. They recorded that in Akron, and then I get a phone call in the middle of this Brothers thing and they wanted me to finish it up, mix it and add my sound design. So, I did that. Of course, it was a pleasure because the way his studio is set up and the way he is doing things now it was very fun to make that record for those guys. That record just came out, it’s called Big Red & Barbacoa. I got a lot of people kicking the tires because of this Black Keys record…

JC: When are you moving back to Georgia?

MN: I don’t know. I see an exodus of people moving back to the South. I’ve been broadcasting that I’ve wanted to come back and I think this Muscle Shoals thing is the first fish. I reeled it in. After Muscle Shoals, I really want to return to the South. The musicians in the south are peerless. I mean—just to be honest—I don’t even consider myself as some smoking red-hot player, but out here in San Diego I’m a very distinctive player. In South Georgia, people still think I’m this kid bass player. I go home and folks say ‘Hey Mark, we always loved your bass playing. It was such an inspiration.’ I don’t mind being brought down a few pegs when I go home…

(Photos by Craig Packham & David Doyle)
Photos 1-5 shot at Mark Neill's Soil of the South Studios

Stay tuned for Volume 2 of The Sheet Iron Roof Chronicles...





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