ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 28, 1998
Yesterday I went all nutty and posted the 1998 Georgia Straight cover story I did on famed Vancouver rock producer Bruce Fairbairn. That got me thinkin’ that maybe I should post the cover story I did earlier that same year on Fairbairn’s former protege, Mike Fraser. Stay tuned and some day soon I’ll post the cover story I did on Bob Rock (update: here it is), completing my triumvirate on the “Big Three” of Vancouver knob-twiddlers. (Triumvirate’s probably not the word I’m looking for here, but it’s late and I’m tired, so it’ll do.)
If you’ve listened to rock radio at all in the past decade, you’ve heard Mike Fraser’s work. His mixing and engineering talents have graced such hugely popular recordings as Aerosmith’s Pump, Metallica’s Load, and Van Halen’s Balance. In the past few years, he’s branched out into production, with coproducer credits on AC/DC’s Ballbreaker and the Jimmy Page–David Coverdale project, Coverdale/Page. And now he’s hit the big time as producer, engineer, and mixer for guitar god Joe Satriani’s new CD, Crystal Planet.
Not bad for a tattooed headbanger from Langley.
When I first encounter him, Fraser is lounging cross-legged on a couch in the Neve Room at Gastown’s Warehouse Studios, sucking on a jumbo soda. Although I’ve never met him before, he looks familiar; then I realize that he’s dressed exactly as he is in the Crystal Planet studio snapshots: black T-shirt, black shorts, white socks, and hiking boots. (A closer inspection reveals a tattoo on his right shoulder of a skull impaled with bloody rods.)
Nearby is the vintage Neve recording console—one of only three in the world—that they named the room after. It looks like a 12-by-4-foot table covered with thousands of buttons, knobs, switches, and dials. Fraser claims to know what each and every one of them does—–“except this one here,” he quips, tweaking one at random. It’s on mind-blowing sound boards like this—as well as much less sophisticated ones—that the 38-year-old has been gradually making a name for himself for the past 20 years.
The Vancouver-born Fraser has spent most of his life in Langley. He doesn’t come from a musical or artistic family—his father is a mechanic and his mom is a bookkeeper—and he was the only one of four kids who didn’t take piano lessons. But when he was in his early teens, he and some school buddies picked up guitars, put together a garage band, and started playing at high-school dances. (“We were crap,” recalls Fraser, “but they thought we were great.”)
When he finished school in ’77, Fraser drove truck for a bit, but his brief stint in a band had hooked him on the idea of a life in rock—one way or the other. He knew he couldn’t cut it as a musician, so he looked into a career behind the scenes, pondering an application to the Columbia School of Broadcasting. Fortunately, he had an uncle who owned Little Mountain Sound and who got Fraser a job as a janitor there, where he could get some “on-the-job training”.
At this time, there were a couple of other destined-for-glory types working at the studio, getting their own early experience in the producing and engineering trades. Fraser would basically end up learning much of what he knows from Bruce Fairbairn and Bob Rock over the next eight years or so.
“I used to do a lotta the jingles during the day,” says Fraser, “and Rock would come in after 6 o’clock, ’cause that was the only time he could get in. He was doin’ a lotta the punk bands, and I was into them too, and I remember going up to him and saying, ‘Hey, do you need a hand?’ He said, ‘If you want to hang around, it’s up to you.’ So that’s what I did.”
Fraser practically lived at Little Mountain for a year. He’d drag himself from his sleeping bag and fulfill his janitorial duties before staying up all night with Rock. He remembers his first actual recording session as something of an eye-opener. “I think it was, like, a Prism record or something,” he remembers. “I think Fairbairn produced, and I was coiling cords and stuff for [engineer and mixer] Bob Rock. But I remember being shocked, like, ‘Wow, this is how it’s done?’ I always kinda expected it to be like you see in the movies: you know, a big party, one take and they’re out the door. I didn’t realize it was such hard work.”
In the years to come, Fairbairn and Rock—with Fraser close at hand—turned Little Mountain Sound into a mecca for ’80s rockers. Everyone from Aerosmith to Bon Jovi to the Cult forged million-selling albums there. But according to Fraser, it wasn’t just the golden-eared producers who made the studio so successful.
“I think it was just all the right people on the right jobs at the right time,” he figures. “From the receptionists to the technical people, everybody worked together and it became like a family. We’d hang out together after work and stuff.”
Fraser scored his first major mixing credit in 1987, but not through the regular channels. He was working as an assistant engineer with Rock on Aerosmith’s comeback album, Permanent Vacation, which Fairbairn was producing. Rock had to leave town about halfway through the project to go on the road with the Payola$, then Fairbairn also had to split for a while.
With both of his bosses out of the picture, Fraser was left hanging out with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and the three of them were just supposed to do some rough mixes. But the former Toxic Twins decided to give Fraser a shot at the final mix, and when Fairbairn returned, they had three or four songs in the can. “He was a bit freaked out because I didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” recalls Fraser, “but he listened to the mixes and went ‘Great.’ So that was it; that was kinda my first one.”
After that, the jobs came fast and furious for Fraser, who would put his winning touch to such varied recordings as Red Rider’s Victory Day, the Cult’s Sonic Temple, and the Mission’s Belief. As far as career highlights go, Fraser is particularly pleased to have worked with AC/DC on three albums. His mixing of a track for the Led Zeppelin box set is a personal milestone as well.
He’s managed to work with the majority of his hard-rock heroes over the years, one exception being Black Sabbath, whom he had the chance to record live last year when the original lineup reunited for a small British tour. “They’re the only sorta childhood-hero guys that I haven’t worked with,” he says, still sounding bummed that previous commitments kept him from fulfilling that particular rock dream.
When asked to explain the basic differences between the roles of producer, engineer, and mixer, Fraser offers a cut-and-dried interpretation. He likens producing music to directing movies, in that the producer tries to get the best performance out of a band, as a director does with actors. The engineer is the technician who gets all the various sounds from the mikes, amps, and instruments, and the mixer comes in afterwards and puts all the bits and pieces together.
Although Fraser enjoys all three of the recording processes, if he had to choose just one, he’d go with mixing. “It’s the most fun, I guess, ’cause you’re the final stage. It’s like the artist puts down colours, and then I get to smear them over. There’s usually some ‘Oh, can we have more vocal?’ or ‘Gee, I wanted that guitar part drier,’ but sometimes there isn’t.”
As well as the recent Joe Satriani project, Fraser produced 1997’s G3 Live CD, which featured Satriani in the company of fret masters Steve Vai and Eric Johnson. Those three players are certainly the most accomplished artists Fraser has worked with so far; musically, they’re light-years ahead of the likes of Jackyl or Thunder—or AC/DC, for that matter. So does he prefer working with virtuoso types or your basic three-chord rock dudes?
“You gotta wear a little bit different hat with each person,” he relates, “and with some of the virtuosos, you have to watch out for their egos. Not Joe, but I worked with Yngwie Malmsteen a few times, and you had to watch out, not overstep your bounds.”
Scanning Fraser’s list of 40-odd album credits, sent by his management in New York, I notice that not all of them have been blockbusters. His mixing of Vince Neil’s Carved in Stone couldn’t keep it out of the delete bins, and who wants to admit that they were partially responsible for Poison’s Not a Pretty Sight? But Fraser doesn’t take on a project because he thinks it will sell lots of copies and spread his name around. He doesn’t even have to enjoy a band’s music all that much.
“I think you have to enjoy what you’re doin’,” he stresses. “There are some bands that you need to do, and you find a way of enjoyin’ it. You can’t go, ‘Ewww, not Poison’ or this or that. Hey, you know, they’re tryin’ to get music out there, and my thing in life is to put music out there. I can’t make it, so I’ll help you make it.”
One reason that the mixing process appeals so strongly to Fraser is that it keeps him relatively distant from the actual business of music. When he’s wearing his producer’s hat, he has to concern himself more with the money end of things, whether he likes it or not. “They give you a budget, and you have to bring it in on or under budget,” he says. “Or if it goes over budget, you have to explain why.”
Fraser says he’s never gone over budget on a recording that he’s produced himself, though there have been times—like when he mixed, engineered, and coproduced AC/DC’s 1995 Ballbreaker CD—when the cash fairly flew from the coffers. “They’ve got so much money,” he reveals, “that the last record was a bit ridiculous, really. We were in New York for six weeks and didn’t do anything, then we moved to L.A. and everybody stayed in the best hotel suites. It was outta their pocket, but at the end of the day, when I’ve got points on it, that’s all gotta get paid back before I see any money.”
Although jobs with stinkin’-rich groups such as AC/DC and Aerosmith have probably helped Fraser establish an enviable bank balance, he claims that he isn’t tied to just working with platinum hard-rock acts. “I’d love to do any kind of music,” he states. “I’m actually tryin’ to steer myself into doin’ a country record, just for something different, ’cause you get pigeonholed with the heavy rock all the time. I mean, I still love it—there’ll still be the Metallicas and the AC/DCs and all that—but it’d be nice to get into somethin’ a little more mellow. Maybe it’s the age, I dunno.”
Another way people in Fraser’s line of work make money these days is on remixes and remasters; it seems like every once-classic band is getting its old material buffed up and reissued. Although it may be in his best financial interests to argue otherwise, Fraser feels that—like classic black-and-white films that shouldn’t be colourized—some original rock works are better left untouched. He was once asked to do a remix of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, but he turned it down.
“I said, ‘No way, you won’t put my name on that.’ ’Cause that was perfect; that was one of the most perfect records. And a lot of that stuff I can’t see them improvin’ on—like I thought the [remixed] Hendrix stuff that had been comin’ out was horrible. Then last year there was a new set that came out that was the first one the family’s approved, and that was really good. Satriani turned me on to that, ’cause he’s a huge Hendrix fan.”
Just as guitarists have guitar heroes, so do producers have producer heroes, and Fraser gives the thumbs-up to revered knob-twiddlers such as Bob Clearmountain and Hugh Padgham. He also cites local guy Randy Staub as a producer to watch for, and he describes anything by Mutt Lange as awesome.
“He sometimes goes a little overboard,” says Fraser of Shania Twain’s husband, “but, boy, when you put it on, you go ‘Man!’ It’s just the whole onslaught, you know, right from Def Leppard to the country records to the Cars. He covers all areas instead of just one.”
When asked to pinpoint the strongest traits of the two local producers who most inspired him, Fraser breaks it down to Fairbairn’s organizational skills and Rock’s musical instincts. Detailing his own qualities isn’t quite so easy. “I don’t really play guitar or anything any more, so I go for the vibe, whatever feels good. I know when something’s in tune or outta tune—or when it even matters, you know.”
While Fraser sees his credits from Little Mountain as enviable notches in his belt, he feels that being a major-label rock producer in Vancouver right now has its drawbacks. Since the demise of Little Mountain seven years ago, it’s been tough for him to land jobs here, so he’s had to mostly work in the States. And although he’s optimistic that the recent opening of the Bryan Adams–owned Warehouse will turn things around locally, there’s always that old precipitation complaint.
“Towards the end of our peak period at Little Mountain, the bands were gettin’ tired of the weather,” he says. “They could sit at their places in Malibu in the sunshine versus sittin’ up here in the rain.”
Speaking of escaping the drizzle, Fraser’s old mentor Rock has done just that by setting himself up with a dandy home studio in Maui. Fraser doesn’t plan on following that escapist route, however; if he ever retreats, it will be to a ranch somewhere up-country—“but not until the kids are outta the house”. He and his wife, Vicky, have four children, so it’s a particular blessing that Fraser’s been able to do what he loves and earn good coin at it. And although he doesn’t plan on deserting the international hard-rock trade any time soon, Fraser doesn’t foresee the day when he has to ask Angus Young to crank it up because he forgot his hearing aid.
“I’m not looking at stayin’ in it till I’m old and grey,” he says. “I want to get back to enjoying music again. Like, I can’t go out and buy records and enjoy them; I’ve got to buy them and tear them apart, always criticizing instead of just listening for the innocent enjoyment.
“The innocence has gone now, you know.”