ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 25, 2002
By Steve Newton
What could possibly cause any sane person to willingly abandon the balmy paradise of Hawaii for the frigid climes of Vancouver in January? Well, if you’re record producer Bob Rock, your last name is reason enough. Good old riff-riddled rock is what draws the tanned music man to leave his home overlooking the sapphire-blue waters of Maui and fly into frosty Vancouver the day before eight inches of snow is dumped everywhere. Our Lady Peace, one of Canada’s best-selling bands, has hired Rock to helm the follow-up to its double-platinum 2000 album, Spiritual Machines. But apart from his desire to help Raine Maida and mates mine for precious metal again—and help himself get paid extremely well in the process—Rock has other reasons for braving the briskness.
“I love coming back to Vancouver,” he claims during a break from recording at Gastown’s upscale Warehouse Studios, “and lately I’ve been coming back to Vancouver a lot more to see my folks and my sisters, and my friends! I really miss Vancouver and I really miss my friends.”
Paul Hyde, Rock’s former partner in the seminal Vancouver punk-pop act the Payola$—as well as its mid-’80s offshoot, Rock & Hyde—is one old pal he likes to keep tight with. The in-demand producer found time in his intense working schedule to help Hyde record his impressive 2001 CD, Living Off the Radar. A few other locals Rock doesn’t visit when he hits town but who hold a secure spot in his heart all the same are the doctors and nurses at the Children’s and Women’s Health Centre of British Columbia. When Rock’s son John was six years old, he suffered a stroke, and Dad camped out at the hospital for 10 days while the boy underwent a barrage of medical tests.
“They never really found out exactly what caused it,” Rock relates between bites of an orange, “but it’s one of those incidents that happens to maybe 20 kids a year in B.C. And when I was there, I was just absolutely blown away with the care that my son got—the doctors, the whole staff, everything. It was just incredible. Then right after that, I started feeling kinda guilty about the monthly payments I was making, you know, just under B.C. Med. I kinda went, ‘You know, I should do more.’ ”
Rock did a whole lot more. With his heavyweight manager, Bruce Allen, helping out, he organized and performed at the series of Medicine Ball fundraising concerts, held in December of ’94 and ’95, which featured both top local bands and big-name American stars from the chart-topping acts he’d worked with. The gigs raised more than 60 grand for the hospital, and Rock says that he’s thinking about getting involved with the charity event again and giving the Medicine Ball “another kick”.
But first off, he’s got to complete his latest project with the world’s top metal act, Metallica. Rock produced the Bay Area ear busters’ breakthrough self-titled release of ’91 (aka The Black Album), and everything they’ve recorded since. And when long-time bassist Jason Newsted quit the group last year—frustrated in part by his bandmates’ opposition to his side project, Echobrain—Rock took the role of interim fourth member. That’ll be him you hear playing bass on the next Metallica CD.
“I’m not gonna play live,” he points out. “I’m just doin’ it in the studio to finish off. What happened was, when we did the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack, I’d flown in and gotten together with Lars [Ulrich] and James [Hetfield], and I ended up playing bass in James’s studio, just because we were workin’ up a song. So when Jason left, they said, ‘You know, we really don’t want to bring anybody in. You played bass when we were jammin’; that would be fine.’ So that’s not really what I do, but I’ve been kinda havin’ fun with it, actually.”
Although Metallica is undeniably one of the most popular bands ever (its first Rock-produced disc moved more than 16 million units worldwide), there has been much finger-pointing in hard-rock circles and shouting of “Sellout!” since that album’s monster hit, “Enter Sandman”, made the quartet a staple of commercial radio. But Rock is quick to put the boots to that impression.
“The people who yell ‘sellout’ are really the types who aren’t gonna like anything unless they do Master of Puppets again,” he declares. “Metallica never have and never will sell out—they do what they feel they want to do and go where their music takes them. And if they lose fans that are blind to change, then they’re totally willing to accept that. They don’t want to stagnate, they don’t want to tread water, they don’t want to become a dinosaur—they want to move on.
“People didn’t like the idea that they cut their hair,” he adds, referring to the change in the band’s appearance that came with the release of Load in ’96. “They changed some of the way they looked, and they changed their sound. They wanted to change, and people always equate that to selling out or doing things for commercial reasons, but it’s just not the case.”
Long before becoming the architect of Metallica’s killer studio sound, Rock was guitarist and—along with Paul Hyde—cowriter for the Payola$, a popular Vancouver band that released four albums in the ’80s, including the Mick Ronson–produced No Stranger to Danger, which spawned the hit “Eyes of a Stranger”. When I pull out my mint vinyl copy of that disc, Rock’s initial response of “Good God!” gives way to fond recollections of recording it alongside Ronson, one of his biggest influences. The British guitar god and long-time collaborator with David Bowie and Ian Hunter passed away in April of ’93 after a long bout with cancer, but back in ’82 his involvement with the Payola$ was a dream come true for Rock. “Mick was just this huge thing in my life,” he relates, “both for his work with Bowie and for when he worked with us. Mick is definitely huge in my heart.”
Other producers who have impressed Rock along the way include Roy Thomas Baker (Queen), Ken Scott (Elton John), George Martin (the Beatles), and Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys). But his all-time fave knob twiddler is Brian Eno, whose collaborations with U2, particularly on the Achtung, Baby CD, put him at the top of Rock’s producer chart. U2 is the band that he says he would most like to work with for the sheer joy of it—outside of his old cronies in the Payola$, of course. “They just never cease to amaze me,” he says of the Irish superstars. “But, I mean, I’m happy with Metallica, thank you very much.”
Metallica’s clearly happy with him too, or they wouldn’t have kept calling him back, after The Black Album, for Load, Reload, Garage, Inc., The Symphony Sessions, and the work in progress. Other multiplatinum acts that have rehired Rock for a second or third stint behind the console include Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and the Cult. So what keeps those big-name Yankee bands coming back for more? Is there something in particular about Rock’s approach in the studio that makes him so great?
“I have absolutely no idea,” he says with a shrug. “But I think one of the best things a producer can do is really work with the band to make their vision come true. And that’s what I try to do.” One example of Rock coming through for his clients can be heard in the familiar drum intro to the title track of Mötley Crüe’s hit 1989 CD, Dr. Feelgood. “For that,” he recalls, “Tommy Lee just said: ‘I want the biggest, nastiest, most badass kick-drum bottom end that I could possibly get.’ So that’s what we did, and we just pushed it to the absolute max. Then, of course, when the guys from Metallica heard it, they went: ‘We’ve gotta get the guy who did that.’ ”
At 47, Rock still gets a kick out of reliving the pulse-pounding intro to “Dr. Feelgood” whenever it hits the airwaves, though he prefers to hear the slinky, atmospheric lead-in to the Payola$’ reggae-tinged “Eyes of a Stranger”. “It makes me feel old,” he admits of the 20-year-old CanCon staple, “but it’s a good song, so it’s really nice to hear it on the radio. You hear it in Maui, you hear it in L.A., and you hear it here. I mean, it’s one of those new-wave standards, so to speak.”
In the early ’80s, when he wasn’t busy with the Payola$, Rock could often be found in the fabled hard-rock mecca of Little Mountain Sound, engineering soon-to-be-platinum albums alongside producer Bruce Fairbairn. (The pair were responsible for such wildly successful ’80s titles as Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation.) After Rock branched out on his own and hit producer pay dirt with Metallica, he formed Rockhead with singer Steve Jack, bassist Jamey Kosh, and Payola$ drummer Chris Taylor. The band released a self-titled, Rock-produced CD in ’92 that favoured catchy, melodic hard rock and was spiced up with appearances by guitar-slinging cohorts Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), Billy Duffy (the Cult), and Apache (Little Caesar).
“The Rockhead thing was really just me bein’ so involved with the hard-rock music that it was almost by osmosis that I was drawn to that,” he points out. “But when I ended up in Europe on tour with Bon Jovi, I discovered that it really wasn’t what I was about.”
Rock also reveals that, for all his time spent polishing radio-friendly records for ’80s hard-rockers, he was never all that crazy about the music being made. “You know, it’s a funny thing, lookin’ back on all the years that I had at Little Mountain, I never really got heavily involved with the music I was creating as a producer and an engineer, do you know what I mean? Aerosmith, Mötley, Bon Jovi—it wasn’t big for me in terms of the soul of it. It was work for me. Where I really got my happiness was from my band and my music. When I had the Payola$ and Rock & Hyde and I was doing things with Paul [Hyde], it was such a great thing.”
Although Rock made his name working with bands that rode the ’80s hard-rock craze all the way to the bank, one look at his current résumé reveals that spandex-wearing crotch-rockers have given way to more pop-oriented artists such as Tal Bachman, Cher, and the Moffats. “I guess the bigger records that I’ve made have been heavy albums,” he reasons, “but I like makin’ records. I just did four songs with a Canadian country artist down in Nashville called Tebey Ottoh that Bruce [Allen] is handling. Bruce got me involved—he’s wanted me to do some sessions down there—and I had an absolute blast. I had a great time, and it’s country! So it’s really just about makin’ records.”
And if Rock ever wants to make those records without having to return to his soggy ol’ stomping ground, he can do that, too. When he and his family relocated to Maui six years ago, it was to inhabit a three-level, 6,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home that includes a recording studio built by Vancouver audio-design consultant John Vrtacic, former head audio tech at Little Mountain Sound. “It’s a full-on studio with everything you need,” Rock explains. “It’s up on a hill that overlooks the ocean and you can see the West Maui mountains; you can see Hookipa, which is the local surf break, where everybody’s surfing. Actually, the famous surf spot Jaws is just down the road, where they get 40-foot waves.”
While Rock tends to let the really big waves roll on by, he does enjoy surfing on Maui’s south shore, where the waters aren’t quite as daunting. Now, if he could only find more time to hang 10, he’d be the happiest ex-Vancouverite you could imagine. “I love it,” he claims, “but I don’t get out as much as I’d like. I work too much, man; I gotta change that. Don’t tell that to Bruce, though.”