Alan Parsons talks about his incredible career.
Alan Parsons’ professional biography is like a music lover’s dream come true. An assistant engineer on The Beatles’ Abbey Road recording sessions while still a teenager, Parsons found himself engineering Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon three years later.
Parsons went on to engineer and produce albums for several top acts, including Ambrosia, Hollies, John Miles and Al Stewart.
But while Parsons name adorns many of that decade’s best-selling albums, it wasn’t long before the studio magician started making his own albums. Under the name of “The Alan Parsons Project,” he released Tales Of Mystery And Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe in 1976.
Then came 1977 and the release of The Project’s I Robot, with the single, “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” all over radio. Suddenly, the man behind the console had his own name on a Top 40 record.
A collaboration between Parsons and Eric Woolfson, The Alan Parsons Project ran from 1975 through 1990 and released several other best-selling albums, including Pyramid, Eve, The Turn Of A Friendly Card and Eye In The Sky.
However, with the exception of a 1990 gig with Europe’s “Night Of The Proms,” shortly before The Alan Parsons Project broke up, the band never toured. Parsons addressed that issue during mid-1990s when he assembled a touring band, appropriately named the Alan Parsons Live Project.
These days Parsons spends his time recording new music, performing and producing other artists. In other words, he’s still doing what he loves. The music legend recently talked with Pollstar about his most excellent career and what he’s got on tap for the future.
You began your career at Abbey Road Studios when you were 19. How did a teenager end up working with The Beatles?
I was already working for EMI when I got the job at Abbey Road and I simply transferred from another department. I had a number of brief posts in departments allied to Abbey Road. One of them was a record development department that was trying to make vinyl sound better. The other department was called “Tape Records” where they were duplicating commercial products of EMI onto reel-to-reel tape … just before cassettes came out.
So I was working in those two departments, I simply wrote a letter to the manager of Abbey Road, he granted me an interview and I was working there.
Were you pursuing a career behind the console or did you consider it a waypoint to having a career as a professional musician?
At that time I was a semi-pro musician. As soon as I got the job at Abbey Road it was like a dream come true. I pretty much gave up everything to do with being a musician at that point on. I dusted off my guitar in about 1994. I really did concentrate my efforts on my engineering and production rather than my meager talent as a musician.
While working on albums such as The Beatles’ Abbey Road or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, was there a sense among the artists and the studio crew that something very special was being created?
I think everybody was pretty pleased with Abbey Road. I seem to remember Paul [McCartney] actually saying, “I don’t think it’s as good as Pepper, but it’s better than most.” Pepper was the ultimate masterpiece … It [Abbey Road]was another Beatles album, I was working on it and I was in heaven.
In the case of the Floyd, I think, everybody felt that they had something really quite special. But I don’t think everyone would have predicted that it would still be talked about 40 years after the event.
Purely more song-oriented. They [Pink Floyd] were always into sounds, clever effects and what have you, but the songs were what really made it happen.
You released Tales Of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe in 1976. How did you make the transition from the tech side to the artist side?
It was really an extension of the same job. The only difference in producing and engineering for another act was that I was involved with the composition. That was a major change, but, apart from that, it was the same job. It felt like doing the same thing. Becoming an artist, per se, was completely unexpected until the album was finished. The Alan Parsons Project was just an expression for an album that was based on Edgar Alan Poe stories. The record label [personnel] would wander around the building saying, “How is the Alan Parsons Project going?” [I’d say] “Oh, it’s going great.”
Aside from your current solo work, are you still working with other acts?
I’m back with a vengeance. Over a 3-month period I’ve worked with three different artists. I’m really back into the production chair.
The first [artist] is the virtuoso of the ukulele, Jake Shimabukuro. I discovered him through a friend who said, “You got to come see this ukulele player” and I was like, “Oh, yeah. Right.” Of course, he was absolutely spellbinding. As luck would have it he did a show in a town that’s only 20 miles from Santa Barbara. The promoter, a friend of mine, put us in touch. I met him before the show and said, “Hey, any chance you’d like to work with me as your producer?” And he said, “There’s nothing I can think of that I would like to do more.”
So we made an album. It’s a combination of original tunes and covers and instrumentation. Sometimes he’d totally solo, sometimes it’s bass and drums, sometimes it’s an orchestra. It’s a great combination, ukulele and orchestra, you have to hear it to believe it, it’s magical.
Who are the other two acts you’re working with?
The second one is a band called Electric Litany. They’re two Greeks and two Brits. They’re based in London and they’re going to come out here to California to record in October.
The third one is Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree. I’m doing a solo project with him.
Regarding the business side of recording; after working on albums such as Abbey Road and Dark Side Of The Moon, were you able to charge more for your services?
I think it [the fee] certainly has to come into the equation.
Did your phone keep ringing with other people wanting to work on their albums?
Oh, yeah. It was non-stop back then.
During the late ’70s you were neck deep in The Alan Parsons Project, yet still found time to work with Al Stewart.
Al was a tremendous boost to the career as well. He was an incredible songwriter and had experiences with a lot of fine musicians.
Was the saxophone solo on “Year Of The Cat” your idea?
He said, “I’m meant to be a folk rock, soft rock artist. I don’t see saxophone in that scenario.” But I talked him into it, we tried it and he loved it. He loved it so much he actually took on the sax player I brought and [had him] join his band.
Did a light bulb go off? Were you listening to the song and suddenly thought it needed a sax?
If we hadn’t brought the saxophone, there would have been an awful lot of guitar solos. I just thought it needed the variety.
What doesn’t the world know about Alan Parsons?
I got an interesting question the other day – what would I have done if it hadn’t been music? I think either I would have been an artist that pursued playing in a band, or I might have turned to acting. I come from an ancestry of acting. Another thing I wanted to do was television. I was fascinated by the television profession. I thought I might get a job as a TV cameraman and then ultimately become a television director or producer. It became clear that, once I got the job at Abbey Road, that was what I would do.
Can you even imagine retiring?
Oh, yes. I enjoy doing nothing far too much. I’m not getting any younger. If anything motivates me adequately to make a record, I’ll continue to do that for a while. I’m looking forward to not being constantly involved with my career. It’s very hard to have a very personal life.
Looking back over years you’ve spent in the studio, what do you consider to be the biggest technological changes in the art of recording music?
I think it was a surprise how quickly disc space increased on computers. The limiting factor, say, in the ’80s for any serious music storage on disc was simply that hard drives were about 20 megabytes and now they’re a terabyte. That makes a huge difference to recording onto disc. That’s been a really big change in the transfer from tape to disc and the computer, between man and machine, as it were.
What do you use for listening to music?
I listen to the radio in my car. I have a certain amount of music on my iPad. Generally speaking, I feel behind the times. I have a lot catching up to do on what’s selling out there at the moment. I look at the [record] chart and think, “I don’t know any of these records.” The only way to find that out is through searching, go on the Internet, click on the songs and see what they are.
Do you listen to music with a critical ear? That is, does the engineer or producer in you emerge and you find yourself thinking a song needs a guitar solo at a certain point, or you’d place the horn arrangement somewhere else in the tune?
You know, more often than not, I’m going to say, “This is a great song, I really like this,” or “I don’t like this song and I don’t know why they recorded it.” It’s going to be more on that level rather than anything mechanical, the arrangement or sound quality or anything else. It’s still the composition that drives the business.
What would you tell an 18-year-old who just got a job sweeping out a studio and he wants a career engineering or producing records?
He’s the luckiest guy in the world if he’s got a job in a studio. They’re closing down in droves.
The one thing I try to advise people is try not to try and do too many jobs, like I do. Specialize in a certain thing. If you’re going to be a Pro Tools expert, then do that. If you’re going to be a traditional recording engineer – mics and placement and that kind of thing – specialize in that.
It’s really tough these days, with so much technology emerging every second – there are countless plug-ins that come out for artists recording every week. It’s viral, like iPhone apps. There’s so much stuff out there, you can’t possibly know about every one of them. Find your niche and stick with it.
The Alan Parsons Live Project is currently touring Europe. Upcoming shows include Essen, Germany, at Colosseum Theatre July 20; Corsica, France, at “Les Nuits de la Guitare De Patrimonio” July 22 and Carcassonne, France, at Festival de Carcassonne July 24.
In September, the Alan Parsons Live Project will play South America, including Buenos Aires, Argentina, at Stadium Luna Park Sept. 1; Rosario, Argentina, at City Center Sept. 4; Santiago, Chile, at Centro Cultural Chikowe Sept. 6 and Quito, Ecuador, at Plaza Deportiva Sept. 8. For more information, please visit AlanParsonsMusic.com.