Producer/engineer/mixer Toby Wright (Alice In Chains, KISS, Slayer,Korn,) gets down to talking with LRI
Toby Wright has been in and around recording studios for over 30 years. He started off by becoming an expert and go to guy for fixing the equipment and along the way kept his eyes and ears open and made the necessary adjustments towards the jobs of engineer, mixer and producer. He has worked closely and learned more about artists such as Alice in Chains, KISS, Metallica and others than most journalists will ever hope to but none of that really matters to him. You get the sense from talking with Toby that he is as passionate about music and song crafting as the most dedicated artist or devoted fan. We talked to Toby about his current projects and his involvement in the creation of many of your all-time favorite artist’s albums. Read on…..
Legendary Rock Interviews: You’ve worked on so many great projects Toby, what have you been working on here recently that we need to look out for?
Toby Wright: Let’s see, I did the latest BIOHAZARD album, Reborn in Defiance which was an awesome record to work on because those guys are just amazing musicians. I’m working with a band called Jet Black Racing which is interesting, it’s a hard rock/metal record but it’s unique in that it’s a conglomeration of a rock and roll band and a 24 hour car racing team. We go around the world, mostly in Europe now.
LRI: Yeah, that is pretty unique. So you are physically involved in the racing?
Toby: Yeah, physically involved in the racing and then what we do as far as cross marketing is the band will go and play shows in or around where the races are happening and then what we do is bring the racers and the cars to the show as well. We’re going to be racing Corvettes here in the States as well as in Europe and there’s the accompanying merchandising and all of that.
LRI: You’re living down in Nashville now which seems to be where a lot of musicians of all types are at. Do you still find yourself drawn to the rock scene predominantly?
Toby: I’m drawn to all music, provided it’s good (laughs). It could be country, rock, orchestral, metal, if it resonates with my body and I think it’s good music then I am drawn to it. Some people think I’m very genre dependent but that’s something of a fallacy, people think “Well, he’s done all these metal albums, he can’t do a country record” but that’s a bunch of bullshit. Music is music to me and it doesn’t matter what you label it or classify it as, I can work with it if the music and songs are good. One of the best projects I’ve worked on recently was the Kenny Olson Cartel album. It’s an amazing album and some of the reason why is because he’s doing hard rock, he’s doing blues, he’s mixing all those genres and I’ve known Kenny for years, that’s just how he works, he’s an amazing player.
LRI: When did you actually get started in production, was it on the engineering end to begin with?
Toby: It was around 1987 or so that I started actually producing. The first credit was for a Canadian band called Brighton Rock but prior to that I had a very in-depth technical background and worked on things like repairing consoles and building studios and soundspaces. I was working in Southern California building studios and had built 4 or 5 different rooms and one of them was called One on One Recording and was in North Hollywood. I ended up being the only guy to stay on after the thing was built and opened and the owner and I just sort of put our heads together and I started calling all these producers. I called Ron Nevison, Ted Templeman, a whole host of people I was basically cold-calling and getting people down there. They came down and the first 13 or 14 records to come out of that room were triple platinum or better records which was pretty amazing and was being attributed to the room. Soon, people were asking “Hey, what are you doing tomorrow? Do you wanna produce a record for me?” and then Alice in Chains came along and said “Hey, would you want to produce a record for us” and then all this started.
LRI: I know Lars from Metallica thinks very highly of you and mentioned you at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony, how did you become involved with METALLICA?
Toby: Yeah, Lars is great, he’s a very inspirational guy. They invited myself and a guest out there too which I thought was just amazing and he said that about how they wouldn’t have been there without me but somehow I doubt that (laughs). I got involved with those guys again because of One on One Recording studios. They were looking for a place to record “And Justice For All” and came to check out the room and ended up camping out for the duration and I did engineering. I guess I was sort of instrumental in some of the sounds on that album, like the kick drum sounds were Lars and my creations and also working with them on singles and things prior to the Black album. That was pretty much my involvement with them.
LRI: You were also involved in Geezer Butler’s G/Z/R band and worked on the album OHMWORK. What was that like from your end?
Toby: That was interesting. I had known Geezer and his wife Gloria for a long time because I had worked on some Black Sabbath stuff some years before the Reunion album so it was sort of like a homecoming of sorts. I had a really good time and it was a lot of fun. I like Geezer a lot and think he’s just an amazing bass player.
LRI: I think GZR was sort of underrated and that Geezer got a lot of creative kicks out with that project.
Toby: Oh I think so too John. I think it could have went a lot further than it did, I’m not sure why it only had the legs that it had but you never know with some projects. I agree that band was amazing and he’s a very creative guy both in and out of Sabbath, hopefully there will be some new G/Z/R.
LRI: There’s gotta be a certain amount of pressure involved in having your name attached to getting the original Sabbath together in the studio. No matter how cool it is.
Toby: Any time you’re dealing with ICONS like that there is a certain amount of putting your own ego in the backseat and putting them in the driver’s seat. I mean, you wanna make sure all the moving parts are working, trying to get band members to show up to the studio, things like that. I did tracks on the Tribute albums, Nativity In Black one and two and on the first one it was the track “The Wizard”. We were going to have some good session guys do it and have Rob Halford sing it. In the process of running around to find people I ended up playing it for Geezer who loved it, Ozzy and Bill who loved it and Tony was agreeing to come in and it was going to have been the catalyst or debut single of a Sabbath reunion. It became a whole contractual thing though so the end result on the album is Bill and Geezer with some of the other players including Rob. The original four did actually reunite and play a private party I was at though which was pretty cool (laughs).
LRI: Does the current Bill Vs. Sabbath thing surprise you? These guys created magic together and it seems like business is just ruining it for the fans and really the band themselves even.
Toby: I’m not too aware of all of the particular details but it doesn’t surprise me, it’s a pretty complicated situation.
LRI: What did it seem like the chemistry was between the guys back when you were dealing with them?
Toby: It was pretty good. This was a long time ago of course, we’re talking about 1994 or so. It was pretty good back then though. They all recorded tracks and it was very cool but just never saw the light of day at that point as far as “The Wizard”.
LRI: How much different is it to get involved with the overall production of a record as opposed to say, mixing or engineering?
Toby: Producing takes a lot more preparation and a lot more work getting into the artist’s head because your job as the producer is to make sure that you bring forth the vision that the artist has. It’s your job to make sure what’s in their head actually makes it into the album.
LRI: Were you a fan of Fishbone prior to working with them?
Toby: Oh hell yeah. I love those guys.
LRI: They’re kind of an underrated cult classic kind of band. Very good musicians though. Was it easy to put that together?
Toby: No (laughs). It was not easy. Talent wise, they are phenomenal, one of the best bands ever but again, lots of personal infighting and not an easy thing to get them together to work on stuff, especially when they technically weren’t together at the time.
LRI: Is there any particular album that you feel you worked on that didn’t get a fair shake from the industry or from the public?
Toby: Oh god, there’s probably a lot of those to be honest. I can only take the record so far, I can take the songs from pre-production and work them up with the band to the very best that they can be but whatever happens from there is beyond my control. There are literally thousands of people who are responsible for taking that and running with it. So many things can go wrong between delivering it to the label and getting it to the public’s ears. I’d have to say the KISS album I did was at the forefront of the list of those frustrating “Should Have Done Better” albums.
LRI: I love talking to producers like yourself or Michael Wagener or Tom Werman because a lot of those bands or albums that DIDN’T hit are some of my favorites. They basically agreed that it can be sort of frustrating to see things you really believe in not have things lined up in order to get exposure.
Toby: Absolutely and sometimes you will work and work on something and it not only doesn’t meet mainstream success but it doesn’t even get released. Then it’s like “Ok, that was nice” and it can definitely be disappointing.
LRI: Is it easier to deal with some of the younger bands you’ve produced that were trying to make a name like Taproot or Tantric than it is to deal with producing someone like Slayer or Les Claypool?
Toby: No, because they’re all just people. It depends on the people involved in the bands and their inner turmoil and all that shit. At the end of the day, they are all just people, some have a little bit more freedom and money to do whatever the fuck they wanna do than others. Some are restricted highly by their budgets as to what we can do and others are able to pick and choose at will and record in every studio you can imagine around the world. There are egos in all bands and sometimes just as many in the younger ones as in the established artists.
LRI: Thankfully the DIVINE INTERVENTION album has gotten a bit of a new lease on life with the passage of time. It’s been reissued and included in box sets and has since gone platinum. Slayer fans that maybe didn’t get it at the time and even many critics have now grown to appreciate many of those songs. Do you feel that some of the mixed reception it got had anything to do with the amount of time it took to release the album or Dave Lombardo not being involved?
Toby: Yeah, again, it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen when you complete an album. We all definitely put our best collective foot forward and why it didn’t get the attention it needed or deserved at the time is hard to say. There are so many different circumstances as to why it was overlooked in the catalog. So many instances of people guessing it was so and so’s fault or this guy’s input or whatever but it was mostly just circumstances. I’m glad people are coming around to it though.
LRI: Divine is heavier and thrashier than Seasons really. It’s a dream of mine to capture a copy on vinyl, they just came out with the Vinyl box set.
Toby: The 180 gram ones yeah. I have my original copy of the vinyl. I too am a big fan of the format John, I have something like 22,000 pieces of it, every imaginable style and artist.
LRI: Korn was already a breaking band when you started working with them but Head told us that after LIFE IS PEACHY they just blew right up and crossed over from the metal audience to the mainstream audience. Was there any type of additional pressure to break Korn on an even bigger level with FOLLOW THE LEADER? It ended up actually being the record to put them well over the top.
Toby: You’re always gunning for a really successful album, that’s just the nature of what we do. I think they were poised to break mainstream before that coming off of LIFE IS PEACHY but they wanted to sound a little different and write better songs. Jonathon said “I want it to be the fuckin heaviest record the world’s ever seen” which is like….you know. What is the definition of “heavy”, there’s so many of them that when you go in as a producer or engineer you could go so many ways that it could be hard to get that vision going. The songs lent themselves to really kicking ass though and I spent a lot of time on the sonics of the album with Head and Munky. I worked the shit out of those boys to get what we got. We used a lot of experimentation on the guitar sounds and playing sounds, we really pushed it on that record. I know we spent a lot of time and money to make FOLLOW THE LEADER but I think it was a good move because it really did pay off in the end.
LRI: There’s been lots of talk of the change in Korn’s material or style. Is that a band you would work with again?
Toby: Yeah, absolutely, given the right circumstances. It would have to be a completely creative scene with just the band and myself, free of any outside influence like management or record company type people. I don’t believe in management or label people getting involved in the creative process because they’re managers or business people. They have their function, just stay the fuck out of the studio. I’m pretty hard nosed about that shit, I’m sure I’ve lost gigs because managers will say “Oh, he won’t let any of us in the studio, fuck him, let’s get someone else” but they don’t get it. To me, the entire process is about the songs and these people do not know songs, the creative end of things is just not their forte. If you don’t know what goes into creating or producing a successful song then you shouldn’t be commenting on it you should be sitting in a corner watching and listening.
LRI: Do you think that David Silvera and Brian “Head” Welch were absolutely integral to the sound and creative process of that band?
Toby: Absolutely, absolutely. Those guys were very much a major part of the creation of that material and for instance there were a great many discussions about what Head would play versus what Munky would play. I haven’t really kept up with those guys in recent years because they’ve been going through so much shit but I love all of them and they were all very important to the sound of that group. I think all of them have plenty of great material left in the tank it just depends what kind of music they wanna play.
LRI: Obviously the band that you are most well known for is arguably ALICE IN CHAINS. I met those guys early on in their career and it is sad that two of the nicest guys in the group Mike and Layne are no longer with us but to this day those records are still selling. How did you come to get involved with them?
Toby: When “Man in the Box” came out I just really, really got into them and was like “Man, I really LOVE this band” and I kind of sought after them and befriended their A&R guy Nick Terzo. I just kept asking him how I could involved with the band and he was telling me “Well, you know they’re kind of involved with Dave Jerden and this and that” and telling me that they were basically taken care of. All of a sudden one day he calls me and says there’s an opportunity to work with them on a couple singles for a movie soundtrack and asked if I’d like to do that. I was so into the band I would have worked on demos for them (laughs) so I was like “Sure, I’m down for anything fuck….let’s do something”. It turned out to be the two songs for the LAST ACTION HERO soundtrack, “What The Hell Have I” and “A Little Bitter” so I went out to Seattle and met with the boys and had a really good time recording those songs. After that, Andy Wallace mixed that material and the band didn’t like it at all. It was pretty interesting when I wasn’t told about it and walked into Scream Studios at their old location in Studio City and Andy Wallace was sitting there mixing my tracks. I was like “What the hell is that and who are you and what the fuck is going on here?” (laughs). So I called up their A&R guy again and was asking him “Nick, what the hell is going on here?” and he was like “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you we’re gonna have Andy mix this” and I said “Oh, thanks for telling me I appreciate it” because they paid me and everything. As it turned out though, the band hated the mixes so when it came time to do the next EP which was JAR OF FLIES they called me. Jerry Cantrell called and said “Hey dude, do you wanna work on an EP with us?” and I said “Fuck yeah, let’s do it”.
LRI: JAR OF FLIES was kind of an interesting turning point in the band in terms of the amount of growth shown and also the fact that it was the first release that Mike Inez was involved on other than the soundtrack stuff. How did the sessions come to be?
Toby: Jerry called me and asked if I wanted to do it and said he was in Australia but he had about seventeen songs ready and I said well “Send me the demos and let me check them out” and he was like “No, no, no I wanna do it when we get back home which is in like a few days” and I said “Okay well, I wouldn’t even get them in time anyway so I’ll just hear what you have when you get here”. We booked London Bridge studios for about ten days to just get started and we got there and got shit set up and I finally asked him “So hey Jerry, what about those songs?. He says to me, “Funny thing about those songs, I don’t have any.” I said, “What? What happened to those 17 songs?” and Jerry just looks at me and goes “Oh, I lied” and I said “Oh, okay well what are we gonna do for the next ten days?”. Jerry asked me if I would mind if they jammed and I had to think about whether I wanted to run tape of the best band in the world jamming. “Ok, Yeah, let’s do it”, I said and that’s what it was. All of those songs were written, arranged, recorded, produced and mixed in that ten day period. It was very loose and on the fly, a lot of fun to do. After that I was asked to do the self titled “Dog” record which took about ten months in comparison.
LRI: Obviously there were some issues within the band and things were not quite as cut and dry by the time that album came to be. Was it a little more difficult to work around those issues?
Toby: Yeah, there were some personal issues within the band for sure but again, for me it’s all about the songs and I don’t judge people for their personal traits. I just get in there and make music and we all had a blast as far the creative side of things don’t get me wrong. It was nice getting down that heavy side of the band again, they had established a pattern of doing the acoustic EP and then the hard albums and it seemed to work for them.
LRI: You went on to also do the UNPLUGGED album and Jerry’s debut solo album BOGEY DEPOT, was that a lot of fun?
Toby: Oh yeah, a lot of fun. We started out in Washington at his house and then moved to a studio and he invited all his friends and we had Les Claypool and the Wilson sisters from Heart. It was really a treat for me to work with all these friends he had accumulated over the years.
LRI: What did you think of the last Alice In Chains record, BLACK GIVES WAY TO BLUE?
Toby: I thought it was a really good effort and I liked a great many of those songs. It was really a good idea to get the band back out there, and they sound amazing. It was nice seeing them come back around.
LRI: I saved the best for last. You’re on the phone with one of the biggest KISS nerds around. We talked to Bruce Kulick who said that the CARNIVAL OF SOULS album you produced for the band has become either the fans closet classic or their least favorite album. He said that people tend to attribute the album to you and him, even calling it the “Bruce” album which of course isn’t true and he said that if you love it that’s fine but if you hate it don’t blame him.
Toby: (laughs) Exactly!
LRI: Some people are even calling it a close relative to another classic and misunderstood KISS album, THE ELDER.
Toby: I can see that, that was a weird time for the band as well. I also think that Bruce was very important to seeing that album to completion, not only did he co-write many of those songs but aside from a few Paul Stanley parts, all those guitars are Bruce. He definitely got it up and going. I think it’s a really great statement within the KISS catalog.
LRI: I interviewed Paul back when they were in the midst of working on the album and he sounded very focused on it and was excited about the material. This was before the Reunion thing was happening of course, did you also find them to be very focused on following up REVENGE?
Toby: Totally focused. It wasn’t until we were well into overdubs that Gene got an offer for a LOT of fuckin money to go out with Ace and Peter and do the makeup/reunion stuff. That would be around the time the album was shelved. Like I said, I’m putting that at the top of the list as far as albums that deserved better. I really like the end result.
LRI: I love it too but then I am a huge fan of the Elder as well. I think Carnival has some of Gene’s best lyrics, Paul’s best vocals and Bruce and Eric’s best playing.
Toby: I really love the album, I think it’s sonically a good record and I think the songs are really strong and pushed the envelope and really show that band’s capabilities.
LRI: There have been rumors set forth that the mix and mastering was rushed however, most of these rumors seem to be repeated by those who dog the album or DON’T like the sonics of it.
Toby: How would anybody know if it were rushed? (laughs). It wasn’t rushed, believe me, I was involved in the mix obviously and I’m always involved in the mastering in order to make sure that the mix comes out as I intended. We did not rush that album at ALL, in fact it took a long time to master that album mostly due to different scheduling changes that Gene or Paul or others had in the band.
LRI: Bruce told us that one of the most frustrating things to him was that the album was leaked and that all the hard work put into it was finally heard by people listening to poor quality bootlegged versions. Given the delay in releasing CARNIVAL OF SOULS did that surprise you or was that inevitable?
Toby: In a way it surprised and disappointed me but on the other hand I think it was leaked by one of the band members themselves.
LRI: Wow, I’d heard that rumor before.
Toby: That’s my personal feeling and I have no proof of that but I’m pretty sure it was an internal thing. I’m not sure of the how, when or why but I know that when they agreed to do the makeup tour Carnival of Souls was put on the shelf and there could have been animosity there on the part of some. Who knows what the motive was but I definitely think it was an intentional thing because I know for a fact that all of the material was so closely guarded because this was the beginning of the whole internet era and things being leaked. We had heard about other albums being leaked so we were very cautious so for those reasons I feel it was done on purpose.
LRI: I am a huge fan of the Bruce era of the band and I feel that the album you produced is a fitting feather on his cap. I know the guys had so much invested in working with Ezrin again and so much in terms of hopes for the overall success of Revenge . It is easily one of their best albums and seeing the album and tour stall the way it did had to give them pause. Did you get a sense of them really throwing caution to the wind and being willing to take chances on Carnival of Souls?
Toby: I had definitely gotten an awareness of Gene’s hunger for success and re-recognition in the music industry. I will always remember having conversations with Gene about things like that. At that point, Smashing Pumpkins were at the very top and I know that Gene had mentioned wanting to be like Billy. Not so much meaning that he wanted to actually sound or actually “be” like Billy Corgan but that he wanted to have the sales that they were experiencing at that point. He definitely wanted to be back on top, that’s just Gene.
LRI: I think in some respects the band was able to transition their sound and sing about things other than putting their log in a girl’s fireplace. It did push the boundaries of KISSDOM a bit which is why the Elder comparison makes sense.
Toby: Right. The songs were very strong and we wanted to make sure the overall presentation was as strong as the music. We tried to take the lyrics a little deeper with the lyrics on that album. They were writing as a band as far as I could tell and there were also a lot of co-writers on there, Tommy Thayer had a track on there, a guy named Curt Cuomo has a few songs on there with Bruce and then they would bring in finished demos. We would pick through the demos and be like “Yeah, that’s a kickass song, let’s work on that one” and then work those up and put them through our format and see how it was working.
LRI: As a KISS fan, packaging and presentation are king. I have never, ever been so let down by the art on an album or seen an example of such “afterthought” packaging and presentation for such great music. There was an original cover that the band put in the KISSTORY book and it was way cooler and much more indicative of the music contained within the grooves than the final cover that Mercury Records released. As a producer you are always thinking about the final destination so what did you think when you finally saw CARNIVAL OF SOULS?
Toby: I don’t know what Mercury’s promotion budget was, whether it was ten million or ten dollars so I really can’t speak as to how much or what they did or didn’t do to promote it. I remember the original concepts for the cover and then seeing that photo of them in Curt’s garage and being disappointed. I don’t know if Gene and Paul just gave up on that record solely due to the fact of the Reunion and all the money they were offered. I’d heard they were offered 100 Million dollars to put on the makeup and go back out with Ace and Peter and Gene was like “Fuck yeah” and that was it. We were halfway through the overdubs and had to finish it up only to see it shelved and then finally come out a couple of years later with a totally different cover and concept. It was a little disappointing but it’s hard to second guess all the decisions and the timing of it all these years later.
LRI: Paul Stanley is no stranger to studio work and production. He’s produced various things over the years including the last couple of KISS albums. Did you get a strong sense of his ear and production techniques while working with him?
Toby: Oh absolutely. He is a very, very talented man in that regard. He knows what he wants sonically and what works for the band. Gene is also very good as well, in many cases it would be Gene who would really have a feel for what a particular song needs and he’s equally able to make those decisions. They are both very capable and both have very good ideas and strong opinions and they are a very lucky band in that creative sense. It really depends on the material at hand. Paul has a certain thing and Gene has a certain thing and they do it great together.