Interview with ...
What made you become an engineer ?
My father was a music lover, we used to buy a lot of records and I grew up listening different types of music. At the age of 7, I started my own records collection. Curiosity brought me to engineering, I wanted to know how the melodies were built and put onto vynil. After school, I was spinning my records and I had a close friend Bobby Chemist who owned a sound system called Electro Force. He was older than me and showed me a lot. Those days I was living in Montego Bay. I was watching the sound mixing music and then I knew I didn't want to be a disc jockey, I wanted more to increase my knowledge on building the music itself… and so Bobby first brought me in a recording studio. Reading about credits and musicians on the records made me want to know more about the work and from there I teached myself with books and more. Is was in the late 80's. My first experienced in studio in Kingston was when Bobby brought me to Music Works where I saw Steven Stanley mixing Junior Tucker's song "Don't Test", Nadine Sutherland and Nicky Tucker were also in the studio… a superstar thing ! So when I first saw Stanley mixing therefore, I knew it was the direction I wanted to take.
How did you learn the mixing process ?
Hanging around studios was my teaching mainly and I also was an apprentice learning from the elder engineers. In Mo'Bay I experienced mixing on a 8 tracks recording with Ed Robinson at Tiff Tam Recording Studio, that was in the early 90's. Barry O'Hare and Stephen Stewart from Grove Recording Studio, Ocho Rios, were around showing me more about the technique of engineering. From there Barry kind of took me as his apprentice, nowadays he is a very good friend of mine. Spending many years working at Grove Studio, I had a wonderful time working with some of the greatest artists and musicians in Jamaica and overseas. I've worked on songs of Shaggy Wonder, Garnet Silk, Jigsy King and the Roof biggest hit "A Who Seh Me Dun / Wait De Man" by Cutty Ranks. So much hits ! In those days Penthouse was running the business so I knew I had to move to town to get the right experience.
Which other engineers work inspired and influenced you ?
I would say Errol Brown, Jammy's, Soljie, Scientists and the great King Tubby's.
Who gave you the nickname of Andrew "Grumps" Thomas ?
In Kingston, working at Penthouse, Michael "Collie" Cooper, Patrick "Backra" Dalhouse, Jason Bromfield first called me "Farmer" because I was came from country. Those 3 persons are my friends from Penthouse studio days. The nickname "Grumps" would come more in the Shocking Vibes days when Tanto Metro called me "Grumpy old man" and that’s because I always wanted everything to be just right.
We talk a lot about artists, musicians and producers, but not enough about the engineers. What is, according to you, the contribution of the recording engineer in the musical productions.
The engineer carves out the mood which connect with the song with the people, highlighting the songs by mixing them the as professional as it can be. I'd love to see more journalists or media interested in the "behind the scene" work, it's better to educate than to regulate. A lot of the medias nowadays don't mention the fact that Jamaica is one of the only three countries in the world which makes truly international music.
You have been in the reggae industry for a long time. What is your opinion about the new reggae music and the evolution of the jamaican music over these years ?
I listen to music still and I like what I hear the todays productions. The only bad thing I could point out about music nowadays is more technical : the elimination of the mixing console, which is replaced by the mouse and computer screen, maybe because I am a deeply technical, that’s why I may think that way, but I don't think technology should replace anything, I think all technology old and new should work together. Creating music digitally is not a problem but I think somehow the analog side shouldn't be left behind. The mix is very important to a record, as an engineer, you must know when you go "too much". Sometimes a simple little thing can make a great record go bad, and sometimes that little thing can make it into a hit record.
Did you work for other labels before Penthouse except Roof International ?
Not much. Most of the work I did back in my Roof/Grove days was on an international level : Third World, Burning Spear, Toots, Diana King, works for Disney CBS… I got to work with Garnett Silk in the early days through Delroy Collins with songs like "Nothing Can Divide Us".
When and how did you get connected with Donovan Germain ?
Benjy Myaz connected me with Donovan Germain in February 1992, as apprentice engineer. Germain never knew I was already was a trained engineer, working with names like Keith Richards (from The Rolling Stones) at Grove Music in Ocho Rios. I first apply for a part time job, but I really wanted to integrate with the Penthouse team.
Penthouse Records ruled the dancehall during the 90s thanks to a recognizable sophisticated sound. Can you describe how you elaborated this sophisticated sound ?
The sound itself was already there, when I worked at Penthouse. Meaning the sound was already set. Penthouse 56 Slipe Road studio was an exceptionally special studio. I don't know what Germain did and I never ask him, but it was just perfect. The quality sound you could find from Penthouse studio could be compared to a final master mix itself since the levels were so right. For example, Beenie Man's "Romie" which was an international hit, recorded at Penthouse for Shocking Vibes, has never really mixed, and was released raw from a studio cut ! That is how professional Donovan set up Penthouse. Penthouse was mystic, there was also spiritual thing, like a spiritual connection with studio and music, it was perfect all the time; whatever Germain did there… it was just right .
Among all the singles you recorded or mixed for Penthouse, which ones are your favorites ?
Oh boy ! You catch me off guard (laughing…). Some Twiggi' songs. Mikey Simpson "Save A Little Bit". I was the one who got Mikey to voice for Germain, unfortunately after he voiced that song, he died. Germain really liked that song. Juliet Nelson from Canada, aunty Marcia Griffiths. I mostly was amongst the female artists them. Talking about Marcia Griffiths, the other engineers kind of tried to avoid sessions with her due to her very professionalism, which never bothered me at all. I didn't really mixed a lot for Penthouse, but it's near to my transition to Shocking Vibes. Beres Hammond’s "Always Be There" on the Right Time riddim, Buju Banton’s "My Woman Now" and "Single Parent". I was just laying the tracks for them and if Germain liked it he would mention it, then I would call Danny Brownie or Paul “Wrongmove” Crosdale for some more arrangements on the tracks. I looped the sample on Beres Hammond & Marcia Griffiths "Watch Out For That", Germain liked it, unfortunately the track never gets its recognition in Jamaica but I go around the world and hear it play in dances !
Is there an artist you enjoyed more working with ?
Twiggi. Good vibe and connection. Working with her vocals.
When did you leave Penthouse Records ?
I don't remember the exact date, maybe around 1996 or 1997. After leaving Penthouse, I did most of the Shocking Vibes work there until Shocking Vibes started their own studio in 2000 and I still did work for Penthouse on and off.
Are you still in touch with the other Penthouse engineers, musicians and artists ?
Unfortunately not the way I would like. I introduced Lenky to Shocking Vibes, it happened one time when I was mixing a song and I needed a frase to go on it, Lenky was rehearsing downstairs with Buju so I went to ask him if he could play the frase on the riddim, since Island Records was waiting for it… Then he just did the job on the keyboards, that's how Lenky and I became friends.
How did you get connected with Shocking Vibes?
The transition from Penthouse to Shocking Vibes was starting to happen since Shocking Vibes were voicing at Penthouse studio. Those times, Andre "Rookie" Tyrell was the main mixing engineer. I met Patrick Roberts at Penthouse, I always wanted to be on his sessions. One day he came and ask me to do some work for his label, I was recommended by Clyde McKenzie who was the general manager of Irie FM/Grove Music back then. Those times when Shocking Vibes was recording on the Full Up riddim songs like Sanchez "Brown Eyes", that was the first time I worked for Shocking Vibes. Maybe around 1993.
Do you remember songs or riddims produced by Shocking Vibes on which you have worked ?
The Acid Attack riddim, Beenie Man’s "Tear Off Mi Garment", "Big Up & Trust" (which was number 1 on the charts in 1995), those were the first mix I did for them, there I get the fame.
What were the differences between Donovan Germain’s Penthouse Records and Patrick Roberts’ Shocking Vibes?
Donovan Germain is a man who knows what he wants, and he is strict you know, but he's fair, and if you can't keep up to his rules, it won't work. I respect that about mister Donovan Germain, he knows what he wants. He has influenced my life too, in terms of confidence in my work.
Patrick Roberts is a man who would give you the opportunity to grow, he will allow you to achieve great things because he lets you do what you want, and let you create more freely. Not to say Germain don’t do that. Germain prefers to give exellent guidance. At Shocking Vibes we had more choice over the music we made as engineers, opposed to Penthouse which was much more directive.
Did you feel more comfortable being directed in your work ?
Between freedom or directive work, I didn't mind both, I don't have a problem following directives. Shocking Vibes allowed me to be a little more creative, with Beenie Man and Lenky who is that type of person who loves to create. But It is also important to follow directions from someone who knows more about the music bizz. For example Donovan Germain.
How did you become Beenie Man's live sound engineer ?
Normally since I was already his studio engineer, Patrick just told me to go on the road with the Beenie Man and Blaze Band on, which I developed a great friendship with Moses. Touring lets me travel and I love to travel.
When did you leave Shocking Vibes ?
I worked at Shocking Vibes until Moses left the label around 2006 or 2007.
Did you work for other labels ?
I'm the kind of person who likes to stay in one place at a time, I was never the type to jump from project to project. So I rather stay exclusive to a particular moment in my life.
I remember that you've mixed the Lalabella riddim for Flames.
Raymond Ledgister, another engineer from Penthouse who did some recordings on the Lalabella riddim, recommended me to mix the riddim. Tony Rebel allowed me to mix the whole project. I guess I actually found my true "sound" mixing this riddim, which had to be an highlight in my career. Mixing the Lalabella is when I realized I founded my own touch. I'm grateful for this since I had the opportunity to travel the world and get to know that I had the right recognition for my work on the Lalabella.
Do you intend to create your own label ?
No, not really. I'm not sure about what I want to do, I'm happy being a live engineer. Maybe someday I'll do it, but for the moment, it's just not whats on my mind. I've never tried to buss anyone, but I would surely direct them to the right people. I prefer to use my influence to help out the younger generation for example, I have no problems hailing Seanizzl or Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, I'm not trying to boss the youths them. After pride come shame, says the elders. Encourage the youths is what I say, show them respect first and then they will show it in return. Because there are doing great things. We were young once too.
To conclude, what would you hold dear to you the most from your Penthouse experience ?
I remember one particular thing Donovan Germain told me : "Be good and true to the music and it shall be surly generous to you". He was right, that is exactly my spirit, it got me to remain humble and open to new ideas and I'm grateful for that. I have seen the world and countless cultures and diversity the world has to offer. I'm thankful to the music and all the people who play an intricate role in my audio engineer career and of course thanks to the music.