- Interviews
Neil Kernon

Producer Neil Kernon has been in the business for 30 years now. His credits include such Platinum acts as Hall & Oates, Kansas and Michael Bolton.
He also the main behind a few AOR classics like Aviator, Valentine and Autograph.
In the 80's he turned to hard rock and had great success with acts like Queensryche, Dokken, XYZ, Lynch Mob and Helix.
In an interesting look behind the scenes, read what Neil had to say to me a short time ago...

How did you start off in the business?
My first job in the biz was in music publishing. I went straight from high
school into the professional dept. at Essex Music in London.

Who introduced you to it?
Well, as they always ain't what you know, it's who you know. The
owner just happened to be the next-door-neighbour of my Dad's best friend.
So he asked him if he could help my Dad out in his quest for openings for
me in the music biz.

You play piano and guitar....did you initially start your career in
engineering as a musician?

I started my career in life as a musician. As both my parents were
musicians, I was naturally encouraged to do the same and I started playing
piano at age 4, and after that I started guitar at 7. Along the way I also
dabbled in the usuals, recorder, clarinet, sax, drums, flute etc.

What made you want to get behind the desk?
Well, you have to understand that I never had any intention of getting
behind a desk at all. After about 9 months in music publishing I realised I
wasn't hearing enough music. Here I was in the music biz and my job was to
coordinate sheet music and songbook publication. So after a very fortuitous
lunch/chat with a couple of world famous producers who had offices at Essex
Music (Gus Dudgeon and Rodger Bain) I left Essex and wrote a letter to
Trident studios, also in London, which they had recommended as their
favourite studio to work at.
After 3-4 months and 3 interviews I got a job as tea boy. Within 6 months I was working as an assistant engineer, and then onto engineer. First of all, I'd like to just say that I see engineering as either a pure art form or a means to an end. I never had any intention of learning about sound, but merely wanted to be involved actively in music, whether it be playing in bands, playing sessions in the studio or working on making records. I don't consider myself to be an engineer in the true sense of the word (although I DO record and mix my productions
myself). Instead I 've focused much more on production for the last 20+
years as it is a really rich experience and there is so much more to it
than twiddling a few knobs.

What was your very first project?
My first assisting job was on a Canadian hard rock album. A band of Hell's
Angels called "A Foot In Cold Water". My first engineering job was for an
English band called "Charlie". My first production was for another English
band called "The Flicks". Bet you never heard of any of them. :-)

You have one hell of a resume! What period was the more rewarding for you? The 70's or hard rock dominated 80's?
Cheers for that. To be honest, I have no favourite era. Musically however,
I'd have to say the 70s were much more organic and honest. Artists really
made a big effort to be individual back then. The 80s for me became rather
predictable and bandwagonish, especially towards the end of the decade.
From a technical viewpoint, the 70s were certainly more challenging as
technology wasn't that good, and everyone concentrated on getting things as
clean and noise free as possible. In the 80s we had more toys, more gadgets,
but in my opinion, less inspiration (musically). And then along came
digital in the 80s making everything far too clean. Now we all went back to
analog again. I never left...

You worked with Hall & Oates on several occasions. I have always been a big fan of their sound. Can you claim any credit there?
I'd like to think I can. I got a call from Tommy Mottola (their manager at
the time) who said Daryl and John were looking for someone to work with on
their new album, and were looking for someone who made punchy hard-edged
records. My name had come up, so I got a call. I had been making punk and
new wave records for some time and Daryl was really into all that. So we
did the Voices album together, and it all took off from there fortunately.
I went on to do Private Eyes and H2O with them too.

How did those personalities work in the studio? Daryl Hall I guess has some sort of a control reputation....
Actually, there was a good balance in the studio between D&J. Daryl is the
type that gets antsy, smokes a lot, can't sit still type..but he has a lot
of ideas and the trick is capturing them while they are fresh. I think I
got pretty good with that over the years. John on the other hand is very
thorough, keeps his feet on the ground and generally provides the stability
for their relationship. I think it's fair to say that they have always
seemed to do much better when they worked together than when they worked

And Private Eyes got a Grammy nomination in '82 and in '83.
Did they take you to the shows?!!!

I believe all 3 of the Hall and Oates albums got nominated, but none of
them won. And we didn't go to the awards either!!

What was a highlight of working with the guys? How about a low, if any?
Three great magical albums, songwise. No lows at all. A great time!

The first Streets album is somewhat of a classic these days. Mike Slammer is himself an experienced producer these days. Did you show him the ropes while you recorded that album?
Mike Slamer was the guitarist in Streets. At the time he had not done any
full-on production, but had worked on a couple of albums with Mutt Lange as
his producer when he was in City Boy. He had a clear idea of what he wanted
and a good ear. I don't think I showed him anything new.

Michael Bolton's Everybody's Crazy is also considered a classic! In fact it
is described as the definitive Bolton album.
How did you get involved in this album?

Well, I got a call from Michael's manager asking me if I'd be interested.
I'd heard Fools Game and liked that, so we met and hit it off straight
away. Michael was one of the funniest people I've ever met.

Bolton used to be a great singer and possibly still is - was his decision
to sell out his rock roots purely for the dollar?

It's hard to say. We all do things for a reason, and I think Michael simply
must have seen that by softening his approach he could have more success.
He did well with some jingles in NYC, and then his "new" career blossomed
with the re-release of "Dock Of The Bay". Good luck to him I say.

What do you think of him leaving his Self Titled album and Everybody's
Crazy off his resume? Bit rude I think!!

Haha. Well, I do know that Michael didn't want to re-release these on CD
for fear of confusing and potentially turning away his new found
"middle-aged" fans. We had the same manager for many years, so I got this
gem straight from the horse's mouth. Definitely a shame, cos they are both
good albums, if a little dated sounding now.

You were involved with one of hard rock's most volatile combinations for
many years. George Lynch and Don Dokken.
How bad did the fights get between the two - have you any funny/interesting stories of the two?

Let's just say that there were some very funny (and sometimes alarming)
moments. By the time we did BFTA I simply had to ask Don not to be around
while we did the rhythm tracks, because George would simply get up and
leave, halting all progress for the day. Most of the time he didn't show
up, but when he did, sure enough, there goes Mr Lynch.

Did you get involved in these fights at any stage?
I tried not too, but it was unavoidable at times. I had to try to keep
everyone happy, and considering those two usually wanted the opposite
thing, that got tricky.

Do you see them at all around anywhere these days?
I haven't seen Don since the last day of BFTA. I saw George more as I lived
in Arizona for a while, and I also did a lot of work on the first Lynch Mob
album. Once you got to know George he was great fun, and such a wonderful
player too.

What do you think looking back of the albums Under Lock And Key and Back For The Attack. Under lock And Key is again heralded as the band's peak period...
For me, Under Lock And Key is really too tame. I loved the fire of Tooth
And Nail, so I thought the writing on ULAK was a bit subdued by comparison.
The band was starting to fight internally by this time, so I think some
focus was lost. BFTA on the other hand has a tougher writing angle, which I
really preferred. Also George has never played better than he did on that
album, in my opinion.

The first Heaven's Edge album was good, but recently demo's and unreleased material was shown the light of day via MTM Music.
You were co-credited as producer, as some of the material was unreleased
from the debut. I thought these unreleased tracks were better even!
Do you as producer have the final say on what makes the album?
Or is it a blend of the band/producer? Or even only the label's say?
Or any combination of the above - what I am asking is can you detail the
process of selecting tracks with some of the artists you have worked with...

Lots of questions here. First, I think one or two tracks were outtakes from
the original sessions. I also mixed some demos they did, some of which may
also be included.
As far as what goes on the album, I think it's usually a joint decision of
the band, producer, label and management to put together the strongest
possible representation of the band at that time. Every album has a
different set of criteria that shape what you're trying to say with it. For
example Queensryche's Rage For Order was an album we planned out every step of the way. We made sure certain songs would segue well into others right
from pre-production This was very important for the mood and storyline.
Generally, I'll take a 75% final sequence to mastering, see how it flows,
and make those last few % of decisions right there and then.

Autograph's Sign in Please was another good record you produced. Any
stories from working with Steve Plunkett?

Not really. Great bunch of guys. Steve used to drink Ten High (bourbon) and
pace furiously when we did vocals, Steve Lynch doubled every solo and Keni
smashed a lot of beer cans on his head. That's about it.

Yet another band you worked with for a couple of albums is Queensryche.
You worked on their debut EP and Rage For Order.
Do you approach bands like this - a somewhat more complicated sound - the same way you would someone like Hall & Oates?
Or how does it differ?

When we did the RFO album, we decided to record some extra tracks for
b-sides etc. One of those was Prophecy, which ended up on the CD re-release
of the Queensryche EP. I didn't work on the original EP at all.
I approach every album differently. There are certainly no similarities in
the way I produced Queensryche compared to the way I produced Hall and
Oates. The most important thing is to always maintain the integrity and
individuality of the artist. I really do not like soundalike bands/artists.
So often I'll try a different tracking technique, mixing technique, drum
approach...layering/sparse production etc. Every project is a new picture or
canvas. I do my utmost to make it unlike anyone else.

Another classic debut is the Aviator release. That has recently found it's
way to CD! Any memories from that album's sessions?

Thanks. The guys in Aviator were all very good friends from the days when I
was living in NYC. We did a lot of writing together, and loads of demos
too. I think I ended up co-writing 5 songs on that album..loads of fun!

And any memories from the sessions for the tracks on Helix's Wild In The Streets? That was one of their
best albums I think....

Well...the original plan on that album was to have 5 producers each
produce 2 tracks. I chose "Wild In The Streets" and "Give Em Hell". After
that I think they just decided to do the rest with Mike Stone (another old
ex Trident alumnus). It was pretty fast and furious..2 songs in 3 days I

You made several albums for Columbia records there at one stage (Heaven's Edge, Britny Fox, Valentine) Did you have some sort of a development deal with them?
Heh, good spotting. Actually, I didn't have a development deal with
Columbia, just a very good friend in the A&R department who was a big fan
of my work, so we did a few albums together sort of back to back.

Does something like that pay well?
Wish it had!

Ok - here is your chance to blow the lid on the metal factory that was the
80's! Who got the most money?!!

The label (obviously) - how about the band and the producer and the studio's? How did they all fare?
Well, the label always gets the most money, which is fair in a sense as
they usually put up the money in the first place. Of course, if a label
buys a finished product, different factors will come into play in the deal
Usually, if an album recoups the recording costs, the band/producer all get
royalties. This is calculated at a rate you've negotiated previously.
Studios generally got paid by the day or by the hour, same as now.
Sometimes a studio will front time to a band and then sell the finished
product to a label, thereby acting as a sort of production company.

Was there some sick amounts of money going around back then?
I think bands like Metallica and Motley Crue saw their fair share of millions.

I thought Valentine was a near miss as far as a hit band....
We all had high hopes for that album, but sadly nothing happened with it.

Can you offer any thoughts on what is the difference between a band that
makes a million and a band that never quite breaks it?

Well, timing is everything. You can have the best album in the world, but
if it comes out when no-one wants that kind of music, it'll just die. A
good example of a band that almost did nothing but ended up doing very well
is White Zombie. Their first Geffen album was dead in the water for a while
until Beavis and Butthead decided to put it in one of their video segments.
The rest is history.

I would love to know of some of the more bizarre stories that arise when a
band is dealing with a record label?

You must have a few?!! Can I ask for the gritty details on a couple?
There's so many. I've been lucky in the sense that I've not been in the
middle of too many bad scenarios. I was in prepro with an LA rock band and
we were about to start recording. I got a call one morning, about 3 days
before we were due to start tracking. It was the bass player. He asked me
if I was sitting down, and then proceeded to tell me that the band had been
dropped that morning. We got together that day, had a couple of beers, and
made a plan to try to get another deal asap, keep the team etc. However,
this was in '91 and metal was on the decline. They never got another deal.

Here is another question that I ask in hope! There must be some gigantic
ego's in the circles you travel in.
How about a story or two there?

Yes there are, but you deal with them as best you can. For the most part,
there's no real problems, but there are always exceptions. There's usually
a reason why someone has a gigantic ego, and it's my job to find out what
that is and understand what makes the people tick. That way I can really
put a fire under them and help them do a far better job than they could do
on their own.

Who is the single biggest ego you have ever delt with?
I usually find that the bigger "problem cases" are the ones who haven't
had any real success, but are really full of themselves. I always meet the
people I intend to work with before I get involved with them, so I can tell
really early on if there's any weirdness. Same with drug issues.

What about just in the hard rock circle. Who was always difficult to deal

I had very few bad experiences myself. And I really do prefer not to name

What about who was the best to deal with and the most genuine all round
nice guys of the industry?

Well, I'd have to say the guys in Queensryche were great to work with. But
in my 28 years in the industry I've met so many great people. I'd like to
thank some of them. Walter O'Brien is one of my oldest friends. My
management - Hernando and Doreen Courtright are terrific. All my friends in
A&R.....Hi Mum!! Just kidding...

Can you offer any suggestions why the metal scene imploded and seriously came close to being wiped out altogether?
Yes I can. It got pretty lame by anyone's standards. By the late 80s there
was hardly an original band left. It was really o good thing that the
labels cleaned house in my opinion. However, it's now time for it to make
a long overdue comeback.

So what are you working on right now?
Well, I' m doing a lot of things. I'm VP of A&R for 2 labels. I'm also VP
of New Technologies for a multimedia corporation. We're putting together
some great music for videogames. I am also the in-house producer for the
labels I work for (M3 and Slipdisc). I've been producing a variety of bands
from very technical metal to jazz to heavy industrial. Recently, I did albums with Nihil, N17, Rorschach Test, The Clay People, Sacrifice Isaac, Final Cut, Nevermore and Spiral Architect. I am going to Italy in April to work with Death SS, then back to the US to do a new N17 album, a new Rorschach Test album, an album with the Chicago death metal band Macabre...the list goes on...just keeping busy.

Has there been any or many approaches from the good old hard rock bands, or are you more with indie or 90's bands these days?
Not really good old bands. Not too many left now. I work with anyone I want
to work with (hence no real categorisation) as long as I absolutely love
the music.

Any chance of working with someone like Dokken or Queensyche again?
Dokken..probably not, although I'd love to see some of those guys again.
Queensryche need a real shot in the arm. I'm hoping their new guitarist,
Kelly Gray, who is also a producer, can help them get back on track. We'll
see. I wish them luck. They're all great guys.

And at the end of the day - what has been your favourite ever project you
were involved with?

For years my favourite was RFO. Then I did Cuatro by Flotsam and Jetsam,
which I was really happy with. The Skrew album I did was nominated for a
Grammy, and I loved that one. I also like the way the Rorschach Test album
came out, and so far the reactions to the new Nevermore are really strong
too. However, once I've finished working on an album, I really tend not to
listen to it for a while. You just get too close.

And least favourite?
Hmm....thats tough. I could say I have a bad taste in my mouth from a
couple of experiences, but you learn to take the rough with the smooth. I'm
not the type of producer that says "It's my way or the highway" so I don't
alienate people immediately. However, as the person who has to keep up the
momentum and stuck to the budget, there are always times when you have to
stop something going off the rails or taking way too much time. This sort
of action makes you unpopular. I've had 2-3 weird experiences out of 200+
so I can't complain.