About a year ago I stormed one of the stages at an electronic music festival in Europe (coz that’s just how I roll, bitchzzzz). Alright, technically I didn’t “storm” the stage. But I did sneak in from the back when the security guard went to the toilet. Somehow I found myself in the middle of the stage, next to the DJ, looking out at the thronging crowd. And it was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever experienced. My rock’n’roll moment!
I’ve recently had the pleasure of getting to know an Actual Fucking Rock Star. The real deal, folks. Someone who spent years performing in front of millions of people, before moving onto a successful career as a producer. He’s the best electric guitarist you’ve never heard of – I’m talking about the extraordinary Terry Oubre. Let’s chat!
My one experience on (someone else’s) stage blew my tiny little mind. Tell me about the time you played with The Grass Roots in front of 600,000 motherfucking people in Washington DC on 4th July, 1982?
That gig was so surreal that I was totally relaxed. It’s like when my wife was giving birth to our son. The moment is so big and fraught with the possibility of something going wrong, that you just let go of the worry and roll with it.
How long were you on stage for?
About one and a half hours. CNN and MTV were covering the event, and it was broadcast live over the radio. No pressure though.
Were you nervous?
No, I wasn’t nervous. We were so battle hardened from the road. We could have played through a hurricane. But, like I said, it was very surreal. Sometimes things are so huge that you just go with it. As long as the equipment didn’t blow up, I could handle it. Smaller clubs can be more intimidating, because people are right under your nose. At the DC gig, we were on a big stage and the crowd was a sea of people. And everybody just wanted to party. It was July 4th, Independence Day. They were ready to rock, and we did our best to deliver.
You recorded just one album with The Grass Roots, Powers Of The Night. Lead singer Rob Grill was supposed to be the heart-throb of the group, but you would have been my favourite, for sure. Definitely the cutest.
Haha! Thanks. We once played a big club near New Orleans, and the club owner and I went out for a midnight ride with a couple of women afterwards. He told me, “Women might wanna fuck Rob, but they wanna marry you!”
A promotional photo of the band. How adorable is Terry!!!!
You definitely have a wholesome nice-guy thing going on there, which is very appealing. So how did you end up in The Grass Roots? And why did you leave?
The singer of The Grass Roots wanted to go on the road, and he needed a band. My group had just moved to LA and someone recommended us. And things just began to happen. A record producer for MCA Records came to see us at a venue in LA, and wanted to sign us. The irony is, I went to LA to make it with my own band and do session work, not be in The Grass Roots. So, after about two and a half years I quit and moved to Austin, because I wanted to produce. I wanted to make serious music. Something that meant something to me, that was based on what I was about.
Can you tell me a little more about what you do? You’re a producer – what does that even mean?
A music producer is like a movie director. I do everything necessary to bring a song to fruition. Which means shaping the arrangement, sometimes helping with lyrics, coaching the musicians and vocalists on their parts and generally pulling everything together. We’re making a record – a fixed piece of art – and because my name is on it, it has to be as good as I can make it. And that means I have to be able to read people and get what I need out of them without hurting their feelings. I have to be convincing, without making anyone feel threatened. So, a good producer has to wear a lot of hats. I also do a lot of mixing and mastering. Mixing is an art in itself. It’s a performance. You can make or break a recording in the mix. I usually do a ton of editing and shaping of the sound, blending it all together which makes the sum of the parts stronger. Not unlike an orchestra conductor.
So how much of a record is your vision, and how much is the artist’s?
My job is to help the artist realise their vision. The listener thinks it’s all the artist, but I work my ass off to make it sound great.
How did you get into producing?
I think it was just an organic outgrowth of my love for music and creating music. Especially the idea of trying to create music that I wanted to hear, that nobody else was recording. So there was a strong desire to be inventive, to express myself in a personal way, rather than trying to emulate what had come before. Prior to becoming a producer, I listened to music. Decoding what they were doing to achieve certain sounds. Particularly the Beatles and Hendrix. I was interested in sound from very early on, even as a child. I would pay attention to mechanical sounds and sounds of nature. Like the way sound bounced off the walls of houses in my neighbourhood. We had large yards with a lot of space between houses and if you hit a baseball, the crack would echo in a very complex way. Also, the sounds of a marching band in a stadium, especially the drums. To hear those drums playing in unison and the way that sound reverberated. Or during a parade, hearing them approaching from down the street and how the sound changed as they got closer. The sound of trains on tracks, the horn and the “Doppler effect” always fascinated me, as did the sound of a jet flying overhead. I love that shit.
Can you study producing, like law or medicine or engineering? Or do you need to have some kind of musical experience?
I don’t know how far studying will get you. It’s more of an innate ability, based on years of listening and trying to understand how sounds are recorded and how a record is made. So, for me, it was just a matter of calling on my experience as a session musician and recording with various bands over the years. I got tired of arguing with recording engineers about what kind of EQ I wanted, so with the advent of digital recording I bought my own recorders and turned my garage into a recording studio. I would rather do it all myself than have some motherfucker tell me what can’t be done, just because the text books say you can’t do it. I remember reading about George Harrison asking the engineer to boost the treble of his guitar during Nowhere Man, and the engineer telling him, “You can’t do that”. At that point the Beatles had earned the right to demand whatever they wanted. So George said, “Turn it all the way up, and if that’s not enough we’ll run it through another channel and boost it there too!” It was good to know that even the Beatles had to put up with engineers and their rigid bullshit.
What advice would you give to someone interested in producing as a career?
Anyone with the desire to learn how to make records can start with acquiring recording gear, whatever they can afford, and just learning from their mistakes. At first, it seems really hard to make it sound like a professional record. You have to sweat bullets for a few years and continue to upgrade your gear and add to it. You have to be detail oriented. And you have to have a real passion for it. Just like any other form of self expression.
What kind of music do you produce?
I’ve produced singer/songwriter artists, old school country, hard rock, blues, pop. For myself, I plan to record a hybrid of electronic and raging electric guitar. Also, cinematic style instrumental music.
Woah, love me some raging electric guitar! Tell me more. Are you planning on recording just a few songs, or a whole album? How long has it been since you’ve made music for yourself?
If I record an album again I will make it vinyl only. With a vinyl record you have a flow, like a movie or a book. It’s a listening experience. You go on a journey. I mean, it can function just as a collection of songs, but I like arranging songs so that they have an ebb and flow. My first and only CD, Future Blues, came out in 1996. I’ve recorded since then, but not released anything.
Tell me about making Future Blues. And why you waited over twenty years before thinking about making another one?
The original plan was a band album, but that wasn’t working out so I decided to put out a solo CD instead. The intention was to follow up with the band album, but in the meantime I’d transitioned to full time music producer and became more reliant on that income than putting out my own music. And that’s been the case for over 20 years.
During that period, I was also raising my son. My life in suburbia overtook my previous life as a full time musician and I got stuck. My marriage was not what I had hoped it would be either. I’d lost touch with who I was and, frankly, I’m still a long way from getting my life back as a working musician. So, after a 20 year marriage we decided to divorce and I finally had the chance to get back to some semblance of my previous life, which is where I’m at now. I bought a 100 year old building in a small town about an hour outside of Houston, which I’m renovating as a studio/loft apartment. The place will be combination recording studio, listening room for showcases, man cave and Americana museum, with many artefacts from my life. And I may have some kind of teaching academy there as well. I figure I’ll get more done if I immerse myself in a lifestyle that revolves around making and recording music, rather than going back to a more conventional life. I’m happier now, and anxious to re-establish myself as a musician as well as continuing to produce.
What kinds of artefacts?
Well, when I was very young I wanted to play drums. My parents gave me a toy drum set, and I played it til it fell apart. I remember being around 4 years old playing the toy drums in the garage, along to my mum’s Elvis records, when the garbage truck pulled up. The garbage men saw me playing – a couple of black guys watching this little white boy getting after it on the drums. They were cracking up laughing, but they were loving it. So I’m looking for a toy drum kit similar to the one I had to proudly display in my studio.
Who has been the biggest influence or inspiration for you?
Jimi Hendrix, to me, was the most important musician of the 20th Century. The Chili Peppers guitarist, John Frusciante once said that “when you hear Jimi Hendrix play, it’s a pure expression of him as a person. You see him on stage and there’s absolutely no separation between him and his guitar. They’re completely one, because he’s just putting every single bit of everything in his whole psyche and every single part of his body into his guitar playing”.
That’s how it feels when I watch the clip of you playing in Tucson. No joke. Like the music is coming from inside you, and the guitar is just a tool for that expression. It’s truly magnificent. What piece of music from Jimi Hendrix is your favourite?
I don’t think I could name one piece. If I had to choose his best album, I’d say Electric Ladyland. Listened to from beginning to end, it gives you that experience of having travelled through space and time. It’s transcendent music.
Jeff Beck. One of the reviews I got for my album said, “If Jeff Beck lived in Austin, you have some idea where Terry Oubre is at.” There are many other great guitarists and musicians I love. Everything I love in music has influenced and inspired me. Hendrix is still number one for me though. I can hardly believe he walked the earth, even now.
So let me ask you something. You are an extraordinary musician. You have the talent, so why aren’t you a household name? Did you ever want that level of success? Or that level of fame?
In the past I pursued success as part of a band. My first band was considered the best around (or at least I was). But I couldn’t have gone on the road, because I was in high school. I wasn’t really driven to be famous anyway, I was more about the music. And I would have needed management that believed in me. In the ensuing years, I was in several bands and was a session musician. But bands are extremely difficult to maintain. So, if I want to achieve a higher profile, I’ll have to do it as a solo artist. When I put out Future Blues I got good reviews in all the guitar magazines. But the live music climate changed. Music doesn’t mean what it used to. People don’t support it like they once did, which is why I got more involved in producing. And I’m not someone who craves validation from people. I know what I can do.
Are you still in touch with any of the guys from your old band? Would you work with them again?
The drummer, Ralph Gilmore, and I are still in touch. He played on Future Blues. Yes, I would work with Ralph again. He and I have played thousands of gigs together over the years. The keyboard player, Charles Judge, is working with all the big names in Nashville now. But he was jealous of me.
Because a fucking piano player can’t compete with a guitar player.
Oooh, can I publish that?
Sure, you can publish it. It’s true! I was always Charley’s biggest fan. He was the one with the problem. He can be a condescending fuck.
Hmm, I don’t like condescending fucks.
Me either. I eat them for breakfast now. I learned not to let them get away with that shit.
How do you feel about getting older in this industry? I mean the goddamn physical aches and pains of getting older versus the emotional and mental freedom and wisdom that come along with it? How does that affect the way you produce music, or play it?
Getting older hasn’t had much of an effect on me as a producer. There aren’t any physical limitations, yet. The good thing about it is that I play with more feeling, and more economically, rather than trying to play too fast with a constant stream of notes. Young players haven’t developed an appreciation for space in music. They overplay – and I did too, especially in my teens and 20’s. So the energy level has changed and I take a more thoughtful approach, which is a definite improvement.
But, what’s even more important is to explore new things, with a childlike curiosity. Experiment. And be fearless and take chances. Aging can soften you, and I personally don’t ever want to succumb to that.