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Jeff Lynne: ‘I Haven’t Given Up the Idea of’ Touring

Martyn Atkins

Jeff Lynne has contributed a wealth of important influence to the world of recording over the decades that he’s been engaged in making music. If the albums crafted with Electric Light Orchestra had been his sole contribution as an artist, it still would have been an impressive legacy to leave behind.

But as things were wrapping up with ELO, Lynne began to produce albums for other artists, working on tracks for Dave Edmunds — including the Top 40 hit ‘Slipping Away,’ which he wrote and produced. Famously, he helped to put George Harrison back on the charts with ‘Cloud Nine,’ a comeback release for the former Beatle which would pay multiple dividends not only for Harrison, but also for Lynne himself.

The ‘Cloud Nine’ sessions would spawn additional work for Lynne and a new band — the star-studded Traveling Wilburys, which found Harrison and Lynne making music with Tom Petty (Lynne was also producing Petty’s ‘Full Moon Fever’), Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison (for whom he would produce ‘Mystery Girl,’ another comeback album). It was a collective of some of rock and roll’s greatest heroes making music with their own personal heroes, and the sessions were colorful not only because of the music that was created, but also the stories and memories that accumulated in the process.

He continues to write and produce both for himself and others, producing the highly regarded 2012 album ‘Analog Man’ for Joe Walsh — his first solo album in 20 years. Lynne also found time to focus on his ELO years in 2012 with ‘Mr. Blue Sky.’ The album is made up of a hand-selected batch of ELO tracks, newly re-recorded with today’s technology that achieve a sound that finally matches Lynne’s original vision.

‘Long Wave,’ released simultaneously, found Lynne offering his interpretations of an album’s worth of material sourced from some of his greatest influences, including Orbison, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry.

Lynne continues to take stock of his career with a pair of new releases that landed in stores this week (April 16), including a reissue of his 1990 solo album ‘Armchair Theatre’ and ‘Electric Light Orchestra Live,’ a live release sourced from a 2001 performance in Los Angeles for PBS.

We recently had a few minutes to speak with Lynne about those releases, plus, some new material that he’s currently working on and the possibility of tour dates somewhere down the line.

You’re in an interesting zone right now, because you’re recording new music but at the same time, taking a bit of time to consider your legacy of work with the series of releases that we’ve seen in the past year. What triggered the idea to revisit this stuff?

All of the ELO stuff?

Yes, and also the reissue of your solo album ‘Armchair Theatre.’

Well, that’s coming around again because it reverted to me, so I wanted it out there. I’m really proud of that album, actually. I think it seems to have gotten better over time.

I would agree. Listening to the remaster of the album and hearing ‘Every Little Thing,’ that song sticks out to me as one that if it had been released in a different time period, I think it might have been a larger hit than it was. It’s classic Jeff Lynne.

Well, it’s a good one and at the time, I was really pleased with it. But you can’t always dictate what will happen.

The other thing that really sticks out to me now as I listen to ‘Armchair Theatre’ is that I really hear a lot of Orbison influence vocally in your vocal on ‘Don’t Say Goodbye.’

Oh really? I’d never really put that together with that. It’s always a compliment to say that I’ve even been trying to copy him! [Laughs] But I wasn’t really thinking of Roy on that particular song, I’m just glad it sounds like I was.

You were pushing recording technology to its limits with the albums you were making with ELO. What was your process in that time? Did you keep logs of the guitars, specific instrumentation and gear that you were using on each song? I’m curious what sort of map you had to work off of when you decided to re-record some of those songs.

Well, to be honest, they’re not that difficult. The songs are really quite simple. That’s all layers of sound. I know what they are just by listening to them. I don’t need to map them or put a list of things that happened. I can tell what happened just by hearing it, you know? Sometimes it went well and sometimes it didn’t sound quite so good. So that was the idea [behind] redoing them. [It] was not even to copy what was there, but just to make the things sound better and sit better with me.

Because as the years have gone by, every time that I hear them on the radio, I think, ‘Oh, I wish that sounded better’ — and certain things still sound not bad, but a lot of them I probably could have done better, but I didn’t have the experience then. You know, I’d only been producing a few years on some of those records. And then of course the later ones, I’d been producing like 40-odd years, so I’ve got a lot more experience and a lot more know-how and a lot more wisdom of what not to do than I did then.

With these re-recordings, can you point to a couple of specifics as far as things you feel like you were able to better capture on the second go-around?

I can’t really be that specific. Really all of them have some kind of problem for me, when I listen to the old ones. It’s usually that there’s not a punch in them and I can tell you exactly why that is. Because as you say, I was stretching the limits a little bit with 24-track analog recording in those days, mainly because I was using too many tracks and bouncing down, because I wanted [more tracks], “Oh, I need another five tracks — give me another five.”

That very problem [resulted in] the tapes actually wearing out because of overuse. I’d be running that tape over those heads for hours and hours and hours and I knew that it would have some effect and that the oxide would come off a little bit and it would lose some of its top and some of its punch, which it did. That’s what I’ve tried to correct. I have as many tracks as I want now, so I can have like a hundred tracks and it’s okay and it doesn’t wear anything out, because it’s all digital and it just stays like it is. So that’s really the difference.

For a guy like you that grew up working on the analog side of things, are there pros and cons when you look at digital vs. analog as far as the way that you like to work?

No, I love it ever so much! It’s exactly what I wish I could have had from the start, is the digital stuff. But the thing is that I still use my analog equipment. You know, my outboard gear is analog and all of my desk is analog and it’s got the nice big fat warm EQ on it. I’m not just doing it in the box, there’s a big painstaking effort to get it to still sound as thick and old-fashioned, as I call it, the kind of sound that I like. Like an old-fashioned record, sort of like a rock and roll record. So it’s not meant to be super duper hi-fi, it’s just meant to have more punch, so that you can hear all of the bits better on this new version.

I certainly look at an artist and producer like you and feel like you must have been salivating a little bit, as you watched the technology start to develop.

Absolutely, yeah. Things that used to take a week, you can do in 20 seconds now!

After doing an album of standards with the ‘Long Wave’ album, you’ve been working on new material. What can you tell us about the new songs that you’re working on?

Well, I’ve got about eight that are really finished. I never say they’re finished until I actually shove them out the door, because there’s always something I want to do, you know?

Oh yeah.

[Laughs] You know what it’s like. I would say they’re just original songs, new songs of mine. Once you’ve written about 200 [songs] like I have, or 350, you start running out of things to write about, you know? You don’t run out, but you need an inspiration of some kind. And you can sit there just banging your head on the wall and hope that they’ll come that way, [with] the lyrics, for instance, or you can just put it aside and then wait for it to hit you for an inspiration.

You do see some artists that get blocked up and lose their ability to write. What keeps you moving in that sense? Does your production work with other artists help with inspiring new points of inspiration?

Producing is the most fun thing that I can ever do. It’s what I love to do. It’s like if I was asked whatever I would want to do ever, it would be sitting down with somebody and making a record. So production is the fun thing and I prefer producing something that really stretches me musically, like [the] ‘Long Wave’ [album]. The songs on there, I had to work my balls off to learn those and perform them, because I wasn’t used to those kind of songs, but I just really wanted to have a go. Because the songs are really complex.

Some of them are really simple chords, but the arrangements on them made them really difficult to learn. Because you have to listen to all of the shimmering stuff and, “What’s going on there, there’s a big herd of clarinets over there,” and you can’t tell what they’re playing. So it was hard just to get it so that I could get exactly the right music, which I did. I finally learned all of the songs.

Singing them was obviously a tricky thing, because I’d never attempted songs like that before. I loved doing them. I had so much fun. I was really not expecting it to come out as good as it did. I’m really pleased that people liked it.

Those are songs which have been with you for so long, but sometimes the prospect of tackling your influences like that can be so daunting.

Absolutely. I was afraid of them. It took me about three years to actually have a go at one of them. The first one I did was ‘She,’ and I just thought, ‘I’d love to do songs of this ilk and this standard and quality,’ just to see what I can do. And absolutely, then you’re working to get it right and once you do get it right, it’s like, “Wow, I got it right at last.” Once I got started, I couldn’t put it down, it was just stuff I really wanted to keep doing. I had all of the songs and then I’d find a new one and I’d be like, “Oh sh–, I’ve got to do that one!” Obviously, I got a few surplus ones too.

I had a chance to talk with Joe Walsh last year about working with you on the ‘Analog Man’ album and it would seem like working on a project like that would give you a chance to exercise some of your artistic muscles, such as the prog bits that you put into the mid-section of that title track.

Oh yeah, those are nice chords, yeah. Just very simple chords. I think it’s four chords and it’s just the bass that moves and that was inspired by the old songs I was working on, the movements of the bass, not playing the root notes of the chord, but moving through those things. That was kind of inspired by those old songs, the way that someone like Richard Rodgers would keep it really simple and just move it up gradually, ascending bass lines and descending bass lines.

Listening to albums as a kid, were you able to hear things from the producer’s side that you wanted to try to replicate on your own terms?

Oh absolutely, yeah. I think the first song sound-wise that grabbed me, I was about 13 when ‘Only the Lonely’ came out. It was just amazing, the purity of it and the fantastic arrangement of it. The way the sounds were going away from you, and some would be closer up and some would be further away. That whole thing of two drummers and double bass, six string bass, lead guitar, the backing vocals and the orchestra, [which was] probably a 12 piece. What a fantastic thing to record all at once. And then Roy is standing at the back behind the coat rack, because his voice is so loud. It’s just amazing when you think about it. Because I knew Roy pretty well and he used to tell me about the old sessions, which I used to love listening to that. It was just a treat.

It’s pretty astounding too, when you start to figure out the limited number of tracks that they had to work with, too.

Well, they only had three tracks. They had a special kind of machine that only a few people had. We didn’t have it in England, I know that. Because what I’m talking about, is before I even knew how to play or how to understand music, it was just a gut feeling that I had for that [music] from Roy Orbison and actually, Del Shannon. Those were the earliest influences [for me] in rock and roll.

Where did you start to gain the important understanding as far as how to play and write songs?

My dad bought me a guitar from his friend and I learned from a book called ‘Burt Weedon’s Play in a Day,’ and I didn’t actually learn to play in a day, but [after] a few months, I could play most of the chords. So it was just a gradual process, really. So then I started to listen to records again and [wonder], “How do they do that?” I was a professional by then in a group called the Nightriders, and I got myself a B&O 2000 DeLuxe tape recorder, and you could do sound on sound.

You’d go from left to the right and add an instrument right to left and just keep bouncing from track to track until you get all of the things that you want. You’d put the harmonies on the vocal, drums, you know, with a chair or something. I learned to make some fantastic demos like that, and I learned so much in the middle front room of my mom and dad’s house in Birmingham. That’s how I learned to make records, where to put the mic — where does it sound good and all of the little things like that. I brought it all together, so I became a singer, songwriter and a guitar player.

Jim Horn told me a memorable story about working on the Traveling Wilburys albums, recalling the time that he sat on a toilet to play his soprano sax out into the hallway, with a microphone recording him at the end of the hall. What were some of the other unusual ways that you captured some of the sounds on those albums?

Well the funny thing is, I always find that the studio doesn’t make the sounds I want. I’ve got my own studio now and I’ve had it for a long, long time. But in some of these studios, all of the sounds seem to have been taken out and I’d have to use the corridor outside of the studio to get the sort of sound that I wanted. And that’s why Jim Horn was sitting on the lavatory blowing his horn with a microphone down at the other end of the room, on the other end of the corridor. Because it got a better sound than I could get inside the studio, you know? If I used an electronic reverb, I could have gotten a similar sound, but it wouldn’t have been organic and really pure and authentic. Authentic lavatory sounds! [Laughs].

That first record was completed in a week and a half, which seems pretty incredible for the time period, but it certainly wasn’t unusual for the players who were involved in it.

Well, that’s true. Obviously, we didn’t finish all of the songs — we didn’t finish laying the finishing touches to them. It took another month or so to do that. But the actual record, yeah, it was written in 10 days. 10 songs in 10 days, with the rhythm track laid down with Jim Keltner.

You had quite an interesting period, between working on Harrison’s ‘Cloud Nine’ album, ‘Full Moon Fever’ for Petty, the Wilburys album and the Orbison album. The creativity that sparked during the Harrison sessions certainly spread in a lot of different directions for you.

Well, I think it was waiting to happen anyway, once I’d finished doing ELO and George asked me to come and produce him. It was like, “Well, the world’s my oyster now. I’d love to do production for other people and especially, great people.” I was very lucky that I did work with George and people heard that, and they all loved it and they all asked me to do something with them. It really was a great time.

Your production style is very interesting to analyze though, because as much as you like to build things up, it also seems like you like to work very organically when it comes to capturing the source material. I’ve heard Tom Petty talk about how he lost any desire to have echo on his vocals from working with you on the ‘Full Moon Fever’ album.

[Laughs] I’ve always disliked reverb. It’s not so much echo — I do use slap a lot, like a 15 ips tape slap. I use it sometimes on vocals, but very rarely. It’s usually dry, yeah. One of my real things is for a dry vocal. I just love it when they sing in your face. When there’s reverb on it, you sort of lose that connection. I do, anyway. I lose that intimacy and I think, ‘Oh, reverb, reverb,’ and that puts me off immediately.

Ultimately, you came full circle and found yourself working on Beatles recordings. Can you talk about the experience of working with those tracks? Did you have a specific approach in mind prior to hearing the song elements that you’d be working with?

Oh no! I’d had the song [which would be released as ‘Free as a Bird’] for a month or so trying to figure out what the hell to do with it! How would I ever get that to work? Because it was a mono cassette and the voice was on the same track as the piano. So there’s no ducking or diving with it, it’s just, there it is, it’s like the elephant in the room and you’ve got to dub the Beatles on around that! It wasn’t the easiest one to do!

The new material that you’re working on — when might that be released?

Well, I’m hoping that it will be an album before the end of the year. I’d like it to be [out] in the fall, if I can do it. But we’ll see.

Have you had any more thoughts towards possibly doing some live shows, perhaps to support that?

There’s always thoughts. I do think of it. That sort of thought lasts about two nano-seconds usually in my head and it’s gone again. [Laughs] But I haven’t given up the idea of doing it. I may well do a couple of shows somewhere, but I wouldn’t promise anything!

I think you’re probably aware that you’re the opposite of most folks. There are some artists who can’t stand to be in the studio — they’d rather be playing shows — and yet you’re the complete opposite!

I love the studio so much . . . I don’t know what to do if I’m not in the studio! It’s really odd! I want to write a great song. A really great one. I wish I could. I’m trying now. We’ll see. One of these days.

Next: The Top 10 Electric Light Orchestra Songs

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