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STEEL THE FEEL: PRODUCER JAY RUSTON TALKS WORSHIP MUSIC, STEEL PANTHER #2, AND DESMOND CHILD

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Jay Ruston photo by Josh Reeder; Brian Posehn/Brett Anderson photo by Susana Capra

Producer, engineer, and mixer Jay Ruston loves a challenge. He’s the guy whom Anthrax hired to save their troubled Worship Music album. He’s the guy who spit-shined their Sofia Big 4 performance for DVD release. He’s also the dude who helped silly Steel Panther craft the decade’s most seriously memorable album, and also the dude enlisted to surpass expectations for Feel The Steel‘s sequel and follow-up (due out October 18). He’s a whiz who has worked with intimidatingly successful producers (Desmond Child, Peter Asher, Jack Richardson) and intimidatingly hot rocker foxes (The Donnas, Pearl Aday, Brian Posehn). And Ruston is a friendly dude who at a moment’s notice devoted his Monday morning to spilling sexy insider details on the abovementioned Steel Panther and Anthrax projects (and tons more) to MetalSucks. Want the real story on an album’s making? Ask the producer!

 Right now you are what is called “a hot producer.” Are you pumped?

[laughs] It’s just the culmination of almost a decade of really hard work, of trying to meet and work with as many great people as possible. It’s been great! The last two or three years have been amazing.

I am told that to be successful, a producer must get out and network hard. Does that part of the job tire you?

Yeah, a huge part of it is me going out and meeting people. I spend just as much time talking to artists on the phone or by email as I do in the studio with them. Engineering and mixing is a whole other set of skills; production is more about the vibe. You can be the band’s psychiatrist, or camp counsellor, or whatever you’d like to call it [laughs]. So there’s a lot involved on a social level.

Yeah, so how is it possible to be a voice of reason and a mediator to the guys of Steel Panther? 

[laughs] Those guys are just as hilarious off-stage as on-stage, but in a totally different way. They’re four really funny guys. We have a really, really good time making their records. There are disagreements, but that just comes with making records. Everyone has the same vision, and we approached both records the same way: We’d get in the rehearsal room, start working off the original demos, and perform as a live band with a focus on the music.

The vocals, because of the comedy in the lyrics, have their own lengthy process [within] the making of the record. So first we work out the arrangements and get the music recorded; maybe the vocals and lyrics are at about 80%. Once we get in the studio, the whole band is there for recording the vocals. They each bring a different aspect of comedy to the lyrics. They all have great ideas. Once the lyrics are final, Michael Starr heads into the vocal booth, and… He’s amazing. He’s so quick. There’s a lot of time to really be creative. [It’s not overly time-consuming] to get great performances out of him, because it happens naturally.

I’m glad that came up. Because Steel Panther is funny, it’s easy to overlook the fact that they’re so fuckin’ good. Michael Starr is a stud, Satchel kills, and the songs are airtight. 

Yeah, I think a lot of people didn’t at first realize that it’s not studio trickery. Those guys record almost everything live on the floor; of course, to get that sound, we double up guitars and add overdubs. But those guys could easily perform that stuff live in the studio and it’d [result in usable] final takes. That doesn’t happen that often.

I love Feel The Steel, but I also respect it. I take Steel Panther very seriously. But as their producer, do you ever laugh and think, ‘Man, some producers are working on super-serious epics while I just asked Michael Starr to re-take the line about putting his hot dog into a fat girl’s bun’?

I’m always laughing at it. You have to. But I take it just as seriously as anything. We all do, because we know we’ll be judged strictly. Especially making this second record, because I think the songwriting, performance, and comedy of the first album were genius and can’t be touched. To live up to that, I knew we’d be climbing a huge mountain. So it’s taken very seriously; lyrics and melodies were slaved over. We knew what we were up against.

Also, we made a conscious decision to make a slightly different record. It’s still Steel Panther, but we wanted to make a straight-up hard rock record with commercial appeal and still make people laugh, but also … The little bit of radio airplay that we did get from the first album was a huge help. So we had no qualms about trying to get more radio with this next record. Why not? It’s still a viable asset for many bands. The towns where Feel The Steel got airplay, the band gets huge crowds. It translates to a larger audience. Despite the naysayers who feel that radio is dead, it still does help.

We tackled different subjects in the lyrics this time. The general subject matter is the same: sex, women, that whole vibe. But we also wanted to hit subjects in the media that we thought were funny. And on Feel The Steel, there’s one song that’s funny but not that funny which I consider more of a rock tune —

ADF + JR: “Eyes Of The Panther.”

Yeah. I’d say there are two or three of those on the new record. People are really going to love those straight-up, balls-to-the-wall, heavy tunes [that have] a comedy edge but are not comedy songs. Whereas seven or eight of the tunes are supposed to make you laugh. And that’s what those guys are. We didn’t want change, but we didn’t want to make the same record twice.

To me, what Steel Panther is attempting isn’t just a second set of great songs, but a sequel. That’s tough, especially because good comedy takes more skill than drama. And it gets half the respect. 

Absolutely. It’s hard to convince people. Some people only see the posters, or only hear the songs; you have to see the band in concert to get it. That’s a battle all the time to explain it to people. Obviously, there will be people who don’t like it, but it’s all about the live show. The record was something that they initially wanted to do for fun; they wanted to integrate their own songs into the set. They thought, ‘Hey, why not do recordings of the songs as well? The fans will want that.’ That proved to be true.

There hasn’t been a big breakthrough in the hair metal genre in twenty years. To what extent did that fact influence your approach to Steel Panther’s production? Was your strategy to refer to that sound, or did you feel it should be left behind?

No, we definitely refer to that sound. The style of Satchel’s writing and riffs lends itself to the ’80s sound. He just writes these brilliant guitar riffs that scream ’80s-era metal. When I’m mixing, I’m melding two worlds: Basically, there’s the modern world, where the album is loud and punchy, has a lot of bottom end, and has a sorta hot, in-your-face mix; at the same time, I try not to completely compress and destroy it. It’s got reverb, echo, and other effects; we’re not afraid of that stuff that was used in the ’80s.

Cool! I love that stuff! 

Everyone now is terrified to use that stuff. To be honest, all kinds of production from the ’80s and early ’90s was great. Everything was done on analog and they weren’t afraid to put effects on vocals or do interesting things in the mix. Whereas now, everything is just so plain. There’s nothing interesting for the ear to latch onto. I think that’s why you see so many classic bands still doing well and touring; people go back to those records because there’s nothing new and interesting for them to hear.

Modern production is my arch enemy. I am confused by the dryness and the lack of dynamics.

Yeah, that’s a huge problem. Y’know, Funly … funnily … Bleh, now I can’t speak right.

[laughs]

Funnily enough, I was mixing Anthrax’s Worship Music and Steel Panther at the same time.

Fun!

On one hand, I was mixing a classic band that needs to sound modern; on the other, I was mixing a new band that needs to sound classic. [laughs] It was really weird to go back and forth, but the two projects actually helped each other. As I was experimenting with the mixing of Anthrax, I’d come up with something really cool that I could apply to Steel Panther. Or vice versa. And some things worked for both, some things don’t. I wouldn’t cover Anthrax in reverb and delay; it just wouldn’t work. For Steel Panther, it’s a must. There were certain discoveries that worked for both.

I think the goal for the Anthrax record was a modern sound, but it still needed to sound like the Anthrax that’s been around for almost thirty years.

Dude, I am excited about the new Anthrax record! It’s an awesome album on its own, and its awesomeness is unlikely when one considers the circumstances of its creation. As you started work on it, did you think that Worship Music might not be salvageable? Or did you think to yourself, ‘Hey, we’ll fix this thing and Anthrax will come out of chaos with a great record. I’m Jay Ruston. Let’s party.’

[laughs] I always go into things with a positive attitude unless I know that someone else wants it to fail. I’ve seen that happen before. I’d never get into a situation like that. The Anthrax guys were very determined. They knew that they had great songs; I agreed having heard the previous recordings [with Dan Nelson’s vocals]. The question was, will this translate to Joey Belladonna’s vocals? My answer was, ‘Yes.’ I just knew it. I had a gut feeling.

Joey is the type of person that needs to trust you; he needs to feel really comfortable. All artists need that, but some need it even more for you to get the best performances from them. And Anthrax’s earlier records were always rushed. There was always a tour approaching, so they needed to just get it done. Of course, the vocals are always last; they always get rushed. So Joey never really had the opportunity to take his time working with the producer — at least nothing like what we were able to do for Worship Music.

To the chagrin of their label — which had been waiting for the record for years [laughs] — we slowed down the process. I think we had to. The band was all for it. Once the guys heard the first song that Joey sang — I think it was “Crawl,” one of my favorite songs on the album — they were so blown away with his vocals that, from that point on they were saying, ‘Whatever it takes. Every vocal has to be [that awesome].’ It wasn’t that difficult to do. It was just all about Joey and I having a relationship and getting along really well, which happened immediately. Once we were comfortable with each other, we’d bang out a vocal in five or six hours. It was pretty easy once we got over the initial hump.

I am impressed by that, dude. And here’s why: Joey’s situation was not an enviable one. He had to come in on a record that had been finished once, was now late as hell and very important to the band’s future. And not only did he have to do the work, but he had to find a way to put his Joey stamp on the shit. So it reflects well on you that his contributions to Worship Music are awesome! 

And I’m glad that Joey is getting the chance to sing John Bush-style Anthrax songs like “Crawl.” It proves my point that Joey could’ve remained their guy all along, no need for replacements. Wait, do I have a question here? Sorry.

No worries. I see what you’re getting at. Sure, he absolutely could’ve done those records. Who knows what happened in 1990? Only those five guys know why the change was made. I don’t think it’s widely known why. They made the decision that they made. And I love John Bush, too; I love those records. Could Joey have sung them? Absolutely. And there will always be fans that love the John Bush era, those who love the Joey era, and those who love both. I love both and I love Joey. Joey is awesome and we get along really well. For him to have this opportunity makes me feel good because people are going to love the way he sounds. It’s amazing. I’m so happy for him and the band.

I’m happy for Joey, too. It’s great for fans to have him back. And Worship Music should be a big record.

We’re getting rave reviews and nothing but positive responses from radio and press. I’m excited and I know the band is just itching to get this thing out. We’re stoked.

So, you came in to record and produce Joey’s vocals. Was there any other touching up that you were asked to do?

Yeah, we did a bunch of different things. Basically, some of the songs needed some tweaking. Once they had Joey back and they decided that he’d do the record — and he was totally up for that — they wanted to look again at all the material and decide what needed to be re-written. Anything that Dan Nelson was involved with was removed and had to be re-written or scrapped altogether.

But lot of these songs were written by Scott, Frank, and Charlie alone, then they’d teach them to Dan Nelson and he’d sing them. Those songs — six or seven of them — needed fewer changes: guitar things here and there, a few arrangement moves, and vocal and melody movements to match Joey’s style better. Dan’s a bit more of a screamer and Joey sings. So those songs could be knocked out because we had the template and lyrics. It was kinda easy to do.

The last three or four tunes we did were re-recorded from scratch. A few were total re-records, and one or two were kinda re-designed. Maybe keep the drums or guitar and bass, and re-write the vocals and melody completely.

One song that was a total re-configure was “In The End.” That song, to me, is where Joey really got to flex. He had a lot of input on where it should go. Not that he didn’t have a lot of input on the other songs, but they were kinda written. They sounded good and we were happy with everything. We didn’t need to do that much [with those songs]. But on the newer stuff and re-writes, there was no guide vocal, just lyrics and a melody. We needed to create it from scratch and that gave him some license to experiment.

We’d send versions to the band and they’d [respond], ‘Wow, this is great. Can you change this or try this here?’ It was a nice little [collaborative] process that worked out really well. It was a bit time-consuming to do it that way, but you get the best product in the end. Those last few songs were fun to do.

Was Rob involved in those songs that were rebuilt?

Yeah, Rob is always involved. The album is produced by the band, Rob, and myself. My role was to produce all the vocals, re-record some guitars, and mix the whole album. Rob did pretty much everything else: record the drums, the bass, the original guitars, and his own parts. It was a community effort. Sometimes, Frank would do the bass in New York with his guy; Charlie would do drums on his own if we wanted to change that. Everybody was very involved. We worked as a very cohesive team. It was great.

Can you give us insight on how a band comes to hire a new producer to do just the vocals? And why you, Jay Ruston?

Sure! I think it came to a point when Rob had been on this thing for three years. He certainly wasn’t burned out — I wouldn’t use those words — but it was about perspective. Working with your own bandmates is totally different than working with an outside producer. And by that point, I had done a fair amount of work with Scott Ian. He was on the first Steel Panther record; that’s how we met. Then I produced some stuff with his wife Pearl, and he was the guitar player on that. We all got along well. Doing vocals with Pearl was great. She’s a great singer and I think they liked my style of producing vocals.

Then Scott and I did the Brian Posehn songs for his comedy record. That worked out really well. Once I mixed the Big 4 live DVD, I think I was the natural choice for Scott to help them with Joey. He probably figured that I have a good rapport with singers and they needed somebody to connect with Joey. Y’know, Joey’s one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. Very friendly. In the studio, he’s a very creative person. A creative person needs to be moulded and shaped and pushed in certain directions to get their best effort. That’s what I tried to do.

How did you learn to do that? Is it a skill that you’ve picked up from others? Are you simply a groovy dude in a loose mood?

I think a lot of it has to do with mentors. I’ve had a few different ones and from all different styles of production. I’ve worked with Desmond Child, who did all the Bon Jovi and Aerosmith stuff.

Huuuge producer.

Yeah. And when it comes to vocal production, he’s the man. He tortures singers in a way that I’ve never seen anybody else do. Well, I’m sure that [Def Leppard producer] Mutt Lange does that, but I’ve never met him [laughs]. Peter Asher is another producer I’ve worked with a lot; he’s from a classic era where he’d hire the best of the best to come in and lay down the tracks. He worked with a lot of singer-songwriters, so he’d put amazing musicians around them and let them do their thing. He taught me how to stay out of the way and let amazing performances happen. Whereas Desmond is, like, really involved, with a hand in every lyric and every line.

I take those different aspects and apply them to my own style. I try to create a laid-back vibe in the studio as well. I’ve worked with a lot of screamers and yellers, all stomping out of the room and stuff. That creates a negative vibe and also leads to a one-record arrangement. You work with the band once and they never call you again. I always get called back, and that’s nice. It’s fun to do multiple projects with a band.

That’s a big part of it, right? The final product is most important, but it’s also about an unharried, non-traumatic creative process.

Yeah, you end up making lifelong friends. That’s a huge part of it. You only end up seeing these friends a couple times a year after that because they’re on the road or living in different cities. It’s tough to spend weeks or months being with them constantly, and then boom! they’re gone. That’s the way it is making records. You get used to that.

-ADF

Check out producer Jay Ruston’s new work on Anthrax’s Worship Music (out September 13 on Nuclear Blast and Megaforce) and on Steel Panther’s to-be-titled sophomore record (out Cocktober 18 on Universal/Republic). 

Photos courtesy of Jay Ruston (top to bottom): With Steel Panther; thinking about stuff; with The Donnas; with Peter Asher.

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