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Tommy Emmanuel: Classical Gas

Classical Gas

Andrián Pertout speaks with Tommy Emmanuel about his new album 'Classical Gas' with Robyn Smith and the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra.

With tracks like 'The Journey', 'Concierto De Aranjuez' and 'Initiation' with the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra and 'Pan Man' with Slava Grigoryan, this album promises to be a special one for Tommy Emmanuel.  He is no doubt one of a few instrumentalists around the world that ever get a chance to record with an orchestra, it's an endeavour which is but an illusive dream for most musicians.  I went down to the Blue Train cafe in Southgate to meet up with Tommy for a talk over coffee, but only to find out that he's given up the evil drinking habit.  He then goes on to tell me that he hasn't had a coffee in ten days, and he's been drinking tea and water, and the first thing he noticed is the skin on his scalp is loser.  For two days he had a headache and then after that he came good, he was fine.  Well, I don't know if I'll ever find out if he's telling the truth, because giving up smoking is one thing, but to me coffee is definitely the heartbeat of my soul.

How did this project with the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra come about?  Was it a dream come true type of affair?

TE: "It kind of was, I had talked about doing an album with an orchestra many times, but never really kind of followed through with it, because I was always too busy.  And I mentioned it to Peter Karpin at Sony, that's right, I mentioned to him about doing a live album, and he said what about that album with the orchestra that we've been talking about.  And I said, 'Yeah!', and he said, 'Well, why don't we do it?'.  And Robyn Smith was out here from England, and he was producing Margaret Urlich's album, and I said, 'Let's get together with Robyn, 'cause he's the only one that I trust to do it, that I know'.  So I had a meeting with Robyn, who was totally into the idea.  We had to figure out how we were going to do it, financially what it would cost, and which orchestra we could get, and all this kind of stuff.  Then I just got together with Robyn and I started playing songs for him, and we chose the songs that we chose after a few meetings.  And 'Gollywogs Cake Walk' I learnt for this album off a tape of Robyn playing it on the piano, 'cause it's a traditional Debussy piece right, and 'cause I don't read music and I can't go out and buy the sheet music, I mean it's no good to me, I blow my nose on it, you know.

(Interrupted by the waiter) 'Gracias, yes I haven't been having coffee but I'm still eating cake, ha ha'.

"So that's how it kind of came together, and then we put a schedule together with rehearsals, and we rehearsed here in town, at Metropolis, and we recorded the rehearsals as well.  And we also recorded some of the songs live in the studio like 'Countrywide' and 'Padre'."

Did you need to change your usual approach in order to work harmoniously with an orchestra?

TE: "Absolutely, I had to get what it was that I was gonna play and stick to it.  Otherwise I'd throw them, ha ha.  And the other thing too of course, the actual logistics of doing it."

How do you organize 90 musicians on stage?  And if that's not enough, how do you then go about recording them?

TE: "You've got to try and get as much separation as possible, yet an overall feel, an overall picture too.  So we baffled the band off, put the drums and the bass, that are the louder instruments, put them behind perspex.  I put my amplifiers off the stage in the back of the truck, and miked the back of the truck up.  And then did all the ambience from the violin microphones, they kind of pick up everything, and then we just do a mixture of everything.  How I recorded the crowd, you know, at the end of 'Classical Gas' when the crowd just erupts?  What I did there, before the song started, I turned the microphone around and pointed the microphone that I was speaking in, I pointed it at the crowd.  And then, because we couldn't open all the microphones on stage as loud as we would like, because they'd feed back, right?  The PA is just at the side of the stage, so we just used my vocal mike and pointed it at the crowd, and just cranked it up.  That's how we got it, plus we had an eight track running the whole time, back at the mixing desk, with two mikes pointing out at the crowd, and at the PA as well.  There's a mixture of everything on there, there's a bit of sound from on stage, there's some sound from the PA, there's some direct sound, everything's on there.  That's why it took 48 tracks, 48 tracks of digital recording!"

Were any of the tracks on the 'Classical Gas' album especially written with an orchestra in mind, or did you simply just chose material you already had that was best suited?

TE: "Umm, a bit of both.  When I wrote 'The Journey' with David Hirschfelder that was obvious that, that song should be orchestrated.  When I wrote 'Who Dares Wins' I had the image of an orchestra in my mind.  'Run a Good Race', the same thing.  I wanted there to be the kind of setting up of the song, the verse, and then when that big middle section comes in, the orchestra's gotta like just blow you away, and I think we achieved that.  In fact when I was mixing that track, I had to say to Robyn, I want that part to be just so loud that you think, 'Wow, it's gonna blow the speakers out!'  That's how it came across."

What inspires you to compose?  Has it come to the stage where it's purely business, and you get up in the morning, make yourself a cup of coffee (not any more) and get on with it, or is it more of a special thing of the moment?

TE: "It's always special.  I go through periods of being a composer, and other periods where I'm just a performer.  I very rarely combine all things.  Usually when I'm on tour, my whole concentration is on gig, and the audience, and that's it.  That's what I live for that day, to walk on that stage and play.  When I'm composing, I don't wanna do anything else but be a composer.  And that's the way I have to do it, I have a limited brain capacity, ha ha."

The album credits Robyn Smith as producer, arranger and conductor.  Do you get involved in any of these areas, or do you prefer to have that unbiased input?

TE: "Oh no, I get involved in everything, every beat of every bar.  Robyn's one of the only guys I know who could have pulled all that together, with his experience, working with London Symphony Orchestra, and doing a lot of show like Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells', he conducted the orchestra on that.  He's a great musician, a great songwriter, not only is he classically trained, he's a great pop songwriter as well.  He has a handle on the whole thing, and that's why I enjoyed working with him, and I have total confidence and faith in him.  But I was involved with everything, right down to what was written on the album sleeve.  That's all my doing, every single thing, and I don't take a co-producer's credit, it doesn't worry me."

Most of the tracks on this album are live recordings at Geelong Racecourse and Metropolis Audio.  Were any of these performances enhanced in any major way in the mix?  Were there any overdubs or fixups?

TE: "Yeah, the most fixing that was done was my acoustic guitar, because on the day I couldn't get the sound I wanted, and I just said, 'Let's just go, if my performances are OK, I can live with it, but if I'm not happy, because my guitar's direct, we can get the separation.'  So in  two songs I redid my acoustic guitar completely, and in the other songs I fixed up a couple of little things.  There was one other thing we had to do, which was a pretty major thing, that was in the song 'Classical Gas'.  The drums and the bass, and the keyboards, and the guitars were so good and locked together, that the orchestra sounded all over the place.  So what we had to do is, we took the string section and we gated them all off, and we put that into a computer sampler and we moved them forward in the track, 'cause they were so behind the beat.  They were just too far behind to use, but when you listen to their part on it's own, it was slamming, it was great, it was just way behind the beat.  And when you listen to the drums and the bass, and everything, it's like locked in, grooving like crazy.  So we just had to marry the two of them like that.  That was all really, which was quite remarkable, considering we really only had two days rehearsal, and then one gig, and we had to make an album out of that!  You know, most albums are made after six months of touring, and the show's like a well oiled machine, when we can't afford that luxury."

'Pan Man' features 'Slava Grigoryan' on acoustic guitar.  What made you chose this player to do a duet with?

TE: "I wanted to have a real classical guitar player on this album somewhere, and I was given a copy of Slava's album, and I said, 'This is my guy, he's fantastic!'  So I rang him up, we got together and he played for me.  And of course, when I got my eyeballs back in their sockets I said to him, 'Can we do something together that I can play, but I don't wanna play classical, 'cause I'm not a classical player.  As much as love it, I know in my heart that I'll never be able to do that, I'm too old to change now.'  So we tried a few different classical pieces that were pretty well known, and there was not much for me to do in them, unless I like him I had grown up playing that music.  So I said, 'Let's look for something different.'  So he went home, and his father turned him on to this piece of music, and he wrote a little chord chart out for me and everything, came round to my house, I played the rhythm part, and I said, 'Why don't you put a solo in here', and OK.  And it was sounding great and I said, 'This is it, I think!'  So I rang up Doug Brady, and Doug came round with two microphones, his little rack of compressors and things, and a little 8-track ADAT.  We recorded it there and then, in my lounge room, at home!  In fact, when I hear the track, I can hear the sound, 'cause I know it so well, the sound of the reflection of the terracotta on my floor."

Tommy, last time we met up you spoke of moving to the US.  How has San Fransisco turned out as a base for you?

TE: "I'm actually back here now.  I achieved what I could while I was there, but I kind of ran out of time.  And I had releases coming up in Japan, and all through Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, Honk Kong, Singapore and then France.  So I had to bring my family back in September, and then I was on tour.  I had to go to Japan, and then I did through Asia twice, then I went to France, then I came back here and toured here.  So staying and living in San Fransisco ended up working out not practical for me.  So we decided just to move back here, and I'll just go over there when I need to work there.  I'm in an interesting situation, where I have a different record label just for the United States, not Canada or South America.  Just United States I have a different label, everywhere else in the world I'm on Sony."


'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #23, March 27, 1996


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