I am not a journalist. And, even if I do fancy myself a writer, I sometimes wonder whether I am any good at it. I have interviewed people before and written content for many a publication, but when I was asked if I could interview Tony and Morgan Visconti for 1985, I confess I was bit nervous. Both are incredibly accomplished artists and, while Tony is responsible for some of the tunes that have most certainly defined a whole generation, having produced David Bowie, T. Rex, Iggy Pop, Tom Paxton and many more over the course of more than forty years in the business, Morgan grew up around all the people you and I would have wanted to meet and, nonetheless, has developed his own voice, alongside his very successful music company and his passion for photography. What do you ask someone you want to know everything about?
We met at Human, Morgan’s music production company, in his suite, right across from his dad’s. They say it’s nice to be seating so close to each other as they like collaborating. Not bad for a family with an Italian last name, I thought.
Wikipedia says Tony was playing an instrument by the age of five. I wanted to know why, even if the question was stupid.
“My parents were both musical, amateurs, but very musical. My mother sang to me from the minute I was born. She’d sing me Italian songs. I heard music in the kitchen, all day long and, then, as soon as I was old enough to pick up a guitar… I started trying to play a guitar at five years old, but it was too big so they bought me a ukulele. And I learned ukulele in one day.
My dad is a singer and an accordion player and he plays the harmonica. He taught me. They bought me a little book and I learned it in one day.”
From there to the guitar, is that a natural transition?
“It took me a few years, I had to grow up.” I wonder how heavy a guitar is and can’t help but picture a little kid and a giant guitar. Tony then tells me about the excellent music programs in New York City schools in those years, “in the 50s, when I grew up” and about private music lessons, a great guitar teacher and parents who “believed in me and I owe them everything.”
I turn to Morgan. How about you? Growing up with a father like that, was that the same for you, did you pick up an instrument as a kid?
“Both my parents are musical,” he refers to mother Mary Hopkin, who is also a singer. “There was always a lot going on in the house, we had a recording studio in the house for as long as I remember. The first instrument I remember touching was a Minimoog.” I hesitate for a moment, I have no idea what that is. “It’s a synthesizer,” they answer in unison. “The sound of the seventies, I mean, everyone put Minimoog on their records” is what Morgan says.
Of course I turn to Wikipedia to see what a Minimoog looks like and what one finds is that it’s called that because it was invented by Robert Moog and Bill Hemsath. Moog’s name is hyperlinked and I can't help my curiosity. He is a pioneer in electronic music and, among other moog-named synthesizers and a line of pedals that he called Moogerfooger. People in music. They know how to have fun.
It’s one thing to be interested in some form of art as a side project and it's another thing to pursue it as a career. When did you know?
“It happened immediately to both of us. I couldn't get him to go to college. He said ‘I know what I want to do’. The same thing happened to me, around fifteen I was working as a musician, working weekends playing weddings and things like that.” Tony said he’d play anywhere he could work, as it was fun and easy to get work.
“When I was about sixteen I went into the recording studio for the first time. Accompanying musicians, making records. This Russian woman came to me to play the guitar and I was playing all these Russian songs on the guitar… all kinds of crazy gigs. There was no reason to go for higher education, I was already doing what I wanted to do.”
I tell him in Brazil if you don’t have a degree and you are arrested, you don’t get your own cell in jail, you stay with other people. Or at least that was the anecdote I was always told by my parents. I now wonder if this is true.
How did it happen, the shift from musician to producer?
Tony has produced over four hundred records thus far in his career.
“I was in the studio all the time in those years and I watched how everyone did their jobs, how the engineers did their work… Producers came to me late… I always knew there was someone who was really annoying in the recording studio, who would tell me how to tune my bass and all that stuff and I didn’t like that person. That was the producer. I liked the engineer, everyone else looked like they were having fun and they were active, except for this ‘boss’ in the studio, who wasn’t doing anything. So I went on to become a songwriter and I got a publishing deal and after about a year my publisher says to me, he says ‘you know, I don’t like your songs much, but I like your demos, I like your recordings.’ After he said that I thought I was fired, but then he said ‘I like your demos and I want you to become the house record producer’ and then I was hired in the same breath. And that was a big turning point in my life. I am a better songwriter than he said, but it kind of made me think maybe there was a better way to do this and I had a better talent. I always was a musician, I thought, ‘if I learn producing I could come back in the studio and record my own songs’ but that never happened until much later. So I ended up working for other people.”
Funny thing, I think to myself. Tony used to talk about the producer as that ‘boss in the studio’, but when he became that boss, he saw himself working for other people. I wonder how many people he has produced and worked for and with who really do understand how much he was giving them for using his time to make their music and not his and whether his son, who is a musician, makes his own music and has recently launched a new single, but has also spent a good part of his own life so far making music for others, sees that parallel in their paths.
“Shortly after that is when I went to England and met David Bowie and Marc Bolan from T. Rex and I was working with them and making them sound great and I thought ‘this is a great job’ and I never looked back after that.”
You took the time to learn the instruments, you worked in your songwriting craft and then you went to make other people’s creative work sound better. You must be very detached to be able to do that.
“Well I see it as one big job. When you become a record producer you must know, you should know all the other jobs. I know a lot of producers don’t, but I felt that that was the top of the mountain of all these jobs that I do. The one thing I didn't know, I wasn’t a very good technician. I heard all the Beatles records in the mid-sixties and I thought, ‘I want to make records that sound like this, they don’t sound like live recordings, they sound magical, they have all these special sounds on them, I can’t pick up my guitar and make those sounds, there’s something else I need.’ And that was the engineering part. Luckily, I got a job in England working for a great record producer – he means Denny Cordell – who took me under his wing and he taught me the technical side of musical producing.” Tony called that a fair tradeoff. Knowing all the jobs in the studio gave him the confidence to tell everyone else what to do, as he knows exactly what he’s saying. “It’s very important that you have the vocabulary and the knowledge.”
Morgan reminds him that he does indeed play every now and then and matter-of-factly Tony tells us how he was working on a record with David Bowie not long ago and Bowie asked him to play the tambourine and do some backup vocals. “And then I said, sure.” I mean, wouldn’t anyone if Bowie asked?
I turn to Morgan. You went into commercial music production; you are a partner at Human but also a musician. What’s the split now and how did this happen?
“Well, when I came to NY – Morgan was born and grew up in England – I had the same ambitions as Tony did. I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to be a rock star. By accident someone got in touch with me who owned a commercial production studio and at the time I wasn’t making any money doing anything else so I took the bait. And I’ve been doing it for twenty-two years now. Only very recently I’ve put efforts back into my own music.”
“Because I am always writing my own music for Human but it’s for a purpose, it’s for a commercial, it’s for someone else’s agenda.”
We discuss the fact that, whether you are producing for a commercial – there is a story, there is a mood, there is a brand – or for an artist – there also is a story, there also is a mood and, definitely, there is a brand – roles are very similar. I ask Morgan about his song “Could You”, the track used for Dove’s Self Esteem campaign.
“That campaign, two years ago, was very stimulating as far as getting myself out of this chair and writing more songs for myself. I was very happy with the way it went. They took the song as I wrote it and really didn't tamper with it too much, which rarely ever happens in our business, you know that.”
Oh, yes, I do.
“So it went on air very pure, just the way I imagined it so I thought ‘I’d love to do more of this stuff’ and just write music for myself.”
There is one question I can’t help but ask. DJs. Morgan likes the idea of DJs.
“I actually made sure I met some DJs to remix my single. It was suggested that I do that by my PR guy. And it was a really cool experience. Because they DJ, but they also create. They just happen to have the letters DJ in front of their name. I don't know why they do, as they are artists in their own right. And they are able to take a song like mine and reshape it completely from top to bottom. But they huge barks for showing up and spinning other people’s records.”
It’s always fun to take those “universal truths” – professional musicians won’t appreciate DJs, won’t very much like all these pop singers and so on – and debunk them.
“’All the single ladies’ is one of my all time singles by Beyoncé and I used to listen to it over and over again, because she sings great, but somebody in her team is a jazz person and they put these beautiful chords underneath it and every time I heard it I’d go ‘wow’, because I like music that I can’t figure out how they did it. Most of the time I know how the sausage was made, I know what they put inside. But, with that record it just blew my mind.” Tony even remembers the video where the little baby is dancing to it.
We talk about the creative process in music. I am really curious about that. Tony is excited to go into it.
“There’s all sorts of ways to create and I think the best way is always collaborative. I often wonder how Beethoven and Mozart did it. They sat all alone and they just wrote out all this stuff… it must’ve been a different, difficult thing. All I know is that, since I was young man was that the best music was when I was working and playing with others and we get the bounce off from each other. Sometimes it hurts when they don’t like your ideas. But I learned a long time ago: an idea is just an idea; it’s not you. You can change an idea like you change your clothes and once you get over that, working with other people is a lot of fun. You create something that the sum is greater than the people. You might have fought for it, you might have laughed, you might have lost your mind, but in the end it’s a great work of art.”
Ok, you had at me “an idea is just an idea”. Being in a room with people who know a lot about something and have put all that knowledge to work is humbling. Add to that the fact that what they do is music and the impact music can have on people and you have me wanting to transcribe every last bit I got from them. I won’t. Instead, I will tell you to go get the two albums by T. Rex Tony Visconti remixed and remastered – a lot in collaboration with Morgan. I’ve been listening nonstop.
Photography by Vicente Muñoz