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Peter Wolf Stalking the Apple
Musician and composer Peter Wolf has taken a curious route to high profile production work without being sure of what a producer is. Edwin Pfanzagl helps him work it out
HIS NAME IS FOUND on over 60m albums, spanning the 30 years of his activity in the biz. To many of us he was the regular keyboard player in Frank Zappa's Mother of Invention, to others he is the producer and songwriter, responsible for The Commodores, Starship and El Debarge to name a few.
Austrian-born, Wolf moved to the US at the age of 23 to start what would turn out to be a remarkable career, but after the 1994 earthquake hit the city and damaged his studio--housing a big 8048 Neve console--he returned to his native Austria. Now he works out of his new studio called Little America located in the west of Austria, close to the Swiss-German border and about one hour from the airport in Zurich. 'And from there I can be in New York within six hours--I was never much faster going there from my house in LA'.
Wolf's satisfaction with his geographical location, however, is not reflected in his role as a producer. 'Producer? What the hell is a producer?' he demands 'A producer is a man who gets money from the record company and who is supposed to bring them back a finished record which they can sell. It's just like being a hair-products salesman--it's that simple. You go somewhere and you sell people hair products--and we sell music, disposable music, music which will be forgotten a few months later. That's what a producer is. I certainly never wanted to be a producer, but all of a sudden I found myself being one.'
It began when the teenage Peter Wolf studied piano at the Conservatory of the City of Vienna and played gigs as keyboarder in the Fatty George Band. He worked a variety of venues, including the famous nightclubs of downtown Vienna, that would never have welcomed him as a customer. At the age of 16 he won first prize at a European Jazz Festival. The following years saw him doing a lot of recording and working in radio and television until Austria grew too small for him. In 1975 he moved to the United States, where he started to work as a session keyboard player. After a year his name had spread and he received a phone call from Frank Zappa who invited him to join The Mothers of Invention.
'It was one of the most important periods in my life' Wolf recalls. 'To me Frank was the most intelligent, humourous and honest person that I ever got to know in the music business. "Yes" meant "Yes" and "No" meant "No", no discussions. Even when I left the band--our friendship didn't change.'
Wolf was a regular member of Zappa's band up until 1980, when his career as arranger-songwriter started to flourish. During the first half of the eighties he became one of the most sought-after keyboarder players and musical arrangers in Los Angeles.
'I was playing sessions in LA for a living,' he recounts, 'playing with everybody and for everything--no questions asked. I did something like 400 albums in that way. If you can play, read and write music one day you become the arranger of the project and producers start really liking you because you do their work--at least most of it, anyway. So one day a producer came to me and said, "Peter, I want you to do this record with me". And I said, "You know, I would really love to do this record with you but I can't because I'm already scheduled to work on another project with producer Y." He replied, "But I really need you because you have a good handle on new ideas and I think you are the perfect person that I would like to do this project with so if you blow out this other producer and come with me and do my project, I make you my coproducer with a royalty".'
Wolf's first coproduction was the Commodores' Nightshift album and became a No.1 hit in the US.
'You have to understand that the music business is a fashion business,' Wolf continues, 'so once we had a hit, the record companies thought, "Well, who produced that hit? There are these two guys, one of whom is a famous producer, who has not had a hit for a few years, so maybe that young kid at his side is the real starter. Why don't we let him produce something?" And since the Commodores is an old act they figured they'd do the same thing again with another old-fashioned band--Jefferson Starship. So I got to do another old-fashioned, outdated band which turned out to be a huge hit as well and all of a sudden I was a producer, full time.'
His success as arranger and producer came with the Starship album Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985). In the following year he produced four No.1 hits--'We Built This City' and 'Sara' with Starship, 'Who's Johnny' with El Debarge and Wang Chung's 'Everybody Have Fun Tonight'. From this point, the doors in the music business opened.
While Wolf claims not to have a lot of respect for the profession of the producer he has a lot of respect for the work of his colleagues: 'Quincy [Jones] is a very intelligent man and he certainly is very, very good at what he does,' he asserts. 'I have a lot of respect for him and his whole camp, because as he is a musician he really knows what's good and what isn't, and what one should do. It doesn't mean that he can control success--nobody can. Quincy is doing it for a long time so he has a lot of experience, and boy, has he had success. More than anybody in this business, and rightfully so being a producer means much more than just being a good musician. It means that you can steer and motivate people.
'Once the record is done, another part of the job of a producer begins--to motivate the record company in the right direction and that is an even harder job--politics. Quincy Jones, for example, is really fabulous at that.'
Wolf is convinced that even after all these years in the business he still has to get much better in this respect: 'If you want to be successful I think you have to become master of politics,' he opines. 'That basically means you have to go to somebody who has to do something for you, because if he doesn't, the thing is not going to happen. It doesn't matter if you are selling hair products or records or if you have to make decisions about how a country is run--it's all the same thing. So if you have a good idea and you want something from this person, you have to go to him and plant your idea in his head in a way that he believes it's his idea. And then he will run to his company and tell them that he has just found the wheel and everybody goes haywire and they do the job that they are supposed to do in the first place because they are a record company. They do the job right and you are successful.
'Why are you successful? The answer is because you were a good politician. The record is exactly the same, but everybody was fully doing their job now and all of a sudden everybody wins. And at this point it is not important to run out and say, 'Well, that was my idea.' You let the guy--the A&R guy, or the marketing man, or the promotion man or the president of the record company--run out and say "I made that act!" and you go, "Yes, you did it. Fantastic. Thank you". It's like a team, you know. You have to know the team and you have to learn playing the team, like a coach. This is what you have to learn as a producer.'
According to Peter Wolf, making a record is only 30 percent of the picture, a further 30 percent is the perception that the public has of an artist and the remaining 40 per cent is devoted to the politics of production--looking at the fact the he has had 40 Top 40 hits and eight No.1s so far shows that this man knows what he is talking about.
'Do you know how hard it is to get a No.1? In America there are many producers who are really great, but they have never had a No.1. That's why my hat is off to Puff Daddy and Babyface and people like that, because they are doing something right. It has nothing to do with music, because many of these guys really don't have any clue about music. Remember, we're in the fashion business--can Versace or the Versace family actually tailor a suit? Can Armani sit down and make a suit? No, it's not important, because he has 100 tailors who are very good at it--and this is what you have to realise. A lot of young guys go into this business because they love music and then they have to learn that this is just such a little part of the whole thing.
'I think that, in my old age, I might become a real politician, I might be pretty good at it. I'm just kidding but Frank Zappa was ready to do it, he wanted to get into congress and become president of the United States. But then he got cancer and decided not to run for presidency. Well, since the United States have had a previous actor as president, why not have a musician or composer as well? I would have voted for him, for sure.'
On 17th January 1994 the earthquake that affected large parts of Los Angeles also levelled Peter Wolf's house and studio. He had to take everything down and start from scratch, which made him think things over since his studio is a multi-million dollar investment, housing a Neve 8048 next to a Synclavier and his vast array of keyboards. When talking to his insurance company he had to find out--like many others--that just about everything except 'earth movement' was covered in the insurance policy. He decided to relocate his studio to a much safer place without earthquakes, fires or hurricanes--Austria. Little America studio is located near the Swiss border, but the roster of artists and clients he is working for has not changed. The new studio has already seen celebrities such as BB King, Zucchero, James Ingram, Oleta Adams, the German Rock-Group The Scorpions and Cliff Richard who recorded his last album at Little America.
Apart from his work as producer, arranger and songwriter, Peter Wolf loves to compose for orchestra. The film soundtracks he has worked on include Weekend at Bernie's (Part 2), Never-ending Story (Part 3), Peanuts, The Fearless Four, Tanz auf dem Vulkan, and Die Cellistin. In addition to that he has produced the title songs King of Wishful Thinking and Playing With The Boys for such films as Pretty Woman and Top Gun.
For one of his last film music projects (The Fearless Four) he was scoring with the Symphonic Orchestra in Munich. 'I really love to write for orchestra. I get a lot more chances to do that here in Europe than I got in America because the movie industry is another little "mafia" which is very hard to break into, even if you have a big name as a producer and composer of hit-songs. In the meantime I have done about 14 movies here in Europe and I get to work with a lot of orchestras, which is very important to me. I think you have to get good at your craft so you constantly have to write for orchestra and have your stuff played in order to see which things work and which ones don't. You can't sit at home in your chair, jump up and down and say, "I'm a composer". You have to do it. How good could you be, no matter how long you have been at some university or academy; it doesn't mean much--you have to really do it.
'I'm a "doer", that's why I have the studio here and why I am writing film music. But that's only on the side--I'm doing a lot of composing. The last major project was the symphony Progression which I wrote for in a big way the Klangwolke ('cloud of sound') which is part of the modern media and electronic arts festival Ars Electronica here in Austria.'
The world premiere of Wolf's symphony took place on 4th September last year at a huge open-air event next to the Danube and the Bruckner Haus orchestra hall. Peter Wolf got to work with the Bruckner Orchestra, combined with musicians from the brass section of Earth, Wind & Fire and an American rhythm section consisting of people like Vinnie Colaiuta, Abraham Laboriel, Paul Jackson Junior--as Wolf says: '...all the 'A' guys--you know. It is a Millennium Symphony in six movements and within every movement there is a different pop-superstar as singer. We had Cliff Richard, Coolio, Jennifer Paige, Vincenzo la Scola, James Ingram, Alex Birnie and Michelle Wolf, my wife, sing-ing, who also wrote the lyrics for the songs which are woven into the symphony.'
Currently Wolf is recording and coproducing Natalie Cole's next album Snowfall on the Sahara, the last big album project that he completed was the new Scorpions record Eye to Eye, which went to No.18 on the US rock charts and sold more that 1m copies in south-east Asia.
'This album is quite different from what they have been doing' Wolf claims, 'but at the same time still with good melodies, which is what people always liked about them. It is much harder than their previous records, not as ballad-heavy as the last one. I thought it should be a medium to up-tempo record with a lot of attitude, because that is what they were famous for in the first place, so we concentrated on bringing this back. We wanted to bring back the believability that they are a rock act and--let me tell you--they sure are.'
Wolf claims that the majority of the energy goes into the actual process of song-writing, because recording is 'a piece of cake' in comparison. 'The important part is the thought procedure, how lyrics and music work together: is it new and interesting enough that people will go out and buy the record? That is the important question, and, yes, we all believe it is a great record. Rudolf Schenker alone had written 40 to 50 songs for this album, which is fantastic, because it put us in a position where we were able to pick the best 14 and work on them for the record. I don't believe in writing 10 songs and recording 10 songs for an album. I believe in quantity, doing it, doing it, doing it, until you have reached a point where you can say, "Now I have really nailed it". And I think this is what it's all about: getting really good at something is always great in life. It doesn't matter whether you are a shoemaker or a hair-products salesman or a producer--get good at it.'