THE MERCY SEAT
You were awarded a PhD in History in 1998 and you mostly worked on First World War. It's pretty astonishing to read in 2016 a book written by you about indepedent music. How can you explain us this change in your work ?
It's not so much a change in my work. I have always had an interest in independent music and it was just a matter of turning my attention and skills to that interest. Tony just struck me as an important and relatively unknown figure whose story needed to be told. Tony's grandfather actualy served in the First World War in Palestine so I got to transcribe his diary or Tony's grandmother so that was a bit of an odd connection between the two subjects.
When did you start listening to independent rock music ?
I was at teachers college in 1976 when the punk scene exploded and I just found it compelling music, a little bit anarchic and a great point of difference which I think is important to your identity as a teenager.
Why did you choose as a subject of a book about Australian rock a musical engineer, specifically ? Why not a performer as Nick Cave or a composer as Robert Forster or Grant McLennan from the Go-Betweens, for example, who are well known in Europe too ?
Those performers are very well known and in Nick and Robert's case much has been published about them and they are also prolific autobiograhers to a certain extent. Grant McLennan is undoubtedly worthy of some biographical attention but Tony was known to me and I was also aware of just how influential he was and how many bands he had helped to get great sounds and more importantly to give them an opportunity just to record something.
When did you meet Tony Cohen for the first time ?
I probably met Tony for the first time around 1982. He was the brother of a good friend of my wifes (Martin Cohen) and I got to know Martin and Tony's parents quite well and Tony would sometimes be at their place when I visited. It was just a passing hello. It wasn't until the mid 2000s when I decided to work on a biography that I got to know him better.
Was he OK with the idea of a biography about him ?
Yeah he just said go for it. He was happy to give his time and said he wasn't ashamed of anything he had done and that if it helped me in any way he was happy to let me tell his story. He didn't want to hide anything and was happy for it to be a warts and all account.
Interview with Dale Blair, biographer of Tony Cohen
Seeing the incredible work done by Tony Cohen, can we consider that the Golden Age of Australian independent rock music was in the 80's, as it seems to be his own Golden Age ? The book you wrote seems concentrated on that period, in its majority.
I think the 70s and 80s were certainly a golden period in terms of the bands that came out in Australia and those bands provided the core of a lot of Tony's later work when they morphed into other bands and solo careers. Tony's memory seems to be more clear about those and earlier times than the later periods such as the late 90s which explains some of the concentration. That said some of his greatest recordings occur in the early to mid 90s. The recordings he wins the Aria's for are astonishing. Listen to The Cruel Sea's Honeymoon Is Over album, sonically that is one of the most amazing albums you will ever hear.
Tony said that he really loved The Boys Next Door when they appeared in Melbourne. Do they played the role of developper for Tony's technical in studio ?
I think Tony and The Boy's Next Door was just a moment of symbiosis. Tony already had the technical skill but he had never had the opportunity to experiment with the freedom that The Boys brought to the studio. They wanted to push the envelope in regard to the sounds they were trying to create and Tony was the perfect accomplice for them.
Do you think it would be possible or relevant to compare the genius of Tony to the one of legendary engineers and producers as Phil Spector, Martin Hannet or, nowadays, Steve Albini ? All of them seem to hold a specific vision of music and technology, as Tony have, don't you think ?
Yes I definitely think so. I don't know enough about Hannet and Albini but Tony's recordings have a real depth to them and I think, others may disagree, that there is a distinctive percussive richness to his sound. The thing is though that whereas Spector had a definite vision of what he wanted to achieve I don't think Tony ever did. His sound is intuitive - it's a style but its almost a natural one.
In the 90's and 2000's, Tony doesn't like modern technology, and not only MP3. Nowadays, is his way of working still traditionnal, or did he eventually begin to work with computers ? How did he explained to you his fear about computers in a studio ?
Tony rarely works these days but he did work with computers as all the studios were equipped with them and he had to embrace them to a degree. I think his main problem is with digital sound. As he says, its a great way of delivering music but it is the fact that it can be cut into micro bits that can be repositioned at any point and can be used to create totally misleading performances and sounds that he objects to. He was very much about the muscianship of the artists and with analogue tape he says that could capture sound better than anything today and it had a magic to it in the way it could sometimes unpredictably highlight some instrumentation. He likes to have manual control of the faders because he has an incredible ear, he won't tell you he has but everybody says it, and that just allows him to adjust the sound during a recording which can be all the difference between good and great.
Drugs appear to be the main thread of Tony's life. It is mentionned without concession each page or two page mostly. Was it also the same for his creativity or did it penalized him ?
Drugs have been a constant in Tony's life as he readily admits and there were only a few times during our interviews that I invited him to talk about it otherwise he mentioned his dependency and use quite openly. He believed at the time, falsely as he admits, that drugs assisted his creativity as did many musicians about their own creative capabilities. In fact I think Tony's success was based more around his work ethic, learned in the 1970s at Armstrong's Studios, and his instincts as to what sounded good. His incredible ear for detail is a gift he was born with I suspect. His drug dependency probably did penalize him with opportunities to work with the more established bands and some of the independent artists that went on to greater successes simply because it made him unreliable in their eyes.
In the 90's, Tony's work was less common. Was it only due to health problem (diabete), money problems (for getting his royalties) or to a change in musical approach (for him or for music business in general) ?
The two things that started to play against Tony were, first, his health - particularly in the 2000s - which meant he no longer had the capacity to work the long hours he had done previously and second, the advent of computers and programs such as pro-tools which meant that many bands and artists became their own producers and engineers. Of course that DYI approach meant that nobody was willing to pay the sort of money they used to and work became harder to get. What those bands and artists forgot was the skill that engineers such as Tony could bring to a piece of music to transforrm it from the ordinary to its fullest potential.
At the end of your book you try to define the style of Tony Cohen through the words of people who enjoyed his work. It looks like it is impossible. But can't we say that his main contribution is the way he pulled the voice to the fore and the way he created a sensation of space in the music of the bands he worked with ?
Certainly bringing the vocals to the fore is a distinquishing feature of Tony's work but - and it is somewhat intangible - I think its depth, that is, the sound at times seems to just keep travelling into space. T think its percussiveness is another defining asect though that might arguably be more pertinent to his Cruel Sea and Nick Cave recordings.
Can we say that his style has evolved through time ?
I think we can to some extent and that is due in part simply to the fact that as we get older we all, irrespective of our field of work, tend to get better at it and find ways of delivering things more efficiently. But I also think, in Tony's and any other engineers case, that the style will often be dependent on the sort of bands that they are working with and because Tony worked for so long with The Boys, Birthday Party and Bad Seeds I think much of what he learned with them found its way into his recordings with other bands. At the same time bands like the Johnny's, The Beasts of Bourbon and then The Cruel Sea were very much part of the same sensibility so it just allowed him to work on a wonderfully large canvas and develop a distinct sound but as I said before I think it was a largely unconscious development.
Page 130, how did Tony react when he read what Mick Harvey says about him when he speaks about the recording of « No More Shall We Part », when Tony looked like being inconstant due to his health problems (or way of organizing himself, maybe) ?
He hasn't said anything about it to be honest but I don't think he woulld be worried by it. Tony has great respect for Mick and Tony knew he wasn't delivering his best because of his diabetes.
Tony has stopped his carreer of engineer and producer, except for his friends. With what kind of income does he live now ?
He draws a sickness benefit or pension which helps him to get by. But its not much money so he struggles.
Interview by François Girodineau
Dale Blair. Life in a Padded Cell: A Biography of Tony Cohen, Australian Sound Engineer. Self-edition, septembre 2016. 151 p. Freely downloadable at this adress : http://www.daleblair.com.au/publications/
You have may once returned one of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ or Crime & The City Solution’s sleave and discovered Tony Cohen’s name written there, sound ingineer at the mythic Hansa studio in Berlin and co-producer of these legendary bands. Often described as a full member of the bands with whom he shared the passion of music and an edgy life-style, he nevertheless and unfairly remained in their shadow. Australian historian Dale Blair released recently "Life in a padded cell", a biography freely downloadable on his web site to give credit where credit is due. Because, whitout Tony Cohen, most of australian bands would never have had neither the sound quality nor the success known to them.
5th of novembre 2016