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Photo by Jack Gould "This has been my end goal since 1969. Everything else was just leading up to this," said Billy Zoom. All those years as a musician, of re-defining the sound of rock with X and such, has only been in preparation for his current activity, which at that particular moment consisted of waiting and waiting for members of the Angoras to straggle into his Orange recording studio.
Zoom has been putting his earnings from X's reunion shows and his amp-repair business into building his own recording studio, which he has recently completed and named Studio A, if only because it resides in Suite A of an industrial complex. It won't be rented out; Zoom says he'll use it for the producing projects he takes on.
"I've wanted to be an independent record producer with my own studio ever since I first worked in a studio in 1969," he says. "I've only played in bands since then because I thought if I got sort of successful, people would look to me as a producer, and I could buy my own studio."
Zoom has racked up production credits over the years with clients including Eddie Vedder, the Supersuckers, the Trailer Park Casanovas, the DI's and Medicine Rattle. But OC's Angoras got the nod to inaugurate the recently completed studio.
The quartet—singer/guitarist Paula Spas, guitarist Alison M. Rosen, bassist Yami Franco and drummer Tim Connolly—is more than a little X-influenced and more than a little in awe/dread of Zoom, but not so much as to keep members from exercising the rock-star prerogative of showing up late to their own recording sessions. (Full disclosure: Rosen writes for the Weekly.)
Zoom was unruffled, realizing that lateness and the band's lengthy supermarket breaks were part of the creative process. (The latter activity yielded the joking working title for the album: Jar Cheese.) Zoom, meanwhile, was waiting and prepared, to the point of having a row of five $1 bills, each with a quarter atop, laid out on the green room coffee table. "They overpaid me $5 yesterday," he explained.
His studio is both comfortable and workmanlike, with equipment ranging from modern digital recorders to a washing-machine-sized 1950s Ampex two-channel reel-to-reel. The favorite producers who come immediately to his mind are the seminal 1950s rock and country legends Sam Phillips and Owen Bradley, but he has no qualms about recording the post-punk Angoras or using a recorder that is more computer than tape recorder.
What he's looking for in the bands he'll produce—aside from an indie-label budget to pay for his services—is this: "They have to have something I understand, to know what it's supposed to sound like so I can envision where they're going with it. I have no idea, for example, why people listen to rap. For me, it has to have enough melody that you can hum or whistle it. You can't really walk around whistling rap."
Zoom proceeded to walk around the green room doing a credible job of rap whistling. He's a musical guy: along with creating a guitar sound with X that resonated the past right into the future, he plays sax and flute pretty darn well. (All are showcased on the current Johnny Walk Don't Run Paulene, an album of X songs done Ventures style by the Ramonetures—plus Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake—who previously did the same for the Ramones' music.)
Where some producers—Daniel Lanois, for obvious example—seem intent on leaving their signature sonic stamp on every project, Zoom says, "I think the band and the song dictate the way things should go; there's no one formula."
In the Angoras' case, he attended a couple of rehearsals to get a feel for their songs and arrangements and has made only the most necessary suggestions: a drum tempo here, some guitar interaction there. As often as not, he'd just cue the recorder and announce, "You may proceed."
That is easier than some Zoom communications. Mayhap you've been in the audience at an X show when Zoom fixes his gaze on you and grins. You begin to grin back and keep grinning more as he does. Then he shuts it off, cold, and you feel like an idiot left grinning at an impassive wall.
Zoom can seem like that in conversation as well, as if he's testing you, and the answer may be: only grin when you mean it. It can be unsettling.
"There are certain persons who put you at ease as soon as you meet them. Billy's not one of them," Rosen said. "I had the initial feeling he didn't like us, so it was a relief to find that wasn't the case, and he's very encouraging, actually."
It also was a hurdle that they were playing for one of their heroes.
"We felt pretty intimidated at first. Hello, he is Billy Zoom," said singer Spas. "But he's only focused on the same thing we are—getting us to play the best we can—so we got past that pretty fast. It feels great to be working with him, and it's an honor to be the first band he's had in here."