Tonic- Jeff Russo Interview

Melody is all-important to the members of Tonic. The band's first two platinum discs, Lemon Parade and Sugar, were coated in memorable hooks and left us hungering for repeated plays of the hits "If You Could Only See," "Open Up Your Arms," and "You Wanted More." After a three-year fast, Tonic fans now have a new disc to devour. Head on Straight, overseen by veteran producer Bob Rock (Metallica, The Cult, Our Lady Peace), finds the band rocking harder than ever.

Guitarist Jeff Russo, singer/guitarist Emerson Hart, and bassist Dan Lavery recorded Head on Straight during a seven-week residency at Rock's studio in Maui. Not a bad locale for a working vacation. The CD hit store shelves September 24, 2002, preceded by the lead single, "Take Me As I Am."

In this detailed interview Russo discusses the band?s Hawaiian Tropic experience, producer Rock's killer collection of vintage guitars, and Tonic's songwriting processes. Open up your mind and take this in: What have you been up to besides the writing thing, and the studio thing, and being out on the road? How's life treating you otherwise, Jeff ?

Russo: You just basically described my entire life. (laughs) Has Tonic been on the road most of the time since '99?

Russo: On and off. We did a bunch of touring in '99 and 2000. In 2001 we did some on and off touring. And this summer we did a little bit of touring. It must have been a whole lot of fun to go over to Maui to do your new album?

Russo: Yeah! If touring wasn't fun enough, just the concept of being able to travel around and go do an album somewhere, like Maui?what a cool thing.

Russo: It was a pretty awesome experience. When we first thought about going to Maui we thought, "Wow, would it be good to go Maui? Would there be too much distraction?" Because of everything: swimming and all that cool shit that you do in Maui. And when we got there we realized that there was a lot less distraction. All we did, really, was work on music. You were there for six weeks?

Russo: Seven. How much of a crew did you bring with you?

Russo: Just the band. Certainly you took a little bit of time off and did some surfing or something.

Russo: I surfed once. I didn't do much surfing because I'm really not a surfer. I didn't necessarily mean specifically surfing, just fun Maui stuff?

Russo: I did try it one time. How was it?

Russo: Well, I got that nipple rash that you get. I'm still alive. I didn't die or break my neck or anything. The second engineer took me out. We went where it was relatively mellow. You worked with producer Bob Rock at his studio Plantation Mixing and Recording. What's the studio like? Is it a secluded place?

Russo: It's on top of a hill, and it faces the ocean. It's absolutely beautiful. It?s a really nice studio. He initially built it for mixing and then added a studio room for recording. Is that his main studio?

Russo: That's where he does most of his work, except for when he does Metallica, which he does in San Francisco. You probably messed around with some new toys on this recording?

Russo: He had so much gear. I brought two of my guitars, and two of my amps, and that was it. I used mostly his guitars. We used one of my amps a lot, but mostly his gear, which was very, very cool. He has some of the most incredible stuff. The greatest thing about the way he is, he's like, "I have all this great stuff, but it's meant for playing." Like I played on an original '57 Les Paul, an original '59 Les Paul. These guitars are probably worth like $75,000 or $80,000. I asked, "Do I need to be really careful?" And he was like, "No, bang it around, play it - that's why I have it." And then you stop thinking about that kind of stuff. I know that if I had a guitar like that I'd be worried. "Don't even look at it," ya know? What are your main guitars these days?

Russo: Les Pauls. I used a bunch of Tele's on this record too, on a couple songs. But it was definitely 80- or 90-percent Les Paul. You've always been a Les Paul player haven't you?

Russo: Yeah. It's just my guitar of choice. I really like the way they play, the way they sound. The difference between the Gibson guitars and the Fender guitars is the shape of the neck. The Gibson guitars have a flat neck and the Fender guitars have a convex neck [Editor's note: Russo is referring to the "radius" of the fretboard; Les Paul fretboards are relatively flat, while Fender fretboards have a slight downward curve or "radius" from the middle of the fretboard toward the edges of the neck.] I don't really like the fact that Fender necks are curved. It just makes it a little harder for me to play because I'm not used to it. I'm sure if I got used to it, I'd love it. I really like the tone, but I'm much more prone to use a Les Paul, or any Gibson guitar for that matter. I used my (Les Paul) Junior, and Bob had a couple of (Les Paul) Specials, and a Flying V that was really amazing. Actually had a guitar that James Hetfield gave him a long time ago that I used a bunch on the record as well. I don?t even remember what kind of guitar it was, but I remember it was made of graphite. Are you a Gibson endorsee?

Russo: Yeah. And what models are your main models?

Russo: The Les Paul Classic - that's my main guitar. I have a Standard, a Custom Shop Special. But mostly I have like five or six Classics that I really like. One of them actually is an emerald green flame top. There weren't very many of those made. I'm not really sure how I got my hands on that. These guitars are all relatively new, no vintage models?

Russo: Most of my guitars are new. Actually one of my favorite guitars got stolen on the road. It was a '72 Les Paul with original '59 PAF pickups in it. That sucks. What city was it stolen from?

Russo: I?m not sure. We were on the Goo Goo Dolls tour and it could have been anywhere. I didn't really keep track of it, and I should have. What gauge strings do you put on your guitars?

Russo: It actually varies. Most of the time they're medium gauge .010 or .011 strings. It depends on the guitar. I think my low string is a .052. It's kind of a funky mix. I have a package right in front of me. What am I using? It's .011, .013, .018, .030, .042, .052. That's what I'm using right now. And what are your main amps these days?

Russo: Live, on this tour, I'm going to use my Marshall JMP 100 watt from like 1976, and a Fender Blackface Twin. Did you take those into the studio?

Russo: No, actually. The amp that's mine that I used in Hawaii is an old Silvertone head. I think it's like 15 watts. I used a Matchless. I used a Marshall. He had a Marshall that was modded that was really nice. [Editor's note: Russo is referring to an amp that has had modifications.] I used a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier. We just used everything. I have a little Supro amp that I bought on eBay awhile ago that was pretty cool. Do you do a lot of eBay shopping?

Russo: Sometimes. Are you familiar with a site called Gbase?

Russo: No, what's that? It's sort of like eBay only it's all music gear. It's not an auction site though, you contact the sellers and negotiate prices directly.

Russo: Gbase GearMall. Are you there right now?

Russo: I'm looking at it right now. It's got nearly 30,000 items in inventory, from vintage, rare, and collectible guitars and amps, to brand new pedals and all kinds of things.

Russo: Vintage guitar stuff too? All kinds of stuff. Pedals, amps, guitars - everything.

Russo: I've been looking for a couple of things I can't find. I've been looking for an older Digitech Whammy pedal. And Digitech also made something called a Space Station that you can't find anywhere. You might find them on Gbase. What other effects do you use, on the road or in the studio?

Russo: On the road, in my rack, I have a couple of things like an old Ibanez TS-9 distortion pedal, an MXR flanger, I have an old DOD digital delay, I have a Roland SDE-330, I have an Experience pedal. And what else do I have in there? Oh, and a Dynacomp compressor. And I use a Ground Control? You're not using a Bradshaw system?

Russo: No. I might switch over to Bradshaw at some point, but I'm really liking the Ground Control stuff. They actually modeled the new Ground Control unit after Bradshaw, so it's basically the same thing. Obviously Bradshaw's stuff is all hand-wired, so that makes it, probably, a little better. And you probably used all kinds of effects in the studio?

Russo: Oh my God! It's ridiculous what he had in the studio. I couldn?t even begin to name all of it. Do you do a lot of tracks? Do you do a lot of rhythm tracks laid down?

Russo: Yeah, we did a bunch of rhythm tracks, a bunch of lead tracks, and then we kind of go through it and see which is the best. Which is a great way to work. You just keep recording and recording and recording, and then you just start weeding all the crap out. Is this a Pro Tools setup?

Russo: We did both. We did Pro Tools recording and analog recording. Everything, at one point or another, hits tape. There's something about the way tape makes stuff sound that all of us really like. Did you stick around for all of the tracks? With seven weeks in the studio, I can't imagine you were personally there the entire time.

Russo: Every single minute of every single day. Wow. That's got to be kind of mind-numbing after awhile, isn't it?

Russo: No, because we're all workin?. There's always opinions to be had. Like when Dan finished his bass tracks, he really had nothing to do the rest of the time, except sing some of the background vocals. And that we save until the end, when all of us are singing backgrounds. But everybody's opinion matters, everybody's opinion counts. And everybody had some great ideas. I'm always telling Emerson, "Maybe you should try this," or maybe he's telling me. Or maybe Bob's telling us what he thinks. Or Dan has his ideas. There's always something to be done. I was at a Rockline taping you did once, and Emerson (Hart, Tonic's lead vocalist) was using a couple of Gibson Chet Atkins acoustics. Is he still using those?

Russo: Yeah, he's still using those. And on the record he also used's an Angus Young guitar, I don't remember the make. The Gibson SG?

Russo: No. Do you mean the Malcolm Young signature model Gretsch guitars?

Russo: Yeah. He used a Gretsch Malcolm. Thank you. That's a big guitar isn't it?

Russo: No it's not that big. Maybe they just look big on Malcolm. The style of music that Tonic plays is such a solid, rock sound, and very melodic. These days a lot of people are into crazier, heavier stuff. What is it that keeps you guys centered in your sound? You've had a consistency from all your albums.

Russo: It's all about the songwriting. Whatever way the song takes you, that?s what it's going to be. We always concentrate very hard on writing the songs, they?re actually the most important thing. So I think that's what keeps us grounded in the direction we want to take. When ever we think about going to make a new record we think, "Well, what are the songs?" We sit and we write the songs first, and that usually tells us which way the record is going to go. Do you work at songs like perfectionists, or do things come to you pretty quick, and then you stay with the original idea?

Russo: The song is always king, so whatever the song dictates is the way it's going to go. We try to stick very closely to the idea of the song. What did you grow up listening to? What are still listening to?

Russo: I listened to so much when I was a kid. A lot of Zeppelin, a lot of the Cars, Boston, Bad Company, Beatles?the list keeps going on. Blondie. I'm a huge Eagles fan as well. Of all the bands that I just listed, all of them had one thing in common, and that's great songs. I see how the songwriting credits are spread around quite a bit. Do you work on a lot of songs and bring them to the band, or does Emerson tend to be the spark of most of the original ideas?

Russo: There's no real recipe. Sometimes Emerson brings an idea, or a finished song, for that matter. And then we work on that. Dan has brought ideas to the band, I've brought ideas to the band. I?ve brought finished songs that got changed - same with Emerson and Dan. On this particular record Dan wrote a lot more than on the last record, which was great because it kind of infuses a new kind of thing. But again, because the song is king, it doesn't really matter where it comes from. All that matters is how good the song is. When you bring your own material in, especially if it's a finished song, is it difficult for you to accept changes?

Russo: No. You've got to have an open mind. That's the bottom line; that's really the most important thing. Not to mention, Emerson does write all the words. So even when we bring in a finished song, we bring in ideas that we know Emerson's lyrics will be added to. You don't write lyrics?

Russo: Not in Tonic. Neither Dan nor I do that. That's an Emerson thing because he feels like he needs to sing his own words, which is completely understandable. We all agree with that. You have to be able to own it. But you write other songs with lyrics?

Russo: Yeah, absolutely. Have you recorded some?

Russo: Yeah, I have, and gotten some songs to other artists. I'm waiting to hear back. All of us write, so it's just a question of just trying to get it all out there. I'm sure it makes it easier to fill an album with good tunes when everyone in the band is contributing.

Russo: Yeah. And for a band where the songs are the most important thing, it makes for a great collaborative effort between people who love to write. What kind of stuff have you written that you've sent around to people? Is it along the same lines as what we hear in Tonic?

Russo: Well, all of us write songs. And the way we write is the way we write, which is why Tonic has a specific sound. It?s not all like Tonic. Sometimes Emerson or Dan or I will write something that we play for guys and we say, "This is just not right for the band. This is way too soft, or way too this, or way too that." Those are the type of songs that you say, "Well, maybe this will be good for somebody else." You must have some sort of home studio setup.

Russo: I use Logic Audio and I have a keyboard and a couple of mics. That's about it. It's relatively simple. Do you use a drum machine?

Russo: I just use loops and stuff like that. Do you have any favorite loop discs that come to mind? Where do you get your loops?

Russo: I get them from all different places. I've gotten them from friends who?ve put stuff together, I've made loops from various drum tracks. I have a couple of loop CDs, but I wouldn't be able to name them. For loops I use Acid Pro, and that comes with a bunch of loops too. Did you find that pretty easy to work with when you first got into it, or was there a big learning curve?

Russo: Yeah, I've been working in studios since I was a kid, so all that stuff comes relatively natural to me. So when you were working on the new album with Bob Rock, you were probably very interested in everything he did.

Russo: Totally. I'm always learning. I learned a lot making our first album with Jack Joseph Puig, the consummate engineer. In your mind, how do these producers differ?

Russo: It's really just about personality. How do they differ in the way they make things sound? That's impossible to say. It's like how do two guitar players make the same part sound different? It's the way you touch the guitar, it's the way you hold it, the way you bend it just right. So there's really no way to say, "How does one person make something sound one way and another person make it sound another way." People just work differently. But in the end, when you're working with a producer, it's really about the personality, and how the interaction with the band is. Jack has a producing style that is one way, and Bob has a different producing style. And it's pretty interesting to be a part of that, and to see the differences in how people work, with any given group of people. Was Bob involved in pre-production, to any degree?

Russo: We didn't really do pre-production. It's weird. We kind of went into the studio and did pre-production and recorded the album all at the same time. We got up, put the drums up, and everybody started playing. And we would play, and then Bob would come into the studio and say, "OK, this bridge is a little too long, so let's cut that down. And what happens if we double the verse over here, then repeat the chorus again." It was little things like that where any one of us would have. Or he was like, "This isn?t feeling right. Let's try this," or "We need to come up with a new section here." Did you have a bunch of songs that you'd written, and you'd already given each other the critiques and opinions and made whatever changes you thought you needed, and then Bob wanted to make new changes? How set in your mind were the songs before Bob got involved?

Russo: All of us wanted to go in with an open mind. Not a lot of changes were made on some songs. And then some other songs totally changed. But that's got to be pretty cool too, to see someone like Bob coming from a completely different place on a song you've written, and then showing you that place.

Russo: Yeah, and that's the beauty of working with a producer who is musical. Bob's a guitar player. So it's definitely a great thing to have someone who is musical, who can come in with a completely objective opinion. It's like adding another member of the band, basically, and that's really what a producer is all about. He becomes a temporary member of the band while making the record. Do all of you have some sort of home studio?

Russo: All of us have something to record on. Emerson has like a four-track at his house, and a couple mics. Dan uses Vegas audio, if I'm not mistaken, I could be wrong about that. Emerson likes to keep it simple?

Russo: Yeah. Emerson just basically puts up a guitar and a mic and plays guitar and sings. It's really all about what you want. Emerson has been talking to me about buying a Pro Tools thing for his house, an M-Box. What's your advice to him?

Russo: I told him, "That's a great idea. Those things sound really good. Go out and buy like a PowerMac Titanium or whatever it is, and an M-Box, and have some fun." He'll also be able to take it on the road. Is he prepared to deal with that technically?

Russo: Yeah, totally. All of us are relatively technically savvy. What gear do you think Emerson will bring on the road?

Russo: I know that he's on the road with a bunch of Gibson Chet's, and two Gretsch Malcolm's. He uses Marshall amps. He's got two: a JCM-900, and a 2000. And what kind of speaker cabinets are you all using on stage?

Russo: We're all using the vintage 1960A Marshall cabs. Actually that's not true: Emerson uses a big Matchless cabinet as well. I use two Marshall cabs, and Emerson uses one for each head. And Dan?

Russo: Dan uses all Ampeg. I think it's an old model. At one point he had an SVT Pro. I think now he's just got a regular SVT. What kind of basses does he use?

Russo: It's all about Fender basses, which is the way it should be, 'cause it's all about Fender basses. I'm a Jazz bass fan, when I play bass. But Dan is a P-bass player. I think he's got a few old ones and a couple new ones. I know he's got a Custom Shop P-bass. And he's got a couple of the Mexican basses, and he's got a couple of really old ones that are really nice. What advice do you have for young musicians about getting into the business and making your dreams come true?

Russo: Making your dreams come true: Be careful what you wish for. (laughs). That's one big thing. The other thing is, actually, there's a couple of big things: Songs. It doesn't matter how good you are on guitar. If you're playing a bad song, it doesn't matter. So it's really all about having good songs - songs that really speak on an emotional level, one way or another. And as far as playing, just put on your favorite records and learn your favorite records. That's how I learned. I learned by putting on (Led Zeppelin's) Physical Graffiti, and learning every lick. I put on (Zep's) Houses of the Holy and learned every lick. I put on (Pink Floyd's) The Wall and learned every lick. David Gilmour is one of my absolute, all-time favorite guitar players. I put on Simon & Garfunkel and learned every acoustic guitar riff. Things like that: You just learn how to play that way. That?s how I did it. And do that as much as you can. Just keep playing, past the point where it starts to hurt. When Tonic was not yet signed, to A&M Records in the early days, you were playing all the clubs in L.A.

Russo: Yeah, playing in all the clubs. One of the ways that young bands fail themselves is that they don?t promote themselves enough. How do you feel about promotion? Did you do a lot of promotion before you were signed? How did your first industry contacts and success come about?

Russo: Well, I was in a band that got a record deal prior to working with Emerson. And I ended up leaving that band. Then, having seen Emerson for the first time in a really long time, we started writing and going around playing in little coffee shops, just the two of us. Canter's Deli on Fairfax?

Russo: Well, we ended up there. Our friends would go there every Tuesday night and just kind of jam. And then we put a band together and got a manager and just started playing around. People that I had known from my previous record company started coming down to see us play and they got really interested. As a matter of fact the guy who signed us to our first deal, Tom, he was an A&R scout at the record company that I first signed with. Tom Storms. He works at Atlantic now. What was the band that you were first signed with?

Russo: The band was called Misery Love Company. We never made a record. We signed with Capitol, and I just ended up quitting the band. It wasn't right for me. So I left, and then got together with Emerson. How long were you a member of that band?

Russo: I started that band with the singer in high school, like when I was 16 or 17. I got signed when I was 20. There's a lesson in itself: One situation lead to another. The people you met through your first band ended up helping when Tonic came along. It's sort of the networking principle that a lot of young musicians don't take advantage of. Develop contacts and think of them as long-term relationships. That?s a great lesson.

Russo: Absolutely. It's all about who you know. And it's all about knowing the right people in the right places. That really is a lot of it. That really has a lot to do with it. Do you spend more time these days writing or playing guitar, in the sense of lead guitar playing?

Russo: Definitely writing. I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a lead player. I play melodies, and I play leads and stuff, but I'm just a guitar player. I'll never forget: I read an article where they quoted Keith Richards, and he was like, "I'm not a lead guitar player. I'm a guitar player." And that's what it's all about. I play guitar. The fact that I happen to play a couple of leads here and there, really doesn't change the kind of guitar player that I am. I wouldn't say that I spend a lot of time practicing my scales. That never seemed to be important to me. That's why one of my favorite guitar players in the whole world is David Gilmour. He's not a flashy lead player. He's the guy who, every lead that he plays is a melody that you can remember. And that's what it's all about. Well you've done a good job of that, your lead breaks are definitely memorable as melodies.

Russo: Well thank you very much. That's what I try to do. Great. Thanks a lot for your time Jeff, and don't forget to check out for those vintage pedals you can't find.

Russo: Thanks. I'm going there right now.

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