Interview By Ville Krannila, Jari Asell & Kimmo Tattari / August 2009
The Mill goes behind the sound of many classic metal albums once more as we present an exclusive interview with the one and only Chris Tsangarides! He is best known for his production work with many classic heavy metal bands, including Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Helloween and Anvil. Tsangarides has worked with many pop bands as well, including Depeche Mode and Tom Jones. And of course he worked with Judas Priest on two of their seminal metal classics, first on 1976’s “Sad Wings Of Destiny” as engineer and in 1990 produced “Painkiller” which has influenced countless modern speed metal bands. For our summer special Chris hooked up with Steel Mill to give latest low down on his current and past career.
Hello Chris! How’s it going? What are you currently up to?
It’s going great! I’ve just finished albums by Crowning Glory and Savage Messiah, and currently working on Hannibal‘s record and then finish up with Dangerous Breed.
Like You mentioned, You have just finished work on UK’s Savage Messiah’s second album. How did the sessions go?
It was a load of fun… they are a great band and I feel confident that they will do very well… they performed everything on the album without the use of studio trickery which is quite something in these days of technology…
Let’s go back to the beginning, how did your career as a record producer originally start?
I was an engineer at Morgan and in 1978 was put on an album for Gary Moore, he then said that we should produce it together and there was a hit record from it called “Parisienne Walkways.” So there I was a producer all of a sudden, with a hit record… That’s where I met up with Phil Lynott.
Speaking of Lynott, in the early 1980’s Thin Lizzy released their two final studio albums “Renegade” and “Thunder and Lightning”. During the making of the latter, was there a sense that this was the band’s final effort? How do you remember that album?
Most definitely not… They were in fact rejuvenated with the new guitar player (John Sykes) and it was the first album I made using 48 track recording, but it was tough going in as much as we had run out of budget and had to juggle studios about till we finished the record and received the completion advance to pay everyone. It was also much more advanced than previous efforts as I started using drum triggers and also more complex guitar harmonies then before. It was also much heavier than anything that had happened in the past.
You have worked with Gary Moore on several of his albums starting from his proper solo debut “Back on the Streets” in 1978 until this decade. How’s it like working with Gary? What kind of working method do you guys have in studio?
Gary is a true pro, the early albums were a lot of fun to make as we were both starting our careers really so that naivety helped by letting us do whatever we liked. I think this is a great way of making records as you try everything out with eyes wide open…
You were one of the three producers involved in Black Sabbath’s “The Eternal Idol” (1987) plus you mixed the record. What kind of challenges did that create? Is it hard to mix material produced by someone else?
That’s right. Originally I was just supposed to do a few solos and then mix the album but as it turned out there was a whole lot more to it than that. When I came on board there was heavy dissention within the ranks and both Eric Singer and the late Ray Gillen left the band, so we were forced to find a new singer and drummer. That’s when Tony Martin joined and had to sing the entire album again, so 3 weeks turned into 6 months!
In 1990 you were involved in Bruce Dickinson’s first solo album “Tattooed Millionaire”. The album was more rock in spirit than Bruce’s Maiden efforts, but still a major step for the singer. Was there any pressure in the studio when making the album?
None what so ever… We wanted to make a good time R&R album and I think we succeeded. He would have daily fencing lessons in the studio and we had the longest ongoing game of Risk set up on the pool table. I think that Bruce did some of his best vocals on that album and we had a few hit singles off it too.
After Judas Priest’s “Painkiller”, which we will return to later, you produced Helloween’s “Pink Bubbles Go Ape” in 1991. That remains one of the most talked about records in that particular band’s career. How do you remember it now?
It was a very difficult album as Kai Hansen had left and there was a huge power struggle within the band. I did not agree with the choice of songs for it and they were insistent that I could make no changes to them, so how on earth do you do your job under such circumstances?
I wanted to make a great metal album but they wanted to record all these other tunes that sounded nothing like Helloween fans were expecting…. So there you have it!
Outside the metal field, you have worked with pop artists as well, such as Tom Jones and Depeche Mode? What sort of influences can you draw from these totally different genres soundwise? What kind of (if any) difference is there in working with completely different types of artists and music?
It’s all basically the same way of working, except with solo singers you have to find musicians to do the recordings. But basically the way you tend to record is the same for everybody, that is they get to play it and I get to record it! (laughs)
A few years ago you set up your own Ecology Room Studios in Kent. What advantages has this given you in your work?
It’s meant that I have a greater freedom as I can take as long or as little as I like in making records. In these days of smaller budgets it’s the only way to go; it also means that the studio is always set up for my preference which means things get done faster.
Having worked with various groups throughout your career, is there anyone out there you would most like to produce?
I would love to work with Aerosmith or Pink Floyd for that matter. I just love those bands, I guess Maiden would be great to work with too! Oh and not forgetting Machine Head or Down!
You first worked with Judas Priest as an engineer for their classic “Sad Wings of Destiny” – album in 1976. What recollections do you have from those sessions?
It was great fun as I recall. I knew of the band as I used to see them playing around the circuit and there they were in the studio I worked at. There was much tomfoolery at the time and everyone seemed to be having a good time and I think this shines through on the record.
Do you remember anything specific about the recordings of the all-time Priest classic “Victim of Changes?”
K.K.’s solo was the first thing I ever got to record on my own so that remains very special to me. Also doing the vocals, I’ll never forget the last big note that we had to multitrack, it was awesome!
So you knew of the band before you met them at the Sad Wings of Destiny recordings?
I knew of the band as I had seen them play countless times before they came into the studio, but the first time I met them was on those sessions.
How did you feel after the album was finished? Did you find those songs as good and classic as they turned out to be ?
I remember really loving the album, it wasn’t till much later that people started to say that they were classics.
You, of course, returned to Priest for 1990’s seminal “Painkiller.” Up to that point they had worked with the same producer for 10 years, and also had a new drummer. Did that put any pressure on you? What kind of approach did you take with the production?
I suppose there is always an amount of pressure on the producer whenever you make a record. But it felt completely natural walking in there with the guys; it was just like we had seen each other the day before and we picked up where we left off. I thought that they had focused the material to be ultra fast and heavy and I dug that for sure. I took the view that the band should perform the songs as if they were playing live and once we captured the drum and bass performance then we would redo the guitars with their final sound. There is only a snare drum sample that I use playing along with the real snare and that is it for any studio trickery. What you hear is what they played so I’m really proud of them for that and it just shows how great they can be, It was recorded on 24 track 2” tape and then transferred to a Sony 48 track digital machine and I think the sound of the tape really made the difference.
“Painkiller” is nowadays regarded as a speed metal classic. From the producer’s standpoint, how do you view the album now?
The album has turned into a metal classic, you would not believe how many fans and musicians have told me that we re-wrote the book on metal recordings. I just recently bumped into Phil Anselmo at this years Download and he was raving on to me how great that album was. So many fans ask me when are you going to make another record with Priest as they can’t get enough of that particular era of their music.
You also co-wrote “A Touch of Evil” for that album. Can you tell us about the origins of that particular song?
Well, the truth is I had made a library record of metal songs for the Bruton library. This is music that people use for films adverts etc and “Touch Of Evil” was one of the songs on it. I was playing it in the control room one morning and Glenn heard it, liked it and wondered if we could adapt it for Priest. So he came up with the chorus and M8, Rob wrote the lyrics and the rest as they say is history.
There was 14 years between “Sad Wings of Destiny” and “Painkiller.” In your opinion, what was the biggest change between those years in terms of how one produces and engineers an album?
By the time we went on to do “Painkiller” recording equipment and guitar amps had gotten far better, we had more tracks at our disposal, higher gain amplifiers, guitars with EMG pickups etc. This makes it a little easier but honestly the techniques I use are all the ones I learnt in my earlier days and what I made up along the way. The only way to make a great record is to have great songs and a great band!
About “Painkiller” and Scott Travis : when you heard that there was a new drummer in the band , how did that affect your approach to the album?
At first when I heard the original demos of guitar and drum machine at Glenn’s house I said where the fuck are we going to get a drummer who can play that? I’ll never forget Glenn’s face when he said that we had one in Scott. And truly he is a one off. It was the correct plan of action as the proof is in the “Painkiller” album.
Were all songs already finished before entering the studio, or were there some adjustments made during the sessions?
No the songs were pretty much written and that’s how it went down! I guess that Rob tweaked his lyrics in the studio a little but that was it…all pretty straight forward.
Do you, generally, think it is important to create a sound of your own or always adapt to the sound of that particular band you are producing? Or is it somewhere in the middle?
I think a producer ends up with his own characteristics on the records he makes. The job is to translate the band’s sound without getting in the way of it, you have to be transparent. There is always a thread of the producer’s sound that runs through all his work. And that’s why people choose the producer that they think would be appropriate for their band.
You produced the latest Anvil album. How was it to work with them after such a long break?
It was a real pleasure as I hold them in the same light as Priest, we go back a helluva long way and with the earlier albums we stumbled across speed/thrash metal, It was like we had just let all the years fly by and here we are again doing another album. It turned out very well and there is nothing better than working with old friends.
To wrap it up, what personal goals do you have as a producer? If you could pick any band to work with, who would you choose?
I’ve been lucky enough to have fulfilled many of my dreams in this industry but I still want to make the ultimate heavy album and that would have to be with Judas Priest of course!
Any last words for the viewers of K.K. Downing’s Steel Mill?
It’s great that this music we love so much keeps on going and no matter what the current trend is true Metal heads will always be there supporting the Bands that keep on doing it. In the words of some dude from some sci-fi movie “Never give up, Never surrender” (laughs)
Thanks a lot for your time!
Chris Tsangarides on the web: