Those memorable first days on the job — we’ve all had them, for better or worse.
Consider this one: You show up for your first day and find Talking Heads in Studio A, Pink Floyd in Studio B and Eric Clapton with Billy Preston in Studio C. (It’s the Pink Floyd without Roger Waters, but still ….)
That was the scenario Jimmy Hoyson encountered when he went to work in 1986 at Village Recorders, a studio in a former Masonic Temple in West Los Angeles. With that level of star power in the building, he could barely even focus on the big, beautiful Neve audio consoles.
That day was the start of a Grammy-winning career for the 59-year-old Hoyson, who grew up in Green Tree and has boomeranged back here in recent years to help care for his mom. Over the past four decades, the recording engineer/producer has worked with a slew of legendary artists from B.B. King to Clapton to U2 to Lou Reed to Mavis Staples, along with his Grammy-winning contributions to Green Day’s “American Idiot” and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Let There Be Light,” with Ben Harper.
He came a long way from working the board for local bands at the Electric Banana.
A/V CLUB KID
Like so many of his generation, it started with seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
“I think the first single I ever bought was ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ and I remember dressing up with my friends as the Beatles,” he says. “And eventually my parents got me a toy guitar, so I was leaning toward music.”
Although he preferred guitar, he still values those piano lessons learning “The Sound of Music” songs, because it taught him to read music and understand scales and theory.
After encountering the Fab Four, some Pittsburgh legends, like Joe Grushecky and the late B.E. Taylor, couldn’t wait to form bands and get on stage.
Mr. Hoyson started playing guitar and jamming with friends in high school.
“But I was too shy to play out live,” he says. “In high school, speech class terrified me, so I was not a performer. But in junior high, I was stage manager for the play, so I got the behind-the-scenes bug.”
Upon graduating from Keystone Oaks High School, he went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he fumbled around for the right major. “I started as an electrical engineer, then computer science and ended up in liberal arts. I just didn’t know what to do.”
His college job, at Hollowood Music, was the gateway. There, he met guys like Gregg Kostelich, later of The Cynics, who would ask him to come out and mix their bands live.
“I didn’t even know how to do it,” Mr. Hoyson says, “but I went out and did it for a friend’s band at an outdoor party and had a blast, so I just sort of fell into it.”
He did punk bands at the Banana (including Black Flag, when its soundman was passed out in the van), rockers like Norm Nardini and the Silencers at the Decade, and the Granati Brothers out in the suburbs. Meanwhile, he would study copies of Recording Magazine, gawking at the gear.
“I knew the studio is what I really wanted to do, because front of house was kind of momentary,” he says. “People enjoy it, but then it’s kind of lost, out of the air, and I wanted to work on more permanent stuff.”
GOING TO CALIFORNIA
In 1984, he graduated and got on a plane for LA with a guitar, a suitcase and $100. He knew one guy there, a friend who worked for Warner cable.
“He would drop me off in a neighborhood and I would go door to door to get people to hook up for cable TV — in crazy neighborhoods I should not have been in,” he says.
Another odd job was cleaning yachts in Marina Del Ray, and there he met someone who got him a job interview with Geordie Hormel, grandson of the founder of Hormel Foods and owner of the Village studio.
“He had this giant, sprawling mansion on Sunset, and I expected someone real clean cut and serious,” says Mr. Hoyson, who has the spiky-haired look of a British New Wave rocker. “He had long hair, bare feet, this crazy hippie guy, a cross between Frank Zappa and Howard Hughes. He was sort of the outcast rich son, the black sheep.”
He talked his way into a job editing video at the Village, and on that first day, in 1986, he was in an editing room with David Byrne working on the opening to “True Stories.” The studio’s chief engineer also ran the video department, so he began to teach Mr. Hoyson the ropes in the studio.
The general arrangement is that the studio engineers back up the producers and first engineers that artists bring to the studio. “The idea is to be a second engineer or an assistant engineer and then go freelance and have your own clients,” he says.
When an assistant engineer got sick, Mr. Hoyson got the chance to step in, one of the first projects being Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Trilogy.” After a few years at the Village, he left to become a first engineer, working with major producers like Beau Hill (on Warrant and Winger) and Rick Rubin (on doom metal band Trouble).
“He puts together a good team,” Mr. Hoyson says of the legendary Rubin. “He’s a vibe guy. He picks good songs, creates an environment for people to create, but he’s not a hands-on, hands-on guy like some people I’ve worked with.”
Among his takeaways was that for a producer, “people skills” were as important as anything else.
In LA, Mr. Hoyson’s encounters were priceless, like running into Paul McCartney in the Capitol Records bathroom, meeting George Harrison in the Village parking lot, spending two weeks with Stevie Nicks (”she had a chef and she was really fun and awesome”) and having a popular band throw him a bachelor party at Capitol (”it was me, the Goo Goo Dolls and two strippers — it was so uncomfortable”).
He crossed paths with artists who were unexpectedly rude (Marvin Hamlisch had “no patience,” he says) and unexpectedly easy (”Lou Reed was notoriously grouchy, but he came in and was super friendly”).
The Blind Boys of Alabama album sent him to the Record Plant in San Francisco for a session with Tom Waits, who was to sing “Go Tell it on the Mountain” using a guide vocal recorded by the Blind Boys’ Jimmy Carter.
“He came in and spent a couple hours singing the song,” Mr. Hoyson says. “He was definitely intimidated, seemed kind of nervous about the scratch vocal that Jimmy Carter did on it, but he did a great job. It was like recording the Cookie Monster.”
As one might expect, the Michael Jackson experience was — interesting. He was part of a team of engineers at Capitol around the time of the “HIStory” album in 1995. All the security cameras had to be covered up, and Jackson came into a darkened control room wearing sunglasses, sat in the back and never said anything.
He worked on a mix for Jackson’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards of the song “Black or White.” A vocal track was to come from a synthesizer while he was dancing around.
“If you listen to his microphone, there’s a lot of heaving breathing, so he’s essentially lip-syncing, so I took breaths from his actual voice and put it in so it really did sound like he was singing. I put the huffing and puffing in certain places.”
In 2003-04, he was among the engineers working on Green Day’s “American Idiot,” which went six-times platinum and won the Grammy for best rock album.
“The album took three months,” Mr. Hoyson says. “We used to joke around that it was one month per chord.”
More seriously, he says, the members of Green Day were “just regular guys” who hung out with the crew and, all signs pointed to the album being a monster.
“We would have a dog-and-pony show where the president of the label comes down or the A&R people, and they were just blown away by what they heard. It was a really well-crafted album. The writing is brilliant, and there’s no extra fat on it.”
The client who got his picture into the tabloids was Oksana Grigorieva, the Russian singer-songwriter whom he worked with and befriended during her ugly custody battle with Mel Gibson around 2010.
“I was introduced to Mel Gibson because I worked with the composer who worked on ‘The Passion of the Christ’ movie [directed by Mr. Gibson]. Mel had called him to ask for an engineer to help him with Oksana. I got introduced and spent 10 months with her, mixing her album. She was a really good songwriter, a really good singer. It was a shame it was overshadowed by the controversy with Mel.”
Through the years, he watched the studio culture shift from a party atmosphere to a more corporate one.
“In the ‘80s, there was cocaine everywhere. It was kind of scary, but as budgets got tighter, it couldn’t be a party anymore,” he says.
In his travels, he worked with artists who crushed it in the studio and some who just squeaked by.
“I’ve worked with singers who do a certain part and say, ‘Can’t you just fly that around?’” he says, referring to cutting and pasting a chorus or other musical passage. “A lot of singers now don’t beat themselves up much to deliver a perfect performance because they know you can Auto-tune it. I’ve worked with some people who would have no career whatsoever if it wasn’t for ProTools and Auto-tune. They just can’t hit those notes. And then I’ve been fortunate to work with artists who are one-take singers.”
“Corrine Bailey Rae. She’s a one-taker. You don’t have to belabor it and punch in and keep fixing.”
On a recent Saturday, Mr. Hoyson was at the North Side’s Get Hip Recordings, owned and operated by Mr. Kostelich, for the release show of Chet Vincent’s new album.
Since returning, Mr. Hoyson has maintained his friendships and contacts in the Pittsburgh scene: He produced the most recent Granati Brothers’ record, “Show,” and the Misaligned Mind album; mixed Marc Reisman’s album “Strange Way”; and has also worked with Erika May and Melinda Colaizzi.
He raves about all of them, especially Misaligned Mind frontman Zack Wiesinger, whom he met through the Granatis.
“It always goes back to the Granatis,” he laughs.
“One of the most amazing musicians I ever worked with,” he says of Guitar Zack. “He consistently makes my jaw drop — never seen anyone so creative with a guitar.”
For now, he’s using Pittsburgh as base, working with musicians here as well as in New York and Nashville, Tenn. A favorite current project is with former Greg Allman keyboardist Peter Levin.
“I don’t feel like just because I’m here now my career is over, and that was it in Hollywood,” he says. “It’s continuing, and I’m using that experience to move forward. I still want to work on that same level with those musicians, but at the same time, I want to work with new artists.”
That includes musicians as well as people looking to work in the industry — like the students he addressed during a recent visit to Point Park University.
“I meet a lot of young people that are just trying to figure out how to have a career, in anything, and they seem, not lost, but they really need guidance and mentorship. Helping them is really important to me.”
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org.