In judging Thom Wilson by his cover, there is only one question to resolve: Is this tall, lanky fellow merely a middle-aged Deadhead, or is he one of those poor souls who went to the original Woodstock and never quite made it back?
The beard is long and bushy, the hair wavy and graying. Grin marks frame the eyes. Furrows have been worn into the prominent forehead. The feet are sandaled, of course. Wrapped around his left wrist are strands of large, tan prayer beads that are not there just for effect but are part of his ritual as a Tibetan Buddhist.
As he sits on the tailgate of a sound truck on the Studio City television lot where he works, the only thing out of place in this vision of pure hippiedom is his T-shirt. “Offspring,” it says, the name of the band that recently emerged as the biggest thing in punk rock.
What--are all the tie-dyed shirts in the laundry? Has our 42-year-old borrowed these punker threads from a teen-age offspring of his own? Dad must be disappointed that the boy is into those loud, screaming hellions. Think of all the father-son bonding they could be doing on caravan with Jerry Garcia and the boys.
In fact, if one bothers to converse with Wilson rather than just size him up by his looks, one quickly finds that he and his older boy, 16-year-old Tai, did go out on a rock ‘n’ roll tour this summer to do the father-son bonding thing.
It wasn’t to follow the Dead, but to work with the Offspring. The band from Orange County invited Wilson along to mix its concerts, figuring that nobody knows better than he how the band ought to sound. Wilson has, after all, produced all three Offspring albums, including “Smash,” the one that has astonished everybody by selling 1 million copies in four months, establishing the heretofore unknown group as the leader, with Green Day, of an unprecedented wave of commercial success for punk.
“I trust Thom more than anybody else,” says Bryan Holland, the Offspring’s singer and songwriter. “The whole band feels more confident with him back there.”
Wilson has a great deal of experience making punk bands sound good. In the early 1980s, he guided such important O.C. groups as the Adolescents, T.S.O.L. and the Vandals through recordings that have held up as punk rock standards.
None of those albums was a huge seller, punk historically having belonged to a hard-core cult rather than a mainstream audience. Among the cultists, though, were the four members of the Offspring, who went to a great deal of trouble to find Wilson in 1989, when they were unknown, untutored and about to make their first album.
By then, Wilson had abandoned record production and was making his living as a sound engineer for network television programs. Now that the Offspring are famous, Wilson’s production work is all over radio and MTV and he thinks his days hanging around television studios may be numbered.
Rule No. 1 of the music industry is “give the people what they want.” At the moment, a lot of people suddenly are showing a preference for melodic punk rock, and producers with a knack for it are apt to be in demand for a while. Wilson (who cut the three Offspring albums for an aggregate sum of about $40,000) notes that he has just hired a manager to start fielding inquiries from bands and record companies that might want to hire him.
“It’s interesting to see how people rally around you when there’s a platinum record,” he says in his mild, unassuming way. “The Offspring record has really skewed the entire industry. I don’t think people know what to make of it yet, but they think they want to get in on it.”
Judging Wilson by his resume will lead you as far astray of the mark as judging him by his appearance. When he marshaled the Offspring last February for the final recording onslaught on “Smash,” he had just come off a grueling series of all-nighters doing the final music mix for a Christmas television special by that mighty thrash-merchant, Perry Como.
After balancing tapes of the 81-year-old Mr. Mellow crooning songs for “Perry Como’s Irish Christmas” backed by a 70-piece orchestra and a 300-voice choir, Wilson immediately was immersed in shout-along choruses, power chords and pummeling kick drums. Who says you gotta keep ‘em separated?
The path that would lead Wilson to punk rock and Perry Como started in 1973 when he dropped out of San Diego State, where he had been majoring in English, and moved to Los Angeles with friends who had come into some money and decided to build a recording studio.
Wilson helped them build it, then stuck around to learn how to run it. His first important gig as an assistant engineer came in 1975 when he helped twiddle knobs and set up microphones during sessions for Boz Scaggs’ “Silk Degrees,” one of the biggest-selling albums of the decade.
He had come to Los Angeles as just-plain Tom, and added the “h” to his first name in the mid-'70s after he started getting calls from creditors looking for Tom Wilson, the noted record producer who had helped Bob Dylan make his transition from pure folkie to electrified rocker, and who had launched Simon & Garfunkel by adding an electric band to their original acoustic recording of “The Sounds of Silence.”
By 1980, Thom Wilson had engineered sessions with Barbra Streisand, Rufus and Ringo Starr and had served as the engineer at Dawnbreaker Studio, owned by the soft-pop duo Seals & Crofts.
He wanted to step up from engineering, essentially a technical job, to record production, which is the art of shepherding musicians through the entire process of choosing, arranging and performing their songs. Wilson accepted an assignment from the tiny Los Angeles label Bomp! and produced “Disconnected” by the late Stiv Bators, an aggressive garage rock album with both pop and punk influences.
Bomp! employee Lisa Fancher was starting her own label, Frontier Records, and had signed the Adolescents, a band from Fullerton, for their first album. But things weren’t shaping up well, Fancher recalls, as a manager went AWOL with part of the band’s recording budget. Wanting a seasoned hand in the studio to make sure the album moved along quickly, Fancher hired Wilson as engineer to work alongside musician Mike Patton, a mentor the Adolescents already had chosen as their producer.
As Fancher and Adolescents’ guitarist Frank Agnew remember it, Wilson--who says he had never listened to hard-core punk rock until then--deserves most of the credit for getting “Adolescents,” one of the best albums in O.C. rock history, on tape. But it wasn’t easy.
“Thom was just thrown into the deep end,” says Fancher. “You can imagine what the Adolescents were like, under 20, halfway drunk and pretty idiotic. Tony (Montana, the 18-year-old singer) turned the fire extinguisher on the (sound) board at one point when he wasn’t being watched. One of them jimmied the pinball machine and took the change. Stupid punk moron stuff. (Wilson’s) kind of a mellow guy, but at the end of the (first) day, he was just furious: ‘I’ve never seen such unprofessional people.’ ”
Wilson doesn’t remember having said exactly that, but he does recall the three days of recording as fairly tumultuous. “Tony was a pretty angry, disenchanted human, kind of snarly and argumentative. They had micro fights between band members the whole time. It was really unbridled. I just sat and waited for it to pass. And probably noted the ‘unprofessionalism’ of it.”
In any case, as Fancher tells the story, the flustered Wilson listened to what the Ads had managed to commit to tape at the end of that unruly first day. “He’d taken some rough mixes home, and he’d seen the light. He’d gotten religion. I was dreading the next day. I thought he’d beat me up by the end of the project. But he came back saying, ‘These songs are cool.’ ”
“He was older than us, that’s all we knew: ‘Oh man, here’s this older guy,’ ” Agnew remembers. “We thought he’d be a bummer, but he wound up being really cool to hang around with. He knew the equipment inside out, he could get whatever sound you wanted, and he was easy to joke around with.”
Fancher’s next assignment for Wilson, also in 1981, was “Dance With Me,” the first full-length album by T.S.O.L., a band of strapping surfers-turned-punkers who were known for wild, sometimes violent behavior.
“I was very apprehensive about it,” Wilson says. “People said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? They beat people up.’ But the first day I saw they were just people. Jack (Grisham) came in to do his vocals and just sat in a chair. I put his microphone up and we went through all the vocals. I was stunned by that. I’d never recorded anybody who was sitting down before. But if he wanted to sit down, let him sit down. I didn’t know what to expect from these guys but they were calm, strictly business.”
Things had grown less calm and businesslike by 1983. T.S.O.L., riven by internal tensions, worked with Wilson on a never-released album, aborted after Grisham flew into a fury and wrecked the studio’s candy machine.
“The band was so self-destructive at that point it was ridiculous,” Grisham says now. “Thom wasn’t producing us at the time. He was baby-sitting.
“One thing I like about Thom is he always made me feel real confident,” Grisham adds, recalling more productive sessions with Wilson. “A thing people don’t understand about punk rock is that it’s about having fun and not following any set rules about doing things. Thom fit right in with us the minute he got there. He was willing to not let us be structured.”
Despite Wilson’s expertise and T.S.O.L.'s amateurism, Grisham says Wilson never talked down to or tried to lord it over his inexperienced punk charges. “If he had done that, it would have been '(expletive) you, you Seals & Crofts-mixing piece of (expletive).’ He’d always say, ‘Go ahead and let’s see what happens.’ I’ve had (producers) since then that didn’t have half the talent, jumping up and down” because of Grisham’s unorthodox approaches. “He’s so confident in himself that he can let other people be themselves.”
Wilson says he never had any blow-ups with the sometimes-volatile punk rockers he worked with, even though age and background did make him an outsider.
“It never was an issue for me, and it never seemed to bother them. I tried to keep it not as a cultural thing, but as a venture in record-making. There’s a kind of mystique in the recording studio that breaks down a lot of the barriers you run into in other places. There were a few trust issues at first. It was usually microscopic.”
Wilson’s work with T.S.O.L. (two albums and an EP) led him to their proteges, the Vandals, for whom he also produced two albums and an EP. He also produced China White and the Dead Kennedys and a solo record by Adolescents alumnus Rikk Agnew.
But he kept his hand in mainstream pop. In contrast to the Vandals’ EP “Peace Through Vandalism,” which was recorded in a single night, he spent long months in 1983 engineering Michael Sembello’s slick soundtrack for “Flashdance,” including its No. 1 hit “Maniac.” He also was the engineer for a session by a still little-known Madonna as she recorded “Crazy for You,” which later would emerge as a No. 1 hit from the “Vision Quest” film soundtrack.
Then, Wilson says, “the projects started drying up a bit,” and in 1987 he crossed over to television. A job doing sound production for musical guests’ performances on “The Joan Rivers Show” led to sound engineering work on a variety of specials and network series including five seasons of “A Different World,” two of “Roseanne” (Wilson says he became friendly with the star and attended her wedding to Tom Arnold) and his current gig, “Grace Under Fire.”
By 1989, when the Offspring found him, Wilson considered himself out of record production. Holland, the Offspring singer, recalls a long, difficult search that finally paid off just as the band was about to hire another producer.
“I was flattered,” Wilson says with a grin. “And they hit me on a hiatus, when there wasn’t much going on” in his television work schedule. “I thought it was very weird that somebody wanted to make a punk rock record in 1989.”
The Offspring’s co-founder, bassist Greg Kriesel, remembers that Wilson had to coach the band on some rudiments of rock performance: “He taught me I’m supposed to be playing with the kick drum, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, really?’ There were a lot of things we didn’t know.”
Holland and Kriesel say that Wilson helped the band strip down its sound, simplifying drum and bass patterns, tossing out unneeded guitar solos. By the time they had completed “The Offspring” (1990) and “Ignition” (1992) with Wilson, the band members were beginning to think of him as a sort of creative conscience, asking themselves “what Thom would have to say” as they rehearsed material for “Smash.”
“We’ve kind of gone back and forth ever since the first record,” says Holland. “He’d point things out to improve it, and we’d take it to heart, go back, write another record and refine it as we go along. We’re really in sync about making records. We’ve been fortunate that Thom and we get along very well.”
“I can be real stubborn when we get in the thick of it, although it’s always been very polite,” Wilson says. “Usually after I work with people a while, they realize what I say isn’t personal. That’s probably the reason we’ve kept working together. They’ve been very flexible and determined, and they trusted me.”
He and the two Offspring founders cite only one instance where the band ultimately went against his advice. Wilson was unimpressed when he heard the preliminary instrumental track to “Self Esteem,” the song that since has emerged as the second video from “Smash.”
“He felt it was boring the way it was,” says Holland. “He said it made him feel like going out and ordering a pizza.”
Wilson’s advice was to change the bass line, but Holland says he and Kriesel “felt the bass line was an important hook in the song the way it was” and held fast. “By the time we got the vocals laid down,” Holland notes, "(Wilson) thought it was a good song.”
Wilson has done much thinking about how music should be played--he dots his discourse with theoretical phrases like “aesthetic template"--and very little actual playing. “I’m not a musician,” he says. “I sort of play guitar. Nobody would be impressed by it. I sing when I’m alone in the car.”
Everything he taught the Offspring stems, he says, from his philosophy of recording and song-arrangement: “It’s the carrot in front of the donkey, the donkey being the listener, and the carrot being whatever you have at the moment to keep the donkey’s interest.
“There are no statutory requirements for people to listen to records. You have to entice them. Everything in the record has to have a reason for being there, and you weed things out that are distracting or take away from the flow.
“There’s a fine line where ultimately they are the artists’ records, and I see myself as a collaborative artist working with them to bring out the essence of what they’re doing. But I’m also an advocate for the listener. I speak up for the listener, and steer things in a way that’s going to make it accessible to the listener.”
On “Smash,” the results of that philosophy are often thrilling.
The recording avoids the stereotypical grind and slab-like density of many punk and hard-rock albums. Often, sections of the band will drop out, leaving just a single naked element (Holland sings one verse of “Bad Habit” a cappella, for instance). Sometimes, a hole of silence is punched into a song for dramatic effect. Many songs contain passages that gather force by increments, perhaps beginning with just a beat, then a scraping guitar riff, then an accelerating drum pulse, joined a moment later by a momentum-filled bass line.
Instead of stampeding the listener by coming on all in a rush, the Offspring give you the pleasure of watching inevitability in motion. When the rush comes, you’ve seen it approaching, and the anticipation makes it that much more satisfying when it arrives.
One thing neither Wilson nor the band saw coming was a platinum record.
“I knew that material-wise, we had a lot to work with,” says Wilson. “I knew it was going to be a relatively hot record when we cut ‘Gotta Get Away’ (though he adds that he wasn’t excited by what proved to be the breakthrough hit, “Come Out and Play,” until the band worked in the spoken hook, “you gotta keep ‘em separated,” late in the recording process).
“I told them, ‘This is going to be the biggest-selling record Epitaph (the independent company that markets the Offspring) ever had, and they thought I was full of (expletive). I told them it would sell at least 150,000 (a total that, as recently as April, was a benchmark for a major punk hit). They thought I was nuts.”
Now everybody knows better.
Wilson thinks punk’s rise has to do with the nation’s nervousness in the face of perceived social decay and economic decline. “I think punks are generally well-meaning, intelligent people who are failed idealists. In the ‘80s, you had all these (punk) songs about where the culture was screwing up, and nobody wanted to listen because of the big sleep of the Reagan era. Now the industry and people have caught up. Things have gotten dire enough so that the issues punk rock addresses are viable with the general public.”
If his analysis is right, what’s dire for America may prove beneficial to his own bank account. He is anticipating plenty of work, figuring that the music industry will rush to punk the way it rushed to grunge bands in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“The recording projects are starting to show up. I’m kind of sought-after. I’ve kind of run my course with (television) for a while. I may come back to it, but right now it’s kind of flat for me. Doing sound in television is not a very respected thing. Sound is an afterthought of television.
“The game plan is, given the right sequence of events, I can make enough money in the next couple of years so the lifestyle will be our choice,” adds Wilson, who lives near Santa Cruz with his wife, Margo, and sons Tai and Montgomery, who is 6.
“It’s going to mutate, but punk rock has been revitalized or reborn, and it’s been discovered by the populace. There’s an honesty to the music that, when it’s done well, is very enjoyable. I don’t think it’s going to run its course.”