Evolution of the Art: Bob Ezrin

Longtime Canadian Musician contributor Kevin Young had plenty of leftover material from his extensive interviews for "The Evolution of the Art," his feature story on the past, present, and future of music and production technologies and workflows for our March/April 2019 40th Anniversary issue.

Here's more from his conversation with recording icon Bob Ezrin, slightly edited for length and clarity.

The arts, as Ezrin noted in the article, are key to the overall development of children...

BE: So, when you take that away, what’s left is pretty frightening. For me, it’s always been a matter of extreme importance, in my kids' lives, that we had all of that as part of our shared, family experience. But a lot of it was being provided by school and should have been because they needed to learn it in the company of other kids, not just with their family members - with people who came from different backgrounds, who had different life experiences. That was all really important to forming them, as it was for us, as whole people. So when we started taking what’s considered to be "non-essential" subjects out of the curriculum, I got pretty active about trying to, at least, get music back into schools. I chose music not just because I’m a musician, but because, from my point of view, school music classes and school band provide the most complete artistic and social experience of pretty much all the arts, with the exception, maybe, of drama.

CM: And music has been shown to increase your aptitude in other pursuits.

BE: Yeah, and that’s exactly where I was going to go. And, on top of all of that, music students have a lower risk of truancy, higher academic achievement, particularly in language and math, and a higher rate of graduating from public school and going on to university. It’s just good for kids and it should be a mandatory part of their school experience. And so should civics…

CM: And history?

BE: And drama, but my expertise and my relationships, business-wise, are mostly in music, so that’s what I decided to concentrate on.

CM: Some people would argue, well, you know, kids can learn music on their own, they have all these devices, you know? But I don’t think it’s the same.

BE: It’s not the same. Sales figures at major music retailers will show that analog instruments – guitar, drums, and brass and that sort of thing - are selling less than they have in the past even though more people are making music, and what they’re selling more than anything is technology. So it is very different. And again, you get back to the social aspect of the making of music. So when you’re in a band with other people, whether it’s a rock band, a country band, or an orchestra, you have to learn how to work together and you have to learn how to be good enough so that you’re holding up your part of the bargain with the rest of the members of the group.

CM: There’s personal accountability, but there’s no group accountability.

BE: There’s no group accountability and none of us, by nature, pushes themselves to their highest capabilities. We all need someone to push us along, a coach, conductor, a bandleader, and another member of a group, someone that pushes us to get better and achieve more. That’s why athletes have coaches and why all musicians who are really successful have had someone in their life that’s kicked their butts.

CM: Often many people.

BE: Yes. And apps don’t kick your butt. I don’t care how good, how intuitive, or how sophisticated they are; by nature, they are very benign and more reactive than interactive. There are geniuses that grow into their own, in their own bedrooms…

CM: But they’re few and far between.

BE: They are few and far between. The pursuit of excellence in any field forces us to practice, to study, to learn from others, to seek out information and techniques and so on from the outside world. If we really want to be excellent at anything, we can’t be entirely inward looking.

CM: As VR and AR mirror the environment we would have communicated in 10, 15, 20 years ago, in terms of the depth of the recreation, do you think that that might make it more possible to create great work that way?

BE: We are hotwired to see, hear, taste, smell, and experience the world around us in a particular way, and unless it’s an exact analogue to the real world, meaning a complete 360-degree experience with sound in the air the way the real world sounds and we can do it without the encumbrance of a device on our head or a tether, until that happens, we’re never going to quite do the kind of stuff that we can do in the real world. And, sorry, it will never feel as completely comfortable as the real world.

But then again, we go to the movies and we like them. They’re flat, the sound is artificial, but we enjoy them. For whatever reason that technology has found a way not to disturb our survival mechanisms and our inner sense of well-being and it moves us and challenges us. But I would say that a lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re sitting there with other people, in our living room, or watching on our phone, so we’re comfortable. It’s not replacing the real world; it’s something that’s happening to us while the real world is all around us.

To clarify, Ezrin is not resistant to technology; he is skeptical of how our innate limitations and the things that make us human will interfere with our comfort level in a space that is not, strictly speaking, real, and how the unique and highly motivating impact of others on our creative process will work in them. You could argue that while we can imagine the possibilities, we’re not there yet.

CM: In the real world, as you mentioned, we’re not likely to push ourselves with, say, an app as much as we are when someone else is there to kick our butts.

BE: Yes, well, and apps (would) have to be as intuitive as they claim to be and unique and adaptive to each individual that uses them… Now, artificial intelligence is going to provide us with a better experience and deeper relationship with the tools that we use because they will be more and more interactive and not just reactive. And they will have, built into their rule set, the ability to change their architecture on the fly, so that will be interesting, and maybe we can build criticism into it. (laughs)

But my question is, why are we trying so hard to replace what are basic human interactions that are actually good for us? You can talk to all your friends on WhatsApp. You can post something real fast on Instagram and everybody else can weigh in and all that stuff. That’s a really cool thing, if you and your friends happen to be miles and miles apart, but when you’re in the same place, which I often see (laughs), and you’re all on your handsets doing stuff; we have replaced what is an essential human interaction with a digital one that’s only partially real.

CM: It does take the focus away from other things. I was reading an article where Bruce Kulick (Kiss) described you as a mad scientist producer. There was a great quote; you said, "We didn’t know there was any way to do it, but to be it; to sound angry, you sort of had to be angry. To sound drunk, you had to be drunk."

BE: I think that quote – I’d forgotten that I’d said that, but I think that is what’s being removed, slice by slice, from our culture and from young people’s experience. We’ve removed it from school by taking away the actual experience of music in a classroom, of art in a classroom, of drama, as part of the school day. We’re content to send kids home to play on their tablets or cell phones and find those things that way. And the same thing in life, parents, instead of sending kids out to the backyard with every other kid in the neighbourhood, they’re plopping them down in front of their tablets. They’re afraid to let them go outside because they think that there’s going to be, you know, criminals coming over the back fence to steal their kids, or, you know, there’ll be radioactivity falling from the sky, or who the hell knows what frightens people? So kids are no longer allowed the experience of real-world discovery. A kid can’t go out in the world and twist his ankle, because he did something the wrong way. They cannot explore and test their own limitations, you know? And, I feel like the rush to replace those things, safely, by the use of technology, is not necessarily, for me, the best application.

CM: I’d argue, too, that the process of discovery is integral in a studio environment. You experimented – using the space helmets your kids had with the walkie-talkies that you used on Kiss's Destroyer...

**BE: **We did, but we did, you know, on The Wall, when we decided to place the long distance call, ‘Mr. Floyd calling Mrs. Floyd…' That was a real operator in the United States; she took it so personally and she, you know, we told the person on the other end, ‘We’re going to call you long distance, collect. When you answer the phone and the operator says it’s a collect call, you hang up. So we, we got an operator, back in the days when you could call collect, and she said, ‘Hello, this is America. Mr. Floyd calling for Mrs. Floyd. Will you accept the charges?’ And then he hangs up. And she goes, ‘He hung up. Was it supposed to be a man there, sir?’ And she wanted to try it again.

CM: Now the question I have is did she ever get in touch and come for her neighbouring rights?

BE: No, and you know, I have often said that I wish I knew who that women was.

CM: In terms of discovery, what do you see as the good, bad, and ugly of the digital shift, specifically in terms of musical instruments?

BE: The good is that now anything you can think of doing, you can do, and you don’t need to be in a particular place or have a huge amount of money. Whatever you can think of doing, in terms of music and the creation of an auditory experience, you can do with tools that are affordable, fairly easy to understand, and relatively easy to manipulate. So that’s the good news. The gotcha here is that without training, without personal experience – to me that’s the most important thing if you’re going to represent life through your art, you need to have lived; actually lived, not seen it on a video, not heard it on the radio, not watched it on television or on your phone.
You have to actually experience it. So that goes back to what I said before - you know, that the only way to create is to be it. I love that you reminded me of that line. That’s a great mantra, right?

CM: Absolutely.

BE: A lot of people are satisfied with a facsimile of the real deal. A lot of people get pretty close, and with the tools you have now, you can make things that sound just like the real musician or instrument, which is exactly what it is, like the real musicians, but it isn’t as good as the real musician, because real musicians have lived, loved, and learned. And people who’ve spent their lifetime cloistered in their bedrooms, protected and unfamiliar with the world around them, and without real social interaction, they don’t get to live, love, or learn… Everything that’s been built for the making of music, from the very beginning, is an evolution of the original idea, which was you take some materials and you bend them in a certain way and they make a certain sound. We still do that. We still have materials that we bend in certain ways – whether they’re 1s and 0s or pieces of metal – and then they make certain sounds. The easier it is to do that, the more possibilities exist for people’s imagination. But, again, I really hope that, beyond everything else, we start reinstituting art and humanity into our education system so that the life experiences that we have are richer, fuller, and more nurturing than just interacting with pieces of technology.

Ultimately, Ezrin hopes that instrument technology, in whichever form it may be, in the hands of truly inspired and inspirational players will lead to new forms of art, music, and performance applications.

BE: Your end product doesn’t necessarily have to be you and other people performing. When it comes down to it, some of the greatest artists were big solo acts with support for their vision and what they created. But I think it is fair to say that on the way there your interaction with other people is still key.

CM: There are people who are genius musicians who have done incredibly great work, but – let’s take Pink Floyd. Had Roger Waters made The Wall entirely on his own, it would have been a significantly different record.

BE: Well, yeah, and he did. He made The Wall on his own in his home - a demo, which is what he first played for me. And we, and then as a team, all of us, made it into a more complete experience.

CM: I would say that’s case in point where even a genius needs a helping hand every now and again.

BE: He is a genius, but I think there are geniuses who – in their heads – can create something, like people who write beautiful books. They don’t have a roomful of other people there with them. There are people who create beautiful work that are all by themselves, with their own two hands, not in a roomful of people, and it’s incredibly valid and important, but all of them went through a process of learning from, working with, being in the presence of, and being influenced by other people who were also passionate about that art form, who also had ideas, who kicked their ass just by virtue of their existence. I refer to them as "holy shit" moments, where you go to see someone perform and they’re so good that you say, "Holy shit, I need to go home and practice," or, "Holy shit, I suck. I better get to work."

So I love technology for the fact that it extends my imagination into all kinds of new realities. I want to hear sounds I’ve never heard before. I want them to be put in places I never expected them to be before. I love new relationships in tonalities. I really do. And I feel technology that’s being created for editing, sequencing, sampling, recording, and the creation of sound, all of it is progressing really rapidly and very well, so we’re getting music that sounds deep and wide and organic, or really special and otherworldly. All that is coming out of a marriage of human intention and great technology, but at the beginning of all of that, we all need a place to start, and for me, the best place to start is in school, with your friends and colleagues, so that takes us back full circle.

Author image
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician. He is also a co-host of Canadian Musician Radio and NWC Webinars’ series of free music and entertainment industry webinars.
You've successfully subscribed to Canadian Musician - Shorttakes
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.