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2005.10.13 - Poptones - Interview with James Barber (Geffen A&R, producer)

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2005.10.13 - Poptones - Interview with James Barber (Geffen A&R, producer) Empty 2005.10.13 - Poptones - Interview with James Barber (Geffen A&R, producer)

Post by Blackstar on Tue Jan 12, 2021 5:06 am


James Barber, Record Producer

James Barber answers our Questions of Doom about the life and times of the ground zero of Athen Georgia during the 80s, the supposed divadom of Micheal Stipe, moving from the Georgia DIY scene to Geffen label as A and R, being involved in the life and times of Aimee Mann, working at the legendary Geffen label in the early 90s, working with Hole and Guns and Roses, what happened with Guns and Roses album-in-progress Chinese Democracy, producing the brilliant and legendary lost version of American’s Sweetheart, what happened when Courtney Love was going to sign with Poptones in the Uk, producing Ryan Adams’ ‘Rock ’n’ Roll, answers that question ‘Is Ryan Adams one of the last rock ’n’ oll stars?’, advice for all those out in who want to get involved in music, who rules more Comets on Fire or The Icarus Line and much, much more in this week’s Questions of Doom.


You A’and’R’ed Guns and Roses and Hole. Alan McGee once said to me that the difficult bands are the best bands to work with. Do you agree?

Alan’s just trying to protect one of our trade secrets. What we both know is that the artists who get called ‘difficult’ are almost always easy to work with if you tell them the truth. They usually know what they want and recognize a person who isn’t blowing smoke. Both Alan and I are either fearless enough or stupid enough to speak our minds and it’s served us both pretty well.

When you worked at Geffen in the 90s, it seemed to be at the cutting edge of new music. Almost setting itself up as thee label in America. Yet, it has floundered significantly since then. What exactly happened?

I should make something very clear: Seagram closed Geffen Records in January 1999. All of the artists and a handful of the staff were moved over to Interscope. The ‘Geffen’ label that exists today is basically the old MCA Records with a new logo. There’s almost zero connection to the company that I worked at in the 90s.

What happened to Geffen? Seagram tried to impose corporate values on a culture that thrived on extreme personalities and near anarchy. The A&R staff that built the company was dismantled and those of us left behind were expected to focus more on corporate protocol than making great records.

The record business is a lousy business if you’re looking for a predictable return on investment. All the corporations that bought into music in the 90s failed to understand that great music was the primary reward for running a record company. Sure you could make a ton of money, but the money was sort of a side effect. Once the people running Geffen had to concentrate on spreadsheets and business plans instead of making the next ‘Paradise City’ or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ the company was doomed.

Jimmy Iovine totally mystifies me. He’s been able to transcend all of the corporate bullshit and just keep being Jimmy. I don’t like all the records he makes or how he treats a lot of his artists, but he’s the last man standing, the only person who gets to make records exactly the way he wants in a corporate environment.


How did you get involved in Guns N’ Roses?

Nothing else had worked, so Geffen figured they’d send me in to talk to Axl after I moved to Los Angeles. We desperately wanted the new album for Christmas 1998 and I had a year to get it finished. Whenever anyone asks me about GNR, I think about Rutger Hauer’s line in Blade Runner: ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.’

No expense was spared; they were the biggest band in the history of the label and, even though everyone except Axl was gone, Geffen Records lived and breathed for another GNR album.

The Robin Finck/Josh Freese/Tommy Stinson/Billy Howerdel/Dizzy Reed version of the album that existed in 1998 was pretty incredible. It still sounded like GNR but there were elements of Zeppelin, Nine Inch Nails and Pink Floyd mixed in. If Axl had recorded vocals, it would have been an absolutely contemporary record in 1999.

People close to the project have since told me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, that the current version of the record in no way resembles what I heard in early 1999. That’s too bad.

Do you think that Chinese Democracy is ever going to come out?

I have no idea. Seven years ago, the record just needed a lead vocal and a mix. The last time I was at the studio was two days before my daughter was born. Last night she read all of ‘Hop on Pop’ to me. Some mysteries passeth all understanding.


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