YOU COULD CALL IT A HOMECOMING OF
sorts, as Todd Rundgren had produced
the New York Dolls gritty debut album
in 1973. But ’Cause I Sez So [Atco]—the
second release by the reconstituted Dolls,
as led by original vocalist David Johansen
and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain—wasn’t cut
in some dank and grimy Bowery studio
that one might associate with the band’s
raucous, punk-glam past. It was tracked
in Rundgren’s beautiful Kauai digs, overlooking
a glittering, sun-kissed ocean and
whales at play.
“It wasn’t how you’d picture the New
York Dolls recording at all,” says co-guitarist
Steve Conte. “It’s a miracle we
didn’t record ambient relaxation tracks.”
And yet, as Sylvain aptly stated, “You
can take the Dolls out of New York, but
you can’t take New York out of the Dolls.”
So despite the pastoral setting, the Dolls
recorded ’Cause I Sez So no differently
than they attacked their music back in
the ’70s—totally raw and completely live.
What was the live-recording setup at Todd’s
Sylvain: We all played in the living
room with the drums, although the amps
were stuffed in bathrooms, closets, and
guest rooms for isolation. Of course, we
found out 48 hours before we left for Kauai,
that Todd planned to use amp simulators.
I think there’s like one guitar amp on the
entire island, so I called our road manager,
Mark Allen, and said, “Man, you’ve got to
pack up all the Marshalls, Oranges, and
Fenders.” That cost a fortune.
Conte: There was no punching in, or
doing 12 takes and then comping parts
together. I did all the solos live, as well—
except for two that required a slide and
an EBow that I couldn’t pick up and put
down fast enough. I’d step on a pedal,
play the solo, and then step on the pedal
again and go back to playing rhythm.
How much pre-production was necessary
to be able to track everything absolutely live?
Conte: We didn’t have any pre-production
time. When we got to Kauai, we had
some riffs and licks—no song titles, and
no lyrics. Todd asked us to play the songs
for him, and we’d say, “Well, we have this
riff.” He told us to go away and write.
Sylvain: Pre-production? [Laughs.]
The recording budget for this was miniscule.
Basically, the album was done in
four weeks. The first week we wrote the
songs. The second week we arranged and
rehearsed them. Week three was basics,
and week four was for David’s lead vocals,
our background vocals, and percussion
Did you find that level of spontaneity energizing?
Sylvain: It gave me pimples on my
butt [laughs]. It’s not a healthy situation.
I come from the school of developing a
song in front of an audience and building
a demand for it before it’s recorded.
The song dictates everything.
What were Todd Rundgren’s main contributions
to the sessions?
Conte: He was a referee and a sounding
board. If he didn’t like some lyrics,
for example, he spoke up. But he was a
man of very few words. Todd’s genius
was not producing too much. He’d be
playing solitaire on his laptop, and I
remember thinking, “Is he going to do
anything?” But he made some really great
suggestions. For “Nobody Got No Business,”
he picked up an acoustic guitar
and said, “Try playing your riff this way.”
I said, “That’s genius.” It made the song.
Sylvain: He left us to be ourselves,
but if something wasn’t sitting right,
you could always say, “Hey Todd, can
you fix me up?” And he’d mess around
with the EQ or move the mics around,
and it would be great. Todd can get really
deep into his techniques, but he knew
that, with the Dolls, if it isn’t swinging
on the basic tracks, it ain’t gonna swing
no matter how many overdubs you do.
So he just let us get our guitar tones and
play. In fact, he told us he didn’t remember
producing that much in 1973. And
that’s true, because he was kissing his
girlfriend the whole time [laughs]. But
he came up with a nice quote this time,
which is a line from The Producers. When
we got something, he’d say, “That’s our
‘Hitler!’ We got our ‘Hitler.’ Let’s not mess
around anymore.” That was kind of cute.