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The New York Dolls on Working With Todd Rundgren

October 1, 2009
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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 house?

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 stuff.

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.

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