Let’s go back to pre-X. You’re still not “Billy Zoom”
Billy: I became Billy Zoom in about ’72. I had already been
peddling demos all around Hollywood for a few years and had been rejected so I
thought that if I did a fresh batch with a different name they’d get listened
to more. I started recording as Billy Zoom in ’74, I think. In the mid-seventies
I was doing the Rollin’ Rock Records stuff.
Julia: That was the “porn-movie”
Billy: Yeah. But the Teenage Cruisers soundtrack album. None of (those
songs are) in the movie. That was something that Ron Weiser, at Rollin’
Rock, came up with in about 1980 to capitalize on the success of X and the Blasters.
I did the entire soundtrack for the movie. It did have a version on “Bad
Boy” in it, but it was the demo version. I’ve never been paid for
any of that yet.
Julia: Were you supposed to be?
Okay, so, you’re in L.A. You’ve heard the Ramones and you like what
Billy: I loved the Ramones the minute I heard them. They
played the Gold West Ballroom in Norwalk and it just so happened that the company
I worked for, my regular job, had just put in the sound system. I was an electronics
guy. I saw the Ramones and said, “That’s it. That’s the sound.”
I actually thought it was going to be the next big thing, I didn’t realize
it was going to be banned from the radio. That was Friday or Saturday and the
Monday after, I put an ad in the Recycler.
Julia: And that was that.
Yeah, two bass players answered the ad. The second one was John Doe.
Anything you want to say about radio, the music business, bands today?
I wouldn’t have much good to say about most of that stuff. Except, Lee Abrams
is an asshole. You know who he is, right?
Julia: You told me, but tell everyone
Billy: He’s the guy who came up with the concept of having formatted
radio stations, where a station played just one type of music. Before that, radio
stations just played hits. If the number one record was by the Beatles and the
number two record was by Frank Sinatra and number three was by George Jones, that’s
what they played. The problem was, his formula didn’t leave any way for
anything new to come along. They’d monitor the ratings and playlists of
major stations in key markets and feed the data into a computer. The computer
would come up with a formula showing if you played these songs, this often, play
these during drive time, play this one four times a day, play this one six times
a day, play these songs more during the morning, then your station rating will
improve. It actually worked. His deal was, you subscribe to my service and I’ll
send you a play list every week and if you do exactly what I tell you, I will
improve your ratings.
Julia: Was that before of after payola?
I wish we still had payola. Payola got busted, like late fifties. Lee Abrams—this
was all happening around the time punk started, mid seventies. The problem was,
when it came to adding new records to the play list, the computers only had two
criteria for deciding whether or not to add it. One was if a new album comes out
by a band that has a good track record, that has been in heavy rotation, and had
hits—Journey comes out with a new record, Journey’s last three albums
have gone double platinum, Journey’s new album automatically gets added.
The other one was if a band comes out that hasn’t had a record out before,
they look at “Well, what is it like?” If people say, “It sounds
a lot like Journey and Genesis,” and people who like those records should
like this, then they will put that in light rotation and monitor the ratings to
see how people adjust to it. Something like the Ramones comes out that doesn’t
sound like anything that’s been a hit and they don’t have a track
record, it automatically goes on the “do not play” list. The Ramones
and X and all those bands were always on it.
Julia: K-ROQ used to play X,
in the early eighties.
Billy: K-ROQ was one of five non-formatted radio stations
in the whole country. They were just a little indie station. They were in a little
office in Pasadena and they had their broadcast gear mounted in milk crates in
the corner. What happened is they got so successful they became the top rated
radio station on the West Coast, got purchased by a big corporation, moved to
North Hollywood, and KROQ became a programmer. They program the playlists for
all the “alternative” stations in the country. So they essentially
became Lee Abrams’s competition.
Julia: I imagine he made a lot of money.
Billy: Actually, he got drummed out of the business and blamed for being the man
who ruined radio. He’s trying to make a comeback now with satellite radio.
Do a Google search. He has his own website.
Julia: Have you been in X the
longest of any band you’ve been in?
Billy: I left X for twelve years.
Julia: Right, but not including the break.
Billy: ’77 to ’85 and
then like January of ’86 I quit the band. Then I started playing with them
again January ’98.
[we attempt some math, out loud]
Julia: So fourteen
Billy: Is it?
Julia: I think so.
Billy: I believe X is my forty-fourth
Billy: I think so. I figured it out once, a long
Julia: If X hadn’t reunited, would you have started another
Billy: I don’t know. I have no idea.
Julia: No desire to start
Billy: Well, I didn’t have one in ’98. [laughing]
I had absolutely no desire, no interest in going back and playing with X again.
Julia: But it was a good deal?
Billy: Yeah. They made me an offer I couldn’t
Julia: You had your amp repair shop?
Billy: Yeah, but I was just
working out of my house.
Julia: You didn’t have the studio yet, right?
Julia: So, by playing the reunion shows you could do the things
you had wanted to do?
Billy: Oh, yeah. That paid for the studio and the amp
Julia: You’ve said you always wanted to be a producer.
Yeah. Well, not always. That didn’t start until the late sixties. That started
the first time… no, maybe the second time I did session work.
Billy: That’s the cool guy. I like records and that’s
the guy that actually makes the sound of the record.
Julia: Do you think to
be a good producer you have to know how to engineer, too?
Billy: Not necessarily.
A lot of them don’t. I do. I don’t think you have to actually be the
one who does it. You have to understand how the stuff works, I think, to be good
at it. Sometimes it’s better to have someone else running that stuff because
you can pay more attention. Sometimes I have another engineer in here, just not
on the really, really, really, really, really cheap sessions. [Laughing, making
reference to the Smut Peddlers’ session in his studio.]
What’s the worst experience you had in the studio recording a band?
Billy: Producing, you mean?
Julia: Where you’re in charge and something’s
just not working and you have to make it work.
Billy: Oh gosh, I don’t
know. They’re all that way. Not counting making X records?
Just you in charge of some other band’s session.
Billy: I don’t
know. There’s always some big insurmountable problem that I have to surmount.
Is that a word?
Julia: Yep. Do you think it’s true that the better a
band is, the less production they need?
Billy: Not necessarily. Good bands
are good at playing live and recording isn’t live. I think bands that have
already made a lot of records and spent a lot of time in the studio sometimes
need less production because they think that way. My favorite analogy would be:
imagine there was a hit Broadway play that got rave reviews and people packed
in to see it night after night after night. You were a movie producer and you
were going to make it into a movie, so you took a camera, put it on a tripod,
put it twelve feet out from the stage in the center, turned it on, had the actors
perform the play, and you called that a movie. You get something comparable if
you just record a live performance. There is no such thing as making a recording
that sounds like the band live. What you have to do is create the illusion of
the band playing live by doing something totally different.
Julia: At what
point in producing a band do you say, “This is just what they do or can
do. I think it should be different, but what I think isn’t what they do.”?
Or do you just say, “Do it this way.”?
Billy: If they know what
they want, then you try to create the illusion of what they want. You don’t
put yourself into it unless they don’t know what they want, in which case
they probably shouldn’t be making a record, but sometimes that happens.
Sometimes you run into, “We don’t really know what we want, but we
have this money.” Then you have to make it into something.
say you are producing this band and you like the song, you like what they’re
trying to do, but you think adding things here and there would really improve
it, but a.) maybe they’re not capable of playing what you’re thinking
or b.) they just don’t get what you’re saying.
a difficult situation. Who are you working for: the band or the record company?
If the band is signed to a record company, the record company is paying for everything,
then it’s the record company you have to make happy. And they want something
they can sell. It gets a little sticky if you’re working for the band, because
a lot of times you know something’s best for them but they don’t want
that because it’s not what they’re used to.
Julia: Do you consider
yourself a perfectionist?
Billy: No. I’m very pragmatic.
Name some records and artists that you think everybody should hear.
The Ramones, Elvis Presley’s Sun sessions, Kind of Blue—Miles Davis,
Time Out—Dave Brubeck, something done in Owen Bradley’s studio like
Patsy Cline or Brenda Lee, Johnny B. Goode—Chuck Berry… how long is
this supposed to be? This could go on for a long time. I have a long list of required
listening. I think people should have a better sense of history so they would
have a better understanding of how things got to be the way they are. Just in
general, because I think if people understood how things got to be the way they
are, things would be different.
Julia: Do you like live music?
Mmmmmmmm. Not as much as much as I like records.
Julia: Why not?
Because it doesn’t sound as good as a record. And I get antsy. Most people
play too long. I can’t really listen to the same music for more than half
an hour. I’ve always been totally fascinated by the sound of good records,
which is so much more than just the music. You miss so much in a live performance.
Julia: When you listen to a new record, do you pick it apart? Like, listen to
the guitars, then…?
Billy: [big sigh] Oh, gosh. I pick apart the production.
Julia: Meaning? Not everyone knows what you mean when you say “the production.”
Billy: The production. Ahh, it depends on what you’re talking about by a
Julia: How would you pick apart production if you don’t know
anything about the band or you don’t know what they sound like live and
you have no idea what they’re going for?
Billy: As a producer, when
I hear popular records, I pick apart the production because I like to think about
what they’re doing. I think about things like the over compression they’re
using, the sounds they’re getting on it.
Julia: So you’re listening
to the sounds, arranging, and sound quality.
Billy: Again, what are we talking
Julia: About listening to a band you don’t know anything about.
Billy: Are you talking about listening to hit records on the radio?
No, like if someone just gives you a CD and says, “Hey, tell me what you
Billy: Oh. Then I listen to everything, yeah. Are you talking
about big name bands?
Julia: No. Something you have no reference to.
Oh, if they’re a new band starting out that doesn’t have a huge hit,
then usually the recording isn’t that good, so I kinda tune that out and
imagine what it could be and listen to the song and the arrangements.