22 Questions with Don Dixon

In my not-so-humble estimation, Don Dixon is one of the four or five best producers alive. He’s twiddled the knobs for Kim Carnes, The Connells, Marshall Crenshaw, Pat DiNizio, Emmet Swimming, Guadalcanal Diary, The Pinetops, James McMurtry, The Windbreakers, Moxy Früvous, Marti Jones, Let’s Active, The Spongetones, Chris Stamey and Matthew Sweet, to name a few. He co-produced Tommy Keene’s Songs From the Film. He produced four Smithereens records, including their amazing debut, Especially for You. And he co-produced, along with Mitch Easter, R.E.M.’s Murmur, which many critics (myself included) rate as one of the best albums in history.

As the All-Music Guide notes, “Dixon also enjoyed a cult following as a solo performer.” Sigh.

It’s sad that he’s never enjoyed a lot of commercial success as a performer in his own right, despite the fact that most of his own work is substantially better than almost anything he has produced for other artists. A thoughtful songwriter, an outstanding bass player, and a live performer with a genuine feel for the stage and audience, Don Dixon is one of contemporary rock/pop’s true gems. Ask anybody who has listened to his CDs or had the privilege of seeing him live, either solo or with his old band Arrogance.

Don has graciously agreed to field 22 questions from the Lullaby Pit. Suffice it to say I feel honored.


1: As a producer, you seem to have a nearly flawless intuition about the songs you’re working with. Your sense of arrangement and instrumentation is immaculate, to the point where nothing ever gets between the listener and the song, even in your most “experimental” moments. Where does this knack come from? Does some muse just plant the finished song in your head, or is it a more intellectual process

DD: When you agree to produce an artist you have to take the following things into consideration:

  1. the artist’s personality
  2. the artist’s talent
  3. the songs available
  4. the budget

All of these things play into the decisions about how to get songs onto those shiny little discs … I work instinctively, taking notes (sometimes mental, sometimes literal) and try to capture what I hear in my head … Obviously, I’m coming at my own song from a different perspective than I would for someone else’s, but my analysis of what’s working and what it needs is not an intellectual process … It involves intellect but isn’t driven by it … Communication and trust are big keys here and the proper balance can be very difficult to achieve … “Objectivity” is highly overrated … I attempt to be as subjective as possible … I want to like it … I want it to talk to me … I don’t worry about whether it works for someone else’s “demographic” as derived from a recent poll in Spin … or even Mojo … That sort of irreverence for the taste of the hoi polloi is one of my most valuable assets … But, I’m not an elitist … I love the idea of hits … I want everything I write, record, or produce to be loved by all, it just happens to be an impossible task …

When working with a band, I’m often reacting to input from a lot of people, but with the idea that time is precious and the decisions I make in the heat of the moment are often more potent than a more analytical approach … I spend a lot of time trying to overcome the fear and loathing created by some off-the-cuff comment of a record company guy … or a cab driver … Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll do something irritating to make the artists stand up for themselves … see if they have anything under the hood … But my heart is always on their side … I’m no company man … I bust my ass for them like few will … That’s why I must really feel something of value can come from working with a specific person or combo …

I hate producing …

2: You produced last year’s outstanding effort from The Pinetops, which I think is as wonderful a record as you’ve ever been involved with. What do you personally think is your greatest moment as a producer?

DD: I have fond feelings for almost every record I’ve ever worked on … I really do … My list of great moments would be too long to be interesting to anyone …

3: In a conversation a few weeks back, I think I suggested that maybe your last couple of releases were less successful than the new one, and you took issue with me. How do you decide when something you’ve done is a “success”?

DD: I only care about whether I can stand to listen to it or not … It’s a shame that no one can ever have the experience of hearing their own song for the first time … When I was younger, I would occasionally write a song just because no one had written that song yet … For example, I actually thought (out loud in my head) “there is no song relating the life of a river boat gambler to the boy’s club life of a rock band”, then sat down and wrote “Lady Luck and Luxury” with a chorus that says:

the river is the life for me
lady luck and luxury
devine
that grand old dame has got me tied
to a girl at every dock
but I prefer it when we’re off down stream
then I can pee over the side

I consider that chorus a success …

4: Two-part question: Was there music playing your “first time”? And what do you think is the greatest make-out album ever recorded?

DD: No music at the exact moment, but Otis Redding Live in Europe directly preceded … It’s funny but few of my sex memories contain musical references (except of course in the songs I wrote about stuff) … I began playing “professionally” at 13, and therefore much of my normal teenage life was retarded … and I also took music more seriously than most … If Kind Of Blue was on I would be listening, not making out …

5: You’ve never enjoyed the commercial success your work deserves, but in the Southeast (especially in the Carolinas) you’re a god to a lot of younger artists. What do you think of this legacy are you happy with influence you’ve had as an artist, producer, mentor, whatever, or would you rather have attained superstardom? Or both, perhaps?

DD: On certain days I am extremely happy with what I’ve accomplished so far … On other days I would prefer to be vilified and rich …

6: Most current power pop owes its soul to the Beatles, Badfinger, Big Star and the Raspberries. Your own music, though, exhibits a lot more soul/R&B influence than many current pop artists. How did these sounds get into your head, and what caused them to stick?

DD: I was born in a very small mill town in SC … My first musical memory is singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” while standing between my parents in the front seat of the car … My second is singing “Tutti Fruitti” …

I was eclectic from the start …

My entire life has been one of varying musical tastes often running parallel to one another … The fact that our local radio station played everything from Country to R&B, Gospel to Classical, Foxtrots to Sambas all in the same day, may have helped to shape my sense that music was not so easy to box up … It flowed easily between styles … I was able to see the bridges in the different styles and remember being amused by my musician friends who would become fiercely loyal to one artist or style, forsaking all others … My jazz friends didn’t get Otis and my soul friends hated the Beatles …

The persistent R&B effect on my stuff tends to be the result of the natural sound of my voice and my equally instinctive phrasing and improvisational ability … I would be chastised by the director of the youth choir at my church for messing around with a melody and she would try to make me give it to her straight … One of the very few hymns in the Presbyterian Hymnal that was a traditional gospel song was a version of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” … I finally got to sing it as a solo when I was twelve … I sang it the way I wanted to that Sunday and I can still see the light flowing through the stained glass at the back of the church as I sang … During the ’70s I fought my nature and developed a rather crackerly style in an effort to distance myself from criticism about “trying to sound like a black guy” but that didn’t last … I came to realize that race is not the sole determining factor in the way one sings and ultimately reverted to the natural way I sang growing up …

The color of my skin (or yours) should be no more an issue than the color of the sky …

7: The Internet, Napster, home studio software, digital effects processors … . Popular music is experiencing a period of tremendous change, and frankly, I don’t think anybody knows for sure what the landscape is going to look like when the smoke clears. What technological, social, economic, etc., trends in the industry strike you as most significant, and in what ways do you expect popular music to change over the next decade?

DD: I’m more surprised by the lack of change … I’m not sure I’ve heard anything that I considered really different since the advent of the theremin …

8: What’s the best concert you ever saw? What was the first show you ever saw?

DD: I’m not good at superlatives … I don’t think that way so I don’t have a ready index of answers to those questions … In my youth I saw incredible shows by The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, later Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, Fairport Convention, Yes … I was even slayed by Tina Turner in the late ‘80s … I saw people like Clark Terry and Dizzie Gillespie in small clubs … I even played bass with Buddy Rich, Marion McPartland and Loonis McGlohon when I was still in my teens … But the talent shows at the high school auditorium still seem like the most magical big-time events ever held … Those memories are dazzling …

9: I saw your old band, Arrogance, play Wait Chapel at Wake Forest in 1980 or so, and it was one of the best shows I had ever seen in my life. What do you think is the best concert you ever played?

DD: Arrogance was consistently great live … We were so consistent that it was almost boring for us, but there were some nights that we really “hit the note” … That’s what we would call it if we played a particularly great set … There was a time in my life when I thought that if I didn’t pass out, I hadn’t given people their money’s worth … I remember one night at The Town Hall in Chapel Hill when not only did I pass out, but I ended up in a pile of my own amplifiers, people screaming, refusing to leave … the police finally breaking everything up … In my solo years, I put together a band for a short three-week tour (Jamie Hoover – guitar, Robert Crenshaw – drums, Angie Carlson -guitar and piano, me on bass) and we played a great set one night at this club in SC … the crowd went ape … The club had kind of crappy paintings of all these rock stars all around the room … all the typical choices for the mid-‘80s … But there were a couple dozen of these things and we started playing a song by each one in turn … With every song, the crowd went even crazier until they had to roll us out of there …

10: Most of the Girls like to Dance was the quintessential young man’s guitar pop album, chocked full of songs about dancing and girls, and there was this wonderful innocence about it. There was no real corruption in the world, even in the one-night stand story of “Just Rites.” Romeo at Julliard was a bit more grown up, and the next two studio efforts, EEE and Romantic Depressive seemed to be grappling with the point where the innocent has to confront adulthood (and society certainly pressures us all to grow up and act our ages). The new CD, The Invisible Man, strikes me as fully mature, the work of somebody who has made peace with experience and expectations. If Most of the Girls… was the ultimate young man’s album, your latest is perhaps the best statement of manhood I’ve heard in years, better even than Graham Parker’s Struck by Lightning, which I thought was wonderful. Can you talk about the process of growing up, both personally and musically? Do you feel this arc, this path to maturity as fully as you portray it in your work?

DD: I wrote those songs so I wouldn’t have to talk about it …

[Ed. Note: The pseudo-rock journalist is crushed – he had composed such a sensitive, thoughtful question….]

11: You’ve written a lot of sensitive, self-pitying, she-don’t-love-me songs through the years (“Oh Cheap Chatter” was my personal anthem for a while). On the Chi-Town Budget Show Live CD, your lovely and talented wife (Marti Jones) comes on stage and re-sets “Heart in a Box” to the tune of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” How did that feel?

DD: The “poor, poor pitiful me” character is fun to write for … I’ve never sat down to write a song like that, but the persona has surfaced often in my stuff … He’s not the same guy in every song, though, and he very often takes a nasty turn, as in the murder that takes place in “February Ingenue” … That character was much older than I was at the time, ashamed and unable to express his way out of a devastating May-December relationship … Marti’s ability to send me up has never affected me that way … she’s just funny … And anyway, “Heart In A Box” is the ultimate poor, pitiful me song … The dumb-ass is going to kill himself to get back at this woman that isn’t even going to care … Talk about a loser …

12: What are the last five CDs you purchased?

DD: Give Us A Break, Prolepsis, Rumours, Suddenly and Lively … Even though that’s technically true, it isn’t a fair answer … Here’s something more like a real answer: Mike Craver Wagoner’s Lad, Terre Roche The Sound of a Tree Falling, Dave Brubeck Brandenberg Gate, Revisited, Donald Erb The Devil’s Quickstep, and Barefoot Jerry Southern Delight.

13: What does the next year or two hold for you? Do you have any interesting production jobs lined up? Will you be heading back into the studio for another Dixon CD? Maybe some touring? Please don’t make us wait another five years for your next record, whatever you do.

DD: The five year rule is real for me … I need that much time to make a worthy record and still have a life … I’ve been deeply involved in the Arrogance CD re-issues and doing a few shows to promote “Invisible Man” … I have a number of shows scheduled for the summer – Southern California, Texas, the Southeast and the Northeast … even a few Midwest dates … Marti and I are in the process of writing and recording new songs for her next record … So far I’m pretty interested in what we’ve come up with … When we feel that it’s done, I plan to resume work I’d started about two years ago on seven instrumental pieces … I don’t want to have to wait five years for that one …

14: The Invisible Man features 11 songs, and each is the story of a different character, ranging in age from 18-85. The liner notes say, “I am none of them and all of them.” Where did these people come from? Are they closely modeled on people you know, or are they more people you imagine? In particular, I want to know more about the guy in “Do So Well.”

DD: Some of the characters I write about are the bizzarro versions of myself … They do and say the exact opposite things that I would do or say, yet their words and thoughts spring from me … I hate that … I don’t filter as I write, I edit after everything is played out … As I’ve grown older, I can stand to let more of the ideas live on their own … I don’t feel as personally responsible for them … After all, it’s only a stupid pop song … Some ideas spring directly from my own life but many begin as a series of sounds associated with the music … The sounds start turning into words and the words begin to form ideas … I often don’t have any notion of what a song is about early on in the process … A few pop out whole …

In “Do So Well” it became clear that this man was captive in some way, but I don’t believe he is literally captive … He feels like a prisoner but I have come to the conclusion that his more dramatic statements are evidence that he’s trumping up his defense … He’s a poor fool who wakes up to find himself living (and bargaining) with a stranger …

The new platter is about disenfranchised male power, or perhaps I should say the impression men have of their sense of power as they age and what the important mitigating factors are … The songs are mostly first person soliloquies by a man of a certain age (the age of the singer of each song is listed in the liner notes) … There are occasional Greek chorus-style moral comments from an omnipotent third party, but the songs consist mostly of a single, often confused voice … I fear that I’m making this sound too much like Mr. Joyce’s Ulysses or something … It’s not … it’s just a pop record, but as with all my records I think about the overall ambience and subconscious impact of one song against the next, fighting to maintain a thread …

In my solo career, I’ve always tried to do a few cover songs on every record, as a matter of principle, the principle being “You do not have to serve the song. Make the song serve you.” On MotGLtD it was “Skin Deep” and “When A Man Loves A Woman.” On Romeo at Julliard it was “Cool,” “Cat Out Of The Bag” and “Jean Harlow’s Return.” On EEE it was “Love Gets Strange” and “Dark End Of The Street.” Romantic Depressive was an aberration because I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted to cut that really fit the theme/feel of the record and I had a couple of co-writes that felt like covers to me … As usual I had written a ton of songs, gone back in my own archives looking for lost or forgotten songs that worked, and had finally covered ages 23 through 85 pretty effectively … I had two cover songs that I was thinking about – “I Want To Be Misunderstood” (Pete Townsend from Rough Mix) and “Decline and Fall” (Mitch Easter from the Sneakers record In the Red) … The Pete song, long-loved and beautiful, proved to be difficult for me to make my own and it represented an age and attitude which I had covered pretty well on my own … As I began to dissect “Decline and Fall” I realized that it reflected the perfect high school-age combination of fear, loathing, and cocksure cover up … I found a very personal approach to the music and it became an important ingredient for this recording … I can’t tell whether Mitch likes my version or not but he helped me figure out the lyrics …

15: Most of us have musical guilty pleasures, things we like but aren’t necessarily proud of. Is there anything in your CD collection that you hope people won’t notice when they come over?

DD: I’m embarrassed when friends come over and I don’t own one of their records … I get nervous if they start flipping through my collection … That’s one of the reasons I don’t go through people’s record collections … I don’t want them to feel guilty …

16: I can’t help wondering if you saw American Beauty, and if so, what you thought of it.

DD: I, like many people around the world, enjoyed it … There were some slightly bothersome aspects to it, thrown in for the element of surprise, that rankled me slightly … The misogynistic, closeted father was my biggest problem … and it was telegraphed so … But the Kevin Spacey role was excellently written and rendered while the two kids were completely fascinating to me …

17: If they were to make a TV mini-series based on your life, who would you want to play you?

DD: Dead: Gabby Hayes. Living: Denzel Washington.

18: You’ve played a lot through the years with Jamie Hoover of The Spongetones. Once upon a time, Arrogance (your band) and The Spongetones were probably the two biggest bands in the Carolinas. Was there ever any kind of rivalry between the bands or between you and Jamie, or were you always friends?

DD: We weren’t very close during the Arrogance days … He probably never saw the band … I don’t think I ever saw The Spongetones back then, either … We became friends later, working at Reflection together and things like that … Their drummer, Rob Thorn, played on two songs on our first album, though …

19: Radio has deteriorated so badly in recent years that there’s almost no risk of hearing good new music by listening to it (unless you’re lucky enough to live near a good college station). Do you see any hope for the resurrection of radio as a meaningful medium for new and non-corporate acts, or is it gone for good?

DD: That period of history exists only in our imagination … Companies never put out records that they thought would fail … Sometimes it was only one person who felt that something would succeed while the rest of the company held its breath, but someone believed in its commercial potential … Radio simply followed the lead of the taste of the humans putting out the records … just like it does today … The period you speak of just coincides with a time when the labels were more patient and they were looking for something new to sell … I believe that a lot of incredible, timeless music was created during the heyday of FM, but there was a lot of crap, too … Perhaps another thing that you miss (as do I) is the individuality of the stations … The jocks had more freedom in programming back then but the idea of national programming was taking root in the garden of broadcasting even as regionalism was still blooming on the vine …

20: Who do you think are the three greatest male vocalists in rock/pop/R&B history? Female?

DD: Joe Williams, Otis Redding, Lou Rawls, Muddy Waters, Paul Rodgers, Robert Kirkland. Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Aretha Franklin, Susan Cowsill, Marti Jones.

[Ed. Note: I said three, darnit.]

21: On your new CD you play well over 20 different instruments (four or five basses, eight or nine guitars, etc.) On a purely visceral level, which individual instrument is your favorite to play?

DD: I am a bass player … I have always been a bass player … The first two instruments I bought were basses … I am a bass player … a bass … player.

22: The Invisible Man seems to involve fewer guest contributions than some of your past efforts. Did you want to do more of this one by yourself for some reason, or did it just work out that way?

DD: I had intended to involve more people but I was working under a very tight schedule … How can you put out a record on a five-year cycle and be on a tight schedule, you ask? … After I felt all the songs were there, I had blocked out just over a month to get all the recording and mixing done … As I worked on things, another idea came to me, so the writing took precedence … I was happy and lucky to get Mitch to fit me into his place for a few hours to get some drumming done … he’s long been one of my favorite drummers … I also coaxed MJ down to the basement only when absolutely necessary … I didn’t want her to know much about this record ahead of time … For the most part, I have only used other people (besides drummers) for solos on my records and this record didn’t want solos per se …

Special Bonus Question: Artists often get tired of playing the same songs over and over live, to the point where I’ve been to shows and the band refused to play the only song they ever recorded that got any kind of airplay. Are there songs that you hate to play, and are there songs that you never get tired of performing?

DD: I have never really had the experience of growing to hate a song because of its popularity … Sometimes a song gets stale and you have to retire it for a bit … Other songs just keep their flavor, their crispness …

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