Record Producer David Bianco Has Died

Buffalo Tom guitarist Bill Janovitz remembers a guiding hand who believed in bridges

Tom Maginnis, Bill Janovitz and David Bianco. (Photo: Chris Colbourn)

Man, news of David Bianco’s passing has really hit us hard. Buffalo Tom always made records with people who had made records we really loved. That and personality were the main criteria. We first learned about Dave from his killer production of the Teenage Fanclub record, Grand Prix, which all three Buffalos Tom adored. But he had amazing stories about working on landmark albums by Jagger, Petty, AC/DC, and… yeah, you might have heard of some of them. For a while there, he was Rick Rubin’s secret weapon.

Dave loved Big Star, the Byrds, the Beatles and so much more (those were just the Bs). When it came to production, he was bold — “commit it to tape if you believe in it” — be it compression, reverb, whatever. And he believed that not only should every pop song have a middle-eight, but that the middle-eight should be the key to the lyrical theme. As I said, he loved the Beatles. So we wrote more middle eights. And “NO INSTRUMENTAL MIDDLE EIGHTS! COP OUT!”

Much like the Robb Brothers, who recorded our fourth LP (1993’s Big Red Letter Day), Dave was a classic NY/LA engineer/producer who came up in the ’70s and really could not care less about our indie/post-punk origins. When the time came to make Smitten, our last record of the ’90s, we felt a lot of self-inflicted pressure. We had ended our tenure on the record label Beggars Banquet with ambitions of moving on to sign directly to a US major. Stupid. Bad timing. End of the ’90s. Etc. Dave lessened the pressure. He was a great hang.

Dave hated being taken out of his usual places in LA and he particularly hated Bearsville studio. It was too cavernous for him and not how he felt we should be recorded. He constructed a small room within their vocal/overdub room, eschewing the famous big room there.

We tookDave to see Superchunk at the Paradise when he was in town working on our pre-production at Tom Dubé’s loft studio. He could not get over how great Jon Wurster was on the drums. I had seen Superchunk a bunch, having toured with them. I knew Jon was great, of course. But Bianco went into detail. He pointed out that Jon raised his arm and left it suspended, bringing it down slowly where he wanted the beat to land, and nodding his head a little. I think about what Dave said every time I watch Jon play.

I kept detailed notes in a recording diary while making Smitten and you can sense some of the rapport we developed with our producer, as well as what our band was hoping to achieve with this record.

Here’s what I wrote for “Register Side,” the 9th song on the record.

I kept the S.G through the Twin sound as the basic, also using a tremolo effect pedal here and there. Next I overdubbed an S.G. through a Marshall for the loud parts of the song. The lead vocal part came late in the afternoon. This is the hardest but also most rewarding part for me. Arguably, the lead vocal is the most important facet of pop songs, so we spend a great deal of time and effort getting the feel, the pitch and the approach of the vocals spot on. Paying attention to all of these things at once while trying to stay true to the inspiration of the song is difficult, though, as our wise guy producer David Bianco responded to that observation, “Well, yes. This is what you do; you record, you’re a ‘recording artist.'” Hmmm.

Here’s another excerpt:

David Bianco’s a very sharp, even-keeled, witty guy, an expert engineer with a great ear for sounds and song structure. Plus he’s a raconteur with a great repertoire of stories. These are important inasmuch as they serve as good procrastinating digressions from the work at hand. All these studio guys that came up in the seventies before drugs and casual sex were dangerous seem to have way better stories than anyone else I know. Recording BIG RED LETTER DAY with the Robb brothers was like being on a surreal talk show. No kidding, one single day we actually had Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, David Lynch, and Gene Simmons all pop in to hear our session and regale us with stories. This is not to mention Chris’ tete-a-tete with Lita Ford or run-ins with Rick James (ask him). These are all essential traits in a great producer. Dave helps keep the mood in the studio buoyant and he’s extremely patient, indulging the slightest whim of any of the musicians in pursuit of inspired ideas. He came up, as many producers, throughout the ranks of LA engineering, cutting his teeth on every type of session: metal, R&B, indie rock, film soundtracks, mixing, recording. For a while, he was engineer for Rick Rubin and did Tom Petty’s WILDFLOWERS record and Jagger’s last solo thing. He gets great sounds effortlessly. We learned about him through his production on one of our favorite CD’s GRAND PRIX, by our friends the Teenage Fanclub. He still does a mean Scottish brogue and has quite an ear for mimicry. One person he does well is his manager Rick.
Bianco as Rick on the car phone, entering the Holland Tunnel (Brooklyn Italian accent, even though Rick grew up in Boston):
” so I told the studio to knock down the rates to…hold on a sec. (off the phone) HEY! GET DA FUCK OUTTA THAT BUS!! YOU GOT A FUCKIN’ PROBLEM???!!…sorry Dave. I told the manager of the place….”
Rick is a 50-year-old Italian old school manager who spent time as a record promo man, out on the road with everyone from (my hero) Tom Waits to Kiss. He came by last night to take us out after our last session of the week (break on Sundays). He’s a big man who seems to have been taken by surprise by his years and still likes to have a good time. Truth be told, he can outdo any of us. He’s a true character—”colorful” language and management style and some “famous” Italian relatives in various locales in New England. To his son: “you’re 16 years old, I don’t know why you’re still a goddamned altar boy in the first place.” We got him out of the house by calling him at midnight, Bianco telling his wife we needed his help.

I had not seen David in a while. Last time was when he was in Boston working on a Dropkick Murphys record with Ken Casey and the boys.

I will really miss him though.

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Bill Janovitz

Bill Janovitz is the founder of the band Buffalo Tom and the author of two books about the Rolling Stones—Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones and Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Follow him on twitter: @billjanovitz

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