Landau's Creative Touch with Springsteen

Billboard, 1992-06-13, by: Thom Duffy
On June 15, Bruce Springsteen will kick off his first worldwide tour in four years in Stockholm, showcasing his two new Columbia Records albums "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" with a new band--guitarist Shane Fontayne, drummer Zachary Alford, bassist Tommy Simms, and E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan. He previewed the tour June 5 with a live international broadcast from Los Angeles syndicated by the Album Network and will open his U.S. tour at New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena July 23.

Recently, Springsteen's longtime manager and producer, Jon Landau, sat down for a rare interview with Billboard to discuss the making and the marketing of these new albums and his role in bringing forth Springsteen's music, in what Landau calls a 17-year-long creative dialog.

Billboard: This is the first time Bruce has opened a tour in Europe.

Jon Landau: We've had a growing and wonderful relationship with the audience in Europe. Sometimes what happens is, you put your record out and an artist concentrates so exclusively on their home base, that by the time you turn your attention elsewhere, the record has gone through its initial cycle. So this time, we thought, let's begin with an old-fashioned, essentially promotional tour there before we dig down in North America for the rest of the year. I think it's going to be an exciting way to start.

We've really had success there that has built steadily since "The River," which was the first real tour we did in Europe [in 1981]. We've had great assistance from Bob Summer [president of Sony Music International] and Bob Campbell [VP of creative operations at Sony Music International] and the heads of all the companies we've gotten to know over the years.

BB: The summer shows announced thus far are all indoor dates.

JL: My feeling, both here and in Europe, was just to start out indoors, with two new records and a new band, especially because it's Bruce's intention to concentrate heavily on the new music.

BB: This is the first major tour without the E Street Band.

JL: For the '70s and '80s, no artist could have been better served by a band than Bruce was by the E Street Band. That's just a fact. Fantastic people. Fantastic musicians. Bruce and the E Street Band could have toured forever.

But at some point, he just needed to sort of shake things up, just to give himself some new challenges and new inspiration. After the Amnesty International tour ended [in late 1988], it was pretty clear he didn't want them waiting on him. This was a time for everyone to make their individual moves.

This wasn't a totally sudden thing. He made the "Nebraska" album by himself, made "Born In The U.S.A." with the band, then made "Tunnel Of Love" basically by himself. So the logical extension of that, having made two of the three last studio records by himself, was, "Let's see what somebody else sounds like."

BB: "Human Touch" was recorded largely with drummer Jeff Porcaro, bassist Randy Jackson, Roy Bittan on keyboards, and other guest musicians. How then was the tour band recruited?

JL: We tried to be pretty discreet about it and we looked at some incredible musicians. We had people come in and had a half-dozen songs that represented the musical range we were looking at. It got to a certain point where Zach and Tommy and Shane felt like the right choices and we had them come back for a week. At the end of the week, we said, "Let's go for it." That was two weeks before "Saturday Night Live." And I've got to tell you -- just as an original Bruce fan ? I can't wait to see the shows because of what's already happening. These guys are very, very hot. And they're really in sync with each other.

BB: Let's talk about how these albums took shape, first "Human Touch."

JL: The very first song that is on the records was created in December 1989. It was "Roll Of The Dice." Bruce had been writing for a while but hadn't found his voice yet for this particular work. Both musically and in terms of the inspirational quality of the lyric, the touch of R&B, many different factors in that song turned out to have meaning for the record as a whole.

After that, a number of songs emerged fairly quickly. But in the spring of 1990 was when he came up with "Human Touch." There was the unifying piece, there was the statement, and we were all real excited at the time. "57 Channels," which was one of the very last songs to be written [for "Human Touch"], was a great little moment because its inclusion brought another dimension in terms of the music and the humor. Those were some of the high points.

BB: "Lucky Town," in contrast, was written comparatively quickly by Bruce, alone in his home studio.

JL: That type of record... "Born To Run," "Nebraska," "Tunnel Of Love," and "Lucky Town" were all albums where what's on the record is almost all of what he's created. "Darkness," "The River," "Born In The U.S.A.," "Human Touch" are albums where there's a lot of experimentation and recording beyond what's on the record. So there's two different modes.

So anyway, we had finished "Human Touch" and he said, "I feel this album is finished but I still feel like writing." He was working at home. He called me and he had something. It was "Living Proof' and "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy." I told him in so many words, "Hey, if there's any more where this came from, let's just keep going." I went out there a little while later and he played me the "Lucky Town" album, 85% to 95% the form that it's in. That was in the summer of '91. It was just breathtaking.

BB: Why did you decide on the simultaneous release of the albums?

JL: We thought about putting one out and holding one back. And we thought about mixing them together. But it really was two separate musical experiences that were made consecutively, in relatively the same time frame. And the reason we came up with the simultaneous release was that it simply was the truest representation of what had occurred. He made two albums.

BB: What was Columbia's reaction?

JL: It was really dreamlike for me. Their enthusiasm was heartfelt. I told them about it in a sensational meeting in October [1991] that I had with Tommy [Mottola, president of Sony Music] and Donnie [Ienner, president of Columbia Records]. I can truthfully say there was no discussion on the point at all. They understood it.

BB: Let's go back to the recording of "Human Touch." From a production standpoint, were things done differently this time around?

JL: Not really. You're dealing at all times in the studio with Bruce, the writer. The dominating factor is the song. In terms of [fitting] contemporary taste, it's just not something that's actively discussed. There's sure a lot of guitar for a '90s record and there's a lot of guitar because that's what felt right for these songs.

On the other hand, there was some general awareness that we're making a record in the '90s for the '90s. And we certainly wanted to meet the prevailing taste halfway -- which is to say you want to show some intelligent flexibility as long as you're being true to your work.

BB: How would you describe your role in Bruce's creative process?

JL: My role has evolved over the years. There's a level at which it's just this one big dialog we've had for 17 years. This is all one big conversation. Sometimes it's about tours, sometimes it's about songs. At this point, Bruce is thoroughly knowledgeable about the studio and, along with Chuck Plotkin and Roy Bittan, I'm there trying to, number one, fill any gaps that I think anybody's missing and, number two, I find myself focusing a great deal on the songs and the singing, and interacting with Bruce about the songs. It's a very comfortable, ongoing, and fulfilling interaction and, as you say, sometimes it means stepping back. In the case of the "Lucky Town" album, Bruce was in his home studio setup and he sent me the tape and I said, "Hey, just keep doing what you're doing."

BB: From the studio to the marketplace, your role shifts.

JL: Now we are into the artist and manager [relationship]. But again, it's a collaboration. Bruce is a person who is in control of his own destiny, so it is a collaboration.

BB: The broader issue is how a top artist and manager respond to changes in today's marketplace.

JL: The response is real obvious and I think we're accomplishing that. We generally like to put the records out in a very direct fashion, not pre-digested for everybody with a lot of pre- interviews and things that can feel too hyped. Having done that, now is obviously the time to step forward and let people know what's on your mind and get out and do these shows.

BB: That low-hype launch, however, may have resulted in the lower chart positions of these albums.

JL: Once again, we're very aware of that. But we tend to get our priorities internally and then find our best way of getting the music out there. We're in this for the long haul. And the records went up. The records are where they are now. The records are going to go back up. The life of these records will be long.

BB: What philosophy guides your business and marketing decisions?

JL: The point is, with Bruce, the creative leads. Songs, records, shows, and now videos. That's the body of work. That's the career. So what we try to do is make anything that calls attention to Bruce to be related to one of those four things.

In other words, we're not trying to go for things that simply publicize the person as a celebrity because Bruce long ago decided that, if he was going to be well known, [it would be] for what he did. We're trying to help increase the focus on what Bruce has created, to help people find what it is there that might be of use to them.

You go to radio with the things that work for them and collaborate with radio. They have been friends to us for 20 years. But you also have to go supplement that, and in the case of a great touring artist like Bruce, the tour has become the centering experience. It's a gathering point and it personalizes the experience for people in a way nothing else can.

BB: Barbara Carr has worked with you for the past 12 years. What is her management role?

JL: We function as a team; 90% of the work we do has become interchangeable. She participates with me in the creation and execution of all our ideas in presenting Bruce's work to the public.

BB: Some say your management style is fairly secretive.

JL: I have learned from a history of working with Bruce that when you're in the studio, things change. And the reporting of information that's outdated as soon as it's printed just confuses people. So the approach we've taken over the years, for better or worse, is that we really have nothing to say until we're done, then we try to be as informative as we can be. Although that can make a certain amount of sense to us, the down side can be for a long period of time to go by without us saying anything. And maybe that's not the best thing. That's something I would think about doing differently when this particular part of the process recurs because it's not our intention to withhold information.

BB: You have chosen not to discuss the terms of Springsteen's record deal at Columbia. But there has been widespread speculation about Springsteen's future with the label.

JL: We have not had discussions with anyone else. We have no plans to, and we couldn't be happier with their performance to date. Tommy [Mottola] and Don [Ienner] have shown a tre- [article has a cut here - ed] keting needs of the '90s. There's no question they're at the top of their game. I would go a step further and say that, in the course of working together, we have all started to develop the kinds of collaborative relationships that augur well for the future.

BB: Looking back and looking ahead, what is your perspective of your work with Bruce Springsteen?

JL: We hooked up over what I took to be something unique about Bruce's creativity and some ability I had to help in the process by which he expresses himself. And after all this time, it's continued to be as rewarding and fulfilling a form of work as I could have ever hoped for. Certainly, everything I do with Bruce is designed to add to the sum of worthwhile music that's being created in our generation's time.

If we talk, as we have, about the record-company things and marketing things... I love all that stuff and I never undervalue it and its part of my job. But at the end of the day, for me, when Bruce cranked into "Living Proof" at "Saturday Night Live," or as I look ahead to our first night in Stockholm, and the true force of what we're going to do next is revealed, that's what it's all about for me. It's what it's been all about for me since the first time I saw Bruce perform. As long as I feel that way about it, then I remain totally motivated.

Notes

Interview with Jon Landau

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