Moe Whittemore - 700west
interviewer: Time Lord Michaelis (Dr. Who)
Having read a few things at your web page (http://700west.com/htdb/moe) I guess that even the whole edition of Issue 8 of TimeMazine would be too 'little' to include all of your 'Work And Days' from the mid 30s when you were born (1934) till nowadays (summer 2013). So, we will focus in this remarkable period of the 700west recording studio (1972-1983). Readers can of course learn more by going to your web page.
Let me start by asking if you had any musical background prior to 700west?
It seems like I've always been involved with music - 'on the side'. It started with piano lessons at age 8 thru 17. Clarinet & oboe lessons started in high school, then on into the Purdue band. In '58, while working full time at my money gig (Electronic Engineering), I tried for my bMusic on oboe. But there was an engineering job change, so I left the Indy area with about 20 credit hours to go on the degree. (More on that, later....)
OK. So, how did it all start with the recording studio?
Thru the '60s tho, my engineering jobs were music related: speaker and audio electronics design at GM; studio monitor speaker, capacitor mic and recording console design at RCA. Having to demo this equipment to the various RCA studios gave me the chance to observe some great recording sessions. I then realized 'I can do this'! Additionally, all thru the '60s I was involved with field/live recording projects that used my highly modified tape system. Anyway, I left RCA in '72 and opened 700 West Recording. Our earliest equipment included a modified older Magnecorder PT6H equipped with multiple heads (including a 4-channel stack) using my own electronics and a couple of my homemade capacitor mics, supplemented by a few commercial dynamic mics. We were on our way!!
How did you decide to run a recording studio? (When, where, why, how...)
There were a few large, pricey studios in the Indy area (that specialized mostly in commercials), but few of the startup bands could afford this luxury. From the outset, 700 West was to cater to these small groups by specializing in the demo tape (and occasional vinyl release) and keeping things affordable. As time wore on tho, a trend emerged. Nearly all the material done by our 'clients' were their original tunes! Hardly any cover tunes were ever recorded! (It's just as well, since one more version of 'Smoke On the Water' was enough to make one puke!!) In the beginning - to keep afloat - I also did instrument repairs and built custom electronic goodies for our groups.
Which was the first demo you cut? I believe it was Mr. Feelgood's single? (Tell us a few things about that)
Actually, I can't remember the group's name on our 1st demo tape gig, but shortly after that, Russell Peck and Kurt Carpenter did a demo (a lot of parody stuff) with their group 'The Competition, Inc.' Russell went on to be a great classical music composer and teacher, and Kurt had just been awarded ASCAP's 'Young Composer of the Year' award! (David Bowie's wife attended a few of their sessions....) Before 'Mr. Feelgood's' single, we cut a 45 for Dean Wolfe and his 'By Chantz Operation'. Finally, we get to the Mr. Feelgood sessions. His backup band was the club group 'The Demonstrators'. Fun band, but always loaded. Never showed up when they were supposed to. This single got some airplay on a couple local Indy stations in '72.
The Zerfas! I believe that this was your first original release, right? Tell us, about the Zerfas brothers, their album, the recording sessions, anything that you can remember (if possible).
The Zerfas LP was the 1st LP release on the 700 West label, although we did a couple of gospel LPs just before it - on one of which Dave Zerfas played drums! Dave was the group leader and Herman (Brian) was the versatile keyboardist, vocalist - you name it! We also used Dave and Herman a bit as studio musicians.... The album was recorded between 1/25/73 and 7/11/73, with time out in the middle to re-think some of the ideas they were doing. When recording resumed, things went along pretty quickly! I believe the initial pressing was for 500 albums, with a re-order of 300. Right before the Zerfas sessions I acquired our 3M 4-track mastering machine, and finished up the infamous 'orange boxes' - our 1st tri-amped studio monitors. Since they were a road band, Zerfas/Jubal came back quite a few times to update some of their material to fit the current trends. They were among the last groups to record with us, before we closed in '83. Their last thing was a re-do of 'The Piper', my fattest production, ever!! It rivaled 48-track recordings of the day!!
There's a lot experimentation going on the Zerfas album. Did you play a role?
I suppose I encouraged them to experiment. Backwards reverb & vocals; processed belches; speed change & ring modulator effects - things like that.... Since they were Beatles-influenced, they dared compare me to George Martin (I wish!). But if they could describe another weird electronic effect they wanted, I tried to come up with it.
I think that you did engineering on all of your recording sessions, right?
Yeah. Except one time when we needed extra hands during an album mix to continuously correct an out-of-tune singer by riding his vocal using the Harmonizer.
You did an excellent job on 'Smokin' Bats' by Primevil. What can you remember from the Primevil days?
I always let our rock clients 'turn up' in the studio, just like they did playing live gigs - made all the difference in the world in their sound and attitude! Primevil was a real fun group to work with. Sometimes we had to cut a session short because our sides hurt from laughing so hard.... I guess I tried to find a 'signature' sound by our groups and push to get 'more of it' - if it made me feel good or laugh! The great guitar leads by Jay & Larry, the funky drumming by Mel and Jay's great 8-measure screams come to mind....
Jay of Primevil told me that you are a great guy but crazy as a raving mad scientist. 'Moe brought the band to a whole new place with some of his production ideas'. And your particular recording techniques I may add. Would you like to give us an example of your 'techniques'?
'Raving, mad scientist' - hardly. Just a normal Electronics Engineer with a bit of a musical background.... I may've suggested the stomping bit on 'High Steppin' Stomper', but Jay dragged the stage in to stomp on! Jay's acapella guitar solo over the stomping was something I remembered that B. B. King did at a concert, stamping on the stage. The album was 'mutually produced', other than my prodding the group to 'do more of this, or that' - or, 'get out of the chord, dammit'!!
Scott And Modlin! Comments?
This was a '75/'76 effort. By then, we'd gotten our 8-channel master recorder and our Neumann U-47 Mic. Working with the 'storytellers' Dave Scott and Dan Modlin was a world different from working with Primevil! The direction of their LP-to-be was pretty much dictated by their manager Mike Griffin. I just tried to record them as cleanly as I could, and correct minor clams. I also played a bit of piano for 'em (and shot my .44 cap & ball revolver on 'McCall'). But there's one tune on the album that I had a musical say on - 'I've Seen Your Face'. We used my synth's pitch-to-voltage converter to track Dan's bass and automatically inject synthesizer bass underneath. This tune also has a highly compressed acoustic guitar solo - unusual sounds for a Newgrass rocker! (Dan & Dave are still strong in music, currently piecing together a new album!)
Would you mind telling us a few things about some of the other bands/artists that stepped through your door? And maybe tell us who impressed you most and why?
Jeez! I learned something from every band that graced our portals! (And tried to apply this to other groups that came thru - cross breeding, you might say...) Some of the highlites might include: Ezekial Longspur, Zerfas, Stonewall, Stone's Crossing, anything Jim Dicks did, Amnesty, Malachi, J. Michael Henderson, Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign, Kevin Stonerock, Funk St. Workshop, the Beatsters, Port Orange (Versietyle), John Kimsey and the Art Thieves, Rex Thomas, the Wright Brothers, Blakey Special, J.D. Redmon, Golden Grass, Jerry Lowe, Long Yang, Maelstrom. I could go on and on, as I loved and learned from each of 'em.... All were talented musicians and their bands were very tight - and open to suggestions!
Is there a favorite recording act of yours from the 700west era? Or maybe one that you enjoyed working with?
Engineer, Mix, Production, Technical Advisor, Musical Advisor, Synthesizer, Piano, Oboe, Vocals. Which is your favorite role?
I can't separate these roles, as all overlap - and all are who I am!
You have worked closely with nearly 2000 individuals from 3 to 300 hours each. Can you name all the musical styles/genres that went through your recording studio?
Good lord! How 'bout: Hard Rock, Country Rock, Funk, R & B, White Gospel, Black Gospel, Country (very little), Alternative, Big Band, Bluegrass, an occasional spec commercial by one of our groups, Jazz (rarely, as jazz groups didn't record much), Asian ethnic, spoken word recordings for NPR, solo Classical audition demos - and pop-oriented tunes for hopeful pre-teen contest prospects!!
You recorded a bunch of great singles! Comments?
So far as the vinyl output goes, we probably did more singles than LPs. They were far more affordable to the groups who needed records to sell at their gigs.
Tell us about your one and only solo album released in 1976. Is it an odd selection of demos trying to show the abilities of you and your studio, as they say? Musically it covers so many styles/genres! Who takes part? How many copies were pressed?
The 'Mo, First Album' was a collection of demos that I was shopping around to publishers. Some of my acquaintances talked me into cutting an album from these tunes. Mercifully, only 200 LPs were released. Surprisingly, some of the tunes were picked up! Even more surprising, some of the stuff got airplay! Most of the material was an application of a certain musical composition technique, ex: 'Check Me Out' was a study in the 'cycle of fifths' chord progression; 'Congratulations' was a progressive rocker in 5/4 time; 'Muscle Pumpkin' was a collage of crazy snippets recorded at the studio, etc., etc. I do quite a bit of playing on the album, as well as some solo and backup singing - but I had plenty of outside help! Some of the lead vocals featured Herman (Brian) Zerfas; ERFCs Tony Black; Amnesty's Herman Walker; and the Johnson Brothers Bill Johnson. Drumming duties were shared by Dave Zerfas, Gary Brewer and Michael Black. Guitarists/bassists include Rex Thomas, Dave Lovell, Larry Lucas, Bo Gooliak and Pat Johnson. Some of the players were members of the Zerfas and Primevil groups.
Who is to blame about having recorded many records that sell amongst collectors for hundreds of dollars? Was it the corn? (joking)
(Probably the soy beans! HA!!) All kidding aside, most of these bands were truly great - and never got the break they should've, before 'The Recession' of the late 70s caught up with the Music business.... If 700 West stuff is desirable, it's because we chose our 'label bands' carefully and believed in them and their material! And most of their recordings have aged very well sonically, sounding great alongside current releases!!
Anything last to add?
After my Engineering career was winding down, I went back to school and got my Master's degree in Music Composition from Butler Univ. in 2005. (You ain't lived until you've taken the GRE exam at age 70!) What's left of the old studio has been converted back into a home. The old control room now houses my 'project studio'. I wish I had some of my current digital goodies, back in the day! I'm now trying to 'sell' my classical compositions. Sadly, it's no better now, than when I was trying to sell my Pop/Rock/Funk comps, back in the 70s!!