By Michael Hamad
Six albums in nearly 40 years: it's not what you'd call prolific. But just listen to those albums -- the layered guitar lines on "Piece of Mind," the Brad Delp's vocals on "Hitch a Ride," or pick your favorite spot -- and you might agree the countless hours guitarist/engineer/songwriter Tom Scholz spent on these tracks was worth it. For the past four decades, Scholz, an MIT-trained engineer who left a good position at Polaroid when the first Boston album, produced in his homemade, basement studio, started taking off, has been behind it all, tinkering, adjusting levels, mixing, composing, and inventing new gadgets and sounds when he couldn't get what he was after.
It's no surprise, then, that on stage, Scholz is similarly concerned with the way the band sounds. CTNow spoke to the musician from a tour stop in Texas about Boston's current Heaven on Earth Tour, which arrives at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville on Saturday, June 28. (Boston's only other New England appearance is July 3 in Gilford, New Hampshire.) [This interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.]
CTNow: How's the tour going so far?
Tom Scholz: Excellent, most excellent. It is the best performance of this Boston music that I have ever heard. I don't want to sound like I'm blowing my own horn, it's just this group of performers has just rose to the occasion and has taken it very seriously, and it just amazes me. The sound coming through my in-ear monitors is just incredible.
CTNow: So, you have the whole mix coming into your ears?
TS: I'm the only one on the stage, actually, that has the house mix in my ears. Sometimes I find myself scrambling to find somebody and explain to them that I don't want to hear something that's wrong. You know, it's a blessing and a curse, I have to have it because I have to know where my guitar and keyboards fit into the mix, and I have to make sure that the balance is maintained between four guitars. They're pretty much all going all the time and there are seven vocals, and I'm really the only one that knows what to listen for at each point, and each little piece of each song, so I've got to sort of monitor that.
CTNow: Isn't that something you could farm out to somebody else?
TS: Our house guy who's excellent, his job is to balance the mix: the drums, bass, guitars, vocals, keys, and keep it in an appropriate balance… The important parts of the recorded studio songs we try to replicate, virtually, exactly. We of course go way off script in between the songs, and we have extended arrangements, which is where we get to play and improvise, but that part of it we try to be very true to the studio version. When we play the chorus in "More Than A Feeling" we want it to sound exactly like what people are used to hearing. So his job is to balance all of these things and sort of bridge that difficult step between a studio recording, which is usually played at a reasonable level in somebody's car or living room, or what have you, versus a live show, which might approach 110 decibels with crowd noise. So, that's his job. My part in it is just to make sure that the balance between the guitars and the balance between the harmony parts are maintained, and I have fun. I have some capabilities on stage; if things are far enough out or if I hear a problem, I can fix some of it with a quick move of a fade or a control, or alert somebody if there's something missing or dead or gone in one side. Plus all this stuff is in stereo, the guitars are all in stereo, they move around, switch from center to one side or the other, chorusing comes in, echo comes in and out. All of that stuff is controlled individually by each performer.
For instance, when [guitarist] Gary Pihl and I go into some harmony guitar part, where we're playing a lead guitar part in between a vocal break, we adjust the levels ourselves so that we're consistent with the studio recording, and then, you know, and then back down with a different level and a different sound so we're not trampling on the singing. It's a combined effort and a long intricate learning experience for each performer to keep their part in the overall mix. It's part of their job to keep their parts at the appropriate level and with the appropriate sound, and they make all the changes as they go along.
It frees up [the house sound engineer] to be able to listen to the overall mix and just make sure that he's got the kick drum and the snare in the right balance with the bass and all of these really important overall things. Things like that couldn't be done from the stage because in-ears are wonderful, but they're not the same, it's very much what's coming out of the house. Fortunately, I do hear the midrange very well, and the upper frequencies very well, so I'm able to listen to keep the guitars in balance and the keys in balance with the guitars while they're playing. Over 30-plus years of doing it: it's a highly technical solution to being able to replicate these studio recordings, which have of course multitudes of layered tracks that I lay down one at a time, and then painstakingly change the levels on to create this symphonic quality or orchestral quality while still having the power of some raw rock and roll guitars. This solution evolved over quite a long time. I feel like we've completely got it down at this point, everything doesn't always work, but when it does it sounds awesome.
CTNow: Controlling dynamics and volume onstage: that's a skill that not every musician masters to the degree that's required if he/she is going to tour with Boston. Musicians are used to playing their parts and controlling volume to some extent, but this seems like another level.
TS: It really is. For instance, when [guitarist] David Victor joined us a few years back, he already knew most of the Boston catalog because we drafted him from a tribute band, his own tribute band. He knew a lot of the songs, and I would listen to him very carefully playing the songs, and then he found out how much he was going to have to relearn each one. When you've got that many instruments, when you've got (in our case) four guitars, a lot of the time they're playing stereo rhythm parts, or doubling up rhythm parts, or there's a lead part going on over rhythm parts. All of it has to have exceptional timing. When that is going on, there's no room for a personal touch on how I'm going to play this rhythm part. They have to be precise. So we all have to learn the part exactly the same way, and we practice it and rehearse it and drill it.
Same thing when you've got three guitars playing harmony lead lines, for instance: they all have to be just right on. That's what sort of creates this wall of sound. That's why it doesn't sound like a cacophony or a mishmash. The first time everyone gets together and starts to play, it kind of does sound like a mishmash, and then we get down to the nitty gritty, and the details: exactly where each chord is, the voicing in the chord, how it's muted, where it's open, all of these various little touchy things. There's a lot of notes in two hours of playing, and every single one of them is sort of gone over in detail.
CTNow: The symphonic impulse in Boston's music: where does it come from? I've read about your background in classical music, but the orchestral sound seems at odds sometimes with what you've said got you into rock and roll in the first place, which was the Kinks, the Animals, the Yardbirds and so on.
TS: What actually attracted me musically to rock and roll, when I heard the Kinks and the Yardbirds and so forth, the Animals, was the power. That's what got me interested. I actually had -- I'm sorry to say -- no interest at all when I heard Elvis Presley's music, or you know, even some of the other really great early or late '50s rockers. It just left me cold. When I heard those power chords, I mean, the first time I heard the Kinks, Ray Davies going [hums the riff to "All Day and All of the Night"]: that was it, I was hooked. That's the first place that I heard the power in rock and roll music that I had heard in real symphonic orchestral music. That got me interested, and then I wanted to do that. My roots were all symphonic, so when I started writing and arranging, whether I liked it or not, everything I did kept sort of going back to those roots, and people who are familiar with classical music will recognize themes that I can't help myself from repeating that were done by Tchaikovsky or whomever.
I'm not schooled in classical music at all by the way. I listened to it when I was very young. In fact I was listening to classical music in great detail long before I could read what the titles were on the records [laughs]. I don't actually know the names of the works I used to listen to, my parents turned me loose with their record collection when I was 4 or 5, and I'm sure the record collection suffered for that.
CTNow: There was some precedent for the symphonic impulse in rock and roll -- "Sgt. Pepper," for instance -- and yet those recordings weren't the models that got you hooked.
TS: No, I wasn't a big Beatles fan. Probably one of the things I liked the best that the Beatles did was the "Sgt. Pepper" theme song, where they had some raw power and they actually had an orchestral arrangement with it. But there was nothing that I heard in pop music that got me excited as far as their orchestral background. Certainly, [Queen guitarist] Brian May was very adept at creating a symphonic sound. But by that point I was close to 30 when I finally wrote those songs that got the Boston deal, and I know that I was drawing on my background from when I was a little kid.
CTNow: You've devoted your life to sound production and recording techniques, and when there was something lacking that you wanted to hear, you invented it. I wondered what your thoughts are on the way that people take in most of their music these days, which is through ear buds, MP3s and streaming services. Is that frustrating?
TS: It's a travesty [laughs]. Ear buds are not the worst in the world, as long as you've mixed [the music] knowing that a lot of people will be listening on discrete stereo devices. Of course, earphones would be vastly superior, in my opinion. But the real problem is the horrible delivery that's available today. I mean, MP3s are probably the worst thing to happen to music since the invention of the CD, which was the second worst thing that's ever happened to music. It was really horrifying for somebody that had spent a large part of my life trying to produce excellent sound with the limitations of vinyl and tape, which are beautiful mediums. And then to see it take a huge step backward with CDs, which, despite the hype, are horrible representations of the original music. Let's put it this way: I'm not a big fan of either Apple or Microsoft in helping to promote these compressed files that sound like crap. It's that simple.
CTNow: I've heard that songs from the new album, "Life, Love & Hope," are being well-received on tour so far.
TS: We actually play a few songs on the tour, and people actually seem to like them. Of course, as I'm sure you're aware, people come to Boston shows because they grew up with "More Than a Feeling" or "Peace Of Mind," or whatever, and there's a large range of songs. But all of them want to hear the iconic Boston songs they remember. There are a lot of them, and we've got a limited time to spend on the stage. As it is, it's an almost two-hour show. So we went back and forth about what we were going to do from the new album. There are a lot of songs on [the new] album I'd love to play live. But we prepared three or four and then cut it back to two, and I was still worried about whether or not that was going to go over. But they've been very well-received, and I'm happy about that. It's always difficult to expose people to a song that they've never heard before in a live setting for the first time, when they're waiting for the song that they really like to be played. So I'm very pleased with the reception that we've gotten for that.
BOSTON: HEAVEN ON EARTH TOUR arrives on Saturday, June 28, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, with Cheap Trick opening. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $45. Information: mohegansun.com