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Gerry Leonard

Gerry Leonard

Musician, Producer
Gerry Leonard

Guitarist and producer Gerry Leonard was performing his solo ‘Spooky Ghost’ set in a New York coffeehouse when David Bowie came to check him out, leading to an invitation to try out for his band. Gerry would go on to play on Bowie’s ‘Heathen‘ album and later become MD for the ‘Reality’ tour all the way through to Bowie’s comeback ‘The Next Day’ album. The Dublin-born guitarist’s credits now also include Suzanne Vega, Rufus Wainwright and many others. He uses Aston Stealth, Spirit and Starlight mics in front of his extensive collection of guitar amps and acoustic instruments.

David Bowie, Suzanne Vega, Rufus Wainwright, Laurie Anderson, Roger Waters, Duncan Sheik, Spooky Ghost, Hinterland.
Gerry uses these Aston mics:
Spirit
Stealth
Starlight
Dublin punk

“I grew up in Dublin. We were all playing in bands as soon as we could get our hands on a guitar. We did that for a while, entering talent contests and learning covers, and then punk and new wave hit, so it was a perfect time to be in a band. There was a scene in the city, and a lot of little gigs. It was a really good place to learn your craft. I also studied classical guitar at that point.

I got a job in Lombard Studios, which was probably the only 24 track in Dublin. I was fascinated with recording, so I did my time as a tape-op, making tea and setting up for sessions. We were able to get the studio at weekends because they did mainly showbands (Irish Coverbands that played the Ballroom scene) Monday to Friday - they’d all be gigging at the weekends. We did a deal with the studio, £200 or whatever it was, with a roll of tape, and we’d go out and find local bands and do a deal with them and bring them in Friday night to Monday morning to do a four-song demo. It was all fish and chips, staying up late and making demos! We had a Helios console, a Studer 24 track, Studer ¼” machines, Dolby A and a collection of microphones. It was a great way to learn.”

Spooky Ghost

“I spent a year in Copenhagen and met up with a friend, Donal Coghlan, there. We were both in our mid twenties and a little fed-up of the band thing, how the drummer always leaves just as something’s going to happen! We borrowed some money from our parents and set ourselves up so we could write and record as a duo, under the name of Hinterland. The demos came to the attention of Chris Blackwell at Island Records and we got a deal and released a record on Island Records around 1990.

It was around that time I reconnected with another dear friend of mine, engineer/producer Kevin Killen, who I’d worked with at Lombard. He went on to do the Peter Gabriel ‘So’ record, U2 stuff, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello; he’d become this international star producer. He’d mixed the Hinterland record, then he got me involved in a couple of projects in New York as a guitar player. Once the band thing had finished up, as they do – the whole Hinterland thing took 3-4 years to come and go -  I moved to New York and started working as a guitar player.

I still found myself writing, and I felt I had my own distinctive way of playing guitar, which had become even more focussed through the necessity of finding yourself and your voice in a place like New York, which is full of fantastic guitar players. And so I had this solo project called Spooky Ghost, which I still do. I play live and do a lot of looping and ambient stuff and I’ve made a couple of records. I needed something where I could play the way I wanted to play, and that’s what Spooky Ghost became.

We’d all come through the 80’s where we’d tried using sequencers and click tracks and it all seemed fun and amazing at the time but then you realise it’s also very confining, whereas I found using some of the new technology, where you can loop stuff live, you could start to create these moments spontaneously, in reaction to what was going on in the room.”

Heckled by Bowie

“I’d play these coffeehouses reasonably regularly, doing my thing, and that’s how I eventually met David [Bowie]. He was looking for a guitar player to cover the more ‘out of the box’ ambient stuff for his forthcoming record and tour. My friend Mark Plati was working with David and brought him down to see a gig in the East Village, in a little place called the Living Room, which holds about fifty people. It was really nerve-wracking but it was a great show and David was great – he started heckling me from the audience and joining in the whole evening; he loved it. Then afterwards he asked if I wanted to do a try-out for his band.

I did the ‘Heathen’ record and tour with David and then ended up becoming his MD for the Reality tour. Hopefully my background in music theory came in useful! David’s band was a real mixture of personalities, some people came from a very schooled background and some from a very street background and it was a case of being able to walk the tightrope between those two worlds. In the music we do, rock and roll, all of that stuff is valid and sometimes too much of one thing is wrong, like too much schooling makes you not want to take chances, and David understood that. He was almost like a casting director when he chose his band, he had this variety of musicians and backgrounds. As an MD it was important to understand all those worlds and be able to talk to every individual to get the job done.

I just finished a tour with Rufus Wainwright where we recreated his first two records as a show, I’ve just done a bunch of touring with Suzanne [Vega] and I’ve been doing Mike Garson’s ‘A Bowie Celebration’ shows where it’s a bunch of alumni, ex-band members who get together with guest vocalists and play some of David’s music. We’re touring Europe and the States next year. Then I have some recording projects coming up, mainly with new artists - developing, producing, songwriting and helping them get a start.”

That was you??

“I produce records. I have a little studio at home in upstate New York where I do my guitars and most of my production work, then the other half of the year is touring with artists.

I’m just finishing up ‘Suzanne Vega Live at the Café Carlyle’. We did a little run there where we had grand piano, upright bass, my electric/acoustic PRS guitar and Suzanne. It was a very nice ensemble so we brought in a mobile recording situation and recorded to multi-track. It was challenging with the acoustic bass and piano picking up electric guitar and amplified vocals, but we figured it out and it kept the takes truly “live” !

I sifted through three nights of the concerts in my studio, compiling and doing little fixes, and we just mixed it, it’s turned out really well. I just spent two days editing the in-between-song banter – it’s interesting what works live and what doesn’t. You want the sense that there is an audience, and a cohesion to the evening, but not the long rambling stories…

I do a lot of guitar work ‘for hire’, where people will just send me tracks. There are lots of independent records being made that way and unfortunately (or fortunately) we don’t always get to meet up. I’ve had a few almost comical situations where I’ve played guitar on an entire record and then, later on, met the people at a show or something, with them saying ‘Wait a moment… that was you??’

When I produce a record these days I do try and get everyone in the room. I’ll do all the pre-production at my little studio and then I bring it to a bigger room where we can have drums and bass and everyone set up with great microphones and mic pres. That’s really where a lot of great chemistry happens. You could spend hours in pre-production trying to fake an emotional curve in a song but it will just happen by itself if you have the right people in the right situation. When that’s not available though, we have the wonders of digital editing. It’s insane really to think what we can do these days, and what we used to be able to not do!”

Stealth, Spirit and Suzanne Vega

“I have a Spirit, a Stealth and a matched pair of Starlights – the small diaphragms with the laser beam - I use them at home and I’ve used them live. We’re getting on well! I was using the Stealth and the Spirit on two guitar amps with Suzanna [Vega] in the duo show we did in Trondheim opening for Sting. The Spirit was great, really warm and open. We tended to go for the ‘vintage’ and ‘guitar’ settings on the Stealth.

The thing about guitars live is that you’re always searching for that sweet spot where it’s not too abrasive. You get a lot of that in a live room so you’re looking for the microphone to do something else, maybe capture the entire spectrum, it’s finding the right balance.

In the studio I have a nice set of Adam ribbon-tweeter monitors. What I’ve realised over the years is you can record almost anywhere, using pretty much anything, but you can’t always hear what you’re doing – it makes a huge difference. I have Pro Tools and Apogee convertors, they’re very transparent and compatible with everyone else, which is what I need my studio to be. Then I have some Neve mic pres, a pair of Distressors and I have another chain with some UA pres going into a Millenia compressor. I just got a set of Vin-Techs (mic pres) I use on my piano, and a few other pieces, so I have maybe eight channels of really good mic pre compression, and that’s enough for me going forward. I generally don’t track drums at home unless it’s a really special session in which case I have my friend bring in a Neve or API Sidecar and go from there.

I do like to have a decent mic pre and compressor set up, even if I’m just using the compressor in the background to capture the large dynamics; I like the way compression sounds when it’s used well.”

Amps and mics of choice

“I have a room where I have a lot of acoustic instruments, so I can do upright piano, acoustic guitars, mandolins and all that kind of thing. We just run a multicore out to that room when we need to use it. Then I have a bunch of guitar amps set up and various effects chains ready to go. I use a two-amp set up, with different mics on each amp and a different sound on each, usually a wet/dry thing.

I used the Stealth and the Spirit on either side recently and that was a really good combination. It was a Mesa Boogie Lonestar and on the other side a Mesa Boogie TA15 which is a newer Mini Amp Head with a 1x10” cab; they’ve made it with two channels; their version of an AC30 on one and a Mesa on the other. It’s a very sweet little amplifier. I get a lot of good results using a smaller speaker, because we’re in a close-mic situation and I find a 10” speaker really good as you don’t get all the ‘woofy’ low-end that you don’t need. I have other amps I’ll sometimes use, a Supro Comet, a Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb and one called a Sommatone, which is a custom-made point-to-point – it’s more of a rock’n’roll amplifier. That pretty much covers it – it’s where to put them all, that’s the problem!”

Out-takes

Q. Who are your favourite artists?

A. I’d have to put David Bowie in there. I did a Lou Reed tribute recently and I gotta say his material is really pretty amazing, such a career and huge catalogue of songs . I love Brian Eno, his whole aesthetic sense of creating space and ambience; and of course the guitar players - Jimmy Page, a genius with the guitar – he writes undeniable, iconic guitar riffs and his whole demeanour over the years has been great; Rory Gallagher, Irish blues guitar player and trailblazer; I also love the classical composer Arvo Part, his compositions and string arrangements are sublime.

Q. If you weren’t working in music what would you be doing?

A. Maybe a mail man, because the answers are there in front of you, what needs to be done: ‘take this envelope to this address.’ So much about being an artist is trying to figure out what your next move is and motivating yourself to make it. It’s the best job but it can be challenging at times. Sculptor would be another one – I really like making things.

Q. What would your fantasy mic be?

A. I would love something that remote controlled that could record what you think you’re hearing. It would go well with the camera that takes pictures of what you think you’re seeing!

Q. What are the 4 words you’d chose to describe Aston, or your experience with the brand?
A. Stylish, Beautiful (design), fat, warm (sound).

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