Music Musings – Mike Exeter

Lenny has a chat with legendary engineer Mike Exeter.

LM: Hello Mike, First, MoFi and I would like to thank you, Mike Exeter, for agreeing to do this interview; the audience for this will be our friends in the audio world who love music and music playback systems, but may not know much about the music business, itself, so please feel free to let loose with details because – trust me – this is one captive audience.

Just to let everyone know a little about you, you are an Engineer and a Grammy-Winning Record Producer out of England. You have worked with some phenomenal bands, such as Cradle of Faith, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, among other notable performers, and work with Tony Iommi, as his longstanding creative, studio partner. Not to mention, being known for your work on Black Sabbath’s “13,” where you won a much-deserved Grammy. It is a real charge to get any insights you can provide to our homebound friends, so here are your ten questions:

The first question is one that I have had on my mind ever since you told that funny anecdote at the dinner my wife, Nicole, and I shared with you, Bruce, and Laura Marshall. So, here’s the question, coming from a fellow guitar player, I have GOT to know…What was it like to tell a TRUE, dyed-in-the-wool, Guitar God, like Tony Iommi, “That riff…it’s a bit of rubbish, innit.” (a poor paraphrase, but I’m old!)?   

ME: Hahahah, well I have to say that Tony and I have worked together since 1996 and have a ridiculous shared sense of humour (English Spelling ;)) but our relationship is also one of extreme respect which allows us to be very honest with each other.  He is like many prolific people – he frees himself to create by letting go of the inhibitions of analysing what he’s playing.  This means that he doesn’t really ‘hear’ what he’s playing until you play it back to him.

So….my ‘job’ is to keep the flow of creativity going whilst helping the artist make their best decisions.  It was the same with Ronnie James Dio.  During our first couple of sessions he almost dismissed that he had sung something brilliant until I pushed him to listen back and he was very pleased – that set a massive basis for him trusting me too.

As for things sounding rubbish – I think the phrase we generally use is ‘a bit ordinary’ because Tony is very wary of repeating too much of the same thing – a balance that is difficult when you have to give a nod to your audience and give them some of what you are known for.

LM: Thinking about more of the fun conversations around the table that night, I was hoping you could describe (for all these non-industry people) what it felt like the first time you were in the middle of a crowd, when you – unexpectedly – heard one of your own songs being played for the masses?   

ME: It’s always a ‘pinch yourself’ moment where you are suddenly aware you’ve heard this somewhere before and then realise it’s a song you’ve worked on.  My favourite moments, though, are when I see the band play for their amazing fans and they get an incredible response to the songs that we all put heart and soul into.  A particular favourite for me is the ‘Bible Black’ performance at Wacken by Heaven and Hell in 2009.  I still get shivers watching that knowing I was a massive part of bringing that song into the world.

LM: You’re a guitar player, who were some of your inspirations, when you were starting out?

ME: You give me too much credit – actually I’m originally a Keyboard Player but since the beginning of this year I’ve got back to the guitar and bass (mainly to get my chops back up for expected writing sessions with Tony) and I am focusing a lot on technique again.  I figure it’s a good time to get some good habits.  With the enforced staying at home I’m playing a lot again and I’m really pleased because I am devoting time to my musical passion rather than driving and sitting in traffic going to studios.

So, that being said, my main inspirations were Rick Wakeman, Jon Lord and Don Airey.  I have been lucky enough to work with both Don and Jon which have been amazing times.  I haven’t worked with Rick yet but I know his son Adam really well as he plays with Ozzy and Sabbath.

Guitar wise, I absolutely loved what Dave Gilmour did during Pink Floyd’s classic years and on his first 2 solo records, Jeff Beck (but only in small doses :D), and Brian May.

LM: Any familial influences who inspired you to pursue music?

ME: My grandad Ron Norris was an incredible pianist and he and I shared lovely times playing piano together.  Very inspirational and so lovely to have an encouraging family member you could share such amazing musical experiences with.

LM: I figure I may as well get to the “obligatory” Desert Island question (better to do it halfway down, when you’re too far in to stop – hopefully – but it won’t leave too bad a taste in your mouth!): You got one record, man, and you are going to wear the grooves out listening to it…what would it be?

ME: Animals by Pink Floyd – without doubt their masterpiece.  If you want to truly hear a band killing it in the studio and breaking ground musically and lyrically – this is it for me.  The lyrics are as relevant now as back in 1977 when it came out and it is the most honest guitar playing I have ever heard from Gilmour. Rick’s keyboard work is outstanding too and Nick is just on the money as usual.  They never got as good as this again.  It’s always transported me to a time and place I love and I know it always will.

LM: We were discussing how location and society can shape music. Two of the bands you work with, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, are from Birmingham, as was half of Led Zeppelin, so my question will involve Birmingham. This is a dark, industrial area that bears its scars of wars’ past openly and the music reflects that, as it is the birthplace of heavy metal. The loud, in-your-face factory atmosphere results in a music that feels pressure-filled and produces a raw, hard-edged, aggressive sound. Even as the 80s moved into a more pop sensibility, the Birmingham bands still stuck out…Dexys Midnight Runners, Duran Duran, Fine Young Cannibals, and others I may have forgotten. I mean, the sound from there is ubiquitous, just as The Beach Boys are to California and Lynyrd Skynyrd is to the south, so my question is: Do you think there would be “heavy metal” aesthetics without Birmingham to give it birth?

ME: I think it is apparent that the working class ethic of an industrial town is going to provide an honest approach to the kind of ‘art’ that it gives birth to.  Funnily enough, another great Birmingham band I had the pleasure of working with as their studio Chief Engineer, UB40, absolutely exemplified that coming from nothing to achieve great success through sheer determination. 

I think Sabbath and Priest definitely shared some of whatever was in the water around the dismal, post War scene which resulted in a darker, more brooding, output.  But I think you are right in your comment about certain bands being synonymous with other areas.  Seattle, Manchester, Liverpool…… there will always be something amazing that comes out of a scene born of a sense of ‘belonging’

LM: I remember when I mentioned MoFi and the One Step process your “ears perked up,” so you must be – somewhat – familiar, but I was wondering if you have actually heard one of the MoFi One Steps? If so, which is your favorite? Mine is Yes “Fragile.” And, just in case my two questions before ended with a “No,” I have a follow – on: Is there a performer/band that could cause you to say, “Man, I got to take a listen to this One Step!”? Mine would be Van Morrison “Moondance”; Nicole wanted me to tell you her choice would be Frankie Smith’s “Double Dutch Bus,” and I am alright with her telling you that, here, because we can edit it out, but – unfortunately – she spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince the MoFi Sound Lab Team that would be a good seller because she was willing to buy…one!  

ME: I haven’t heard a One Step, but I own Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd) and Broadsword and the Beast (Jethro Tull) as Mobile Fidelity Half Speed Masters and they are amazing – although I wish Animals had been made available too.

LM: Now, for a question that will “perk up the ears” of our readers, are you an audiophile? And, if so, do you prefer digital or analog?

ME: I used to be before I got into the recording business.  I was a Pink Triangle PT Too guy.  Meridian 200 series CD and PreAmp with Meridian M30 speakers.  I now have a Rega Planar 2, Meridian 500 CD and Preamp and whatever speakers I am currently using.  I use Focal Clear Professional headphones in my mixing work and for pleasure.

I tend to go to my mate Mike Bank’s house to listen properly as he has PMC speakers and a whole load of other audiophile stuff that remind me of me back in the 90s.

I started analog and transitioned into digital with the business.  I think they both have a place.  I don’t harken back fondly to Analog tape as it was a pain in the arse.  It may have had a sound, but it was cumbersome, expensive and imparted too much of it’s own ‘issues’ on the sessions.

That being said, digital has come an incredibly long way from those original 16 bit (or less) machines with dreadful converters so I think we have amazingly musical sounding systems now.

I work totally in the Digital Audio Workstation after the sound is captured through the converters and use control surfaces (mixing desks which control the mix engines inside the computer) to give me my analog workflow.  As long as I have amazing monitoring I can react to what I hear and make the decisions I need.  PLUS – I can work at home which is amazing, especially at this point in our history.

LM: As you are quite aware, we are in a global pandemic, so I first want to say I hope all of you and your family is well. However, knowing these interviews are helpful in passing the time for audiophiles with great rigs and too much time on their hands, I wanted to know if you will share what music is helping you pass the time?

ME: We all seem to be doing ok so far, thanks my friend.  I hope you guys are managing to stay safe in my old haunt of San Diego.

I tend to watch a lot of movies and documentaries as I spend a lot of time mixing during the day, but I do love listening to old reassuring records like Toto IV and Eagles Hell Freezes over.  I love the honesty of the writing and musicianship.  For unadulterated pleasure – the reissued Roger Waters record Amused To Death is a favourite, but Mike has that secreted away at his house and I can’t go there :D

I also listen a lot to audiobooks and am just in the middle of Steve Lukather’s Autobiography – another hero and and absolutely hilarious storyteller.

LM: Finally, anything in the works, which you can share?

ME: Tony and I have been remixing Black Sabbath’s 1995 record Forbidden from the original multitracks, and it sounds incredible.  Cozy Powell’s playing was incredible and it’s been a pleasure to bring out all the articulations alongside some amazing performances from Neil Murray, Tony Martin and Tony.

Anything else is in pretty early stages and on hold at the moment sadly.

I have one hope that things can get restructured so that value is put into recorded music again.  It’s only in music where we still allow people “free” versions of streaming platforms.  Netflix, Prime, Apple, Disney charge a reasonable amount after the initial trial, whereas there are always free versions of Tidl, Spotify etc, and whilst that continues people will not see a value in music.  Now the touring industry has been decimated by this pandemic artists are starting to see that the lack of support for the recorded music business has put things in a very dark place.

Let’s hope we can get people to appreciate and love music and see it as a real commodity for pleasure again.

LM: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to help entertain and inform the MoFi community and music enthusiasts, in general. It is greatly appreciated.

On a side note, Mike; My nine year old niece called me because she wanted to “stump Uncle Bullfrog” about this “new” band she “found” that could “REALLY rock!” Imagine her squeal of delight when I told her that “Black Sabbath” is not actually “new,” but that I “knew” the Producer! She didn’t need to hear more than your name to declare, “Mike Exeter sounds SO cool!”

ME: Hahaha – aww thanks, and please say hi to her – tell her she sounds cool too.