Eddie Kramer Reminisces about the American Chap with the Big Hair

Eddie Kramer’s fingers seem to have been everywhere. He has manned the soundboard for such rock luminaries as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Kiss. Kramer’s worldwide acclaim as a producer/engineer, however, rests primarily on the merits of his work with Jimi Hendrix. Not only was Kramer the original engineer on such extraordinary Hendrix albums as Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland, since 1995 he has been deeply involved with Experience Hendrix’s ongoing project to faithfully reinstitute the Hendrix catalog after years of shoddy production and distribution by other companies. From the compilations of never-before-heard studio material on releases like South Saturn Delta and First Rays of the New Rising Sun to last year’s critically acclaimed four-CD box set of Hendrix rarities and outtakes, Eddie Kramer has lent his keen ear and studio skill to many projects for the Hendrix cause. He crawled out from under the avalanche of Hendrix tapes he is continually working with to chat with PopMatters about the latest Jimi Hendrix release, Voodoo Child: The Jimi Hendrix Collection.

PopMatters: You’ve worked on nearly every Hendrix release out there recently . . .

Eddie Kramer: Not nearly. I would say exactly every release.

PM: How did you get involved in all the recent Hendrix projects?

EK: It’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll bore you with the details. If you look at the history of the Hendrix catalog, it went through a very bad period. The previous administration, which shall remain nameless because if I speak their name I will want to throw up, had done a very bad job. I believe they had went through MCA to negotiate a new deal, and Janie Hendrix was shown some papers and got herself an attorney to see what was going on. Thank goodness she did because that attorney said, “My God, you’ve got to be crazy!” That started the beginning of a huge lawsuit which resulted in quite a few years of protracted legal work and many, many millions of dollars in legal fees. But the result was triumphant for Janie and Al Hendrix and the whole family — they won the rights to the Jimi Hendrix catalog [and formed the Experience Hendrix company].

Janie, John McDermott, and myself, the three of us proceeded to put the whole catalog back on its proper feet so to speak. We wanted to reconstitute it and make sure that all the releases were put out correctly with all the correct tapes, which was a long process. In so doing, we were able to find many, many tapes that had never seen the light of day. Through that process, we were able to put new records together. As you can see in the catalog, there is quite a nice system that we have: we find great stuff, remaster, re-EQ, and, in some cases, remix it. This Voodoo Child set, the “best of”, is a nice way to say, “Look, we’ve done all this great work, now let’s put it all together in a nice little package”. We’ve put a tremendous amount of time and effort into these releases. Hopefully, we’ve made them sound a lot better than even the originals!

PM: Is that the purpose of this Voodoo Child release, for this new administration to the set the record straight on Hendrix’s legacy?

EK: We’ve done a lot in the last few years: South Saturn Delta, Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix, First Rays of the New Rising Sun, BBC Sessions, Live at the Fillmore East, etc. The last thing we did before Voodoo Child was the box set [last year’s The Jimi Hendrix Experience]. So this really is taking some of those elements and making them available on two CDs. There are some fantastic things here. It’s a great cross-section of the whole catalog (and it’s in a environment-friendly cardboard foldout case, which I like!).

PM: Would you say this collection gives a fuller picture of Jimi Hendrix as an artist?

EK: Absolutely. For anyone who wants a nice introduction to where Jimi was at, this is a really fine collection.

PM: What was your first encounter with Hendrix in the studio like?

EK: In 1967 I was working for Olympic Sound Studios and we had moved from the center of London to the suburbs with a brand new studio. Jimi was one of the earlier clients. I think Jimi and his producer Chas Chandler were very dissatisfied with the sonic quality with some of the stuff they were doing in other studios. They had heard about Olympia being the new studio on the block, so they came in. I was asked to do it because I had made a kind of reputation for myself recording jazz, classical, and weird stuff. In fact, the studio manager said to me, “Oh, Eddie, you do all that weird shit, he [Hendrix] is perfect for you! You’ve heard of this American chap with the big hair?” Next thing I know he was walking in the studio. He was very shy, but we hit it off immediately. I guess there was a connection with the music. And, of course, I adored his playing.

PM: At that time did you get a sense that he was something special or was he just your run of the mill guitarist?

EK: Oh no, there was nothing about Jimi that was run of the mill! It was patently obvious that he was an extremely gifted guitar player. I don’t think the extent of this genius was readily apparent, but what was obvious was that the man was totally in control of his instrument. He produced amazing sounds and just freaked everybody out. But my focus in the studio was really to ensure that his sounds were captured and made bigger and better than the way he was hearing it down on the floor of the studio. He would do a crazy sound with his amps and feedback, and I would record it in such a way that when he came into the control room, he would say, “Wow, that really sounds good!” What he was interested in was that I could take his sound to the next level.

PM: Did Hendrix come into the studio with a sound in his head already?

EK: Absolutely. He was very, very prepared. He did a lot of homework. He and Chas used to sit up at night working on songs, preparing the session. We didn’t have much time. In those days, we really had to get everything done in three hours, that’s it! Of course he didn’t have much money. There is a very funny, true story that Chas actually sold his bass in order to pay for some of the early sessions. Chas came from this background of, “Hey, the Animals” (who he was the bass player for) “we did ‘House of the Rising Sun’ in 15 minutes. Come on Jimi, we can cut this three-and-a-half-minute song in an hour!” It really showed Jimi’s prowess as a musician, a person who had his act together, in total control of his instrument. He knew where he was going with it, how far he could go with it, where to push the buttons in order to make something very original. All I had to do was expand the sonic horizons of what he was doing. What I call it is making sonic paintings — I used the stereo information and painted a big sonic canvas. That’s what he liked.

PM: One of the tracks that interested me on Voodoo Child was the alternate take of “Spanish Castle Magic”.

EK: Isn’t that cool?

PM: Yeah, it’s cool. The interesting thing about it, especially in light of what you were just talking about, is that while on Axis the track is a tight, three-minute rock song, here it sprawls out into a six-minute, heavy, heavy rock jam.

EK: If you listen to the previous record [the box set], there is tons of that kind of material. In essence, you’re jumping into a period in the session where Jimi is working through the song. There was never a take that was bad. There were always tracks that may have been more interesting than others, but this is a particularly good example of Jimi experimenting and pushing out the edges and trying to see how far he can go with the song. Once he had got that out of his system, Chas would say, “OK, it’s seven minutes long — we have to make this three and a half!” Then they’d figure out where to cut. It is so enthralling for me and for the listeners to enjoy Jimi at his best, experimenting almost like a jazz musician. Charlie Parker, for instance, would experiment with various takes to see where he could push the envelope. That’s what’s very exciting about this.

PM: One of the biggest highlights of this release is the inclusion of the hard to find 1970 Band of Gypsys single, “Izabella” b/w “Stepping Stone”.

EK: We like to put out stuff that is hard to get hold of. This is something that Janie, John McDermott, and myself have strived to do. Just to give you a heads-up on this, we have enough material in the library to put out a new Hendrix record every year for the next 12 to 15 years. This is part of that whole idea: finding original-sounding stuff, stuff that hasn’t been available, alternate takes, etc. The Band of Gypsys was a great band. It was a wonderful departure for Jimi.

PM: Especially on “Izabella”, I hear him going towards a funk sound.

EK: Absolutely no question. Let’s go back to the actual Band of Gypsys concert and how that all came about. This is really well presented in the documentary Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsys. (As a side note, the DVD/VHS release Jimi Hendrix: The Making of Electric Ladyland is fascinating as well.) He decided he was going to make a change. He was jamming up at Woodstock with Billy Cox [bass], his longtime war buddy, and the feeling of the songs was changing. They were becoming more R&B, more funk-oriented as he was working through the material. He wanted to go back to his roots. Since he owed a record to Capitol, this was a grand opportunity to do something really exciting. So Buddy Miles [drums] joined the band, they rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, the result of which was those two incredible shows at the Fillmore East. There were three brothers out there — the music had to go back to its earthy roots! I loved that — I thought it was funky rock. It was a direction he was heading into, and then he took it beyond that. After the Band of Gypsys was disbanded (no pun intended), he went back with Mitch [Mitchell, original Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer]. What happened thereafter was a combination of what the Experience had been doing with Mitch’s sound and what he had achieved with Buddy Miles. The music that came about on the Cry of Love album was an extension of that. Utilizing his R&B and funk roots was going to be part of his next wave.

PM: So here is the question I’m sure you get asked all the time: what would he have done had he not tragically left us when he did?

EK: If you look at Cry of Love, that’s the direction. He had ideas for horns. In fact, if you listen to South Saturn Delta there’s that horn track, [the recording] of which I have photographs of. As a quick aside, I have a new company called Kramer Archives. On our website ( http://www.kramerarchives.com ) you’ll find all kinds of fascinating pictures of Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, Zeppelin, and all that stuff. These are pictures that I took from ’67 to ’72, what I call the Golden Years. But as I was saying, Cry of Love points the direction for Jimi — bigger band, horns, strings, and then maybe even a full orchestra. He really heard his music in a larger context.

PM: It certainly sounds like Hendrix was going towards an almost Sly and the Family Stone kind of sound. Do you know if he was an admirer of Sly Stone?

EK: Absolutely. He loved all kinds of music. Certainly his ears were open to what was happening. But I do feel that this direction he was going in was a stepping stone (another pun, definitely intended!) because I feel that this was going to be only part of what he was doing. I didn’t see the music staying there forever. I saw his music potentially getting much more complex. I think there are elements of jazz and jazz fusion that he was able to bring to the boil, to the front burner so to speak. I think he would have done this funk sort of stuff first and then the jazz fusion thing and then who knows where he would have gone after that.

PM: He was a big influence on Miles Davis’s crossover to jazz fusion, no?

EK: Absolutely, but in turn, his influences in the jazz world were people like Wes Montgomery. You can hear it in his playing — some of the octave stuff he does, that’s pure Wes in a rock format. Anyway, we can surmise, we can pretend that we know, but this is truly an educated guess and that’s all.

PM: In addition to being a “best of” package, Voodoo Child also provides listeners with a wealth of live material. Were you on hand for a lot of these live recordings?

EK: I ended up mixing all of it, even though I may not have been available to record it all. Speaking of Hendrix live, I wanted to give you a heads-up on something new we’re doing. You’ll notice here that there is stuff from Berkeley [“Hear My Train a Comin'” and “Johnny B. Goode”, May 30, 1970]. Guess what — I just remixed the entire Berkeley show in 5.1 surround sound. We’re going to hook that up with a DVD and that is going to be really awesome.

PM: That’s the next project on the horizon?

EK: That’s part of it. Part of this equation is also that we just did the Isle of Wight [see “Freedom” on Voodoo Child from that festival, August 30, 1970] in 5.1 also. By the way, we found the original director, Murray Lerner, and the original footage of the Isle of Wight, and restored it to its full two-hour length. The DVD is going to be spectacular. That was entered into the New York Film Festival and it’s going to be shown in September. On a similar note, there’s an exhibition of my photographs with Jimi and the Stones etc. at the VH1 building in Manhattan, 1515 Broadway. On the twentieth floor, I have the entire lobby for my photos starting September 15.

PM: Here is another cheesy, retrospective question: if you could select one Hendrix track to give to someone and say, “This, this is Jimi Hendrix”, what would it be?

EK: It would have to be two. “Little Wing” to show that side of Jimi, the poet, the Romanticist, the sensitive side. And then I would say . . . ah God, you’d really have to do three! Something from Band of Gypsys, something from Are You Experienced?, and then something from Axis. And then you’d have to do Electric Ladyland! It’s really impossible to say one song because the three or four periods of Jimi’s music are so critical. Are You Experienced?, that album was very crunchy, very rock, very pop-orientated. It has all the hits on it — it establishes Jimi as a force in the musical world. On Axis: Bold as Love it becomes a little more expansive, a little more experimental, pushing out the edges a bit more. Electric Ladyland just blows the doors wide open with experimentation, blues, rock, and fusion. And then of course you’ve got the Band of Gypsys stuff — I would say “Machine Gun” is the definitive track from that era. I’d say that, “Little Wing”, “If 6 Was 9”, or . . . I don’t know!?! It’s so tough for me. I love them all so much that for me to pick something would be very tough.

PM: All the Hendrix projects over the last few years have met with a lot of success and enthusiasm. Why do you think the public has taken so warmly to these releases?

EK: Because we take a lot of time and a lot of trouble to make sure the sonic quality is preserved and made better. We select material carefully, trying to find the quintessential tracks. We spend a lot of time balancing out the records. And then the artwork is so excellent. It’s just a question of being careful and taking your time and really doing your homework. And then, hopefully, the fans will buy it — which they are, they love it. I’m happy. I’m thrilled to be able and go back and revisit tapes that I haven’t seen for 30 years.

PM: At the beginning of the interview you made it very clear that you have worked on every Hendrix release out there. Why do you feel such a strong connection with Hendrix’s work as opposed to that of many of the other legendary artists you’ve worked with? Why this continuing bond with Hendrix?

EK: You’ve put your finger right on it. There is a bond there, there is a history there. He was, and still is, the greatest guitar player I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, and I’ve worked with everybody (Stones, Zeppelin, Beatles, even Clapton). They all say the same thing, it’s obvious — the man was a genius. I was very privileged, I was very lucky, I was in the right place at the right time, and I managed to do some good work. There is a continuing thread there. The Hendrix family and I are very close. I love his music and I love what he stands for. He’s an original, a true maverick. I’m thankful that I’m here to do the work for him, to keep the memory alive.