Just a mere look at Toby Wright’s CV is sufficient enough to make you reach out to your record collection and grab albums from Alice in Chains, Korn, KISS, Fear Factory, Soul Asylum etc. for your listening pleasure. Without any doubt, Wright is one of those key figures in the music industry that helped shape the sound of the 90s (and not only, of course). We get in touch with him and ask him to share some details with us regarding his collaboration with two classic bands: Alice in Chains and KISS. Toby was more than happy to do so and we sincerely thank him for taking the time…Interview: Sakis Nikas
The ALICE IN CHAINS Chapter
Rockpages.gr: You first worked with Alice in Chains for the “Jar Of Flies” EP. How did you get the job?
Toby Wright: Well, I got that job through my job prior to that recording. There were before two songs from the “Last Action Hero” movie called “What The Hell Have I” and “A Little Bitter”. I did those two songs and someone else mixed them and the band did not like how they came out so they decided to hire me for “Jar of Flies”.
Rockpages.gr: “Jar Of Flies” came right after the commercial and artistic success of “Dirt”. Were you aware of that album and what Alice in Chains is all about?
Toby Wright: Oh absolutely! They were one of my favorite bands and they still are. As soon as I heard some of the “Facelift” stuff I wanted to work with them. So, I went after their A&R guy and he finally got me to do 2 songs for them.
Rockpages.gr: I was always curious…when “Facelift” was released in 1990 the predominant style on MTV was the so called hair metal stuff, the commercial hard rock music. Were you surprised to listen to such a different style of music by Alice in Chains?
Toby Wright: I’ve been a fan of music all of my life. I like various styles of music…pop, country, metal…anything really that I can educate myself. So yeah…when Alice (in Chains) came out I said “wow…this is different than the hair metal stuff”. I immediately checked out their record; I loved it and subsequently worked with them for 4-5 records.
Rockpages.gr: Did Jerry (Cantrell) ask you to work on a specific way or did you discuss with him beforehand about the sound that he wanted on the EP?
Toby Wright: Well, when I first worked with them, they had already written the two songs for the soundtrack. So what they wanted was to find someone to record properly these songs so as to sound right. I didn’t have much of a producer’s role on those two songs. When “Jar of Flies” came along they were just coming off of the “Lollapalooza Tour” and they were really hot. They just wanted to get into the studio and lay it down what they had. It turned out that they didn’t have any songs so what we did really was…basically spending ten days jamming in the studio. It was a very loose recording session.
Rockpages.gr: One of the characteristics of “Jar Of Flies” is surely the diversity of the songs as it includes dark acoustic tracks, electric upbeat songs, use of various instruments like harmonica and talk box etc. Did you push the band to experiment more with their songs?
Toby Wright: I think it was natural for them. Obviously, they had used before “talk box” on “Man In The Box”…that was part of their repertoire. Also, it was kind of a pattern for them to do an acoustic EP, then a heavy album, an acoustic EP, a heavier album etc. So, I kinda tried to fit in somewhere within this pattern.
Rockpages.gr: What do you remember from the late Layne Staley?
Toby Wright: Oh everything! He and I got to be great friends by the end. I miss him…he was just an incredible soul. I miss him dearly and I think that he is missed from the music business today.
Rockpages.gr: You worked again with Alice in Chains for their third, self-titled record. In the beginning of 1995 the band seemed to be kinda fractured as Layne has gone into rehab for heroin addiction. What do you remember from those sessions?
Toby Wright: Well, all the songs were written in the studio so it took a long time to finally flush out all the songs and work with them so as to be included on a record. I think it was a smooth recording but it had also its ups and downs…it took 7 or 8 months to write, rehearse and record the whole album. Given that the songs were written in the studio one has to realize that everyday is not a creative day for a musician. We had some slow times and we had times of bursts of creativity. I think it worked out well.
Rockpages.gr: Would you say that this was more difficult album to make compared to “Jar Of Flies”?
Toby Wright: Yes…definitely. As I said, “Jar of Flies” was done in ten days and the band was hot from being on the road. Their only desire back then was to go into the studio and record an EP. During the recording of “Tripod” or “Third Record” or “Self-titled album” whatever you guys call it (laughs)…they hadn’t been on the road for a long time so in the beginning I was working with Jerry on a bunch of demos and he was actually thinking of doing a solo record at the time. Eventually, we got everybody on board and made another Alice in Chains record.
Rockpages.gr: This third record was also the last one with Layne behind the mic. Was it something that you expected after working with the guys on this album?
Toby Wright: No, I didn’t see that coming.
Rockpages.gr: Did Jerry or any other member of the band had any problem whatsoever with Layne?
Toby Wright: Well, Jerry and Layne had their own personal differences at that time so I had to work around with that in mind as well…but, it was an overall smooth recording.
Rockpages.gr: Were there any leftover tracks from the third Alice in Chains record that ended up on “Boggy Depot”?
Toby Wright: Not that I know of. Most of the songs that we worked on the demos ended up on the third Alice (in Chains) record. Then, Jerry went on to write some more songs for his solo album.
Rockpages.gr: You had the chance to work with Jerry Cantrell again for his first solo album “Boggy Depot” that also featured Sean (Kinney) and Mike (Inez). Lots of people consider this album to be quite similar with Alice in Chains which is quite logical if you think about it. What’s your opinion?
Toby Wright: Jerry was half of the writing force in Alice in Chains and half of the vocals that you hear on an Alice in Chains record come from Jerry. So, on “Boggy Depot” you were gonna get at least half of Alice in Chains (laughs)! I loved that record…he had a collection of some very beautiful songs.
Rockpages.gr: Alice in Chains reunited a few years ago and since then they had recorded two excellent albums.
Toby Wright: Yeah…
Rockpages.gr: What did you think of those two records?
Toby Wright: I love them both! In my opinion, they are different than the old Alice in Chains stuff but I still think they are amazing.
Rockpages.gr: Did they approach you to work with them again?
Toby Wright: No.
Rockpages.gr: Alright. Do you keep in touch with them?
Toby Wright: Oh yeah…on and off.
Rockpages.gr: Being a music fan yourself, what would you say is the most important element that Alice in Chains brought in rock music?
Toby Wright: Emotion! I think today’s rock n’ roll is completely emotionless. When you listen to what was going on back then, there was less and less emotion with the hair metal bands…all they cared about was to party and write a big chorus. When Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jamd and…quote/unquote, the grunge era arrived, that was all about emotion. Nirvana…kind of emotion, Pearl Jam…not so much, Soundgarden…a little bit but not as much, Alice (in Chains)…definitely! Pure emotion! I think that really translated to the fans’ hearts.
Rockpages.gr: Speaking of Pearl Jam, what did you think about “Ten”?
Toby Wright: It was an “OK” record…I am not a big Eddie Vedder fan because honestly sometimes I don’t understand what he is saying on his songs! I like to listen and understand the lyrics of a song and still to this day I can’t understand some of his lyrics. But Pearl Jam as a band is amazing. I think, though, that their sound was more calculated than Alice’s. I think that Alice (in Chains) music came from a pure emotional place and that’s why there are still lots of fans who connect to these songs.
The KISS Chapter
Rockpages.gr: Lots of KISS fans were surprised by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley’s decision to record a –more or less- grunge album. I guess that it was Gene who wanted to be up to date with what was going on musically at the time. Did they ask you specifically to recreate a certain sound…? I mean, did they tell you that they wanted from you a sound similar to Alice in Chains or Smashing Pumpkins?
Toby Wright: Yes (laughs)!
Rockpages.gr: (laughs) What did you tell them…? Did you say: “Alright, guys, let’s do this” or “C’mon, guys, you are KISS…you don’t need to follow any trend”?
Toby Wright: That’s exactly what I told them…the second part. I remember getting into a big argument with Gene about the direction of the album. He said he wanted to be like that “bald guy”! And I said: “what bald guy?”. Gene said: “the one that he is on the top of the charts”…of course, he meant Billy Corgan. I remember telling him: “Listen, Gene…you are a legend. Why you wanna follow anybody’s footsteps?”. Eventually his point of view was that he wanted to sell more records. Immediately, I got back to him and said: “Make a great record and it will sell”. “Carnival of Souls” was a bit of a departure from the KISS sound and that’s why they hired me on Bob Ezrin’s recommendation. I was very successful on that genre. Personally I don’t believe in genres. It’s all about music and this “genre stuff” is nonsense for radio people and music journalists. I just produce music (laughs).
Rockpages.gr: “Childhood’s End” featured a children choir, “I Will Be There” featured an acoustic guitar that heavily reminds of Alice in Chains, “Jungle” has an excellent instrumental outro, kinda like a jam that it was unheard of KISS etc. Did you push them to go into this direction?
Toby Wright: Yes! Once it was established that this is the kind of record we were gonna make, I wanted to push them all the way! Make “Carnival of Souls” their best record that we could possibly do at that time. It didn’t matter at all to me that most of the people thought that we were following a trend. My sole concern was to make sure that the artist was satisfied with their efforts. It was my job to make the very best record that I could with what I was given.
Rockpages.gr: Do you think that your goal was accomplished? Did you make a great record with KISS?
Toby Wright: I think so…yeah! Like you said, it was a big departure for them and once the record finally got out, lots of KISS fans were really surprised. I remember “Carnival of Souls” being the biggest selling bootleg at that time. Unfortunately, right before we release this record, Gene was offered tons of millions of dollars to put the make up back on and reunite with the original boys. Those were very interesting times…
Rockpages.gr: Was Bruce (Kulick) the key member behind “Carnival of Souls”?
Toby Wright: Oh yeah…definitely. He was in the studio day in day out.
Rockpages.gr: Are there any unreleased stuff from that period?
Toby Wright: Not that I know of.
Rockpages.gr: Do you think that “Carnival of Souls” deserved a far better promotion and if the timing was right maybe things would have been different regarding the perception of this album?
Toby Wright: Yes…absolutely! I think that record would have been huge for KISS if they had released it properly right after we finished making it in 1995.
Rockpages.gr: You had worked with lots of artists and you are an accomplished producer/engineer. You had done so many albums yet your name will always be linked to the grunge era as you were one of those guys who helped shape that sound. How do you feel about it and how do feel about the 90s when grunge music ruled the world?
Toby Wright: I feel great about it. As long as I produce great music, I believe that I contribute something very positive to the world. I don’t have any regrets for the records that I produced and I think it’s very important to just keep going. I have done lots of stuff after the end of the 90s and in different genres. It’s OK for me to being mainly known as a metal producer or a grunge producer or the guy behind the Alice in Chains albums or whatever. I think that the 90s produced some of the greatest music in rock n’ roll history and I am glad that I was a part of it.