Interview: Tom Scholz Recalls the Making of 'Boston' and 'Don’t Look Back'
GW Did going through the songs in such minute detail bring back a lot of memories?
SCHOLZ I remembered playing all of those parts. They were all recorded in the basement of my apartment on long nights, and it was a bit of a grind. Our record label, Epic, didn’t want to use the demos they had signed us from, but they wanted a studio version exactly like the demo. Now, the only way that could be possibly done was if I played those parts just like I did on the demo, and I could not work in a production studio. I worked alone, and that was it; I had been doing it for years and years, and I had adapted to it. I couldn’t work in a studio with people milling around and some engineer that I had to wait for to rewind the tape. I did it all myself, very quickly. So I took a leave of absence from my Polaroid job—I was gone for several months—and I would wake up every day and go downstairs and start playing. It was a little bit annoying, because I was basically reproducing the same exact parts that I had played on the demo, and I don’t usually do that. What you hear on most Boston albums, the licks I play, that is the first time it ever happened. But in this case they wanted the same thing, so I had to replay the same parts exactly the same way with the same equipment—and in the same basement, for God’s sake!
GW Can you describe what that basement looked like?
SCHOLZ It was a tiny little space next to the furnace in this hideous pine-paneled basement of my apartment house, and it flooded from time to time with God knows what. I put in some partitions, and I built a tiny isolation booth that was completely carpeted. You could just get the drums in there—just.
GW The drums on Boston were recorded in your basement?
SCHOLZ Everything was recorded in the basement. The whole thing was done in that basement on a 12-track Scully tape machine. I had a Hammond organ and a Leslie speaker stuffed in the corner where the drums were. I would tear the drums down and pull the Leslie out a little bit when it was time to record the organ parts.
GW You would later go on to develop the Rockman headphone amplifier, a device that also revolutionized the process of recording guitars directly into a mixing board. Were any of the guitars on Boston recorded direct?
SCHOLZ No. They were always done with a prototype of my Power Soak power attenuator, at low volume, through a standard cabinet close-miked with an Electro-Voice RE16. I was using mostly a Marshall head that sounded like doo-doo on its own, but with a Crybaby wah pedal, an EQ and these old Maestro Echoplex tape delays in front of it, it sounded really good. It was noisy as hell, so I’m sure that I was getting some preclipping before it got to the head. For guitars, I had two Gold Top Les Pauls that both sounded very similar, and that was it.
GW Boston presaged modern recording, in which many artists make hugely successful albums in their home studios.
SCHOLZ You know, when I got out to L.A. where the record was going to be mixed, I was a little intimidated because I figured that these guys knew everything and I was just this hick who worked in a basement. But they were so backwards. They did not know how to spot erase, they did not know how to punch in and out to get in for quick fixes on things... They didn’t know how to do any of this stuff that I was doing all the time. These people were so swept up in how cool they were and how important it is was to have all this high-priced crap that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
GW At the time of the first album’s release, critics accused the band of creating the “corporate rock” sound.
SCHOLZ It was a travesty, I tell you. [laughs] Basically, Jim [Masdea, drums], Brad and I were just music lovers who were experimenting in the basement. I certainly had no thoughts and entertained no hope of anybody ever paying 10 seconds worth of attention to what I was doing. I was doing it because I liked it, and I thought, Well, maybe there’s a group of people out there who would like this, too. I had always simply entertained hope that I would get some sort of a little break and be able to perform. I mean, I was thinking clubs around town! And in the quest to get there, I basically became an experimenter in the basement, and you don’t write and record pieces like “Foreplay” because you think this is going to be the formula for a hit song! What we did do, however, by my experimenting with arranging and writing and Brad with his harmonies, was stumble onto the pop rock success in the Seventies that everybody thought was impossible because disco owned the airwaves. And we stumbled onto it, and then after that, everybody was trying to imitate it.
GW Still, beyond simply experimenting for the pleasure of it, weren’t you also sending demo tapes out to the record labels?
SCHOLZ Yes, and they were totally rejected—and nastily, too! The rejection that we got from Epic, from the A&R guy who later, incidentally, credited himself with discovering Boston, was something scathing like, “This band has absolutely nothing new to offer.” So not only did I not think that we were onto the formula for corporate success but the corporations hated us!! [laughs] So it’s quite ironic.
I think that part of the reason we got slapped with that nasty label is that the writers—the ones who gave us that label—hated our guts. The didn’t review us and say that we were up and coming; we didn’t get written up in the local press where they could say, “Watch for this band.” We happened before they even knew that we happened. And I think that really irritated some people, because they felt that they were the gatekeepers and we had passed right through it. You do that and people are going to get mad.