Boston’s Tom Scholz has a musician’s soul and a scientist’s obsession with the phenomena of sound and music.
Those qualities have helped him and his long-running group create some of the most lavishly layered, hooky guitar rock of the Seventies and beyond. The guitarist was a senior product design engineer for Polaroid in the Seventies who spent his off hours tinkering meticulously on a set of demo recordings in his home studio.
Those demos resulted in Boston’s self-titled 1976 debut, which took radio by storm, fast-tracked by hits like “More Than a Feeling,” “Peace of Mind” and “Smokin’.” The disc went on to sell 17 million copies. Boston followed it up two years later with the best-selling Don’t Look Back.
Subsequent albums have taken considerably longer to complete. Boston’s new album, Life, Love & Hope, was a staggering 11 years in the making, but it is a bold reaffirmation of the epic production values that made Seventies rock the apotheosis of what we now call classic rock. Its tracks are awash in chunky phalanxes of stacked rhythm guitars deployed with razor-sharp precision, richly sustained leads that reach for the sky in glorious melody, celestial clouds of background-vocal majesty, classically tinged keyboards…
In short, it’s the whole high-calorie, big-rock tour de force.
Although Life, Love & Hope is only Boston’s sixth album in 37 years, you’d be wrong to assume Scholz spends little time in the recording studio. He lives there. But when he’s in there, he sweats the details in a big way, piling up guitar tracks and constantly tweaking, reshaping and re-recording song arrangements.
He accomplishes much of this through the labor-intensive practice of splicing analog multitrack tape. In almost every respect, Scholz still does things the way they were done during rock’s Seventies heyday.
“Part of the difficulty in the studio is agonizing over what to leave out,” he says. “It’s very time consuming, and 99 percent of what I record, nobody else hears but me.”
Just as Scholz influenced the aesthetic of classic rock, he also helped countless rock guitarists to get fat, creamy analog amp tones out of a little black box he designed called the Rockman. Scholz’s device reinvented the way guitarists think about recording, making it possible to attain monster guitar sounds without a speaker cabinet. Needless to say, he used his Rockman gear on Life, Love & Hope, along with an enviable arsenal of vintage guitar and recording gear.
As Boston’s guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, songwriter and producer, Scholz has plenty of work to do on the new album. But Love, Life & Hope also brings to light his final recordings with former Boston lead singer Brad Delp, who committed suicide in 2007. Saddened, but undaunted, Scholz doesn’t sound like he’s going to give up on Boston anytime soon. But, of course, we just might have to wait another decade for the next album.
I’ve heard that you were deliberately writing songs in the classic Boston vein for this new album.
I think some of the songs are definitely in the classic Boston sound and style. On one or two of them, I even went back to my first Marshall amps, which were used on the first two albums, just because they seemed right. But I never sit down and reference my current guitar sounds or mixes to the first Boston album or any other album. For some reason, though, that’s where my brain seems to go. But at the same time, some of this record is a pretty wild departure. I definitely did some experimenting and took some chances.
Keyboards figure more prominently on this record than on some of Boston’s earlier work. But then piano is your first instrument, right?
It is. And I ended up going back there for a lot of songs on this album, although I didn’t deliberately set out to do that. There are many places on the album that feature piano. The instrumental “Last Day of School” was originally a piano song and a very difficult part to play, by the way, so I spent a lot of time perfecting it. And once I got it onto tape, I started hearing guitars, so I began laying in all these guitar parts. And it somehow ended up being dominated by the guitars, so now you can hardly hear the piano stuff that I had to work so hard to perfect!
Who are your big songwriting influences?
Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. [laughs] But I will also say I have a great appreciation for Joe Walsh and Jimmy Page, and an enormous regard for Jeff Beck’s guitar-playing style and some of those earlier bands that had great harmonies, like the Hollies.
And like all prior Boston albums, you recorded this one with an all-analog signal chain. Why is that?
Analog sounds so much better. I frankly can’t listen to digital audio for more than a few hours without really starting to hate what I’m listening to. Even decent 24-bit digital resolution really irritates me after a while. So I need something that I can listen to for months on end, thousands of plays.
And analog is still the bill for that. My primary tape machine is a 3M M79, the one I’ve been using since 1977. I do a lot of rearranging on tape, so I needed a machine that would handle splices really seamlessly, and the M79 is it. I know it’s considered a little extreme that I record on this analog gear. My repair tech refers to my studio as an archeological dig.
And your guitar signal chain is all analog, naturally.
Yes, I’ve got the same two Les Pauls I’ve played all along. They’re both from 1968 [see sidebar]. I got one in the early Seventies and the other one when I got my album deal. I paid $300 for one and $350 for the other, both secondhand. And they sound and feel almost identical.
So those guitars are all you played on the record?
That’s it. Those are really the only two guitars I own and use. I have a Jackson with a tremolo tailpiece that I keep around for once in a blue moon if I want to do a little something with a tremolo bar. But that’s very seldom. And I have a couple of acoustics and my Gibson EB-0 bass with a Fender Jazz pickup in it. The action is like a half inch off the neck, but I love the thing.
What about amps?
I saved a bunch of the Rockman stuff when I got out of the [equipment] business in 1995, and it’s still my primary amp. But I also have and use two of the old Marshalls that I used early on with Boston. And I also have a Mesa Triple Rectifier that I love. Great amp. I used that on a few songs on the album too. So it’s about 33 percent each: Rockman, Marshall and Mesa.
What does the Rockman do for you that nothing else does?
I gotta say, I love the Rockman sustain, and therefore I use it a lot for lead parts, especially things that are above the lowest octave on the guitar. But the thing about the Rockman that makes it so important to me is I can make changes between sounds on the fly. There’s no way you can do that as effectively with any standalone amp.
Well, I’ll make one slight modification to that statement: I used to have a gigantic setup of gear designed to make a vintage Marshall head switchable between a large assortment of sounds. But the support gear to do it was just ridiculous. Not just power soaks and things like that, which were all switchable, but also all sorts of signal-conditioning equipment.
And the Rockman basically has all of that stuff built into it, so I can go from clean sounds to wild distortion very smoothly. Or I can change to all sorts of wildly different tones. The unit I used for the album is a Rockman head with programmable EQ, switchable delay units, choruses and so forth. There were very few of those made, but I snagged a few of them. And it’s all completely analog, so it’s a warm, beautiful sound, and it lets you do things that are impossible without a whole studio full of gear, basically.
What’s the maximum number of guitar tracks on any given song on this album? And which one has the most?
Most of them have an unconscionable amount, but typically eight to 10. Normally there will be at least two guitars playing any rhythm part. Sometimes four. On “More Than a Feeling,” for example, the last chorus is a very heavy chorus, and the guitars are doubled up and slightly detuned.
Some of the songs on this record go back to before Brad Delp passed away in 2007.
Yes, absolutely. We started in 2002.
Is this some of the very last stuff you worked on with him?
Well, yes, two of them are. We made some changes to the song “Someone” in 2002. And we started working on “Sail Away” in 2003. We did the bulk of it, then I made some arrangement changes, and we went back and did some more work on it in 2005. And the other song with Brad, “Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love,” was begun either in late 2000 or early 2001. That one we worked on for 11 years.
So with Brad gone now, does that mean that there can’t be another Boston album after this?
No, not at all. Brad sings on three of the songs on this album, but other people sang the other eight.
What are your thoughts on why Seventies rock is so enduring? How do you account for it?
I don’t know. I don’t think anybody expected it to be. But I gotta tell you, it was some of the best rock and roll ever. I look at the various decades, and the Seventies really had it. It could be argued that it started in the late Sixties, but a lot of those bands hit their high point in the Seventies.
So do you lament the demise of the rock album as an art form?
I do, and the demise of the music business in general. It’s become such a bad bet economically that I think most artists can’t afford to do a full-production rock album these days. It was a major decision for me to do another one, in terms of time and money. I thought,
You’re going to spend years of your life working on this, and what for? There’s no more music business as I knew it anymore. But I thought, Well, it’s back to a hobby again. [laughs] That’s how it started out for me, so now I guess I’m back to that.
What was it like for you in 1976, when this hobby of yours started selling millions and millions of records?
I was incredulous. After I finished the album, I went back to work at my day job at Polaroid. I never expected anything to happen with the album. I was told nothing would happen by so-called experts in the music business. They said that disco was the coming thing and my album was just a long shot.
Really, all I was hoping was that some of my songs would get on the radio in the Boston area and maybe I could go out and play a few gigs. So you can imagine what it was like when the draftsmen and engineers at Polaroid started running into my office yelling, “Your song is on the radio! Your song is on the radio!”
Did it kinda fuck with your head when it all went massive?
Not really, because I was 29—almost 30—at the time when that happened. So I was pretty settled in. I was a working stiff. It wasn’t like some kid star who doesn’t know which end is up. So I just felt like, Well, cool!
Photo: Trent Bell