Interview with Billy Donald for his website, 2004

Grammy award winning producer David Hentschel has come a long way from the young understudy that was fixing tea for David Bowie during the Space Oddity sessions in 1969, to the veteran who has to his list of credits, the likes of Genesis, Elton John, The Yellowjackets, Frank Zappa, and Paul McCartney, all of whom he has worked with either as a producer or an engineer. When he’s not busy methodically crafting a wonderfully polished sound for such artists, he enjoys visiting his own musical talents as a keyboardist in a project band entitled Blue Thunder. David was recently gracious enough to spend some time after a two month stint abroad to answer some questions, and I’m sure you will enjoy this exclusive interview with the talented and very kind David Hentschel!

Q: David, thank you so much for joining me here for this interview! This is the first time I have interviewed anybody that was known first and foremost as a producer/engineer, and I have to say that it is an honour to have such an esteemed and respected Grammy award winning producer as my first one! I wanted to start off here by asking you what kind of projects you are currently involved in?

A: Faced by the impending suicide of the record business I’m currently exploring new ways of bringing quality music to the public without starving! In real terms, that means I’m developing new projects – both my own and for other artists – at the same time as exploring alternative methods of marketing the finished product.

Q: In recent years you have been doing a lot of work in film scoring, including the recent box office smash Any Given Sunday, which starred Al Pacino. What aspects of the film’s soundtrack and score were you involved in?

A: For the last few years I have mostly been working with a team of guys in New York and Nashville, each of whom bring different talents to our production partnership. We began work on AGS at the beginning of the scoring process providing a lot of original music for the project. Thanks to director Oliver Stone’s ‘unique’ approach to film making, this was not to remain a comfortable road to follow. Enough said. Ultimately I ended up providing some orchestral arrangements, most notably the Missie Elliott track ‘Who Ya Gonna Call?’ which is the first track on the soundtrack album.

Q: Personally, I am most familiar with your long string of engineering and producing work with Genesis, so I wanted to discuss those times a bit with you. You actually first worked with the band as an engineer on their 1971 Nursery Cryme album, which was the first album to feature Steve Hackett and Phil Collins with the band. What were your impressions of the then-Peter Gabriel led band that was on the verge of hitting their stride?

A: Quite simply these were heady days in the music business, especially where I was in the early 1970’s at Trident studios in London. It seemed from a creative point of view that anything was possible. At the time I was doing a lot of work for Tony Stratton Smith’s Charisma label, whose success was built on encouraging all their artists to be themselves – experimentation was encouraged and this made for some very exciting music, not to mention really fun times! Genesis fitted into this scene like a glove. Peter, it has to be said, was the band’s most dynamic creative driving force, at some times too much so for some of the other band members. Genesis were nothing if not democratic though, and compromises were usually reached. Finally, of course, these differences led to Peter’s departure.

Q: You later came back as the band’s primary producer for the band’s 1976 album Trick of the Tail, which was the first album without Peter Gabriel. I understand that you were asked specifically by your friend Phil Collins to take the reigns on this one. What were the differences you saw in the band with Gabriel and without him?

A: There was a strong determination and belief amongst the remaining band members that they were more than capable of continuing on their own – in fact that the result would be more focused. While I remain one of Peter’s biggest fans, I believe they achieved that. Whether or not Genesis produced better music as a result is obviously a subjective question for each fan. There were initially problems finding a new singer to replace Peter, which are well documented elsewhere. Once Phil had volunteered himself and been accepted by the others, I think confidence grew really quickly, and by the time we were mixing the album we were all confident that we had a really good record. Mike and Tony really matured as writers, and coupled with Phil’s boundless energy and enthusiasm this ensured that the band remained loyal to their core following while going on to rapidly increase and broaden their audience appeal.

Q: To me, 1976’s Wind and Wuthering was the band’s dark horse album. You never really see it get the credit it truly deserves, but I thought there was some brilliant work there, and certainly not least, it was a beautifully produced album, from the opening swells of Eleventh Earl of Mar to the last fade of Afterglow. This was also the beginning of the shift of power so to speak as Steve Hackett was on his way out of the band. Did you feel that Steve’s claims were somewhat true that the band was beginning to veto his contributions out?

A: Although Wind and Wuthering may not be the first album most people might think of when you mention Genesis, IMHO it’s the purest and most musical of their albums, and from all the feedback I’ve had over the years I would say it’s the favourite album for most die hard Genesis fans. Steve did feel, and rightly so, that he was being sidelined from the writing point of view. He was absolutely right in saying that it marked the beginning of the end for him in the band, but paradoxically despite the frustrations and friction which were beginning to appear in the studio, he did, through his writing and playing, make a big contribution to the success of the record.

Q: Once Genesis was down to the familiar 3 piece group in 1978, did you feel that they were sufficient enough as a trio, or did you feel that maybe there was something more needed, either from a writing standpoint or a musical standpoint?

A: The tongue-in-cheek aspect of the album title ‘And Then There Were Three’ should not be ignored! Once again, confidence was high in the band after Steve’s departure. I thought they definitely had the talent and ability to continue as a 3-piece. Many argue that this marked the beginning of the end for the ‘original Genesis’. In reality it was a deliberate change of direction; in my book it’s always a good thing for artists to try to develop rather than taking the easier and safer route of relying on the tried and tested. The record company had asked for some shorter songs and we duly obliged. I think the result was successful, and we managed to retain the musicality of earlier albums while again beginning to make inroads into the singles market.

Q: You last album as Genesis’ producer was 1980’s Duke. Was there a mutual decision to end you association with the band at that point?

A: Yes. There comes a point in any creative relationship where things can become predictable. This is not the best way for any of those involved to continue to develop. Having produced four studio albums, a live album and two solo albums for them, we were reaching that point. Phil had started to work with Hugh Padgham on Peter’s album and consequently ‘No Jacket’ and the band felt it was time for a change. I couldn’t argue.

Q: Of course, Genesis is far from your only producing or engineering credit! You have worked with everybody from Ringo Starr to Paul McCartney to Elton John to the Yellowjackets, with whom you won your Grammy award with, and everybody in between! Was there any particular production that you were involved in that you felt really stood out or is dear to your heart as your finest achievement?

A: I could never pick only one. Throughout my career I have tried to pick projects that interest me musically and also make sure that I get on well with the artist – it’s only fair for all involved and always yields better results. Consequently there are few albums I’ve done which were NOT memorable and great fun. If I had to pick a few that stood out even more…

Land’s End – Jimmy Webb
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John
(Incidentally we all miss Gus Dudgeon and his wife who tragically passed away recently)
Trick Of The Tail – Genesis
Small Creep’s Day – Mike Rutherford
Four Corners – Yellowjackets
The Golden Wire – Andy Summers
The Window – Marc Russo

Q: You are also a very accomplished musician, playing keyboards in a unique blues outfit called Blue Thunder, which includes vocalist Paul Williams, drummer Gary Husband, and an assortment of other great interchangeable musicians! Tell me a bit about Blue Thunder’s initial first few gigs in Japan. You guys faced a lot of obstacles such as earthquakes just to get there and play!

A: Having spent most of my adult life in recording studios, it was with great joy (and a little trepidation!) that I accepted my friend Paul Williams’ offer to join Blue Thunder and tour Japan. True, we experienced the after effects of the recent Kobe earthquake and the Sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway – both of which had rattled the normal placid Japanese psyche, not to mention the antics of a less-than-competent promoter. Whatever else, this all conspired together to let us focus on the music, and we ultimately had a great time. With the exception of Paul & Gary, none of us had ever played together before so we had a few day’s rehearsal over there first before we hit the road. After that the gigs just got better and better – mostly small clubs with the occasional bigger venue thrown in for good measure. Have to say I fell in love with Japan and it’s culture, and am still looking for an excuse to go back. Any offers out there???? After the tour Paul and I wrote some more songs to augment some of his tunes which we had covered live, and a couple of months later we were in the studio in England, with the addition of guitarist Micky Moody and bassist Pete Stroud to make the first Blue Thunder album.

Q: You have stated that Blue Thunder might still venture out for a few more gigs around the world. Are there any such plans in the work right now?

A: Trouble with part-time bands like BT is getting everyone together at the same time. Paul is still gigging a lot, often with Micky & Pete, but, save the occasional guest appearance, I’ve had to bow out of a long-term commitment due to the pressure of my studio work. Who knows what the future holds though?

Q: David, I want to thank you very much once again for taking the time to join me here. I wanted to wrap up here by asking you what other new projects we might see you involved in for the upcoming new year?

A: My pleasure, Billy. As I mentioned at the outset, the priority at the moment is building for the future. I’m currently working with several young artists, in the UK, in Europe and with my partners in New York, on new albums. I also feel the time is right for me to start producing more of my own material. Music is an art form. My overriding wish is to make thought-provoking rather then disposable music. The record companies have become so celebrity and fame (as opposed to talent) biased, besides which, in the current corporate takeover climate there soon won’t be many of them left anyway! There’s also the piracy issue, and the narrowing radio formats. So many of the traditional routes we’ve used in the past to get our music out there are now being cut off at an alarming rate. It’s now up to us, the musicians and artists who care, to explore new futures for ourselves. People’s love of music will never die. Let’s make sure we can find ways of giving them the quality music that they deserve at a price they can afford.