You Got to Breathe It— The Romeo Williams Interview

romeo_williamsAlthough you may not recognize his name, Recording Connection mentor Romeo Williams has worked with great number of the greats and want to talk about being diverse, Romeo does it all! With more than four decades in the music industry, he’s worked with Elton John, Alicia Keys, Maxi Priest, Luther Vandross, War and Brian Eno just to name a few! Today, Romeo Williams remains an in-demand rock and R&B session player for bass guitar and also produces and engineers at his studios located on both the East and West Coasts.

RRFC: I was actually really excited to see your name pop up because I know that you had worked with Elton John back in the day so I was super excited about that. I wanted to go back even further and just ask you what got you really interested, specifically, in the bass guitar?

Romeo: It’s interesting. I really wasn’t interested in the bass guitar, believe it or not. I just got kind of forced into it. My stepfather was a jazz organ player, and he made me and my brother sit in the room while he practiced for six hours and just watch him.

RRFC: Were you just watching his left hand a lot?

Romeo: I would just watch him sit there practicing. I guess one day he figured we weren’t paying attention and he said, “Okay, where did I stop at?” as he was reading the music. We looked at him like, “We don’t know how to read music so we don’t know where you stopped at.” He said, “See this note here? Hear that sound? Okay, see this note here? Hear that sound? Now you know how to read music.” Now he said, “If you don’t know how to read, just listen and wherever I stop just tell me if I was low or high.” It was pretty insane actually.

RRFC: Yeah, that sounds like some pretty intense theory right off the bat.

Romeo: Yeah, when you think about it now. When you’re a teenager, you’re not thinking about that. We wanted to go out and play ball with our friends and stuff, but we were stuck inside in this locked room with him.

RRFC: That’s great.

Romeo: That was kind of crazy. After that, the next thing I know a drum set shows up. My brother was forced to play piano because he played organ. He made him play the piano or organ. Then a drum set showed up and I was like, “Man, what’s this?” He said, “Oh, you want to play the drums.” I was like, “What? I don’t think so.” Then I started bashing it. We lived back in Jersey in the house that had three floors so the third floor was my room with the drum set and their room was underneath mine. I used to bash the heck out of it so they were like, “Oh, this is too loud. He’s disturbing us. Let’s put him in the basement.” They put me in the basement and it was still the same thing going on. Next thing you know, the drum set was gone and I was like, “Oh, cool.” All of a sudden I see a bass sitting there and an amp. I said, “I can’t escape.” That’s how I started playing and never really liked it. I was always bashful. Once I found out you could get girls then it took a whole other level.

RRFC: Oh, so suddenly the bass guitar was your best friend?

Romeo: Yes, after that. Once I figured out I could get girls I was like, “This is interesting.”

RRFC: Right. That certainly helped you in rock music and other forms because you had this great theory behind everything. Is it easy for you to just pick up any style of music?

Romeo: Yeah, actually when we were young and growing up in music, in my first experience after playing classical music I had a drummer friend of mine and I already knew about the jazz stuff. He had given me an album which was Miles Davis called “Bitches Brew” and that’s what really got me into everything, but we would always listen to Chicago; Fleetwood Mac; Boston; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Mountain; Traffic; Black Sabbath. You name it.

We were all into the rock, Jimi Hendrix back in the day, Janis Joplin, The Doors. We played everything and listened to everything from classical music to rock to Latin because back east, you’d grow up and listen to a lot of Cuban and Meringues. Being at east coast and New York and all that stuff you had Jamaican Music, I had relatives from the islands so I pretty much heard everything. My family listened to everything.

RRFC: That’s awesome. I heard Traffic in there.

Romeo: Oh yeah, Traffic. You remember Leslie West? I forgot about Leslie West, too.

RRFC: Yeah, I was gonna ask you if you were a Blind Faith fan.

Romeo: That’s right. Then Lee Michaels. I can go way back, we got into all that stuff.

RRFC: I was just watching the Ginger Baker documentary and was talking about how Eric Clapton was absolutely terrified to find out that he would be playing as the drummer in Blind Faith and Steve Winwood was like, “Oh, I had no idea you guys had a problem with each other.”

Romeo: You know what’s funny? I was telling a business partner of mine, I was like, “It’s amazing. I was so crazy about Fleetwood Mac. Then when I got old I was trying to think, ‘Why did I like this group?'” Them and The Who, I was like, “Why did I like these guys?” I couldn’t figure out why, but I liked Stevie Nicks but I used to be crazy. We used to go to a Who concert and be sitting out there waiting for them to throw a guitar out to us or something.

RRFC: That’s a possibility.

Romeo: You remember how they used to tear their stuff up on stage?

RRFC: Oh yeah. I don’t know how they stayed in budget on tour, to be honest. They must have been making money hand over fist . . .

Romeo: Yeah, or sponsored.

RRFC: . . . breaking the drum kit every day.

Romeo: Yeah, breaking the drums, smashing the guitars and sometimes they would throw them at the audience so we would go like, “Aw, man. Let’s go to the concert and maybe we might be lucky and catch one of the guitars or something.” See, we couldn’t afford any really expensive instruments.

RRFC: That’s hysterical. Were there any early influences that you listened to that eventually you ended up working with in a studio setting or going on tour with?

Romeo: Yeah, it’s interesting. George Benson is one of them. A friend of mine, Robert Honablue used to be his engineer. This is back in 1972. He used to live in the Bronx in Castle Hill and it’s the first studio I ever went into and it was George Benson’s house. He had his garage turned down stairs in the basement and the garage turned into a recording studio. It looked like big old scientific knobs. I think it was an 8-track or a 4-track and I ended up working with him. Then Barry White was another person.

RRFC: Wow.

Romeo: We used to play all his music. The next thing I know, I’m playing on the records and did a tour with him and stuff. That was pretty exciting.

RRFC: That’s incredible.

Romeo: Yeah, same thing with Elton. We used play his stuff and I ended up working with him for three and half years and touring and playing on the record and stuff.

RRFC: Didn’t you do a record in the middle of a big tour?

Romeo: With Elton?

RRFC: Yeah, weren’t you guys doing a two-year tour and then in the middle of it you actually recorded as well?

Romeo: Yeah. We spent six months in Denmark recording “Healing Hands”. I think that’s the name of the CD or the album back then. I think they had albums and CDs out back then.

RRFC: The band must have been super tight and just ready to track.

Romeo: Oh, yeah. It was great. We had Johnstone mopping on drums. Davey [Johnstone] had been there since 1972; he was the original guitar player…Then we had three background singers and they were top session female background singers.  

RRFC: How did you transition from working as a player in the studio?

Romeo: Well, yeah. Usually when you’re in a band one of you guys is the person who works the PA system while you’re on stage.

romeo_williamsRRFC: Was that you?

Romeo: That was me. What really got me, to be honest with you, interested doing that stuff after doing these sessions and writing songs and the person trying to explain [what] everything was we were just tired of paying for studio time in places…I would sit down there and figure out what kind of equipment I needed and then I was working just program stuff with John Barnes and stuff and Bruce Wheaton and I would ask questions at every session like, “What’s this?” and “Oh, really?” and listen and just pay attention to sounds. When we had a minute to talk about audio and what to do, eventually I was like, “Oh, okay,” because I went from a session player to producing and writing. Well, before that was doing string and horn arrangement, vocal arrangement, rhythms and stuff. Then I went into producing.

Then the engineering side, when I was able to actually afford and buy my own console and two-inch tape machine, I was like, okay. Now this is it. I get to do this 365 days a year and even work on the craft of it, and make all the mistakes in the world at my house. Yeah, and I asked the questions and then I just studied it. I spent time watching them and listening. Musicians have a better grasp on engineering than somebody who’s not a musician because we already know what tones and sounds and theory and we have timing, we know how to read music, we have great ear training and perfect pitch. That was a good start because we already know what the stuff is supposed to sound like.

RRFC: Right. What were some of the challenges though that you weren’t expecting? Like maybe stage issues, something like that.

Romeo: The patch bay used to scare me.

RRFC: Oh yeah.

Romeo: I used to hire an engineer when I first got the equipment because I was scared of the patch bay. I already knew that with the faders you’d learn one strip and then just duplicate it. That never scared me but the patch bay, for some strange reason, I used to be really afraid of it.

RRFC: Is it because of the normaling and half-normaling?

Romeo: No, it wasn’t that. I just didn’t understand signal flow.

RRFC: Okay.

Romeo: But it’s so simple. Once I found out all signal flow is just in and out and output to an input, I was like, “Why was I so scared of this thing?… It’s very simple. It’s really funny teaching the students and stuff like that. It’s too easy, that’s why they feel like it’s too hard, because it’s really too simple. The simple way to put it is signal flow is an output to an input so it’s out, in, out, in. As long as you can read a patch bay it’s gonna tell you here’s the mic lines and here’s the console and here’s this and here’s that and they all say out and in. Once you understand that, it’s really simple; same thing with a send and return. All send and return is an out and in.

RRFC: A lot of studios now will have an assistant engineer and then they’ll have a ProTools operator. Are things being fragmented too much today, do you think?

Romeo: No, I train them exactly like that. I say, “Here’s a guy. He comes in from Malibu with his martini in flip flops and shorts, sits down and he has this system over there. He runs ProTools. This person sits at the console. You run ProTools. He’s not gonna turn around and say to you, “Okay, I need another track.” You’ve got to hear that they already said they’re gonna need another track. You’ve got to be in sync with him. I’ve learned that from dealing with TV. They have a three-hour window to do a whole bunch of stuff and all in one day, as far as mixing it down and everything and getting it ready for the show that night or the next day. Those people have no time. I try to train them. I say, “Listen. You have to learn a bunch of shortcuts on ProTools. You can’t be sitting around mousing around all day.”

There are so many things you have to know nowadays, especially when you work with those guys who move at a fast pace. It’s amazing. I try to tell them, “Listen, don’t depend on nobody teaching you that. All you’ve got to do is go on help the screen, see Help, and look at the shortcuts and learn five at a time. Practice them, and then you’ll have plenty in your repertoire.”

RRFC: That’s great. What’s the one thing that you want all of your students to achieve or gain or feel by the time they’re done with the program and working with you? What do you want them to feel?

Romeo: They have to love this. You have to eat and breathe this. I want them to eat and breathe this so when they go into a situation when they finish with me, they have confidence. They can walk into a place and say, “Okay, what would you like me to do,” and do it. No questions asked, then there’s no fear. You walk in with your head up and you leave with your head up. That’s the key a lot of people get all nervous and you’re only nervous because you feel like you’re not confident. If you’re confident, you’re not nervous.

Thanks to Romeo Williams for a most interesting and enlightening interview! Your knowledge and wisdom is an immeasurable asset to us. We can’t wait to hear what you and your apprentices turn out next!

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