The Clash engineering veteran talks his work with South American rockers from Charly Garcia and Andres Calamaro to No Te Va Gustar.
New York producer and engineer Joe Blaney will probably always be best known for his work on The Clash's Combat Rock. That is, unless you go to South America, where he's responsible for the sound of some of the most successful (and by now legendary) rock albums of the past three decades.
Blaney's unlikely relationship with rock en español started in 1983, when Argentine icons Charly Garcia and Pedro Aznar knocked on the door of New York's Electric Lady Studios. Blaney, who had jumpstarted his career two years earlier as an engineer on Combat Rock, signed on for the recording of what would become one of the greatest Spanish-language rock albums of all time, Clics Modernos, which includes the bold and indispensable metaphorical protest song, "Los Dinosaurios."
"Then, all of a sudden, the phone started ringing with everybody from down that way calling me," remembers Blaney, who puts the number of South American and Spanish albums he has worked on at over two dozen. "Charly opened the doors to a career I never intended or designed."
The New York native, who pronounces the Spanish-language titles of albums he's produced with a distinctly gringo twang, says he was never in agreement with efforts to pressure Garcia and other artists into singing in English as an attempt to increase their crossover appeal.
In addition to Clics Modernos and Parte de la Religión, recordings that captured Garcia at the top of his game, Blaney's production credits include Andres Calamaro's Alta Suciedad and Los Tres' Fome. He's also worked in Spain, recording the No. 1 album Por la Boca Vive el Pez with Spanish stars Fito and Los Fitipaldis, among other titles.
"I guess I could go in with more experience and intuition having come from the American music scene," says Blaney, who has also worked with Prince, The Ramones, and Keith Richards, on his pull for Spanish-language bands. "It's the producer's job to be an objective ear and listen to what they're doing and figure out a way to keep it progressing and moving forward. And be true to what it is, but find a way to improve upon it and make it more believable or compelling."
In 2013, Blaney recorded Garcia's comeback concert at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. That album has yet to be released.
Most recently, Blaney helmed No Te Va Gustar's El Tiempo Otra Vez Avanza, which features a guest appearance by Garcia. The 2014 album went gold in 24 hours in the band's native Uruguay. The group has begun an extensive tour behind the album in Latin America, with U.S. dates planned for next summer. NTVG was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone Argentina in December, with the headline "the best Argentine rock band is Uruguayan."
"He's worked on albums that, for us, are fundamental," NTVG's Emiliano Brancciari says of Blaney. "At first it was like a dream. We sent him a blind email and he answered…we were totally pleased with the production, which has not always been the case before."
From his base in New York, Blaney talked to Billboard about his work with NTVG -- and took a look back at the making of some of the albums that have become milestones in Latin rock.
Charly Garcia, Clics Modernos (1983)
In 1983, Charly came to New York; he rented an apartment with an upright piano. He had a friend, Pedro Aznar, living here at the time, and they composed some songs. And then one day they came and knocked on the door of Electric Lady, the studio that I was affiliated with. That would have been in September of 1983. They said they wanted to make a record, the studio told them to go away, because back then, you just didn't do it like that. And then a guy who was with them had a big wad of 100 dollar bills in his t-shirt pocket. He pulled it out and said to the owners of the studio something like, 'You smell the money here?' And they talked to him, and I made this record with them called Clics Modernos.
We came in every day and recorded like one song a day using a drum machine as a base. In the case of Clics Modernos, it was one of the first time I had used the drum machine. I didn't really know what I was going for -- I was trying to make it sound like real drums, processing it quite a bit.
He and Pedro had already worked out their parts, so they were just refining them. In the early '80s, there were a lot of keyboard technologies coming out, and Charly was the kind of guy that if he got a certain sound on a keyboard, he would all of a sudden have a new part. There was a kind of fire in him; he would be creating up until the time when we finished the recording. There were always elements of improvising.
He left to go to Los Angeles and finish the record. And then I got a call a few days later that he wanted to mix it with me, and he came back to New York. I had gotten really busy by then, and we had to mix the whole thing in like four days. I knew we made a good record -- I was very impressed by he and Pedro's abilities and talent. But I had no idea this was going to be such a big record in Argentina.
Parte de la Religion (1987)/Como Conseguir Chicas (1989)/MTV Unplugged (1995)
Parte de la Religion was when Charly was at his height. And somehow, the next year when we made Como Conquistar Chicas, something started to go really wrong.
In 1988, it was the first time I said I wouldn't work with him again. And then in '90 [I mixed one] called Filosofia Barata y Zapatos de Goma; he had just come out of the clinic for the first time. Then after that it started to go downhill. I made a record with him in '94, La Hija de la Lagrima, and he just couldn't fix it. He wanted to remix it and re-record some things; he was staying up for days on end. It was just a very dark experience for me, although there are some good things on that record. Every record we did had some good things.
And I said, 'I'll never work with you again,' and then the people from MTV and Sony called me to do his Unplugged record. They said, 'We're not going to do it unless you do it.' And I figured it wouldn't be as bad because it's a live record. But it was still really bad, the way he was dealing with people…Maybe another root of the problem was the industry not being as global then, and the industry being younger and newer in Argentina. Maybe there wasn't a management or support system for artists then who were able to help them.
Los Tres, Fome 
In 1997 we made a record called Fome, which is a really brilliant rock record, but it didn't do as well in Chile [as Los Tres' previous albums MTV Unplugged and La Espada y La Pared]. It was too much of a departure. It sounded like Blur or something. I don't think people understood it.
It started to do well in Mexico, but the Sony people wanted them go live there for six months. At that time you had to go to every little club and radio station to promote a record. And they were just at the age where they were starting families, and they were already stars in Chile, and they wanted to stay there.
Los Rodriguez, Palabras más, palabras menos 
It was a bit like wrangling cats to get them to play well together. They were a good band, but it wasn't quite as natural like a rock band like Los Tres, where they grew up together.
In 1995 I went over to Spain. They were having issues. One of the guys was a junkie. He later died. We went to a residential studio, and that's when he decided he was going to start his withdrawal, so it was a little hairy.
Andres Calamaro, Alta Suciedad 
Andres started doing demos. [After the success of Los Rodriguez] he was determined to go solo. When he played me the demos he had made in his apartment, they were very good. During the time we knew each other, Andres liked a lot of '70s New York records: Paul Simon, Steely Dan…He liked Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, which a friend of mine, Marc Ribot, had played guitar on, so I suggested to him that we go to New York and make the album with good session musicians. Alta Suciedad, that was in 1996. It's actually coming out next year as a vinyl issue.
We had to work quickly because the musicians were all expensive. We basically recorded it in about five days and then we did some overdubs. I took a gamble making the record, everyone thought I was crazy bringing him to New York and hiring all these musicians. Because it was really sort of a '70s style of record making that came from people like Tom Dowd and Phil Ramone.
The first guitar player and bass player we had in the first few days were Hugh McCracken and Chuck Rainey. Those guys had been recording since the early '60s, so you're hiring guys who have more than 30 years experience going to work every day with their guitar and playing on records. It's a whole different thing than making records with a band. It's a different kind of musician who has to hear a song for the first time and from their instinct and intuition create some part for it and play it. I was fortunate that the chemistry of the whole thing was incredible.
No Te Va Gustar, El Tiempo Otra Vez Avanza (2014)
They felt their recordings didn't match the momentum the band was getting with their audience [at their shows] -- they hadn't reached the level that they should.
It was really easy for me to figure out because they were pretty far along, as far as the way they create together. But it's just that the whole craft of record production has been somewhat complicated by the development of the computer technology.
There are various ways of making a record. For some reason, on their last two or three albums -- they have a little studio in Montevideo -- the producers of the last albums would record a drum with a reference guitar and vocal and say, "We'll fix all the drums so they are quote-unquote perfect and then we'll overdub instruments one at a time." And I'm looking at it like, these guys play in arenas and stadiums and they play all the time as a band. It's a nine-piece band, so why don't we just record everyone playing together? It seemed like the logical way.
My initial concept was somewhat radical for them, but for me, it's not radical at all, because it's the way records have been made for many decades. In the States, people have gone back to trying to get everyone in the room and play together. So it was just a change in the concept that made a big difference in the energy of the record.