Late Producer Paul Curcio Looks Back on Work with Metallica and The Grateful Dead, and the Early Days Of Multi-Track Recording

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Metallica photographed in 1986.

As Billboard reported in late September, producer Paul Curcio passed away earlier in the month at the age of 74. Curcio, who scored minor hits in the ‘60s as a member of the psychedelic folk outfit the Mojo Men, became a recording pioneer later that same decade when he founded the Bay Area’s first 16-track recording studio. In 1983, he produced Metallica’s game-changing debut Kill ‘Em All

Months before his death, Curcio looked back on his life in the music business, a story with a colorful cast of characters that also included Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, drug lawyers-turned-executive producers, an infamous LSD manufacturer, vomiting musicians, and scheming record company execs. See an edited transcript of the conversation below. 

You founded Pacific Recording in the Bay Area in the ‘60s. How did it become a destination of choice for acts like the Grateful Dead and Santana

We were the first multi-track studio in the area, and everyone was dying to layer parts. Before long, I had the Grateful Dead hanging out at my place because they loved the equipment we had. They were experimenting with all kinds of sounds. The Grateful Dead album -- I can’t even [pronounce the title]: oh-ex-on-amo? [1969’s Aoxomoxoa -- Ed.] -- we did that. They were trying to use sounds and things that they knew were on the record, but where people would have to listen frontwards and backwards and upside down to figure out what instruments they were really using. 

There was also a fella I knew named Brian Rohan. He and his partner handled most of the big groups’ drug-related issues. Brian set me up so all the groups he was handling -- these were name artists -- would come to me: Janis, Kozmic Blues Band, and The Grateful Dead. I also brought the Doobie Brothers up from Santa Cruz and cut demos with them when they were just a trio. They added [singer-guitarist] Pat Simmons while we were doing the demos. Dave Shogren, the original bass player, was a good friend of mine. He passed away [in 1999] when he was only 49 years old. It was very sad. But I was trying to bring groups in from other parts of the country too. 

There was a multi-track operation in New York City [likely referring to Mirasound -- Ed.], and you had The Beatles in London, but we were one of the big ones. The technology was still so new. Every week, something else was coming out. It was exciting times -- real exciting. You never knew who was going to show up from day to day. [Laughs.] 

When you say “handling the bands’ drug-related issues,” what does that mean? 

Rohan’s partner was [Michael] Stepanian. When [legendary Bay Area promoter] Bill Graham had problems with groups getting in trouble for getting busted, he would turn them over to Rohan and Stepanian. The bands were getting busted for pot, then eventually coke and all kinds of drugs. So they would make the call to Rohan and Stepanian, who were known to get deals with the courts and arrange drug rehab programs and different things that the judges would [order]. Sometimes it was just a slap on the wrist. The big names just went walking sometimes.

The Grateful Dead, my God -- they were growing entire grass fields up in the Mendocino area, where they grew high-grade pot. Everyone knew it, but they never got in trouble for it. There was also Owsley Stanley, who came up with high-grade processes for growing pot and, later, for manufacturing LSD. All of this was done through the bands. 

Owsley was the one, as far as I know, who came up with the formula for street use of LSD that swept the Haight and the rest of the country. [Nicknamed Bear, he was also responsible for the Grateful Dead’s “wall of sound” live audio mix and iconic “Steal Your Face” logo -- Ed.] He was a character, I’ll tell ya. He wanted to get everyone high. 

One of my engineers -- Ron Wickersham, the guy who developed the color [slow-motion] camera for use at football games -- worked at Ampex. Owsley actually wanted Ron to put some LSD in the water at Ampex and get everyone stoned to see what would happen. This guy was playing with dangerous stuff! But he was always around. Jimi Hendrix came to my studio two or three times -- mainly to hook up with Owsley. He would show up and Owsley would give him an envelope [full] of pills. But Jimi did record some things. I wish I had those tapes. 

Ravi Shankar set up one of his prayer rugs once when he was getting ready to go on a tour. Hendrix walked in and ended up jamming with Ravi. Things like that are priceless, but we didn’t know how priceless they were at the time. 

Was the tape rolling? 

Oh yeah, [but tapes] just went out the door with the various artists. 

And so the lawyers were feeding you the bands as clients? 

Yes. I remember Bill Graham came in and had a meeting with the Grateful Dead. They were overbudget, and Warner Bros. wasn’t going to give them any more money. So Bill came to me and says, “We’ve got to make a deal.” We were all in the room sitting on the floor of the studio. I think the number was between fifteen and twenty thousand that Bill Graham would pay me, no matter how many hours it took. 

And when Brian Rohan would pay me, we would go to his house, which was a little church in the Haight-Asbury area. He would always pay me in cash. He would go to various parts of the church and pull out a jar full of hundred dollar bills. There was never a shortage of money.

You’re from Rochester, New York. How did you end up in the Bay Area? 

I had another cousin named Steve Alaimo who was real big in the music business. Steve had initially gone off to Michigan. He was actually going to play football but he got sidetracked by the music thing and wound up in Miami. Rochester was too cold for my mother, and my family moved there in ‘56-’57. 

I went to North Miami High. In the first part of the ‘60s, I would go to the great Critera Studios [now known as The Hit Factory Criteria Miami] after school if my cousin was playing. He’d have me sit there and play acoustic guitar or play a little part. 45s were big, and Steve had hits coming out back then. Eventually, [that led to Alaimo becoming the co-founder of] TK Records with Henry Stone, one of the real pioneers of the music industry. 

KC and The Sunshine Band came out of all that. TK had a little 8-track studio -- you gotta understand that, back then, these were just two 4-track machines put together. The studio was upstairs from their distribution space. Henry was a record distributor and he had a pressing plant that he owned, so 45s were going out from downstairs. But they had KC experimenting upstairs and he came up with the KC sound. They let KC do things [on the creative and production end], and Henry and Steve would hang on to the publishing. 

Anyway, my other cousin Jim Alaimo was also down in Miami. He would become the bass player in my group The Mojo Men. In ‘64, I drove to California with another boy from Rochester, [future Mojo Men keyboardist] Don Metchick. We all met in San Francisco to pursue our music. We were called The Mojo. 

The guy that owned us, Tom Donahue -- who was actually the father of FM underground radio -- he named us the Mojo Men. We were named after one of his horses, Mojo Woman. He used to bet a lot of money on her out at Gulfstream Racetrack in Florida. So we were named after a horse. [Laughs.] We actually tried Mojo Women when Jan Errico from the Vejtables became our drummer. We tried different people in the group and played around with a lot of different things. 

And Sly Stone produced you. 

He was a year or two younger than us. Tom Donahue said, “Here, you’re gonna work with him.” Tom was in Pittsburgh one day and he heard a song called “Hanky Panky.” Tommy James [& The Shondells] had a big hit with it. He called us and said, “Be at my house Sunday. I’m flying in.” He gave us the song and said, “Learn it today or tomorrow.” We were going to record it on Tuesday with Sly.

The first song we recorded was “Off the Hook,” which was a Jagger-Richards song. The Rolling Stones didn’t know we’d recorded it. We actually did a show with them and did the song first. Everyone thought it was our song and that the Rolling Stones were paying tribute to the Mojo Men. But Sly was a genius even at that age. He was on the radio [on San Francisco station KSOL], and if he played your song, everyone would want to go buy it. He’d make you a hit overnight. He had that power. 

When did you make the transition from performing to producing? 

I started cutting demos for people. One of the first was the Doobie Brothers, and I got Warners interested in signing them. I had two groups -- the other one was called Road House, who were as good if not better than the Doobies. I wanted Warners to take two bands, but they didn’t want to. My partner Marty Cohn and I were managing both groups and sitting behind the board. 

When the Doobies album came out, they didn’t want to give us credit. They had us listed as executive producers. It said “produced by Lenny Waronker and Ted Templeman.” We didn’t get all the credit we were going to get. We made some money, but not as much as [we could considering what] the Doobies have made through the years. 

What was your impression of how major labels operated back then? 

I always found the major players to be very conniving. You couldn’t trust a handshake with them. For instance, when we were mastering the Doobie Brothers, I was walking around the hall and saw that our machine had a cord that was plugged into another machine in another room. [Warners] were making a duplicate copy of our master. I went in and unplugged them. [Execs] Mo Austin and Joe Smith wanted to be the first in getting their name on everything. 

What brought you back to Rochester in 1978? 

My cousin Jim, the bass player in the Mojo Men, had started to practice law back in Rochester. I came back for us to do concerts, [work on] record production, whatever. It felt good to be back, because I had a family back in Rochester that I could now see. 

So how did you end up producing Metallica? 

[Laughs.] Jonny Zazula, known as Jonny Z [founder of Megaforce Records], worked out of a flea market in New Jersey. He had a feel for hard rock, metal, and speed metal bands. He sent me the demo tape No Life ‘Til Leather that Metallica had recorded with other members in California. He said “What do you think?” At the time, my phone call to him was a phone booth -- that was his number. I said, “It’s incredible. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s rock and roll, but with speed.” We hadn’t heard guitars played like that. I liked it. 

So what he wanted to do was have a studio where he could send the bands he was finding at a good price so he could do these albums cheap. I think the Metallica album might have cost [a bulk sum of] maybe $15,000. He sent [fellow Bay Area thrash metal greats] Anthrax up to me and they showed up with a trailer full of equipment. They thought we’d recorded Metallica with all these amps, but we’d actually recorded Metallica with one amplifier. And the drums were recorded up in the ballroom, because it had a really live wood sound. Lars [Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer] loved it up there. 

Except that he thought it was haunted

Yeah. He said the cymbals would spin around. And as it got dark up there, they lit some candles, which made it even stranger. He definitely believed it was haunted. 

By the time the band came to record, they were very well-rehearsed. You didn’t have to do any pre-production with them--

I didn’t have to do any pre-production, but I did use tricks that I’d used before to get certain sounds on their guitars, the bass, and voice. Cliff Burton had a bass and we couldn’t get rid of its high-pitched scream noise that it made. Nothing would get rid of it. So I took it to a guy who built pickups from scratch, and there was no more screaming. I remember Cliff would be in the control room standing behind the board going nuts shaking his hair. He was a super-nice guy. He really appreciated the work we went through to get his bass to work right. 

But they were also drinking heavily, making a mess, spilling things on the rug -- this is by their own admission

Well, my wife at the time would make them lasagna and dinners and bring it to the house. We had a band house where the bands would live. They’d sleep in sleeping bags and drink and do whatever they wanted. 

One night, I asked a friend of mine -- Jay Rund, who owned [a local venue named] The Riverboat --who had a venue if we could all come and hang out. The band who was in there was from Pennsylvania and had a very big following. They were playing a Judas Priest song. Metallica were standing near the board and didn’t like that this band was replicating one of their idols, so they started spilling beer on the board. The bass player in this band wound up swinging his bass at James [Hetfield, Metallica frontman] and Lars. They got into a huge fight, and then the band’s roadies threw them out the front door. 

Lars and James puked all over the place in the fella’s car who was driving them that night. We got ‘em out of there, took ‘em back to the house, and cleaned ‘em all up so they could get back to the studio in a day or two. Because the next day they had tremendous hangovers. 

It doesn’t sound like you were really bothered by the way they acted. 

As long as we got the product done, I’d go along with just about anything. When we came to mixing, I didn’t have them in the control room a few times because they were reaching over the engineer and grabbing the control knobs and just getting in the way. So I locked them out of the control room. My son always tells me that I was mean to them. I wasn’t mean; I was trying to get the album done. [Laughs.

How involved were you in giving them feedback, selecting takes and guiding performances? 

Well, for example, with James’ vocals, we combined a regular Neumann U 67 or 87 mic -- I’m not sure -- and an RCA ribbon mic that I had and blended those together. I was making decisions just to make it big and loud and nasty. It was a crazy record. But [the decisions] were a combination of all of us. I’d listen to takes in the control room with James and Lars, and in the big room we’d also pick out the right sounds between the three of us. Lars wanted the guitars to sound a certain way. 

Looking back, how proud are you of that recording? 

Oh my God, I think about it all the time. This past year [in 2017], they appeared in Orlando and I wasn’t feeling good, so I didn’t go. But my son Paul, Jr. went, and they sent me some pictures and a little video of James and Lars saying hi. My son said that James and Lars were being so nice. 

Did you get points on that record? 

No, I gave up my points. We didn’t think at the time that it was going to sell that big. We didn’t know. But I’m proud of it, though. We were all part of making one of the greatest albums of all time.