What makes a great producer? More importantly, what makes a great engineer? Indeed, there is a very real distinction. But for my money, Alex Salzman is one of the more authentic and forward-thinking characters within the music industry.
Regardless of if he is making music with Ace Frehley, or an independent pop artist, Salzman brings the same level of authenticity and professionalism to the studio day in and day out.
The distinct sound he elicits from the bands he works with is unique, and the result is a Grammy nomination. Still, Salzman is as humble as they come. Despite leaving a deep imprint on music, his honest and exacting work remains hyper-focused, with no pretense, and is always driven by quality.
Busy as ever, Alex Salzman dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to talk music, his love for production, what’s on tap, and more.
What are your earliest memories of music?
My earliest memories are probably from when I was still in the womb, as my mother is a classical concert pianist, who’s
performed all over the world in her time, so I basically grew up under a grand piano. I listened to her practice by herself, as well as with many famous instrumentalists and singers that were often at our house. I started my formal musical education at the age of six, discovered The Beatles at 11, and it was over for me!
What was the moment when you knew that you wanted to turn your attention to production?
I was always fascinated by how recordings were made. While working in music stores in my college years and beyond, I had ample access to equipment and got my first 4-track recorder, then basically lost my mind over how cool it is to overdub stuff. Later came an analog 8-track and, consequently, software. I kind of fell into my production career when I recorded the demos for my then-popular NY band Tour De Force, which consequently got a deal on Geffen. The label bought us more gear to do pre-production for the first album, so I dove into that. After the band broke up a few years later, both ex-members and other local bands started coming to me to produce and record their stuff.
Once the decision was made, who were some of your earliest influences?
I listened to tons of music before I dove into my production career. From The Beatles to jazz and progressive rock, so it was definitely giants like George Martin, Phil Ramone, Mutt Lange, Bob Rock, Hugh Padgham, etc. To me, they made amazing records.
From those influences, what sort of techniques have you drawn out, and from whom?
It’s impossible to pinpoint specific techniques, but inevitably I have been influenced by George Martin’s beautiful, clever orchestral arrangements, Mutt Lange’s groundbreaking “precision” recording techniques, the power of Bob Rock’s records, Phil Ramone’s lush sound, etc. To this day, I often refer to my favorite recordings to “borrow” some ideas.
Focusing on your latter rock-oriented career, I wanted to hit on the record you made with Danger Danger’s Ted Poley, Collateral Damage. How did you first become connected with Ted?
I got involved with Ted through John Kivel/Kivel Records; at the time, I was mixing a lot of records for his label, and Ted’s project came along. Ted loved the way a particular record sounded that I mixed (Adrian Gale), and he requested me… to my recollection.
Ted has a classic sound, and you did an incredible job harnessing that while still ushering in a new era for him. What was your approach going in?
Thank you, frankly, there was no specific approach; we knew what Ted was about, and the tracks were well performed and recorded, so I just put my ’80s hat on, and off I went.
You’ve been a huge part of Ace Frehley’s late-career resurgence. Walk me through your initial conversations with Ace and how you ended up working with him on Anomaly.
I got introduced to Ace by a lifelong friend Derrek Hawkins, who was his guitar player at the time. Ace was working on what eventually became Anomaly with other engineers, and things were not working out for one reason or another, but plenty of things were already tracked. Derrek urged me to meet him, citing that my “talent, work ethic, focus, and calm demeanor” would be perfect to help Ace finish his first album in 20 years. One fine day in 2008, I went over to Ace’s studio; I tracked some things with him, we hit it off right away, and five albums later, here we are.
Anomaly served as Ace’s first record as a solo artist since 1989. With a huge legacy under his belt and a distinctive style and bravado, how did you go about reigning that all in?
There was a pretty short adjustment period, actually, we both knew why I was there, and he quickly came to trust me. By that time, I had already worked with some prominent names and knew how to navigate a high-pressure situation, although I cannot recall a time with him where there actually was a high-pressure situation, certainly not during the making of Anomaly.
The production and soundscapes on both Anomaly and its follow-up, Space Invader, are stout, classic, yet modern. What techniques did you deploy to strike that delicate balance?
I actually feel that those two are distinctly different: Anomaly to me, a very in-your-face sounding album, was recorded over two years with a couple of different engineers and a couple of different drummers in Ace’s studio in Westchester. We used mostly Marshall stacks for guitars in a big room. Marti Frederiksen mixed the album, so it was balls to the wall. Space Invader was recorded at The Creation Lab in Turlock, CA, and Ace’s studio in San Diego; it only took three months to record, so the continuity was better. Even though we still used Marshalls, by then, Ace has developed an affinity to record with smaller amps like Vox and Fenders. Warren Huart mixed the album, so to me, it is nowhere as aggressive sounding as Anomaly, albeit still a success.
How important was the overarching sound of Ace’s past work with KISS and as a solo artist to the new recordings you’ve overseen?
It was frankly never discussed. Ace is Ace, he has a unique and distinctive approach to playing, writing, and sound, so it was inevitable that there would be some relevance to KISS. If anything, I consciously tried to use more modern production techniques, almost more reminiscent of Frehley’s Comet, albeit 15 years ahead. I know we both did not intend to make another Destroyer.
With an album like Spaceman, Ace featured many new and talented band members, as he has been known to do. How integral are you to the recording process when there are so many talented musicians in the room?
Like in any other session, my job is to capture what the musicians are playing to the best of my abilities. Ace and I have developed a rapport, where prior to the sessions, he and I would discuss in detail what we wanted. While tracking, I would direct, when necessary, or just suggest changes (with his approval). Ace has always had good production ideas, and the players were only happy to oblige.
I wanted to hit on Ace’s two Origins albums, as they are two completely different animals. How does your approach change when you’ve got artists such as Slash, John 5, and Bruce Kulick in the room?
I agree, but we approached the two albums pretty much the same. We would spend days going through material that was influential for Ace, which is the whole idea behind those albums. Once we picked out the songs, we would discuss who he’d like to guest on particular songs; then we’d record all the basic tracks, having that in mind. I think the choices for guests had worked out famously, especially for Origins Vol. 2, in my opinion.
The guests were all really great to work with; they were happy to be a part of these records. It still amazes me how revered Ace is all these years later. Due to schedule conflicts, I did not get a chance to work the sessions with Slash or Paul Stanley, but John 5, Bruce Kulick, Lita Ford, and Robin Zander were awesome. I recall the time when we were preparing “30 Days In The Hole” on Origins Vol. 2 for Robin, and we figured we’d drop the key, as the original is pretty high. After sending Robin a rough, he called back and was like, “Noooo! I want to sing it in the original key!” But as you know, he killed it.
John5 came in with his famous Tele, an overdrive pedal (which he gifted to Ace after the session), plugged in, and just ripped it. He did three takes, and we could have picked any one of them. Bruce Kulick was also great; he did his parts remotely and was super pro and easy to work with. We just actually finally met in person last year when I played with Peter Criss on a couple of songs with Bruce and his band during Creatures Fest.
What makes these two different is that Origins Vol. 2 is heavier and more aggressive, again due to having been mixed by Marti Frederikson/Anthony Foxx, while Origins Vol. 1 was done by Warren Huart, which has more of a classic rock sound.
How do you feel you’ve changed, if not defined, the latter career sound of Ace Frehley?
I am happy to have been a part of it, but hardly take much credit for defining the sound. I think no matter who would have recorded his recent work; it would still be Ace. Undoubtedly, I defined these albums with my perspective and focus on the job at hand, keeping things rolling, encouraging when needed, and stepping back the same, but much of the credit goes to Ace.
Do you find it challenging to deal with some of the larger musical personalities you’ve been paired with?
It is sometimes a challenge to deal with large personalities in the music business, but over the years, I have learned when to express my opinion, when to politely and with encouragement make suggestions, and when to keep my opinions to myself. Thankfully, I cannot recall a time when I had a working issue with anyone of stature, as when you get to that level, it is assumed that everyone involved is a professional and there for one purpose.
Funny enough, for me, personality issues only arose when dealing with amateur, unseasoned, and insecure musicians who just didn’t know any better at the time. I have gotten very good at predicting where a possible conflict could arise during an initial project meeting, and I make my decisions accordingly.
Describe the meaning of being nominated for a Grammy.
It was a great honor that came completely unexpectedly. It was incredibly gratifying, and it only encouraged me to keep going and improving my work. All creatives sometimes go through moments of self-doubt, especially in this incredibly competitive business of music, so it was a huge positive.
What are a few of your works which you feel are most underrated?
Guitar fans should listen to some of the Arlen Roth albums we did, great musicians and playing. Pop music fans should check out Ashley Suppa (ashleysuppa.com); she is a young, super-talented singer-songwriter with her recent debut album; she’s the first artist to be signed to our media group Ki-Jung Media.
What’s next for you in all lanes?
Currently, I’m in the middle of making what’s coming out as an amazing sounding R&B/blues record with Arlen Roth on guitars and heavyweights like Jerry Jemmott on bass, Chris Parker on drums, Joe Louis Walker on guitar, Bruce Katz on organ, The Uptown Horns, etc. Of course, we’re working on some material for Ace’s next album. I’ve done some live appearances with Peter Criss (I have been his musical director since 2017). Lastly, I’m looking to grow our media company and currently developing some talented young singers and musicians from all over the US.
An Interview with Ace Frehley Producer Alex Salzman article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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