By Brian Ives
Today, July 15, Morrissey releases his first album in five years, World Peace is None of Your Business. The enigmatic and historically irascible Moz hasn’t been talking much about the album, what with his recent cancellation of tour dates and the finger-pointing that followed.
But after listening to the record, we wanted to unpack Morrissey’s 10th solo album and peel back the layers of the songs to see how they’re made — find out what makes Moz, well, Moz. So we sat down with GRAMMY-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, who produced the album with Morrissey in the studio.
“He has a vision,” Chiccarelli says. “I didn’t know he would be so actively involved in every aspect of the process. I mean every aspect, down to the mixes. Even if he wasn’t in the studio, he’d send me a note: like, ‘At two minutes and thirty-two seconds, please bring up the guitar on the right, it’s not cutting enough.’ Or, ‘In the bridge, my voice needs a different treatment.’ His sensibility and style might be more akin to an old-school crooner, and we think of those people as artists who work with an arranger or a producer: they’d go into the studio, do their vocals and then they’re done. That’s not how he is, he’s very involved.”
Also impressive is Morrissey’s band, which includes long-time guitarist/musical director Boz Boorer, guitarist Jesse Tobias (formerly of Alanis Morissette’s band, he also spent a month as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), bassist Solomon Walker, drummer Matt Walker (formerly of Filter and Smashing Pumpkins), and keyboardist Gustavo Manzur.
“Their team spirit was impressive,” he noted. “Morrissey really does trust and rely on these guys. They all separately bring him songs.”
We went through the album, track-by-track, with Chiccarelli, who has also worked with some of the greats over the past few decades. He engineered albums for the famously demanding and moody Frank Zappa, and in more recent years, he’s produced/engineered/mixed projects for Jack White (for both the White Stripes and the Raconteurs), My Morning Jacket and the Strokes. So when he says that Morrissey is an artist with a vision, the man knows of what he speaks.
Chiccarelli was enthused about the project and happy to talk about the behind-the-scenes story about each song. Whereas artists may sometimes burn out on this sort of interview, lower profile team members like Chiccarelli aren’t interviewed as often, leading to (perhaps) more detail than you’d get in an interview with the Mozzer himself. Read on.
“World Peace is None of Your Business”
We were recording in February, and the Ukraine was just exploding; the importance of the song was really evident to everybody. After I heard it for the first time, I thought, “Bravo, Moz.” With a lot of the rhythms, he was very specific. Matt Walker really understands him, and Matt will come up with parts. And the guitar solo on the song is outrageous, it’s wonderful. The first time Jesse played it, it was like, “Wow!” We probably spent a day per song on tracking. A typical day was: we’d all have breakfast together, come in at 11:00, we’d get the band in the studio, do guide vocals and build the song. By dinner time — 8:00 p.m. or whatever — we would have something that was close to the framework of the song.
“Neal Cassidy Drops Dead”
Gustavo had the basic feel of the song in his demo, with those big rock guitars. That weird sort of washing machine sound that comes in at the end, that was part of his demo. I was fascinated with how he took Gus’s demo and turned it into this song about the Beat poets. I jokingly called the part about “babies with rabies,” “the rap section.” Moz looked at me and said, “It’s not really rap.” He’s very quick-witted, he’s very colorful. But I thought of the “babies/rabies” thing as a poem. If you come from the punk rock school, it’s about pushing the limits and seeing what you can get away with. He’s a master of words, he’s a novelist more than anything.
“I’m Not a Man”
He wanted the rhythms to sound “thuggish,” as he put it. He wanted it brutal. I thought, “We have to bust out of this groove at some point, and have some release!” All those intro pieces, all those sound effects pieces, those were all his design. I suggested that we trim down the amount of time in the intro before “I’m Not a Man.” He said, “No, it’s fine.” He would come up with concepts for the instruments that he wanted. Regarding the lyrics: my personal opinion is: there are a lot of stupid things that we do in the name of “manhood.” I have to tell you, I remember when we cut that track and hearing those words for the first time, I almost cried. I thought, “No one has ever said this in such a bold way.” I was blown away by that song. That might be my personal favorite on the record. As producer, there were plenty of times where I was like, “Moz, can’t we cut the intro down, this song is seven minutes long!” Or, “Couldn’t we change the beat here?” All those are things that you think of as a record producer, because you want to invite as many into the music as possible. Part of the job is: you’re acting as a fan, but at the same time you’re acting as the most objective, removed person possible. At the same time, I felt like, “This is so powerful, that perhaps the consistent beat almost becomes invisible, and keeps you more focused on the lyric, and it makes the song all the more important.” Honestly, it took me a little bit of time to warm up to the issues that I had with the track but now, I get it. I get the intention.
Part of this job is, I have to trust the artist. There’s no point in me working with an artist if I can’t (1) buy into their vision, and go along with and help them execute that vision and (2) have the trust that vision is the right thing for them as an artist, and that it will be something that people will want to hear. Obviously an artist like this has a track record, so with him, it’s about “Okay, how can I make this the most interesting recordings possible.” As the songs started to evolve, and I noticed the theatricality of them all, I realized I had to basically add the flavors. I had to add the colors that the songs demanded, in some cases I had to make them stark.
It’s a very, very, tricky, complicated beat. It’s not a drum loop. Matt was very clever, he used drums from different drum kits. A lot of the songs needed big drums sounds. This one needed a very dry, ’70s kind of sound with very funky tones. Moz’s direction was that he really wanted it have the feeling of the streets of Istanbul. The previous tour, I think they did a few shows there, and they got to experience the city. Moz was very clear: he insisted that it had to have the chaos and the clanking and the madness and the intensity that the city has. There were times that I questioned that on the beat, “It feels a little overly complex, can you chill it down?” I think we even tried that at one point, but we went back to it because the herky-jerky quality of it helped the sense of unevenness of a cobblestone street.
“Earth is the Loneliest Planet”
His direction, many times, on songs like “Smiler With Knife” and a few others, would be something like, “This song is about death,” or “It’s about murder, and it’s kind of ugly.” He’d pull me aside – he liked to give the guys in the band their space – and say, “Have him play violently.” I loved the spoken word videos promoting the album. I thought it was a very unique way to present the songs. I thought it was great: it just gets into the lyric, the message, the story.
“Staircase at the University”
[The lyrics include “‘If you don’t get three A’s,’ her sweet daddy said/’You’re no child of mine and as far as I’m concerned, you’re dead.'”] I went through that: I got a scholarship, and my parents were like, “You’re not going to coast by, just because you got a scholarship!” I went to Catholic school, so I understand guilt. Who can’t relate to this song? Everybody at some point in their life gets that torture from their parents, to different degrees. It’s so universal. This one was maybe, in some ways, a little more difficult to put together [in the studio]. There were those long musicial sections that Moz really wanted in there. So I had to figure out what to do, to keep your interest. There’s one section where the strings are featured more, one section where the guitar is featured more. There were definitely challenges. Gustaov’s nylon string guitar solo was great. I don’t think anybody in the organization knew what a great nylon string guitar player Gustavo was. He’s the keyboard player; I think everyone knew he could pick up the guitar and play, but it was kind of a surprise when he started soloing, how fluid it was.
“The Bullfighter Dies” –
On the lyrics, “Hooray, hooray/ The bullfighter dies/ And nobody cries/ Nobody cries/ Because we all want the bull to survive!” Only he could say that! That was one of the ones that, the tracking of that was very simple, very quick. I think we did maybe one or two overdubs, but next to nothing. Moz insisted that we keep it bouncy and light and simple and innocent so that the message could survive without all the layers of production and all of the intensity. I had mixed maybe half the album, and I kind of felt like the song almost felt trite, in contrast to what I’d done before it. I’d done a mix that was much more tense and “rock,” and to me sounded more like a complete pop song. He just sent me back a note saying, “No, it’s way too ‘rock.’ You missed the original intent of the song.”
Then I did the next version, and he said, “Ok, you’ve got it now.” Never did I see him waffle. He knows what he wants, he has a vision. He was great to work with. He would share the intention of the song with myself and the band, and then he’d let everybody go and do their thing. He’d leave everybody their own space to have their own input, to own the song, but was very, very clear about how he wanted the end result to hit you.
“Kiss Me a Lot”
The chorus is sweet, the verses are darker. That one wasn’t gonna make the album, it was a B-side. All of the sudden, when we put the album’s sequence togehter, he felt like there needed to be a little bit more energy, a little bit more lightness. It was his idea to have Gustavo sing the “Bésame mucho” apart. I remember him asking Gus, “How do you say ‘Kiss me a lot’ in Spanish?” It’s “Bésame mucho!”
“Smiler with Knife”
We used an acoustic piano that’s been distorted, and there’s also some backwards piano fills that have been treated through a guitar amp. So, some of the sounds that sound like guitar on that song is actually piano. Jesse is playing with an Ebow, there’s also Ebow on [bonus track] “Julie and the Weeds.” Jesse is really good with an Ebow.
“Kick the Bride Down the Aisle”
I thought it was outrageous, but I would expect nothing less. That’s one of the ones that sort of came to life in the studio. We didn’t know what to do with it, originally. All of the sudden one day, it sort of materialized, and I remember Moz saying, “This is really good, this has to be on the album.” We cut 18 songs, I think. There were always two or three songs that were in question, but this is one of the ones that rose to the top in the studio. Some of the rhymes are just incredible.
That was one of Boz’s songs, and I believe the demo was just simply two acoustic guitars. I think started that with just Boz playing an acoustic guitar and Moz singing a vocal. Boz went back and did the second acoustic guitar. The drums were programmed. Moz really wanted them to sound like the metal of a prison door, to evoke the concrete, the unhappy inmates. When he sung that, most of us were in the control room then, and most of us were like, “Wow, what a story.” That and “I’m Not a Man” are probably my favorites. A lot of these vocals on the album are those initial vocal takes. He was able to deliver the emotional intention of the song up front, early in the process.
The sample at the beginning is a guy named Rex Jamison, a comedian from the Britain from the ’60s and ’70s, and he had a character not unlike Dame Edna, it was called “Mrs. Shufflewick.” Boz, or maybe Donnie the tour manager, had a bunch of videos of this guy’s performances and we were all kind of obsessed with him. He was hilarious. He did this character for some time, maybe twenty years or more. One day Moz decided to use it, and I remember him looking for this one particular line in the video. So, we cleared [the publishing on] it. There’s no oboe on the song, it’s actually a clarinet. Boz is a great guitar player, but he picked up the clarinet on that song. That solo in the middle was one take. He’s really good at it. I have to say, the band is a great combination of having [musical] skills but also understanding the artist. They’re really good at communicating with each other and Morrissey, and they know what he’ll like. They have a great understanding and respect for him.