Interview: Godiego's Steve Fox on the Early Days of Hard Rock in Japan

Japan's Godiego were one of first acts to bring the country into the '70s hard rock era, following in the footsteps of '60s rockers like Flower Travellin' Band, The Spiders, and more. With hits like "Monkey Magic" and "Gandhara," Godiego mixed hard rock with prog, disco, and even some psych.

As Steve Fox, the band's bassist and sound engineer, shares below, the state of the recording industry in the mid-'70s was a far cry from what it is today. Studios were run with an EMI-level of hierarchy, mic placements were better suited for orchestras than amp rigs, and some engineers were a bit resistant to change.

"We gave them such a hard time," Fox tells Reverb.

By pushing those engineers and then becoming the band's engineer himself, Fox helped lead the charge. And, through some unique work visa arrangements with Japan's biggest musical instrument companies, Fox and other band members were also on the ground level of the country's quickly growing gear industry.

In our interview below, Fox looks back to those early days, sharing stories about the band's legendary gig in Kathmandu, Nepal—the first ever rock concert in that country—and how far the recording industry has come. Fox, along with Godiego, have changed with the times. So he also discusses the leap to digital recording, what equipment he uses now, and how Reverb has helped him outfit his home studio. (When we talked, he had just bought a 1964 Ampeg B12.)

For more info on the band, check out Godiego's website here.

Godiego

If I start by talking about your life, it's just going to be a list of accomplishments. So I want to hear from your side who you are, what you've done in the Japanese music industry, and how you felt. Start from there.

I think a point of interest that might be really good to bring up would be: I was hired by Kanda Shokai. They were the distributing company for Japan Fender, all the instruments that came out of Fujigen. And they had imported Ampeg and Music Man—they were importing all these wonderful foreign instruments as well.

But back in the day, we couldn't get artist visas, so we came up with the idea that I would get a working visa, be hired by a company. And Kanda Shokai became that company. I was hired by them. But I was playing in a band, of course. I did do things with them. Kanda Shokai took me to the Fujigen factory, and in fact we worked on a lot of different items. I was, you know, a bass player, so I worked on basses, pickups, different body shapes. I was basically working with their research and development program, so that was fun. It was a good education as well.

Some of the instruments that were made in that time—we're talking about the early '70s and all the way through the '70s—those guitars and basses are hot items now. The Grecos and the Tokais, things like that. So it's good to see that they were well-made, and people are really beginning to appreciate them more.

There was the stigma of things being made in Japan versus the instruments that were made in America or in England. We always thought—I as well thought—that the foreign-made basses were better than the Japanese. But to my surprise, I realized the stuff we made back then was pretty good. [Laughs.] I'm starting to collect them.

Vintage Greco ad featuring the PB-600

I just picked up a Greco that I designed. This is something I just got through Reverb, the PB-600. I helped design these pickups, and I remember this body—I remember everything about this bass. It's good I have a memory that goes up 30-some years. But this is a very good sounding bass. I'm surprised now. [Laughs.] Why didn't I think that then? So anyway, I'm going back and trying to re-collect those kinds of items that I've more or less overlooked, and I'm quite impressed with what was made back in those days.

Another thing, another point: I was the sound coordinator for the band.

Right, you told me that when we were having a drink one time.

Back in our time, there weren't any rock music recording engineers. We were the pioneers of rock music, of course, in Japan. So obviously there weren't engineers for that kind of music available. So I ended up firing quite a few.

But I basically did this: Sat down with the engineer. I said, "Excuse me, scoot over a little bit, please." We're sitting at the board, the mixing console. I scooted over and said, "Let me see what this does, and let me see what this does." Before long, I ended up becoming the engineer for the band.

I created the band sound, the Godiego sound, which for that time was well-known among audiophiles to be quality music. Audiophiles were buying our records to listen to on their great stereo systems. So I was very happy about that. But nonetheless, I just learned by ear. This was the analog day—it wasn't digital 40 years ago. I'm twisting knobs, I was just going by instinct. That sounds good, that doesn't sound good, doing it this way, and lifting faders and all this. Before long, I happened to learn it, and I was the engineer.

Godiego - Godiego

This was from the first album [in 1976]?

From right after the first album. I was quite disappointed with the sound of the first album. We had so much trouble recording the first album—I think that's when we fired quite a few engineers. But from the second album, I decided that I was going to somehow find a way to get it to sound better, and managed to do so.

But now, everything's digital, and everything is computer. You don't need a 20-foot board anymore. All you need is a laptop, some good studio reference speakers, and a very good DAW. I felt like—you know in Japanese they say Urashima Tarō—what's that in English?

I guess it would be Rip Van Winkle.

I felt like that. I woke up into a world where everything was so different, and I didn't know how to create sound anymore. So—I went to Berklee when I was young—and I found out that Berklee College of Music did online courses for music engineering and mastering. I spent a whole year, about 7 years ago, doing that. I learned how to run Pro Tools, how to record in the digital format. And I'm doing that now.

So you're doing it all on the computer now?

Yes, all on the computer. In fact, I live in Osaka, Kobe, and Godiego is up in Tokyo. So it's cheaper for them to all go to the studio in Tokyo and have me take the bullet train up there. But instead of taking the bullet train, I'll just send my files over the internet, and I've done that quite a few times. I've recorded at home and even done mixes at home. So I'm part of the engineering group now. There's an engineer that we have—he's our personal engineer that always works with us, but I work with him. He and I together kind of put the sound together.

But the digital world is so dangerous. It's inexpensive in a way—you don't have to buy a very pricey mixing console, you don't have to buy these pricey limiters, compressors, and effects units—you can buy them as plugins. And the pricing of those are just in reach. That is the bad thing. [Laughs.] You end up buying hundreds and hundreds of plugins, which you really don't need, but just because somebody said it sounded so great, you end up buying it. Of course I'll use it once in a while, but that's another bad thing about the digital world. It's cheaper to buy these effects, but yet because it's cheaper you end up spending so much money.

Can you tell us what some of the equipment you're using now?

I bought through you a Universal Audio mic preamp, the Solo 610. There's a [pedal] called the Roger Mayer Amp+ Bass—that's pretty good. A couple effects pedals like the Tri-Logic Bass Preamp, the Echoplex. I bought the Markbass TTE 800-watt amp head. I'm a real tube guy, so Markbass has a very nice tube front-end. Also got the Demeter Tube Bass Preamp.

Oh, this is interesting. I got the Moog—I couldn't afford the real MiniMoog, so I bought the Rogue—it's a 1980 version. I like Moog bass sounds, so I used that in the recording quite a bit too. That's some of the stuff. I can go on and on about that.

Are there some plugins that you like to use for your bass?

For bass, of course the LA-2A. You know, I use a lot of Universal Audio plugins, because I got the Apollo 8. When you buy the rack unit, there are a whole bunch of plugins that come with it. Then I got the Satellite—there's a DSP or CPU or whatever inside the rackmount that gives you more power for using extra plugins. And I had to buy a Mac Pro—I have two Mac Pros now. I have too many things. [Laughs.]

Anyway, the LA-2A, as far as a compressor, is one of the best for what I want in my sound. Also Universal Audio puts out a B-15 emulator bass amp. That sounds pretty good, too. But I don't use too many effects on my bass, mostly just a good compressor.

So back in the day, you were talking about how recording engineers weren't really knowledgeable with rock music. Was the equipment and gear available to you in Japan limited too?

No, I think the equipment was there. It was just their ability to create a rock sound. It was quite difficult.

Godiego - "Monkey Magic"

Because of it being a full group sound?

They used to record most of their music all at one time. Everybody would play together—1, 2, 3, and all at once, all musicians in the studio would play together. But this is how we do it now: Mickie, our producer, our leader, will come up with a demo track. It's a pretty good-sounding demo track, because nowadays, you can put in nice-sounding drums and all kinds of stuff. He'll come up with a basic arrangement in a demo track form, and one by one, each of us will replace the instrument that he had put in—like, I will put in my bass part. Of course, I'll play differently than what he put in there. But that's how we work nowadays. Back 45 years ago, engineers didn't know how to do that very well. We had to go all at once.

And the tracks were also limited.

We started with 24. Then it jumped to 32. But you're always working with tape noise. I remember using tape recorders for reverb and echo. We used to use our 2-track Ampex, slow it down, and somehow get it to act as an echo unit.

They also had huge rooms that were echo chambers, huge rooms where they had a speaker and a mic—I thought that was so antiquated. Looking back now, that's what everybody is trying to get to—that kind of a sound. Isn't that funny? I got the [Waves] Abbey Road Echo Chambers. They had different rooms for different echoes at the Abbey Road studio. So I got that plugin. I've been playing with it. You can move the mics around to different places in the room— you can put different speakers in different size rooms as well—it's endless.

Steve Fox

It's easier to get a good sound now. I always had a very difficult time in getting a very nice bass tone in recording. I wrestled with engineers often about that. But I realized looking back now, they had homemade direct input boxes, DIs. I don't know what was in it, but maybe that was the reason. I'm not sure. But I've bought quite a few different DIs myself, very good ones, and I found that the DI has a lot to do with the bass tone that goes into a recording. Of course, you've got to start with a good bass first though.

Godiego is one of the earliest rock bands in Japan, and I believe you guys were the first group to have all English lyrics?

That's right, we sang in English, and for some reason, that wasn't very good for the TV and the radio folks. They didn't really appreciate us singing in English only. So we were forced to have to interpret our music into Japanese and sing it in Japanese. If we were able to have our way with it, we would've kept singing in English. Nonetheless, we felt that English fit better.

So what was the relationship with the label and producers like in that era? Were producers or label executives trying to direct you? Or was it a more artist-centered way of looking at it?

It was more or less artist-centered with us, where nowadays it's more producer-centered. In our day, we had a producer by the name of Johnny Nomura. He spoke English, Japanese, and also some Romanian. He is a graduate of a very big university in Tokyo that is part Japanese and English, and he was also a drummer. He helped us quite a bit. Not so much in the arrangements—he wasn't a George Martin type—but he was more or less a direction type. He helped us and gave us some ideas about what to do where, and that really helped us. But most of the production was done by us, and mainly by the band leader, Mickie.

That was pretty rare back then, right?

Yeah, it was. Both Mickie and I had come back from Berklee—we were there together and we came back to do Godiego, to do the band. We already had kind of an image, a sound, in our minds already. So we set out to grab that somehow. And I think we did it.

We had trouble with drummers at first. There are very good drummers now in Japan—lots of them. Back in those days, there weren't that many really good drummers. So we went through quite a few drummers. We ended up calling up a drummer that I was working with when I was in Boston, from Massachusetts, and we said, "Would you like to become a rock star overnight?" Because we'd already gotten kind of well-known. And he said, "Are you kidding me?" It was almost like within a week he came. That's Tommy Snyder, our drummer.

Tommy Snyder

But you were saying there was no artist visa or anything, right? Did he have to fly back every three months?

No, it was a working visa—not an artist visa, but a working visa. I got a working visa with Kanda Shokai.

And he also got another?

He also got a working visa. I think he got one with Roland. Tommy ended up helping with the R&D of the HandSonic drum that Roland produces. He had done many demonstration tours for Roland as well. His relationship with Roland lasted a very long time.

Talking about the old days is funny, I feel very old today. [Laughs.] I'll be 65 this year—I'm the youngest in the band. And everybody is getting up there.

And you guys are all still playing together after 40 years.

We're still doing it. It's amazing to see Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney do their concerts. Every time they come I'll still see them. Mick Jagger is 70-something. He's still running from end to end on the stage—he's constantly on the move and singing at the same time, and he does two-hour concerts. I'm thinking, how does he do that? Our singer can barely get through one hour just standing still. [Laughs.]

Can you share some of your most memorable moments with Godiego? What stands out?

We went to Kathmandu, Nepal to do a concert. This happened to be their very first rock concert in history for them. So they had put up all kinds of hand-drawn posters, and this was going to be a big deal. We had shipped our PA over ahead of time. Because I was a soundman of our band, I had requested that we use Klipsch. Klipsch had really good PA back in those days. In fact the subwoofers—I think would fill up this room. We had about eight of those. They would stack up into the mid-range and the high-mids and the highs.

I didn't like the JBL systems, the driver stuck onto kind of a horn. They sounded so hurtful—it was piercing—and it was very difficult to get a decent sound that would be easy to listen to. If you turned it down, it would be okay, but we wanted to play loud. So I hated the JBL system back then. I think they're making some really nice stuff now. But Klipsch had been experimenting with not using the driver type with these fanned horns, but they were using real paper cone speakers, and then using a driver. So it wasn't a harsh sound. It was more of a natural sound. Also, their low-end subwoofer cabinets were thunderous.

We were one of the loudest groups then, the best-sounding. And even microphones, I would go to Odaiba for this concert and find out that they were using these gold and black Sennheiser mics—I forget the model name [likely an MD 409 N]—but they're kind of rectangular mics. They were very unidirectional. They didn't pick up all the outside noise. You had to sing very close to them, but they were very high-quality sounding. I got the sound company to buy us all that mic. We were all using that. And they got the lead vocalist to use a Beyerdynamic hand mic, a ribbon mic, which sounded wonderful.

In a live performance?

Yes, in live performance. It was a mic that was able to be used for a live performance like that. Of course, being a ribbon, you don't want to drop it, you know. He never did drop it. It sounded wonderful. So I was involved with the sound that deeply. I even decided what kind of speakers, what kind of microphones we used. In fact, I would sit at the mixing console in the auditorium with my bass to do the sound check from the console. That's how it was. That was a lot of work.

I worked twice as hard as the other members. They were sitting back in the dressing room, doing what they were doing, and I was out there getting sounds not only for bass, but one-by-one, the drummer would come out, the guitar player comes out, and the singer would come out... We'd do a soundcheck, then we'd all play together, and I'd be playing bass at the console. I was that deep into it.

So, back to the story. We went to Kathmandu, Nepal with our huge PA equipment and stage equipment as well. You would not believe what happened. For one thing, they didn't have enough electricity to power us. The city didn't. So they had to turn off three-fourths of the electricity in the city to power us. We used the outside arena—it was huge—it looked ancient. It was made of blocks. It looked like it was from the old Egyptian days, or where you had these Roman fighters. There was a lot of bottom space, ground space, but there was also the grandstand—it went way up. We had to build our own stage. We got wood and nails and hammers and started to build our own stage, and set up our huge PA equipment, and the day came—the big day when we do our concert.

Godiego - "Coming Together in Kathmandu"

To our surprise, we were at one end of the arena with a lot of space in front of us, not thinking that anyone would sit behind us. They started to fill in the arena behind us. Being closer to the stage, they would be able to see us, not knowing we were going to be facing outward, because this is the first rock concert ever in their lives. So they filled in the seats behind us. They were going, Oh my goodness, what's going on? But nonetheless, the whole place got full—the place was jammed full of people, even ground level, which was dirt, not grass. And our mixing console was on the ground.

When we hit the first note, it was like a bomb had dropped. They could not understand what had happened. 1, 2, 3, and you hit the first note [makes a sound like a big chord], and the whole place just jumped out of their seat. People on the ground floor started running around, not knowing what hit them. You know, with the sound pressure—you have these huge subwoofers just go boom. They panicked.

And right in front of us, it turned into a huge dust cloud. You couldn't see people. There were some guardsmen there, and they had these long sticks. All you could see was the ends of the sticks coming out of the cloud of dust. You're wondering, What's going on out there? We stopped the sound, like, "Wait a minute, settle down." It took about 10 minutes for people to quiet down and for the dust to settle as well.

Steve Fox

The dust got into the mixing console. We had wanted to record that concert, because it was going to be a very historical event. But the dust got into the heads of the recording equipment and it ruined everything. Of course, we were able to still get the mixing console to work, but a heavy amount of dust was just covering everything up there. We, up on stage, didn't get covered with dust, thankfully, but that was just an amazing thing.

They couldn't understand what hit them. It was that age—the very first rock concert, for the Nepalese people. They still talk about it. To this day they still talk about it. [Laughs.]

But nonetheless, being the first in doing some of these things... for instance, I also went to the Roland amplifier company, and I was testing their speakers. This is another story. We used the best JBL 15-inch, and Roland had built their copy of this JBL speaker. It was a full-range, but to be used for bass amp especially. We had been working on this speaker for quite a while, and I finally got it to this point, I was to do the final sound test, compare it with the JBL. And it sounded just as good.

Then they said, OK, let's see how much power we can put into it. They hooked up a huge amplifier to this one little speaker, a 15-inch. They said, "Go ahead, play your bass, we'll crank it up, see how far it goes." We just played and played and played—that thing was loud. I think it was louder than the JBL. It just cracked, and it fizzled.

I remember doing that and said, "I've never done that to a speaker before in my life," purposely blown it to smithereens. We must've pumped maybe 500 watts or something into it, but it was loud. I was also involved with creating speakers for the Roland amps, especially the bass speakers. The famous JC-120, I think those speakers I also did some testing, too.

Those were the days. We were the ones, for some reason—it was because I had signed a contract to work, I was like an employee. But all they did was supply my visa. But out of gratitude, I wanted to show my thanks, and I went to their factories and really helped with their R&D. That was a great experience. So I'm kind of happy.

40 years later it comes back to you, it's amazing.

I later found out that Fujigen and Kanda Shokai got sued by Fender and Gibson for making such good instruments, copies, you know? Then Fender had hired Fujigen. I don't remember what years those were, but there was a time when American Fenders were being made in Japan. It makes me feel good that we were part of that.

I did not know that side of you.

That's a story we don't talk about too much. Also the recording world, too. We were very hard on the engineers. [Laughs]

Defying them.

We were really rough with them. But I think because of that, the sound in Japan really got improved. I think even for TV or radio, they didn't know how to record our music. So we had a lot of battles on hand, always. Every gig that required something that was out of our control, for instance TV or radio, there was always a battle.

We worked with NHK quite closely. NHK is the national broadcast company for Japan. We recorded a single, called "Beautiful Name." This turned out to be the UNICEF children theme song of the year. "Every child has a beautiful name." That song. But we recorded that at NHK studios, and you would not believe what we saw. Their equipment, the knobs were this big [makes a palm-size shape]. And there are only one or two knobs on the console.

Godiego - "Beautiful Name"

Their VU meters, their meters were huge. I hope nobody from NHK is reading this. It was like right after the war equipment. It was so old. We couldn't believe it. Of course, the DI direct box, it didn't exist. They didn't know what it was, so they always mic'd my amp. But instead of mic'ing it close to the speaker—they had huge studio rooms, huge. It was like the Abbey Roads studios, huge room, but they took my bass amp some place, put the microphone way over there, thinking that they'll pick up the bass. It was such a crazy thing.

That's how behind or antiquated the recording world was. So finally, when it came time to release this single, "Beautiful Name," they got a new console for us to use in their studio in NHK. But you know what? It was made by a Japanese company called Toa, and all the writing—the volume and the tone and the markings—were in Japanese, and I couldn't read it. I couldn't read what they were, but it sounded good. We were able to record with that. And by this time they were putting mics up close to our amps. We finally convinced them you don't record bass with the microphone 100 feet away.

It's not an orchestra.

Yeah, when you have a huge orchestra with 100 members you can do that, but recording a rock band, they didn't even put up baffles—they didn't even have soundproofing between our amps and drums. It was just one room with everybody playing all at once, and microphones standing far away but facing different amps. It was crazy. When it came time to record, NHK has such a hierarchy of people working, there's always a superior guy that calls the shots. He has to give the OK for anything. When they wanted to hit the record button, they'll say, "I'm hitting the record button"—"He's hitting the record button"—"Hitting the record button" [all up the line]. It would go all the way up to the superior guy somewhere—I don't know where he was—and they'd say, "OK," "OK," "OK."

So to do anything, it required so much time. You had to get permission just to hit one button. Of course, that's changed now. We've done some stuff with NHK lately, so we know they've really come up quite a way.

Do you still meet with those engineers from back in the day?

No. I wonder if they're still alive. I'd like to see them. I'd like to apologize to them too [laughs]. We gave them such a hard time.

OK, the last part of the interview. If you could just talk about your vision now, where is Godiego heading?

Lately, we've been doing things we've always wanted to do but haven't been able to do. One of them was doing concerts with a full orchestra and a 60-person choir and horn section. We've done quite a few of those kinds of concerts, with a full orchestra. You know the Billboard, right? They used to call them Blue Note back in the day, but now Billboard I think is what they're called. They have this thing called the Billboard Classic Concert. It's not at the Billboard venue, for instance, it's at the Osaka Symphony Hall or in Tokyo, it would be some plaza—some place where symphonies are usually playing at.

Godiego - "Gandhara"

We've done several gigs like that, and those are so much fun. Oh, this is another graduation that I've gotten over. We used to use foot monitors, right, and have those foot monitors blasting. I use ear monitors. It took awhile for me to get used to that. But once you get used to that, you can not let that go. Now, because they sound so crisp, clear, and well-balanced, they shut out all other sound, they do that. And they take the mold of your ear, so it fits perfectly. It shuts out all other sound.

I used to not be able to hear the bass guitar because the drummer was so loud, but now I can hear everything perfectly, and I can hear the orchestra and the choir and the horn section. I can hear the vocal harmonies. It is so much better. We are blessed. To be able to be a musician in this age, you young guys are so blessed, you wouldn't believe what we had to go through.

Everything is so convenient now. You can put on one of these things on your bass neck head, and you can tune the bass. Even this is a phenomenal thing. Simple little things like that, it's just amazing. We would like to do big concerts like that, and although we have played in some Asian countries like Kathmandu, Nepal, and China, we really wanted to go worldwide. Our music did go worldwide, but we never got to go. It was really popular in the UK.

You never went to the UK?

No, never did. And we're still well-known in UK, and New Zealand, and Australia. We're still well-known in those areas to this day, because of the Monkey Magic TV series. BBC had bought the rights to show that. They overdubbed into English but kept our music in it, so our albums sold quite well in UK, New Zealand, and Australia. We were wanting to go worldwide but for some reason never did. Maybe we still can, I don't know. I'd love to do that. But we're still pumping away. We once in a while release a new single, and every now and then we'll do a TV show, do a concert. We're still cooking.

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