Paul Rothchild Speaks About Recording The Doors

This interview was taped in Englewood, New Jersey, in March 1967, shortly after the release of the first Doors album, which Paul Rothchild produced. Last names are used throughout to avoid ambiguity.

Also, if you watch Robbie play, even when he’s playing very quickly he looks like he’s playing slowly — if you watch his face he looks up casually — he always looks as if somebody’s just asked him a question and he’s thinking very seriously about what the answer might be.

I get the feeling that most lead guitarists either want to hear themselves playing the melody or hear themselves doing a rhythm thing, and it’s inconceivable to me that Robbie could even be listening to himself — I mean he knows exactly what he’s doing, but he’s playing something which is so whole with the music.

The point is that Robbie isn’t listening to himself when he plays, he’s listening to Ray. More than anything he’s listening to Ray. But since there are only two voicing instruments in the group, and since Ray is responsible more than any other instrument for the rhythm — the melodic rhythm rather than the drums, which have the solid rhythm — Robbie’s got to fill in all of the musical question marks which are left open. So he is listening a great deal and not tremendously interested in the whole lot of ego play that guitar players get into.

The integration is unbelievable, because he never does a virtuosity thing, all the way through ‘The End’ you’re never once conscious of the guitar, which is practically the only instrument that’s playing — you know, except for the drums, which are doing a very different thing — because he never… the only virtuosity stuff at all is in ‘Light My Fire,’ where it’s for a reason, it’s a virtuosity song.

Tell me what you know about the history of the group.

I actually know very little. I know that Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison started performing together when they were both students at the film school at UCLA. They were friends from the film department and they found out they both had an interest in music and they started to perform. Their early music was mostly blues with Ray doing a tremendous amount of the singing, interestingly enough.

Did Jim play anything at that time?

No. And I don’t even know where Robbie came from or how he fitted into the group. I’ve never really been tremendously interested myself in the past social-musical activities of groups. The questions I usually ask musicians are about their musical past, their training, what their influences are, where they get their reasons, their musical reasons. As for where they came from, and how they got together . . . they did all get together at the University of California at Los Angeles, and, well, they were playing together as long ago as about two and a half years, I guess. As the Doors they’ve been playing together for a little over a year now, a year and a half… And it’s, uh, a constantly changing and moving process for them.

It’s a relief for them to have this first album out because it gives them an opportunity to move on towards music and musical concepts that they’ve been discussing and wanting to get into. This is a very interesting thing that a lot of groups have, the effect that making albums has on them, and how it’s almost an insistence that they change their repertoire. It’s like a group goes into a recording studio and that giant performance mirror, the tape recorder, is put in front of them, they finally work out all of the problems and all of the fine points in the music that they’ve been wanting to for so long, and then when they get through with the tunes a great many of them fall by the wayside. The statement’s been made.

The material’s never as good as on the first album for a lot of groups.

That’s right. And it’s almost a kind of catharsis for the musicians to make their first album because it frees them, in many respects; it allows them to go to the other places they’ve been wanting to for so long but they’ve been tied down to their original material. This may sound strange to use words like ‘tied down’ but it’s really true; now the Doors, since they are a creative and performing group, are forced — and they enjoy it — to look forward to their next album. That means we have to get on to the new material. That doesn’t mean they stop performing the old stuff, the best of it remains in the repertoire…

Which are the earliest songs on the album?

‘I Looked at You’ and ‘Take It as It Comes.’ Those represent probably the genesis of the group, more than any others. The newer of the tunes are the ones that are deeper, the ones that show a greater maturity. ‘The End’ is newer. ‘The End,’ it’s interesting, ‘The End’ was always a changing piece. Jim used it as a, almost an open canvas for his poetic bits and pieces and fragments and images and little couplets and things that he just wanted to say, and it changed all the time, it was always a changing thing. Now it rarely changes. Now that it’s on record and the musicians can listen to it on record it is the statement they wanted to make and Jim tends to perform it that way. Sometimes he’ll leave something out, sometimes he will put something else in but now it’s a formed piece, it isn’t that open canvas any more. And because of this, Jim commented to me recently, the thing he’s most deeply concerned with right now is opening another canvas of that nature, something as broad in concept as ‘The End.’

On interpreting ‘The End’: I considered for the first time the other day that the lines “This is the end my only friend” and particularly ‘It hurts to set you free but you’ll never bother me’ — it occurred to me, when I heard that, that the song might be about a murder, and not just a guy leaving a girl. The possibility opened that the whole thing was the murderer’s mind and ah, the stream of consciousness starting from and leading back to…

It’s interesting that you say that, because Jim is fascinated with the concept of death. He’s interested in spiritual deaths, conceptual deaths, more than physical deaths actually, you’ll find this theme in many of his songs, uh, the line ‘The end of nights we tried to die’…

That goes right back to ‘Crystal Ship.’


Uh, I’m not sure if this is what Jim has in mind but it’s almost as if Jim is saying… realize this is my interpretation and not Jim’s, ’cause I’ve never asked Jim, he presented it to me and said it’s for your head, interpret it as you will, Jim’s saying almost as a friend, okay, my friend and I take an acid trip, and then I say to my friend this is the end my friend, my only friend, the end of laughter and soft lies, the end of nights we tried to die, ah, the line, the end of nights we tried to die, to my mind is a direct reference to the concept that most psychedelics are a form of physical poisoning, that chemicals are a means of reorienting the body through a kind of poison…

You’re saying this is the end, during the trip or before it?

The way I feel it, the trip has started and he’s saying this is the end.

As a beginning.

Right. This is the end. He has had a realization concerning a relationship, now this can be far more universal than a statement to this theoretical friend who is right there, this could be the end of the world, the end of laughter and soft lies, or the end of —


Precisely. He’s saying okay here’s a trip, every time we take a trip there’s a death — of concepts, of bullshit, a death of laughter and soft lies, let’s get real with ourselves, let’s get real with each other, um… there’s one thing Jim used to say during the song which is just a stark death image. It was the blue bus theory, but it was stated in a different way, and he used to use them both, he used the blue bus thing and he’d also say, uh, ‘Have you seen the accident outside, seven people took a ride and something something something and seven people died,’ which is really very groovy, ‘have you seen the accident outside’ — the world — seven people took a ride, this trip, looked at the world, and died. All of that that they saw in themselves which before lived, in other words the bullshit concept of the world which had been burned into their brains since childhood, had to die. And with every end there is a beginning, it is a cyclical thing, the end always has in it inherent a beginning, uh, trying to remember… ‘Can you picture what will be so limitless and free, desperately in need of some stranger’s hand in a desperate land.’ Things are very wrong out there so let us kill ourselves or those things in ourselves that are false, that are bullshit, the false giddiness, the TV giddiness, canned audience reaction laughter — there’s more humor in the world than needs to be created scientifically in a TV studio. I’m babbling I understand but I’m on as much of a hunch trying to explain as Jim is who’s trying to lay it down.

Of the other imagery in the song, the little poetic bits between the double verse section in the beginning and the double verse section in the end, you have things like the snake — well there he’s saying just get down to reality, the snake thing of course is just pure sexual imagery (to my mind), ride the snake to the ancient lake, that comes right out of Negro imagery, blues imagery, which Jim is very familiar with, ‘the snake he’s old and his skin is cold,’ what he is saying is okay let’s get down to the realities of life, there are very few realities and one of the few truly real realities is sexual awareness and companionship, Jim is very lucid in that department… Oh right, and the first one which is very beautiful, ‘lost in a Roman’ — oh, a piece of beautiful classical imagery — ‘lost in a Roman wilderness of pain.’ To my mind all I can see is great crumbling ruins of a great civilization, which of course flashes right back to now, ‘lost in a Roman wilderness of pain and all the children are insane,’ repeated.

The barbarians.

Right. ‘Waiting for the summer rain,’ let’s get cleansed, let’s get cleansed, people. Another symbolic death by the way. Insanity of course is a symbolic death, it’s a death itself, and the cleansing is a rebirth. And then of course there’s the incredible Oedipal thing in the middle which is the first giant build, and I have talked with Jim about that, because I have rarely been as impressed…

I have never been as moved in a recording studio as I was when that take went down. I was impressed by the fact that for one of the very first times in rock-and-roll history sheer drama had taken place on tape. This to me is very important, and it’s also significant that Jim has used, chose to use a purely classical image (in modern dress) to do this. The story he tells is basically the Oedipus legend, ah, the killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on, he chose a face from the ancient gallery and he walked on down the hall. And he came to a door and he walked inside, and he went to the room where his brother lived, and then he went into the room where his sister lived, and then walked on down the hall, and he came to a door and he walked inside and he said, father, yes son, I want to kill you, and then he walked…

No, no, it just immediately becomes mother…

Yes, there’s a little musical thing, and then he says mother I want to and then he screams. He screams for obvious reasons, there are even for Jim cultural limitations.

And it’s more effective.

Of course, it’s more effective, it’s basic, it’s primal, it’s the reason, it’s the motivation. Jim is saying, and Jim has phrased it precisely this way, kill the father, fuck the mother, and at one point Jim said to me during the recording session, he was very emotionally moved, and he was wondering, and he was tearful, and he shouted in the studio, “Does anybody understand me?” And I said yes I do, and right then and there we got into a long discussion about just what does this mean, this section, and Jim just kept saying over and over, kill the father, fuck the mother, and essentially it boils down to just this, kill the father means kill all of those things in yourself which are instilled in you and are not of yourself, they are not your own, they are alien concepts which are not yours, they must die, those are the things that must die. The psychedelic revolution. Fuck the mother is very basic, and it means get back to the essence, what is the reality, what is, fuck the mother is very basically mother, mother-birth, real, very real, you can touch it, you can grab it, you can feel it, it’s nature, it’s real, it can’t lie to you.

So what he says at the end of the Oedipus section, which is essentially the same thing that the classic says, he is saying, kill the alien concepts, get back to reality, which is precisely what the song is about, the end, the end of alien concepts, the beginning of personal concepts. Get to reality, get to your own reality, get to your own in-touch-with-yourself situation…

I was just thinking in terms of getting back to reality, taking that against ‘Soul Kitchen,’ with the plea, desperation, the message, it’s a message song, ‘Soul Kitchen’ has got to be a message song, learn to forget, in a way, in its totality maybe it implies the opposite.

Well ‘Soul Kitchen’ of course is full of sexual imagery.

But it even goes beyond, you learn to forget, goes beyond everything else in that song and that’s the reverse.

‘Learn to forget’ is of course the key in there, otherwise Jim would not be saying it so many times in the song, ah, this is something, this is another aspect of the revolution, it goes back to the same thing as ‘The End’ — learn to forget the bullshit, the alien concepts, get back to reality, sleep in the soul kitchen.

Although to me it’s not as direct as ‘Soul Kitchen,’ it says something else too, it’s very painful, everything he says in ‘Soul Kitchen’ is very painful for him to say the way he says it, and learn to forget is very bitter.

Well, let’s look at it this way: ‘Soul Kitchen’ is an earlier song. And Jim hadn’t learned to forget nearly as well as he did later on when he did ‘The End.’

… I wonder if I’m even talking loud enough for that thing.

We’ll check it… Say that again for the Sony people.

We’re using this little Sony tape recorder here to record me saying all this blither, and it just occurred to me that the recordings I’m making these days are recorded with Sony microphones. All the producers in the country will dig that.

We’ll send a copy to Sony…

That’s where the groovy drum sound comes from.

How so, how does the mike affect the pickup of the sound?

Well, everybody is familiar with how different loudspeakers affect the sound of a recording, each has a different characteristic, this is even more apparent with microphones.

Once you get to know microphones, each mike has a different characteristic and can do a specific job better than another mike. There are certain microphones which are great for recording voice, there are others which are excellent for recording strings, or trumpets, or drums or electric guitars, and it’s a nice thing to know which microphone to use for what function. If you’ve got a very loud brass section, one of the best microphones to use is one of the oldest mikes in existence, an old RCA 44, the old radio announcer’s microphone that everybody is familiar with, a great huge lump of metal, the old octagonal mike. It’s probably the smoothest mike in the world, with no high end on it, that’s why brass sounds so good.

Do you bring your own mikes into a studio?

No, we use studios with microphone complements that are consistent with our recording techniques. Most good recording studios have certain kinds of microphones, they have Sonys, or Neumans, or Telefunkens or Capps or Synchrons, and the RCA mikes, plus the world’s cheapest microphone, which is probably used on every bass drum in the world. That’s the Altex 633-C, which I think costs $30, which is the greatest bass drum mike in the world, everybody uses it, it’s called a salt-shaker mike.

What are the aspects of picking a recording studio for a specific group other than the microphones: the size? the sound echo feeling?… what is it?

The engineers are the most important factor in any studio. Just as an artist will look for a creative producer, a producer will look for a creative engineer. That’s vital. You can have the greatest recording studio in the world and, I have been in them with an inferior engineer, you might just as well have done it on this Sony and come up with a far greater sound.

Once you know you’ve got a good engineer to work with, you must be sure that the tools that he has available are excellent. I recently worked with one of the world’s great engineers who was, until recently, strapped by one of the worst studios in the country as far as I’m concerned for the kind of recording I like to do. Dave Hassinger is a perfect example of a great engineer in a bad studio. He became very famous for his work with the Stones. Hassinger is truly one of the great engineers in the world today, but I feel he was strapped by one of the worst recording studios in the country, the now-famous RCA Victor Studio B in Hollywood, a colossus of an antique. It’s so far behind the times it’s really sad; that Hassinger was able to go as far as he did with that studio is a mark of his excellence as an engineer. A better proof of Hassinger’s excellence as an engineer, just as a pure creative engineer, regardless of what people think of the record, the music, is the work he did with the Electric Prunes, which he did from the ground up. Now that’s Hassinger, all Hassinger. He did not record that at RCA Studio B, which is why it sounds so modern. That was recorded at Goldstar and parts of it were recorded at Sunset. Listen to the A side of the new Love record. Da Capo, which was recorded by Hassinger in Studio B, a miracle of engineering, a miracle of engineering…

The sessions on this album, how did they start when did they start?

Whew, you would have to ask me questions about time and space. August and September, I think. We recorded for two weeks and mixed for five.

I’m interested more in details of the session, that is, how it went, walking into the studios for the first time…

I’ll tell you exactly. They had done a demo for Columbia and then I went to work with them for Elektra preparing them. This is something I like to do with what I consider to be new groups, virgin groups, who have not been in studios before, because there are all kinds of problems that have to be resolved with groups before they can get down to the business of making phonograph records comfortably. The common concept for recording studios — which is not mine — is that recording studios are hospitals where musicians go to have their music operated on. I like to get away from that as completely as possible and try to convert the atmosphere and the emotion of the studio into one which is more warm, let’s sit around the living room and play music for a while, not even let’s sit around the club and play music for a while which is also a little alien. Music is and always will be a very personal experience.

Well, that changes from group to group…

Oh yes, of course, don’t misunderstand me, a rock and roll group needs to have an audience to react against; in a recording studio that audience becomes a very specific audience, it’s the producer.

He’s got to fulfill many functions as an audience. Rather than sitting there and clapping his hands or booing, there are other ways he shows his delight or criticism. What we did, in order to break the cherry of this group in the recording studio, as it were, what I generally like to do is go into the studio first with the musicians feeling that they’re going in for a session. I realize that we’re going to blow a day or two, but we go in to cut masters, we don’t go in to screw around. Sometimes you get lucky. We went in and we cut two tunes, neither of which appear on this record. We don’t stop at a perfect take, we stop at a take that has the muse in it. That’s the most important thing: the take must have the feel, must have the musical feel in it, even if there are musical errors. When the muse comes into the studio to visit us, that’s the take…

How was it, recording ‘The End’?

It was beautiful, it was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever bad in a recording studio, that half hour when ‘The End’ was recorded. I was emotionally wrung. Usually as a producer you sit there listening for all the things that are right and all of the things that are about to go wrong. You’re following every instrument simultaneously, you’re following the feeling, the mood, all the way through. In this take I was completely, I was absolutely audience. I had done my job, there was nothing actually for me to do once the machines were rolling. I had made sure the sound was right on each instrument, you know, when we did our setup; Bruce, the engineer, had been cued by me on everything that I wanted him to do, and at the beginning of the take I was sitting there — producer — listening to take.

Midway through I was no longer producer; I was just completely sucked up into it. When we recorded it the studio was totally darkened, the only lights visible were a candle burning in the recording studio right next to Jim, whose back was to the control room, singing into his microphone, and the lights on the v.u. meters in the control room. All the other lights were off… it was… very dark… ha…

What studio?

Sunset Sound Recorders, what I feel to be the best studio in the country right I now, mainly because of Bruce Botnick who’s twenty-three years old and one of the grooviest engineers I can conceive of, extraordinarily creative and very pleasant to work with. Ah, and Jim… it was a magic moment… Jim was doing ‘The End,’ he was just doing it, for all time, and I was pulled off, right on down his road, he said come with me and I did. It was almost a shock when the song was over, you know when Robbie plays those last little tinkling notes on the guitar. It felt like, yeah, you know, like, yes, it’s the end, that’s the end, it cannot go any further, that’s the statement.

I felt emotionally washed. There were four other people in the control room at that time, when the take was over and we realized the tape was still going. Bruce, the engineer, was completely sucked along into it and instead of sitting there at attention the way engineers are wont to do, his head was on the console and he was just — immersed. Just absolutely immersed in this take. And he’d done it all, and he’d made all the moves right, because Bruce and I had established a kind of rapport, he knew where I wanted things done and when, and when his work was done he did exactly the same thing, involuntarily, without volition, he didn’t know he was going to do it but he became audience too. So the muse did visit the studio that time. And all of us were audience, there was nothing left, the machines knew what to do I guess. It was all right.

Jim recorded it on acid?

No, not that one. The night before… we tried the night before, we attempted the night before to record ‘The End,’ and we couldn’t get it. Jim couldn’t do it. He wanted desperately to do it, his entire being was screaming ‘Kill the father, Fuck the mother! Kill the father, Fuck the mother!’ Now I don’t know, have you heard him saying in the middle of ‘The End’ during that big ‘come’ part, have you heard him saying, ‘kill, kill, kill’?

I hear words, I can’t tell what they are.

You’ll hear it next time. During the whole giant raga thing he’s going ‘kill! Kill! kill! Kill!’ and at another point he’s going ‘Fuck, fuck,’ as a rhythm instrument, the rhythm’s going (bangs on microphone) fuck, fuck, fuck, that’s down on the track too, as a rhythm instrument, which is what we intended it to be.

Now, I’m sure that clinically Jim was still on an acid trip; but it was done on the after period, the lucid… I guess it isn’t the lucid, the clear light period, it’s the reflective period of an acid trip. But I have tried several times to record artists on acid and it doesn’t work. At least, it doesn’t work for me. I have never seen it work in a studio; I have never spoken with a producer who has tried it and has been successful.

Maybe the most interesting question is how did ‘The End’ come to be; how much of it had been like that before; and how much of it just suddenly bloomed in those two nights?

Let’s put it this way: the frame, the structure of the song was set in everyone’s mind, everyone knew what had to be done. Ray knew what he was going to play, not the notes, but where and why it had to be, Robbie knew where and why, John — a brilliant drummer, ‘The End’ proved that, in my book that’s some of the greatest drumming I’ve ever heard in my life, irrespective of the fact that I’m involved in this album it’s incredibly creative drumming — has an instinct for when. During a very quiet part he’ll just come in with three drum shots that are about as loud as you can hit a drum, and they’re right, they’re absolutely right! Now, you can’t plan those things.

Jim, of course, in the recesses of his creative self knew exactly what the song had to be. It went through several permutations in the studio. He’d reach into his back pocket and pull out a sheaf of miscellaneous scraps of paper that had little notes on them, little lines of poetry, and he’d look at them, crumple them up and throw them away, and sing different lines during the tune, lines I’d heard him sing in a club. Other times he’d just riff something I’d never heard before, some of which appears on the record. The version you hear on the record is I think a finalized form, it’s almost exactly the way they perform it on stage now. It’s one of those rare things where a piece of music was caught at the peak of its maturity in a recording studio, extremely rare. The usual situation is that it was recorded too soon or too late, more frequently it was recorded too late. There’s a kind of lethargy you hear in a lot of recorded performances that is the result of a piece of music not being caught at its prime, but in its old age. When everybody has their things down pat and there isn’t the enthusiasm of creativity.

… ‘Alabama Song,’ I’m sure you want to know about that. Both Ray and Jim are admirers of Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht. For obvious reasons. I guess Brecht was saying in the thirties what Morrison is trying to say in the sixties. They’re completely different messages, but both trying to declare a reality to their generation. It’s sort of the Doors’ tribute to another time, another brave time for some other brave men. And the lyric to ‘Alabama Song’ is strangely contemporary. There is one other verse in the ‘Alabama Song’ which the Doors don’t sing, the verse missing is ‘Show us the way to the next little dollar, oh, don’t ask why.’ And that is out of context for the Doors, that’s not quite what they had in mind…

And, in addition, there is a strange instrument on that tune. It comes from about the nineteen-twenties; it’s a variant of the autoharp. Instead of being strummed or plucked it’s struck. The instrument is called a Marxaphone, it was patented under that name. It’s a series of steel springs that are located at an angle above the strings; you push down on the steel springs and a little metal hammer at the end goes buoong — It’s a percussion instrument, a percussion autoharp. Ray played it on an overdub… Overdubbing literally means to take your original track and add onto it, putting sound on top of it. Today the system is called sel-synch, it stands for selective synchronization. You can record onto an open track, in synch with the other music.

In reference to which, Jim grunts throughout, particularly on ‘Back Door Man’ — his grunts at the beginning are great, just great. And constant noise, throughout ‘The End’ and a lot in ‘Light My Fire.’ Does he just have an open mike he can do anything into, you just mix it down because it’s on a separate track?

That’s right. The lead vocalist is always on a track by himself so that you have absolute flexibility, because listening in a recording studio the perspective’s always wrong for making a balanced mix. You’re generally listening at very high levels on superb speakers, and unless you can supply everybody in the United States with Altex 605 speakers you’re in a world of trouble. So you’ve got to have absolute flexibility, especially over your lead singer and if you’re lucky as many other elements as you can in your recording … Jim, especially if you see him live, likes to grab the microphone and, uh, he kinda works himself up to a song. He’ll grab the microphone and he’ll go ‘unh,’ ‘gaa,’ ‘yeaa,’ and he goes through almost a whole pagan ritual. It’s a modern West Coast psychedelic invocation of the muse.

… On ‘End of the Night,’ Jim decided at the last minute to change the lyric on that. It was originally, and always had been, ‘take a trip into the end of the night’ and at that point Jim decided that the word ‘trip’ had been violently overused, so he changed it to ‘highway.’ ‘End of the Night’ is another paean to the, well, it’s Jim saying to the world come on, people, get free, get rid of all that shit, take a journey to the great midnight. I’m sure that has meaning for me, and I’m sure that has meaning for you, and I’m sure our meanings are a great deal different. Jim likes to do that.

Paul WilliamsOutlaw Blues