Sound ideas

Mitchell Froom provided the sonic boom behind some of the '90s' best records

"Latin Playboys has a very strong atmosphere," Froom says from a Los Angeles recording studio, where he's currently finishing the forthcoming Lobos record. "It certainly doesn't play the game in any way. At the bottom of whatever you try to do usually is to make a record that sounds like it doesn't acknowledge anything--it just wants to have a good time with itself. It's not of any time or place, there's nobody coming in saying anything about anything, there's no nod to modern tastes or whatever. But that one I thought was particularly great. David is one of the people I hold in highest regards; it's really his music. And Louie is a great lyricist, and between the two of them, it's very potent. I get a lot of credit for stuff I didn't do."

It's appropriate, then, that Froom's first album as the name-in-big-type performer, the brand-new Dopamine, begins with a David Hidalgo collaboration. "Tastes Good" smells like a Playboys holdover, though it's not. Like everything else on Dopamine--which is a scant 31 minutes in length, its brevity a very noble gesture in these days of CD wastefulness--the track recalls everything Froom has touched ever since he scored Cafe Flesh in 1982. Dopamine, which features performances by the likes of Vega (Froom's wife), Sexsmith, Crow, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, the Attractions' Pete Thomas, and AMC's Mark Eitzel, contains the sound of a man obsessed with the studio, who uses the walls as instruments.

"The reason I like to produce records is partially the same reason I like to do this kind of record--because I like the studio," Froom says. "That's what this record is about. It's not about recreating something live on stage; it's about the fantasy of creating music in the studio. Doing a solo record is something I've always wanted to do, because I have a lot of music that I write, and I don't have an outlet for it. It took about three years to get this done. I was getting free days at the end of projects and going in on weekends to cut a track, [but] it's not just recording songs in a simple way. It's all about the mystery of studio sound."

The Northern California native--raised on a diet of Rubber Soul, pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys, The Genius of Ray Charles, and Sketches of Spain--began solving that mystery in 1985. His first production gig was for the Del Fuegos' Boston, Mass., a record that sounds like a collection of Budweiser ad jingles, which it would soon enough become; for a while there, Froom was Middle American rock's favorite producer, also hooking up with the BoDeans for a while. (Indeed, in a Village Voice review of Richard Thompson's 1986 Daring Adventures, Robert Christgau referred to Froom as a "nuevo roots hack.")

He ventured into slick pop by hooking up with Crowded House in 1986, producing three out of four records; the records sounded good enough, it was just the songs that got in the way, at least till 1991. His first success, perhaps his biggest, as a producer is hardly his proudest moment--Los Lobos' title song to the 1987 biopic La Bamba; indeed, even now, 11 years later, he distances himself from the song that made Los Lobos famous and wealthy, if not particularly pleased. "It sort of did more damage than good," Froom recalls of the track that, for years, defined the band as a novelty act best suited for channeling the ghost of dead one-hit wonders; appropriately, it, too, is the band's sole Top 10 hit.

Even Froom admits now he didn't hit his stride till the early 1990s, on Los Lobos' '92 album Kiko; that record is an adventurous travelogue to the border and beyond, the East L.A. band's version of Music from Big Pink. Froom has produced every Lobos record since then, including 1996's majestic, chaotic Colossal Head, the forthcoming Dose from the Playboys, and the next Lobos record, which is still being shopped to record labels. (The band begged off of Warner Bros. Records, unhappy with the way the label mishandled Colossal Head.)

"I think they're my favorite band," Froom says. "They are the coolest band in America. I first met them as a musician, and after 'La Bamba,' we hardly spoke for years after that. No one was angry at each other, but I don't think it was a shining moment in their career. So I was really happy when I worked on one song on [1990's] Neighborhood called 'Angel Dance,' and I think that was the first indication that maybe we could work together in a way that would be adventurous."

But his most daring adventure came with Vega's 99.9iF: After three albums of wistful, thoughtful folk-rock, Vega had seen her spotlight begin to dim; "Luka" was her triumph and her downfall wrapped in one, her Thoughtful Folkie moment in the sun. She had begun working on a fourth record and had recorded demos alone and with a band, when Froom was mentioned as one of the possible producers, among many. She sent him a collection of songs, and he was drawn toward the ones featuring just her on acoustic guitar; he says now he thought the tracks featuring the band were too "straight," too "conservative."

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