Review by R. Stephen Shodin
The faders, dials, buttons, and cables of a mixing console can be nearly as impersonal and intimidating as the person sitting in front of them. This is not to say that all recording engineers are impersonal and/or intimidating, but part of their job requires that they maintain a certain distance from the material and the artists involved in producing the material in order to execute the required tasks for capturing sound. Phill Brown is one of those that dare to capture sound and has been doing so for the past forty years, working on such records as Pressure Drop by Robert Palmer, Burnin’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers, Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, and No Angel by Dido, just to name a few.
Laid out in the form of a journal or diary, Are We Still Rolling? points towards the special art of sound engineering from the very beginning. The artistry involved in being a great sound engineer involves a high level of understanding not only “what sounds good,” but also the ability to troubleshoot and correct technical problems with the equipment used while also maintaining a certain detached otherness with regard to the music. A great sound engineer not only provides technical support and knowledge, but also an unbiased ear, capable of pointing out nuances that may not have been considered and offering solutions to those artists that might not have a clear idea of just how to realize their vision. As a hobbyist musician myself, I can attest to the fact that they also spend a lot of their time straddling the lines between therapist, host, and friend. Over the course of the book, it becomes more and more clear that Brown is a master of straddling such lines as his relationships with Robert Palmer and Mark Hollis (just to name a couple) deepen.
Just like any good sound engineer, Brown guides us along lovingly with terrific anecdotes and a very measured but deeply caring tone that lulls the reader into a dreamlike state. His love for music and its power can be felt on nearly every page. Along the way we meet Jeff Beck, Harry Nilsson, Steve Winwood, Eddie Kramer, and seemingly countless others. Throughout all of his recording adventures, Brown paints ellaborate pictures of how sessions were set up and details all manner of shenanigans (i.e. Robert Palmer water-skiing and nearly dying) or serious artistic introspection (all the Talk Talk sessions) that took place. Even the most marginal artists become compelling subjects when seen through Brown’s lens.
That said, the more personal aspects of Brown’s life outside the confines of a recording studio seem to intrude into the narrative in a less romanticized tone that can be slightly off-putting. For instance, Brown spends the better part of a year away from his family recording, re-recording, and mixing the Talk Talk record Laughing Stock. He doesn’t completely sugar-coat the experience of making the album, but he does go into far more detail about the emotions and struggles involved with it than he does with his family’s reaction to him being absent for a year. “Nobody said a word. When it was finished Sally turned on the lights, and life continued as before.” There is not ever a doubt that the man is devoted to his family, but the way he presents certain events can sometimes feel cold and slightly detached, but that may be precicely his point: the focus of the book is not his life with his family, it’s the music and his love for it. It’s also about capturing the moment and feeling the magic of it, which Phill Brown does in fine fashion.