Reel tall fish
Tom Gordon learned all about sound engineering in Los Angeles, then came back to his home town to spin out albums for mega-acts and local bands
Local Reno record producer and engineer Tom Gordon has long been a fan of the Hollywood horror series, Halloween. In fact, he’s seen the first film more than 150 times. He was almost chosen to play Michael Myers in one of the sequels. He owned an exact replica of the costume, and he says his impersonation of the murderous protagonist is dead-on.
So when legendary rapper and producer Dr. Dre and company came to Reno in 1998 to record the influential Chronic 2001, Gordon thought he would give them a little scare.
He hid in curtains on the side of the studio and put on the costume. When Dre’s bassist was at his most vulnerable, Gordon jumped out and chased him across the room and out the side door. Minutes later he reappeared, walked up to Dre and said, “Boo.”
“Ah shit, Stern,” was all the befuddled rapper could muster.
Dre gives nicknames to everyone he works with. To him, the long-haired Gordon looked like radio kingpin Howard Stern, so the name stuck.
Because of his wild antics in the studio, Gordon would go on to add his own signature to the record. Dre used the Halloween theme song as the melody to the track “Murder Inc.” as a tribute to Gordon’s performance.
But Gordon’s accomplishments don’t stop with the platinum Chronic 2001, which hangs in a thick, reflective encasement in his studio.
He has engineered records for such world-renowned acts as Boys II Men, the Beach Boys, Collective Soul and Ozzy Osbourne right here in Reno. Some of these, including Boys II Men’s record II, and Collective Soul’s self-titled album, have also gone platinum.
But why work in Reno, when so much of his work would be easier to do somewhere like Los Angeles, a locus of the music industry and Gordon’s school stomping grounds?
“I was born here, and I love the area,” Gordon says. “It’s also a much better experience than staying in L.A. and fighting it out with all the others. I would prefer to be the big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.”
Gordon got his start in the music business at the University of Southern California. In the dorms, he roomed with other entertainment-business hopefuls. Among his neighbors were Bryan Singer—director of the 1995 hit The Usual Suspects and the upcoming Superman flick—and Marvin Young, who went on to become heralded rapper Young MC. Singer and Gordon became good friends because they enjoyed the same music.
“Bryan was the only guy on our floor with any taste in music,” Gordon says. “Marvin was always listening to hip-hop, but I didn’t appreciate it at the time.”
After college, Gordon returned to Reno to work at Granny’s House recording studio, then went on to start his own production company, Inspired Amateur Productions.
At 6 feet, 8 inches tall (or 5 feet, 20 inches, as he says), Gordon has been able to stand above the crowd as a producer and engineer here in Reno. He focuses on local acts. He has worked on nearly 150 projects with Reno area bands.
“There is a very densely populated talent pool here for a city this size,” he says. “I’m just waiting for one band to hit it big. When that happens, there will be so many more to follow.”
He said he’s been close a few times, but no big record execs have been willing to take the bait.
“A few Reno bands came really close,” Gordon says. “A band called Mudsharks was so close to hooking up with Geffen Records, and Sony was really looking at another local band, Convicted Innocence.”
The problem, he says, is that bands need to have more business savvy. In this competitive market, the musical skills alone won’t make record deals happen. He says that a lot of bands are complacent and think that record deals will just fall into place.
“That’s not how it works anymore,” Gordon says. “You have to have genuine knowledge about the business. It may require doing things like tracking record sales and hiring attorneys, but those are the bands that are going to make it. Practicing your songs every night won’t get you anywhere.”
He also says that while Reno is a great community to grow in as a band, the successful acts travel.
“The record labels just don’t come to Reno yet,” he says. “The [bands] need to travel. They need to go to places like the Bay Area. That’s how the Mudsharks really got rolling.”
Gordon’s talents don’t stop with the production and engineering of albums. He played the role of bass drummer in the USC marching band’s cameo in 1988’s The Naked Gun and has done sound control for live performances by acts like Rick Springfield and Spirit of the Dance.
But, as is clear upon entering his studio, producing and engineering national acts is his point of pride. One wall of the studio is plastered with platinum record sales award plaques. These awards are given to those who’ve had a part in producing records that have sold at least a million units. Gordon has four: Collective Soul’s self-titled album, Boys II Men’s II, Mike Love not War from Beach Boy Mike Love, and Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001. He also engineered Ice Cube’s War and Peace, which sold 500,000 copies, classifying it as a “gold” record.
While the big-name musicians bring fame, the local acts are Gordon’s most rewarding projects.
“Sure, it can be fun and enlightening working with artists of this caliber, but usually, creativity is in someone else’s hands or under scrutiny of the label,” Gordon says. “With a great indie artist, you often have much more creative input to help develop a new sound. That can be far more satisfying. The sad part is that most of the indie artists don’t have the audience base that the artists I previously mentioned have. This also means that most of my favorite work will never be heard.”
But that’s not going to stop him from working with local artists. Hopefully, he says, Reno will produce a big hit in the near future.
“I’m going to take a Reno band all the way,” he says. “That’s my goal. I see no reason why it can’t happen. Local bands like AKA Keen have real talent. But we will just have to see what happens.”