Melbourne sound engineer and international live mix legend, Bruce Johnston, has seen it all. He’s mixed most of the biggest bands in Australia for decades. These days he works for a single international act: Oasis. His career has been stratospheric and this is how he’s done it.
Text: Mark Davie
Bruce Johnston has a list of credits as long as your arm holding a length of string. Today, he’s most well known for his 10-year stint as Oasis’ live sound engineer, the only post he still holds. But if you missed the Gallagher brothers roaring around the world off their trolleys in the late ’90s, it’s still likely you’ve heard a Bruce Johnston mix. He’s a melody mixer, a giant in the game – el presidente of the drum and vocal powerhouse mix. If there’s a hook in a song, Bruce will turn it into a harpoon.
So how did a suburban kid from Oakleigh, with little more than an eight–track recorder, wind up in the ’80s new-wave punk scene, and from there mix almost every Australian band before going on to land one of the biggest mixing gigs on the international stage? Not to mention owning one of Australia’s biggest PA companies to boot. Sitting in his office, Bruce recounts story after story laced with mountains of gung-ho attitude while goading his comrades to follow suit if they want a piece of the action. A living tribute to his tenacity, his current secretary used to be employed by a man Bruce once begged for work. Next issue we’ll delve into the nitty gritty of Bruce’s mixing technique, but for now, grab a cup of Joe, kick back, and let Bruce spin you a yarn.
Bruce Johnston: Way back when I was in a band in school and like most sound guys I had a bit of the muso in me. I built a little rehearsal and recording studio out in Moorabbin, called the Jam Tin [AT’s editor Andy Stewart recorded his first album there as a 16-year old]. In 1980, this band from St Kilda called The Ears came in to rehearse. I didn’t realise who The Ears were back then. A famously disastrous band, they were friends with Michael Hutchence and filmmaker Richard Lowenstein. The band in Lowenstein’s movie, Dogs In Space, is The Ears, and Michael Hutchence’s character Sam, was their singer. That was the hook-up. I wasn’t in that scene, I was a naïve suburban kid from Oakleigh, and St Kilda was pretty foreign to me back then. I was just a long-haired surfie that stumbled into the new wave punk world.
The Ears walked into the Jam Tin office one day asking me if I knew a sound engineer who could mix their gig.
“I’ll do it,” I said, even though I’d never mixed a live band before. I’d only dabbled in the studio with an eight-track. So suddenly there I was, mixing live in a place called Macy’s (between asking me to mix and the gig itself, The Ears had changed their name to Beargarden). I’d never heard them play before and I’d never mixed live before, so I was lucky the guy who installed the PA was reasonable at it. Michael Hutchence was there, Dave Mason from The Reels and a few others – it was all gathering pace in the early ’80s.
When we were backstage after the gig, people were coming up and saying, “Man, that’s the best sound we’ve ever heard.” They even paid me 20 or 30 bucks, and I thought, ‘This is alright’. I’d never been paid to play in a band, but here I was getting paid to mix.
Beargarden’s next gig, literally two days later, was supporting INXS in front of 2,500 people at The Venue in St Kilda, which is now the Novotel hotel. Collin Ellis, who’s still going now, was mixing INXS, and he started telling me, “This is your cue button, these are your buttons to your groups, this is…”
I turned around and interrupted him and said: “I just want to mix, I don’t know what any of this stuff means. I’m just here to turn the bass and treble.”
We got it going, and again, it seemed pretty easy for me to do, I just seemed to be able to do it. That night the band told me they were going on tour for six weeks and I said, “ok”. And that’s how it started. I jumped between Beargarden and another Melbourne band, Kids In The Kitchen. Craig Harnath, my partner in Hothouse recording studio in the late ’80s, was the bass player.
The live industry was huge back then, sort of how it is now; I’ve seen it go full circle. My live mixing record back then was 14 bands in one week. I’d do three bands in a night and they would all ring me separately, so I’d charge them all the same money. It was great and I met a lot of people.
I stuck with Kids In the Kitchen when Beargarden died, till about ’85 when they died as well. I’d been offered other bands, but I didn’t want to jump ship like we do now. When you’re young you’ve got to be loyal and stick with one band or the next guy will take your job, at least in the early stages of your career. It’s a bit different later when you’ve got a name.
For about six years I mixed just about every band there was in Melbourne. After that I mixed Big Pig, a unique band with three drummers. They got the INXS Kick stadium world tour in ’87; it was INXS, Bryan Adams and Big Pig. After that I did all the big ’80s bands like Boom Crash Opera and Real Life.
In the early days, my wife came with me on these tours and we slept two up on a bunk in a bus. If anyone has ever been on a tour bus then you know how skinny we must have been! I’m still skinny now and I struggle to fit in one all by myself. I got married on that INXS Kick world tour. That’s why I never forget my anniversary – I was married in July 1988, in Vegas. It makes for a good long-term relationship I’d say, if you’ve got a good woman that understands what you do and you’re not in each other’s face 24/7. I’ve been with her for 26 years, so maybe that’s helped.
Up until then I had only ever mixed ’80s bands, but realised I needed some rock ‘n’ roll credibility if I was to break into the big Australian scene, so I started hounding the Divinyls.
Every time I turned the radio on, it would be them, and I would say, “It’s the Chi, it’s the vibe, they want me to do it, I’m in!”
I was putting a vibe out into the world that I was going to mix them. Then it happened. I was at a gig one day and at two in the morning in walk the Divinyls. I went straight up to Christine the singer, and said, “I want to mix your band.” And she goes “nah, nah, talk to him,” pointing at the manager.
So I went up to the manager and told him, “I need to mix the Divinyls, that’s what I’m doing!” And he fobbed me off.
So then I went out and did an opening act on a Bon Jovi tour. Funnily enough, the Divinyls’ production manager was working on it, and I hounded him every day for two weeks. Every day when I saw him, I was in his ear: “I’m gonna do your gig, I’m doing this gig!”
I was relentless, until finally one day he offered me a three-week tour. I was in. As soon as I got the Divinyls, I had a bit of rock ‘n’ roll credibility, which helped me get other bands. I did the Hoodoo Gurus for years and Diesel from start to finish. Believe it or not Diesel got really huge in ’91; we were carrying a semi trailer on pub tours.
Soon after, when I heard Crowded House were looking for a sound guy, I became convinced I had to get them. By that time they were getting really big. I’d tried to work for them previously, but couldn’t break into their circle. I started ringing the stage guy, and the monitor engineer, working that avenue to try and get onto management. And then, someone rang me up and said, “Tim’s going to do a small three-week tour around the world,” and they wanted me to do it.
Putting two and two together, I thought, “If I go and mix Tim Finn, Neil Finn will come to the gig for sure.” So I went on tour with Tim Finn and sure enough Neil came to about five gigs and played. It was like mixing Crowded House. So I got in his ear backstage, ‘bang, bang, bang, “I’m gonna mix your band!” bang, bang, bang’. I was a relentless bastard.
About a month later I got the job, through sheer persistence. A lot of people think that gigs just come to you. But like any job, if you want to mix a band, you’ve got to go and get them. They might come to me now, but it certainly didn’t work that way back then.
Unfortunately for me, it was Crowded House’s last world tour. But it was good because I got to do a big arena world tour of my own. In ’94, they were really big and just starting to crack the UK – we did three nights in Wembley Arena (not stadium) – then one day on the tour, Neil held a press conference and pulled the plug. It was all over.
Directly after Neil pulled the pin I went and mixed the Hoodoo Gurus, then Midnight Oil straight after that. I didn’t really get on with the Oils too well actually. I had all the Midnight Oil albums and my mixing vision for them was massive drums and loud vocals. It was the only band I really struggled with, because I was a fan.
I can’t stand anyone telling me how to mix, so I initially confronted the Oils saying, “the sound’s got to be like this…” And Peter Garrett is standing a metre taller than me saying, “Hey Bruce, they don’t want to hear the vocals, they already know the lyrics, they just want the guitars really loud.”
And I’m giving it back: “man, I mix vocals really loud, and I’m a big drum man, so we’ve got problems.” I ended up getting asked back to do three tours, but after the last one, we all decided it was time to part company.
There was a great gig at Selena’s, in Coogee Bay that I always remember – it’s really hard to mix there because of its low roof. I was having probably one of my best Midnight Oil gigs, but I was getting the odd bit of feedback because I was running the PA really loud.
The road crew had been stirring me up, and called me up on the two-way saying; “Pete… he’s screaming. He says if you don’t get rid of that feedback, he’s going to come and sort you out.”
So I’m mixing away, thinking ‘yeah right’. Then it fed back again and, and Pete jumps off stage, and I’m thinking, ‘he’s coming to get me!’, because I’d heard rumours that he used to belt people with mic stands. I was in fear, but he didn’t do anything of the sort. Backstage he abused me roundly about the feedback, saying; “Look, my wife said it was the best sounding gig she’s ever heard. But that’s not the point!”
I’d been offered INXS multiple times in my life, flying overseas to start the tour only to find it had been cancelled. So when I got the call to do INXS’s last tour of Australia, my mates were telling me not to go in case they’d screw me over again. Well I went, and they flew me over to America to see what they were doing for the third time. We came back to Australia to do the big last tour, and of course, Michael died. I never actually physically got to mix them in that capacity. That was my childhood dream. I’d started where INXS were in 1981, and I figured if I ended up mixing them at a stadium or something, that would be perfect. I did a couple of the very first gigs when they reformed, and it was pretty good from my point of view as an ’80s guy, but after a couple of shows I realised it wasn’t really the same.
I started moping around because Midnight Oil had finished, the INXS thing was over, Crowded House was over. I’d done all the big Aussie bands, and I thought I was toast! Then the phone rang at 3:30 in the morning one night. I don’t usually answer the phone at 3:30 in the morning, but I had PA’s installed all around Australia, and I thought maybe a club had gone down or something. So I got up, picked up the phone and yelled; “whoever this is, you are dead!”
The guy at the end of phone stammers, “Bruce, Bruce, it’s David (Hughes). Oasis have just sacked their sound guy and they need someone on the 9am to Auckland tomorrow!”
“Oasis, Oasis?” I asked. Apparently it had all gone down suddenly and I was the only one answering the phone. “What number am I on that list, tenth?” I asked him. “No, I rang you first” he said.
Crowded House had been quite big in the UK, and apparently Oasis liked them, so I was booked on the 9am. I went back to bed and told my wife I was going to do Oasis for three weeks. She was more than miffed I’d dropped my life after just one phone call. Then at 6am I got a second call to tell me the gig was off. Meanwhile, I’d just had the biggest fight with my wife ever. Needless to say, I screamed at him. He rang me back the next day and said, “they’re going to South America for a month and I’m going to tell them that the right thing to do is for them to use you.” A couple of days went by and that’s what transpired.
Because I’d had a run-in with Midnight Oil I was a bit nervous about all the rumours surrounding Oasis. My mentality from the word go was, ‘If that Noel or Liam says one bad thing to me I’m going to tell them to stick their band up their arse, I’m going to get back on the plane and go home.’
Before I did the show the monitor guy came up to me with Noel’s guitar tech and said, “we’ve been on the road for two and a half years; it’s been the most notorious tour ever.”
This was the last three weeks of a tour that had been going since they cracked it big in ’94. It was totally out of control on stage, the guy had about nine microphones on Noel’s guitar rig, one on every amplifier. Everything was out of phase. But they were telling me not to rock the boat, just finish the tour. So I said “okay.”
Of course, the first time Noel gets on stage, he plays the guitar and asks me how it sounds, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never lied to anyone, I can’t not tell him the truth’. But I had to grin and bear my teeth because it was crap. “It’s fine!” I said, but knew something had to give.
Over the course of the next two days the avenue for change was through the guitar tech, not the band. He did anything I wanted, we just didn’t tell Noel. In the history of me doing sound, whenever I’ve mixed a new band, that’s when I’ve tended to pull the best sound. It was no different then. My first gig with Oasis was outdoors in front of 20,000 people and everyone came up to me after the gig saying they’d never heard the band sound like that, ever. They’d never even heard Guigsy (rhythm guitarist) play guitar, let alone the keyboards.
After three weeks the tour was over. A year went by, and then one of my mates in England said Oasis had started up again. So I immediately sent an email to the manager asking if he wanted someone out of the English loop that could stick to a plan. After he talked to the guys I got an email back telling me I’d got the job.
Their first gig back was in Japan and it sounded terrible. From my memory of how good it had sounded the year before, I couldn’t believe how bad it had become. I went backstage and of course Noel inevitably asked, “How did it sound?” And I thought, ‘oh well, here’s my test’. “Look it sounded crap mate. Sorry I’ve got no explanations. I think it was the worst sound I’ve ever done.”
To my surprise, he said, “we were so jetlagged, it sounded so crap on stage it was probably our fault. Here, have a beer.”
I remember thinking at the time that I was probably the first guy to ever tell him the truth. And from that moment on I’ve gotten on really well with them. They trust what I say because they know I’m never going to lie to them. They know when I’ve had a killer. I told them I was going to get a flagpole so when the white flag went up they’d know I was in the gun position. It became the catch cry on tour. Noel would ask, “Was the flag up?” And I’d say, “Mate, the flag was flying!”
My test with Liam came on the first tour. We flew from Santiago to Mexico and I got upgraded to business class with the band. I was walking past and Liam calls out, “Oi Aussie, do you wanna have a beer?”
Mind you I was still pretty jetlagged, so I told him I’d have a beer with him at the other end. I turned my back and walked off and he says, “Ah, ya f@#*ing lightweight,” and they all had a bit of a giggle.
I thought, ‘okay, here’s my test’. I turned around and said, “I’m not a f@#*ing lightweight mate,” – I always hammed up the Australian accent – “We’ll have a f@#*ing beer at the other end and I’ll f@#*ing drink you under the table, but I’m not having a f@#*ing beer right now. I’m tired as f@#*!”
And he goes, “Yeah mate sorry, sorry.”
I turned my back to walk away and he said, “You f@#*ing lightweight!” I think I passed though.
The Oasis gig is probably responsible for the main growth in Johnston Audio. Because I’d been mixing bands over the years I’d slowly built up a little PA. I started with a JBL Modular system and then bought a Meyer MSL3 off Troy Balance. But because I was mixing bigger bands my PA was never good enough to use on the tours. It finally caught up with me around the time I was mixing Diesel. Taking the advice of people who were encouraging me to use the Oasis gig to my advantage and get Johnston Audio off the ground, I finally borrowed a heap of dough and bought a PA. I got to meet a lot of international sound engineers, because when you’re on tour with Oasis, they all want to know what the Gallaghers are really like. When they came to Australia they’d want to catch up, so they’d use my PA. That paved the way for Johnston Audio to expand massively.
Aussie pub rock was prolific in the mid to late ’90s. Bands would tour PAs, and the work just kept on coming. When I was overseas in the early ’80s I noticed every pub and club in America had its own house system, meanwhile, no club in Australia had a PA. There were a lot of backyard guys with PAs and trucks, and there were only a couple of big companies. These guys had the touring market sewn up. So we started another little company, and put installs everywhere – at one stage we had 30 PAs!
Then the Government deregulated alcohol and all of a sudden there were hundreds of little pubs and clubs wanting cover bands, and consequently there was a big explosion in house PAs. So instead of charging them $1000 a night we just charged them $500 a week. Although this seemed like a huge drop in price to them, from our point of view, when you added it up across 30 installs a week, it became quite a lot of money. We ended up copying Staging Connections, installing pay-as-you-use PAs in hotels.
And then it dawned on me, ‘I wonder if I could do this in rock ‘n’ roll venues?’. I approached the Enmore in Sydney and offered to leave my best PA in there on a pay-as-you-use basis, to save a lot of money, save on load-ins and get them a lot more work. Then I got it in my head that perhaps I could have a little run from the Tivoli in Brisbane down through the Enmore in Sydney to the Forum Theatre in Melbourne. If I could put a PA in those three venues, everyone will do a tour on my PAs. And it worked.
In amongst touring and all this live work, I also built Hothouse recording studio in Melbourne. We got this place in Acland Street in St Kilda that one of my mates had recently vacated. The front door is on Acland Street and out the back was 2500 square feet of open plan space. We figured people would think a studio in that spot would be a great idea, simply because at three in the morning they could walk out onto Acland Street and everything would be open. I looked at a few studio magazines, read a few books on acoustics and built a fully floated studio. I’d only been a home renovator prior to that, helping my father build a few houses as a teenager. Craig and I built it, wired it, and opened it without telling anyone. And it’s still there 20 years later.
I really liked Hothouse studio. I’d mix bands in there all day and then run down to The Corner and mix three bands live, then head back to the studio and mix down. I was way better in the studio than I was live. I really felt like I could craft magic there, but live mixing was paying the money. No-one wanted to pay anything in the studio. They wanted to come in and spend $500 for the weekend and spend all day there. But at the same time I was getting $120 a gig. I could charge the main band $120, the middle band $80, the first band $60 and it was all over in three hours. But in the end it just wore me down. As the money increased for the live mixing, I was realistically getting paid more to work for one hour in that environment, than the studio would pay for the whole day, so I ended up shifting away from it.
As you get older it gets harder. I’ve just hung up my Silverchair reins. I went and mixed more gigs for Wolfmother recently and they’ve rung up again about a tour, but I’ve had to tell them I can’t do it. I’m still doing Oasis.
Now that they have kids they only tour for four weeks, then go home for two. They’re your friends and you love mixing them, but it’s hard work and I’d rather be home on a Saturday and play with my kid. My son is nine now and this is the first time I’ve found myself on the fence about touring. I really want to go because I haven’t been on tour with Oasis for three years, but my son is a walking talking person with attitude now, and he’s not going to be happy if I go away. So Brent Gray, who’s been my rigger on Silverchair is now mixing Silverchair, Wolfmother, Missy Higgins… all those bands that I’ve been mixing recently. It’s good to keep it in the family, and they still use my PAs. So that’s what happens to old sound guys – if anyone wants to know – you walk away from it and someone else takes over.
Brent came over from another audio company that went broke and started mixing local bands and had his own little studio as well. That’s how a lot of sound guys start out; they play in a band and have their own studio. As soon as I see that character in someone I try and snap them up because I know they’re across the gamut of sound. We get guys from the school of audio coming to see us all the time. We tell them to come in and work for a week for free and see what they’re like. Now a lot of them don’t, but the ones that do come in for free, we pay anyway. I know that if they’re prepared to come in and work free, they want to do it. My very first tour I never got paid, I just did it because of the lifestyle.
I know it’s a weird thing to say, but I actually never did it for the money back then. I mean, you want to get paid for what you do now, but when you’re 20 and you’re on the road with the band, it doesn’t matter what money you’re getting if you’re having a good time.
I’ve been sacked from bands before because I’ve told someone like the manager to “f#%* off” for telling me my mixing is wrong and I should be more like the last guy. But you live and learn. Oasis has never said anything to me, because it just always sounds good I guess, and they get their own feedback. You find the right bands. The thing is, gigs don’t come to you. As much as people say, ‘Bruce is so lucky he’s mixed so many bands’, that came from me trying hard to get work. Sarah, who works for me now, can vouch for that. She worked for the man that gave me the Big Pig work, and I think I came around to their office five or six times begging for the job.
Sarah (chiming in): We just used to dismiss you, “Hi Bruce, bye Bruce!”
As your ego gets bigger, your aspirations get bigger and those things just come along after 20 years of being in it. People want me to do their arena tours these days because they know as soon as I walk in I’ll know the PA company and the international sound guy, so I’m going to get access to the whole PA. Years ago you used to turn up and they’d limit the PA 30 percent and your sound would be crap no matter what you did. You had to fight, I wouldn’t go whingeing about it; I’d just have it out with the system guy.
I remember Roxus was supporting Bon Jovi in ’86 and I was getting limited. So I asked the system engineer, “Are you scared of me? Are you scared I’ll get a better sound than the main act?”
“Roxus supporting Bon Jovi?” he replied, “I don’t think so!”
But I was pulling amazing sounds and Bon Jovi really did sound shithouse, so eventually the Bon Jovi engineer got the sack and the rigger – the guy who had been limiting me – took over!
So I thought, ‘Right, this is my chance to become Bon Jovi’s new mix engineer’. I plucked up courage, headed over to the Bon Jovi dressing room, swung open the door and there they were, all in there playing…
They all looked up at me startled and I said, “Nothing… sorry, wrong door.” I look back at that now and think that was the worst thing I ever did. I should have just walked in with balls of steel and said, ‘I am getting a 10 times better sound out there; I should be mixing your band’. That’s what I’d done in the past with all the other bands. But I failed! I’ve read about the guy that took over since, and he’s gone on to mix some of the biggest bands in the world. From that moment on I did just that, I would always go and approach people directly and never take no for an answer.