The Sign of Z

How does a 37-year-old Latino from Pacoima acquire the tools to become the producer of choice for Brit metal dudes two generations removed? Alchemy: A heavy Limey bluesman, Peter Green, was writing “Black Magic Woman” — a Latin-influenced number that would be covered a couple of years later by Santana — right around the time Roy Z was getting born; Roy’s infant brain could not resist inflammation by the incipient intercultural sparks.

Over the last decade, Z has knobbed several albums for Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford during their stag trysts away from Iron Maiden and Judas Priest respectively, and played guitar for both throatbusters. (He was manning the Halford platoon at House of Blues the night another producer of some renown, Phil Spector, experienced his last night of clubland freedom.) Z hit big-league budget territory this year with Priest’s reunion album, Angel of Retribution. Now comes his latest producer-guitarist-songwriter collaboration with Dickinson, Tyranny of Souls, an unrepentantly melodramatic hunk of classic metal that’s likely to stoke both Maiden heads and Dickinson solo lovers. It bears the unmistakable mark of Z: clarity and power on one hand, depth and suggestiveness on the other.

Though Z’s studio chores have kept him on hiatus from his own salsa-rock-R&B band, Tribe of Gypsies, he hopes to set that caravan a-rolling soon. You get the sense he can do anything he puts his mind to; he speaks softly, but the words carry the focus and inner fire of self-belief.

L.A. WEEKLY: What did you pick up from playing live with Halford?
ROY Z: It was a good experience, because later on I was able to use that information I got from playing live. The things I saw that got the crowd reaction, I was able to transform into songs that I knew would work in front of a crowd — certain chord structures with melodies crescendoing at the right time, those little things that you just don’t pick up on listening to a record or even watching a band live.

Did anything about Priest surprise you?
I was really blown away by the chemistry that they have. To be around that was like, “So this is it, this is what other bands are missing.” And the tolerance — I think very few American bands have that. The British have a way of speaking their mind without totally going overboard like they do here. They’re very civilized in telling each other off.

Much of the new Bruce Dickinson album was recorded at your home. How was that?
It was real convenient. Bruce had injured himself doing a gig at the Amphitheater, and he screwed up his ribs — man, he could hardly sing, and when he did sing he was in a lot of pain. But he managed to get through it in three days. We don’t really use a control room. We’re all in the same room, so the communication is immediate. There’s a lot of eye communication.

So you take your glasses off when you’re in the studio? [He’s wearing tinted specs.]
My eyes have gotten bad from staring at computers all the time. I wear these all the time now.

When did you start being called Roy Z?
I was going out for auditions, about 19 years old. It wasn’t popular to have the last name Ramirez, because of the Night Stalker. I flipped around my last name, started using Zerimar. And I went to a Dio audition one time, and they just put on there “Roy Z.” And my friend went, “Man, that’s cool.”

What was your musical training?
I studied jazz guitar. I studied classical guitar. And then, outside the norm, I started transposing classical pieces. I got some training in that, and had a teacher. It’s like taking an old classic car and tearing it apart and then putting it back together again piece by piece.

You got a nice Peter Green guitar sound on the last Tribe of Gypsies album.
The Mayall Bluesbreakers, the Peter Green stuff, old Hendrix, I get off on that a lot. That’s good for me too, because obviously the people I work for have the same type of roots.

You can duplicate a lot of the British sounds because of the amps you have, and you’ve got a couple of modules from the old Rolling Stones mobile unit. Do you spend a lot of time in guitar shops checking out gear?
Yeah, but I read a lot — guitar magazines, interviews — and I figure out what the stuff is. And I have these mental checklists that I say, “Man, if I ever stumble across one of those . . .” Like, for example, 10 years ago I was in the U.K. recording, and one of the amps that we were using was this Marshall JTM 45 100-watt, which was really rare, it was one of the first 100-watts. They made ’em for The Who, and they made ’em for the Experience with Jimi Hendrix. So all of a sudden one gets wheeled out right in front of me, and I’m like, “No way.” And eventually I bought that amp and brought it home.

Your house must be crowded.
I have a bed, but I don’t have a dining room anymore, gear’s just everywhere.

When did you first think about what an album sounded like, as opposed to just experiencing it as music?
I think you don’t really pay attention to production when you’re young. But then, for some of us, we get this awakening, and figure out that sound has to do with a lot of what’s going on to create the atmosphere. I just started dissecting records and looking at all the parts and why they worked — Beatles records, Stones, Zeppelin, Deep Purple — and just worked my way through. When I started doing my own recordings at home, I took all of that into consideration. Everybody would say, “These sound great, man.”

What producers have you learned from?
There’s one guy in particular that I’ve learned a lot from, Richie Podolor, and his engineer Bill Cooper. They did all the Three Dog Night records, and they either engineered or produced all the Steppenwolf stuff. I could go on and on, but basically, that’s real producers, right there. Versus when I walk into a studio now, and it’s some guy that went to college, whatever, and they taught him how to be a producer. He’s always just recording, he’s not really giving much to the players.

I like the effects, noises, layering you come up with.
Sometimes I’ll stick stuff in there, and I’ll think, “People won’t notice this until, like, the 15th listen.” So it’s just something for those fans, you know.

Can you truly understand metal if you don’t smoke?
I would say that most of the time we’re under the influence of somethin’. If you work on this stuff sober all the time, it just starts feeling like you’re waiting at the dentist’s office.


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