Kevin “The Caveman” Shirley began his production and mixing career in South Africa when he was struck by a particular piece of music. He sold his few possessions and occupied a studio lobby until he was eventually offered a job. In 1986 he relocated to Australia where he worked with artists including Tina Arena and Baby Animals. When Baby Animals caught on stateside, he moved here but faced a number of challenges. Ultimately, though, he overcame them and was tapped to produce for Rush. He’s since gone on to work with Aerosmith, Silverchair and the Black Crowes, among others. He now lives and works primarily in Malibu.
Recently Shirley produced Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers’ The EastWest Sessions. Notably, tracking was completed in a mere five days. But such a remarkable turnaround time doesn’t strike him as singularly impressive. “I’ve made a habit of it,” he observes of his process. “I have a workflow that’s a particular way and I manage to work with a bunch of musicians who trust me.”
Virtually every producer and/or engineer uses strategies to draw the best out of an artist. Shirley employs a range of them, depending on a session’s atmosphere. “Some days you’re a school teacher,” he explains, “some days you’re a musician, others you’re a babysitter. It all depends what you need on the day. There’s a psychology to producing records. I like to make people feel good. I don’t like confrontational sessions. But sometimes they’re necessary, especially if you’re trying to elicit a particular performance and you need some anger.
“I can get somebody like Joe Bonamassa, who’s an incredibly gifted guitarist,” he continues. “You have to discover what his patterns are, because sometimes laziness sets in because he can do so much. You have to find ways of bringing out things that he can play. I’ve done solos with him where I’ll say, ‘Start one bar before the solo’ and not tell him what key it’s in. This is so I can get a reaction rather than something prepared.”
Over the years, the producer has faced various difficulties. The biggest, he finds is working with subpar musicians. “Average artists are the biggest challenge,” he asserts. “If a drummer doesn’t know how to tune his drums, then that makes an engineer’s job very difficult. There are a lot of people making records who shouldn’t be. They have a passion but not the ability. At some point it’s a profession. An average drummer is never going to be better unless you put [the session] into Pro Tools and then it’s going to sound like a computerized machine. I like editing but I don’t like to computer-homogenize everything.”
To optimize his workflow, Shirley has his Malibu configuration mirrored in his Sydney, Australia space and switches easily between the two. “I have them set up so that I can plug the hard drive into either [SSL Duality] console and get the same thing,” he explains. “And it’s all analog, not digital. I don’t mix in the box. What people don’t realize about recording on tape is that you always have to listen to what’s coming off of it and make adjustments, EQ-wise, depending on the results because there’s always a bit of tape compression or distortion.”
Currently Shirley’s booked through June, 2019. Bands on his slate include Inglorious, Iron Maiden and Cold Chisel. Shirley runs his “Mix With Caveman” workshop in Malibu regularly. Attendees range from newbies to seasoned professionals with dozens of records to their name.