Even if you don’t know Boston, you’ve heard them. The group’s hits, like the transcendent “More Than a Feeling,” right on down to “Peace of Mind” or “Amanda,” have remained staples of rock radio for nearly half a century (the group’s self-titled debut turned 40 last year) thanks to, among other things, their impeccable craftsmanship. To talk about Boston is to talk about Tom Scholz, who’s been the literal architect and driving force behind the group since its inception. Currently in the middle of Boston’s Hyperspace Tour with Joan Jett, Scholz sat down with PEOPLE to talk about that incredible debut, the current tour and why, exactly, he hates digital music so, so much.
Boston was famously recorded in Scholz’s basement, in a home studio the MIT grad cobbled together himself. “The idea of making a recording at home was unusual because when I first started writing and trying to record my ideas, the recording process was extremely expensive,” he explains. “It would cost in late ’60s and early ’70s dollars $500 a song for a decent multi-track recording, and that was only eight tracks. That was a month’s salary for a lot of people. It also put you in a position where creativity was curtailed — you had people hanging around the studio, technicians. I found that I really had to get away from all that if I was going to be free. I had to get away from the other people in the studio, I had to get away from the studio time clock, and I actually also had to get away from all the other musicians. I tried it that way and I was never happy with the results.”
Fortunately, Scholz was uniquely equipped to take on the challenge of home recording. He’d been playing classical piano since he was a kid, and was employed as an engineer at Polaroid before becoming a full-time musician. “Finally in 1974, I spent literally my last dollar and all the money I could borrow and built, out of crude, obsolete, used equipment, a studio capable of making an actual record master. Using that, I, on my own (with the help of a drummer) recorded all of the instrument tracks and went looking for a singer. Fortunately I found Brad Delp, who did an excellent job interpreting the songs, and made these recordings from the ground up, one track at a time, in the basement of my apartment house.”
That debut — one of the best-selling of all time — was the product of an elaborate end-run around the record label. “After the deal was made, CBS wanted a real producer to make the record in a real studio, and I knew that wasn’t gonna happen.” Scholz essentially re-tracked the record in the same basement that he’d cut the demos in, running cables out to a mobile board to get the masters, all while reassuring the label through an intermediary that he was in fact working in a “real” studio. “They never knew that the record was all recording over again in the same studio where I’d done the original demos,” he laughs now. The final record and the demos, as a testament to Scholz’s skill with his basement set-up, are virtually identical. Delp’s sky-high vocals were the only thing that weren’t tracked in the basement.
Scholz’s restless innovation extended to the stage, where he conceived of a live show that would not only accurately reproduce, but improve upon, the guitar and vocal symphonies he’d put together for the record. “Honestly it took about 30 years,” he confesses. “I had two goals: One was to reproduce all of the parts that people would recognize in the songs that they liked. Number two was to always take it a step further — take the arrangements a step further, take the idea of a show a step further; having a real concert. And at this point there’s six people onstage; it’s sort of a technical nightmare. But my intent was to do something nobody had ever heard in the studio before, and then do it live.”
“All of the equipment you see at a Boston show was either invented or designed by me and a company I had for a while or is equipment that we modified very specifically for the task,” Scholz explains. “So we’re able, with six people, to very accurately reproduced the albums. All six people sing and all six people play very well. Live, we are probably the only major act that doesn’t play with a digital system. Everything, including the mixing board, is analog.”
Analog vs. digital is a particularly sore point for Scholz, as is the current state of the home recording movement he’s a spiritual forefather of. “I know that I will be angering millions of people who have their laptop and just record through the microphone directly into the laptop and think that they’re making home recordings that are worth something, but I have nothing good to say about digital recording and especially when it comes to audio quality. That whole transition [from analog to digital] kind of left me cold,” he says genially (Scholz never sounds like anything other than a very enthusiastic college professor and laughs frequently throughout our conversation, even when saying things like the following). “Digital audio really sucks. There are really good technical reasons why its sucks. It’s improved a little on the professional level, but the delivery system, which is all the consumer cares about, has gotten worse. But people can be sold anything, and they have been.”
And even 40+ years into his career as a musician, Scholz refuses to phone in a single aspect of his life’s work. “There’s something new on every tour,” he says. “There’s nothing that’s pre-recorded. There’s always a lot of new music — extended arrangements for songs, segues between songs — I try to do several new things every year, and there’s a great deal of that this year. For example, there’s a duel between a guitar and the bass — which are invisible, they only light up when they’re being played — which culminates in a huge lightning bolt that travels around the stage and explodes on the screen.”
Nor does his passion stop at music. A committed vegetarian, Scholz uses Boston’s tours to support a variety of charities. “We are collecting money for Sea Shepherds and Mercy for Animals both. All the tours generate income that gets funneled every year into a long list of charities. My goal has been to try to get people aware of behind the scenes with millions of animals every second of every day in absolutely torturous conditions. I’m a vegetarian, as is Joan Jett, which is one of the reasons we’re going out on the road together. I became a vegetarian for strictly ethical reasons; I realized it wasn’t necessarily to include animals in my diet. I was shocked to find out later that it’s a healthier way to live and your lifespan increases by a number of years.”
And then Scholz does something I never would have expected from a genius guitar virtuoso, home-recording pioneer and animal-rights activist: He cracks a dad joke. “That’s something to chew on, if you’re going to have a steak tonight.”