An interview with
Steve Hoffman (2017)

By Beppe Colli
May 19, 2017

The four albums released by Spirit's original line-up - the ones that really count: Spirit and The Family That Plays Together, from 1968; Clear, from 1969; and Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus, from 1970 - have been re-released many times, starting with the vinyl editions on Epic from the early 70s, after Epic bought the Ode catalogue, Ode being the label that produced and released the group's first three albums.

There have been many vinyl and CD editions, stereo and mono, with variable results.

Recently, audiophile label Audio Fidelity announced they will re-release Spirit's first four albums in SACD format, which could prove to be the definitive word when it comes to Spirit.

So I decided to get in touch with ace remastering engineer Steve Hoffman, who's working on this.

The interview was conducted via e-mail.

(My first question deals with the group's second album, given the fact that - due to the proverbial "original tapes being lost", or so it was said at the time - all previous editions of The Family That Plays Together that I've listened to were explicitly said to be re-mixes, all sounding different to me.)

I know you are remastering Spirit's first four albums, of course I assume the original tapes were in good conditions. So we're talking about original analogue tapes, and original mixes for the group's second, The Family That Plays Together, right?

All original Ode analog mixes for the first three albums, Epic analog mixes for the fourth album, yes.

On the covers of my not-quite-original copies (all Epic from the early- to mid-70s), no recording studio is mentioned, so I'm curious to know where the albums were recorded, on what equipment.

Sound Recorders Studio on Yucca Street, in Hollywood. Not my favorite studio...

The production on the first album is quite elaborate, with vocal layers, strings and brass, and quite varied guitar timbres, some of which were original at the time. What's your take on the first album?

I liked it at the time, still do. Jazzy stuff with great songs.

Opening track Fresh Garbage sounds quite accessible and, in a way, could be regarded as being "commercial". Then it goes into a completely different mood, with a Wurlitzer piano solo. Do you think Spirit were "too subtle" to register on a mass level?

I think Spirit was a band that needed a strong leader to get them places, on tours, on radio interviews, etc. They didn't have a leader.

Second album The Family That Plays Together is in a way even more varied than the group's first, with more strings and brass. Did you get any surprises while listening to the original tapes?

No, the album really sounds like it was recorded in a practice room, charming sound and really great songs. The mixing is what it is, not how I would have done it but then I wasn't around then!

Until their fourth album, Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit definitely rocked but were seldom aggressive. So I'm curious to know if you ever had the opportunity to catch them "live".

I saw them live in 1971 at the Valley Music Center in Woodland Hills, CA. They basically did the entire Dr. Sardonicus album and blew us all away. Soon after they broke up, God knows why.

The group's main composers - Randy California and Jay Ferguson - had quite different writing styles, yet successfully contributed to each other's songs - here I'm thinking about Jay Ferguson's background vocals on I Got A Line On You and Randy California guitar fireworks on Aren't You Glad. In this respect, do you have any favourites?

I love all of their songs, a sincerely underrated band.

As it was... well, I wouldn't say it was common, but it was definitely not rare at the time, each member of Spirit had an individual signature sound. Is there anything special that struck you while you were listening to those tapes?

They were too laid back possibly for the time. They weren't an underground band but they were like Love, they were not disciplined enough. Too many Chiefs in the band, pulling in too many directions.

As a kid, I happened to hear the more "radio-friendly" portion of Spirit's catalogue "in real time" (i. e., at the time the original albums were released). I remember listening to Fresh Garbage, I Got A Line On You, Aren't You Glad, Give A Life, Take A Life, I'm Truckin', When I Touch You. However, at the time, the group's eclecticism kept me at arm's distance. Do you think today's audience could regard this as a virtue?

Possibly. I think today with the short attention span of most people a group like Spirit wouldn't even register with them, sadly.

I know you've finished working on the first two albums, with the other two titles to come in the near future. Is there anything you'd like to say as an introduction to the group's music, sound-wise?

Great playing and writing, but like Pet Sounds or Love's Forever Changes, the songs have to be paid attention to. This is not music to dust the tables with. One has to really pay attention. Hopefully these new releases will make it possible to do that. Having these albums with all the original mixes I grew up with as a kid will be a dream come true for me and hopefully others.

Beppe Colli 2017 | May 19, 2017