The first time he ever saw AC/DC, Mike Fraser had no idea what band he was seeing. He'd gone to an Aerosmith show at the Pacific Coliseum back in '78 and showed up early enough to catch the warmup act.
"Usually you kinda miss the opening band," recalls Fraser from his home in Langley, "but we got there early, and I thought, 'Who is this AC/DC?', 'cause I'd never even heard of them. And then I remember Aerosmith getting on stage and they just sucked. Steven [Tyler] had that little tent off to the side he kept disappearing into.
"So that was the first time I'd heard AC/DC, and in retrospect now I'm like, 'Oh shit, I saw Bon [Scott] live and I didn't even appreciate it!"
Fast-forward some three-and-a-half decades or so and Fraser has a working relationship with the legendary Aussie earbusters that most in the recording biz would die for. He's been engineering and mixing their albums for 15 years, and has put his stamp on such studio discs as 1990's The Razor's Edge (the one with "Thunderstruck"), 1995's Ballbreaker, 2000's Stiff Upper Lip, and 2008's Black Ice, which has moved more than eight million copies. His latest efforts with AC/DC were laid out for all to see just yesterday (December 2) when Rock or Bust was released worldwide.
One of the reasons the new AC/DC album has generated so much interest and hype—apart from the fact that it follows the massively popular Black Ice—is that it's the first in the group's 41-year history to not feature the rhythm-guitar stylings of Malcolm Young, brother of lead-guitarist Angus. AC/DC's longtime fans were shocked to learn a few months back that the older Young was suffering from dementia and had been assigned to a nursing home. Looking back, Fraser sorta saw it coming.
"I think this all started happenin' around the time of Black Ice," he points out. "You could see a few telltale hints that something wasn't quite right. But we never knew—they're a pretty private band, so they keep things under wraps."
Young's place in the band was taken by his nephew, Stevie Young, who joined the group in Vancouver last spring to start laying down tracks. But neither Fraser nor producer Brendan O¹Brien—who had also helmed Black Ice—approached recording the altered lineup any differently than when the original rhythm ace was present.
"It was all the done the same," reveals Fraser, "just get out there and work through the songs, rehearse them a few times, and then blast it off live—adding little overdubs or fixups later. And that's kinda how we approach all the records with these guys.
"The biggest hole you could feel with Mal not bein' there," he adds, "is that any decisions were all on Angus's shoulders. So there was a lotta pressure on Angus on this record, because he and Mal had always worked together a lot."
At just 35 minutes, Rock or Bust is the shortest AC/DC album ever made, but Fraser doesn't feel that its brevity signals any lack of strong material.
"It's just a bit of a backlash to the 16-song CD era," he notes, "and tryin' to get it more like it would be on an LP. LPs are about that length, and that's what we were aimin' for. When you're done listening to the record it's almost like, 'Oh shit, I wish there was more!', so you're always putting it on again, and that's kinda the thought behind it."
Like Black Ice, Rock or Bust was recorded at the Warehouse, the Gastown studio owned by Bryan Adams. Fraser's first album with AC/DC, The Razor's Edge, was also recorded here, at the famed Little Mountain Sound.
"They really love Vancouver," he says, "that's the main reason they're here. They're partly here 'cause I'm here as well, but the Warehouse is just a class-A studio, with great analog gear. Obviously it ended up on ProTools, but we did it to tape first, and everything works. It's a fantastic facility."
Fraser's latest project is a relatively unknown Kelowna band called the Wild, so it isn't like he only does business with superstar acts. But his resume is packed with credits for the latter—everyone from Rush to Aerosmith to Guns N' Roses to Led Zeppelin—and when asked who he'd most love to work with he sticks with the biggies. His first choice is Black Sabbath, but he wouldn't mind doing Pink Floyd, either.
"Pink Floyd would have been a good one," he says, "but it looks like they've just released their last record, so scratch that one off the list."