Gordon Driver / Exile Records Interview

posted in: Articles, February 2015 | 1

For several years, I have sought out information on one of my favorite bands from the 80s. The Imitators only put out two albums on Exile Records, an eponymous 4-song EP and Once And For All, a full-length album. They were very impactful on me and my walk through life. Just this month, I finally got in touch with Gordon Driver, the producer and sound engineer with Exile Records, and also its owner. I was very excited, and asked Gordon if I might interview him for Down the Line magazine. The story of Exile Records proved to me to be a very enlightening conversation about The Imitators and the Christian music industry in the 1980s. The interview travelled beyond the bounds of what I expected. Gordon had some interesting things to say about people’s individual walk with God. Gordon was able to leave the confines of The Imitators in specific and garner more of a story about Exile Records, Gordon Driver’s personal experiences, and the 80s recording industry. He also spoke about why The Imitators and other Exile bands were controversial for the time.

Gordon, can you offer a history of how The Imitators started?

At the time I was working for Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, and was producing records for Maranatha Music and also my own label called Exile Records. I mixed many of the live Saturday night concerts from Calvary Chapel for radio broadcast. There are many live tapes of bands like The Choir, The 77s, The Imitators, Undercover, Daniel Amos, The Fourth Watch still locked away at Calvary that I mixed. I found that in the way I produced and engineered music wasn’t well received by regular Christian sources. One comment I would hear is, ‘your work just sounds too secular.’ And I never understood that comment. How can a mix sound too secular?

My albums that I produced on Exile Records were all well-received by Billboard Magazine, and were well-reviewed by Billboard. So, I found myself caught between a rock and a hard place. I felt that I needed to focus on music that I felt had a little more edge to it and that would speak outside the church, and not be concerned so much speaking to people with music they were already listening to. I also did a radio show on KYMS in Southern California called ‘The Edge’. I would feature a lot of music featured on the website and cutting-edge type music. I played, back then in the 80s, I’d be playing U2, The Alarm, Bruce Cockburn and stuff like that. It also did very well because people would be confused. We were on for 3 hours on Saturday night. And they would confuse it with a secular rock station.

Back then, when people had analogue tuners in their car, they would float between stations and the main rock station in L.A. It became an interesting experiment with The Imitators for those looking for bands that had that same concept of cutting edge music. And they (The Imitators) were controversial too, because some of the lyrics were regarded in the Christian community as being very much commercial. I wasn’t worried about that. I thought that they were speaking the truth, and the truth is what matters. So I wanted to promote the band.

At first we started with a 4-song EP to see how well that would be received. At the same time I was building a recording studio, and you’ll notice a difference between the EP and the album, because I’d acquired a studio with all the best equipment in it. The Neve console was very punchy. That was with Calvary Chapel actually, and we used their equipment to record the second album. That album was very well received by Billboard Magazine, because they thought the mixes were sounding very clean and very professional and they liked that. At the time, I was using anything I could to push music to more of a professional sound.

I engineered a couple of songs with Leslie Phillips. I did those recordings with a very raw sound to them. It’s interesting from the whole perspective. The Imitators were coming together. I found them, I worked with them and I liked their attitude.

That’s interesting what you mention about the difference between the EP and Once And For All. There does seem a change between the two albums, not in message, yet definitely in direction. Is that fair to say?

Yeah. It was a definite change in direction and experimentation back then. In the 80s you had the U2 sound, which was recorded in castles and used the reverb of the castle, and you also had The Police, which is very clean and recorded on a Neve mixing console. So, I was looking for a mixture of both in recording The Imitators. So actually I did when we recorded the drums, we recorded the drums without toms. All we did was snare and drums and cymbals. Then we went back and recorded all the fills on the toms separately. The reason why is because you get what is called ‘phasing’ through the microphones and on the drum kit, and though you may not hear it, it affects the sound of the drums. We wanted to record drums that way, and that’s how we got the drum sounds on Once And For All. It came out clean and punchy, and that’s what we liked about that.

Can we talk a little about the members of The Imitators? I know the drummer, Richard Cabrera, has sadly passed on. Are the other members still in contact with you and each other?

They are very much in contact with each other, and they would very much like to get back together. Barry Edge is the pastor of a church now and I feel he is itching to do something again. What occurred after the Once And For All album is there was another manager who took over managing the group. I didn’t manage the group but I did the album work. The other manager said, ‘I want you to leave Exile Records and take you somewhere new.’ So they left my company and they went on their own with that manager. They went from California to the East Coast and did some recording and had a hard time.

Do you know if the recordings following Exile still exist?

I know they remixed Once And For All, and I don’t know what happened to those tapes. I don’t know if they did any other recordings or not. You can get it from them, but they had a very difficult time.

Is there a possibility that you might produce a future album with them?

I love those guys. I thought they were incredible, and the songwriting by Barry was extremely talented. If they ever wanted to talk about it, I’d be willing to talk about it. We have had some communication over the last year back and forth. Nothing’s really gone anywhere with it yet.

I thought The Imitators was a very impressive and unique band, and I’ve talked to others who were familiar with the albums. Do you feel there was an issue there with The Imitators possibly not recognizing the impact they had?

Well, back then the sales of albums weren’t as strong as they are today, perhaps. Back then there weren’t downloads like there are with iTunes. Everything was still vinyl and cassette tape. So, sales-wise, they were distributed by Lexicon/Word records, but that was not anything of a commercial level. I thought the album was very commercial and could have been picked up by a regular label, but that never happened. Today, if they could pull off what they did back then and have the same songwriting, I think they could be a very commercially viable band. If they were interested in doing it again.

A follow-up to Once And For All could be great. Personally, I rate the album as one of the best to come out of the era.

You know, it’s interesting that you wanted to do this interview, because there’s another group from Exile Records called The Fourth Watch which was Bill Walden’s group after Undercover. Recently the album has been gaining popularity in Orange County for some reason, and it’s developed an attraction. For some reason in the past few weeks, The Fourth Watch album has gained a lot of attention.

What artists were in the Exile Records catalogue?

Well, we had The Imitators, we had another group called Modern Mission.

I remember Modern Mission very well. I just had them on my player last month.

And then we had an album with John Mehler, The Fourth Watch, and then The Imitators {insert: 911 as well).

Can we talk a bit about Modern Mission? I thought they were an interesting group as well.

Same thing. I was trying to push these bands to be edgier, and Modern Mission, I remember producing that record. At the same time, Bryan Adams was big. I loved the way Bryan Adams sounded in terms of guitars and drums, and so I used that influence on Modern Mission in terms of their music. A lot of music that we produced for Exile Records was driven by passion, and not so much technology. That’s the reason for the catalogue being like that. It’s a very passionate catalogue. It’s a moment of time that occurred back then that was very emotional and like a message to the world, saying, “We’re just the same as you. We’re Christians, but we’re the same as you, except that we have hope.” And that really was the message from Exile Records and in general from the artists.

I can think of specific songs that really stick in head from The Imitators, getting back to them. “Paradoxical Faith” from the EP which I could say spoke directly to me. “Once And For All” is a song that’s really powerful and heartfelt. Modern Mission’s song, “Magazine” is another great one. Do you have any personal favorite songs from the Exile catalogue?

I have some favorite songs from each artist that I lean on in particular, and most of the songs that really grabbed my attention when I first heard them perform live, and I thought, ‘This is great, because it’s about a Christian really doubting themselves and doubting their relationship with God, and he’s being honest.’ That grabbed my attention, and I wanted to reinforce that. Because that can relate to somebody that’s having a difficult time with their relationship with God. It was controversial because Christian radio didn’t want to hear that stuff. Christian radio back then liked ‘Love. Dove. Above.’ lyrics. And I was saying, “No. I think we need to address personal relationships with God here.”

“Sometimes” is a great song. “Children Of The Lie” I love, but it was very controversial. It’s about a boy and a girl in the back of a car, and they’re going at each other and they’re justifying what they’re doing and pretend to have a relationship with God. You know, they’re children of the lie. That’s another very truthful statement that wouldn’t sit very well with Christian radio. It grabbed some attention.

Billboard Magazine talked about it as very controversial in terms of a lyric. But, I don’t think we should be afraid to talk about the truth. Certainly, the Bible’s not afraid to talk about the truth and exposing people’s real warts, you know?

A lot of the things I tried to bring out in the records were based on an early conversation I had with Bruce Cockburn. He said, ‘You know, I don’t believe anyone’s a complete Christian until they’re a dead one.’ I had to think about that for a while, and I thought, ‘You know, you’re right. We’re always trying to perfect ourselves, but we’re not perfected until we die.’ We all have struggles and we all wrestle with things, but God is there to give us second chances. As long as we desire to seek God, we can improve our lives. If you decide that you don’t want to seek God anymore, it’s very hard for me to watch that.

Having tasted the love of God and to turn away from it is a very hard thing to see. Going back to music, there are a lot of people out there who are very marginal Christians, where they’ve heard the Gospel and they understand there’s a relationship with God that you can have, but they have all this baggage in the past, whether they’ve done drugs or gotten into trouble. They feel they can never be perfected. They can never have that relationship with God, but that’s not the way it works. God accepts you as you are right now with all your warts. That’s the message I want to get out, because there are so many more people who are like that then there are in the church. Those are the people you want to reach.

I left Exile Records and moved to Hollywood to work with Humberto Gatica who engineered and produced some of the Chicago albums. He taught me about production, engineering, and really high-quality work. It took my career in a whole new direction in terms of film and audio production. I became a protégé to the film director, Sydney Pollack for 12 years. Later in a movie called Random Hearts, starring Harrison Ford, I produced and engineered a song for the film at Capitol Records studios in Hollywood using the Elton John band, but I had Darrell Mansfield singing.

Back to Exile Records and favorite songs “Children Of The Lie,” “Sometimes,” and “Once And For All” is in itself an incredible song. Fourth Watch’s “One Truth” is a great song and “Dare To Be One” is another great song. Modern Mission had a song on their album which I thought was a major hit, and it never really went anywhere. “Magazine” was a great song, but there was another song, “Never Let Me Go,” on that album that I really liked. Unfortunately, radio didn’t pick it up. The song was kind of timeless, and it could be used today. That again had more of a Bryan Adams feel to it as well. John Mehler’s Back In Love album, again, very edgy, rock & roll stuff, and departure from his Love Song days. That was a lot of fun too.

Do you think there’s a future for Exile Records, if for example, both The Imitators and Modern Mission came back and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to work with you again and produce some music’?

It all starts with a song. If the songs are there, then you have something to work with, but the songs have to be there. There are so many things a song has to do before it can go on a record. If The Imitators came to me with a catalogue of songs and said to me, ‘Okay, we need to pick out 12 songs out of these 40 songs’ and if I could find 12 songs I thought were strong enough, then of course I’d be interested in pursuing that. That’s the bottom line in Christian music or secular music, or film or anything like that. In music, it’s the song. In film, it’s the story. Before anything is considered in film, you have to have a story first. The song is critical. The same thing with Modern Mission. Before anything, the song has to be in place. I don’t know if there’s an audience for it. That’s the other thing. You can record an album, but there may not be an audience for it anymore. Back in the 80s, there was, but I don’t know if there is today. There might be 500 people who would enjoy it today. I don’t know if there would be 100,000 people that would enjoy it, so that’s a question to find out.

The advantage of the internet, though, is that you can develop a following, on YouTube for example, and have it go viral. If something was posted to YouTube and it went viral, that would be justification to record an album. It’s a balancing act of great songs and whether the audience wants it or not.

If you don’t mind saying and you might recall, what were the sales numbers for The Imitators and Modern Mission or other Exile bands?

They were reasonable, back then. It wasn’t as good as Daniel Amos. Daniel Amos started out with Maranatha Music, so they started out with more of a commercial following with a country-rock thing. We came out with our edginess right off the bat and were not commercial. That’s the difference between the two bands, and I love Daniel Amos and I know those guys well. I don’t know if there’s an audience anymore for it. It’s definitely a moment in time.

I know there’s an interest in music in general, and if that were to develop some momentum I’m sure a lot of this stuff would come out of the woodwork. Sales-wise, The Imitators definitely got a lot of attention. Maybe not record sales, but they definitely got a lot of radio airplay. I remember that. Because the songs were controversial, I remember hearing comments about it. ‘Why did you play the song about people doubting their relationship with God?’ On Christian radio, that was a pretty radical thing back then. It intrigued people. Plus, I had my regular show on Saturday nights for 3 hours, and I was able to play things like that and give it exposure, and I’d been playing The 77s and Daniel Amos and other stuff as well as Exile Records and it really developed some momentum in an audience of younger listeners that weren’t mainstream Christianity, but they wanted a relationship with God. So, that’s why we called the radio show The Edge.

Would you mind speculating on the direction of The Imitators and what a third album for Exile Records might have been?

Yes, they had lots of other songs, and I felt they were progressing nicely. I felt that they were maturing quite rapidly. You heard the first 4-song EP, and you saw rapid growth between the EP and Once And For All. The third album I think would have been huge, and until they made the wrong turn, the songs were probably out there. I heard some of them, and I know that Barry Edge is an incredibly talented songwriter and had an arsenal of songs. There just needs to be an audience.

Thank you Gordon for this interview. It’s been very enlightening into a time period and the bands from Exile Records and The Imitators. I’d like to give you a chance to have a last comment for the Down the Line readers. Anything you’d like to say?

It’s exciting to see people are still interested in this music, and I’d like to encourage anyone who is getting into music to use a lot of the same tools that these guys did in terms of a message. To pursue music with a passion, and be less concerned with the technology and more concerned with the story, the song, and the passion. That’s the emotional contact with the audience. It’s the longevity of any group. I’m always looking for that; even today. If I found someone that I was interested in working with, then I would jump at the opportunity to do that. Everything has to be in place. Great songs, good distribution for the record, and an audience that wants to buy it. For you guys that are coming up, to have that in your hearts. Wanting to tell the truth. The truth is what will hold you, and will make your song last forever.

  1. I as researching Exile and found your interview. I wonder if there is ever any hope of him getting these albums up on Spotify. I was a fan of 911.. they were mainstay in our Las Vegas area and even charted in southern Cali with their song “Where are you now”. Many people dont know singer Cathy Denman of that band is cousin to George Clooney and great niece to the Legendary Rosemary Clooney. TBone Denman, the leader of the band went on to do music for sports & TV networks etc their album “Time will tell” is such a great album.

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