A new documentary, ‘Under the Volcano’, tells the story of Beatles producer George Martin’s fabled recording studio on the island of Montserrat. Kevin E G Perry talks to Jimmy Buffett, one of the first artists to record there, about the trials and tribulations of making music in paradise
In 1978, American singer Jimmy Buffett was riding high on the success of louche beach bum anthem “Margaritaville” when he flew to London to mix his live album You Had to Be There at AIR Studios. There he was introduced to owner George Martin, the legendary producer and arranger known as the “fifth Beatle” for his influence on the band’s sound. Martin suspected he’d found a kindred spirit in Buffett, and began earnestly pitching him on his latest ambitious venture. He wanted to build a second base for AIR Studios on Montserrat, a volcanic island in the Caribbean he’d recently visited and fallen deeply in love with. Martin envisioned it as the ultimate rock star home-away-from-home: sun, sea, sand and the most impressive bespoke recording console that pioneering audio designer Rupert Neve could build him. “I just said: ‘You really don’t have to sell this to me, George!’” says Buffett with a laugh, speaking over the phone from northern California. “I can sail to work!”
AIR Studios Montserrat opened in 1979 and over the course of the next decade produced a string of hits to rival any studio on the planet. Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory”, Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” and Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” all came into the world beside the deep blue pool at Martin’s idyll. The Police included Montserrat locals in the video for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, taken from the Ghosts in the Machine album they recorded on the island.
Then, in 1989, disaster struck. First Hurricane Hugo tore through the studio, destroying buildings and most of the equipment. Then, in 1995, Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano erupted, displacing two-thirds of the island’s population and leaving the ruins of AIR in a mandatory exclusion zone in which it remains to this day.
The studio’s remarkable journey from dream to reality and then back to dream again is the subject of a new documentary, Under the Volcano, from director Gracie Otto. The rollicking film is stitched together from new interviews with key players and incredible archive footage which includes Paul McCartney’s home videos from the island and a bootlegged recording of Stevie Wonder playing an impromptu set at a local bar. Otto was also granted special permission to enter the exclusion zone to film the wreckage of the studio. “I found it quite eerie,” Otto tells me. “One side of the island is lush, beautiful and colourful, and then the other side is like the Pompeii of the Caribbean.”
The volcano was considered dormant when Buffett turned up in Montserrat with his Coral Reefer Band early in 1979. He arrived still hunting for a title for the record he planned to make there, and didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “The house we rented had this big picture window facing the volcano, so we sat there and wrote the song ‘Volcano’ looking out at it,” he remembers. The chorus goes: ‘I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the volcano blows.’ “At the time, people were going up and bathing in the sulphur mud baths,” points out Buffett. “It was never considered harmful, and then it blew!”
In 1997, Buffett was among the many musicians who came together at the Royal Albert Hall for George Martin’s Music for Montserrat benefit concert, which raised £1.5m to support the island’s rebuilding. “I said yes, of course I’ll come over, because the volcano erupting was something that really affected all of us,” he says. “Because of the studio, but more so because it buried Plymouth where we’d had such a wonderful time playing in the bars with local bands.”
For Buffett, a huge part of the appeal of recording on Montserrat was the opportunity to soak up the calypso-influenced musical culture of the island. After writing new songs, he and his band would take them down to a bar named Cafe La Capitain to jam with house group the Woop-Wap Band and test how they’d go down in front of a Caribbean audience. “Local musicians like the Woop-Wap Band and Jackie Dangler, who was a steel drummer who was running from the cops in Trinidad and living in the jungle, all made for the great feel of that album,” says Buffett.
Initially, however, AIR Studios manager Denny Bridges was against the idea of bringing in outside musicians to record. “We sparred a bit over that,” remembers Buffett. “Then we heard he was going out on a fishing trip. We went: ‘A-ha! When Denny’s off the island to go fishing, let’s get the Woop-Wap band in to play on “Volcano”.’ Our plan was to get them in, cut ’em and have them out before Denny got back. Well, once we got them cut, the rum started flowing and it became a listening party. Eventually Denny showed up at the studio and walked into the biggest party ever. He was red as a beet because they’d got lost at sea. I thought he was gonna blow up, but he just stormed out of the place. At least we’d got the Woop-Wap Band on the record by then!”
That wasn’t the only bone of contention Buffett had to pick with studio management. Another concerned the painfully slow service at the bar, where in-house rules demanded that every drink be recorded on an individual bill. This thorough accounting did not sit well with the mayor of Margaritaville. “We were a pretty festive bunch,” recalls Buffet with a chuckle. “Eventually I just said to Denny: I’ve got an idea that will be easier for you, easier for us, and a lot easier for the staff. What if I just bought the whole bar?”
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Buffett was beginning to realise that even on a sun-kissed island with its own state-of-the-art studio, things don’t always run smoothly. “There were just some things that they wanted to do by the book that I had a problem with,” he grumbles. “And then there was the dead cow incident which we had to deal with.”
I have to ask. “Well,” begins Buffett. “I had James Taylor and his brothers Alex and Huey down to do background vocals. They’re old friends of mine from a long time ago. Between the house we’d rented and the studio there was a beautiful little golf course. I was on my way to work, riding in my little Mini Moke [utility buggy] and I see a police car with people around it. The closer I get, I’m thinking: ‘I don’t know what this is, but I have a feeling it has something to do with us.’ I saw these gouged-out mud tracks going into the green of one of the holes, a banged up Moke and a dead cow. I went: ‘Yep, that’s got to be us!’ It turned out to be my dear friend Alex Taylor, who’s passed away now. He was a pretty spirited guy. He’d taken a wrong turn at night and run into a cow. I wound up making a deal with the owner and settling with the cops, then I had to clean up the mess of the dead cow and get Alex on a plane out of there!” Buffett sighs. “These things happen,” he says. “At the time they were serious. Now they’re humorous stories.”
It just goes to show the fragility of life. One careless moment on the road, one more cheeseburger in paradise. Buffett seems to have been surrounded with pretty spirited guys at this point in his life. Before arriving in Montserrat he’d been living in St Bart’s on his 48ft sailboat Euphoria II, having sublet his apartment in Key West to his friend, the gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson. “I remember regretting it when the phone bill came in,” laments Buffett. “I called him up and said: ‘You’ve got to pay this goddamn phone bill!’ He just said: ‘Well, that’s an eviction then’, moved out and never paid the bill.”
He may have been a lousy tenant, but Thompson made up for it in other ways. Buffett recalls the night they flew to New Orleans to see Muhammad Ali fight Leon Spinks, who had dethroned the world heavyweight champion in a shock upset in 1978; Ali won the rematch seven months later. After a celebratory night of hell-raising, Thompson summoned Buffett at 6.30 the next morning to go with him to Ali’s hotel room and watch the fight again. “Ali was doing play-by-play commentary of himself: ‘You got him there, champ!’” remembers Buffett. “It doesn’t get much better than that!”
Despite the antics he and his band got up to on Montserrat, Buffett insists they really were taking it all seriously. “Our songs are escapist, but we weren’t there to escape,” he says. “We went down there to do work that would reflect the kind of songs I was writing and the kind of life I was living on St Bart’s. We really felt it should be recorded in the same environment, so that’s why I was so glad and so lucky that George put that studio down there. We came out with what I still think is one of our best records.”
He points out happily that several songs recorded at AIR Montserrat, including “Volcano” and perpetual fan favourite “Fins”, remain highlights of his boisterous live show to this day. “Those are songs that had been incubated in the Cafe La Capitan and then recorded in George’s studio when we were in that festive mood, and that really appealed to our audience,” says Buffet. “Those songs became major parts of the set that we still play to this day. That all came out of Montserrat. That was the great gift.”
‘Under the Volcano’ is available now on digital, Blu-ray and DVD