It was fate that brought the architect of modern Mexico and a 21-year-old kid from Santa Monica together to make music history. Storied producer and Juan Gabriel collaborator Ryan Ulyate first witnessed El Divo de Juárez in action in a Los Angeles studio in 1979, when he earned a promotion and became the first engineer on Recuerdos. The second volume of that album, which Ulyate mixed, remains Mexico’s best-selling LP of all time. Before that, Ulyate spent his days as the studio assistant engineer and gofer, going on coffee runs for the label’s high-profile clients. Amid nostalgic chuckles, Ulyate compares himself to Geoff Emerick, the British engineer who launched his career in London’s EMI Studios as a “tea boy” in his teens. Emerick ended up engineering four historic albums for a little band from Liverpool called The Beatles. “All of a sudden I started working with every Latin artist under the sun,” Ulyate says. “[The label] was like, ‘You know the album that you did with that Mexican singer? It’s number one in Mexico; it’s huge! It’s everywhere; it’s all over South America. Holy shit, that’s cool,” he laughs.
Like so many others who were graced by his presence, Ulyate speaks about Juan Gabriel with wide-eyed deference. “Alberto was this real character, man,” he recalls over the phone from his studio in Topanga, California. “He was this bigger-than-life guy; he always has been this bigger-than-life guy, and he certainly was then.” The engineer – whose credits also include canonic albums by Electric Light Orchestra and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – recorded, mixed, and produced some of Juanga’s most celebrated works. He collaborated with the debonair pop star for 10 years, crafting musical treasures like 1984’s Recuerdos II, 1986’s Pensamientos, the 1988 album Debo Hacerlo, and Isabel Pantoja’s Desde Andalucía. Following an eight-year copyright dispute with BMG, Juan Gabriel parted ways with Ulyate, though the two reunited to co-produce Juanga’s famed Bellas Artes live album.
Even though a language barrier marred the early stages of their working relationship, Ulyate insists that the lessons he learned from Juan Gabriel transcended the limits of the spoken word. Perhaps most importantly, Ulyate remembers watching Juanga reinvent mariachi in the studio, and recalls how his own love for 80s synth pop made its way onto Recuerdos. Here’s what Ulyate discovered about psychology, fame, and innovation while working with El Divo de Juárez.
On His First Impressions of Juan Gabriel
I really didn’t speak any Spanish. And Alberto didn’t really speak a lot of English, or if he did, at the time he wasn’t using it. [laughs] It was a trip because I got a chance to work with these guys, and they were so cool; they were so relaxed and nice.
We’d do the album [Recuerdos] and we’d take a break and we’d go to dinner or we’d go to lunch. We’d be sitting there and nobody would notice, and all the people in the restaurant, all the busboys and all the Hispanic people who were working [there], were just amazed. It was like Elvis walked in. It was just so hard for us to get that this guy was just such a big star, because he was just a fun guy; he wasn’t pompous. He was just cool.
On Juan Gabriel’s Mentorship and Therapeutic Production Style
I saw Alberto more as an artist-therapist. When he worked with Isabel Pantoja, they’d go in there and he’d sit there and say, “Wait, hang on. I gotta talk to her.” He’d go into the studio where she was doing vocals and they’d have these huge conversations. He knew exactly what to say to somebody to get them in a place to give a performance. He’d go out there and talk to her for half an hour. Sometimes it got emotional. He was just doing what he had to do to get her to really feel the song. For him, it was so much about [how] you had to be in the zone in terms of the feeling of the thing, or it just didn’t work. And that was what was so fun about working with him, especially working in Spanish, because the language we were speaking in the studio was music. Music either works and it has emotion or it doesn’t.
“He’s one of those guys who was born to do it, and he was the real thing.”
That’s something that’s a skill – to get the most out of artists. That’s what I’ve always tried to do as producer in my own work. You set the stage to where that person can give the best performance. Sometimes it’s a lot to ask of someone, to walk into some recording booth, record and just give it everything. There’s a level of psychology. You’ve gotta be that psychologist, and he was a master at that. Watching him work, I certainly learned a lot from him doing that.
On Why “Hasta Que Te Conocí” Was So Innovative
“Hasta Que Te Conocí” was one of my favorite ones, and I was very involved in the mixing of that one. It’s a great record. [Pensamientos] was a cool album because it was a hybrid; it was mariachi but it also had some electric elements to it.
Alberto [Valadez, Juanga’s birth name] would always come up with really interesting ideas for arrangements. He was always very hands-on. I remember on that one, he put the snare drums on the downbeat and the kick drums on the off beat.
And I said, “What’s with that beat?” And he goes, “That’s the mariachi drum beat.” And I’m like, “OK, he just invented the mariachi drum beat.” [laughs] Because there are no drums in mariachi.
[The guitarrón] is clunky sounding, and I didn’t like the way the bass sounded on [“Hasta Que Te Conocí”], so I said, “Look, I want to sample this bass.” This is back in ’87; I was into all this electronic stuff like The Art of Noise. So I sampled the bass and re-did it, and we got a really cool sound on the album. He was so good in terms of letting people go with it, letting me go with it. He didn’t hold onto things very tightly. If I was inspired and I was going to do something, he was going to let me run with it.
On That Time the Recording of “Hasta Que Te Conocí” Interrupted The Bee Gees
At one point [during] “Hasta Que Te Conocí,” it goes into this big, heavy instrumental thing at the end with the horns. I felt like it needed some big percussion to make it explode, so I rented a set of timbales and I just decided I was going to play the timbales in the echo chamber [of Los Angeles’ Ocean Way Recording Studio]. This is something that nobody does, because you normally set the sound of something through a speaker and then it gets picked up by the microphone, but I had the assistant engineer set me up in there with microphones. I got up there in the echo chamber and they played the tape back. The guy in the studio next to me comes running up the stairs going, “What is going on?!” I said, “Well I’m just doing some timbales.” He goes, “It’s on my record!” This guy was Albhy Galuten, The Bee Gees’ producer [laughs].
On Juan Gabriel’s Masterful Recording Style
He’d have people write horn charts, until I told him he could write the horn charts. He goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “We’ll get some horn players in and you just sing them the notes and I’ll record it.” So we got these great horn players, some of the top guys in LA – Jerry Hey and Gary Grant on trumpets and Dan Higgins and Kim Hutchcroft on sax.
We’d sit down, and he’d say, “OK I want a lick here.” Then we’d play the track along and I’d have a mic set up and he’d sing to the horn players. He’d know exactly where they were supposed to be and he’d come up with them off the top of his head. We’d work through the song, recording one lick at a time until we got to the end.
When you play the whole thing back, you think, “This guy’s just thinking about this off the top of his head. It’s not going to make sense.” But you play it back and it made perfect sense. That’s just another example of the kind of stuff he was capable of doing.
On the Power of Juan Gabriel’s Drive and Talent
He’s one of those guys who was born to do it, and he was the real thing. There’s a lot of people in this business who get there just by a lot of hard work. They might have a certain amount of talent, but they’ve got so much drive and those people can do well in the business. There’s certain people that have an amazing amount of talent but then they just don’t have the drive, and they kind of burn out, and they can have a certain amount of history. Then [there are] those people who have the drive and the talent. And he was a prime example of that.
Update, 9/1/2016, 10:18 a.m.: A previous version of this post misspelled Juan Gabriel’s surname. The post has been updated with the correct spelling.