How Bambi Lee Savage Broke Down the Studio Boys’ Club and Worked on One of the Nineties’ Biggest Albums
Back in 1988, Shannon Strong was a scrappy young Denver punk musician playing in a band called the Pagan Cowboys while dreaming of something else. Inspired by the magazine ads of Neve recording consoles she taped on her bedroom wall as a kid and the flashing buttons at the fingertips of Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, she wanted to be behind the recording desk as well as in front of it.
She fled the shackles of Reagan’s America first for London, then, after witnessing a “mindblowing” Einstürzende Neubauten gig, decided to explore Berlin. Within a few years, she would reinvent herself as as a singer-songwriter named Bambi Lee Savage, but first, she bluffed her way into a job as the only female audio engineer at the legendary Hansa Studios — where Bowie had recorded his Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger), Iggy Pop had cut The Idiot and Lust for Life, and the Birthday Party made Mutiny! Over two years at Hansa, she worked on classic album with U2 (including 1991’s landmark Achtung Baby), Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Australian singer-songwriter Anita Lane, launching herself into audio engineering despite a lack of female role models to inspire her. Savage’s contributions have never been fully recognized, though Bono righted the record to some degree in his recent memoir Surrender, noting she was “a Colorado girl who loved the avant garde” with a “brilliant ear and explorer’s instinct.”
But by the end of the intense and tumultuous sessions for Achtung Baby, Savage knew her true calling was as a songwriter and performer. Bono urged Savage to record with the Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey producing; he even funded the studio time, which resulted in her 2003 debut album, Matter of Time. Savage then turned left and self-produced the bold feminist concept album, GJ and the PimpKillers, a sex exploitation revenge fantasy that featured Josh Klinghoffer of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and later reunited with Harvey for the moody noir of 2012’s Darkness Overshadowed.
Savage moved cities often and lived between Los Angeles and Nashville while making 2019’s Berlin Nashville Express, which fused the tightrope she’d always walked between her punk-rock sensibilities and her love of old-school country. “I’m not going to go into detail, but I really thought I was gonna die while I was working on this last record,” she says. “Because so many of those songs I wrote in my twenties, I needed to get this thing off my plate. So, I said, ‘Lord, if you’ll let me finish this record, I promise the next one will be for you.’”
Inspired by the “frustrations of these last few Trump years and this co-opting of Jesus by, you know, gun-toting capital punishment supporters,” Savage is determined to record a gospel album this year. She hopes to “show people there are honest ways to deal with your faith and the struggles of believing. You don’t have to always pretend everything’s great.” She has further plans for another Americana record, as well.
But before she gets to that, Savage gave her first-ever extended interview on how she found herself working behind the scenes with some of the most influential bands of the Nineties — and why she had to reinvent herself.
Do you remember the first time that you took note of Hansa Studios?
I was addicted to reading album credits back in the day. So, it would have been David Bowie’s Low and then Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust for Life. The Bad Seeds did some stuff there too. I was really familiar with the big studios, Abbey Road, Trident, Air, all of that, and there was a sense of mystery and sort of a hidden glamour — like, “how could this great stuff be coming out of there and there not be some magic there?” I had always been very attracted to the mystery of engineering. When I would see pictures of mixing consoles, I started just really getting into it. Hansa was also where I first saw the name “Flood,” the engineer, and was very intrigued. You know, who is this guy? He’s doing great work.
Did you ever imagine yourself being a musician or engineer?
I was always traveling a parallel path. It was, I’m a musician. I write songs, but I love engineering. So, I would have Jimmy Page and Keith Richards and George Harrison pictures on the wall right next to my Neve console pictures from magazines. And then there was Lieutenant Uhura, who made me love the idea of sitting at a console with flashing buttons. It really wasn’t until later that I put two and two together and figured out that she had been my role model for audio engineering. It wasn’t conscious — much later I was like, “Oh, for crying out loud, yeah, that’s what it was.”
So how did you end up at Hansa?
Some friends and I went to see Einstürzende Neubauten at the Kilburn National Ballroom [in London], and we had all split up just a smidgen of acid. Just enough to enhance everything, but not like crazy over the top. But even without the help, my mind would have been blown. And I thought, “OK, if this is coming out of Berlin, I’ve got to see what’s going on there.” So then I just had to figure out how I was gonna get there. And a friend of mine in the band that I was sort of playing in still said he had a friend of a friend of a friend with a floor for me to sleep on for a couple of nights — a total stranger. And by the way, he said, while you’re out there, you really should send a letter to Hansa. I thought, damn, that’s a good idea. So, we knew somebody with a recording studio and decided to sort of fabricate my experience a little bit there, pad my resume by hanging out at that studio for a week or two and calling it experience. I wrote a letter to Hansa on blue paper because I wanted it to stand out.
What was in the letter?
I said I’m currently in London, I’ve been I’ve been working in a little 16-track studio here for a while, and I’ve decided to relocate to your fine city. I’m, I’m not fluent. But I can speak a little German, and I gave three examples. Mach schnell, which means Hurry up. When I studied engineering, one of the first things they taught us was “Time is money!’ It’s really important in the studio to just be quick. And then Zwei Bier, bitte, two beers, please. And then my third example was Strecken sie geifer, well, I didn’t know what it meant, did I? But it was a standout line in the record I was obsessed with at the time, which was Neubauten’s Fünf auf der nach oben offenen Richterskala (Five on the Open-Ended Richter Scale).
So those were the three examples, and I sent my letter off. And then I got to Berlin, and I waited a few days to make sure the letter had a chance to arrive. And in the meantime, I was taking in Berlin, going out at night, walking around all day, just trying to piece it all together and learn. And one day, I saw this very familiar figure. He was just leaning against a car smoking a cigarette, you know, some cool Berlin guy. I said, “Excuse me, what’s your name?” And he said, “Blixa.” And I’m like, “No way! Blixa Bargeld [from Einstürzende Neubauten]?” I knew he spoke English. And I said, “I’m just curious: What does Strecken sie geifer mean?” And he started to describe, “Well, this is like when like an old hag pulls up phlegm from her throat, almost from her stomach.” I’m not sure what I expected, but certainly not that!
So, I went to Hansa and as soon as I introduced myself, the woman at the reception said, “Oh, the blue paper!” and let me in. The studio manager said they’d gotten my letter and would love to hire me. I was completely stunned. I had to keep my cool. When he told me how much they were gonna pay me, I thought, “Wow, and they’re gonna pay me too!” I mean, you would hear stories in London, where people would sweep the floor for free, just to be in a studio. And here I was at this historic, monumental studio in the history of rock & roll.
So they presumably hired you because they thought you were hilarious. What was your first day like there?
I was nervous as hell, I can tell you that, because I thought they’re gonna figure out that I don’t have that much experience. My first day was tearing down the Neubauten session that had finished the day before in the famous Studio 2, The Hall. I missed them by one day! There were all these crazy instruments — things they had built, and just, you know, strange canisters, big barrels with holes in them for putting microphones in and all this stuff that had to be broken down and stored in a facility. Then in the control room I found a crumpled-up piece of paper by the rubbish bin. And I couldn’t help it. I had to open it up and look. It was lyrics from one of the songs they were working on. I still have it somewhere.
What a treasure.
A fantastic treasure souvenir of my first day there. There are little things that feel so fateful. And that certainly was one of them. And then I believe, my second day, I shadowed another assistant who was working with Edu Meyer, an engineer on David Bowie’s Low, on a theater production that David Byrne was doing the music for. There was an orchestra going on in one studio, and we were editing quarter-inch tape in another studio trying to do — I mean, just really strange stuff with kind of abstract timing. It was an interesting, difficult baptism. And I loved it.
The other assistants kind of figured out that I didn’t have any major recording studio experience, but they were very encouraging, very fun. And, you know, the hours were crazy long. I remember one of them saying, “It’s not a job, it’s a way of life” — and I think that’s true.
Yes, studios are really relentless. Time is ticking. It’s stressful for a lot of people.
Oh yeah — and you never know what you’re gonna get. But you have to try to be a good and supportive presence. I remember one time when I had the great pleasure of assisting the studio manager, Tom Mueller, who had been an engineer himself, on a project where the vocals were really not that good. And he knew that I was kind of critiquing the vocal style. But then there would be this little thing that this guy sang, and Tom said, “Oh, this reminds me of Marilyn Monroe, I love that.” He told me, “Girl, you need to always find something to enjoy — something, however small it may be, to hold on to, to enjoy, and to motivate you.” It was great life advice. I’m still trying to do that.
So working with Edu must have blown your mind, being such a Low fan. Were you a little intimidated? What was he like?
Very funny. Very easygoing. Just a really kind of fascinating, funny, big personality but low-key. But yeah, he did kind of traumatize me with sort of spontaneous physics lessons and math lessons. He made me a diagram of the parabolic equation, which I recently posted to Instagram.
What would an engineer in Berlin normally be expected to know? That kind of stuff?
In the olden days? Yes. And Edu was a good deal older than me. He would have come from that very serious Ausbildung [apprenticeship]. Because I learned engineering on the go in Germany, there are things I still don’t know the English for. But the process there of getting the degree meant you had to learn music theory. You had to learn the physics of sound. You had to play an instrument and learn arranging, and it was a very full on multifaceted degree.
So a young upstart like me comes along, with pretty minimal experience and even my degree, compared to what they had, was pathetic, you know. It must have been a little bit annoying. That said, the requirements for the position had definitely eased by that time.
Did you encounter any kind of resentment?
Oh, yeah. [One member of the staff], he and I were just — I can’t even tell you, it was really bad. He was really, really old school. I was the one person that he would not use the familiar [German] form of “you” with. He insisted I always use the formal, which meant — and this turned out to be to my good fortune — I had to learn the grammar with the formal, which is completely different from the informal. So if he hadn’t insisted on that, I probably would have ended up being a little less fluent than I was in the end, so there’s a silver lining.
Do you think it was because of your lack of experience?
It was because I was a woman. I have it on good authority.
Were there any other women working there?
There were a couple of women doing the business side of things. But no, not technically. I don’t even know when the first time I finally met a woman doing this kind of work was. But you know, I didn’t let it stop me. And for the most part I felt very accepted.
You worked with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds quite early on too, didn’t you?
The Bad Seeds arrived, let’s see, I think it was spring of ‘89. Victor van Vugt was the engineer and producer and such a great guy, low-key, calm. And on that job, man, I was just psyched to be in the room. And I was grateful in a way that there wasn’t that much for me to do. Victor set up his own microphones. He did all the work at the console. I just changed the reels. I documented things. I fetched coffee. Nick took three sugars — I hope he’s cut back by now! Nick was very funny. When I’d bring him his coffee, he’d say, “Did you stir it?” One time, I didn’t stir it! I never forgot to stir it again. They were very relaxed sessions and very playful.
They wouldn’t have had a reputation as being playful then, would they?
No! I heard stories that there had been a previous session where, you know, when Nick was in terrible shape, where there were needles and bullet holes in the bathroom. So yeah, they had a reputation, but honestly, he was in fine form.
What were they recording?
They were recording demos for The Good Son. The songs were basically already there. Everybody knew what they were doing for the most part, so it was just a matter of recording some basic tracks. A lot of overdubs. It was an easygoing session, and really a chance to just observe in a relaxed atmosphere. And I was really impressed by Mick Harvey. He asked if we had a little miniature keyboard thing, and I found one and plugged it in for him and what he was able to do on that was phenomenal
– he just came up with beautiful string parts on this little synth we had. He and Victor would work late and do this extra stuff after the rest of the band left. Watching Mick Harvey, you know, in close quarters like that, doing his magic, I was just in awe and also he’s so funny. I was living the dream!
Did you forge a bit of a friendship during those sessions?
Yeah, we did. I definitely hit it off with Mick more than anyone else, partly because he was working later. Mick and I got along so well that he asked me to engineer a few songs for Anita Lane’s Dirty Pearl. I think the following year, she came in and worked in the same studio, that was Studio Three, and she was the first person of note that I ever got to engineer. I’ll always be grateful to Mick for that exciting step up for me. Also, he really helped me — I mean, he’s not just a great musician and arranger, he’s also really good technically. He would know what reverb to dial in on the PCM 70 for a good vocal reverb for this song or that one. He really showed me around a few things.
Did they record everything to tape live?
Nick would generally go in and put down a basic guide track with a piano and vocals. And he would always give it everything. He’s full-on drama at the piano. The mood was great and the ambience was wonderful. And even as a kind of a relative newcomer to the recording world, it was obvious these guys knew what they were doing. Thomas [Wydler, the Bad Seeds’ drummer] could go and put down an awesome drum track on top of a guide piano; most people can’t do that. It was just amazing music.
When I heard The Good Son, I thought it was the tracks that they recorded with us at Hansa, that they went to Brazil and they just overdubbed some vocals and strings. And then they never credited what was recorded at Hansa. But Mick Harvey recently told me that they actually did rerecord everything in Brazil. They only did the demos at Hansa, which sounded virtually identical to what they ended up releasing, but they put it all down new, just played it all again and it was made in Brazil, more or less.
U2 were another band that you worked closely with there. In Bono’s recent memoir, he describes a day that was “a bit grim,” where Flood suggested they get naked to record to loosen things up, so they did, apart from some strategically placed gaffer tape. He says “the audio engineer Shannon Strong revealed that under her oil rig uniform of black military shirt and cargo pants she was wearing some vivacious red lingerie”!
As a woman in a recording studio in a man’s world, my policy in the studio was always to dress unprovocatively — I never wanted to be a distraction. But underneath I still liked to feel feminine, and I will admit, I did have some outlandish lingerie. That is true! But I was told that Larry [Mullen Jr.] is the one who kind of judges from a distance for a bit to see if somebody’s all right. And if he’s got a bad feeling about somebody, they will not stay on a session, so apparently he had sort of deemed me all right. A big part of being an assistant, and especially in a session like that, is discretion. Things were said and done that I never thought anybody would ever repeat. Anything crazy that Flood might have come up with, Bono would have been the first to jump on board. I’m not gonna say anything else.
So did getting naked work for them?
Well, it definitely lightened the mood! At Hansa, I was really documenting everything as ideas were evolving. And it was all just being recorded on a DAT tape so we could refer back to the magic moments, any ideas they might want to pursue. They’d play for half an hour or an hour. Things would be discussed, things that had just been done would be given names.
So they were kind of winging it?
Oh, they were totally winging it. I recently watched From the Sky Down, which was about the making of that record. And I thought, “Wow, I had no idea, and I kind of wish that I had known that they had booked the studio in the hopes of, you know, capturing some of that Hansa magic to propel them forward with this comeback from a low point in their career.” I was completely in the dark about all that.
Hansa was not in tip-top shape, and they had already decided to close it. They kept it open for U2. And when U2 came out to look at the studio, I thought they would see everything’s falling apart and decide not to book it. But they just brought in their own equipment. So they were using our mixing desk and our recording machine, and mostly The Hall. But we just had problems and crackling sounds. The lift out in the hallway would sometimes cause a hum.
They described in that film how unhappy they were and that they were trying to figure things out in Berlin, but I remember a lot of light moments in the control room — I had this big, fake leopard coat, and it was hanging on the coat rack behind the sofa. And Bono and Brian Eno would take turns kind of posing in it. Just silly stuff. Brian was so clever and funny and cool. He’d just throw things upside down when they would hit a brick wall, or dead ends. He would come in and just playfully plug in his DX7 with his own little card with his own little sounds, do all kinds of unexpected, weird stuff, machine-gun sounds or whatever, just to get the vibe going. I had my little lipstick on the remote tray, and he’d asked me something, so I turned around to look at him, and he was sitting there on the couch wearing my lipstick. And it looked so good on him!
Flood had a very quiet, persuasive way about him. I was enamored with Flood before I ever met him. Once I met him I felt like, “I’ll do anything for this guy.” I mean, I’ll light your cigarette for you…whatever. Funny, low key, smart, and really encouraging to me as an assistant. He gave me a lot of opportunities. He was a total mentor. And also a great drinking buddy.
U2 asked you to come to Dublin for more recording. What sticks out about that experience?
There was one night in Dublin when Flood and Bono and I had gone to a club. After a week of sitting in that room and trying to concentrate so hard for 12 hours and nonstop information having to be documented — it was a challenge for me. And so we’d gone to this club, and I just got completely trashed. I was climbing into the rafters and just kind of getting my ya yas out or whatever, and I got thrown out of the club. Flood ended up talking the doorman into letting me back in. The feeling of loyalty and dedication that I have for all of them to this day is deep.
There was another night in Elsinore [Ireland] when Bono and Flood and I had quite a bit to drink and ended up “borrowing” a rowboat from the harbor down the road and trying to row out to this island at three in the morning. Bono was standing at the front, like a gondolier. I was at the back smoking a cigarette, and then I’d row and then Flood would sit in the back and smoke a cigarette. Eventually we realized we’d run out of steam and we weren’t going to make it to that little island, so we just tied up the boat outside the house. The next morning calls were made to the boat rental, and apologies and recompense and whatnot, Flood said, “I can see the headline now: Big Rock Star Steals Small Boat!” When Larry, who is a capable seaman, heard about it, we were roundly chastised for our recklessness. “Do you have any idea how vicious the Irish Sea can turn without warning?” So yes we had a lovely little row but unknowingly possibly survived being lost at sea! And that’s what I really got into engineering for: adventure on the high seas! [laughs]
Did things ever go wrong? Did you have any bad experiences?
Do I have to answer that? When we got to Elsinore [Ireland], I was tape-opping and Flood was at the desk, and I was dropping in on the machine a lot as they were rewriting, especially as Bono was kind of coming up with ideas for changing lyrics. Sometimes, everything about the take was great, but he wanted to drop in for one word and a breath. It was harrowing. To Flood’s credit, he turned me into an expert, and I loved it.
We would have a roadmap for the 24-track machine where we had a vocal, but on the same track there was a guitar part, and so everything had kind of gotten all over the place. I was trying to keep track of where everything was, and it was moving at a frenetic pace. Bono and Edge were doing a backup vocal for “Ultraviolet,” and I mistook what was already on two tracks. I dropped in for a millisecond in the wrong place, just enough to ruin a take that had been fabulous. And it took a while to get back that good — and I’m convinced that what we got back wasn’t as good as what I ruined.
How did everyone react?
Well, Dan [Lanois] made it clear how displeased he was, which was probably not even close to how displeased I was. But everybody else was so kind, gracious, and forgiving to me and just kind of said, “OK, well, we’ll just we’ll get it back. No problem.” Flood jokingly referred to the incident as “Black Wednesday” after that. But Dan likes to run a very tight technical ship; the technology is there to capture the art. And if you’re part of the technical team, he expects you to be on the very top of everything at all times. I slipped up. That whole rest of that day I was fantasizing about throwing myself into the Irish Sea that night. And it was only the knowledge that I might accidentally do it at low tide and just break my leg and make a damn fool of myself that kept me from doing it. No one can say I didn’t take my job seriously. I gave it everything I had! [laughs]
Despite Black Wednesday, the band kept you on, even for the mixing later. When did you start thinking that maybe you didn’t want to be an engineer?
Especially in the time spent at Elsinore, watching Bono agonizing over getting the lyrics right, I realized, That’s how I feel. I have all this music coming to me all the time. I’m always getting melody ideas, and I’m always struggling with getting the lyrics right. I related to that struggle. And I understood by the end of that session, that was who I was.
I was so attracted to the aesthetics of engineering, and I love the technology of it. But I don’t really think I have the personality for it. I am a little bit manic-depressive. And I think engineering really calls for an even personality. I looked at my favorite engineers, like Flood, there was an even-keeled quality there. And every single engineer that I enjoyed working with, they were all calm, cool, and collected. The model of what Bono was doing was just me. By the end of Achtung Baby, I knew that I’m not an engineer. I’m a writer, I’m a performer. That’s what I am. And I need to just accept it.
What do you remember most about working with Bono and U2?
First of all, I’ve never seen a band take three days to set up to record. They set it up for live performing in The Hall and brought an additional console into the control room, among other things. So, at that point, I was like, “OK, they’re really going to work, they’re not just here to take in the excitement of Berlin.” And they really did. Bono would ask my opinion, and, you know, a tape op or an assistant is … that just isn’t done. So, he makes you feel like you’re part of it. He’s a very inclusive, curious guy. You really could say anything, you know, like I would honestly answer when I was asked, and I think he really appreciated that. I really experienced him to be incredibly humble and confident, you know, willing to make mistakes to get to the end of it, willing to do foolish things. I think even those bootlegs really, you hear these kind of gibberish sounds, just trying to find a melody, trying to find sounds. He really cares about the final thing and whatever it takes to get there. And so he’s very exciting in that way, because he takes a lot of risks.
There were times when Bono would stall when it was time to do the lyrics. Everything was done. Everybody’s like, “Come on Bono. Where’s the lyrics?” And he’d come in sometimes on a day that he was supposed to have lyrics, and he’d say, “Flood, could you give me a track for a guitar idea?” And everybody would just be like, “Oh, here we go again.” And I remember him one day saying, “Look, it’s easy for you guys to say, ‘Just get on with it, put some lyrics down.’ But I’m the one with my willie on the chopping block. I’m the one who has to live with these lyrics.”
Good point! Bono was kind of instrumental in your first session with Mick. How did that come about?
They all knew that I was a singer, and they had let me sing on a little this and that. But Bono encouraged me in the ultimate way. I had gone to see them in Munich when they were touring after the record, and he asked how my songwriting was coming along. He asked me, “Have you got something? Can I hear some lyrics?” So I recited the lyrics to a song that was going to become “Whiskey Well,” and he said, “Oh, that’s really great. I’d love to hear what would happen if you went in the studio with Mick Harvey.” And I thought, “You’d love to hear it? I’d love to hear it!” And he said, “You know, I’d pay for it.”
So that gave me the courage and the nerve to ask Mick about it. And he said, “Sure he’d do it!” I’d been recording demos on my little portable four-track cassette studio for years. But this was my first real studio demo. I felt like if I never get to do anything else, working with Mick Harvey on my music is an absolute dream come true. And I loved what he and Hugo Race did, as a band, it was fantastic work.
It’s such a great album. Such a distinctive sound.
Oh, thank you so much. Well, you know, I’d play a guide guitar, and I’d come in the control room and Mick’d say, “Yeah, you did all right, but I can play it better.” I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know you can! Go to it, master of rock & roll!”
So how did you take the leap? How did you become Bambi Lee Savage? Shannon Strong is actually a really fantastic artist name. You couldn’t make up a better name. Except perhaps Bambi Lee Savage.
Right! Thanks! [laughs] After Hansa had closed and Achtung Baby had kind of pushed me out of engineering I was explaining to Anita Lane — who became a dear friend of mine after we worked together — how I needed a stage name. She just christened me out of thin air “Bambi Savage.”
I’ve heard that she had a real habit of doing that, of just coming out with the perfect throwaway line.
She just could pull all kinds of things out of the air around her. I mean, if you could bottle that kind of instant creativity, wow. So yeah, so she gave me my name. This was on the tail end of having worked with a guy named Flood, and a guy named Edge and a guy named Bono, so it didn’t sound far-fetched to me. I kept my middle name Lee to give it a little Southern softening flair because Bambi Savage really sounds more like a metal chick. When I’m flying, people at TSA Pre will say, “Now this is a cool name.” And you know, people will smile and they’ll be like, I get it, yeah, Bambi but savage. And I also love it, because Bambi was a boy, and he emerged triumphant after a lot of trials and tribulations. I went through some things, and I felt a lot like I could identify with that.