PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN: We know what you’re thinking. You’ve seen this name somewhere before. And not only on the marquee of the Apollo or littered among the best of your old soul 45s: this James Brown‘s engineering credits appear on records alongside iconic producers including Butch Vig, Alan Moulder, Flood, Kevin Shields, Daniel Lanois and Gil Norton.
Since starting his career in London, Brown has moved stateside and worked with an impressive roster that features some of the most recognizable alternative acts the major-label world has on offer. He’s engineered and mixed records for Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails, Arctic Monkeys, U2, Bjork, The Bravery, The Killers, and Brazilian Girls.
As of this week, Brown’s most recent credits include a new release from one of the moment’s most -referenced independent bands, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
We talked to Brown about working alongside his heroes, building a studio for Foo Fighters, and joining Flood to help the Pains re-interpret their quirky “twee-pop” sound as something decidedly more muscular and hi-fi.
ON LIVING AND WORKING BICOASTALLY
JC: You started making records in London, moved to New York, and regularly work in L.A. as well. Can you give us a sense for how the studio culture varies between these three major hubs?
JB: I can’t say I’ve really noticed much of a difference between these places. I think it’s a very specific sort of person that makes a good studio manager, much like it’s a very specific sort of person makes a good engineer or producer. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel all that different.
So with all this experience in these other cities, why call New York home?
Well it really is the greatest city in the world. I’ve felt a deep connection to New York ever since I first visited in the early 90’s. It’s also extremely convenient since my wife is American!
You recently spent a lot of time with the Foo Fighters out west helping them build a studio. Can you tell us a bit about that process?
I first talked with Dave [Grohl] about recording Wasting Light at the end of 2009. He said he wanted to make it at home, and that he was keen to replicate some of the sense of accomplishment they’d felt making their third record [There Is Nothing Left To Lose] at his old house in Virginia.
He had a room in his current home that they wanted to change from a Pro Tools-based studio to an analog one. All of the major construction work had already been done for the room’s previous incarnation.
There was an existing control room and an iso booth, and there was a small room directly beneath the control room that we could use to house the tape machines. So it really it came down to us adapting what was already there, finding a way of fitting enough of what we needed to handle recording a pro-grade record, and adapting as best we could to things like the shape and acoustics of the control room.
Then, in March, I put up a handful of mics, got a quick drum sound and recorded some rough demos with Dave and Taylor [Hawkins] just to see what we were dealing with in terms of the sound of the garage.
To our surprise it sounded awesome: aggressive, present, punchy – basically perfect for the kind of record they envisioned making. So we didn’t do a thing in terms of treatment to the garage. All we did was put three large gobos up on the inside of the garage door to stop some of the noise escaping and annoying the neighbors.
From the beginning, we had a pretty clear idea that this was going to be a straight-ahead, balls-out rock record: no ballads, no acoustic guitars, no strings, etc., so the pre-amps, compressors and EQs were chosen with that in mind. We got an API 1608 console with an additional 16-channel extension. In part, we chose it because of its compact size, but mainly, it’s because I’ve loved the sound of API gear for years. Their EQ is just so musical.
It worked out pretty well I think. All of that stuff saw a lot of use. Even though it wasn’t part of the plan, I’m really happy knowing Dave can sit down in that room and feel like he could figure out how to turn stuff on and start recording, and that in a few years time we won’t have to worry about him looking around wondering why we wasted all that money on a bunch of stuff he’s never going to use again!
ON WORKING AS AN ENGINEER, ALONGSIDE AND UNDER OTHER PRODUCERS
You’ve had the privilege of working with an impressive list of truly singular producers. Which ones have left the biggest impact on your workflow and style?
Honestly, they’re all inspirational on some level. And everyone works differently, so that’s always fun.
Butch Vig is extraordinarily talented in so many ways, but I think one of his biggest strengths is his ability to coax great performances out of people. Flood is like a painter in the fine-art sense of the word, and Alan Moulder is a genius at putting sounds together. All of them have impeccable taste.
I’d say Alan has had the biggest influence on me, because when I started out as an engineer, his sound was what set the bar for me on a personal level. I literally modeled myself on him as an engineer long before I even knew him, so when we did eventually meet there was kind of an instant rapport and understanding. I think it helps that we’re kind of made of the same stock.
Butch and Flood have been a huge inspiration, because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about production and whether that’s something I want to try my hand at again. With the exception of the work I’ve done with David Ford, in the past I always felt a little dissatisfied with the end result of the records I produced. So working with Butch and Flood still shows me a great deal about what I can do better on the production end.
Are there any other Producers whose work you’re really loving today?
Regardless of how you might feel about the music, the sheer volume of musical parts and ideas that make up that record… I’m in awe of how he’s managed to take that mountain of information and still fashion a record that is not only coherent, but often stunningly beautiful.
I hear you there. I had the pleasure of mixing a record Peter recorded drums on, and those tracks were a dream to work with.
Can you articulate how the process of working as an engineer, under or alongside a producer, might be different from what some of our solo producers or home-studio engineers are familiar with?
Well, when there’s someone there who knows how to produce, it’s hugely liberating. They can kind of guide everyone and convey a clear idea of what the bigger picture is.