“I try my best to take each project on a completely individual level,” says Producer/Engineer Alex Newport.
It’s the only method that makes sense for a man who began his career playing uncategorizable sludge metal with Fudge Tunnel in 1989 and ended up earning a “Best Alternative Album” nod at the 2009 Grammys for his role on Death Cab For Cutie’s Narrow Stairs.
It’s been a long and varied two decades for this UK native who spent time writing songs with members of Sepultura before bringing order to the frenetic noise of The Locust and Polysics, producing genre-defining artists At The Drive-In and Death Cab For Cutie, and more recently, opening up to acoustic performers including O’Death and his latest collaborator City and Colour.
To Newport’s ear, the common thread through all these projects has simply been “passion, energy, and honesty.”
“Each of them are true individual musicians,” he says when asked about the ties between some of the most recognizable names on his discography. “None of those bands were trying to sound like anybody else.”
“You find a lot of bands that have a confidence issues and try to sound more like some obvious reference point. I try to encourage bands to do their own thing and figure out what’s unique to them.”
BAPTISM BY FIRE
Birthing the sound of sludge in Nottingham, UK
“It was a strange time,” says Newport of his days developing the sound of his own band, Fudge Tunnel, in Nottingham. “Later on we found out that we were a Grunge band. But we didn’t know it at the time,” he laughs. “There was no name for it in 1989. We were too heavy for Punk but too sloppy to be Metal.”
[pullquote]“I had no background with technology, but I had the background of music. At first [my method] was random, but it worked.”[/pullquote]
It wasn’t long before he found himself thrust into the role of producer out of aesthetic necessity.
“At that time in the UK there weren’t very many guitar bands. It just wasn’t a popular thing. The people running the studios didn’t seem to have any idea how to capture a rock band sound at all, and we would find ourselves getting into these fantastic arguments with engineers.
“I remember one session in particular where everyone was very unhappy, and I sort of ended up taking over the desk… It was interesting because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just started twisting knobs left and right. After 30 minutes it just started to sound better to everybody.
“The reference points at the studio were all these Manchester bands, kind of guitar pop. We all loved a lot of that stuff too, but it just wasn’t what we were trying to do. We really loved Led Zeppelin and Punk Rock, and we were going for a much bigger sound. Not a lot of people know how to do that, even now.
“I had no background with technology, but I had the background of music. At first [my method] was random, but it worked.”
Newport started “hanging around” these studios and found that friends and bands around town were asking him to get involved in their projects. “At first I wasn’t charging people money because I was kind of making it up as I went along. But I ended up working with a few good producers and learned a bit from them a bit too.”
For a short time Newport wrote songs and played with members of Sepultura, Dead Kennedys and Biohazard in the band Nailbomb, and toured with the acclaimed noise rock trio Theory or Ruin before ultimately making the choice between producing and performing.
WHERE DO YOU EVEN START?
Or, “I feel sorry for the guy who has to record them.”
One of the themes that often pops up, especially on Newport’s early discography, is his mastery with music that tends toward relentless energy and dense arrangements.
His productions with bands like O’Death and Polysics have skillfully captured those artists’ tightly-wound and immediate dynamic without dilution. Much further down that road lies the jarring sound of The Locust.
Even this band’s most ardent fans have been known to describe their distinctive style as “An undecipherable wall of sound”. But in Newport’s hands, their chaos takes on unexpected clarity, if not order.
“They were friends of the Mars Volta guys. The first time I saw them they were playing a show all dressed in black trashbags. I thought it was awesome, but also such an onslaught. It was Jackson Pollock with guitars and synths. I remember thinking ‘This band is insane! I feel sorry for the guy who has to record them, because – where would you even start?!’ I just knew it would be a real challenge to make any sense of it. Three weeks later their manager called me and that guy was me!
“It was a challenge, but a challenge that I enjoy. With other bands, sometimes I’ll pull up a sound and warp it, make it more distorted and they’ll say ‘No, that’s a little too much’. I can tell you that’s never happened with The Locust. It’s quite freeing.
“But in the end, it’s really the same process as working with a Death Cab or a City and Colour: You’re selectively arranging frequencies and shaping instruments to fit in the space allotted, which is just two speakers. The only real difference is that with The Locust I don’t have to worry too much about song structure.”
RECORDING AT THE DRIVE-IN
Anything I could do to make you feel like you were standing in front of that stage.
On the other hand, At The Drive-In is a band that knows song structure. As their career wore on, these musicians developed an ear for ever-more ornate song forms that bordered on post-hardcore baroque. They’re a band that does a lot with few instruments, always delivering a startling impact. We asked Newport about his role on one of the albums that helped solidify their legacy.
“I’ll get as involved in the arrangement process as I think is necessary. That could be anything from working on the arrangement and structure and instruments or even helping with the lyrics, if that’s necessary.
“In their particular case, I thought they sounded so good that I didn’t want to interfere too much; especially at that point in their career.
“For [In/Casino/Out] these were songs they had been playing on the road for two years, and they were ready. That album was more about the energy and innocence of it. I was very aware of not trying to overproduce it.”
His effort shows: At the Drive-In’s sophomore LP is well-realized, but never over-polished. Big, raw, roomy snares, tightly controlled cymbals, high-tuned toms, edgy guitars, and dynamic, gut-wrenching vocals are delivered with a degree of taste and balance that never detracts from their inherent muscle. First, we asked Newport about the raw and striking drum sound:
“A lot of it is how Tony [Hajjar] plays. He’s such an incredible drummer. I really wanted the band to sound like a band. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them perform live, but anyone who ever did was completely blown away.
“Some bands you want to get away from the live sound, and create something more refined, but in this particular case, I felt like everything about the band pointed to this incredible live energy. So I was trying to do anything I could to make you feel like you were standing in front of that stage. There were a lot of room mics. Too much separation wouldn’t have worked in their case.