Countdown to AES with Peter Katis

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BRIDGEPORT, CT: In the old days, there were engineers who came up through the established studio system, rising from the ranks of interns, and there were engineers who worked their way into their living by diligently slaving away in hodgepodge basement studios on quirky indie releases. Peter Katis did both.

Peter Katis, Tarquin Studios (Bridgeport, CT)

“I was always a DIY kind of guy,” he says, ”But I thought it would be stupid to reinvent the lightbulb. I figured there were a lot of people who were really good at it already, and I could pick up a lot from watching them. I think it was good to see both sides of it. Otherwise I always would have gone my whole life wondering if I was doing it wrong. Although nowadays I think that secretly, everyone still worries about that.”

Katis had become obsessed with recording after taking a class at SUNY Purchase and never looked back. “For a long time every cent I made was another cent I could put into new gear, and every spare minute was time I could be in the studio.”

He’d soon go on to work on breakthrough releases for artists like Interpol and The National and build up a clientele of some of the most active and unordinary independent rock bands of the day: Frightened Rabbit, Mates Of State, Mice Parade, Tapes N’ Tapes, The Swell Season, Mobius Band, Guster, Mercury Rev, Tokyo Police Club.

Katis first worked out of his parent’s basement, and then built out a residential studio in Bridgeport CT named after his brother, Tarquin.

“When I started interning in studios back in the early 90s, people would really beat into your head that there was a right and a wrong way to do things. Nowadays, I don’t think anyone is that arrogant. I remember thinking ‘wow, I’m coming from a really different place than these people are.”

Recently, Katis has completed a solo project for Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Ros, signed on to another with Trey Anastasio of Phish, released an album of his own music, and was commissioned to teach a small class of recording enthusiasts and burgeoning pros at a private villa in the South of France. We asked him about all that and more in preparation for our “Studio As an Instrument Panel” at this year’s AES Convention.

I hear you’ve been doing some recording workshops overseas. Can you tell us a little bit about this Mix With The Masters program? It seems to be getting a lot of attention lately.

The name of the program is hard to say without sounding insanely immodest, but it was a really great experience. The whole thing takes place in this really beautiful residential studio in the south of France [Studio La Fabrique] organized by two of the sweetest people.  They’ve had a bunch of other speakers – Michael Brauer, David Kahne, Andy Wallace, Tchad Blake. Pretty good company!

I mean, it was hard work in the sense that it’s not easy to talk to a room of people for 8 or 9 hours and try to be interesting and educational the whole time. It’s harder than making a record I think! [Laughs] So in that way, it’s demanding. People were coming from all over the world, so if you were really boring… well, that would suck.

But it wasn’t all just talking. I also got to bring in some sessions from records I worked on. On the 4th day we actually got a French band in and pre-produced, tracked and mixed a song. In the last couple of days people played their own music and we all got to talk about that too. It was a great time.

People ask me sometimes if they should go to one of the other sessions coming up with other engineers. They’ll ask if it’s worth the money. It is expensive – but honestly, even if no one was there to lecture you’d have a great time, it’s such a beautiful place. People are hanging out all day just talking about recording in this amazing environment.

Well hopefully it’s left you prepared to talk to our crowd at AES. Thanks for agreeing to participate on the panel by the way.

Yeah, thanks for inviting me. The name “studio as an instrument” was kind of exciting to me. I think with my own band, The Philistines Jr., even more than any other, I get to approach things that way because there’s no one to answer to. I’ve been intrigued by that idea of the studio being an instrument since I started, since the very first time I got my hands on a 4-track.

Can you tell us what that phrase means to you?

Sure. I mean, as an artist and a producer I’ve always been frustrated with the straight-ahead and normal approach to making music. It’s always weird to see you words in print, so I hope this comes out right, but I can’t stand to just pick up an acoustic guitar and write songs that way. What I like more is coming up with general ideas that I can stomach to start with, and then twisting them around in ways that aren’t offensive to me. [Laughs]

Some people can do it the other way, just pick up a guitar and write songs, and that’s great. Some of my favorite music is like that. But when it comes to making music, it’s just not what I want. I’m not sure I would keep making music if I didn’t have the studio as its own kind of instrument.

To me, part of what makes recordings interesting is when you experiment. You can make great plans, but sometimes the most interesting things come out when you set yourself up to make great mistakes also. That can happen in the studio – You’re not under any direct pressure like you are in front of an audience. You can try anything, and if it’s terrible, who cares?

From what I’m gathering here, when you work on your own music, it’s an exaggeration of the approach you take with other bands, rather than a whole different process?

Yeah, exactly. In all the years I’ve been recording, I guess I’ve kind of noticed all the things one can do to end up with a record that sounds special. You’d be surprised, but the worst people to do that with are often the young bands who come in and just want to play their songs the way they wrote them and perform them and be done with it.

Sometimes in the studio we’ll mess around with a guitar sound and you get it to a point where everyone’s thinking “Wow, that sound is amazing!” But then they’ll go to do the take and they’ll play their part and it just sounds kind of okay. So I always talk to bands about playing your part to the sound. “Play to the sound.” If you play with no regard to the sound, just playing it the way you wrote it no matter what’s coming back through the speakers then the odds are a lot lower that it’s going to be very interesting.

Some of the more commercially successful records you’ve worked on, the ones a lot of our readers will be familiar with, like Interpol and The National, were they immediately receptive to that process?

Katis co-produced/engineered Interpol's debut album for Matador

Interesting question. I like both the records I did with Interpol. The 1st record definitely has kind of a cool sound. But to be honest, those guys did not play to the sound at all. That’s an example where things ended up sounding cool in spite of the fact that they just wanted to play them as they wrote them and arranged them. So that one is an example of where it worked out alright where they didn’t do it that way at all.

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