Of all the studios you’ve worked in, do you have a clear favorite?
I keep winding up at Robert Lang’s here in Seattle. He’s been so great to me whenever I need a break on the rate or to sneak back in for a recall. The tracking rooms are unique as well as being very versatile, and it’s become my favorite mix room when I’m not mixing at home.
Sonic Ranch was amazing. Tony [Rancich] is awesome and the studios are crazy great. A big plus there is all of the instruments he has on site—besides the sick studio gear list.
You also live there while you’re working. The food is fantastic. Unbelievable. I hope I have a project that takes me back there.
These days it’s tricky to get everyone’s schedule and geography to align for an extended trip to El Paso, but well worth it if you can manage.
You’ve recorded the band Los Campesinos! all over the world, at studios in the U.S., Portugal, Spain, and Wales. What was it like to work in different studios in various countries?
We started out making the records while the band was touring in the states, so we’d wind up at the beginning or end of a tour on the east or west coast. I lived for a couple of years back east and had staked out Carriage House in Greenwich, CT as a great residential studio. Then we did some sessions in Seattle. We went back to Monnow Valley in Wales to mix because the majority of the band was living in Cardiff at the time, but later everyone was more scattered.
At one point they wanted to do the next record in Cardiff, but the studio kept moving their dates around, so management called a studio that Super Furry Animals had worked at in Spain and everyone was like “Spain? Hell yeah”.
That studio [Music LAN] was fantastic! After that, the band kept finding these great locations. They’ve made it super fun. They’re the best traveling companions ever, and once we arrive we get to make a record. Some of the locations were chosen because we needed a great deal on a studio that could accommodate such a large number of people.
The studios have been very different from one another, but the band has also been making records while the internet and home studios have changed everything. The first few were mixed on large consoles because we needed lots of inputs, for instance, while the last few have been mixed in the box.
The DAW has always been Pro Tools. Tom does pre-production and demos in Pro Tools as well. I think he was using Cubase when we started. This last session was the first without a proper console. The Portuguese studio had outboard pre’s and the Focusrite red-net interfaces that work over [Dante/Ethernet]. Very modern, but in an old hunting lodge from a century or two ago. You can really make a record anywhere now. And the global market for studios is crazy. I’m up for the challenge of making whatever work, so bring it on.
How do you approach tracking a band like Los Campesinos! that makes music with so many complex sonic layers and instrumentation?
In the beginning I would set them up live, but soon I realized that Tom Campesinos always wrote and arranged all of the musical parts and brought them to the other members for them to embellish and perform. As Tom’s demos became more and more polished we started to do things in a more piecemeal fashion.
For a time, the band was on the road so much that they often were learning and rehearsing their parts for just a week or two before going in to the studio, so it became more appropriate to cut the basic with the core of the band and add everyone else after.
A big part of making everything fit together is trying to hear it as a song from as early on in the recording as possible. Make it sound like a record and it becomes obvious what’s working and what sounds or parts need to change as you add them. Often changing the part in some way is much more effective than changing the timbre of the sound.
How did the opportunity to mix the Iron Flag LP for Wu-Tang Clan come about?
I was working with [producer] Steve Thompson quite a bit at the time, and he knew the guys who started Loud Records, which was Wu-Tang’s label. We were asking to work with Method Man, but this Wu-Tang record was getting finished and running up against a hard deadline.
RZA was at Sony studios cutting vocals with various members and then he would come over to Hit Factory to check out mixes. It was crazy and it was really, really fun. His genius move on that record was buying the publishing rights to the catalog of an old soul label, allowing him to sample anything from the label without having to chase down copyright clearances. The record is full of great horn samples because of it.
The Wu are very loop and sample based and the music has all of that SP-1200 and /early MPC vibe, which is the sort of sound I love on older hip-hop records. Back then, the limitations of the equipment forced people to be more inventive. My studio experience with local hip-hop when I was starting out is all from that pre-computer era so it felt familiar, as far as mixing went.
What’s your perspective on the Pacific Northwest scene as an incubator for so many rock bands and labels?
The Northwest U.S. has a few things going for it in terms of calving fine rock bands. Number one is the rotten climate and lack of sunshine. It makes it an easy decision to retreat to the basement and yell at the walls. It was ignored for so long by the music industry that it became its own thing with its own culture—for better and sometimes for worse.
Not many “successful”—in industry terms—acts came from here in between Heart and Nirvana. There’s a good couple of decades for scene incubation without the interference of corporate interests. By the time Seattle blew up it had developed its own sensibility that it was able to retain for a very short while.
I think the biggest thing Seattle had and still has are local independent labels. There are tons of bands everywhere, but for someone to take on—not to mention put their own money—into releasing music is a monumental task that makes all the difference between a young band drying up and blowing away and one that takes itself seriously enough to do something great. And rock bands aren’t known for their gratitude, so bless anyone who starts a label.
When you work with young bands, how do you approach their limited studio experience?
I’ve always worked with young bands, and lots of bands making their first records. One reason I built my old studio in the ‘90s was so I could charge rates that new bands could afford.
Part of what I try very had to do is to make the studio and the associated technology disappear so people can just get on with recording their record. For younger bands, that can be as basic as not using headphones, so that you can play your songs as if you were in your practice space. Making people comfortable and minimizing drama, including technical bugs, is a big part of the job and is particularly important when the artist is new to recording.