Ken Andrews has always had his own way of doing things.
His distinctive sound started reaching a wide audience when he founded Failure, an inimitable band whose albums like Fantastic Planet and Heart Is a Monster have gathered up a dedicated following for their grit, artistry and intellect. While that group has stopped and started from the early ‘90s until today, his own career has had more of an even flow, evolving steadily from performing artist to producer, composer and mixer.
It’s a comprehensive occupational path that has led to plenty of heavy producing and mixing credits, including work with M83, Paramore, Beck, Blink-182, Pete Yorn, Jimmy Eat World, Nine Inch Nails, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Blinker the Star, Gone Is Gone, and Citizen. On the soundtrack side, he’s contributed to film scores including music for the motion pictures Oblivion, Nacho Libre, Twilight Saga: New Moon, Tenacious D’s The Pick of Destiny, plus Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” theme song for James Bond: Casino Royale.
Operating out of his private LA enclave, Red Swan Studios, Andrews has just put the finishing touches on what promises to be a very high-profile record for 2018: Stone Temple Pilots’ upcoming seventh studio album. As STP’s first release without the late vocalist Scott Weiland, Andrews was tasked with putting their new singer Jeff Gutt front and center.
What makes Andrews up to this heavy challenge? In this interview with SonicScoop, Andrews explains what made him and STP a timely match. You’ll also find his insights on what makes an audio engineer stand out, his simple criterion for selecting a recording studio, and some very helpful tips for nailing the mix.
The first big thing I wanted to talk about was your career and how it’s morphed. For you, it’s moved between being an artist, a producer, a composer, and a mixer. How much of this convergence was planned, and how much of it would you say was unplanned?
I would say most of it is unplanned. I’ve done the artist thing on and off for a long time, and then starting in 1997 is when I produced my first record that wasn’t my own band. But it’s always been peppered with production, and then after I had kids about nine years ago, the production and mixing became a little bit more planned, in the sense that I was a little less interested in doing the artist thing, because it takes you away from home a lot.
As the years went on, things got a little more focused on mixing. People just started hiring me more for that, and it worked out. I enjoy doing it for sure. And now that Failure has rebooted, it’s actually a good mix of things to be in a band making records and writing songs, and then also mixing for other bands.
It’s a little harder for me to produce records because of the time commitment these days. I still do it every once in a while, but the mixing is more conducive to simultaneously doing the artist thing.
Failure rebooted in 2014 after a 16-year break. Was there a moment where you had a realization how much you had changed as a music person, in between those times?
I definitely noticed that I was more efficient and faster in the studio, but surprisingly, at least with the Failure thing, the writing/recording/artist part of it was pretty familiar to the ’90s. We didn’t change too much in terms of how we work together and how we write songs together, and the method of making a Failure record was similar to how we made Fantastic Planet.
But it just went a little smoother because I had a lot more experience with the technical side of things and getting things recorded and, maybe, less mistakes in the studio in terms of recording things. That actually seemed to be really conducive to the writing because I could make the recording process transparent for the band. It was just happening. And as a band we didn’t have to wait around as much for technical things to happen, because I got them going quicker because of all the experience.
The first artist that you produced after Failure in 1997 was a band from the Midwest called Molly McGuire, for their album Lime. Do you remember how you felt about becoming a producer on that album and, then, for some of the early projects subsequently? What did you like about that role as you start to take it on?
I’ve always loved being in the studio and recording and making records because it’s a very creative process. So it was a little daunting the first time – the first few times – because I wasn’t completely used to having creative input on someone else’s songs. But it didn’t take too long to get used to that.
The other thing was that as a band member, you have to be a bit of a psychologist in terms of how to get along with your other bandmates. But when you’re a producer that’s amplified because you’re expected to help the band get along amongst themselves and with you, plus the technical stuff too. It was all pretty new to me, so it was a little daunting for the first few albums.
What would you say you know now that you didn’t know then, that you would like to go back and tell yourself then about facilitating the creative process? What are some of the big things you learned about how to let the creative process flow, and what are some things that you learned not to do?
The most beneficial thing to do if you want to make records for a living is to just make records, and learn by trial and error because it’s the experience that’s the thing that helps you later on. Being able to realize something’s wrong or something could be better very quickly is something that you really only get with experience.
One of the things I wish I could have done on that record — but it just wasn’t a possibility because they didn’t have the budget — is I really wanted to have a separate recording engineer so I could just produce, and focus on the material with the band and the performances.
I did get the opportunity to do that a little bit later on in my career, and that really helped because it did give me more opportunity to focus on the material, but I also was able to glean some techniques and processes from the person that was engineering for me. It’s nice to get in there and really be focused on the songs.
Is there a way to characterize the ideal relationship between producer and engineer? When you do have an engineer, what are you looking for from them?
If the artist is ready to record and they’re in there ready to go, and the engineer is ready to go at the same time, that’s half the battle right there. Keeping everything moving and not having too much down time for the engineering side of things is really key and helps keep everyone engaged. There’s nothing worse than a technical problem that stalls a session for an hour or more.
That’s not always in the hands of the engineer, but a good one can be ready for stuff like that. That’s the best thing is when I look over at them and say, “Okay. Let’s do this.” They’re already ready.