The phrase "recording artist" is usualy reserved for th sensitive souls who sing and play the stuff that makes its way onto those shiny little discs. But there are some on the recording end of the process that truly deserve the title. Recordists who forge a distinct creative identity of their own that manages to distinguish and enhance each project they work on without overwhelming it. Tchad Blake is among them.
In the last decade, Blake, with frequent partner Mitchell Froom, has created an aural terrain unto itself. Like a latter Beatles album or Brian Eno recording, Tchad Blake's work is usually a "down the rabbit hole" experience — the listener is transported to another realm where the sonic texture asserts itself as a part of the creative process itself.
For a record world titan who has worked with a staggering number of heavyweight music makers from The Master Musicians of Jajouka to Tom Waits to Sheryl Crow, Tchad comes across as an unexpectedly down-to-earth guy (I easily spot him in the dining room of his luxury hotel: he is the only one in a red flannel shirt and jeans). On a November morning in Seattle, knee-deep in the current Pearl Jam record, his hunger and enthusiasm for the work of recording is infectious. Between spoonfuls of oatmeal, we discuss, among many other things, Jaipur in the wee hours (and why you might want to pack earplugs for a visit), his predeliction for high-contrast sound, and why he loves being a Latin Playboy.
But like all those who climb to creative heights, he begin his trek at street level...
So let's backtrack a little. You started with Wally Heider in LA, right?
Yeah, at what later became Filmways/Heider Recording Studios.
And that was your first gig?
Yeah, I was a guitar player for years. Not a very good one, really. But it took me years to realize I wasn't going to get much better. And I got a job at Wally Heider's, just by beating on the door, to try to stay in music. I'd just done a TV show about sharks, where I was the still photographer and boom man. It was a great experience, going out with the sharks. I got it through this young guy who was the son of the director. He was a sound guy with Nagra. I'd always carried tape recorders around with me since high school, just to record sounds. Walking through hallways, doors closing. And I just loved it. I'd go home and listen to it at night. Sad, but true. [laughs]
Were you thinking about musical applications, or were you just into sounds?
It wasn't really about music, but just noise. I put weird guitar noises to it, synth noises. And I used to love feedback. It was more avant-garde, almost like installation stuff, which I tired of pretty quickly. It got pretty stupid after a while. [laughs] But it was fun at the time. I just loved the sound. It wasn't the music so much. I was never a composer. I just liked sounds. So I met this guy...
The shark guy?
Yeah, great guy; Nick Webster. He used to build robots and go to the Himalayas with his dad to look for the Yeti. And he said, "You know you could get a job. You could be a recording engineer. If you like all these sounds you could just go do it." And I thought, hmmm, really?
How old were you at the time?
About 19. I actually played a session as a guitarist at Wally Heider's and I met an engineer there who told me what I should do and it interested me. So I just went pounding on the door everyday for 2 or 3 months. One day they said, "We need someone to work the equipment room." And then 2 days later they said they needed someone on the phone at night down at the other studio, which was the RCA building in Hollywood. So they took me down there and showed me this set-up. It was a live set-up in this huge room, Studio B, which was a famous old room that Wally Heider had taken over. And it was the Rolling Stones and they were recording what would eventually become Tattoo You.
And what were you doing?
I was just on phones and running for ribs at 2 o'clock in the morning. I was a runner and a janitor. Cleaning up after everyone, you know. It was a great studio to work in. It totally was not about anything technical. It was just about keeping a session going, you know. In fact they didn't want you to learn too much technically. I was caught reading a manual on re-aligning a tape machine and it was taken away from me.
So you were being mentored, but they didn't think technical training was what you needed?
No. They had tech guys for that. As assistant engineer you could record. But not really. Learning how the tape machine worked wasn't where it was at. But they had some really good engineers there. Really old school. But I used to just go and hang out. Everyone was really friendly and the sessions weren't closed. I mean, you couldn't just walk in off the street. But engineers would always say, "Come by if you want to hang out." Because they knew they could get you to do stuff. "Go move that microphone, go get that other microphone, go get us some food." It was really great.
So what sort of things were you picking up at that time that you could use later? When did you get your hands on the board?
The board I got my hands on right away. They used to let me go in after hours. I'd take records in, LPs, and bring them up to the console and mess with EQ, fool around in the patch bay. There was an old harmonizer that I'd used to tape mono records and "stereo- ize" them, it made them really wide. [laughs] Or we'd go into the media rooms where they did only voiceovers and fool with tapes of speeches to make them say rude things. Really horrible stuff. But I loved it. I thought I was Phil Spector.
So you had the opportunity for a great deal of experimentation?
Yeah, I'd just go in and stay up all night playing with a drum machine. I was able to bring people in to record every now and then pretty much right away. There was a guy there named Sherman Keene, who eventually wrote a book that's become a standard I think. He'd hold classes once a week and he'd talk about engineer stuff; fixing machines and things you needed to know for orchestra sessions like figuring out beats per minute. And studio etiquette. His big thing was studio etiquette. He thought that was about 60% — knowing how to make people feel at home.
What techniques did you learn?
Oh, knowing when to speak at the right times, having a studio that looked nice, make sure you have sharpened pencils. And it's all true, that's good stuff. It was a good atmosphere, and that's important.
So how long were you there?
Only 3 years.
So how did you make the transition from that period into a real career as an engineer?
Wally Heider's changed owners. He got really sick, and it was taken over by somebody who ran it into the ground. So I left and got a place called Mad Dog, which was a demo studio down in Santa Monica. Little 16-track demo studio, tiny little closet of a place. But it was another place where the owners were great, really creative. Anyway I worked for them for a while, did people's demos for about a year. And then there was an opening at Sound Factory for an assistant engineer. Phil McConnel, who had been remote manager at Wally Heider's was now the manager of this studio. And he remembered me from the Wally Heider days and asked me if I wanted to be an assistant for this engineer there who had just won a Grammy, David Leonard. He was doing really well and had just moved up from that middle area from assisting to engineering and needed an assistant. And I took the job because it was 4 blocks from my house. I'd just met my future wife, and it just all made sense. And I was there all through the '80s.
And what kinds of things were you recording?
Well [pause, low voice], some pretty bad stuff. I don't remember a lot of it. Sheena Easton recorded there. Greg Mathison productions, he and Trevor Beech used to be in there a lot, and David Leonard did all of their records at the time.
So it sounds almost like you're leading a double life with your fascination for unusual sounds on the one hand, and working on very conventional stuff on the other. At what point did those two worlds, the aesthetically-inclined and the "normal" work, meet?
Well, not for a long time. I started putting binaural sound effects behind some things. I was always into the English progressive scene of the '60s and early '70s — like King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator, Pink Floyd. And they were doing all that. But it didn't really come together for a long time. I loved distortion and I loved things recorded through mechanical filters; putting up papers, trash cans, boxes. But it didn't seem to fly with most music.
Probably not with Sheena Easton.
[laughs] No. I used to play stuff that I'd do and get a few laughs, "Oh yeah, that's cute." It really wasn't until I met Mitchell [Froom] that I started to use those techniques on commercial recordings. And even then we did a lot of conventional stuff for many years.
Did you work on the Del Fuegos records?
I did one record. He came in and did the first record and that's when we met. And he asked me to do the music for a play for him, to engineer it — over the weekend. We were going to do all the music in one weekend. And he said I could do it any way I wanted to. So I got to do some of my "stuff", you know. And he loved it. And the play went well. It was just a small hole-in-the-wall play, but it was fun to do. So that was our first work together, then he got Crowded House and they went through 3 engineers and fired them all. During the last 2 weeks of the album he asked if I could do it with him, just finish it up. It wasn't any tracking, just overdubs: Vocals, some guitar, re-recorded some bass — which I did. And I got along with the guys really well and had a good time with Mitchell and discovered we had really similar musical tastes. And then he got the next Del Fuegos record he asked me to do it. And that was probably my first real record. That was how it all began with Mitchell and we've been working together almost exclusively ever since.
So it was then that this felt like a partnership that was going to go places?
It didn't feel like a partnership until later. But we knew we liked working together. We had the same sensibilities, with sort of opposite methods.
He's very meticulous about thinking about things beforehand. And he's really good at it. I don't think I've ever seen anyone as good at it. He's got perfect pitch. So he can always think of chords and notes, and so he can tell somebody (what he's hearing) without going to a keyboard. He'll just sit there and, without even looking at what they're playing he'll say, "You're playing a D? Play this over it." And it will create a cool chord. And that's the way he thinks. He's a composer. He's an orchestrator. He can do it. He's serious. I don't want to know anything before I go into the studio. I like to go in and have people start playing and get a first impression and get the sounds and go with it. Just run with it. If I have too much time to think about stuff I'm in trouble. I like the spontaneity. I like to get a sense of the band and get that caught on record. You can't always do it. There is work and putting your nose to the grindstone, but I want to keep as much of that [spontaneity] as I can. So we really work well together that way. Because he loves to do [his thing], and then I come in and start messing things up. So it's really been a good match. Still is as far as I'm concerned. We're working less and less together these days. But I think it's just a phase. It's a good collaboration.
So at what point did you think that collaborative identity was beginning to gel and come to fruition?
[Los Lobos'] Kiko. We've always sort of distanced ourselves from the music business. It's not because we hate it. It's a brilliant business. And business is business. It's a bank that loans an artist money, and you make agreements with the bank. You have to do certain things if you want more money. And I don't dislike it at all. But I've always distanced myself from it because I don't want to think about it. I just want to be in the studio and hear music, you know? So it hurt us, because we didn't really have any friends in the business. A couple, but not a lot. We usually didn't allow [record company] people to come down to the studio and listen until it was done. We didn't want any input. We just wanted the artists' input and the opportunity to do what we do. And for the artist to say yes or no and let them be the final arbiter of what went on the record. They're the boss. That brought us to the early '90s and we were sort of tired of The records we were doing. Kinda glossy productions. I was never good at it. I hated the sound of all those records. I could never get a really good reverb sound on the snare drum. Every time I heard it I'd wince. And I'd listen to Bob Clearmountain's stuff and I'd be amazed. It sounded brilliant to me, the way he did "that sound." I couldn't do it. And I was really frustrated and so was Mitchell. So he came in and said, "You know, we're going to do this next record with Los Lobos and we've got to start being happy with what we do. So anything goes. Let's just go back to what we did for the soundtrack for the play. The first thing we worked on together. Let's just do what we do." And they [Los Lobos] were ready for it. They wanted to do something different.
That was a really bold move forward in a new direction for them. Up until then they'd been, more or less, just a really good roots/Mex roadhouse-style band.
Well, the music came from them. And oddly enough, there was just a really good coincidence. The week we started I went into Guitar Center, which I always do. Whenever I start a project I go into music stores and pawn shops, you know; tool stores. See if something catches my eye. Behind the counter was a plastic board and a box sitting on the middle of it. And I could see it had all these little DIP switches on it. I said, " What is that?" And the guy said, "I don't know, it just came in today." It was a SansAmp, the first one. I plugged in a guitar, I plugged in a drum machine, and maybe 10 minutes I sat with it and I said, "Okay. I want 2 of these." And the guy went to look and he said, "We don't have any in stock. It's a demo." So the guy called the company and they didn't have any ready to ship for sale. I ended up contacting [the company] and they got me one and it just changed my life. [laughs] It really did.
And it was designed for electric guitar applications, but you were immediately using it for...?
Drums. It was drums. That's what the drum sound is. Nothing else. It's like, conventionally recorded drums with a little bit of Sans Amp sprinkled on here and there, particularly with the kick and snare on Kiko.
So you don't use it in tracking, but treatment afterwards?
Oh yeah, I track with it. And if I know the band, like I do Los Lobos, I just mix it in with the signal.
You track both a pure signal and a treated signal and blend them in a submix?
Yeah and sometimes I just use the SansAmp track. But with something like Pearl Jam, where I don't know how it's going to go from day to day, I keep them separate.
And what was it about the sound of the SansAmp that attracted you?
Well, there's a funny thing that happens with the sound when you bring it up on certain settings. You just play around with the settings, and there's also just playing with the high-pass filters and the way that alters phase relationships. Even just a high-pass filter with an easy slope from 75Hz down. You just pop that in and the amount that changes things, with distortion, is incredible. So you find a setting that's out of phase. It's not 180 degrees, it's just at a weird place. It would drop the kick an octave. Hit the phase button and it would just go "Ka-BLUMPH". It would just be this "splat" but a really good splat, with a funny little crunch on top, that wasn't a "tick". If it's got some distortion, I can swing with it. If it's just that rock "tick"...uhhh. There's just such a wonderful quality to it, I loved it. I ended up getting another 4 pedals. And I started using it on bass. I haven't used a bass amp on any record since then.
Not at all?
Nope, just direct box through a SansAmp. And everyone I've used it with everyone down to Tory Levin who's... well, he's not a purist, but he's so into his equipment. They're great. I haven't found anything they don't sound good on, except I don't like it on guitar.
Ironically, I don't like it on electric guitar. Acoustic guitar, great on acoustic guitar.
I know you used that combination a good deal on Richard Thompson's stuff.
Richard Thompson, Ron Sexsmith. Flutes, saxes, vocals. You name it.
So I hear what you're saying about what happens with it technically, but in terms of the qualities it evokes, what do you think those sounds do for a listener?
Well, if you judge by sales, it turns them off. [laughs] But if you ask me, I think it makes things more interesting. I just like high contrast. I can't stand it if something's recorded all beautifully. If everything sounds that way it's just like nails on a chalkboard to me. I want to hear contrast. That's what perks my ears up. It's like, in field recording, I like noises. It's always better if there's one little thing that takes you away. Like if there's a jet engine, or a car goes by... it messes you up a little bit. So you actually hear both things better. I do anyway. Well, that happens in the music. You know, you have a really beautiful vocal and a nice guitar sound, and you put this weird bongo or drum sound to it... it sounds like it's going through a pipe — maybe it is, I like to use a mechanical filter. I'd rather have the low-fi sound with a high-fi sound than have it all high-fi. Or all low-fi, where it's all just unbearable to me.
I've heard it said that all good art either takes you to a new place or it takes you to a familiar place and makes you see it in a new way. Maybe the ambitious listener's response to conventional recording technique, as this point, is, "I've been here before," and so the experience is less dramatic.
Well, I don't know. There's a whole world out there that proves my tastes wrong because those [conventional] records are the ones that sell the biggest numbers. Like Celine Dion... Those records and that kind of recording, you know.
Well, perhaps there's comfort to be found in going to those familiar old places. Perhaps that's what those listeners want.
I guess so. There is a reason, I just don't hear it.
So when Kiko was done, I'm sure you could see that there'd been a big leap forward in the sound of the band [Los Lobos] and, it seems, your signature approach as an engineer. How did it feel when that record was done?
Well, good. Because the thing is we made some good friendships on that record. We'd worked with David [Hidalgo] before on a song on an earlier record. And also he'd done overdubs on something else Mitchell had done. So we knew him a little bit. But this was like... we just sort of bonded. And we've stayed that way ever since.
That's evident in your work with Latin Playboys.
Yeah, David and Louie made us honorary members, because you know we didn't really play anything on the records. They're really all David Hidalgo and then Louie wrote all the lyrics and did some singing. And did some playing, but most of it is David. Mitchell was responsible for getting the tape and playing it for me and saying, "Let's take this to Lenny [Waronker] over at Warner Brothers and see what he says." He [Waronker] was, like, our only friend in the music business. And he said, "Let's put it out as a record." And they did. And at that point David said, "Let's have a band. You guys have to be in the band. It's just got to be us." Which was great. I still can't believe it. I'm so happy to be a Latin Playboy. [laughs] So some friendships were made there and we've made all these records since. And it's been great every time.
And so was much of the work that followed soon afterward a result of Los Lobos recommending you; was it people responding to Kiko?
And people were saying what? This is exciting stuff, this is a sonic territory I want to explore?
Yeah, absolutely. We got work from that. And we started isolating, defining ourselves in that way. But you know, the kinds of sounds we liked — crunchy sounds... somewhere between Tom Waits and the slick side, high contrast — started getting more fashionable. I always thought it was because of rap and hip-hop coming up. People started using pretty funky old records (for sampling). And it just broke the margin for sonics. And suddenly there was so much more that was acceptable to record companies. I couldn't get arrested in the '80s to mix anything. Even the Crowded House stuff was mixed by [Bob] Clearmountain.
How are things different now that you're working independently of Mitchell and in the "producer" role?
It's different. I'm an engineer, basically. There are different kinds of producers and there's room for all of them. Different artists require different things. I think I'm best with bands who have a strong identity and a strong sense of themselves — who are good songwriters and good arrangers. I can help. I can sometimes spark a somewhat lackluster arrangement, but I'm not an arranger. If a song's not working, I can try to tinker with it, but it doesn't come naturally. Unlike Mitchell who can see the flaw in a song and a structure and say, "Here's 3 different options." For me, it's a matter of creating the atmosphere that the music's going to live in. With arrangement, my strength is with mute buttons. I love to capture the spontaneity on tape and then just give me mix time and I can mute for days.
And then there's the non-technical side. Sounds are important, but there's also the social aspect; how to get the most out of people. As producer you must have to take greater responsibility for that as well.
Yeah. It's really just in the last year and a half that I've started to produce people I don't know. People I sometimes meet on the day of the session, almost. With Pearl Jam, I'd met them in New Zealand and hung out with them for a day or two and knew I liked them as people. And so I knew we could work together. But it's still different because I'm used to working with people over time. That's where it's at. I miss that, sometimes: developing with somebody. It's great to do 3 or 4 records with somebody. It seemed to happen a lot in the '60s — where you'd grow with an artist. Doesn't always work, but it certainly makes it fun and comfortable in the studio.
You get to be the 5th Beatle.
[laughs] Right. It's happening less and less though. Oddly enough I now get more offers to mix than anything else. Which is crazy because, like I said, in the '80s and early '90s I wasn't allowed to touch it. I've done some mixes more recently where I've really restrained myself, conscious not to get too "out." Like a single's mix where I can take it out a little and not offend anybody. And I've turned it in and they say, "It sounds a little conservative." And I go, "Man, times have changed." [laughs]
I can't help but think that you've played a pretty big part in that evolution. I think the records you've made throughout this decade have contributed to the opening of a lot of ears.
I guess it's hard for me to see that because it doesn't seem like that many people heard those records. Mitchell and I have a running joke, that we should call our production company "Kiss of Death Productions". [Laughs] Because our sales figures are pretty dismal. But I've loved the records we've made. And I actually think that the records we make together are the most fun to do because the weight is distributed. And I can actually sit and listen to the music in another way. When I'm producing and engineering... I think this record [Pearl Jam] has been the hardest for me. Because it's in a new studio [Litho], which is not ideal. It's a good studio — I wish I had a studio like that. But for me it takes a long time to learn a studio and how it sounds. So producing and thinking about the sounds and engineering... I'm finding it hard to juggle. If I was at the Sound Factory [Blake's main haunt] I could be on the phone while patching something in. So it's a little more weight. So when I'm working with Mitchell it's like a vacation. And I love the tempo and how we work. It's kind of a lazy approach. [laughs] But it's really fun. Every day you feel like coming into the studio. You wake up and you go, "Oh, I've got an idea. Let's go do it."
When you say "lazy," is that because you're just "playing?"
No, it's actually lazy. It's an eight hour day. But in that eight hours there's probably 2 1/2 or 3 hours of breaks. [laughs] We just sit and eat and talk. Which is also a huge part of the process. With Los Lobos it's just ridiculous, but it's so much fun. By the time we've finished dinner everybody's kinda like, "Aw, let's play." They get up there, play through a few takes, usually the first one's the best. As we listen to some playback, Louie (Perez) is finishing with lyrics on his computer.
He's actually writing the lyrics in the studio?
[laughs] Yeah, he's got a computer in there, music playing from the other room. He gives it to Dave [Hidalgo] who sits there with 2 or 3 passes and says "Okay, let's try it." I put up the mic and, I kid you not, 50% of the time he goes out and sings it and it's the vocal. First time. And then we do a couple of backgrounds or a keyboard... and it's done. And we're out by nine.
When you say people are so attracted to the Latin Playboys records I suspect that the spontaneity is part of what they're responding to. When you deconstruct it, a particular cool sound is no substitute for chemistry and fun. The vibe infects every aspect of what goes to tape.
I think so. I'd agree with that. And that's been my thing — I just want to have a good time. Everybody wants hits, and everybody wants to be successful and have lots of money. But I can't think that way. And I don't work with the kind of artist who thinks that way anyhow. You just have to go with what you really love, what you really like about music, and hope it clicks. It can't be the other way around, for me. There are people out there who can do that, who are really good at it. More power to 'em. I love TLC and they're writing hits. And they're producers.... it's amazing. I'm stuck on that record. But my head just doesn't think that way. I can listen to it and love it, but when I'm in the studio, I just can't do that.
Maybe an important aspect of the whole process is learning how to be yourself, rather than emulating someone else's schtick.
Yeah, I've been through that. But you know with sounds and stuff, I'll usually think in a really, really broad fashion about what kind of sound might work on something. Maybe I think in terms of the thing at hand: the drum. It's almost like connecting the dots. And I sometimes arrive at a sound that I couldn't have imagined.
So you don't necessarily say, "I've got a sound in my head, how do I get it?"
Sometimes, but rarely. Usually it's, "That guitar sounds too normal, put the amp in that trash can over there." And then the handle on the trash can will buzz — but not enough. [laughs] So then we have to put a mic on the buzz. Maybe you do the part and it doesn't work. I'll tell ya, 8 times out of 10 it does. You experiment and you find something you can use somehow. And sometimes it works in a way you didn't think it was going to. On a different part, maybe, than the one you were going for. It's a crap shoot.
Well, on your current project you've been working with a hugely successful band [Pearl Jam] on an enormous record label [Epic/Sony], have you felt big expectations from them?
Just from the band. I just want to make a record that's good for the band. So it's really about my own expectations. And I can be pretty hard on myself. It's a matter of working with new people in a new studio in a new town [Seattle] for a long period of time.
How long have you been at it?
I was here a month in September, it's been 3 weeks this month [November], and it's probably going to be 2 weeks in the new year. And I'm used to doing a record in 4 weeks, 5 maybe. Mixed, done. Usually in a situation when you have a concentrated time. And this is different — everybody in the band has other things going on. Important stuff, like benefits, and shows to do, or a record company to run. So it's a little bit piecemeal. People coming in, one at a time, doing specific parts. They're used to it, it's easy for them. And it's a new kind of music for me to be working on — which I really like. I'm getting to stretch a little bit here. But I'm also trying to bring some of my sensibilities to it. But hopefully not too much. So my concern is that I'm helping them make the record they want to make. I'm being careful about that. I'm talking with everybody. That's a different role for me. It's not quite as, "Let's just throw things down." It's a little more considered. It involves re-doing things that someone doesn't like a few days later. That sort of stuff.
Have you had any specific directives?
Oh no, they're open for a lot of stuff.
Lots of experimentation?
Oh yeah, they're ready to do another kind of record. And I think we're getting there.
To use a metaphor, some producers' style might be like a soup base, to which an artist adds his/her own ingredients. But some, like yours for instance, are a spicy jambalaya from the start. Is it possible that in some cases you run the risk of overwhelming the project with your recipe?
Maybe so, yeah. But I'm trying to make sure that doesn't happen here. I don't want to just come in and put my stamp on the record. I want it to be the band's project where I just add a few spices to the stew. So like I said I think we're getting there. But technically it's difficult because I think I have a hard time doing both: producing and engineering. Although Matt Bayles, who's engineering this, really is great. But I can't help [doing some of the engineering], I've been at it for too long. Sometimes I get so caught up in the sounds, say the snare drum, that I miss a verse, how the lyrics went. It's hard to split my focus. So the mix of this will be at the Sound Factory, and that's where I think I'll really be able to lighten up and fly a little bit. Because I'll be in familiar surroundings and I won't have to think about any of the technical aspects of the process.
Let's talk a little about gear. So what's your relationship with the analog and digital mediums, respectively?
I've heard both sound good, and both sound bad. And it depends on the budget. Most people I work with aren't like Pearl Jam or Sheryl Crow. They're on smaller budgets and it's cheaper to do analogue, that's changing I know. Maybe not if someone owns [their own] Pro Tools and as far as editing goes, I love cutting tape. I come from the day when that was the way you worked and I love it. So I guess analog takes precedence.
Are you tracking on tape with Pearl Jam?
Yup. But they've got the new Pro Tools system set up. There are about 2 songs where I've spread the drums out all over the place — a compressed track, a SansAmp track, a room track, and then all the separate [close mic] tracks. And I'm keeping that way for now. And that's taken up a lot of tracks. But some other things, like percussion and vocals, will probably go to Pro Tools directly. And then I'll find a track to dump it to on the 24-track later. We have both going. I save everything to Pro Tools.
Anything new and strange you've used in making this record?
Well, I love the new Moog pedals. I've got those. The phaser is actually very cool. It's actually like a little filter box. I've always wanted a phaser that you could actually stop. You get a filtering that you, like, in the throe of its phase modulation you can just stop and keep in that place. Very cool.
And how have you been using that?
On guitar and there's a couple of drum things I'm going to use it on. And probably a vocal or two. Oh and here's something for your readers. I've had this for years, but I've only used it once or twice in 10 years where it stuck. It's a Ludwig Phase 2 synthesizer, made in the '70s. It's a big box with a pedal that switches on like a wah-wah. It's got all these settings — one that's called "vowel," one that's called "parallel, I don't know what else. Anyway, Mike McCready has really taken to this box and he's probably gotten the best sounds I've heard out of it. Ludwig for crying out loud. It's really a low-fi, bad, bad box and it's looming large on the project. [laughs]
I wanted to ask you about your use of the binaural head.
It's a Neumann KU-100. Fritz Kunstkopf developed it a long time ago. They were making these in the '60s, I think. And binaural is an old concept that I think goes back to the late 1800s, and began to be applied to recording in the 1950s. ["Binaural" refers to the concept that sound is interpreted in a unique way by the actual physical placement of the human ears, and the construction of the human head] I believe Neumann, was the first to make a stand-alone binaural head. When I started in the studio I'd heard about it and had seen some literature on it. So I built my own. I got a couple of ECM 50s and just put them in my ears and it worked really well. Not great frequency response, but you can floss with it afterwards.
So what does it look like?
Mine looks like a broken pair of headphones with mics hanging over the ears. I actually just let the mics hang.
So it closely approximates the actual human listening experience.
It's the closest I've gotten. Except for the actual Neumann head. The Neumann head is really such a great microphone. My little set-up doesn't sound as good. The Neumann uses KU-100 mics — they're like KM 84s. A very, very fine microphone. I've used the head a lot, on lots of records. But I can't always take it and it's sometimes better to be unobtrusive walking down the street. (With my set-up) people just think I'm listening to something and it doesn't scare them. With the Neumann head people sometimes get a little freaked out. I had one guy in India who was reminded of a deity by it. Luckily the deity was a friendly spirit but he was a little startled. [laughs]
I'm still having a hard time envisioning the Neumann version.
Oh, well have you ever seen the Dada stylized representations of the guys with the slicked back hair? Almost bald and the really angular nose? Angular chin? It's a really stylized, almost "Deco" looking head. A big grey plastic thing with soft rubber ears. A nose shape, a mouth shape.
And what was the idea there?
Well, they did a lot of testing to see if hair, shoulders, etc. had much of an impact on sound. And they found that, for the money, it didn't make enough difference, so they settled on making the head from mid-neck up. And that approximated human hearing. It does a fair job. But human hearing is so much more than what's going into two ear drums. There's bone conduction, body cavity resonance. You can't really pick that stuff up. So you're missing that and there are certain cues you don't get. But it's amazing what you do hear. It's just its own thing.
What have you used it on recently?
That's my overhead. I haven't used conventional overheads in years. I place that slightly in front of the drums, maybe a couple of inches above the top cymbal line, facing the drummer. I try to get a lot of the drums from that. Maybe use a couple bottom tom mics if I need to. Kick and snare mics, though I don't always need to. Sometimes it's just the head.
That almost takes you full circle to your early field-recording days.
That's always been my real love: field recordings. I've actually got a label for it, a sub-label actually. It's through Peter Gabriel's Nomad Select called Document. It's going to be my binaural recordings.
From all over the world?
I've done a bunch and some have already come out on Nomad Select. One from the Gambia, one from Sardinia, and those are both out. And there's one by a Ugandan guitar player, but I did that in England. Wonderful record, he just died unfortunately. But the first fully binaural record I did was made in 1994 and that's going to be the first Document release. With a little photo booklet and a CD available early next year.
Also, I wanted to ask you about your use of Shure level-locks.
That's something I discovered on a Waits record: Bone Machine. We went to a swap meet and found this thing — it said "level-lock". I heard a sound for about half a second and it blew up. I realized it was a mic-level compressor. Then I was really interested in it. So I sent it out to be repaired. Got it back and we both just flipped over this thing. It's a podium compressor — so it's made to be used for a human voice at closest 12 inches. That's a pretty low level. It's made for low-level stuff, but to keep it controlled so if the speaker varies his distance it'll stay the same. So I put a microphone into it and put the mic right between the kick and the snare drums — which is 10 times greater a level than it's designed for. And it just flips out in the most beautiful way. It's turned into another essential. Drums often don't sound right until I've got a little of that in there.
And you use the Empirical Labs Distressor a good deal, right?
The Distressor is great.
And what qualities do you get out of that?
The level-lock is just a total fuck-up. It's distortion and compression at the same time. You can make it truly sound backwards. That's an effect. The Distressor will also do that but in a more elegant way. If I don't want it so distorted I can use the Distressor. It's also a really fine compressor. You can make it sound just grungy, but it's also a really good- sounding vocal compressor. Guitars, drums. Everything. You can't have too many Distressors. [laughs] And then the ADL is great. Different compressors are good to have.
My last question is a broader, more philosophical one: Why do you make records?
I'm not sure I can tell you. I haven't really tried to define it. I don't always like being in the studio. There are certain pressures, especially in pop music, that I don't like. And they make me ask that very question every now and then — why do I do this? But there is something that happens to me on almost a chemical level. When I hear cool sounds work together, and witness someone's creativity -something I can be part of, help with, or bring to another level... maybe it takes me somewhere. There's something about the collaboration I really like. Sometimes it's difficult in the moment; it's not where I want to be. But I usually like the result. I get to sit back and listen and go, "I like that." Or even if I don't, I'm always learning something. These days I like it. And then I get an idea to do something else. I'm not really a musician, I'm not a composer. It's sort of like working with found objects. Show me something that's got some potential and I can take it in a particular direction. Hopefully, when I'm collaborating with someone, it's a direction they want to go in. That's what works, that's what's fun.
It's interesting that you use the phrase of "found objects" because your work sometimes puts me in mind of the artist Robert Rauschenberg — the way seemingly unrelated images are treated and assembled and juxtaposed. It has the effect of transporting you into a new dimension of perception.
And yet hopefully there's still a thread of familiarity running through it. It's funny that you say that because I'm very much into art. My wife is an artist and clothing designer and she's really taught me a lot about putting things together. I do metal work at home, I have a little metal shop. And that's helped me realize what I do in the studio. If you bring me a raw metal square I'll just stare at it dumbly for days, "What the hell do I do with that?" But bring me a bent up old spoon, or a hunk of metal that's been run over with a hole in it and just a hint of a mouth... I'm away. I think, "I could do this to that, and put this on that," and I'm off. That's why I work best with people who have a strong sense of their own identity. It's freedom. But I need that little seed.