Hailing from Bremerton, Washington, Phil Ek grew up as a kid who was into music from the get-go. As a teenager he would travel across the Puget Sound to pick up the latest releases from SST and Sub Pop. Not wanting to stay in Bremerton, Phil moved to Seattle and ended up doing live sound at the now defunct Off Ramp. During this time he was introduced to Jack Endino and became his assistant at Word Of Mouth studio, which is where Nirvana recorded Bleach (when it was called Reciprocal). After assisting Endino to record the likes of Nirvana, Hole, and the Supersuckers, Ek became the guy who ended up doing the demos for every cold call that came into the studio. He then went on to record a host of bands and is best known for his work on the past six Built to Spill recordings. When I spoke with Phil recently, we focused a lot on his work with Doug Martsch, the mastermind behind Built to Spill.
Let's talk about collaboration. What does collaboration mean between you and Doug on the Built to Spill records?
We are both looking out for the same artistic vision. He's obviously the songwriter, the guy with ideas in the back of his mind that he doesn't always know how to make happen sonically. We collaborate on ideas — how to make it sonically what he wants, to pushing him to do that guitar part as good as he can. If he feels like giving up, he knows that I'm there to know that he can do it that much better, either sound or performance.
How did you first start working with Built to Spill?
I started working with Built to Spill after I recorded his bass player's [Brett Nelson] band, Butterfly Train. I didn't really know Doug and he came in the studio, this was at Word of Mouth, and I said, "What are you doing here?" He told me that Brett was the bass player in Built to Spill and they were in Seattle doing shows. He had just got done doing the first Halo Benders record. We just kind of hit it off. We were talking about music and he asked me to do the Built to Spill record. We recorded what became There's Nothing Wrong With Love a month later.
What are the pros of collaboration with Built to Spill?
There's a level of comfort and relaxation. But, I've never felt that doing records with Doug was mundane and by the book. We always try to make it different — treat the songs, treat the album differently. He knows that, and I know that we're both on the same page looking for that excitement in the music. It's fun. He started off as a guy I just liked artistically, but he's turned into a really good friend.
What sort of unspoken communication has developed between you guys over the years?
There's moments when I know he's going to like something, or not going to like something. He'll be out there doing a guitar track and I don't really necessarily have to ask him if he thinks it's okay. I know he thinks it's good, or I'll know he's definitely going to want to do it again. Also, we listen back to something and know where to punch in, because it's not as hot as it was at some other point in the song. There's definitely that vibe of knowing each other's likes and dislikes.
What's the difference between the first album you did with Built to Spill, There's Nothing Wrong with Love, and the most recent album, Ancient Melodies of the Future?
Time. The time that we had to do it, that's one big difference, obviously. I think we did basic tracks for Nothing Wrong... in two days, which really isn't all that different from Ancient Melodies... We did those basics in three. We also get to go to better studios now, with much better equipment.
Did you record There's Nothing Wrong with Love at Word of Mouth Studio?
Yeah, it was called John and Stu's by then.
What gear did you have?
It think we had a 2" 16-track Ampex MM1200. We had a 12 channel API and a Mackie 16 channel board put together. Luckily we didn't mix it that way [laughs]. We mixed it once at Avast! [in Seattle] and then listened to it and thought there could be more stuff done to it overdub-wise. We went back and did some more overdubs and mixed it at John and Stu's again on a Quad Eight Ventura board they had just gotten in there.
Where was the last album tracked?
It was tracked at Bear Creek in Woodinville, Washington. They've got a Trident board and a Studer deck. We did overdubs at Avast!, they have an API and a Studer. We mixed it a place called the Factory up in Vancouver, B.C. They had, I believe, an Otari, and a Neve.
When you're recording Doug's guitars, what's he particular about?
He's more a one guitar guy than he is an amp guy. He brings in his stuff, which is pretty much old Fender stuff. He has...