Many fans of the Flaming Lips might know Michael Ivins as that quiet, cigarette- smoking bass player. Indeed, he is often overshadowed by his media-savvy bandmates. However, many may not realize that Ivins has worked at Dave Fridmann's Tarbox Road Studio for the past two years and was assistant engineer on records by Luna, Home and Wheat. He has been an integral part of the Flaming Lips' productions since 1994's Zaireeka — a set of four CDs meant to be played simultaneously on four stereo systems. I met up with him in Columbus, Ohio, while the Lips were on tour in support of their new album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
While you're on the road, are you guys doing demos or recording?
I tracked a record [at Tarbox Road] and now I'm trying to edit it and make fake guitar overdubs on the computer. Every few nights I'll get a couple hours before I go to bed and sort of do some stuff.
On a laptop?
Yeah... but out on the road, there's just no time.
What software do you use?
Digital Performer, just 'cause it's the easiest. The iBook I've got is one of the ancient ones. I've toyed with the idea of getting a G4 [Power Mac] but I don't know if I wanna get involved with having a Pro Tools rig on the road. That just seems like that's asking for trouble.
Do you have an electronics background?
No, everything I know is from working in the band or from Trent Bell's studio [Bell Labs] in Norman, Oklahoma. He does some of our sound in Europe. He put together a studio and had gotten a Neotek series board for real cheap but it didn't work so good. So I volunteered... in hindsight not a good idea. I know a lot better now, but just so I could see what was going on, to figure out signal flow and all that. So I got into the guts and recapped the whole board, put new chips in it, and did a lot of rewiring and stuff, so now it's actually a full 24 channel board. I think it's got four returns. And when stuff breaks, I'm the guy. I have found that 95% of the time, it's a cold solder [joint] and you just have to track it down and find out where something's come loose.
What were you doing before you got to Tarbox Road? Were you working at studios in Oklahoma?
Just at Trent's studio, helping him on a technical level. I'd sit in on some projects and see how he did it. It was really on Zaireeka that I could technically call myself an assistant engineer. Even though I'd look back at tapes from years and years ago and see my handwriting on track sheets. I guess I've always been in there, kind of looking and doing stuff like that. Zaireeka ended up being such a huge project — we ended up having ten DATs full of mixes... [I had] to keep track of everything, of where all this stuff was, and which were the right mixes and all that kind of junk. After we did Zaireeka, I went up there [to Tarbox Road Studios] in '99 to work. I think I was going to go up there for a couple weeks, and ended up being there for two months. I slept on the studio couch in the control room. While I was there, I worked on records for Home and Wheat. Those were sort of my first assisting. We've worked together for so long that it started to blur where I'm officially the assistant engineer, but then sometimes I'd actually be engineering, and sometimes I'd get into production. I think being who I am has actually helped my engineering career, 'cause I didn't have to start off doing the coffee and tea thing. Almost on day two, people would turn around to me and say, "What do you think?" and that's getting into production. When I moved up there, it was right when we were going to start recording Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, so it seemed to make perfect sense. We were going to be up there two weeks out of every month anyway, for a year and a half. I just moved up there with my wife and just went solid. Some months, no days off. It's been great. I think I've been able to squish five or seven years of experience down into these two years that I've been doing it. It's been really great to work with other bands. We did the new Luna record, and we did this band from Scotland called Delgados. Just all kinds of stuff. We recently remastered the whole [Flaming Lips] back catalog. We just got a baby Neve console in the studio, so we ran...