Chris Eckman has been chief songwriter and guitarist for Seattle band The Walkabouts for 20 years. The band's sound has evolved over time as Eckman's collaboration with co-founder, vocalist and musician Carla Torgerson, keyboardist Glen Slater and drummer Terry Moeller has grown. The band has always sought out the varied talents of seasoned outside producers like Phill Brown and Victor Van Vugt. In the early '90s, Chris and the band began acting more and more as co-producers of their own records, while still working closely with outside producers. As The Walkabouts' popularity grew — primarily in Europe in countries like Germany, Greece and Norway — Eckman increasingly received requests from bands looking for an outside producer. His growing discography includes Midnight Choir, Terry Lee Hale, Portuguese band Raindogs and the Bambi Molesters, as well as his own solo material and several Walkabouts releases. At our old haunt, the Two Bells Tavern in Seattle, I spoke with Chris about working in European studios, co- producing with and learning from Victor Van Vugt and other producers, recording string sections, and producing a (Norwegian Grammy) award-winning gold record.
How did you "learn" to produce a record?
We did an album in '92 called Scavenger [Sub Pop] and it was the first time where we really hired a bona fide outside producer, this guy named Gary Smith from Boston. He had done the Throwing Muses, and I learned an enormous amount from him. He was actually a "producer", and unlike a lot of people who carry that title around, he did more than just sit in the control room and collect his paycheck. Gary wasn't an engineer either, which was actually kind of an interesting introduction to producing because the first real producer I worked with wasn't an engineer. I think what I learned from Gary was the ability to organize recording sessions and create atmospheres. The other thing I learned from him was [how] everyday you have to have as much enthusiasm about the project as the artist, if not more. I would say in the early days as a songwriter and one of the singers I clearly had production ideas, but I don't think I would consider myself a full-on co-producer in The Walkabouts until around '93. I really felt that guy cared as much about the album as we did, which I thought was a really remarkable feat. I had never worked with an engineer up to that point, as good as some of the guys I had worked with were, [whom I felt] came into it with that level of commitment. After we had worked with him, I think that all of The Walkabouts, to some extent, developed some "producing chops", 'cause we really saw how this side of things worked.
In 1987 when you and I worked together, you brought in your whole posse — Ed [Brooks], Tony [Kroes]...
Yeah, exactly. That was part of the whole thing, you know? I still do that as a producer. It depends on the project. It really varies. You know, the producer in the classic '60s sense of the term was really the guy who organized the session. You read about these classic guys like Bob Johnston who did Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan and Leonard Cohen — his name's on all those projects — but was he actually doing an amazing amount of work shaping the sound? No, he wasn't. He was really bringing this engineer, these backup musicians, [that] string arranger. He was making a lot of those decisions, and really believing and trusting in the people [assembled] and then going from there. And some projects I've been involved in, that's really the role I've played. I don't feel that I can just be a producer for hire — it's more than just liking the music. I have to look at the project and say, "It's not that they need me, but I could be useful here." If it's just going to be me sitting in a room for a month and making the occasional comment, I wouldn't do it. I try to listen to the band's previous material and say, "This needs to be a reaction against that in this [particular] way." I try to formulate an overall vision and usually it's not something I'm imposing on anyone. They've come to me. So they have a sense that I'm going to create the right atmosphere. I always tell people that — I don't want this to sound arrogant — but [I tell them] if I'm going to do it I need to feel it's a situation where ultimately I'm going to be allowed to be the producer. That's really important, or else there's really no point in me being there, you know? If the band can do it themselves or the band and the engineer can do it themselves, what's the point in hiring me? My name as a credit on the CD is not worth that much. [laughs] I also have to feel like I can make suggestions about [things like] what kind of instrumentation we use. I never ultimately impose a hard stamp on anything, but I have to have the freedom to suggest what I feel like suggesting, 'cause that's why they're bringing me in.
And do you have an idea in...
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