Paul Leary's accidental entrance into the world of recording started in the eighties with his role of de facto button pusher for his band, the Butthole Surfers. Since that time he's produced some of the best-known music of bands like Sublime and Meat Puppets, while earning credits as a mix engineer for such acts as U2 and Weezer and producing cult favorites like the Bad Livers and Daniel Johnston. His guitar work with the Surfers (and guest appearances on albums with the Flaming Lips and Stone Temple Pilots) made his name known to many music fans, while his formidable production history has made his name popular with artists seeking an outstanding producer as well.
Your career started as a guitar player.
The Butthole Surfers just wanted to make records, but we really couldn't afford studio time. We recorded our first material at BOSS Studios in San Antonio. The owner [Bob O'Neill] would let Gibby [Haynes] and I sleep in the tool shed. When there was time available, we'd go in there and work. We didn't know what a board was, or a tape machine, or a microphone. It was a crash course. We'd sneak in and work through the night. We ended up with some pretty retarded recordings. We didn't have a drummer. We were literally using anybody off the street who would walk in and play drums. One guy heard music coming from the studio, said he was a drummer from New York, and asked if he could play on a song. He ended up playing two songs for our album. He did them and left — I don't even know his name. About two-thirds of the way through the first record we hooked up with King Coffey, who became our permanent drummer.
How did you make the transition into producing?
Instead of going into the studio, we decided to buy equipment. We bought a 1-inch, 8-track machine, an old Ampex 300 series with tube electronics and built-in mic preamps. You could just plug your mic into the back. It stood about seven-feet tall and weighed a ton. We settled in Georgia for a while and set up a studio. Then we came back to Austin. We had tape machines wherever we went. We moved to the country and, before long, I realized I was recording all the records for the Butthole Surfers. There was this band called the Bad Livers from Austin. I really was into this band and I offered them a deal where I would front the money for studio time if they'd let me produce an album [Delusions of Banjer] for them. They agreed, I fronted the money, and they did it for Touch and Go. I got paid my money back, and I produced a record for somebody else. The Butthole Surfers got signed to Capitol, and we worked with John Paul Jones [Led Zeppelin] as a producer. [During that time] I played the Meat Puppets for John Paul Jones. The Meat Puppets called me up afterwards and asked me to ask him to produce their record. I called him, but he wasn't interested. I figured he'd love them. So I called the Meat Puppets back and said, "Sorry, he's not interested." They were like, "We really like that Bad Livers album a lot. Are you interested?" I went to Memphis; we recorded in a place that was like a gymnasium. But we ultimately finished the project in Austin. I was working with Stuart Sullivan [see his interview this issue] at that time. That record [Too High to Die] had a hit song on the radio ["Backwater"] and went gold. Then they wanted to make another album, so I went to Phoenix. I'm driving a rental car and working on my second Meat Puppets album! Every day the radio's playing this song by Sublime called "Date Rape." They played it 100 times a day and I just never got tired of it. My agent called me at the hotel room one night and said, "Hey, there's this band called Sublime and they're into the Meat Puppets' Too High to Die album that you did and they want to know if you'd produce them." I said, "Hell, yeah." So they sent me these demo tapes. The first tape I put on had the David Kahne version of "What I Got," along with some other songs he'd recorded. I called back and said, "You don't need me. Whatever you did to make these demos is what you need to do." They said, "No, we like David Kahne's work a lot, but he was into drum loops. We want to capture more of the live thing." I told them I would do it if I could also record a version of "What I Got." So they ended up with two versions of that on the album. That record [Sublime] sold a lot and had a lot of radio hits. "Santeria" was on the radio for over a year and the label actually had to call the radio stations and ask them to stop playing it so they could move on to their next single. That was fun, and the Butthole Surfers were on the charts at the same time; so that was a kick start.
That must have been a good time for you.
Actually, a lot of it was a pretty rotten experience. It was fun watching albums on the charts, but working with junkies was a bad thing. The Meat Puppets were hobbled by a junkie problem, my band was hobbled with a junkie problem, and then Sublime showed up with a junkie problem. It was nerve wracking and depressing as fucking hell to have a guy [Bradley Nowell] die like that on you. That was tough.
How do you get those guys to focus when they're in the middle of that lifestyle?
You get them set up and then you wait for them to play. You'd better be ready to hit the record button. That's basically how you do it. You can't make them play. With Sublime, those guys were players but you had to catch them. There's all this chaos swirling about and your goal is to see the bits and pieces of gold nuggets, grab them and hold on to them for dear life. We did all the drum tracking at Pedernales Studio [in Austin], and they have a nine-hole golf course. They'd record a couple of eight minute long songs and then go to the golf course. Meanwhile I'd hit the two-inch tape with a razor blade and turn the songs into three or four minutes.
How do you keep the spirits of the rest of the band up in the midst of a junkie problem?
Sometimes you can't. I remember working on a project where a junkie woke up on the floor and, because I'd moved onto something else while he was passed out, he got pissed off and yelled at me for 45 minutes straight. Eventually I was across the street wondering, "How did I get here?" At that point you move the studio session and you don't tell him where you're going. That's what I did with the Meat Puppets on No Joke!.
How do you separate your own musical approach from overriding the group's style?
Obviously I have a slant that I bring in, but I'm really trying to facilitate the artist in fulfilling their vision. I'm not trying to impose my will on it. When somebody plays a really retarded guitar solo that makes everybody cringe, I'm jumping for joy. I have to rein that in sometimes. I just get into their headspace and try to understand what their vision is. If you don't understand it, you're going to be at a loss. As an artist I've worked with producers like John Paul Jones, Steve Thompson, and Rob Cavallo. They all have different styles, but they help the artist make the record that they want to make.
What were their differing styles?
John Paul Jones was there for every note that was played. There was never a moment that he wasn't there. That's my style as well. He does it because he loves the music and he wants to be a fly on the wall for everything. The other extreme would be Rob Cavallo, who's won Grammys for his production and done incredible work. He produced the Butthole's Weird Revolution; he'd show up, listen to the music for five minutes and then say, "Okay, I've got to go to my daughter's recital. I'll see you next week." You're left with an engineer asking, "Who's calling the shots?" I can't criticize that, because it works; but I never understood that approach because I want to be there when something cool happens.
You've worked a lot with Stuart Sullivan engineering, and you guys make a good team. What's your opinion of the producer's role versus the engineer's role?
There's a good reason why you don't try to do both at once, especially when you're tracking a band. An engineer is going to bring his own sound; Stuart brings his own sound. He has his own techniques, knowledge, his own equipment and he knows what to do with it. I want him listening to see if the snare drum is starting to sag or if the mic is drooping. I want to be able to listen to the vibe. Am I getting goose bumps? I don't want to listen to what he's listening to. If you're producing and hearing a bunch of songs go down, you want to be listening to the music and not to the technical aspects. Sometimes you just have to throw all that stuff aside and trust in other people doing that for you.
Do you approach each mix differently or do you have a routine that you go through to get started?
I probably have a routine and I just don't know it. I try to start off listening to everything at once, as opposed to bringing up individual things and making them sound good alone. I'll pull it all up together to get a gist of what the song is about. If it's something I'm producing I'm usually throwing a little mixing into the editing routine and make adjustments while I'm editing. By the time I'm through editing, I have a picture together and take the mix from there.
What are the important elements of a good mix for you?
Being able to hear what you're doing, which is tricky. There are a lot of bad rooms out there, including my room at home. I try. I have a lot of pressed fiberboard, but it's tricky. Then you get into a room that's tuned well and it all becomes really easy. The rooms at Sonic Ranch [near El Paso, Texas, see interview this issue] are well tuned, so it's fun to make rough mixes there. You can listen to them at home — or in the car — and they sound exactly the same.
How do you overcome a bad mixing room and figure out how it's going to translate to other speakers?
As far as working at home, I work with Barefoot monitors and old Auratones. I got rid of my ported speakers. I used to have three sets of ported monitors; I'd switch between them and it would sound like different mixes. That drove me crazy, so I got rid of them all and life got a lot easier.
You're known for production work, but do you have engineering chops?
Not really. I do what I have to do, when I need to do it, but I'd rather have another engineer do it. Probably any engineer in the world would do a better job than I'll do. If you have good equipment you can overcome a lot of deficiencies. Instead of buying a bunch of crappy gear, save up and buy one really nice piece. Everybody should own a [Neve] 1073. My god, those are expensive. I can't even remember what I paid for mine.
What was it like coming back to the studio with the Butthole Surfers in 2001 after having success as a producer?
By that time I was doing less of it. Sublime was in '96 and since that time we'd only done one album [Weird Revolution], and that was with Rob Cavallo. Nothing really changed, because I was producing the Butthole Surfers anyway. It's not that I wanted to do it. It's just that I'd look around and I'd be the only one in the room for a week, or month, at a time. Every once in a while I'd hear a complaint, "You're always in there." So I'd leave the room and then nobody would be in there.
How do you deal with that?
Well, that's just being in a band, you know? You're not going to be in a band without weird crap going on, on some level; especially a band like ours. We had no talent — no anything. Just a bunch of problems and a bad attitude. I hated the world. I got out of college and I didn't get a job. I was mad. I hated everything and I wanted to make music that would punish people. I wanted to upset people with horrible, wretched music and this big finger like, "Fuck you." It took a long time before I realized there was a chance of actually making a career out of that. I always looked at it as suicide. I didn't think I was going to live 20 years playing music. We were not making sound business decisions, we were just travelling around the country and partying every night with anybody who would come out and buy us beer.
Were there moments you had in the studio when it was all working?
The Surfers were a little different. Some people write songs and then go into the studio and record them. We would record the songs while we were writing them. We would literally hit the record button and whatever came out was our song. It's hard to gauge how that works, except that we never had a platinum record. [laughs] But that stuff's still around, people were influenced by it, and we were able to make a career with it. In Georgia, one time I wanted a guitar solo and just left an amp on with a guitar leaning up against it and a mic on, and just sitting there waiting for someone to play. Gibby walked by and started doodling, so I hit the record button. He wasn't even listening to the song, but that ended up being the solo. We got really great stuff that way. Or sometimes we'd buy used tape; by the time I figured out how to turn off that backwards violin part, I realized I wanted to leave it in there.
How do you know when to use those accidents and when they're crap?
You've got [to have] instinct. The first thought that comes to your mind, stick with it. People know when they like something, or not, right away. I try not to think about. If I catch myself smiling, it's a done deal. If I catch my brow furrowing, I throw it away.
What if your brow furrows later?
Then I have to second guess myself, but I don't like things labored on too much. I like first takes, maybe second takes. At the point that a band is doing something for the third time you're just concentrating on where you are in the song. That's no way to make music. The first time there's some excitement and anticipation to what's coming up and those things really translate, so I stick with that.
How did you approach the recent Sublime With Rome record? Were you concerned about it not matching their previous standards?
Well, I couldn't really be concerned about it. Everything was real last second. The Butthole Surfers were playing a Halloween show at the Scoot Inn in Austin. Sublime with Rome was on tour and they all showed up. I think Rome [Ramirez] got drunk and was thrown out for getting into a fight. Eric [Wilson], or Bud [Gaugh], came up to me after the show and asked if I'd be interested in working on another record. I was like, "Fuck, yeah!" I couldn't sleep that night. It was different than the previous Sublime record, because [back then] those guys had their chops down big time. They knew the songs. Some were too long and needed arrangement work, but the basic performances were stellar. This time they went into the studio without knowing what they were going to do. After a couple of days Eric took me aside and said, "What are we doing here?" I'm like, "You mean you don't know? Maybe you should tell me what we're doing." It's not quite how I would like to have done it. But I wanted to do it, so I did it within the parameters that were set.
How did it compare with the last sessions for Sublime?
Well, it was more fun in that I wasn't watching somebody kill themselves with heroin. That was really tough. For the new record we were at Sonic Ranch, which is really a blast. It's an indescribably cool place. I was probably there for seven weeks straight. Time just becomes non- existent [while working at the ranch]. You wake up and a lot of the people don't even speak English. You order your breakfast in Spanish, and then you go back to work. At dinnertime, the owner [Tony Rancich] might come out with a nice bottle of red wine. It's just a really great place to work. On the last record the band came in with a million songs. It's always tough telling an artist, "Let's stick with an album." Everyone wants to get two albums out at the same time and it's hard to explain to people that the more songs you have, the more work there is — in that exact proportion. They were writing songs in the studio this time, and I think they [Rome and the band] were still getting to know each other. They'd been playing live together and doing the Sublime songs, but they hadn't done a whole lot of writing of new material. They came in with one new song, "Panic," that the label wanted as a single. So we had to do that one first, get it mixed, and sent over to mastering. That was released and on the charts before we even finished the album. For the previous Sublime record [Sublime] there was nobody coming in from the outside. With success comes a number of people who are going to tell you how to do your job.
When bands play you the songs they've written for an album, how do you go about helping them choose what material to use?
Depending on the band, sometimes that choice is already made. Sometimes they ask me what I like and what I want to work on, and I'll tell them. It's usually pretty easy for me. If I don't like them, I'm not going to work with them, at all.
As far as the individual songs go?
I'll know if I like it and want to listen to it; I'll know if I want to hear it again, or if I want to turn it off, from the first time I listen to it. Sometimes something's so weird and you don't "get" it, but you want to listen to it again just to satisfy your curiosity.
So you don't think about the album as a whole?
Do people buy records anymore? I just look at it as songs. I used to get into the whole sequencing thing, but nowadays they're all just collections of songs.
Could you talk a bit about your recent work with East Bay Ray [East Bay Ray & the Killer Smiles]?
He had songs written and came to me. I was thrilled. I like hanging out with him, I like working with him, and I love his guitar work. I recommended that he consider producing it himself, because he produced [with Oliver DiCicco] the [Dead Kennedys'] Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables album — their best album. I always thought that East Bay Ray was the most unheralded member of that group. For this record, he didn't have a budget or anything; he was just spending money out of his pocket. We went to Marvin Gaye's old studio, Eldorado [Recording Studios], in Burbank. We did the basic tracking there; then we went to a room over at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley to do some overdubs. And I mixed it at home.
What was working with Daniel Johnston like? [On the album Fun in 1994.]
That was an interesting and difficult job. I'd known Daniel for years and he's a great guy. During that particular phase I think he was struggling with some of his medications; his hands were trembling, and he couldn't even read his own lyrics off his notebook pages. He had a record deal with Atlantic Records. It was difficult. He could barely leave the house. I'd drive down to Waller, Texas. His parents were wonderful, sweet people, and they allowed us to record in their garage. They'd unplug the meat freezer when we'd record vocals because it made so much noise. I think I had one microphone, and not a very good one either. Daniel's like an astronaut in his own world — and it's a beautiful world. That's what you're there to capture. With Daniel, there was a lot of stuff that was so far out there that the record label said they couldn't use. There were concerns; they didn't want to come off as appearing to be taking advantage of a crazy person. Which is understandable, but Daniel is a gifted musician. Regardless of what his mental condition is, he's an incredibly gifted songwriter. He has that kind of vision, like the great ones do. You just go along for the ride.
Do you ever hear something that an artist wants to do and think, "Oh, no?"
I guess I've been pretty lucky. Usually, I'm working with people I like and I like everything that they do. I remember the first Meat Puppets album I did; Curt [Kirkwood] went, "Bleh! Bleh! Bleh!" into the mic. I said, "That's great, let's go on to the next song." Derrick Bostrom, the drummer, started nudging me in the ribs and said, "The record company's not going to accept that." I had to learn when to be a little more critical. You have to learn to critique the artist in a way they're comfortable with and help them get where they want to go.
How do you work the balance between what the record company wants and what the artist wants?
I just prefer not to think about what anybody else wants. I remember working with Sublime with Rome and the A&R guy would come into the studio and start directing traffic. It got to the point where he'd walk into the studio and I'd just leave. That became an interesting situation. I don't like having to impose a vision of my own onto somebody else. I'd rather that they have a vision and I help them do that. Talent is what really makes a good producer. It's not the producer's talent, it's everybody else's talent: the engineer and the band. All those people will make you look good, if you don't fuck it up.
You talk about vibe a lot. How do you cultivate that as a producer?
You have to put your trust in the rock gods. I know, as a musician, there have been times when I felt like everything was going just right. For instance, the Butthole Surfers recorded an album [Independent Worm Saloon] with John Paul Jones and he chose to work at The Site [Recording]. It's like a summer camp in the mountains of Marin County. It has this gorgeous landscape and everybody has their own little cabin to sleep in. They have a swimming pool and a chef. They also have a Neve console and a wonderful studio. I remember cutting a guitar solo, looking out this plate glass window and seeing this big buck walk right in front while I'm playing. Then I looked up and saw a bald eagle flying. I'm like, "Ah, yeah." But I've had a similar experience in a small studio, at Greene St. Recording in New York. We were in their small room with carpet on the walls. We were working on the song, "Pepper" and I was waiting to do my guitar solo. It was supposed to have taken place an hour ago, then two hours ago. Finally they said, "Okay, it's time for you. You've got one take." There was a little Princeton amp, a Les Paul that I'd never played before, and a pedal. Sometimes you pick something up and start playing it and you realize that it's going on. That feels really good. Then, when you're done, you just put the guitar down and walk off.
You tapped into the magic of the moment.
Sometimes it just happens. You can't really bang your head against the wall over anything. If something's meant to be, it's gonna be; and if it's not, there's nothing you can do to overcome it. So I don't get frustrated in the studio. When something's going wrong, I look at it as a sign that I should do something else. You've got to go with the flow. I've seen producers with bands who are thinking all the time and are too uptight. I'd go crazy in a room with a guy like that. I didn't get into a band to think. I got into a band because I don't like to think. Don't make me do it. Everything should be easy in the studio. You need to be light. Forget about the microphones and just get into the song. The second you start thinking, you get into trouble.
What makes a good mix, in your opinion?
I think about that a lot. I've heard all kinds of people say, "If the song's a hit, the mix doesn't matter." I always felt like that was bullshit. Maybe people say that because they're hearing something that they don't think is a good mix, but they love it anyway. To me, that means it's a good mix. I don't care what it sounds like; but if you want to listen to it again and again, it's a fuckin' great mix. That's always what I'm after. Sometimes it's an elusive goal.
How do you know when you've hit that point?
I'll make a mix and then I'll take a ten-minute break. I'll burn a CD and go drive around for a while. Halfway through my drive I'll put the song on. If I listen to the whole thing and let it start playing again, then I'll start thinking that maybe it's good. If I find myself wanting to turn it off halfway through, then I'll realize something's wrong. It's that simple. I try not to think about it too analytically, because that gets me into trouble. I don't have any secret weapons. I just know that I want to smile when I hear a song, and I want to play it again if it's good. It's not always easy, especially if you've already heard the thing a thousand times. If it's good though, you don't get tired of it.