Discovering a brand-new head-turning rock song rarely seems to happen these days. Fortunately in early 2012, NPR Music posted Zeus' "Are You Gonna Waste My Time?" as their Song of the Day. For a couple weeks straight I popped the song like a pill junkie; it's a cosmic combo of Big Star, The Black Crowes, and Queen, plump with righteous riffs and hooks. I needed to know who recorded this track, but the album hadn't dropped and Google was clueless this time around. Fortunately an industry friend had just started booking Zeus and told me, "Feist's guy does their recording." But she didn't have a name for me. A couple months later, at SXSW, I had a chance run-in with Feist's manager, Robbie Lackritz. I figured he'd have the answer to my Zeus mystery, and upon asking [who recorded it] he stated, "I did." Turns out Feist's manager is also a stellar producer and engineer! These days a producer/manager in the rock world is a rarity; but Robbie Lackritz is both, at a time when most producer/engineer/mixers need to be doing more than cutting records to support themselves. Some months after our encounter, Robbie (a self-deported Californian now living in Toronto) and I met up in Manhattan before a Bahamas show (another one of Robbie's remarkable clients) to talk about his unique and motivating career path.
Where does your history in recording begin?
I grew up in San Diego. I was a freshman in high school when I decided I wanted to be a record producer. It was a 180-degree turn for me; I was a mostly into sports.
I was a baseball pitcher and tennis player. Then I injured the growth plate of my shoulder.
You didn't want to be a performer? You wanted to record?
I liked the idea of playing, but all of my friends were better musicians than me. I knew someone who did home recording. They showed me a few things and I was off and running. I recorded my bands and friends' bands when I was in high school. Those were awesome recordings, because they're terrible in weird ways. When you know nothing about what you're doing, you find different ways to approach making something musical. The mid-'90s was a pretty good era for in San Diego — a lot of punk and indie music. It was all about aggression and energy for me until [Bob Dylan's] Time Out of Mind came out. Dylan became the king of the world to me then. That record was so mind-blowing on every level, from an engineering and songwriting standpoint.
I read that one of your first jobs out of college was tour managing and doing front-of-house for Rilo Kiley. How did that come about?
I started working for their manager when I was 18. I had a couple of gigs the three years I was in school at USC. I was the house engineer at The Roxy [Theatre] on Sunset Boulevard. I also worked as an assistant engineer for Brad Wood, who produced, engineered, and drummed with Liz Phair. When I was finishing school I was ready for something new, so I went out on the road with Rilo Kiley. I had never tour managed before.
How long were you on the road with Rilo Kiley?
A couple of years. It's actually how I met Leslie Feist; she was supporting them. She had been in other bands, but as "Feist" she had only toured a bit in the US and a little in Europe at that point. Around 2005 Rilo was wrapping up the tour and Leslie was ramping up, and ultimately I needed a job. [laughs] She is really sweet and we get along well.
So when you started with Feist, was it tour managing and front-of-house as well?
She had a front-of-house engineer, so I started tour managing and doing monitors for her. Over time I ended up picking up a lot of extra slack in her world, because her manager at the time was based in Paris.
Now you're her official manager!
I can't say we arrived at that by any conventional method, but yes.
Do you feel like you have a different perspective on management because of your experience as an engineer?
Absolutely. When you spend a lot of time making an album with someone you get to know them very personally — it is the most naked someone can be, and you have to develop a strong rapport. It should be the same qualification for management as it is for engineering, which is the importance of listening and observing what is special about someone's art. Not everything is about making a hit song or album. If you take a project and focus on making it great for what it is, and it's what the creator wants to express, it will resonate with people.
You're managing, tour managing, and providing her services as a studio engineer. Was this her expectation?
Ha! No, I think she was looking for someone who would listen to her. I am not the best at any single one of those skills, but I'm good at listening. The Reminder was the first thing we worked on together in the studio; along with Renaud Letang, Mocky, and Gonzales. I was there to be more of a silent backbone to those sessions. They didn't want to see or think about any recording equipment, so we set them up on the living room floor, above the control room located in the basement.
What was the recording experience for The Reminder like?
Gonzales and Mocky are both phenomenal musicians, and they focus their energy largely in the tracking space. No headphones, no isolation, no click track, and very little listening back. They want to sit and work on arrangements, voicings, "energy-mapping," and, in some cases, cheerleading. It takes a lot of confidence to inductively build steps into completing an album without doubting yourself. They are great at reinforcing those steps and establishing the cornerstone moments that define an album's character.
Did you have more of an expanded role on Feist's Metals?
Yeah. I started out New Year's Day, 2011, flying from Las Vegas to Big Sur to scout locations on the California coast. One of the places we found was a converted barn on a 550-acre ranch on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The upstairs of the barn was 60 x 48 feet, which is the exact footprint of Studio Two at Abbey Road, almost to the half-foot. It was beautiful — all wood, pine-floors, and hand-built. Nothing had ever been recorded there before. The owner was a goat farmer of 30 years and only used the barn for painting and sculpting — she had no idea who Feist was. I had to convince her to move out of her house! It took some effort, but I told her we were only going to work, not party, which was the truth. She agreed, I shipped my studio down from Toronto, and we built the barn into a studio from scratch. It was a similar idea to The Reminder — musicians upstairs and control room downstairs. I could be invisible.
Why Big Sur?
Leslie works well inside of limitations, one of those being that she wants to be all-encompassed by making music without any distraction — go to a place with no cell-phone service and only eat, drink, and breathe music. She had an intuition she wanted to do it there in the process of writing the record. I think there's something about Big Sur that is the perfect dialectic between nature's serenity and the Pacific Ocean's chaos beating against cliffs. I hear it in the tone of the album. She's also a big [John] Steinbeck fan. We actually scoped out the place where Steinbeck had lived and wrote Cannery Row as a potential studio, but you could hear cars passing from Highway 1 and waves crashing.
Do you prefer working in non- traditional recording environments?
I don't ever work in traditional studios anymore. Environment is the most important instrument that people almost never consider. It defines everything, from the physical characteristics of sound to the psychology of the performers. Having a home studio is great, but that type of convenience almost never provides the escapism necessary to genuinely capture a performance in its raw state. You get babies crying, buddies texting you, and a bunch of other distractions, which can also be the case in large studios. Its funny how much people want to argue about mic and preamp choices, because they make about a three percent difference in recording. The environment you're in changes everything.
I think the overall room opens up more on Metals versus The Reminder. Do you have a specific room recording philosophy?
If what you hear in a room feels good when you are standing in it, it will feel good when you record, regardless of how many mics you put up, where you put them, and how many of them are made by Neumann. Sometimes it is more important to move instruments and players relative to each other than it is to move microphones. On the songs where Gonzales is playing piano right next to the drums, he plays considerably differently than when he's next to Mocky playing upright bass. Room recordings rely on the players' interactions with each other as musicians and with the space they're playing in. The room should feel like the single voice of all the players in it. Gonzales and Leslie like to call headphones "musical condoms." It's true; they're a protective crutch. You are less in tune with the subtle delicacies of a performance if you are scrutinizing an exaggerated reinforcement of yourself. My favorite recordings I have ever done are where everyone is forced to be responsible for the entire performance. "Caught A Long Wind" [from Metals] and "So Sorry" [from The Reminder] are perfect examples of this. But it's important to note that it happened in a certain way for The Reminder, and a completely different way for Metals — same thing with Pink Strat and Barchords [two albums Robbie produced for Bahamas].
How were the Bahamas' records different?
Pink Strat was a collection of demos Afie [Jurvanen, a.k.a. Bahamas] was writing while on the road with Feist. The songs were for his other band back home, which would eventually become Zeus. When we came back from tour in 2008 Zeus was off and running on their own thing. Pink Strat wasn't intended to be, "This is Bahamas. We are making the first record!" It was more like he had a collection of songs he had written. "Whole Wide World" was my first go at checking the mics — the first thing that came out of his mouth! We didn't track for very long — maybe a week total. That record sort of self-evolved. He toured Pink Strat in Canada, and did shows with Wilco and Elvis Costello. People in Canada loved that record. But Barchords came about after he figured out his touring scheme, which is him and a drummer. He came into his own, both as a guitar player and vocally, when touring Pink Strat, and it changed how he wrote. He realized you don't have to play guitar when you write a vocal melody, so if you listen to a song like "Caught Me Thinking" you'll realize his guitar melodies became very separate from his vocal melodies. But both of those records are pretty much live on the floor.
What's your studio like?
I have a two-story coach house in Toronto, that way if I want to track something I still don't have to look at people. [laughs] I have a few Neve sidecars: a Germanium 2001-8 and a couple of 5432 consoles, significantly modded. It's not the big, bulky, 24-volt classic Neve sound; but they're mobile and they sound great. I don't work with a large format desk because it isn't conducive to the type of albums I work on. I do most of my tracking by carting my gear around to other places, mostly to a ranch in Ontario's Escarpment Country. I did the bulk of Bahamas' albums there, as well as Zeus, Ron Sexsmith, Jason Collett, and some of the last Jamie Lidell record. But I guess you can tell by now that gear doesn't matter much to me.
Funnily enough, I have a gear-specific question for you! Is that re-amping on Leslie's records?
It's not re-amping! It's amping! She's singing through an amp into the room, and all the players are playing to her voice. You can hear it; it's amazing! There are moments where the vocals are way too loud, like on "The Water" [from The Reminder] and it's awesome. There was literally no way of getting that vocal out of the piano. Not only is she singing pretty loudly, directly in front of the piano mics, but it's also blaring in an amp across all the delicate percussion mics. It's so cool.
What sort of amp is it?
It's a mid-'70s Fender Princeton.
Same one for Metals too?
The exact same one; it was flown in from Paris. [laughs] I bought one later because Olivier [Bloch-Lainé], the owner of La Frette Studios [the manor house/studio where The Reminder was recorded] didn't want to part with it. But it's not really about the amp; it's about how she sings when she hears herself out of the amp, as well as being on the edge of feedback. "The Bad in Each Other" [from Metals] is an awesome vocal because she's sitting with a handheld harmonica mic and a [Neumann] U 67 on a stand. She keeps rotating to the rhythm of the song when she's singing, going in and out of phase to the sway of the song. [laughs] Renaud mixed it and was shaking his head like, "What hell is this?" I love that vocal performance.
I discovered you through Zeus' "Are You Gonna Waste My Time?"; it's one of my favorite productions of recent memory.
Zeus are studio rats. They are great engineers and producers in their own right, and their albums overflow with their creativity. "Are You Gonna Waste My Time?" is a pretty clear-cut rock song, but Neil [Quin, lead singer] was adamant about the role of the acoustic guitar being very present in the rhythm. When we were mixing, the acoustic versus the electric guitars is what kept pushing me to widen the stereo spectrum. I was going through a phase where I hated recording drums. I'm not sure if I've left that phase actually! It's the most annoying thing you have to do in the studio. [laughs] Everyone wants you to put out a ton of mics and hear what every mics sound like. It's stupid. Drums are one instrument. Nobody needs 22 microphones to make a guitar sound good. So that drum sound is basically a [Neumann] U 47 and a [Coles] 4038. I might have added in something else. A lot of the drums on that record were two or three mics, for the most part.
How has it been adjusting to being a Canadian?
I like it. In L.A. you're competing with guys with walls of platinum records who play every instrument and own every piece of gear. Your chances of actually working with people you see eye-to-eye with are slimmer, for a couple of reasons. One being the sheer amount of people who are career "record producers" and, two, musicians don't have as much time to incubate there. People need more time to figure out what it is that they do well and to do it. It's more insulated in Toronto. There are so many great songwriters and musicians there.
The producer/manager is an old model, yet it has been pretty much lost in the rock world.
I feel like the music business drastically changed in the '80s and '90s when A&R, producers, and managers became mutually exclusive roles. I think there are amazing people in the history of rock music that have worked on both the artistic side and business side — John Hammond and Jon Landau types. I guess I would love to be "the best" at any one of the hats that I wear, but I have to be honest about my skill sets; I'm not really a specialist at any one of them. There are very few records that I'm the right guy to make, especially as a producer. And I'm the first to say if I'm not, because I don't want to do a disservice to anyone. I've always felt like a bit of an imposter as an engineer too — "They're gonna judge me at the AES convention for not building my own model of Neve preamp." [laughs] I think I know enough to present music in a way that's true to the song and artist, and impactful to the listener. And I don't want to know more than that.