In 2012, I ran across a series of in-studio videos of Bloomington, Indiana's Lily & Madeleine on YouTube. I found myself utterly absorbed — not only by the performances of the two sisters, who were high school age at the time, but also by the style of the recordings. In the videos, a single RCA Type 77-DX ribbon mic is prominently placed in front of the two sisters, and there's an abundance of lush, but obviously artificial, reverb. Intrigued, I went searching for more information and soon discovered the man behind these videos — Paul Mahern, whom I quickly recognized as the singer of the legendary '80s punk rock band, Zero Boys. Digging deeper, I realized I had many records in my collection that were engineered or produced by Paul, including albums from Articles of Faith, Small Ball Paul, Sloppy Seconds, Toxic Reasons, Blake Babies, and Magnolia Electric Company. I also learned that Paul engineered The Fray's debut album, How to Save a Life, which held the title of Best Selling Digital Album in 2007. In addition, Paul has been engineering, mixing, and producing albums for John Mellencamp for two decades, including his T-Bone Burnett produced album, No Better Than This, which was recorded entirely with a single mic and a mono tape recorder. Lily & Madeleine's Keep It Together, produced by Paul, was released in February of this year.
What was the music scene like in Indianapolis when you were a teenager?
It was mostly cover bands until the punk movement came along. By the time I was 16 or so, the punk movement formed, or was starting to form, in Indianapolis. In Bloomington, which is an hour south, there was a band called The Gizmos. From Lafayette, which is the college town just a little north, there was a band called Dow Jones and the Industrials. Both of those bands made great records. My band, Zero Boys, started playing right around the time I was 17 years old. That was the beginning of the punk scene in Indiana.
When I was growing up in DC, the punk scene was very much tied to the new wave scene. In the early '80s, new wave and punk were almost synonymous. At The 9:30 Club, it would be the same crowd of people. One day we'd all dress punk rock, and the next day we'd go to see a new wave band, and we'd all dress new wave. We'd see Simple Minds one day and Black Flag the next. It was still the same crowd of people, just different makeup.
That's exactly right. There's actually a record that came out recently that is kind of a history of that early punk/new wave scene. It all revolves around this club called Crazy Al's that was in Indianapolis. One of the discs is art and punk, and the other is pop and new wave. All of these bands played that one club. Some of the bands were Cars-ish new wave, and some of the bands were more Sex Pistols/Ramones. There wasn't a real division of those scenes, because there were only three hundred or so potential people who would go to those shows.
When you joined Zero Boys, what was informing you about music? How did you even discover punk rock?
I lived in Chicago through junior high. I was really aware of rock music, but I was into bands like Black Sabbath, KISS, Aerosmith — whatever I thought was the hardest, scariest music I could get my hands on. It was all kinds of commercially produced. I think I had heard of Blondie, maybe before I moved to Indianapolis. I remember I discovered the Ramones through Creem magazine, and then I discovered the Sex Pistols, again through Creem. I didn't really differentiate in my mind that there was a significant difference between the Ramones and Aerosmith. They were both rock to me. When the Sex Pistols appeared on the cover of Creem, my whole world shattered.
What year was that?
That would have been '77 or '78.
What about radio stations?
Radio stations were just straight rock. Midwestern rock radio stations. They didn't play anything. I think the first new wave record I ever heard on the radio was "Watching the Detectives" by Elvis Costello. That was it, that one song that just got on one radio station's playlist. Yeah, there was no real exposure. There were no college radio stations there, so they were still playing REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Styx, and stuff like that.
I remember in high school at that time, in the early '80s, discovering 'zines — people Xeroxing and distributing their thoughts to hundreds of people.
For me, there were no 'zines. The only record store in Indianapolis you could buy a punk record at was two bus-rides away. I had to get a transfer and ride the bus all day long to get to the one record store that had a section of punk rock that was maybe 20 records deep at any time. It took quite a bit of effort. In my high school, I had spiky hair, wore a leather jacket, and all the other kids in school called me "Fonzie," because they had no concept of punk rock. I was the only person who had heard the Ramones or Sex Pistols. It gave me a great sense of pride. At that point, I thought I was so much fucking cooler than the other people at this school because they thought I was trying to be Fonzie, even though I was actually trying to be Sid Vicious.
That sense of self-worth — how did that carry on to your playing in, singing in, and creating music for Zero Boys?
Well, in high school I had a band that I formed with some guys I'd met in classes. It was just for fun. We'd practice after school. Then we had a party, and a lot of the older people from the punk scene I had met from going to shows at other houses came and saw us. A couple of the guys who came were some of the original members of the Zero Boys, and they took me from my high school band. They had a real vision. I was 16 years old, but they were all 22 or 23. They'd been in bands for a long time. When I joined the band, they handed me a cassette. It had a bunch of Iggy Pop, Ramones, and MC5 on it. I hadn't heard MC5 before. They said, "Learn all these songs." I learned them, we got together and rehearsed a couple of times playing covers, and then it was time to write some new songs. It was totally a natural progression. I have older brothers and sisters, so I was listening to [The Beatles] White Album [when I was younger]. I knew from that point in time what my destiny was, and that was to be involved in music. I never considered becoming a great musician. I was just really interested in the vibe of rock music, and the records in particular. It was always just a way to try to get into making records. As soon as the Zero Boys formed and we had about five songs, I was like, "Dude, we need to make a record!" That's how I got into the studio for the first time. It was even more magical than I had imagined. I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do, forever.
When you say that you knew from a young age you wanted to make records, do you mean that you wanted to be on the side of the glass where you're tweaking the knobs, engineering, and producing?
I don't think I really knew how records were made. I just knew [there was] The White Album. That record in particular — the variety of the material — it just seemed like a real journey. All I knew was that I wanted to be involved in that. In my mind, I didn't have a picture of The Beatles on stage in front of these screaming fans. I had a picture of these guys in a space making this thing that was broadcast from one time and space into my living room. That was what I was into, from the very beginning. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that when I was that age, all my brothers and sisters were in their teens. I was a lot younger than them.
You saw your friends reacting from a record — not from seeing it live?
From a record. That's right. I was too young to go to a show. There was no MTV back then. Maybe a rock band would appear on The Tonight Show every once in a while, but to me, the records were totally accessible in the living room; even as an eight or nine year old. Listening to records with headphones on — I was doing that by the time I was eight or nine. That was my fantasy world.
Other than The White Album, what inspired you to be a record maker as a child?
[Stevie Wonder's] Songs in the Key of Life was a record very similar to The White Album, where it was just this mind-blowing journey. But also records like the first couple of Black Sabbath albums. They were scary. It wasn't scary like a scary movie, but because you had to fill in the gaps. Like, "Who the fuck are these people? What's the 'Iron Man' thing going on? What's that voice?" It blurred the lines between entertainment and reality, which is what records and music do, right? It was that. So, yeah, the first couple Sabbath records were really important to me, as well as the first three Aerosmith records, the first three Queen records — it all hit me that way. When I was really young — eight, nine, ten, eleven years old — the only record that really hit me on that level was The White Album. We didn't have enough Curtis Mayfield records around at that time.
When I think about the production that went into The White Album, versus what I hear in the Zero Boys' Vicious Circle, I hear Vicious Circle and it sounds so live to me. But, at the same time, I hear all the influences and expertise in it too. I think everyone in the band was a real musician and was also well-informed of the history of music. You hear rock 'n' roll, R&B, and you even hear some funk in that record. This record is played by experts, unlike many other punk rock records of the time. But, in my mind, it's still played live.
It is. It was cut in one day. The trick, the sleight of hand with Vicious Circle, is just what you said. You've got three guys who have been in bands for a long time. The bass player played in the Indianapolis funk scene, and the singer was fucking 16 years old. That's the trick. You've got this band of badass guys with this snotty little kid who didn't know any better. He's just working completely on intuition and excitement. We rehearsed that record — we did 4-track cassette demos — to death. Every day, for two months, we rehearsed to go into the studio to make that record. Everything you're hearing on that record is live, including the vocals, except for the background vocals and the secondary guitar, because Terry ["Hollywood" Howe] did all the guitar. But even for that record, before I was a producer and engineer, I knew what I liked about records. If you want an interesting experience, listen to Vicious Circle and then listen to (GI) by The Germs. What I did was I went into the studio with a copy of (GI), which I thought was the best-sounding record. I said to the producer/engineer [John Helms], who'd never heard punk rock before, "This is what we want it to sound like." The guy was smart. He heard the harmonizer on the guitars. We cross-referenced The Germs. If you listen to those records back to back, you'll go like, "Oh, yeah, totally."
Was John Helms producing, in the sense that he heard this and said, "You need to arrange your songs"?
No, no. We'd already produced it. I call him a producer because I didn't know what I was doing. He was an engineer, and a really good one; a guy who probably made five more records after he made that, and then went and got a regular job. Complete shame.
Vicious Circle is sequenced so well. To me, it's like listening to a good radio show. The songs flow together in a way that's meaningful, not only in terms of lyrics but in terms of sound.
Yeah, but it was intuition. I think, partially because of the rehearsal process, but I'm sure that if it wasn't completely my order, it was mostly in the way it was going to flow slow to fast, and the way that I crammed a lot of the fast songs together to make them feel like one song. That was all a concept. And the fact that it had to be like stop-beat-start, it's almost all in-tempo. That was a concept. It's a concept based on me knowing how records should work, and knowing what a radio show should sound like from a fan's perspective.
When I think about the lyrics to that record, there's social commentary, sexuality, self-awareness, and all the other s-words.
When I was 16 or 17 years old, living in the Midwest with far fewer influences than you would find in New York City or L.A., my connection to the world — my "Internet" — was records. I'd been listening to Black Sabbath. I listened to "War Pigs." I'd been listening to Bob Dylan records. I hadn't experienced much of that, at that age, but I knew what a fucking revolution song was supposed to sound like before I was ever in a punk rock band. The Zero Boys first made our Livin' in the '80s EP, and you can tell that it's a kind of slow, punk-rocky, glammy thing. Then we heard Circle Jerks, The Germs, and the Dead Kennedys, and it opened a door. I learned a lot of my language from those records. I was just a collage artist. "This is what a punk rock song is supposed to sound like. Let's do it like this." But I was always interested in writing songs that I felt would push buttons a little bit. When we wrote "Livin' in the '80s," to say that you didn't like The Beatles or the Stones was a bit offensive to some older folks. "Civilization's Dying" — I just wanted to write a song about John Lennon being shot. I didn't want to do it in a way that sounded disrespectful, but it seemed like a news report. It just seemed obvious.
You ran a record label for years, although the concept of a record label was very different than it is today. You're doing artist management now. How do your skills as a record maker, both behind the board and running a label, factor into what you're doing now?
First of all, I wasn't interested in the business aspect. I just wanted to make records. The first record that my company put out was called The Master Tape. It was a Midwestern hardcore compilation. I did that out of necessity, because Zero Boys were playing with bands like Die Kreuzen, Articles of Faith, and Toxic Reasons, and I thought these were the greatest fucking bands in the world. I borrowed some money to do that, and then lost a bunch of it with a distributor. I didn't want to fill out mail orders. I just wanted to be in the studio making records. But it immediately made me a record producer. A lot of people become engineers or producers by interning or going to school. I borrowed some money and brought my favorite bands into the studio, which immediately put me in charge. I went in with John Helm, and I was like, "Okay, what's that button do?" I bought the time to record these awesome musicians, but because I was a client, I was able to figure out how it was done. The whole thing with the record company was just a means to learn the craft. All I wanted to do was record punk rock records, but then I had a son when I was 20. As soon as you have a kid, your ideologies don't go out the window, but you have to do whatever it takes to make money. I started recording gospel records, country records, commercial jingles — whatever would pay the bills.
During this era of your life when you were learning the craft of producing, you were also learning the craft of engineering.
I just hung a shingle out. Like, "I've made three or four records. I know how this goes. I know what treble and bass is. I know how to place a microphone." I slowly started to become a better engineer over time. But, even still, a couple of times a year, I'll learn I've been doing something wrong for so long.
Because you watch something else when you go into another studio and see an engineer do something?
It's always because I watch somebody else.
What's one example?
I made a record with John Mellencamp, and this guy, David Thoener, who's a brilliant engineer, came in to help us mix the record. I'd recorded the whole thing, and then it was time to mix the record. John was like, "Dude, I don't know if you're good enough to mix the record. Let's bring somebody in." I said, "Awesome." David Thoener is only eight or ten years older than me, but he grew up making Bruce Springsteen records. He's a real engineer. He showed me how to meter read. I had never seen anybody fucking do that before. The dude could mix the majority of a record by watching the VU meters. He knew how they were supposed to behave, how hot the drums were supposed to be, and if you made the drums this hot on the meter and the bass this hot, when you put them together, they'd be right. I'd never seen that before. I use it all the time now, but this was like 20 years into my engineering career.
What meters do you use? Do you use a meter plug-in?
Oh, no; it's got to be real. Right now I have a Shadow Hills mastering compressor, and I use that. It's got a meter mode with great big meters.
You use that on your 2-bus while you're mixing?
Yeah, even if I don't have it engaged as a compressor. I can turn it all off and watch the meters. Usually, I do it right at the beginning of the mix, and then, at some point in the mix, I'll turn it on and it becomes my compressor. That was like one of those "aha" moments that I never would have figured out if I hadn't seen someone else do it. I'm sure he saw somebody do it. It was probably passed down from somebody who was really smart right at the beginning, when all that there was were a couple of knobs and meters.
They had to watch the meters so they didn't blow the vinyl cutting.
That's right. I'm so removed from that. At Abbey Road, the first thing you had to learn to do was cut vinyl. I've never cut vinyl. But that makes sense to me, because that's where you can fuck up the most. It's like, "Figure this out, and then we'll teach you how to clean and align a tape machine." So many of us have started when there was already a ton of technology in our world. You're already in over your head before you even start. There are all these options. The more options there are, the more confusing it is, and the more trouble you can get yourself into. If you look at some of these early consoles, if there's even an EQ, it's only a treble and a bass. You really learned to deal with the minimal first. Now we have these plug-ins where you can emulate anything in the world.
Speaking of minimalism, talk to me about No Better Than This — the album you recorded with John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett. It's an incredible record. I get the chills every time I listen to it, because it's so immediate.
That record was super fun to make. I learned so much in the process of making that record. For a couple of years, I worked at the Archives of Traditional Music on this project, Sound Directions, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was an Indiana University and Harvard co-project. The idea was to determine the best practices for digitizing old carriers. You've got cylinders, old instantaneous discs, wires, and such. We studied the best A/D converters. We got a microscope, looked at all these grooves, and learned how to measure the grooves. It was all really exciting, and I discovered some of the most amazing music. It completely changed the way I look at recording and the importance of recording. I came across this set that was recorded by Alan P. Merriam and his [first] wife [Barbara Anne Williams]. They took a vacuum-tube, Magnecord reel-to-reel deck into the Congo in 1952 and recorded a bunch of sounds. Some of it is school-aged girls singing and clapping. Some of it is these guys playing this weird instrument that sounds kind of like a guitar, but they're doing almost a vocoder thing, where there's almost no pitch to their voice, but they're whispering along with the guitar. It sounds like crazy, heavy metal music. Those recordings were made with one tube recorder and one microphone. I would listen to them for hours and think, "We've got it all wrong, man." We're so concerned with this manipulation and this hyper/micro look at everything. These recordings are so full of life. They were about capturing a moment. But it wasn't a live performance either. Those early folklorists who would go into the field — Alan Lomax and others — were just trying to collect songs. Some of them might have thought they were collecting simply from an academic standpoint, in order to write papers. Merriam made these recordings, but they really just wanted to come back and write a book. These make Little Richard sound like Pat Boone. It's 1952 in the Congo, and it's really rock and roll — not what was going on in the United States. That was so watered- down, compared to the real thing going on in Africa. Anyway, at the time I was doing that, I was also working with Mellencamp every once in a while. I remember bringing him recordings and saying, "John, you've got to hear this." Mellencamp is a big Harry Smith fan. Smith worked at the Smithsonian and made this box set in the '60s [Anthology of American Folk Music] that was super influential on people like Dylan. Anyway, we'd listen to this stuff and get really into it. He'd already made a previous record with T Bone [Life, Death, Love and Freedom]. He called me up and said he wanted to make a record with the oldest equipment I could get, but he wanted to record it on-site in different locations. Immediately I was like, "John, that's fine, but we're not going to cut it to a lathe. It's got to be magnetic tape." He's like, "Okay, fine. Just find the oldest machine you can get."
How did you do that?
I'm a member of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections [ARSC] list, so I immediately went on this listserv with all these other engineering and record collector nerds. "Okay guys, I want to do this recording. What's the machine I should get?" Two or three of them said Ampex 602, the original portable recorder. It's an open-reel tape machine that fits in a suitcase. It's 7.5 ips, mono, 1/4-inch full track, with a built-in tube preamp. I got on eBay and found three of them for under $250 apiece. We immediately bought them all. Our tech, Mike Stucker, had the motors rebuilt and did everything he could possibly do to these decks without adding anything that wasn't original. He took the whole thing apart, and then rebuilt and replaced parts with the most authentic ones he possibly could. That's what we used. The preamp is very similar sonically to an Ampex 351 preamp. I got out one of my RCA 77-DX mics, plugged it into this deck, put on some headphones, and I felt like I'd never heard that microphone before. Whatever was going on between that preamp, that tape, and that microphone was nothing I had ever heard before. It was like a bunch of things converging, but it was really just going back to the older recordings. I realized that I could have gotten a really great, clean preamp, and a really fucking awesome modern microphone, but it wouldn't have worked. There's something about the harmonic distortion, the way the RCA is reading the room, and the way the preamp is reading the RCA — once everything was working, I just put a mic in the room, and that was it.
How careful were you about placing the mic?
There was a lot of, "Okay, the drums are too loud, but we don't want to get any farther away from the drum kit. Can you put a towel on the snare, or try a different kick drum?" You're mixing the record while you're recording it. There's no doubt about it. The great thing was that I got to tell John, "You're singing too loud in the chorus! You've got to back up." Or, "Lean in. You've got to do it the way [Frank] Sinatra did it. You can't yell at me because the headphones aren't right. You're going to have to listen to what I have to say this time, or it's not going to work." We recorded in three different locations. The most fun one was at Sun Studio. It was Marc Ribot on electric guitar; Dave Roe on bass; Jay Bellerose on drums; Andy York — one of John's players — on acoustic guitar; and John. Four musicians, and John, with one microphone. Have you ever been to Sun Studio? It's the deadest room you can imagine that's not all foam walls or carpet. The surfaces are relatively hard, but it's that old asbestos-like tile you see in really old studios. I remember Dave Roe was like, "Fuck, my bass is not sounding right." But through the microphone in the other room, and with that tape recorder, his bass was fucking massive. That's the way it was. It was the opposite. Today it's like, "What's the best gear that will capture reality perfectly?" It was as if Sam Phillips built that room to sound good through that old equipment he had. A big, live-sounding room wouldn't have worked. It would have overwhelmed all the overtones in the microphone. The room had to be really dead and tight so that the wideness of the preamp and microphone could really be experienced. Anyway — I'm sure you can tell I'm very excited. I learned so much from that, and that happened 30 years into my career as an engineer. It was one of those aha moments. Like one aha moment after another. Fuck. They had this right in 1955. We're so off the path. Not completely. There's good and bad in everything, but that's the way I was feeling at the moment. [Standing up and gesturing] Here's John, here's the microphone, here's the acoustic guitar player on the backside of the microphone, off-axis a little bit, the drummer behind him, and Ribot behind him with the amp. "Marc, you've got to turn up the guitar a little bit." Or, "Play the floor tom louder" — because it's the most off- axis from the microphone. If you've got the right players, they can do that in their sleep.
What did you learn from those sessions? What are the skills you've taken to the records you're making today?
I applied it immediately to the Lily & Madeleine sessions within a few years of doing that record. I'm like most people — or maybe more so than most — if I find something, that's the answer! "Every record should be made like this!" But no one really wants to make their record like that. When I met Lily and Madeleine, and they came into the studio for basically a "screen test." I took out that recorder and that microphone. I set it up and I said, "Okay, we're going to play into that one microphone." I used that one microphone on all of their acoustic recordings for two records.
The videos posted on YouTube under your username, are those live recordings? Are those the actual recordings?
Yeah. You're seeing the RCA. Those two playing through the RCA, and that's it. That's the same setup as the Mellencamp session.
With a bunch of plate reverb on it.
There's still separation. It's arranged so well that the way that you hear it, each voice and each instrument sits in its own space. I'm having difficulty imagining that it was done with a single mic.
I know — that's the thing. There's something that happens with those ribbons, especially if you're using the right preamp. The low end and high end — it's not like they don't blend, but they're separate. It's almost like you're listening to coaxial speakers or something. Here's the high end. I can feel it. Here's the low end. I can feel it. When you EQ it, you can do that. Do you work with ribbon mics much?
I have maybe nine or ten ribbon mics. I'm a big fan.
So you know that when you go in and start tweaking the EQ on a ribbon, it'll take a lot more EQ. You can really get in there and be like, "I'm going to put a bunch of low end on this." And it's only going to affect the guitar somehow. It's not going to cloud the vocal. On a lot of condensers it's not like that. Ribbons are much more three-dimensional sounding.
I love the fact that when you have a bi-directional ribbon, there's an organicness to the room that's captured in a way that you can't get if you set up cardioid mics. As soon as you set up a cardioid mic, it's the singer singing into a mic, as opposed to the singer performing in a room.
Oh yeah, absolutely. The RCA 77-DXs are the mic I use absolutely the most. I don't use them all the time on vocals. Like when I do Lily & Madeleine's records in the studio, I have them singing into Neumann [Gefell] UM 57s. But on all the acoustic recordings that you're seeing with the RCA sitting there, the RCA is all you're hearing.
I've been playing your videos to everyone that comes into my studio. I'm blown away by not only the musicianship, but also the whole sound and presentation. Even the videography is beautiful! When I play these videos for others, they're like, "Those girls are doing such a good job lip-syncing!" I'm like, "What? You think it's lip-syncing?"
It's not. But that's the way we're trained, because of what we've seen and done as engineers to fix people's shit. We assume that when you see the real deal, it's not the real deal. When I first saw Lily & Madeleine, a friend of mine sent a video clip of them doing an iPhone version of them singing the song. I had to watch it about ten times before I realized, "Wait, I'm watching this for the tenth time. This must really be good." I don't know — we get jaded, or sometimes it just takes a moment for you to get something as good as it is. Then I brought them down to my studio. The very first video that's on my personal page is of them doing that Richard Thompson song "Dimming of the Day." That's the first time I was ever in the room with them.
Is that an iPhone video?
Yeah. I was videotaping on the iPhone, the recording was going into Pro Tools, and I sync'd them back up. But the two things are happening live. If you think it's impressive — I mean, my jaw was on the floor. I told them, "I've been in a room with lots of great singers, and I don't think I've ever experienced anything quite like this before." They were like, "Really?" It's just natural. It's like you're walking along in the woods, you see some flower, and you think, "Whoa, shit." It's nothing to do with training, or artifice, or even intention. They're the musical equivalent of someone who's just born beautiful. Since then, they've learned to write songs; but in their purest form, they're just magical.
How much of Lily & Madeleine's songwriting is influenced by Kenny Childers? He comes in and not only performs, but he also coproduces with you. Is he also a cowriter?
He's a cowriter. Everybody's producing if they're in the room, really, and I'm just the one taking the credit. I'm the one who has to get another gig. They let me take that credit because it means more to me than it means to anybody else. The way I run a production, especially with these girls, is I just fill the room with amazing, smart people, and then I keep challenging them over and over again — challenging all of us to be smarter. The record's just better because of that — if we're smart, and we don't circle back on ourselves and end up doing something stupid because we spent too much time on it. I think it was about March when they came into that studio and did the "Dimming of the Day" video. They were both in high school and didn't want to have any distractions from school. They were both in the top three percent in their high school — super smart. They said, "When school's over, we'll give you the summer." As soon as school was over, I said, "Here's what we're going to do. You guys are going to write a song, every day, for the next 12 days." They'd never written a song before.
So, up until that time, they'd been doing covers?
They'd only been doing covers. I think they looked at me like I was a math instructor. If you're a smart kid, and a math instructor gives you a problem, you just do it. That's what happened. I was like, "Write twelve songs. They don't have to be complete songs, but you have to email them to me — one a day. They have to be 30 seconds long, at least, and have a verse and some lyrics." They wrote these snippets. I've known Kenny forever, and he's great at putting songs together. He's written hundreds of songs. I said, "Okay, Kenny, here are these song bits. You're going to meet with these girls and turn these into songs." That's what he did. Depending on what song, there's more or less of him, but it's all them. They come up with the idea, they start the song, and they know what it's about. And then Kenny would say, "Okay, if it's about this, then what about this? We need four more lines." He basically filled in the gaps. They've grown as writers.
What drew you to this project?
The reason I'm doing this is because I love music so much, and I have for so long. I've been doing this for 35 years, and I just want to teach other people how. I teach at Indiana University now-a couple of audio classes. But, more importantly, I wanted to teach some youngsters about how to survive in the music business and not get fucked over, how to have fun with music, and how to make some good art. We're three years into this thing. We've got a couple of good records, and the records and songs keep getting better. They're totally protected, as much as they want to be, but they're taking the reins more and more every day and making their own decisions. These girls were 15 and 17 when they started. I was 15 when I started. I get it. In some ways, I'm still 15. I haven't had to completely grow up, in a lot of ways, because the music has been what has supported me. I feel like I can relate to them on a level where I can channel Paul "Z" at 16 years old and relate to them; and, at the same time, I can channel Paul Mahern at 51 and be like the dad.
In 35 years, you've really seen it all. In many ways, I think of this as going back to your roots — working with Lily & Madeleine, and Shannon Hayden, who are very young and just stepping into this. What advice do you give to young musicians like them?
I talk from that place where I came from. When I was in a punk rock band at 16, the biggest band in the world in my mind were the Dead Kennedys. Those guys all had fucking jobs. It didn't have anything to do with making money. Those guys did what they did because that's what they wanted to do. That's what it was for all the punk bands at the time, and certainly for the Zero Boys. It's a simple equation. Look at someone like Shannon. Shannon's going to do this, whether she's homeless or playing Carnegie Hall. As long as you're doing what you want to do, that's it. You've arrived. I suppose that works in all aspects of life. It's just that for me, music is the most important form of communication, period. Not to get too spiritual, but all existence is a vibration. All of everything is vibrating. Music is a concrete analogy of the existence of everything. We can hear it and experience it with our ears, and it communicates to us on so many levels; whether we understand it or not, whether we're aware of it or not. That three-minute pop song that makes you feel a little bit better on the way to your dead- end job as you're tapping your foot in the car? That's fucking it! Nothing else does that for me. Art can do that; architecture can do that. But when you're playing with the vibration of music, it doesn't require your conscious participation. It can be going on in the background. It can just be playing in the car, and the next thing you know, you're tapping your foot. Visual art — to really and truly appreciate it — you've at least got to look at it, and you have to be open to it. But the vibration of music doesn't require your conscious participation. It's reaching out to you. It's what I came into this life to do.