Randall Dunn is creating what might be Seattle's next chapter in the dark and loud tradition of Northwest music. From the Sonics and Jimi Hendrix, to the U-Men and grunge, the Pacific Northwest has a reputation for spawning loud, raw blues. A tireless and prolific man, his discography includes Sunn O))), Earth, Eyvind Kang, Master Musicians Of Bukkake, Rose Windows, Skerik from Critters Buggin', The Cave Singers, Oren Ambarchi, Marissa Nadler, Jessika Kenney, Boris, Akron, Sun City Girls, Midday Veil, Kinski, Faith Coloccia, Jesse Sykes, Black Mountain & Wolves In The Throne Room. Randall draws from his experience with Drone, Metal, Avant-Jazz, Folk and even film soundtracks. He travels deep and wide with the musicians he records. Randall just might turn the page in Seattle's family bible — the part where it rains and rains and Noah starts building that ark...
Why did you move to Seattle?
I moved here because it was really far away from Michigan. That was the first reason. What else did I come for? I came out here for school.
To the Art Institute.
I had two really important interactions at that school, none of which were with the faculty. One was Skerik, who is a Seattle jazz and rock musician. He has been really important in my development as a musician, as producer, and as a respectful person in the music community.
He's a guru.
Yes, he taught me how to interact with musicians, how to treat musicians, how to learn from musicians, and how to be respectful of elder musicians, even financial and recording stuff in the industry. I was like, "That guy's really cool." Then I found out about his band. Then I met drummer Matt Chamberlain from working with his and Skerik's band, Critters Buggin.' I have learned so much from Matt as well. I got free studio time at The Art Institute and I tried to get Wayne Horowitz (of Naked City) to come in. In the end, he couldn't, but he said his friend could. This young cat named Eyvind. That ended up being Eyvind Kang, who also has been a really important mentor in learning to be sacred with sound and music. He's more of a deep philosopher that happens to be a complete shredder and amazing composer. I've learned a lot from him as far as approaches — ways to foil your habits. He's really good at playing devil's advocate. Those guys are all such incredible musicians. I'm definitely not on that level of musicianship, but I choose to focus my time on producing. I'm at a level where I can actually do some of the things they need me to, and in return involve them in things that are good for them. Seattle has an impeccable, vibrant music community that has no boundaries of genres.
It comes from being a backwater town! Did you come here pre or post grunge?
It was definitely post. It was '93 or ‘94.
What was your first studio, how did you build it, and what did you learn?
I co-owned one with a really talented engineer that was my partner at the time, Mell Dettmer. I learned a lot from her. We bought a Trident 65 Series board, a 3M 16-track, 2- inch and then we built it up from there. The construction of the actual studio was pretty bad. It was mostly drywall and it had a lot of squares, but I made a lot of great records there.
What was it called?
The name came from a book?
It is a story by Jorge Luis Borges. In the book, the character finds a place. He's blind. He stands on these steps that enables him to see the whole entire universe, but if he moves a little to the right or to the left, he can't see it anymore. It's also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It's one. It means a lot of things.
What was your budget?
The construction was like 500 bucks or something. It was built by Guy Davis, of the band Sage, who's a really great friend.
What was the first recording you did in there where you felt like things were really happening?
Probably Hex [Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method] by Earth. That was the first one where I was like, "Oh, this is going to get out to the world and this is an actual record."
Did you know Dylan [Carlson] very well at that time?
No, I met him though a friend named John Schuler that looked him up at a frame shop he was working at across the street from Starbucks headquarters. We kind of just dug him up. We've gotten to be really close friends since then. It's been amazing collaborating and growing with him!
What did you take away from that studio, now that it's behind you?
I don't want to have a studio connected to my home. I've realized that I work the same hours now but the disengagement from when I'm done is different — before I would literally sit upstairs thinking, "I could just go down there right now and add 2 kHz to the snare drum."
How did you approach the Rose Windows [Rose Windows] record and also the Daughn Gibson record [Carnation]?
Both of these were very different. With the Rose Windows record we retreated into Bogalusa, Louisiana, to Studio in the Country. We wanted it to feel humid and Southern. It was recorded and mixed like a proper ‘70s rock record — [Ampex] 456 [tape] hit hard on a great tape machine. On Daughn's record we were trying to make something elegant and futuristic; like you couldn't identify the time it was made from the production. That record is sung from so many different characters that I wanted the production to reflect that. I recorded the drums with Matt Chamberlain at his studio in L.A. and finished it in Seattle at Avast! Recording. I'm really excited about them both, and they couldn't be more different.
Elaborate on you being a sort of a mentor to Rose Windows. Let's hear more of that story.
Chris from Rose Windows had been a fan of my work with Earth. He asked if I would be interested in working with them. I heard something special in the demos they did and also when I saw them live. I dove right in and had an amazing time recording both of their records for Sub Pop. They have become great friends, and I have been just advising them the best I can since. It's been fun and "real" watching them grow. They are all such singular creative types. Rabia [Shaheen Qazi]'s voice is one of my favorites around.
Analog tape has an infinite sample rate. Do you favor it?
No. I'm up for a hybrid. Opinions about gear are really beautiful superstitions. They're helpful in my job, but I'm wide open. I will use digital in a way that's subversive, and I will use analog in a way that's subversive. I watch people struggle trying to milk something out of a Pro Tools rig. People who have a bit of cursory knowledge but they're trying to turn it into this larger thing. You see them fighting against this wall, and they're not even aware that the wall is there.
Henry Miller said, "I found a window in the wall. There was no wall at all."
Yes, these are the quotes I love. I have a copy of Sol LeWitt's quotes on conceptual art. I look at it often when I'm in the studio. Those are great and helpful.
Is there hardware that you favor?
A good board or a particular reverb that's electromechanical. It's magical. It's alchemical. You can't really mess with that. I like those Royer [R-]121 mics. They can take a lot of SPL, more than people think. Usually people are like, "They're ribbon mics. They're very delicate." I think you can put those pretty damn close to a loud cabinet and it gives you a lot of lows of but it also shaves off all the annoying highs. I think I've only ever blown one. I put the studio up for sale. I put my Studer A80 at Avast! and I use that. I got 16-track heads and it sounds amazing. I used that all week, actually, with Black Mountain, and I didn't have a computer on. I only went to tape through the Trident A range. It was insane. Then when we got the take, I would put it in Pro Tools and then disconnect the computer and move on to the next song. Now I'm trying to keep gear that is extreme in coloration. I kept keyboards, like the Korg MS20 — that's a good one. It does things that you wouldn't think a synth would. It can be used in music that you wouldn't expect. I got really into my Shure Level-Loc. That makes some noise. I have some instruments that are special, like a really beautiful old Gretsch drum kit that has a particular sound. There are always snares that I find. I just try to get things that are unusual that other people aren't going to have. I have an Indian PA system, with a horn and a delay built in that's pretty cool.
What is happened to the trade known as producing?
There are several dynamics going on, I suppose. Now we have post lofi production, which is an exceptional and necessary deconstruction of what came before it. What we have now is a reaction to too many people having access to too much stuff that happens to be medium grade tools. This goes hand in hand with what's going on in the music industry: Record cycles are becoming shorter and trends are becoming shorter. Music is becoming "hard to digest" or too dumbed down. The Internet has caused everything to move faster, yet vinyl is currently in a bottleneck — it's slower to manufacture. What we're seeing now is a style of production that's not informed by years of studied labor. Most of the people who are doing it are just the people who can afford to buy the stuff that it takes or what they think it takes in order to be a producer. Then they fall into the habit of copying what's currently the style. They equate owning equipment with having spent the time doing it. It's created an environment of parasitical production, meaning trend production. So if that trendy person uses a particular reverb, you can buy their preset, and then you think you can sound like them. But it's something else.
There are a finite amount of people who learned from old school people. I consider myself that. Phil Ek [Tape Op #29] is a great example of that. I love his work. There are many producers who are older than I am that are great examples of that. They understand that a record is the sound of "struggling for a sound." People want to hear a sound that's unique to what made it. That record has to occupy its own sonic space. Music is not doing that so much anymore. Music is occupying an "every space". We talk with binaries. Now everybody's saying, "Should I use this kick drum trigger or that one?"
They can now be their own mastering engineer, too.
Yes you can be a mastering engineer. You can do all of these things because someone told you that you could do it — and it's affordable. What they miss out on is the finite experience of sound in a room, interaction of people, decisions that are made under pressure — all of the things that we like about the vitality of the sound of a record. The reason why we're obsessed with vinyl and buying reissues and all of these things is because we want that magic. Yet we're not really willing to sacrifice what we have to in the current environment of the music industry in order to work with somebody who can give us that experience and teach us these things from experience.
You're describing a person reaching for an authenticity that wasn't there in the first place.
It was never there. Victorians got obsessed with the occult. They were looking for something spiritual, because in their age they were facing the industrial revolution and were devoid of spirituality. There was a nostalgia for something that they'd never had access to. Could be that's happening with music in cyclical forms.
My friend David Dintenfass says, "A kid should spend $60,000 on a room and $100 on a mono tape machine instead of $60,000 on gear and $100 a month on a shitty practice space." Their recording quality will double.
I could agree with that actually. There are a lot of younger people that work with me that have an experience and then they go, "Oh, shit. Okay, I get it." Then, they have another experience and they go, "What? That wasn't like that." The argument is not even about digital. It doesn't matter what we're using. As engineers, in a way we're degrading the audio when we start to record.
What kind of sound do you try to get that says, "Randall was here."
It's funny. I don't know. Somebody was telling me I had a sound, and it is heavy and it's open. They said it sounds like it's coming from really far back in the speakers. I personally think it's just really foggy midrange that I haven't learned to EQ out properly!
The song has a sound it wants to sound like.
Yeah. I don't believe in balanced mixes per se.
Do you have any tricks that you use with singers?
I've learned a lot about working with singers in the last few years. Early on I was doing so much experimental or atmospheric music and black metal, and I hadn't worked with a ton of singers. I'm learning more about voice as an instrument. I'm also starting to sing more in my band. I've started singing on people's records, too. I sang on a Cave Singers record and Eyvind [Kang]'s record, so that's happening more. Some of that encouragement was my friend, Jessika Kenney, who's an incredible vocalist. She made me sing on her Cornish [school] gamelan recital. I had no idea what I was doing and she was very generous to have me do that. I'm glad I didn't ruin it. It opened something up. I've been really blessed to work with some pretty incredible rock vocalists in the last five or six years. Attila [Csihar] from Mayhem, who sings with Sunn O))). Faith Coloccia is one. Emily Pothast from a band called Midday Veil. Rabia [of Rose Windows] is one. These women have influenced my emotional process in the studio. Rabia sounds like smoke and oil at the same time. I've learned to pay more attention to lyrics, too. Sometimes I'll have singers read their lyrics. I will be like, "Just read it like it's poetry." Then I hear certain words and inflections and I'm like, "That just changed the whole narrative for me." and then that'll help us find a new way to sing. This is something I learned from Jessika as well. Sometimes you have to find that voice, and it isn't what the person is singing. Sometimes it needs to sound like a person telling a story. People can have voices they're not aware of. You go see a band and they're singing loud, but in the studio you can do so much more with subtlety and quiet.
They're often just trying to get their voice to come out the PA.
Yeah. We discovered that with Rabia on the first Rose Windows record. When I saw them live, she was a "belter". Then we experimented with "quieter." She found that her intonation was better and she started developing more of that style. Sometimes younger singers, you hear them and you're like, "Ah, you're not quite at your real voice, yet — but you're going to find it." I like going down that road with people!
Some people hide behind a premeditated voice. It's a way to detach from emotions.
Totally. There is a Kate Bush interview where she says: "Oh, I can't listen to my first record. I'm way over- emphasizing, doing all this flowery stuff. It took me a couple of records to find what was my real voice." She knew when she had it.
Do you use special budgets for people who are poor but talented?
There are people who are doing music that I've chose over the years to support in a capacity of encouragement, because somebody has to do it. Someone has to record it well for them because there's so much weird music that would be much more awesome if it was recorded in a way that made people excited about it. There are so many gifted people that don't get that opportunity. I think my friend Eyvind is one of the greatest living composers. I will work with him whenever he calls me, no matter what the situation. It doesn't matter. I'm learning so much about arranging acoustic instruments — and phenomenology of sound — that the collaboration is completely amazing.
You get paid in a different way.
How do you set the stage for bringing dramatic sounds into a recording session?
Some of the bands I've worked with bring them in anyway. Like Sunn O))), for instance. Wolves In The Throne Room are very ritualistic about how they approach music. I think I look for people who are already doing that, and then I just join. I join their cult for like a month or something.
How do movie soundtracks differ from studio albums?
The intent of the music is different maybe? Whenever you have a visual element that's dictating the emotion of the music — and it's outside the writer — that's going to lead to something very different. The budgets for film soundtracks are still good. In Interstellar, the music was gorgeous. I was okay with the movie, but the music itself was really incredible. Really crazy pipe organ music.
Can you use the technology of Foley and sound effects to record musical compositions? They're sort of two different languages.
Yeah, for sure. I do a lot of microscopic compression with stuff. I really like to record acoustic guitar if it's played in a very quiet room with a really nice mic very softly. I use a hot mic pre and then gain it back down with compression so you have this overblown microscopic version of what's happening. It's hyper focused.
What about weird Foley tricks like making the sound of shoes on gravel?
I think I did a song once where I made somebody go outdoors and dig as a rhythm track paired with their snare. They just dug on the snare beats and they went, "Shhht, shhht." But then there was a hole left in my yard. I'm in a fortunate position where people want to support the same superstitions that I do.