Described as "a manual for those on a quest for authenticity, in an age of airbrushed and Auto-Tuned so-called 'artists'," Ian Brennan's book, How Music Dies (or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts, examines music, creativity, and culture in a vibrant, intriguing manner. Ian has produced albums for artists like Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Peter Case, and Kyp Malone's Rain Machine project, but he's best known for his field recorded productions. During travels in Africa and Asia, Ian has produced albums for Tinariwen, Malawi Mouse Boys, The Good Ones, Khmer Rouge Survivors, General Paolino & Mama Celina, and Zomba Prison Project's I Have No Everything Here album - recorded at the maximum-security Zomba Central Prison in Malawi – was a record which was recently nominated for a Grammy (Brennan's fourth nomination, along with having won for Tinariwen's Tassili album). Additionally, Ian does training, and has written books on, violence prevention, anger-management, and conflict resolution.
I get the feeling you were playing in bands early on when you were younger?
I came to producing just by producing my own projects. I did a horrible job of it and made massive errors. Those records are a disaster because of it. They didn't have to be. If I'd been less of a control freak and more mature at that point, the course of my life would have been a lot better. But through that process I came to learn from some of those mistakes, and now I am better able to help other people get out of their own way. That's what I see my role being, but it was a very slow evolution. I'm not an "engineer." I became one out of necessity with the field recordings. Being lucky enough to work with some amazing engineers, and having worked on mastering with John Golden since 1987, I certainly have picked up some knowledge along the way, but it's just not the way my brain works. I'm not a techie person. I tend to stay focused on performances and on songs, textures, and details that – for better or for worse – might be unimportant, but are unique. My feedback on mixes and mastering are probably going to be off base, in some cases. I'm listening more to little performance details that I think would be cool to bring out more. I picked up those skills when I started doing field recordings in San Francisco. It was with a friend's ADAT, splitting signals so that the live performance could occur and still be recorded somewhat well. I started producing some records, from doing lots of benefit shows with Fugazi, Merle Haggard, Green Day, and people. I started with friends, and that led to producing Ramblin' Jack Elliott [I Stand Alone], and that then led to Peter Case [Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John], which led to Kyp Malone [Rain Machine]. It was all natural, word-of-mouth. Then, when we started going to Africa and elsewhere, the field recording that I'd done at the Brainwash Laundromat in San Francisco for those five years every week paid off [look for the Unscrubbed series of live albums –ed.]. Not because I had any great engineering skills, but just because I'd learned to do things under pressure and on the fly. A lot of times with field recording, whether you want it or not, you often do have an audience. It's somewhat similar.
You're setting up equipment and capturing an event, yet everyone else is like, "What's he doing?"
Yeah. Even with the Malawi Mouse Boys, there's no road to bring a car in. So every time we've gone there, particularly the first time, they had to figure out a way to drive in without running over anybody's crops or pissing anybody off. We went in without the permission of the chief. That's on the band, and up to them, but customarily they're supposed to go to the chief and be given formal permission to bring in people to do something like that. Sometimes you end up in situations where it's just managing the sound – you do end up with this audience where you have many, many more hangers-on than you do performers. There have been a few of those situations, where at the end it's like, "Uh-oh, I hope everybody understands that there's not a million dollars here." It's almost always been great and worked out well, but it's a dynamic. I think those previous years paid off, in some weird way. The rare bands that come to me and want me to produce a record for them, I'm like, "Take your money and go to somebody else.
Go to a studio in your city, and it'll be great. Go to a really good engineer. You're going to have a safety net of results." They can do it with me, but it's probably not going to sound as good – it's just going to be different. Maybe it's going to have more of a vibe, because I pretty much only do live recordings. No overdubs, almost without exception. I did a record for this band, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, who are very successful in world music. They've been around for 40 years. It's a family group, and there's a new generation. They had a budget and had it all plotted out – they were super organized and prepared. They're like, "We can do the whole thing live, but we have to do these two overdubs." I said, "Nope!" Not really in a mean way, or even totally seriously. We did end up doing a violin overdub and maybe one other. After doing the live recording, most artists choose not to do any overdubs. They say, "Oh, cool. It worked!" It's more out of fear. It's that obsessiveness I think we all get into. It's usually something really minor. But when they hear it, when it's all said and done and they've experienced playing live like that, a lot of times they're satisfied and say, "Oh, I don't want to touch it now." Once you touch it, it's like you can go off the deep end; or maybe it doesn't even change anything, except for the worse. All that said, this has to be performers who are really great. Especially if it's a band situation.
There's no reason to go in and record someone who's not already doing something of interest.
Yeah. I produced a band, Zmei3, in a similar situation. We came up with this whole plan of doing field recordings back in their homeland of Romania, and it was awesome. The vocalist, Paula Turcas, is a former opera singer. We recorded 20 hours of music, and there's not an off note, except for the first song when she was getting warmed up on the first day. The main lead instrument is a vibraphone. I'm not a big vibraphone fan, but Oli Bott is incredible. It's always amazing, I think, when you have musicians that are that good. It makes it so easy.
In your book you mention saving the artist from themselves a lot of times.
Well, I think there are two things I believe related to that. One is this left brain, right brain thing, which on the one hand is basic, but on the other it's very universal and fundamental. I think it's very easy to get where you're switching back and forth. It's really exhausting and unnatural, in terms of tasks, and makes it really hard to create momentum. That's where I think it's really good to have an amazing engineer who can really take care of that whole end of it. Then the performers can concentrate on their performance. I have performers record without headphones, almost always. I record in one room the way you normally play, whether it's sitting down, standing up, in a circle, or whatever it is. Then I don't listen back to anything. You just play. Again, this comes from my own experience. The first record I did in 1987, all I remember is the engineer constantly screaming at me through the headphones, "No. Don't. Stop. Again!" I don't think a good studio owner/producer/engineer like yourself or others do that, but I do think there are a lot of people who have had that experience in the studio, especially when they're starting. Maybe they're going to a studio that's not as good, or an engineer who's not as experienced. It can be very traumatizing – it can create some residual effects and scar tissue. I really believe in this thing of listening back to nothing; rather just playing and trusting that. Also I believe in very short recording sessions. Again, it's not a hard and fast rule; but I think, for most people, their energy is really the most valuable resource, and it gets squandered. By the time it comes time to record, the blood sugars' already low, they're already burnt out, or the high is fading. With Ramblin' Jack Elliott, I talked to him a bit beforehand about recording, and basically everything he had to say about it was negative. He'd made 50 albums since the '50s, and it was all negative. Like, "I hate the studio. I like to play live." I started getting into it further. I asked him, "What about it do you hate?" He said, "Well, I hate all the waiting around." Then I come to find out on a lot of records they had him track his guitar separate from his voice. That's absurd. That's all this guy does; he sings and plays guitar, simultaneously. Things like that that you find out. You can't even believe it.
I hear stories like this all the time.
Then he said, "I hate when there are people on the other side of the glass looking at me when I play." We did the first sessions at a studio in Hollywood. I put up a blanket [over the window], and I told him when to show up, which was three hours later [than when I arrived] so we'd be ready to go. I asked him if he wanted a stool or chair. I was sure to have everything ready. He comes in, I hand him a guitar, and he sits down and starts playing. After a while, he's like, "We're recording?" I sat in the room with him the entire time, across from his knee. It was an adjustment, but two hours later, we'd recorded a third of the record. I think, for most people, that can be the case. But then there are maybe those more experienced people too who need their own process. Someone like Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio is so skilled in the studio. He has such stamina. We did it [Rain Machine] mostly live, and we did it in a very concentrated form, but with super long sessions. He likes sessions that last all night, because that's the way he works best. It's whatever works for the artist. When dealing with bands, find out what time of day they like to work, try to have everything ready in advance of their arrival, and then just go for it.
I had one bad experience early on, going to a studio in the '80s, so I've learned too.
Yeah, I think a lot of it is that '80s experience. For people who didn't live it, it was an odd convergence. All the multitracking methods had become formalized, and then there was all this new equipment, which I think led to obviously bad – now sometimes ironic or quaint – sounds that people liked. But I think if you lived it, a lot of the music was horrible. The studio could be so painful. People were so set in their ways about how to do it. Everything became like you had to play to a click track, you had to do this, and you had to do that. Around the time I started recording, in the mid '80s, tuners had come in, so people were constantly tuning their guitars. Constantly! Stopping to tune was another defense mechanism or stalling tactic. I look back at my first record: I had the choice of working with an engineer-producer who was amazing artistically but didn't have as good of equipment, or working with a guy who had better equipment. I made the decision based on the one guy having a (2)inch, 16-track tape machine. That was it. That was why I recorded with him. It was the dumbest decision in my life. I'm at peace with it, but I know my life would have been different had I just gone and recorded the record with a guy who had good aesthetic judgment, was a nicer person, and had more sensitivity to what my strengths and weaknesses were, because my weaknesses far outweighed my strengths. It would have been good to have somebody who could see whatever value there was, at least.
It can be a weird power structure situation too.
It comes back to fear. Fear on the part of the performer. I think most bad behavior – whether it's anger, prejudice, or arrogance – if you scratch deep down, it's fear. I think for the performers, creating an environment where they're not threatened is so important, but at the same time being realistic and straight with people about where they're at. Not helping them be delusional, but giving them a supportive environment. I think a lot of that control, for people who are engineers and such, is also fear. I think it's a fear of something going terribly wrong… which it can. Flexibility is one of those universals. Having the ability to adapt, improvise, and be flexible means so much, because I think a lot of it is about problem solving; especially with field recordings. Sometimes the songs that have some interference, it's almost like the song selection is being made for you on-the-spot for a record. Because of that, I try to record way in excess of what is needed, song-wise. Other times there are sounds that are noises, but they end up being beautiful. They contribute subliminally, or sometimes even more literally than that. We just did a record where we were outdoors at a school. They were doing construction on the school, and on the other side was a cement factory. We were surrounded by noise. The noises that did find their way into the recording – for the most part – were totally serendipitous. Like it would add something to the sound, almost acting as another part in some cases. It's weird how that can happen.
What do you set in place to begin with, to at least try to make sure that you're going to get a usable recording?
Well, I try to keep it super simple. That's partially because I have no choice but to do so. Some of these recordings have been done under illegal circumstances. Maybe we're somewhere we're not supposed to be, like I said with the village chief. Sometimes they're done with foreboding weather or darkness, where you know you're going to run out of time at a certain point so you have to commit and go for it. I just try to get as good of mics as I can with a portable set up – ones that don't require external power supplies – and to close mic things as much as possible. I really love a cappella singing, and I really love language and voices. Almost all the records [I produce] have at least one a cappella song. I love a cappella because you can hear the whole body of the voice. I think that gets lost so much with so many recordings, where it's all so mid-heavy and you lose all the texture of the voice; the less-obvious elements. A lot of the music ends up being recorded in a more intimate way as well. When we went to see General Paolino, a legendary blind singer from South Sudan, he said, "Come on down to see me tonight." So we went down to a bar/restaurant and there was a rehearsal space behind it. It was this really small room, about 8 feet by 12 feet. There were around 12 people in the room playing with him, and almost no room for the people because they had equipment sitting on equipment, stacked up. They had a drummer crammed in a corner and were playing so loud in this room. It was awesome. A better engineer could have figured out what to do, but I was like, "This is the most awesome thing that I'll never be able to record." Your ear filters and figures out what it's all supposed to sound like. But even if I close mic'd everything it was going to sound like shit on tape, because it was one big wash of sound. It was sad, because the bass player he had was one of the most incredible bass players I've ever seen in my life. He played the instrument in this completely unorthodox but authoritative way. What happens a lot of times is stripping it down when it's a situation like that. That's why I love the outdoors so much. When we were outdoors at that school, there was a room we could've used, but I preferred being outside because there was so much less reflection. The sound was really dead, but I think the air in each place helps color the sound, depending on the humidity and as long as there's not a lot of wind. Just let the sound be as it is. Capture it as much as you can. I don't believe that's the right way to do it. It's just a way to do it, and it's what I try to do. Try to make it sound like you're there.
Was Africa your first non-US field recording work?
I'd gone down unsuccessfully to Mexico and Cuba, and roamed Ireland with intentions of doing that. I went into a garbage dump in Baja where people live, and some other really remote places. Then my wife, Marilena Delli – who does all the photos and videos for these projects – was going back to Rwanda with her mother, who's Rwandan, returning for the first time after the genocide [of 1994]. She made a documentary [Rwanda' Mama] on her mother's return. We wanted to find music for her documentary, but we also wanted to try to do a record or two. We were there for more than two weeks. That was really the first time. If it weren't for her, I don't know if I ever would have set foot in Africa. I became very interested in non-English popular music in the late '80s. I got burned out on the hype machine of two guitars, bass, and drums. I love folk and American music, but I got so burnt on the idea. There are these profound differences between artists when, in many cases, what they're doing is fairly basic and the differences are quite nominal. There can also be true artistry, where someone's really doing something that comes from inside of them out of nowhere. That's what interests me. What scares me, and what the book is about, is seeing that get leveled by the influence of recorded music, and by the influence of copying physically – and literally – through performance. I try to listen to the difference between someone's speaking voice and singing voice. The less difference there is between their speaking voice and their singing voice, then generally that's an objective way of looking at how truthful and how genuine they're being, and how authentic it is. You can look at these videos on YouTube now where you've got these kids all over the world speaking in Korean, or with a heavy British or Czech accent, and then the next thing you see they're singing exactly like Michael Jackson or Adele. It's bizarre.
We can't embrace our own cultures.
Yeah. Too close to home.
You mentioned something in the book about going to see a lot of Rwandan music that was just reformatting Western music with their own language, right?
Yeah. We were there, and some people we knew said, "Oh, there's a music festival." Of course, I have nothing against things being easy. You hope for that. They're rarely going to be, but it seemed like low-hanging fruit. "We're going to go to this music festival and obviously will see a bunch of people in a very quick way, relatively easy, and we'll be done." It was really just so depressing. On one hand, it was very beautiful. It was in the parking lot of the stadium, not the stadium itself. There was barely any security and no lights. There was no sense of danger, but there was also no sense of control. But the artists were cookie cutter. You could literally play "name the artist." The only thing different was the Kinyarwanda language had been grafted on top. This one individual came out and was totally Beyonce. This other guy came out who actually was (and maybe still is) famous in Rwanda. He's totally Snoop Dogg. Everything about him. I don't know how much he looks like him, but from a distance, he looks enough like him that he could be considered an impersonator. Certainly vocally he's the same – just the language is different. That set the tone for everything that followed. I work on small, international music releases that hardcore music lovers might care about. Maybe if we're lucky Vice, BBC, NPR, or somebody writes about it. These are records that don't sell or get a lot of attention, but I think they're worthwhile. Suddenly, with the Zomba Prison Project and a Grammy nomination, this became a human-interest story all over the world, which provoked all kinds of reactions and suspicions. In every society, you get the upper-middle class (and above) saying, "No, no, no. This isn't the right representation of our society. They should be listening to so-and-so." And so-and-so invariably sucks. They're always more standardized and proper. That's not of interest to me. Oftentimes the pointed finger is, "You're coming in from outside and don't understand our culture." Well, that's not it. If I played those same people the records I like from America, they'd hate those records. They would hate Vic Chesnutt. They would probably detest Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers. No doubt they wouldn't dig Alvin Lucier. I'm listening for what I think is unique in any given culture – my own or others. But the upper class always eventually seizes the dialogue, everywhere. I don't think it's any different, whether it's a developing country or a "rich" country. That's been one of the more problematic or challenging things that we've faced. You get the first Grammy nomination ever for a country, and yet you're criticized for it. Okay.
How do you negotiate with artists and performers? I've talked with other people who do recordings all over the world, and a lot of times you have to be careful about monetary situations.
Well, I try to be transparent with people and operate from a model that's a complete inversion of what tends to happen with music. With us it is the artists that are the only ones who are guaranteed to be paid. It's modest amounts, especially with recordings like the Zomba Prison Project where there are 60 people. A record we just did down in Burundi had 30 lead singers, but it involved close to 100 people. It's making sure that every single person gets paid, and then that they'll share in the profits, if there ever are any, and also letting people know realistically that there probably will never be any. I never wanted to be someone's manager or booking agent, but out of necessity I've become that in some instances, and that's where the real money for them can come from. With a group like The Good Ones from Rwanda, or Malawi Mouse Boys, there have been opportunities to make some money. Hopefully it'll be more in the future. I don't know if it will or not, but the records lead to that. The nice thing we've encountered from those individuals is patience on their part, but also recognition that they really appreciate that we've kept them in the loop, did not forget them, and that ultimately we delivered on our managed and modest expectations – our stating clearly that we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know if the recordings are even ever going to be released as a record. It takes a long time sometimes to find a partner to release a recording, and then maybe another year for it to get put out. With The Good Ones, the record came out more than a year later. But then their opportunity to travel overseas did not come for four more years after that. So five years from the time we recorded. It was incredible. When it finally came, it was awesome for them. That led to them being able to go to Germany and tour again this past winter. Again, I don't know if it's sustainable, but you hope it will be. It's a first step. That's what I try to say to people. "This is a step towards something else, hopefully."
Have you done multiple records with any of these artists, at this point?
Yeah, that's been a cool thing. The Malawi Mouse Boys just released their third album. The Good Ones released their second album. There's another Acholi Machon album recorded. And there's a second Zomba Prison Project record that's coming out in the fall. It's nice. If there ever is a second record, I think it's super important that there's a clear reason for it to exist. That's one of the things I talk about in the book. I wish more artists would self-cancel, as in harakiri [seppuku] artistically, where they'd say, "I'm going to keep touring, and I'm going to keep playing the favorite songs for folks, or maybe even reinterpreting those songs and expressing myself creatively in that way, but I am tapped out as a songwriter." I wish they would do that. I wish they'd use their platform for other people. I think it would be so awesome if Bruce Springsteen said, "I'm not going to make a new record, but you should really check out this new band from Nicaragua, because these guys right now are in that zone I was in when I was 26."
You get that with Peter Gabriel, and what he's done with Real World Records.
It's true. You're making a really good point. He is one that turned his back on that machinery. I think that's to be respected, really. I think it's restraint.
To be inspired as a musician I've felt, at times, that I was learning more from many different sources, and not having to exclusively listen to western music.
Yeah, that's another good point. It's nearly infinite, because it renews itself. That's part of why the commercialization of music is such a dangerous thing. It sets up this mindset that all music now exists because of music that has come before. It's simply not true. Meaning it is possible to create music almost without having heard music. It's in us – we're born with it. I saw a review for the Malawi Mouse Boys' third record [Forever Is 4 You], and the guy was referring to their music as mento-influenced.
I know how wrong that is. [Mento is a Jamaican folk music that predates ska and reggae.]
Exactly. You do. But what's so sad is here's this guy with a platform in England. Most people don't know what mento is anyway, so they're going to take it at face value. There's no way in the fucking world the Mouse Boys have heard mento music. They live without electricity and don't even listen to records, except randomly.
I think I've seen a few comments from you too about peoples' misunderstanding of where countries are in Africa, let alone the history of the music.
Last week I was talking to a college professor – 75-years-old, liberal, and educated – and he says, "Where is Malawi? Africa?" I can't really make this stuff up. We were at Zomba Prison in January with the New York Times. There was some questioning of whether it was true that people were not influenced by Western music. The next day there was a guy who had the Rolling Stones' lips and tongue image on his hat. I said, "What group is that from?" He's like, "Huh?" I said, "The Rolling Stones?" He had no idea what I was talking about. A couple of days later we're at the border in Burundi, and there's a woman who had a stocking cap with Bob Marley on her forehead. I said, "Do you know who that is?" She said, "Nope!" Then, the next day, there was a man who had this tricked-out bike with the reggae colors and "one love" on it. I said, "Do you know who said that?" He says, "God." I asked, "Do you know who Bob Marley is?" He's like, "Nope." It might be hard to believe, but there are people who aren't influenced by the things we assume are givens now. It's reassuring, in a sense.
One of the things you mention a lot in your book is authenticity, and looking for something that's pure. It's probably feeling like that's harder to do in the internet age.
Yeah. Whatever you're going to find on the internet is going to be standardized. Because of the very fact that the person does have that access, it's going to influence them. There's nothing wrong with that either. I think cross-pollination can be an amazing thing. You look at somebody like Stromae [Paul Van Haver]; he's the example of the good aspect of this. You've got this guy with a Rwandan father, raised in Belgium – a bilingual country – and he grows up amidst this conflict between their two languages [Flemish and French]. He's rapping in the less-dominant language. At his best, he does things that are highly original, yet totally influenced by pop culture. He's an international superstar, rapping and singing mostly in French. That can happen, but I think it's the exception. Instead it's so common for people to end up standardizing. The thing we see a lot of is stock rap phrasing anywhere you go, and then the reggae thing. The reggae thing can be so contaminating. And sometimes the gospel paradigm, too.
Reggae's reached all over the world and been adopted, but usually in the blandest form.
Yeah. I think, in transmission, you end up with the most superficial elements of something. Hopefully an error in transmission leads to something new by accident, but I think a lot of times you end up with something that's the surface without the depth. That's capitalism. Ideally there can be balance, and through that balance we can hopefully gain the benefits of recorded music, but also continue to have the benefits of musical creation and live music. I think that's what's being lost, because essentially a lot of live music now is pre-recorded music.