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...