Jonathan Schenke has made a name and a sound for himself by recording and mixing some of the best independent and experimental rock that came out of New York in the last five years. You may have witnessed it with the likes of Parquet Courts, The Drums, Liturgy, PC Worship, or scores of other excellent NY rock records. A go-to-guy for commercial work and in the underground, I was excited to visit him at Dr. Wu’s, the studio where he’s done so much creative production, and talk about his collaborations, his process, and his own music. His passion for excellent record-making is clear, and rewarding for everyone involved.
I wanted to ask what inspired the transition from live sound to recording for you, and the back-ground on shifting to recording.
For me, recording has always been the end goal; live sound was more of a means to an end in terms of making money and trying to learn as much as I could about sound. I took any sound gig I could, even if it was just for a day. Live sound was an awesome boot camp to learn signal flow, how to mic, and EQ something quickly so that the band and crowd aren’t waiting on you... you’re just constantly moving forward. It’s funny, I would say to anyone trying to record that the best way to get good fast is to do live sound and just mix a ton of bands every night.
When did you transition to full time to recording then?
I guess I’ve really been able to fully embrace recording in the last five years or so, since moving to New York. Before that I was in Chicago after college, doing a bunch of live sound and working at Experimental Sound Studio – an amazing nonprofit sound arts organization. I was the manager and head engineer for their recording studio, but they also have a gallery and do sound art installations around town, as well as an archive. They had Sun Ra archives and I would do remasters and such there. When I moved [to New York], I was still doing some live sound, driving trucks, and whatever I could to pay the bills.
Can you tell me more about the history of Doctor Wu’s, how it started, and what your involvement has been?
Doctor Wu, the person, is the father of the studio owner Yale [Yng-Wong]. There’s a Steely Dan song about him. He was this renaissance man, of sorts, in the ‘70s in California and the Washington, D.C. area. He helped popularize Chinese medicine and philosophy as a healing practice, he was a painter, and did translations of the I Ching and other classic texts. One of the things that he was most known for in the ‘70s was treating people that were getting off heroin, which is how Steely Dan got to know him. We started the studio in spring 2012, with Yale Yng-Wong, Jake Aaron, and I. When we heard his story it was clear it had to be the name. We put the studio together in March 2012, and just slowly added to this pile of gear and list of clients coming through. It’s been really amazing to watch it grow. All three of us have grown as engineers, having each other to learn from.
You did some work and collaborations with Eventide, is that true?
Yeah, I got to know a designer named Joe Waltz who works at Eventide – just one of those incredible mad scientist sorts. Over the past couple years I’ve worked closely with him on plug-ins and outboard gear that they’re developing. He’ll send me a new build that I’ll play around with, then we’ll just brainstorm what it can be over coffee or one of his homemade pasta dinners. Soon after, I’ll get a new build and see our ideas start to be implemented. Same with some of the outboard gear – I’ll go over to his apartment and there’s gear spread out across every surface. He’s always picking my brain about things and testing them out at Wu’s. I love that company; They’ve made so much inspiring gear and software over the years. It’s cool to be an active part of that.
I’d like to hear about your experiences recording to tape. Can you tell me some more about that and the tape shootout that you have online?
My first experience recording to tape was early on at the Cleveland Institute of Music. We were recording string quartets and piano concertos. Our instructor, Alan Bise, didn’t let us touch a computer for months. He lectured on microphone types, microphone placement, and proper signal path. Our first recording project, when we actually sat down to do one, was to 2-track tape; rocking the reels by hand, doing the edits, and splicing the tape. It made moving to the computer an eureka moment of like, “Wow, this is so much easier!” I didn’t really get back to tape until many years later. I found the workflow even more fascinating than the sound that it imparts. It forces you to be present, involved, and actively listening during the takes. There’s something really gratifying about not looking at a screen and using your ears. I’ve fallen more in love with that style of recording. I have an Otari MX-5050, which I’ve used a lot. I did the shootout you mentioned a few years ago when we were working on Parquet Courts’ EP, Tally All the Things That You Broke. We had done their previous record, Light Up Gold, on Austin [Brown]’s Tascam 388 – a cult classic, all in one, coffee-table sized proto Portastudio. It has this great midrange punch that gave that record a distinct sound. Then for Tally..., we brought the 388 into Seaside Lounge, which also has an MX-5050. We recorded to both the tape machines, and to Pro Tools as a control, to see the differences. We ended up using the 5050 for the record, but later I took clips of each and put them on SoundCloud for fun. People love to write me about it, and even come up to me on tour to talk about it.
That’s awesome. For the new The Drums record [Abysmal Thoughts] I heard that you broke down home recordings and built them back up. Can you tell me more about that process of reworking written material, and what you like about doing that?
That was a really fun project. The principal songwriter, Jonny Pierce, has historically written and recorded all the music for The Drums himself, doing layers of overdubs, starting with a drum loop or a synth line. For this record he really wanted an outside perspective to do something new, and elevate the tracks beyond what he had done previously. He reached out and sent me the demos, and we traded notes back and forth to narrow it down to the 15 coolest tracks. Some of the songs were beautiful and just needed to be mixed. Some of them we stripped down to just the drums and the vocals and the synths – things that would be really difficult to replace – and then built back up the parts, added live drums to mix in with the samples, and re-worked the arrangements. The parameters of the project were very open-ended and free, versus a band that practices the songs and then you get in the room and hit record and that is the arrangement. I love having the opportunity to work on a project that’s open to make it whatever you can dream it to be.
I wanted to ask you about working with Parquet Courts.
I met those guys when I was doing sound at Cake Shop, [a small venue on the Lower East Side]. Andrew [Savage]’s old band, Fergus & Geronimo, played there with Jason Kelly, who also plays drums on the new Eaters record and a bunch of other stuff that I’ve recorded, Austin [Brown] was playing lead guitar, and my now bandmate in Eaters, Bob Jones, was playing bass. Jason came back a few days later, to shadow me in the sound booth. We hit it off and started talking about Eno [Tape Op #85] and The Kinks. He introduced me to Frankie Rose, whom he and Bob were also playing with, and I did a tour with them doing sound. After that, he asked me to record the next Fergus & Geronimo record, Funky was The State of Affairs, which is how I actually met Andrew. It was a really natural transition into doing Light Up Gold, which we did in three days in their practice space on the Tascam 388. From there, we continued working on the Sunbathing Animal LP, EPs, and remixes. Those guys have become close friends and collaborators at this point. I’m currently mixing the Bodega record that Austin produced, and Andrew put out the Eaters records on his label Dull Tools. It is very much like a family; there is such a strong community of friends and collaborators throughout New York City and it’s really inspiring. I actually just went back to listen to Sunbathing Animal for the first time in years, and I was able to actually listen to it objectively for what it was, and I loved it. I think that’s the first time I’ve been able to do that since we recorded it three years ago.
You mentioned your band Eaters. I wanted to ask about how your own creative music has influenced your process and direction as a recording engineer.
Eaters is a collaboration between myself and Bob Jones, this incredible guitarist, bassist, and synth player, and Chris Duffy, who is a glass sculptor and installation artist. Bob and I started the project after having done that tour with Frankie, and him playing bass on the Fergus record. He had all these ideas and sketches of songs, which we brought into Doctor Wu’s right after setting up the studio – the guinea pig project to test things out. We had so much fun working together so we just kept writing and making stuff until we had a full record’s worth of material. The project has grown since, bringing in Chris to do live visuals, sound sculptures, and installations, and we just put out our second record, Eaters, on Dull Tools. Working on my own music opens up so many pathways that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to pursue with a client, whether it’s based on time, budget, or interest. I get the freedom to really experiment and explore; creating these fictitious worlds. It’s exciting and stimulating, but also I end up learning so much that then I can share with my clients. It’s like, “Oh, I know how to do this now,” because I’ve spent days of my own personal time without watching the clock. I find Eaters to be really rewarding and liberating in its own right, but also super impactful when recording and engineering others.