Kevin Army was a secret force behind the East Bay punk explosion of the late '80s and early '90s. Being a generation older than the bands he worked with brought depth and wisdom on two-fronts that informed the music: his experience as an artist from the dawn of punk internationally and his career as a vinyl record collector with an encyclopedic knowledge of sound. He had cut his teeth at his own studio, Dangerous Rhythm in Oakland (a studio that he bought from his mentor, Matt Wallace (see Matt's interview this issue). Dangerous Rhythm was the go-to underground rock studio in the Bay Area during the mid-1980s, and it was also the first professional studio that I personally recorded in. Kevin produced some of the most seminal bands of the East Bay punk sound, including Operation Ivy, Jawbreaker, The Mr. T Experience, and Sweet Baby. In addition, he also engineered Green Day's second major label album, Insomniac.
Feature Photo @ Dangerous Rhythm 1986 by David Ginochio of 3DBB
When did you start playing music?
When I was in third grade or so. I started playing piano; my mother taught me. She got a book and she showed me a few things - the basics. Music was all that I wanted to do! They had to limit me playing records when I was 7, because all I wanted to do was sit in front of the record player. This is why I became a record collector, so that I could have as many records and listen to them as much as I wanted. They limited me to an hour a day at one point, because they couldn't take it. [laughter] Everyone knew I loved music. I remember my parents opening up their trunk, and it was stuffed with records that people had passed on for me. First, they got me a toy saxophone. Then the piano; an upright. I learned a little bit, and I immediately started playing songs by ear. I really impressed my family when I learned to play "The Age of Aquarius" on my own. [laughter] They would make my relatives listen to my horrible renditions. In school I was given the choice between violin or viola; I chose violin. The worst choice ever, if you wanted to carry an instrument that was [essentially] a neon sign that said, "Beat me up."
I thought any instrument might make someone a mark for bullies.
No, you could play sax. I was the only boy in the string section. That's a whole other level of commitment - to not just learn an instrument, but to get hazed and have your ass kicked in the process. My teacher was terrible. She didn't teach vibrato, so I got headaches all the time. Vibrato is what makes you sound good.
So, you gave yourself a headache with your own playing?
I think so. When I was in 7th grade, my mom gave me the choice to play guitar. We had an awesome teacher that would teach us music theory, as well as Led Zeppelin and Don Ellis, which was pretty crazy out in the suburbs. I would come home and lock myself in my room and play all day, every day. Within two hours of picking up the guitar I had written a song, which I had never done with piano. Guitar immediately resonated with me.
What year do you think the East Bay punk scene started? And what year did it end?
Well, there'd been an East Bay scene since 1977. But what the East Bay became known for - the scene around 924 Gilman Street - started in 1986. That scene never ended; it is still going. Obviously, it peaked in fame when Green Day became popular, and with that perhaps some of the initial innocence and lack of self-consciousness were lost. That brought some interlopers, though I don't think many of them actually joined into that scene. I would call the interlopers the bands from outside that scene who would suddenly say, "We're kind of punk rock. We sound like Nirvana and Green Day," without ever having gone to Gilman. Kind of like the journalists who never wrote a word about Gilman until Green Day hit it big, and then couldn't shut up about it. I mean, if you lived in the East Bay and missed seeing and writing about Operation Ivy, you couldn't have been that good of a rock journalist, could you?
How was the reception to the early East Bay punk scene?
Well, everything was met with resistance by reviewers. They later embraced it. But did anyone write about that before it became successful? There was that whole period previously where punk rock was just considered garbage. You just have to go with your heart. I think the Gilman bands influenced each other, yet they remained unique at the same time.
What was your first studio experience?
I was in bands back then, and if you were in punk rock bands you ended up recording with people at studios that hated you. I started producing before I started engineering. I made my horrible single. Some people liked the way it sounded, so they asked me to produce them. I hired the right engineer, the best engineer, to do my single. I listened to all the local records and picked the one that sounded the best. And this guy was a fucking coke freak. He was a good engineer, but he was fucked-up on drugs. He was annoying, and I didn't get along with him. This is one of the things that got it into my head to do engineering. This guy was doing lines every 15 minutes! At the end of the day he'd say, "I don't know what kind of studio you've been to before, but usually the artist brings drugs for the engineer." [laughter] Everyone hated the record, but it sounded good. Most independent records just didn't sound good.
How did you get involved with engineering?
I decided I was going to engineer, so I went back to school in 1986 or so. And the first day I was at school, I got a job from Matt Wallace, since I had been hounding him. That's how I got into engineering. My intention was to go to SF State's program. My first day on the job was Matt Wallace teaching me how to run an 8-track recorder, which he had learned at a community college in the East Bay suburbs. The ironic thing is that the first few projects I engineered just sounded terrible.
Why did you hound Matt Wallace for a job?
Because he told me he was looking for someone. I called him every day for a month. He hired me because I showed the most interest. He wanted to move onto larger studios. He owned this little studio, so he trained me for a month. We did a session where I tried to run the whole thing, and then he was like, "Here are keys. Start booking yourself. These people are calling." I started working all the time, and Matt still worked sometimes, too. Dangerous Rhythm was on 12th Street, across from the Fruitvale BART station. The building is still there.
I know it was an 8-track, 1/2-inch Tascam with a Carvin mixing board. What was in your microphone locker?
Okay, what was your best mic then?
A [Shure] SM57. Our condenser mics were from RadioShack, and they were battery-powered. We had a pair of Sennheiser MD 421s. That was our high-end mic. Matt set up this studio with no money and cheap equipment, and he was making really good recordings. But for my first year, I was sucking. The rooms sounded amazing. Those were the best rooms for drums, ever.
How many rooms were there?
A moderate-sized main room, a drum booth, a vocal booth, and this outside room that was a reception area. I started recording drums out there, opening the door and putting mics out, and I would get this huge '80s drum sound. When I started, I really loved reverb and room sounds too much. Matt came up with this way where you put a snare through a speaker and then mic'd and gated it. I'd get that '80s awful snare sound, which I started putting on everyone's records, regardless of the necessity. It sounded horrible. There are a lot of people whose records it is on. Please let me use this forum to say, "I'm sorry." [laughter]
Did Matt teach you to splice tape?
Yes. When I was just producing, I wasn't getting hands-on, but I was observing the engineers. People used to come into a studio, be overwhelmed, and think, "How am I going to learn all that?" But if you look at a mixing board, you only have to learn one channel and the patchbay. In my career I learned that people had trouble with the patchbay because they didn't memorize it. When I had to go into different studios, I would go in the day before, write down the patchbay, and then go home and memorize it. It looks more overwhelming than it is. Obviously, it gets more complex when you get to mic'ing and signal path and all that. But people were paying for me to learn.
You later went on to own the studio, correct?
Yes, I bought Dangerous Rhythm Studios with my old business partner, Bill Raymond, from Matt. We owned it for two years. When you own a business, you end up having to do all kinds of details and busy work that aren't about engineering. Also, I realized that to upgrade equipment would cost more than it was worth. I could freelance and get the same rate I would be charging at the studio, with a lot less headache. We were too small of a business to get a business loan; we were laughed at by a loan officer.I got out of the studio and built relationships with better small studios, like Dancing Dog in Emeryville and Sound And Vision in San Francisco, which were both wonderful and cheap.
What was the first record that you were proud of, on a sonic level?
The first Mr. T Experience record [Everybody's Entitled to Their Own Opinion] because they didn't give me enough time to fuck it up. We had a 13-hour budget for the whole thing. I had been screwing up and, yes, John Golden [Tape Op #121] showed me how I had been screwing up.
What were you doing wrong?
I was cranking the high-end on the vocals and I wasn't using a de-esser, so John had to use a de-esser on the whole song. Worse, I was cranking the high end and running it through delays, so the S's were going all over the place. John sat down me and patiently said, "This is what you are doing to the grooves of the vinyl." He showed me the view under a microscope, and said that if it was any more, the record would just skip when played and he couldn't master that. "You have to go get a de-esser. That will cure your problems." I went and bought a $100 de-esser, and the next record I did was Mr. T Experience. It was the lowest-budget project that I had ever done, so all I could do was throw up the microphones, record it without doing anything, and mix it in two or three hours. I couldn't go crazy with manipulating sounds. It didn't sound awful. That was the first time I came back from the mastering and thought, "Hey, that's okay. It sounds better than the things I spent hundreds of hours on."
Who turned you on to John Golden?
Matt Wallace told me about John. Just like John mentioned in the interview you did with him of how his reputation spread. Matt said to me, "I just went to this guy and he listens to the record all the way through." That did not happen elsewhere. "He takes his time, listens to your stuff, and suggests what else you could do." The next record I did, I went down there and he showed me what I was doing wrong. It was a life-changing moment.
What were the studio options for alternative bands in the 1980s in the Bay Area?
There were very few. There was a place that I found in Oakland called Bay Sound Reproduction. They were more into soul music, but they tolerated me. I'd done my own demos there. That's where I took the first bands I produced: Love Circus, Pariah, and the Church Police. It didn't sound great, but it had a nice environment. In hindsight, I can see that a lot of things I worked on didn't sound great, but the performances were there. That's what I was good at. The records had a good vibe on them.
Why is that?
Because that's what I'm good at. I understand what it is, and how to give it a chance to happen.
And how do you do that?
Make the artist relax. Be their best friend in five minutes. Never let the technical things get in the way of the music. If you have a choice of exhausting the singer by spending two hours getting a perfect vocal sound, or getting a shitty vocal sound in minutes and going with them while they are still on, go with the shitty vocal sound. You will have something that is more interesting to listen to. Some of the stuff I recorded back then - the Turn It Around! [Maximumrocknroll] compilation was done in two five-hour sessions. Five bands in one day, four the next, and almost no time to mix. They got two takes of two songs. It doesn't sound good, but it's amazing. It's the first record put out with Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine, and Sweet Baby. It's still being listened to. It was a remarkable session, because everyone was cheering each other on. They loved each other's bands. That is not the way that rock bands used to be. The vibe is incredible. The two Operation Ivy tracks are exploding with energy. It's from my years collecting records. You can listen to old Chuck Berry records and they sound good, but they are raw and there are mistakes in places. There is a place in "Around and Around" when the bass player just totally loses it. But do people still listen to that song? There are all kinds of soul recordings that are funky sounding, but in a way that is attractive. They are not technically up to major label standards, but they endure.
How much were you recording live?
I almost always recorded the band live, and then overdubbed the vocals. The only time I did live vocals was with Filth, because he was a screamer and I thought we'd get a good vibe. They were a band where if I made it sound beautiful, it would just kill it. How do you make this thing completely them?
By respecting who they are and not trying to make them sound like someone else.
The worst thing is that years later bands would call and want to sound like bands that I'd worked with. I'd say, "You should want to sound like you." It's a fine trick trying to sound sonically like the era you are putting records out in, but still sounding like yourself. How do you make modern recordings compete with these horrible, loud, pop songs out there?
You recorded loud bands. How do you feel about the loudness wars today?
Things aren't so different now. The loudest thing I did was Revenge Is Sweet, and So Are You by The Mr. T Experience. I ran the mix through three compressors, squashed the mix, and then I had John Golden turn up the volume so it went into the red on the digital, against his wishes. At the time, it was really loud. That's what they are doing with records now, just with different equipment and to different frequencies.
How many singers did you have physically hold the microphone during takes?
Only once in a while, like if they were too stiff and it would make them more comfortable. I liked to have the bands jump around as they played.
Did you ever let them sit down?
I would lose the fight sometimes, but as much as possible I would have them stand. And close together, because if the guitar player is 10-feet away from the drummer, he's not going to play in time. I hate headphones. The best is to find a place where everyone can stand close together, and it sounds in time, and they don't have to wear headphones.
With your decades of being a professional record collector, what do you think is the commonality of a great record?
It has to be the strongest version of itself. Like Barry Manilow is the strongest version of Barry Manilow. Think of those tom toms that you would laugh at back in the day. But those grandiose tom toms are so grandiose - they are strong; it's all the way. The schmaltz level on those records is huge! It's not watered down.
But it's radical in its own way.
It's extreme. If you listen to "Mandy" it's not just a little dramatic. It's got those huge tom toms, and he's singing in his own way - which is very emotional, and it modulates at the end. He pulls out all of the stops, and the drama of that song is complete - it's like a movie. An album that is enduring forever now is [Fleetwood Mac's] Rumours. Its vibe is cold, cocaine-d out, unhappy people, because they were going through all of those weird relationship troubles. There is a weird, fucked-up vibe underneath this pleasant music. People are really responding to it again now. There's a level of detachment, but there's some strange, strong thing that lasts through time. On The Beatles' records, the atmosphere is strong. Every time I go back and listen to them, I am shocked at how powerful they are. That's true of these collectible records that I trade in that failed, because they were too raw. But they are so strong and so singular.
There are a lot of old soul records that may have only sold 200 copies. I had this record by this group, Mixed Feelings. You put it on and it's like euphoria. You feel like you are in an emotion with them. It's like taking drugs. When I heard Nevermind by Nirvana, it was like, "Oh, this is the first time someone didn't water one of these bands down." They took the band and made them even more powerful. The drums were all over the place. No one would let a drummer play like that on a major label record at the time. They'd always say, "Play less, tame it down." Instead the guitars got louder, and the drums got crazier. That was a defining moment. I watched for years - people would sign these indie bands and then wimp them out. But as far as commonalties - good songwriting is always good songwriting. A good vocal can carry a bad record. Creedence Clearwater Revival are a great example of that. You take the vocal out and it sounds like this half-baked band. But you put the vocal back in and how could you lose?
What about John Fogerty's vocals were so good then?
He was just so raw, passionate, and immediate. I had a realization once, listening to Garth Brooks singing "Unanswered Prayers." He is so inside that song. I understood why he was so huge. He was just 100% himself.
What were the reasons that the East Bay punk scene was different?
Those bands had amazing pop sensibilities. What blew me away was The Mr. T Experience developing a pop sensibility. They were the first band I heard doing punk rock, but catchy pop, around 1986. Operation Ivy had it all. They were unbelievably catchy. And Jesse Michaels was a great singer. He had this ability to have a punk rock voice, but with melody. After I heard Sweet Baby for the first time, I was just exploding with energy for a week. That's what you're looking for as a collector, something that is exploding. Look at Green Day. How many bands write great songs, over a 25-year period? Let's not say Jawbreaker had a great pop songwriter, but just a great writer. In the East Bay scene, there was this desire to write lyrics that had meaning. People were trying to do something that had more value than pop songs. I always had bands give me lyric sheets so that I could know where to punch in and out. Half the time I couldn't understand what they were singing, but then I would read the words and be amazed.
Did it also help you to know how to capture the music?
You need to know what the band is trying to put across. Having a lyric sheet is very useful. It helps you understand the depth of the song.
Would you try to always meet bands in rehearsal before the actual sessions?
Yeah. Going over to someone's rehearsal studio for two hours solves so many problems. Meeting the people, and making sure that you can get along with them. Making friends with them ahead of time. You can find out about equipment issues and tell them if anything needs help ahead of time. Little things - like, "Change your guitar strings. Put on new drums heads." Or, "This drum set sucks. Get a new snare." That way you can be recording within three or four hours, rather than tweaking sounds for two days.
What are some key mic'ing techniques for you?
Minimal mic'ing. Having the mic as close to the singer as possible. I would shove it as in-their-face as I could and try to get every sound out of a voice.
Would you ever put up a second mic for them?
No, just a spit screen an inch away from the mic and then let the singer go at it. I love [Neumann] U 47s, or [AKG] C12s, but I'd also just use a [Shure] SM58 in some cases.
What are your favorite preamps?
I like APIs much more than Neves. They let more of everything through - more highs and lows, and they're more transparent. I have done records on horrible consoles that had an edge. A Tascam console could add a transient edge. I did a lot of records I was happy with on the cheap version of the Tascam or Soundcraft. I love tube preamps. I used to use an Altec preamp on guitars. You have to remember that the East Bay bands were incredibly young; teenagers, most of them. No one thought punk would make them rock stars. Most of the bands didn't have any preconceived ideas, sonically. They just wanted to have fun with their friends and make a recording. They were uninhibited. Some of them were totally unaware of the process of recording. It was a whole new thing, and a whole new world. I'd just throw up mics and let it happen. That's why so much of it has a totally unselfconscious feeling.
What do you think is the most punk thing that someone could do today?
Just be yourself, which a lot of punks wouldn't approve of. Probably the most punk thing you could do is to stop being a punk. That's what I've done!
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer (Tinariwen) and author. His fifth book, Silenced by Sound: the Music Meritocracy Myth, will be published in the fall of 2019. His most recent projects are the Tanzania Albinism Collective's 7-inch single for Jack White's Third Man Records, and the Malawi Mouse Boys fourth album, Score for a Film About Malawi Without Music from Malawi.