Ian MacKaye and I have been friends for over 20 years, ever since I convinced him and the band he was in, Fugazi, to come and play at the "Food Not Bombs" 20th anniversary free show in San Francisco (with Sleater-Kinney and the late Vic Chesnutt). The band's only concern with trekking across the country for the show was whether anyone would actually show up. Police ultimately estimated the crowd to be around 15,000 people; the largest audience the band ever played for. Fugazi was arguably one of the only successfully DIY bands to have stuck to their guns and never sold out. Relatedly, Dischord Records – the imprint Ian and Jeff Nelson founded in 1980 to release recordings by their band, The Teen Idles (and soon after, Minor Threat) – is more than just an important "punk" label. It is one of the most focused and curated independent record companies of all time, and deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as important American record labels like Chess, Sun, Sugar Hill, and Arhoolie.
What was your first recording experience?
It happened on the first day I ever played bass with someone else. This would have been in the spring of 1979. Geordie Grindle, the guitarist in The Slinkees – our first band – had a little Panasonic-type cassette deck that we used to record our first attempt to write a song in his parents' basement. We tried a variety of cassette recordings for The Slinkees and Teen Idles' practices, and eventually The Teen Idles went to a 4-track studio called Hit and Run [Recording] a couple of times in the spring of 1980. We weren't particularly happy with the results, and that led us to Inner Ear Studio in the late summer of '80 to do our first session with Don Zientara [Tape Op #8]. We continued using a boombox [after that] to record Minor Threat practices. I can't remember the make, but it was an excellent deck with stereo mics and adjustable input levels. We didn't have a PA at that time, and I was singing through a guitar amp with less than desirable results. It was useful, in terms of getting a sense of the vocals for a song, but it was shitty-sounding and the feedback was pretty unbearable. We developed a method of recording practices with clearer vocals by taking the boombox up the basement stairs and recording the band from a distance while I would sing directly into the deck up on the stairs. It took a little tweaking, but we were able to make relatively balanced recordings that way. Even Fugazi would practice without vocal amplification in the Dischord House basement. One way we would work on vocals was to put our heads up in the rafters (it has a very low ceiling) to sing. I could hear myself up there. When The Teen Idles and Minor Threat first recorded at Inner Ear, we would initially track the instruments and then overdub the vocals. We were still trying to figure out how to record, and would often end up tracking songs over and over. It made sense to hold off on doing the vocals so I wouldn't blow my voice out. The first punk band that I ever heard that had done the vocals live were the Bad Brains at Inner Ear. There was a demo tape floating around; that would be released decades later as the Black Dots album. When you listen to this tape, there is a quality of how they are moving from song to song that is unusual. There is a moment during the recording where you can hear somebody yell, "Can you hold it for a second?" I often wondered what was going on, so I asked Don and he told me that the Bad Brains wanted to record live, like it was a gig. It wasn't just that the vocals were done live. They wanted to play through their set in one pass. They only had to stop once because a string broke or something. I asked Don where H.R. [Paul Hudson, a.k.a., Human Rights] stood for the recording, and it turned out that he did the vocals in the backyard! [laughter] Inner Ear was in a small brick house where Don and his wife, Juanita, lived with their two young daughters, Emily and Katie. The band played in the rec room in the basement, which was filled with children's toys, and the control room was in a little side porch on the first floor. Don eventually moved the control room into this tiny boiler closet in the basement, but not until 1981. To pull off the outside vocals for H.R., Don ran long extension cables ganged together for the mic and headphones. When you listen to the 4-track [tape], on the vocal track, you can hear cars go by and cicadas buzzing. At one point you can hear people clapping, because there were little kids that had seen this crazy punk guy dancing frenetically around the backyard with headphones, and they couldn't hear the music he was dancing to. It was just him going, "Ka-cheg-uh, ka-cheg-uh." It was weird, for sure, but completely successful in terms of getting good separation. I did the same thing on one of the 7 Seconds sessions that I did at Inner Ear in the mid-'80s. We had Kevin [Seconds] singing in a small toolshed in the backyard. I always enjoyed messing around with vocals and thinking of different approaches to record them. Though I started as a singer, and not an instrumentalist, in Fugazi singing became so attached to playing guitar [that] it was really a challenge to figure out ways to pull off natural performances when I was just standing in front of a mic. I used to play the guitar unplugged while doing vocals to try to get the timing and feel right.
What other approaches have you developed related to recording vocals?
During [Fugazi's] The Argument, after we were done and had tracked and mixed, one of the songs kept really bothering me. I didn't like my vocal. We'd [worked on] the song for a year and I knew it pretty well, inside-out, but I wasn't happy with the performance. It was almost like I had started on the wrong foot or something. I was agonizing over it because we had already mixed everything, including that song; it would've been difficult and expensive to go back into the studio to try to recreate the mix, as we weren't working with an automated desk. I had a rough mix of the instrumentals that we had done and I was singing along with it in my room, and, in doing so, I realized what I had done wrong – where I'd screwed up, in terms of the performance. I took this rough mix CD to Don and said, "Hey, can you put this into the computer? I'd like to sing along with this so that I can give the guys an example to show them what I think I missed." I sat at the mixing desk with him – just the two of us – and I did the vocal. It came out really well. In fact, it's the version that ended up on the record. The rest of the album had gone through painstaking mixes, but this particular song was just me singing into a [Shure] SM58 along with a rough mix. What I came away with from that experience was that sitting at the desk next to somebody really forced me to perform. It was awkward, and that awkwardness created a little bit of tension and energy. After that experience, I got really into the idea of doing vocals that way. I've tracked vocals at the desk with a number of people in the control room, and found that there is something so immediate about it. I don't have to use headphones, so I don't feel quite so divorced from the process. I just face the speakers to hear myself. We don't have them cranked, so I don't get too much bleed. Don and I tried putting the speakers out of phase to see if we could cancel out the signal by sitting directly in the middle, but that never worked. Still, it doesn't really matter if there is some bleed. What really counts is the performance. Recording is already an artificial exercise; you're in a weird laboratory making a facsimile of a live performance. At least this way some drama might be added to the proceedings! I did it when I recorded John Frusciante's DC EP [Tape Op #61]. John was really startled by the idea at first, but he gave it a try and it came out great. Another nice thing about doing the vocals at the desk is that the people are sitting right there; I can turn and ask them what they think without having to deal with a talkback mic. I don't have to experience the weirdness of singing without being able to see anyone, or having no idea what they're saying behind the glass. [laughter]
Or if they've left the room!
Worse; you finish a take and see them talking, and then they finally come over the talkback and say, "Yeaaaaaah... it was okay." It's like, "If it was 'okay,' then what the fuck were you guys talking about?" [laughter] Doing it in the room with them makes you part of the conversation. For me, it was really liberating. Of course, I understand that it is a compromise, in terms of quality, but sound quality isn't really a serious issue if you have a good song. I would much rather have a good song and great performance with compromised sound quality than a shitty song with perfect audio fidelity.
Did Fugazi ever record entirely live?
No, but Minor Threat did. The first two singles were overdubbed, but the Out Of Step 12-inch is 100% live, in terms of the vocals. In fact, the recording of the song "Look Back & Laugh" is the first time I'd ever sang that song. We had never rehearsed it with me singing. I had practiced singing along with a cassette in my room, but never sang it with the band until we went into the studio. That was the first take, and it felt right. The other members of Minor Threat were crack musicians, so it wasn't rare for them to nail something on a first take. I stood in the hallway under the staircase with the washer and dryer, and I did the vocals while the band was in the rec room [at Inner Ear]. [Minor Threat's] "Salad Days" 7-inch was also recorded live. I actually have an hour-long recording of the session, and you can hear me singing every take.
Tell us the story about the only time you were paid to produce a record.
I started helping bands record in 1981. I was going in the studio with bands that I knew, because I became a good interpreter between the bands and the engineer. I became the go-between. One band, Follow Fashion Monkeys, said afterwards, "We should pay you." It had never occurred to me to be paid. I had never been paid. I said, "That's alright. Don't worry about it." They said, "That's crazy. You were here for three days!" I said, "I did it because I wanted to be at the session." They said, "Well, at least let us give you... $50." Finally, I acquiesced. I may have even taken them out to dinner with the money. And that's the only time I've ever been paid as a producer. That's it. [laughter] And I have produced – I don't know – like a hundred sessions. Hundreds?
Let's say "lots."
When I go into the studio, it's like I temporarily become a member of the band. It's very intimate. People are trying to make it sound like they think it should sound. Which is funny, because a lot of the time people have no real idea what they sound like. They think they sound like one thing, but they actually sound like another. It's in these situations that something new is created, and what the particularly good ones really sound like is "innovation." Musicians have to solve the problem of self-consciousness. It can't be fixed through the studio. You have to be bold.
Many times, an artist's strengths are totally accidental. The genius is not conscious.
That's really what I try to do as a producer: make bands sound like themselves. Interesting bands that aren't necessarily good players often make the mistake of spending so much money going to the most expensive studios and getting lost in the recording process. They'd be better off just doing it in their basement. That way they could make sure the essence of what they are getting at is there. Ultimately, it comes down to the music. A great song can survive a bad recording. Always. But a bad song? The better the recording, it only gets worse. Especially when you get into the almost pornographic nature of digital recording. Full exposure!
What are some methods you use to create "the sonic illusion"?
In the studio, one way is trying to create the sensation that people might have had if they'd seen these musicians in a live setting. With a really loud band – like with Fugazi where we'd often have a big PA and Marshall amps – it's crazy that you are trying to create something that will have the same impact for people, but instead through the little shelf speakers, a boombox, or earbuds. The physical properties of the sound delivery system can't compare to being in a room filled with people all focused on, and energized by, music. It's a whole other visceral experience. And yet here we are trying to evoke that power from these very clinical settings. Consider the way drums are usually recorded: They are parsed into ten or fifteen different slices, treated and EQ'd, and then put back together. It means the drums are not considered an instrument, but instruments.
Many. You're not just putting one mic on them like with an acoustic instrument. I fooled around a lot with that; ways to record drums that wouldn't be quite so surgical. Fugazi would try to record the way we played live – loud – and it usually didn't end up sounding that way on tape. At some point I realized that if you turn the amp down really low with the same overdrive – and then turn it up on the board – that often worked better. I got interested in playing at lower volumes and trying to use texture for effect rather than just blasting it out. The mics weren't receiving it anyway. They can't feel the power of that vibration beyond a certain point – and, by turning it down, the impact often reminds me more of a really loud guitar.
A paradoxical effect.
I think so. I don't always do it. In terms of feedback – which Fugazi used a lot of – we obviously had to use volume, but we experimented with volume. To really create texture, you don't want everything at the same level. You really need a lot of different tones and then see how they blend.
How do you feel about digital and, more specifically, the corrections that can be made?
I am put off by highly-processed recordings, so you can imagine the agony I am in with a lot of the current records. So much comping and Auto-Tuning! It starts to sound like robots playing music – I have a hard time feeling the humanity in it. I am heavily invested and interested in the truth. Given that recording already stretches the truth, using technology to cover up reality, or what actually transpired, seems such a shame to me. Write a good song and then take it from there.
You often talk about "strife" playing a part in the recording process.
When bands come into the studio, fault lines often appear. If they're heading for a breakup, then there's a good chance that's when it's going to happen. If there are disputes about arrangements or a song, with practices or shows there's always another practice, but the studio is "the moment." Recording is the snapshot that is going to live on. If certain issues have never been settled, then these problems have to be solved in the studio. The studio usually produces what is thought of as "the definitive version" of a song. This is ironic, given how many times that song will be played if the band tours or gigs a lot. Think about a song like "Waiting Room" – the first song on the first Fugazi record. For most people, that recording is the definitive version of the song; but it was recorded in May 1988, and, at that point, we'd already played it hundreds of times at practices and shows. We then continued to play it, and it continued to evolve for the next 14 years. In my mind there were so many versions of "Waiting Room" that transcended the one on the record, which obviously is static, frozen in time. Bands are engraving their songs into something permanent when they record them, so things can get emotionally crazy. Of course, great records can come out of that kind of tension – especially when it's clear that the band means it and that it's serious. Especially when they aren't thinking commercially, but rather about "making it right." When you're in a band with four people, there might be four "rights." That's what makes for a great record; when people can figure out how to cover all of those bases. It's that diplomacy, working together, that creates amazing pieces of music.
How do you contend with what you call the "digital infinitive"?
Digital recording is not infinite, but one could go on adding almost as many tracks as one wanted and have multiple versions. I was talking with a friend who is a fashion photographer. She told me that she shoots digitally now and does maybe one- or two-thousand shots per session. I was shocked and said, "My god, that's a lot." She said, "Not really. In my industry I am thought of as being quite conservative since a lot of people shoot ten- or twenty-thousand pictures!" Fugazi did a number of photo sessions with our friend, Glen E. Friedman. He would shoot on film; it would be surprising if we went out for an hour and he shot more than ten or twenty photos. In his mind, the limitations that were in place – the cost of film, 36 exposures on a roll – forced the artist to compose and find the right shot. He'd compose in the camera. We'd stand somewhere, he'd look in the camera for a little while, and then he'd say, "No," so then we'd go stand somewhere else. Then he would look for another 30 or 40 seconds and say, "Nope. Let's go somewhere else." Glen knew what he was looking for, or at least he knew how to recognize it when he saw it. With digital recording you don't have to make as many decisions at the beginning. You don't need to commit, and options are the enemy of decision. Though I have often claimed to be "anti-option," it's probably too strong a term. Mostly it's just fun to say. [laughter] What I'm really trying to communicate is the importance of commitment to a moment or an idea. When I first started recording with Don, I remember running into an issue with not having enough tracks on the 4-track and telling him that he should consider getting an 8-track. He said, "The only difference between 4-track and 8-track is when you make a decision." I said, "What do you mean by that?" He said, "If you have 4-tracks, you have to decide whether you want backing vocals ahead of time. Once you bounce parts down together to another track, you can't take one off of the tape later." With 8-track, you make the decision sooner than 16-track. With 16-track, you have to make a decision sooner than a 24-track. But now, nothing has to be decided, ever. In theory, the digital-infinitive means the decision can be delayed forever. This "freedom" ultimately nudges people away from the highest calling, which is to write a good song.
The thing I am most interested in is the higher version of music. The one that was around before the recording industry. That deep, connective form that takes over, not one, but two senses – you hear it, but also feel it. It touches us emotionally or spiritually. Synthetic and artificial recordings put an injunction in against that connection. Before, only the fanciest studios could do the really manipulative tricks; but now every kid in America can edit like crazy. Like the weird photo filters that you can do now on your phone. People shouldn't think of imperfection as a failure. Perfection isn't perfect, and I don't want the straight lines. I want the confusing collision of ideas and performance, and for all of these imperfections to come together into one distinct whole.
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer (Tinariwen, The Good Ones, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Ustad Saami [Pakistan], Zomba Prison Project) and author. In the past decade, Brennan has produced 27 records by international artists from three continents (Africa, Europe, Asia) which have resulted in the first widely-released original music albums from many nations, among them Rwanda, Malawi, South Sudan, and Vietnam. His fifth book, Silenced by Sound: The Music Meritocracy Myth was published in September 2019 by PM Press.