I first met Jacquire King in 1997 at Toast Studios in San Francisco when he was the second engineer on my band's record [Black Lab's Your Body Above Me], produced by David Bianco [Tape Op #104]. I recall being amazed at how "on it" he was, always being one step ahead and seemingly knowing what we might need next. A lot has happened since then, and Jacquire has built quite a resume working with artists such as Tom Waits, Cold War Kids, Norah Jones, and Kings of Leon. He is currently working out of Nashville these days. Our hair is a little shorter and a touch more grey, but he still has a contagious passion for making music. We first interviewed Jacquire back in 2012 for Tape Op #88, so we sat down to catch up!
When we met, working with David Bianco on the Black Lab record, I hadn't gotten into recording at that point. I was interested in it, and I had dabbled a bit, but my interest in recording happened while making that record.
It was fantastic working with David, wasn't it?
Yes. How did you make your way to San Francisco?
For a year, I worked at a studio in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a great experience there, but I wanted to move somewhere where there was a bit more established industry and music scene. At the time, people would go to New York, L.A., or Nashville. Nashville, oddly enough, in my mind was not even in the race, because I only thought of that as country music. Even though I do like some older country music, it wasn't where I wanted to be. New York wasn't the environment I thought I wanted to be in either, because I'm not a city kid. I thought, "Well, I'm going to go to L.A. and check that out." My studio manager in Baltimore had come from the Bay Area, and he suggested that I also go and look at studio jobs there. I went to L.A. and didn't dig it there or like the people I met. I got hired at Different Fur Studios in San Francisco in August of 1988. On the eighth day; so 8/8/88.
You came from a much more British, teaboy-on-up path.
Absolutely. There's a lot of information that's shared. I've come up with this little thought lately, that just because you know how to use a tool doesn't mean that you know when to use a tool. A lot of people who are starting out feel empowered by all the knowledge they have, and their exposure to this gear, but at the end of the day it's about people skills, and understanding what your personality and demeanor needs to be around people, and also not having too strong of a personality in any one situation. You always have to adapt. The environment is meant to make the artist comfortable and bring the best out of the artist. That becomes a conversation with the artist and producer. Everybody else is trying to follow their lead. Some people don't understand how to adapt their personality and presence to fit those different situations. Sometimes, as an engineer, or assistant engineer, you're invited to be more assertive. That's desired in a group setting, but it's not always that way. People haven't been mentored.
Can you talk a little bit about that "people" portion of production? You're at a point now where you get to pick and choose, to some degree.
To some degree, sure.
Are you making your decisions on who you work with based on the people, the music, or both?
It's definitely a combination. I've redirected myself in the past couple few years. When you find success, dealing with it is also hard. There's always a rise and fall to your success, and it's an adjustment, because people start telling you how great you are. We all want recognition, and to be told we're doing a good job. That's human nature. Records selling and people being familiar with your discography, and having some impact, of course that's part of it; but if you want to have a sustained career and actually be happy with what you're doing, you've got to do it for the right reasons. That success becomes more internal. Even at the time I worked with you guys [Black Lab], you guys needed to do a few B-sides for your album and you asked me to co-produce and engineer them.
That was an acknowledgement. I felt successful; my hard work ethic, my being ready, being prepared, being a good person to be around, and trying to contribute to the group – the reward I got for that was, "Can you help us?" As you go through a career, you have to make that transition from being viewed as the second engineer, to being in the engineer's chair, and then getting to mix and produce. You always have to be breaking the mold. Those are the successes I've had, too.
How was that transition for you? Where did it happen?
I've been producing all along, all the way. Producing unsigned and local bands. The Kings of Leon's Only by the Night is the record [for me]. That's when I was a producer, engineer, and mixer on that, as successful as it was, that solidified me as someone to look at as a producer.
How did that happen?
I became friends with Ethan Johns [Tape Op #49]. We had the same manager. We were introduced and became friendly. He was going to make a record, and he wanted to be away from the engineer's chair for a little bit. That was right before the second Kings of Leon record, Aha Shake Heartbreak. He asked me to stay on and help engineer that record, and that's where I got to know those guys. I wasn't involved in the third record [Because of the Times], and after three records, I think their relationship with Ethan had run its course. Much in the same way as you guys had identified me as somebody who's skilled and a good hang, they invited me back. I was very excited about that. I knew there was a big opportunity there for them, especially putting Caleb's [Followill] singing and his vocal performance more at the forefront. I think that's one of the reasons that record was a big change for them. They're an incredible band, but it was hard for a wider audience to get into the music, because you couldn't understand all the lyrics.
Was that a conscious decision going into it and something you guys talked about?
It was for me. I didn't mention it to him that it was something that was important to me. Up until that point, most of the vocals on the Kings' records were sung live. The only song on Aha Shake Heartbreak that was overdubbed vocal, or re-cut, was a song called "The Bucket." The rest were live vocals. We got to Only by the Night, and I got him to sing the song three or four times as an overdub.
With a band like this, do you feel you're trying to get in there and monkey wrench, or are you keeping it on the rails?
It depends. With them it's a little bit of everything. This is true of most records. There are the songs that you need to push back against, criticize, tear down, build back up, challenge performances, and say, "It doesn't feel finished" or, "That part can be better." Then you're pushing back on them more. Sometimes it's just going in there and saying, "You're doing great. This is awesome." Being a cheerleader and making sure that the technical side of it is transparent and feels inspired. The spirit of the experience – sometimes it's hard; sometimes tears are shed and voices are raised in the studio, because it's emotionally charged. Everybody has a high expectation of what they want the outcome to be, and it's not always easy. I always try to foster an environment of comfort, empowerment, and trust. I try to never yell and scream. I've gotten upset sometimes in the studio, but I try to be direct and honest.
Yeah. I think people appreciate the honesty from someone they respect.
Of course. That's why they ask. That's being a friend, and that's being genuine.
It's difficult to be an artist and put yourself out there. It takes a unique person to do it, and I think it takes an even bigger person to be able to accept criticism effectively.
Oh, absolutely. As a producer, you have to understand the environment and get to know the people you're working with, as well as knowing when it's the right time to say something and deliver a criticism. If vocal takes aren't going as great as you think they should, pursue it. But don't make a big deal out of it, and don't spend too much time doing it. Allow it to happen, and maybe talk about it the next day.
It's some tact.
You need to be very tactful. The thing is, sometimes you have to let bad things go on for a little bit so they run their course and you don't overreact to it.
That's the art of it. Do you still enjoy engineering? Do you like having that responsibility, as well as production?
I do. The last two or three years, I've been redirecting myself a little bit. I haven't been the primary engineer on my records for the last six years. There are select moments where I did that. I've been feeling, lately, that I want to get back to that. It's challenging. It's a tough job. I have energy and drive, but it's different from when I was in my mid-30s and early-40s. Kolton Lee has helped me for the past couple of years as a main engineer. We co-engineer. I let him do a lot on his own. He's wonderful. The most recent record I've been making was with a band called Bishop Gunn, and I'm doing it all. I also got away from mixing all my records. I've had the privilege and pleasure of working with Michael Brauer [Tape Op #131], Andrew Scheps [#133], Manny Marroquin [#109], Rich Costey, and Spike Stent. They're friends, and I love what they do; they're so talented. They did an amazing job with my productions, but I missed it too. It becomes something different. If I let go a bit, I want it to represent them; but recently I've been wanting to get back to doing it all.
The reason I ask is because sometimes when you're so involved in the technical aspect of it, your focus can narrow as opposed to sitting back and being more of a listener, as well as managing the personalities and the big picture as a producer. I love that part of joining the band and being able to not have my blood pressure going up when something's wrong technically.
I'm right there with you. Because the thing is, as a producer that has engineering skills, if there's an issue, you can hear it. You can immediately identify it, and you can jump in if you need to and help rectify it. Or if the sound is not going the way you feel that it needs to, you can jump in there, get your hands on it, and then step back out.
Sure; direct it.
Which is a wonderful thing. I enjoy the recording experience so much, because of the discovery, the journey, the interaction, and the struggle. We're really just pulling things out of thin air. We're identifying feelings and ideas, and then we're trying to get it to translate.
Everyone has the same tool set, so there's a real danger of letting recordings get homogenized.
I've always been a source-first type of creator. Make the amp, or whatever, sound as cool as you can, and as good as you can, at the source. Then capture that. Part of that was the Tom Waits experience. Don't try to fix it with the technology, because that does start to sound all homogenized. Sometimes I use very complicated, convoluted signal chains in order to capture putting a sound in a unique place. But, at the same time, I'm always trying to make that secondary to the source. That not only goes for where I put an instrument or amplifier in a space, but to how I set people up to interact with one another and hear each other. That's in the other room. Make the creative process unique, commit to sounds, and record the sound of the record. Don't think that you're going to mix a bunch of recorded tracks to get the sound of the record. Record the sound of the record.
Yeah, it's a great point.
Today Shawn Everett [Tape Op #115] did a presentation at Mix With The Masters. I went over and watched him for an hour. I was inspired by him; he's so creative and bold. The Devon Gilfillian song that he brought was something where he did the basic tracks all analog. It's so inspiring. They recorded analog. At the end of the day, he mixed to analog and they sent it off to mastering. It's drums, bass, guitar, and then they cut it to vinyl. They cut the mix to vinyl, and then he cut each stem to vinyl. Then he reassembled it back into a session, and they carried on recording the overdubs, and the vocals, and everything on top of it. It's an expensive process, with a lot of steps, but it's committing to a vibe. That's inspiring. He's someone who I think is inspiring.
I absolutely adore his work.
Every artist, every record, even if it's the same artist, is a unique opportunity. You've got to curate an environment to let that creativity come forward and have everybody feel comfortable. They need to trust, and work toward the same goal as well as feel inspired. It's very complicated, but that's the thing that gets me the most excited. At the end of the day, you're trying to achieve a feeling. There are a thousand ways to make a record. We mostly use all the same tools, but then it becomes the person's personality and the way they put it all together. It's an opinion. There's no right or wrong way, but at the end of it, what people respond to is, "How does the music feel?" At the end of it, great records all share some common things.
What do you think they are?
In popular music, and that means all music where the song form has a story to it, a voice giving us something. Maybe they're telling us a story, or saying words that make us feel a certain way. It doesn't necessarily have to tell a story. Maybe it's just some phrases. But I think that the music fits and supports what the vocalist is doing. Everything hangs together and feels united, and it's speaking towards the same point, if that makes sense. Sonically, some records are about the low end, some are about the midrange, some are about clean and sparkly, but ultimately it's the intention. It's hard to say what all the specifics are. Feeling cohesive. It's a united voice.
Something that speaks to a lot of people, and humanity in the music.
Yes, humanity. That's the other thing. Some reference point there that you can relate to. That's the humanity. I feel so fortunate to have had all the opportunities. When I started out, I privately set a bunch of goals, like Gold and Platinum records or a Grammy. I wanted to be able to make records that I love and make money at it; have it be my life. All of those things have happened, and I'm so grateful. Now it's, "Okay, what's the continuation of that? How can I continue to enjoy this, challenge myself, and grow?" I don't want to continue to repeat myself. In some ways I will, because I'm me; but we evolve. What I liked ten years ago, I don't care about as much anymore. My opinions have changed. My tastes have changed. That's part of aging. I think that's also the progression. I want to keep evolving.
The way music has gone, are you forced to work more in-the-box? You're still mixing on a console.
It really depends on what's going to be the best sound for the mix. I do use my console a lot.
You're probably using it in different ways than you had previously.
Sure, definitely. For most outside mix projects that come in, I use it as a summing box. It's all set very flat and I have the EQ circuits engaged, but I'm not EQ'ing. All the faders are set at zero. It's a tone box; it's a summing box. But quite often, with work that I've recorded at my own studio with the console, I end up mixing in the box because I don't want that color twice. I've already built in a lot of the sound that I want so that I can mix in the box. At the beginning of every mix project, even if it's a record that I've recorded and produced, I figure out what my best sound is going to be. Am I using an all-analog mix bus process, or are plug-ins part of it? Is it all plug-ins? Am I only using plug-ins from the mix bus? Am I using the desk? Am I not using the desk?
What dictates that?
Mostly sound. I always have to consider the timing of [the project] and the amount of money that is available to compensate myself for that time. That's a consideration, but most of the time I'm looking to figure out the best sound. At the end of the day, I'm not doing it to do anything less than the best possible sound that I can.
You must have been inspired by doing some of those Tom Waits records [Blood Money, Mule Variations] and working at Prairie Sun Recording Studio.
Oh, 100 percent man. When I first met Tom and Kathleen [Brennan, Tom's wife and co-producer] we sat and talked for an hour or more, and then I was invited back for a demo session where we were trying out musicians. I was also getting a bit of a run-through. I remember, in that first initial conversation, he asked me if I knew who Alan Lomax was, and he asked me if I would be willing to record in a field. He also asked what I'd do if he wanted to get in a dumpster and record. I was like, "Sure, man. I'm with you. Whatever it is you want to do." We did record outside. There's a song called "Buzz Fledderjohn." Oz [Fritz, Tape Op #75] and I worked in the control room at Studio B of Prairie Sun, but we didn't use the live room for recording. The recording was in an adjacent building, where everybody was set up. I'd have to run back and forth. It was crazy. It was a farm building, and there was a small wooden room; they call it the Waits Room, with a concrete floor. It had barn doors, and for "Buzz Fledderjohn," we opened those barn doors up, dragged the microphones out into the gravel driveway, and recorded out there with a few microphones. Predominately the sound of that recording is an old shotgun mic that I have from the '40s. Tom was playing upright bass and singing, and Larry Lalonde was playing acoustic guitar. So they sort of traded instruments. Listening to records with Tom... I was making a mix of "Black Market Baby." I forget what the reference was, but then Tom said, "C'mon, let's go out. I want to play you something." We go out into his Suburban, and he plays me Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show at a bazillion decibels. Sometimes he'd drop the kids off early in the morning and show up. He'd get there super early some days. You had to be ready. He might show up at 7:30. He'd always be there by 10 or 10:30, but there was this window of time when you had to be ready.
From 7:30 in the morning?
Sometimes, yeah! 7:30 or 8. It wasn't often he'd show up that early. I'd already been in the studio getting going, turning gear on, and putting some tape up. He'd come in and say, "Okay, 30 minutes. Pop quiz. I want you to do a mix of this song. I like this about mix two, this about mix four." Oz might have done mix two, and I might have done mix four, or mix six. He'd say, "I'll be back in 25 minutes." No automation. It's all on tape. There's a song on the record called "Filipino Box Spring Hog." Tom had recorded it, I think, two times previously, and for whatever reason, he hadn't been satisfied with it. It hadn't made it onto an album. We had a great basic track with Andrew Borger playing drums, but we added a bunch to it. It had become a little chaotic. It was hard to tell what to use and what not to use. He was going away to work on the film Mystery Men, so he took a long break. I worked up the nerve to say, "Would you mind if I took 'Filipino Box Spring Hog' home with me on the break and worked on it?" The drum performance and vocal, as well as some of the basic foundation, was true to what it was recorded; but then I copied and pasted and manipulated a lot of it. That song I happened to mix off Pro Tools, through the desk. Have you ever seen the movie Down By Law?
There's this scene where Zack and Jack are in jail. They get locked up and John Lurie's character figures out that Tom Waits is a radio DJ, and he gets him to do his radio DJ [voice]. He announces the weather and the record he starts playing. One day Tom and I were listening to vinyl in the control room. We were sitting next to each other, just me and him. He turns to me and does the dialogue from the movie. There were so many amazing moments with him. He's so adventurous!
He doesn't want people to get complacent.
No. He would tell me to stop engineering sometimes. "Stop engineering!"
You told me a story years ago about getting something set up, and then he'd go in...
He'd grab an instrument and go somewhere else. There's the performance. I learned a lot. That the performance and the moment is the most important thing. Sound is secondary. Cool performances, cool songs, cool performances of those songs; that's what makes songs sound great. When we put on a record and it's like, "Whoa, what is that?" It's the feeling and the energy of it that attracts us. That becomes a cool sound, because we're not saying, "I love that song purely because of the way it sounds."
I'm not listening to a record because it sounds like Aja by Steely Dan. I'm listening to it because there's so much raw emotion and humanity in the music.
Absolutely. That's the pinnacle.