Jason Carmer's name kept coming up, so when our ad rep, Marsha Vdovin, told me he was sheltering in place in nearby Sonoma County, it seemed to be the right time to do a socially distanced interview on the outdoor deck at my Panoramic House studio. I'd seen Jason's name attached to bands such as Third Eye Blind and The Donnas, and our "Gear Geek" Andy Hong had mentioned him when they were both working at The Lodge in NYC. (More recently, our mutual friend, drummer, and producer, Michael Urbano, was sharing a studio space in Berkeley, California with him, but Jason was never around when Michael and I stopped by.) To bring this full circle, Michael used to play in a band, Black Lab, with our online publisher Geoff Stanfield, and Jason had recorded their album. See how this works? More recently though, Jason had moved to Mexico City, but was back in the U.S. because of the pandemic. Let's get to the bottom of this...
How'd you get started as an engineer and producer?
My dad was a musician, so I grew up hearing music. I started playing guitar when I was 12. I got into punk because I could play it. I was living in Washington, D.C. I bounced back and forth quite a bit, because my parents were divorced and my dad was out here in California. I started playing guitar, and I was part of the D.C. punk scene. I played in a band called Double-O. I was in The Meatmen. I was part of the Dischord Records world, even though I never actually was on Dischord. I was in a band called Scream too. They kicked me out, but some of my songs are on their record. It was a small world.
Did you know Don Zientara [Tape Op #8]?
Oh, yeah. Inner Ear, the first place I recorded, was with Don. I was in another band called 9353 and he recorded our record. He recorded the Double-O record. Don was legendary. He still is. He'd record in his basement in Arlington, and his kids' toys were in the room. It was awesome. Playing in bands got me into the studio doing recording. That's the kind of person I am; I had to touch everything. I started to figure out what was going on, and then people started to ask me to produce them. That was hilarious, because I was only 17 or 18 years old, so I had no idea what the fuck that meant. But I said, "Okay, I'll sit in the studio and produce you." I moved to California in the late ,80s and I did live sound. I was the sound guy at The Stone; this infamous shithole venue in North Beach [San Francisco]. Everybody played there – a lot of rock and a lot of punk, like KISS and every weirdo middle-of-the-road size rock band. It had an 800 seat capacity, and they would stuff twice as many people in there. Then from there I hooked up with my friend Jacquire King [Tape Op #88, #45, online this issue], who's a super producer now. We used to paint houses together on the side. He was doing sound for this band Consolidated, and touring with them. He got a gig working at Slim's and didn't want to do the next tour, so I did that tour. Then I met [Consolidated's drummer] Philip Steir, who partnered up with Craig Silvey shortly after – another producer – and they started Toast Studios in San Francisco, which is the Bill Putnam-designed room [originally Coast Recorders]. I said, "I'll do anything you guys need. I'm tired of fucking heavy metal and touring." I was one of the first guys in in that place. We wired it all up and went from there.
That was the first incarnation of Toast Studios?
Yeah. Dan Alexander had it before, and it was still called Coast. If I remember correctly, there was something about changing the business name. It was a great place to be. It went on a run. It was a great opportunity to meet a lot of people and to work on a shit ton of major projects.
Who were some of the bands coming through back then?
The Breeders did that massive hit record [Last Splash] there when it was still Coast. When we were in there, it was Neil Young, Tom Waits, R.E.M., Rick Rubin, and Third Eye Blind. That's where I met Third Eye Blind. Phil did a lot of remixes. Back in those days it was a big thing, and it was an opportunity to work on projects like remixing Pete Townshend, Nine Inch Nails, Chumbawamba, or Butthole Surfers. It was a great place to be.
You worked on a couple of Third Eye Blind records, right?
Yeah. I knew the bass player, Arion Salazar, from The Stone. He played in a band called Fungo Mungo. Arion and I were friends. He told me, "I'm doing this gig man. It's a pop band, but I'm getting paid!" This was when they first got signed. Then they came to Toast to record with Eric Valentine [Tape Op #45, #133] producing, so I assisted on some of those sessions. Jacquire King was the main assistant engineer for those sessions, but they went on for a long time so I filled in. I also assisted Eric in mixing one of the songs where he had laid out colored tape all over the console. It was about four o'clock in the morning and we got started with a song called "Narcolepsy." [laughter] I was red, blue, and yellow tape, and we each had this series of moves that we had to do; this weird dance.
The console wasn't automated?
It had this [Neve] Necam 96 automation, which was just a pig. It had those floppy disks from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Yeah, comical. Then the computer, if you want to call it that, was in this cubbyhole you had to crawl into and access by climbing up a wall! It was fucking horrible getting up there. It was easier to do it manually.
All hands on deck mixing?
Yeah. I remember it was dawn and I kept fucking up and Eric was looking at me, disgusted. I think I was finally able to pull my end of the stick though. That's how I met those guys, and I hit it off with them. Then they got some weird gig doing the Scooby-Doo theme [for Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island]. I was in Utah driving my mom out from New York, and they called and said, "Can you do a session tomorrow?" I said, "Yeah, of course!" I drove back with my mom and went straight into recording "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" with those guys. Pretty fucking hilarious. But anyway, Toast, at that time, was where Jacquire King and Craig Silvey worked. Those guys have gone on to do some pretty cool work.
You did more work with Third Eye Blind.
It was about '95 when Toast started. In '98 Third Eye Blind asked me to produce their follow-up record to their big, super smash. So, we started doing this record Blue. We recorded some of it at Toast, but then we moved over to The Plant in Sausalito. We worked on that record for a fucking year or something. That was a whole different era. When we started to mix it, we went to The Site in Marin County. That's when I started to phase out of Toast and travel around. Then there was a whole series of gigs that were in different places, so I'd go down to L.A., New York City, and Vancouver B.C. (to Bryan Adams' studio [The Warehouse]) on a series of different projects. I ended up building a studio in San Francisco called Morningwood Studios with Third Eye Blind – I shared that place with them. It was in the South Park area. Chris Pelonis [Pelonis Sound & Acoustics]; he's a great designer and he did that room. Then I did the Out of the Vein album with them there. That record went on and on; I took a hiatus from it. I started working on other projects and I produced The Donnas [Spend the Night]. I moved out of the studio; it was too hard to do my work and have to share that space, so I built a studio at my house in Berkeley. I had this property that was on two different streets. It was originally a metal shop. I turned that into a studio, and Chris Pelonis came and designed it.
Didn't you have a vintage console in there?
Yeah, I had the Type 69 Helios that was from Island Records' Basing Street Studios. The group Air [Tape Op #39] had it before I got it, so they shipped it over from France. I know The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, as well as Black Sabbath and a bunch of Bob Marley had been done on that desk, so it had a real pedigree. Universal Audio came and modeled my desk for their Helios plug-in.
Phill Brown [Tape Op #12, Are We Still Rolling?] used to work on that desk.
I contacted somebody who worked at Island Basing Street, and he gave me a list. I don't even have it anymore, but it was a who's who of English rock with a lot of reggae.
Were you looking for a Helios, specifically?
Yeah, I got obsessed with Helios. I bought four modules in the mid-'90s that were out of Island Jamaica. I bought them on a whim; I had heard about those desks. I got them and loved them. They have this amazing high-frequency. When you put a song up on the desk, it opens up to 25 kHz or something. The EQs are strange. Their points are at different places than the norm of where a Neve is, or most of what we're all used to. The way they're laid out, sharing the same potentiometer to add gain and to subtract gain, is strange. The other thing that I eventually realized was that I was running the modules at the wrong voltage. I was running them at 24 volts, whereas they're actually supposed to run at 36, so it made them ferocious. They didn't have a whole lot of headroom, but they were brutal. Then I bought another Helios that was from Munich that was Giorgio Moroder's console; before that it was built as a sidecar for the Rolling Stones' remote truck. The thing with Helios: Dick Swettenham, who made them, was a mad genius guy. He wasn't a note-taking kind of guy, so there's not a lot of documentation about these consoles and where they went. Depending on who ordered the board, he would custom-make it for whoever it was. So, they all sound different. The circuit's relatively simple. It's passive.
So, did you keep any of the Helios gear when you sold the studio?
No. I even had a monitor section that was from The Who. I got rid of it all, man. I hit this point in about 2006, where I was getting all these projects that were the same and I got pegged for doing this pop-punk thing. I had AAM [Advanced Alternative Media] managing me, and I burned out. Conveniently that was when the whole fucking industry tanked. At the time, I was doing shit with Capitol and then a whole bunch of gigs fell through. There was starting to be this crazy pressure, where A&R people didn't want to lose their jobs, so people wanted a hit. But the bottom-line with A&R people is a lot of times they don't fucking know what a hit is anymore. There was a lot of indecision, but with a lot of pressure, so it started to get ugly. Somewhere around 2005 or 2006, punk started to be like, "What the fuck? This isn't punk!" It started to feel like crappy pop. I'd been in a fistfight with Johnny Thunders. I got stoned with the Bad Brains in the 1980s. I went through a questioning-my-existence phase, so I sold most of my gear. I had a bunch of EMI shit, Decca compressors, and a bunch of weird-ass shit. So, yeah; long story short, I didn't keep any of it. Since then, I've got a bunch of other bullshit I bought for my studio, but at that time I wanted out.
That was also the transition era when Pro Tools was becoming more prevalent.
At Toast, it was tape, on a Studer 800 or 827. Everything we were doing when I first started was tape. But it was cool because I got a lot of remix work, because I knew how to do the computer. A lot of engineers didn't know how to do the Pro Tools shit. I remember watching David Bianco [Tape Op #104] and Tom Lord-Alge sitting there saying, "What the fuck is this?" A lot of people didn't know how to work that shit. I was able to make tracks in time way before Beat Detective. I was also able to create weird effects, so I got a lot of remix work at that point. I had an Ampex MM-1200 2-inch machine that was customized with an 11-track headstack that I'd run at 15 ips. That machine was great. One day we put all three of them together and did the shootout. The Ampex dusted everything, but it was a pig – if you didn't brake it properly, if you just hit stop, the reel would shoot across the room. [On older tape machines you had to "rock the reels" to stop them by hitting fast forward or rewind to reverse the direction of the tape travel and then slowly bring them to a stop. -JB] But the pressure back in the tape days, and in 2006, was totally different. When you're fucking punching or editing tape, it could be somebody big. There'd be some big producer sitting there. If you fuck up, you erase their vocal! You're fucking fired. But I think that there's a link between great performances and the pressure of falling off the highwire.
You said in 2006 that you were burned out from dealing with the indecision of A&R people. But records didn't take as long as they do now, even with all the indecision involved.
No. And the artists couldn't fucking take the record home. That's the end of it all, honestly. I produced a record for Rough Trade for Mark Eitzel [The Invisible Man]. I love Mark, but he got Pro Tools. We recorded at Toast, and it sounded fucking great. The record came out fine. It's awesome; but it really changed because he bought Pro Tools and had an LE system at home. He entered into a new level of artistic creativity that was previously reserved for producers and engineers. When people can start taking sessions home, cat's out of the bag.
Some artists, like Radiohead, make brilliant records by essentially "taking them home" and never going into a commercial studio. But for a lot of artists, it seems like the indecision level is so high now.
Yeah, you don't have to. The Beatles had a producer. The whole self-produced thing is great, but just because you have a computer program that has presets for compressors doesn't mean that you should produce the record or engineer it yourself. But there's also the finances of it. We're living in this world now where that's what it's all about, I suppose.
Labels love that you don't have to hire a studio or producer or engineer anymore.
Yeah. You don't have to pay for a record anymore, or you have a $5,000 all-in budget for a fucking record. With indecision in art, your fallback is perfection. You can be guaranteed perfection if you put it on the grid, and if you put it in tune. If you follow a pattern that's "proven." It's hard to hear anything that's not on a grid or Auto-Tuned now. On the flip, you get people who are reactionary to that. A friend of mine said, "There are great lo-fi projects, and there're great hi-fi records, but most shit now is just mid-fi." It's so hard to fucking get a vibe. That's the elusive element that makes something great. It's like, "Where's the vibe? Is it some shitty mic in the corner? Is it the fact that the dude sings flat all the time? What is it? I don't know." Or is it because, "We've got three hours to record this record, so let's go into the studio. Joey's going to record it, he's the assistant but he's not really the assistant." And then it becomes the first Germs record, or some record that's insane-sounding. It was done in five minutes, and it's classic! We definitely live in the land of overthinking shit.
How did you end up moving from the Bay Area to Mexico? What have you been working on since you made that move and got past being disillusioned with pop music?
I don't want to sound like a curmudgeonly old fuck.
I think a lot of engineers hit a point where they say, "Fuck it. Everything's the same, and nobody can make up their mind."
Yeah.I actually moved to Mexico City in 2007. From 2007 to 2009, I lived in Mexico City. It was after the first crash. I was making records through the housing market going to shit, and I thought, "I'm insulated. Lucky me." Then about a year later, the whole thing caught the record industry. When tech came into San Francisco, a lot of studios closed. Some of them are still around; obviously Skywalker Sound's still there.
There's not much left from that era. Different Fur, Hyde Street, and that's about it.
The Plant was an amazing studio. The Plant had a pedigree: Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Metallica, Prince, and Sly & the Family Stone; there were so many records done there. That room had magic. When all those places disappear, it's a real loss. Those were professional facilities, built in the heyday of recording to be maximum state-of-the-art places. Toast is gone. The Plant's gone. Fantasy's gone. I moved down to Mexico because I wanted to get out of the Bay Area. I wanted to go to New York, but I was married at the time and her business could also function in Mexico City. I was like, "Fuck it. It's someplace different. Let's go." It's a big city; 23 million people. In the course of those couple of years I met a lot of interesting people to make records with, and I ended up making a bunch of connections with people there. I ended up moving back to my studio in Berkeley, from 2009 to 2017, and a lot of shit went down at that studio. But I was wanting something new. It started to feel more and more that when I told people, "I'm a record producer," it was like saying, "I'm a circus clown." It started to seem completely irrelevant to peoples' understanding of what that even is or what that means. Being in the San Francisco Bay Area is just not happening; at least in my experience. It's hard to get work. I did a bunch of records in Italy. I worked with Laura Pausini, who's sold 60 million records.
There's Luciano, who Michael [Urbano] plays drums with.
I worked with him too. Luciano Ligabue is massive. The main work I was pulling in wasn't recording people from around here; it was people from other countries and other markets. The Bay is expensive. My house started to be worth a lot more money than I paid for it. I went down to Mexico City in early 2017; there's a band called Fobia that I produced down there. I hung out with Paco Huidobro – the guitar player and main songwriter – and he asked me to produce a solo record. He came up to Berkeley, and I was complaining about how much I missed Mexico City and how I should move back. He got on his phone and said, "Okay, I got you an apartment at Casa de Las Brujas." It's this iconic building in Mexico City. He said, "I've got you an apartment there, but you have to let me know by tomorrow because it's my aunt's place." I realized this was a moment where I had to make a major decision. I sold my house, got rid of my studio, and I moved down there. The funny thing about working with groups in Italy, or working with groups in Latin America, is you realize how big the world is. We've become very Ameri-centric. If I say I worked with Laura Pausini, nine out of ten people here will be, "Who the fuck is that?" If I say that in Latin America or Italy, people say, "Oh, my god!" In Mexico, I worked with this group Molotov who are this great rock band. They're one of the big, big bands, along with Fobia, who I've worked with. When I moved back down there, I hooked up with the same group of guys.Since I've gone back down there, I've moved into Panoram Studios, which is in this area called La Condesa. It's a multi-room building; a big, mansion-y place that's been turned into a recording studio. On the top floor, there's the Studio A room, which the group Zo? is a partner in with a producer from England, Phil Vinall. He's done a lot of great shit. To put it into perspective, there's the Vive Latino Festival [Iberoamericano de Cultura Musical]. It's a giant festival at one of the biggest stadiums in the world. Saturday night Guns N' Roses was the closer, and the closer on Sunday night was Zo?. They're massive. I have the Studio B, a smaller space, and I'm partnered up with all these guys. It's a great place to be.
You've got gear and a console and all that now?
Yeah. I have an [Avid] C24 controller, but I have 12 old [Neve] 1073 preamps and a bunch of API mic pres. I'm into the Altec shit. Before, I was obsessed with Helios, and then they started to price up. Now I'm obsessed with Altec. I've got the [Altec] 1212B console. It's "instant Portishead." I paid $300 for a 12-channel console.
Is it solid state or tube?
Solid state. Super cheap. If you Google it, people are shitting on it. But out of every 12 who shit on it, someone's like, "Oh, my god; this is the greatest shit in the world." There's this tiny little pocket where it doesn't completely overdrive, and then it does this great overdrive thing. Craig Silvey was at the studio recording the Zo? record before all this fucking pandemic bullshit, and he did all the drums through that console. I also built some of the Hairball Audio kits, like the Blue Stripe [FET Compressor]. That thing sounds great.
So, you're back to making records but not dealing with American A&R people.
I'm dealing with Mexican A&R people, which are no better. When you're the interface between the art and the money, it's like pipe fittings; sometimes you gotta jerry-rig it. When I first moved to Mexico, I felt like, "Fuck it. I don't want to do any records. I want to do film. I want to compose." I scored three Mexican-made movies. There's tons of awesome cinema in Mexico. I got into doing that. It's a whole different beast.
You worked at The Lodge in NYC, right?
Yeah. I was the Creative Director, which is the advertisement side of The Lodge. Commercials are like 30-second mini-movies. There's another bigger movie that I worked on and did the opening scene and the outro scene. I didn't score the whole movie. These other movies are more indie movies, but they've got budgets. Mexico's great because there's so much going on there. There's so much art, creativity, and film. People are so much less uptight and so nice. It's refreshing. It's fun to do something new. If you're doing a project and someone's paying you, then you've gotta figure it out.
This is the first interview I've done since the pandemic started. How do you see people getting back to work in studios?
I've been thinking a lot about it. It's hard to answer that. The thought of being in a small, enclosed space with strangers in rapid succession is scary! Since this has happened, I've been doing a lot of mixing.
Everyone's doing mixing now, but eventually there will be nothing left to mix.
I know, right? I split with a backpack to California from Mexico. I have three t-shirts and two pairs of pants I've been wearing for two months. I've been locked up in an Airbnb. I'm just starting to think about buying a new shirt online. I grabbed my UA gear and I have a pair of speakers up here, so I set up a little system. I mixed a record for a band from Italy. I'm doing a thing for Third Man; this band called Dirty Ghosts. I worked on another Mexican project. But it's hard to know what's going to happen. Mexico City has 23 million people who live in that valley. It's an awesome place, but it's like New York in the ,70s, which makes it a horrible place for a pandemic. It's one of the most creative, artistic, fun places to be. I think it's the best place to be in the world right now. But not now now! It's the worst place. I had a heart attack. This is some personal shit, but I have high blood pressure. I'm 54 years old. I think ultimately people everywhere are going to have to be responsible and hygienic.
I've talked with a few other studio owners who've said, "I've got to feel safe." Everyone's going to come up with their own safety level, and what they're willing to do and what they're not.
It's so fucked up that the unfortunate part of it is that you have to deal with other people.
That's why we all got into this, because we like dealing with people.
It's great to sit in some little room and hash it out. I think it is what amount of risk you're comfortable taking. Not just for yourself, but for the other people you're dealing with. I think people are responsible... I thought 2020 was gonna rip. Everything was lining up. I've got my studio, I moved all my gear down to Mexico, and literally the day the last shit showed up was when I split to come back up here because of COVID.
I think sadly it's going to take quite a few more people to actually die before the entire country gets it. It's staggering how stupidly this has been handled.
Oh, it's unbelievable.