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...