Paramore drummer Zac Farro was playing on the world’s stages at an age when most of us were trying to figure out what middle school was all about. Now, at the ripe old age of 30, he has toured the world, paused his music career, taught himself photography and music video making, restarted his music career, produced records, built studios in L.A. and Nashville, rejoined Paramore, and continued to make records for his band, HalfNoise, as well as other artists, all while learning along the way.
What gave you the recording bug?
I was a freshman when I dropped out and we started touring. We started doing showcases at the Viper Room when I was 12 or 13. I always loved being in the studio; this intriguing other side of being a musician. I was mainly a live musician and had started at my worship team on the drums. But I got Logic for Christmas when I was 18. I’d been dabbling in GarageBand and found it fun to mess with synths. I loved sampling, so I’d sample a snare and a kick in order to create and build beats. I was into more of the electronic side. My first thing wasn’t to set up a drum kit and record it. I wanted to program one. Logic was user-friendly, whereas Pro Tools felt so daunting and “pro studio” at that point. I never planned on being a producer or getting into recording. Then, from Paramore and HalfNoise, my other project, not touring a lot, I realized I loved to stay busy and working with people. I’m such an extrovert, so producing was a cool thing for me. The only thing that was getting in the way was that I was not super-confident in it. “I don’t know how to record well. I’m not good at this.” I learned that the knowledge that I had, which was working on my own and self-discovery, was a lot cooler than YouTubing or going to college.
Yeah, of course.
I went my own way. It took me years to learn, like it was all out of phase the entire time. That’s what got me into it. I’m into my fourth record this year that I’ve produced. That’s what takes up most of my time now, which is crazy.
Your productions have a unique approach and sound. It’s very different than Paramore’s big guitars and drum sounds.
Well, yeah. It’s a big band. It matches that sound. That’s what that band has morphed into. I was talking to Hayley [Williams, Paramore’s vocalist, keyboardist] yesterday about it. We never set out to be a certain thing. It just turned out to be that way. A lot of our musical influences are evolving and changing. What I love about both HalfNoise and Paramore, is that Paramore lets me have that one outlet of a big rock band; touring and everything. Then the downtime is my freedom and time to explore creatively. That’s what HalfNoise has come out of. I just released a dub-inspired EP, Zafari. I like to incorporate what I’m inspired by at that time. I get the privilege to do that within HalfNoise, because I also have a big band that I get to be a part of as well. I feel very fortunate. That’s why my own music has changed. I took a six-year break from touring with Paramore. I stopped when I was 20 because all seven of my teenage years were on the road. I felt the train was not gonna stop. I didn’t want to tour; I wanted to see what regular life was like, and see if it was for me. It turns out that it absolutely wasn’t. I do not know what I would do without music. I was fortunate to rekindle things with Hayley and Taylor [York, guitar] and join back up with them on After Laughter. I was just intending to play drums on it, but then they invited me back in the band, which was really cool. It’s a healing process of rekindling friendships. Taylor is a big gear nut. When we were making After Laughter, he started getting into vintage synths and recording gear. He lived on Reverb.com for a while. I learned a lot from him. I started recording my own music by myself, producing myself, and collecting some gear. I had a bunch of HalfNoise music previously that I’d worked on with friends and producers; but this latest HalfNoise record, Natural Disguise, I did everything besides mixing. While I was doing that, my friend, Becca Mancari, heard what I was making, and she asked me to produce her record that came out on Captured Tracks, The Greatest Part. It’s snowballed from there. I feel a lot of people had only known me as the drummer of Paramore; nowadays I’m more of a singer and producer of HalfNoise. Some of my newer friends have never even seen a Paramore show, but they know me as a producer.
If I heard HalfNoise and didn’t know you were in it, I’d never guess in a million years that it’s related to Paramore.
When we started the band, it was my older brother, Josh [Farro], Hayley, me, and a few other guys. My brother and Hayley wrote the majority of the songs, and I would come in with, “Oh, this song makes me think of this beat,” and I’d play to it. It was never music I wrote. HalfNoise started when I quit touring Paramore. I was super into Icelandic music; Amiina, Múm [Tape Op #43], Björk, and, later, Radiohead; very cold-weather music. Very influenced by sample-based electronic, moody, atmospheric music.
How are you recording and tracking? Do you have a home setup?
That’s what’s so funny, Geoff. I’m learning so much, even moving back to Nashville and properly setting up my studio. I flew Daniel McNeil here; the engineer I was working with out in L.A. He also works for Mac DeMarco [Tape Op #120]. He used to only work on tape machines. He co-owned a label [Good Horse Records] where he went straight from tape to vinyl; no computers were involved. Now he’s on Logic. He’s come around! I have this mentality; if I get a [Roland] Juno-60, then I have to know it all the way until I get another keyboard that I want. I have to know it inside and out. I feel that’s a good quality to have, but also it can hinder me a little bit. I’m saying all this because I used to not have any drums set up, and I would use MIDI, which is fine for writing a song. But half of what I listen to, whether it’s The Kinks, The Beatles, or the Stones, Afrobeat like Fela Kuti, or Cal Tjader; all these different types of records have the tone and the warmness of tape. These were all done with live instruments, all cut live. There’s no MIDI. But it’s that weird digital age that we live in, where it can become easy. I slowly started delving into these records, and I realized that was the common thread. I had a studio in L.A. that I was running behind Carlos de la Garza’s house. He mixed the last Paramore record. I worked out of the back of his studio in a very nice, built-out little shack/barn. It was the first time I had separation. There was a vocal booth, and of course I threw the drums in there and squashed everybody in there to do everything live. Then Kayla [Graninger], my girlfriend, and I realized that we wanted to be back around our community in Nashville and have more space if everybody’s going to be inside all the time. I moved back into my house here in Nashville, and I turned almost the entire upstairs into my studio. I have the live room with my whole drum kit set up, and then I have what would be another bedroom, as the main studio room, with all my keys and all the rest of the gear. It’s a glorified home studio, but it’s all the gear I’ve been collecting, as well as a culmination of all the little trinkets that I’ve acquired over the last ten years. I flew Daniel out to dial it in and get the patchbay going. I’m reintroducing myself to my friends here; letting everybody know I’m here and trying to hopefully work on some new records. That’s the plan. I’m definitely more into the producing and recording world than ever before.
How are you mixing? Are you doing a hybrid thing or are you all in the box?
I have a little TEAC 4-channel [mixer] but it’s not working right now, so mainly in the box. I use Logic, and I also have a Roland Chorus Echo that I send tracks through tape if I want it to be a little more saturated. A friend in L.A. has a couple of tape machines that I send my last final mix through, so it takes a little bit of that digital glare off. But I’m mainly in the box for mixing.
Is your photography and video directing a result of being so young when you got into music and wondering, “What else is out there?”
Yeah. I have always loved photography. What helped me fall in love with it was being able to travel to all these cool places, like, “Holy shit, we’re in Paris this morning,” and then a month later we’re in New Zealand or Australia. We were traveling the world, so I was like, “I’m going to start documenting this.” The gateway drug for a lot of people my age was [director] Wes Anderson, and then I’d start getting into film and realizing, “Oh, he’s shooting on actual film!” There’s nothing like a tape machine and a nice console with music. Musically you can get away with some in the box, especially if you don’t have the budget or space for a huge console or tape machine. But photos and video, I don’t think you can recreate the actual film/analog look. The light has to be captured onto a physical object. I guess a better example would be listening to a song on Spotify as opposed to vinyl. There’s no comparison to me. I love textures and tones, so with film and photos, that’s a tone and its own thing. It was just a hobby, but now, when I can fit it in and when I have some ideas, I do it. I guess I try to wear a lot of hats. Unless we’re doing a full touring season, if I’m home I’ve got time to make some records, shoot some photos, and make some videos. Take Becca Mancari, for instance. I’ve produced her record, recorded it with her, and then I shot two out of the four music videos and a lot of her photos for her. It’s a cool thing to be able to offer people. It doesn’t hurt to dabble in all of them.
How are you approaching your productions? Maybe you could talk about how you saw records being made early-on in Paramore versus how you start a record now with someone.
That’s a great question. I’m only 30, but Paramore is not a new band. It’s been around for half my life. We started like a normal band in a garage, and then rehearsed and did pre-production for two or three weeks, and then tracked a record. Recording is different with each artist that I work with, but it’s definitely not the “get the whole band in” approach. My process is one-on-one with the singer. Since I play drums, bass, guitar, and keys enough to get a basic track down, that’s how I do it. A one-man band, because I also do that with HalfNoise.
With Half-Noise, do you ever catch yourself feeling weird about incorporating Afrobeat inspired rhythms or dub?
I’ve been inspired by that right now. I’m this half-Italian American dude from New Jersey. I’ve never been to Jamaica! How can I make this? George Harrison was super psyched on sitar, and they wanted to get some Indian-inspired music in The Beatles’ records in the ‘60s. Now it’s 2020, and it should be way more understandable to do whatever you’re inspired by. Places have their culture and music, and that has to be respected. But music is everybody’s interpretation of what they’re inspired by, so I don’t think there’s any harm to incorporating some of that. I want to walk that fine line of inspiration and knowledge. If you have too much knowledge, then you’re like, “Give me a second and I’ll dial this in.” You lose that inspiration. Half of these records that we love are that fine line of getting a great sound and letting inspiration lead the way. That’s the middle ground that we’re listening to, and it’s the fight between, “Oh, shit; the mic’s distorting a little bit, but Mick Jagger’s going crazy.” That wasn’t planned, but you can’t get a better take, so you leave it.