A “typical” Tape Op interview might follow the path of playing music, learning engineering, and becoming a producer. Garret “Jacknife” Lee took the path of playing in a punk band, quitting to do electronica, doing a multitude of remixes, and then becoming a producer. Why is this interesting? Check out records by U2, R.E.M., The Killers, Snow Patrol, Bloc Party, The Hives, Weezer, One Direction, Silversun Pickups, Editors, Modest Mouse, and his recent collaboration (BAMANAN) with Malian vocalist Rokia Kone?, to see why.
Are you at Jackpot! Recording Studio? I was there maybe 13 years ago.
Yes, I’m here at my studio. I recall that you came in to record the demos for [R.E.M.’s] Collapse Into Now. It was an honor to have you all here!
I never know if recordings are demos or not. It’s just always, always recording. Michael [Stipe] wasn’t there. I loved your place. I was a bit intimidated by being in the room, because I’d done one record with them and I didn’t know if I’d be invited back. Tucker Martine [Tape Op #29] was there, and he’s fucking awesome. He’s made some great records. I thought, “Well shit. Tucker’s there! I’m not going to get this record.” I was lucky enough to finish off that record.
Those last two albums you did with R.E.M. were really direct, and the songs were fun when I saw them live.
Well, it was great when they were in the studio. That was the amazing thing. They would count to four, play, and be done. The first record I produced, Accelerate, we did in maybe eight days in Vancouver [Canada]. Then we went to Ireland where we did these live rehearsals, which we recorded and turned into another album, Live at The Olympia. Then we went to a residential studio [Grouse Lodge] and did two weeks there, and then went to Athens, [Georgia,] to a church. The whole thing sounded that way when it was recorded. The only thing I added to that record was I said, “That it’s. That song’s done.” We stopped every time the energy level started to dip, or we lost the excitement or the fear. We stopped after two weeks, each time. It may have kept us on our toes.
It’s probably smart.
I think I’ve made some great records. Some sound good. Some have been useful to the artist; in that it’s kept them going or gave them another lease on life. A lot of times it’s not down to a good hi-hat sound, the snare sound, or it’s over-compressed, or whatever. That’s some of it. But some of it is, “I can’t believe we actually got a record from them.” When I did the Neil Diamond album [Melody Road], he knew it was his last record. That was a tough one to do. I was very happy that he ended his career on a record that he loved and felt was exactly the record he wanted to make. Neil wanted that, and R.E.M. wanted a record that they could feel proud of. You know it’s a great album when it has a central focus; not a concept record, but it has a singular focus. Everyone’s intention is the same and we’re all in.
How would you describe your recording and producing process?
I started off recording to tape through boards. I never paid much attention when I was starting out because I felt it was somebody else’s domain; I was made to feel that way, which is fine. I was part of that, too. But there are certain roles. It’s a bit like in the old Abbey Road [EMI Studios], where there were men in suits and men in lab coats. I actually have a coat with my name on it, to remind me that there’s a craft to this. When I started making my own records and remixing, I had a laptop and used [Apple] Logic. It was portable and it worked. It forced me to make decisions on the way. Initially I felt like I would make destructive decisions with the audio. When I started producing for real, and producing bands, I had to go from that setup into a studio, and I didn’t like it. It’s probably a bit like when I was in a band, and we used to record through a boom box at rehearsals. It would sound great, I guess because of tape compression and all that. Then we’d go into a studio; we were all separated out, and the glue is gone. We’d sound terrible. I could hear weird transients because of the separation. I used to go to studios like Ocean Way or whatever and think, “Damn, I don’t know how to use the studio. I need translators for everything. How do I plug this in? Can I bus all the drums together to go into this one box?” It’s a pain in the ass to be creative. I would say to the artist, “You have to imagine what I’m about to do, because you’re not going to hear it.” I returned to this way of working, where I record lots of mics and a drum kit and then I bounce to a stereo file in the middle of recording. Then I can start treating it. If something is wrong there are enough tools in the digital world to fix it, or I can add something. I’m making destructive decisions. When I started in production, I couldn’t do that, and the records sounded different than the way I wanted them to sound because I had no control. Suddenly it went from being a fun thing to imagining what it’s going to be.
It seems like you are always trying to mutate the sounds on a record.
In the last four years, I’ve gone back to being as amateur as I can be. I’ve got a 4-track cassette, 4-track reel, and VHS tape to bounce tracks down to. I figured this out, to master to a VHS tape, when I was doing a Peter Buck album two years ago. I wanted it to sound rough. I’d been doing an Empire of the Sun record. We were looking at a lot of Japanese computer games from the ‘80s. Most of my references to those sounds we were getting were coming from YouTube, looking at videos which had been taken from VHS tape. I thought, “Why don’t I use VHS tape?” I got a “new” VHS tape and realized that wasn’t right, so I bought old, random tapes. Amazingly, it sounded good, in a shit way. I seem to spend most of my time trying to degrade sound. I like distortion and saturation. I don’t like transparency. People talk about transparency all the time. I don’t see the point. Not for my work. I want everything to leave a mark. I’m disappointed at how good cassette sounds. I did a Weezer song years ago called “Pork and Beans,” and I was trying to get the verses sounding shit. It was a laborious process that the band trusted me with. I wanted to work in an old-fashioned way and sample every part and then put the track together again from samples. I had everybody play their parts, then I was going to put it into a sampler keyboard, and they’d all play their parts on a keyboard. It would be loops of drums, vocals, and guitar parts. It would be wonky, because everyone’s playing it. I thought, “It doesn’t sound bad enough, so I’m going to press it to vinyl.” It was in Threshold [Studios] in Santa Monica, and they had a lathe there. I had it pressed to vinyl, and then realized, “Shit, that sounds too good.” In the digital world, with people coming in from laptops, sounds haven’t gone through lots of wiring, valves, and tubes. We get close-sounding sounds. I need some saturation. Audio Kitchen’s The Big Trees [preamp] is just amazing. That and the [Universal Audio] 2-610 are my gateways into the studio. I use boom boxes to record the drums in the room, and then I’ll have close mics on the kick and snare. We re-edit, because the cassettes go out of time.
To sync them back up?
Yeah. It sounds good. It’s introducing a lot of artifacts and noise. I’m looking for noise. I’m looking for character. If I’m using an old drum machine, or a Maestro Echoplex [tape delay], I want their noise to be there.
How does mixing integrate into your process?
Most writing sessions I start are being mixed from the second we begin. After a few hours, I start putting master bus compression or saturation on. Then everything that gets added, I am listening through the bus. I was finding that people would say, “It sounds good already!” Then we don’t have to add that much. I’m using mostly boxes that have a lot of character, like the Lexicon Prime Time [delay]. I’m leaning more towards those outboard effects rather than compression. I always think that maybe compression is going to help me in some way. I used to drink alcohol, up until about ten years ago. The reason why I stopped was because I didn’t like the hangovers, but I also I didn’t know anything that I was drinking. I’d be drinking with R.E.M., and they would be drinking expensive wine, and I wouldn’t have a fucking clue what I was drinking. There’s no point in it; it’s wasted on me. I feel like that with some equipment. I’ve got [Universal Audio] 1176s and [Empirical Labs] Distressors and Fatsos. I do like them, but I’m not sure I know what I’m doing. This is the difference between mine and your skill sets, where you can hear something and know how to fix it. I don’t really know how to fix it. I don’t know the attack time on a compressor. It’s been explained to me so many times; I’ve looked at YouTube videos, and I still don’t know if a bigger number is less attack?
On some of the gear, I can’t tell!
I’m thinking of attack the way it is on a synth, which isn’t appropriate!
It seems a lot of your aesthetic comes from initially being an artist and musician in a band, and then the transition into re-mixing and re-imagining music.
Yeah. I started off as an electronic artist, with cassettes. Then I moved into being in a band, and then I went from a band to being a DJ in an electronic world. Moving to re-mixing was because I had to. I didn’t have a band anymore, and I didn’t know how else to write music. I got [Emagic] Logic and a sampler in ‘95, and I started cutting up records. I was only using MIDI [in Logic] and the sampler for audio. Remixing happened because people asked me to do it. The first was a Björk remix [“I Miss You”]. I was trying to find my feet. It was an exciting time, in the mid to late ‘90s, for electronic and beat-based sample music. It was the first time I was self-sufficient and independent from other musicians since I was in high school. It did help me to understand that things don’t have to be the way they are. I could change the tempo. I remember somebody sent me a song in 3/4, which is not very good for a club. I made it 4/4, and it worked. Luckily, the first record I produced properly was Snow Patrol’s Final Straw. In the middle of recording that, the drummer had a bit of an accident and couldn’t play drums. I had to figure out, “Okay, we have to finish the record, but I’ve only got a day or two days of drums. I can use those drums to make every beat on the record from my re-mixing days.” It made the record sound a bit odd, because I didn’t have any good equipment or computers. I had to make destructive edits. I would stereo mix parts down, edit them, then copy this bit and put it through a pedal. It was a rock ‘n’ roll record, but it was different. I guess that got some peoples’ attention, U2 being one of them. They wanted me to do what I did on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. They already had the professional producers there: Steve Lillywhite [Tape Op #93], Flood [#117], and Chris Thomas. They didn’t need another guy at the “big” board. They needed a guy in a small room with a laptop fucking them up.
I got a little Mackie desk for that session; it worked, and I stayed with them for a while. That mentality worked. This is the pivot, when I went into proper studios with big boards. That other part of me stopped working. I started making very proper, professional sounding records. Such as a few Snow Patrol records, with an orchestra and 80-person choirs. They sound great. They’re big sounding records, and I learned a lot from doing them. But I’m now back to my original process, and now I’m treating recording like remixing. Artists don’t have that much time to write or to demo. I’m not a big fan of demos at all. I feel they are expending creative energy when the most important part of it isn’t being documented, which is the discovery. What they’re then doing is replicating a moment of discovery, which is never that great. That’s what’s wrong with a lot of things, like Hollywood films.
Trying to replicate something that feels authentic but actually isn’t. Trying to replicate moments of discovery or an emotion that’s passed. Or when someone’s voice is a bit fucked but they decide to sing anyway. Then they go to the studio, in front of a nice mic, and go, “Oh, it sounded better before, but I can’t use it for this reason...” So, I don’t believe in demos. Demos are when people are probably at their most vulnerable, fearful, and experimental. That’s the bit that makes music giddy.
But what about using demos to remember ideas?
Demoing can be problematic. Working with bands, I try to do voice memos when they rehearse and get the ideas down. Don’t use the “editor” of your brain. This isn’t about R.E.M., because they already know what they want, and they sound great. But other bands, they have songs arranged. Somebody wrote a song in a bedroom, they went into a rehearsal room, and then said, “Okay, we’re ready.” I’ll ask them in the studio, “What records are you listening to now? What excites you?” Invariably, it’s not what they sound like. They haven’t figured out, “How can we get from where we are now to that? Are we allowed to do it? Does our brand allow that to occur? What are we risking? What are we trying to achieve?” They’ve got to follow their excitement. Maybe they had started a band, and then they got a producer who recorded and documented bands. They never had the opportunity to experiment. “What would it sound like if we started introducing some hip-hop or minimal beats? What if we have the drummer sit out for a song, or not use guitar?” If the band is up for it, it can strengthen them as it expands their tools.
Opening the door to these ideas can be important.
In the last ten years, I’ve noticed new artists coming in and boasting at the fact that they’ve written 50 songs for their album. That’s great! But what’s happening a lot in music is that everyone’s become a consumer rather than a maker. Record labels are looking to buy records that are fully written, fully recorded, and properly mixed. They don’t imagine what it might sound like. It’s an interesting time, and production of artists is a dying art. Production is making people comfortable, making people trust their instincts. Pushing people. The important question that U2 asked a lot is, “What would happen if we did this?” Some artists do that, and when they do it’s a wonderful experience. Everything is discovery and exploration rather than documenting. Documenting some records is great, and I’m very happy that people have done it before. But now, is the idea pushed? Is it curious? Is the process one of excitement and truth? Is it an authentic feeling? Is it fresh? Is it new? Is it something that no one else has said before?
I find that a lot of times artists are very conservative. Sometimes I’ll get a less-experienced band and still find that the slightest thing – too much reverb, or a sharp guitar tone – might be “too much!”
This is why some of my breakthroughs with artists are when they’re not in the room. The different events that occur to get to a final sound can be terrible sounding. It could be too much reverb. It might be off-putting. It can be easy to live in a way that every like or dislike is already categorized. It makes life easier, but it also makes life really boring, and it produces inflexibility. It’s been interesting working with people in different age groups – from people in their 80s to people in their early teens – to see who is drawn to what, and what makes them giddy. I’ve learned a lot from the breadth of work that I do, from doing records with African folk musicians to Ableton grind kids. Everything is fresh and new. I’m working with Lonnie Holley at the moment, an interesting artist in his 70s from Alabama. He said to me, on a session a few weeks ago, “Get me a keyboard.” I put out the [Korg] M-1. The first preset that comes up is called Universe. He plays it, and says, “That’s perfect.” I wouldn’t have done that; I would have started clicking through [presets]. We made it work. Everything was built around that. It’s me not being snooty about gear.
Instruments and equipment don’t make the records happen on their own.
I went from not knowing anything about production to producing the biggest bands in the world – U2 and R.E.M. – and they’re singing into a [Shure SM]58. Go into a U2 session, and their goal is to have the closest mic to them on, working, and recordable. You don’t need to be, “Okay, let’s do that again, properly.” Everything in my studio is always plugged in, and everything in it works. If something doesn’t work, it’s repaired immediately. There are records everywhere; there’s a record player here, a record player in the other room. Everything is on. There are speakers everywhere for every synth. Everything’s plugged in and everything’s mic’d. The drum kit’s all mic’d. There are loads of synths. Everything is ready to go. We can be recording in a few minutes.
Is this all in a house?
I live across the way, maybe a hundred feet. This is a garage and a guest house. My studios have always been in the garage. I used to have studios in London, tiny little spaces that I’d be paying a fortune for. I’d hear all the other rooms and all of this noise. It felt like everything everyone else was doing around me was better than what I was doing. I thought, “I can’t compete.” I moved out to the countryside, and there was a nice little garage there. Now I’m in this two car one. It’s a perfect size. It’s completely packed full of instruments. People come in and get inspired. When I go to studios, it can be difficult. I know commercial studios have a different obligation to the artist than I do here, because you guys have to work for everybody. It has to have all possibilities.
For someone walking in here, it has to be a blank slate.
Which is intimidating as an artist, sometimes, to walk into a blank slate. “What do I do now?” I still feel that when I go into a room.
As a producer you’ve got to make it creative and comfortable; a positive environment, instead of an empty room.
It’s difficult. This room is disarming. My kids are around and people like the space. I’ll put on some records when someone comes in. It’s just a space for me and the people who are here rather than a commercial space. I do like going to studios, but lot of studios have the same gear everywhere. There’s a uniformity to the studios now. I’m always wondering, “What do you have that’s not out?” Those are the fun things. Studios with character, with sound, and with problems that I’ve got to compensate for are more exciting than the “great” studios. I don’t have to go far from my home. It means I get up in the morning and first thing, I’m working. Being self-sufficient is wonderful, especially during COVID. I worked on a lot of records that I couldn’t have made, had I not had the remixing mentality and the ability to record, as well as the ability to make finished records from start to finish here. It’s been useful.
Were you getting a lot of unattended work?
A few years before COVID, I was pivoting to not having people in the room with me. If I was doing a five day week with a band, I would suggest that they come three of those five days. We used to have a residential space in England, where we had some bands stay. We had people making dinner, and once dinner happened that was maybe two hours out of the day. Then, if there was wine or something, no work happened after dinner. It’s that moment where all work slows down and then it’s conversation. It’s nice, but I like work. I like the energy to be up. When that starts to dip, I think, “Okay, we’re done for the day.” We might figure out, “Come in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.” I’m recording so much audio, I need time to process. I don’t want anybody thinking about what they’re doing. I’m trying to get people working on instinct. Just start singing and playing. I noticed a few years ago that really good players, as they were improvising, might not know when they had a good idea. Working with Peter Buck [R.E.M.] is very interesting. I started a band [Tired Pony] with Peter years ago. It would maybe take an hour to write the song and we’d record it. By the third take we had become good at playing the song. We all knew our parts, but it started to become boring. It was the first or second take where there was still fear, like, “Shit, where are we?” It’s exciting and it’s audible. You can feel it. Somebody would be improvising, trying to come up with a part. They’d have an amazing part, and I wouldn’t say anything. They’d go past and I’d mention, “Do you remember about ten minutes ago, you played this and you kept going. Did you think it was good?” They’d say, “I don’t know.” I thought that it’s probably good if I record them, and then go through it later to find these parts. Obviously, they have to approve it!
I would hope!
Generally, people are surprised that they played it. I made a record [BAMANAN] with Rokia Koné. Rokia’s extraordinary. She’s got a voice we need to hear. Her voice reveals what’s going on inside. She’s a conduit from ancestors. When she sings, she has to be impressive because she has to get attention. She’s singing with the eyes of the past on her. Her message has to be met, and then also picked up by the next people. It’s this connection that’s tangible between a body, a god, a universe, or whatever it is. That’s what Rokia does. That voice is extraordinary, and I needed to honor it. She was working in Mali and would send me improvisations that were 10 to 15 minutes long. I would go through bits and say, “This vocal is great. What’s happening around it isn’t great.” Maybe five minutes later there’s a drum or guitar part that’s amazing, and I’d think, “That bit’s good.” That’s the way I started working on that. U2 worked that way as well. It was 2004 when I saw them do this first. They would have a “power hour,” where they’d jam for longer than an hour. We’d record everything, just them jamming as a band. I would get the parts from a two hour session and then say, “This could be a good verse. This could be a chorus.” Maybe it’s the same song, or not the same song. Maybe there are three songs. Writing from start to finish does work, and I work with people who do that, but because we have the ability now to record for longer periods of time – rather than say 15 minutes on tape – it’s these deviations and mistakes that are documented and can become the focus. In that U2 “power hour” there’s always an element of the final recording that is part of that session. It could be a vocal, or it could be the drums. It could be anything. That’s the way that I record now. I’m always grabbing bits, so it’s generally a painless experience for people. Through remixing, the tempo doesn’t matter. I can change that. I can change the key. On this Lonnie Holley record, I had a guy record horns at his house. I was doing another song with Lonnie, and I thought, “I could do that with horns, but I don’t want to send the track again. I’ll use the horns from the other track.” I changed the key, edited them in [Celemony] Melodyne, and it was great. It was all this mad shit that he would not have done on the track I gave him. I created so much chaos that was perfect for the song. He would have organized it in a more musical way that was harmonious. That’s the great thing about different technologies. I use [Apple] Logic and Ableton [Live] as well. All these have helped me, through remixing and having these weird breakthroughs. The Rokia record was the most technically complicated thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t recognize any of the time signatures, and I also don’t speak the language that they’re working in.
Like, “What are the words?”
There’s no tempo. There’s no click. And the songs were really long. Also, the record that they had was fine. We could have released it. But I wanted to do something in the vein of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook.
I know that record [Mustt Mustt] well.
That’s a huge record for me. It opened me up from being in Ireland to realizing that there’s music everywhere; there’s more of it and it’s extraordinary. It’s everyone trying to do the same thing, to speak to god or whatever. I wanted to honor the intention of what they were doing and try and use the same process that they’re working in, which was improvisation. I had to figure out the bits that worked. I took off all the music and tried to figure out what was going on with the vocal. I tried to figure out tempo, from just the vocal. Then parts that I could recognize, I asked for translations, but they weren’t coming. There was a coup in Mali at the time, so the internet was down, and there was a curfew so they couldn’t go back into the studio. There were a lot of challenges. Once I got a tempo that worked, I would sit at the keyboard and come up with a song. I color-coded words that sounded similar, and then I’d chop every syllable up so I could rearrange it. I had to do the same thing with all the music I was given.
A lot of work.
Once I found the tempo and the bits I liked, I’d lost the context of each instrument against the next one and the vocals, so then I was reconstructing everything. It was very laborious, but once it worked, it was magical. I would follow the emotion from the vocal and then start playing. I’m not a great keyboard player, so I’d be looking for rhythms and textures and chords that weren’t there. They weren’t really dealing with chords, and I’m not working with chords that much, but it was interesting to impose Western song chords and movements onto these tracks and see what happened. I was obviously very conscious of lyrics, because I don’t know if I’m editing out an important part of this narrative. That was difficult, but I didn’t fuck it up, I guess.
Did you send the mixes to Rokia and say, “Is this making any sense, lyrically?”
I still haven’t spoken to Rokia. She speaks Bambara, and the person who was the mediator was speaking French.
Do you speak French?
I don’t speak French. Rokia speaks a bit of French, I think. I was curious about what would happen if we did this project. I don’t think she liked [what I was doing] at the beginning. I think because it was so unusual for her to hear these songs this way, she let it rest. She didn’t get back to me at all. Once she was comfortable with it, and understood it, we were both trying to understand each other’s methods and meet somewhere in the middle. That’s the interesting thing. Obviously, she’s the key to everything in this. Her voice is extraordinary. For me to honor that voice and everything else is secondary. I didn’t want to make a record that sounded like “now,” or highlight a particular type of technology. There are lots of different processes going on that are digital, analog, and tape on the original recording. It’s me playing drums and marimba, and then using Ableton to try to play these parts in using synths and drum machines. I wanted to make it sound like it was not from a particular era. It’s an interesting exploration. I’d never done anything like it before, so I didn’t have a way into it. Know the goal and use your instincts to try to figure it out. At the beginning, I was very reverential towards the source material, which is always difficult. If I’m in a room with somebody, I’m not much use to them if I’m too reverent. It’s not that I’m irreverent; I just have to be useful. They’ve asked me to help them. I remember the first time I recorded an orchestra. Somebody spent a fortune on recording this orchestra. I did my usual thing, which is to bounce down to a stereo file once I got the mix I liked. Then I chopped it up and started stretching parts to make it grainier, and I pitched some down. They said, “What the fuck are you doing? Do you know how much that cost?”
That’s a common question!
It’s just audio. It’s just a stereo file. It doesn’t matter, if it works. There was a guy at the time called Murcof [Fernando Corona] who was a Mexican electronic artist. He made records out of cut-up orchestral pieces. It was very interesting. At the time I wasn’t sampling much because I’d gotten into so much trouble sampling, so I started making my own samples. Attack it and go, “Okay, this bit. I’m doing something with this.” I remember when I started working with Edge or Peter Buck, I would go straight on the floor and start turning [knobs on] their guitar pedals. People would go, “What are you doing?” I thought, “Well, I don’t like the sound of this. I thought we could change it or mess with it.” It wasn’t that I was being cocky. I thought, “We’ve got to play a bit.” My ignorance and naivety have been useful many times in my jobs. I’m not fully aware of the complexity of the situation. Not quite a bull in a China shop, but more like a kid in a room.
There’s a difference between cavalier or dictatorial as opposed to becoming part of a process and exploring.
Or disrespectful. I’m very conscious of respecting the artist and making sure that they feel safe. A lot of times I’m asking people to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing, like singing in a stairway. They’re not going to do it if it results in humiliation and failure. I want them to trust me that I’m not going to put them in an unsafe space. Getting the trust is important. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the same people over and over again, so the trust builds up over time. Some of my methods might be a little bit difficult at the time, but we do get results. Sometimes fans don’t like it, but the artist generally feels that we’ve done something that they haven’t done before. That’s the bit that keeps a career. Discovering new things, or giving yourself license to try something that you haven’t been allowed to do before. You would imagine, from the outside, that a lot of artists feel they are in control. “They can do whatever they want.” But a lot of times they don’t have the confidence to push themselves a bit further. It’s not just personal confidence. It’s also, “Can I stand on stage and pull this off?” It’s okay for me; I’m sitting in this room, all day, all year. I don’t have to stand in front of people, and play a song, and risk the humiliation of it falling flat. I don’t get that feedback. It’s easy for me to suggest that somebody does something, because I don’t get that kick in the gut.
You don’t have to do the follow through.
Yeah. I have to make sure that it’s going to work and that it might pay dividends later. I remember when I was doing The Killers’ song, “The Man.” That was a tough one to convince Brandon [Flowers] to do, because there are no chords in the song, pretty much, and he likes chords. It’s a groove-based song. I had to convince him that it could be a song, that he could do it, and that if he did do it, it would expand his abilities and his control over what he was able to do. I convinced him, in the end, to do it. I tried to say to him, “You don’t have to put so many chords into the song.” I was playing Sly Stone to him, and he said, “Okay, what do you mean?” I played an Isley Brothers song. I sampled it, looped it, put a bass line on it, and sang a thing. He said, “That’s not a song.” I said, “It is a song! It could be a song.” Just like “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson is pretty much just one chord. No melodic information in it.
Same with “Fashion” by David Bowie and “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel [Tape Op #63]. All non-chord songs. There’s a bit of movement, but it’s about the ability of the singer to have the confidence in delivering the message. If they believe in it, I will buy it. If they have any doubt in its power, no one’s going to dig into it. No one’s going to get it. To make that leap from doubting it, as a song itself, to being able to pull it off was such a huge leap for Brandon, an amazing personal leap of bravery and trust. But he did it.
I feel part of your job is to come in and suggest new ways to work, and to allow people to shake themselves up.
Yeah. As they progress through their career, potential for possibility shrinks. The risks that they take also tends to shrink, which makes people become a legend or heritage artist. If one can maintain what’s possible, that’s an amazing career path. It’ll keep them excited, creative, and happy. If they start going through the motions, then success starts to diminish. Repeating oneself is diminishing returns.
I was interviewing Roland Orzabal from Tears for Fears [Tape Op #147], and he was saying he’s not trying to have hit songs at this point; he’s trying to make a great record.
They probably had their hits not trying to have a hit! When you’re trying to have a hit, it’s a difficult thing. What is a hit song? A hit song is generally something that’s fresh sounding. Other people have hit songs that are constructed, utilitarian, functional, and designed to land in the right spot. Every era’s done it. Hit songs that are really powerful are the ones that are these anomalies that change the conversation. A fresh idea comes in. That does happen a lot. Look at the production of Finneas [O’Connell] and Billie Eilish. They recognized the power of the personal experience, maybe because everyone is listening on headphones again. Small sounds are impactful. There are lots of new ideas. Those are the anomalies I’m talking about. They happen more in hip-hop than rock ‘n’ roll, for sure. It happened in rock ‘n’ roll for a long time. It hasn’t happened now because rock ‘n’ roll is based on people liking it rather than people getting fucked up by it. The goal of pop music is to make everyone who hasn’t made that record to feel like, “Shit, I missed it.” Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t do that anymore because it’s now become a snake eating its own tail. We still hear The Stooges, and it’s still a fresh-sounding record.
When I’m working with a better-than-average group, it feels like there’s another presence in the room. All the people will be sitting here in the control room, and I’ll think someone’s missing.
Yeah. I haven’t heard it put quite that way before, but that’s definitely true. Even when I listen to amazing bands, if I hear multitracks and start pulling it apart, I’ll go, “Damn, this is so simple.” There’s something else happening. It’s not just them physically in a live space, but something else. Like R.E.M.: Individually pretty good, but together; shit, it’s like an army. It’s amazing. The Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy certainly did that too, so it’s not exclusive to rock ‘n’ roll. Kraftwerk certainly had it. But I am missing that a bit, whatever that is. It’s not like music isn’t better now. The last two years I’ve bought more new records that have been great, that have blown me away, than eight years before. There are such amazing works coming from everywhere now that are shocking.
We have the technology to record anywhere, which is what we didn’t have before. I was saying at the beginning, for people who had to go to studios and record, the idea of self-sufficiency, or the ability to be self-sufficient, is very exciting.
It’s a more flexible recording time than ever. It’s so rare that I work on an album where somebody didn’t take part of it home, or send out for tracks. But it’s also a more fluid process than ever, and our part in a session can feel marginalized at times.
With U2 I learned to not be offended because it’s not my record. I’ve worked on some records for a long time. One song I worked on for eight months for them. I initially produced it, but they weren’t happy. It went to Spike Stent, T Bone Burnett [Tape Op #67], Steve Lillywhite [#93]; maybe eight producers, all working on different versions. T Bone’s version he did in New Orleans with a brass band. This guy in Sweden did a house version. Then Bono would come to me and say, “I really like T Bone’s pre-chorus, but I like what this guy Kygo is doing on this other part. Can you find a way to combine them?” I’d be taking stems, maybe a mix, and adding bits. Then I’d think, “Okay, I’m done.” Huge sessions. Then I would get, last minute, a new person’s session and try to combine that and make it sound like one pass. Then I’d have to replicate Kygo’s part, which was kind of a club version, with T Bone Burnett’s version. “Do we have a drum sound that we can merge?” When we finally finished it, the night before it was coming out that Steve Lillywhite did a mix on it in Indonesia, and the next day that was the version that came out. I didn’t even recognize my work! My name was credited as being the producer, but certainly I didn’t recognize having spent eight months on it. I learned to accept that the new way of working is that there will be loads of people. On a lot of records I’m doing it’s just me, but when it does go that other way, it’s the new way. It probably started with pop records, and now that’s infiltrated every form of music. Somebody has an idea, then generally I’m the person to collate these. It’s interesting. Then everyone has a comment on the mix. So, I’m not a fan of mixing, even though I do mix. Also, I don’t think I can compete with proper mixers. My haphazard, amateur style works in production. But when it comes to mixing, they say, “Can you get this on the radio?” When I hear a mix come back on a track I’ve done, it sounds like it’s a person in their Sunday best wedding suit. It’s a choice I would have never made, but it sounds good. It feels like it’s been airbrushed. I have an inability to carve out big frequencies, probably the girth or the belly of the song. Some people are very good at sculpting this out. I think I like records that sound a bit bulky in some weird way. So, I’m not a good mixer for modern music. I’ve learned in the last few months that I should mix from my own stems rather than from the session I’m working in. I would finish recording and go, “Okay, I’ve got a day. I’ll mix this session.” I realized, when I was mixing other peoples’ records, that they would give me easily digestible sessions. Making those choices is easier. I’m mixing for Modest Mouse now, and I feel it’s got a bit of bulk in it, but I don’t know. It’s probably from everywhere. When I start taking out one thing at a time I think, “Oh, this doesn’t sound very good.” I like the bass synth rattling something. Do I take it from the kick? Do I lose that 200 Hz of the snare? I never know. I don’t know what it’s doing. I made some records recently and other people have mixed them. It’s not that I don’t like them, but I don’t love them. I feel there’s a uniformity to a lot of new mixing. It’s not quite the cocaine mixing of the ‘80s, but very bright and different widths. The bulk or the girth is mixing.
Once again, it’s a little bit of the conservatism. There’s a tendency, especially with the flexibility of endless mix revisions, to homogenize the life out of the mix in a lot of cases.
“Is this too jarring? Is that too weird?”
There are plug-ins that have somebody’s name on them and it has a kick drum. Turn it on and it sounds presentable. I listen to it and go, “Wow, that sounds really good. I wonder what’s going on?” But it does make me ask if everything is moving from outlier to a uniformity or conformity. That might be happening. I’m still struggling with that. I lose mix-offs regularly because I haven’t done that thing.
I entered a Real World Records remix contest in 2020 with Les Amazones d’Afrique, the supergroup Rokia has been in. You were a judge, and you ended up working with Rokia afterwards. I put a track together for that where I kept only the vocals. I played some Moogs, bass, guitars, and drum samples, and built a whole new song. My whole feeling was, “I’m not doing what likely everyone else is doing. They’re probably remixing, doing whatever’s cool and new with Ableton Live that I can’t even do.” I felt so insecure.
I’m continually feeling insecure about situations like that. The Rokia thing is interesting. I listened to every mix that came in. I had a Google sheet where I’d write notes down. Then they said to me, “Oh, we’re only going to send you eight mixes we think you should judge from.” I had been listening to everything as it came in! I had eight to choose from. It was me and [hip-hop producer] Che Pope judging. A guitar part on that remix was how I found Rokia. There’s a guitar part on there that’s magical, and it wasn’t on the multitrack. I sought out who had done that guitar; it was Salif Koné. I wanted to know if he wanted to make a record. Even before lockdown, I started working remotely with people; they would send me tracks and we’d collaborate that way. I started mixing. I did some hip-hop mixes, which was fun. I like working this way. Even though I am working in person with people, I still do that three day or two day thing for me to try remixing and come up with ideas like that. I’m working on a record at the moment that’s difficult for me; I don’t feel like doing anything on it. I think it’s already good. When it comes to things like that, I’m questioning my role. Sometimes I think, “Leave it like it is!”
Maybe that’s what they need to hear?
Maybe, maybe. But I said I would do something, so now I’ve got to figure it out. Years ago, people would come in and be working in Ableton and I’m working in Logic. They would have tracks done quickly, and it would sound amazing immediately. I thought, “Fuck, I’m going to have to learn new software now.” I ended up agreeing to make a record, and I didn’t tell them I was going to do it all in Ableton. I ended up doing it on my kitchen table in Ableton, with headphones. I remixed the record, a whole album I did. I didn’t know how to use Ableton, and I didn’t know what was going on. It was actually a record for Peter Buck and Luke Haines [Beat Poetry for Survivalists]. I didn’t know how to make a session in Ableton, so I just dragged the vocal in. I didn’t know the tempo, and it reset the vocal. I decided, “Fuck, I’ll work this way. I’ll guess the tempo and remix the whole record without listening to it.” That’s how I figured out how to do the Rokia record. I would listen to the vocal and then construct a track from elements around it that were samples. I didn’t listen to the chorus. I didn’t know what the chorus was because I had no context for anything. I had no tempo, and I had no keys. Then I would grab a bit from the audio bin, and put it in, and see if it worked. If it didn’t work, I’d just take a chord. I think they were all wondering how I did the record, but it’s because I didn’t know. I didn’t know the software. Sometimes ignorance is really useful and learning something on-the-go is great. I still behaved that way in Ableton. If I get stuck in Logic on an idea, I’ll take it over to the other room and do the same thing, where I don’t know what’s happening. Even in mixing, if I’m stuck, I’ll go, “Okay, let’s do a ‘remix’ of this record.” I’ll bring what I’ve learned from doing a remix into the session and go back and forth. It’s been an interesting lesson in how to utilize other systems. A lot of production is problem solving. If I’ve had a solution, on, say, a Rokia record, I can apply how I got around the problem to a pop record. By doing these different types of records I learn a lot about problem solving. Obviously, I’m not alone in that. When we’re starting out, it’s very difficult because it seems like there are so many other people who know a lot more than we do. That alone can prevent people from trusting themselves. I get asked, “What does a producer do?” Most of it is just having an opinion.
That’s very true.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to production that that, but it is knowing that, “This is good. That’s really good. Do that. That thing!”
I haven’t seen that many interviews with you.
I don’t like self-mythologizing. I’m not wearing [my lab coat] now, but I do wear it when I’m working. I do wear this coat deliberately to remind me that I am not a fucking rock star. I am a craftsman. I used to have my crew wear these. We’d go to the studio and wear our names on jackets. When I worked with The Hives, they used to wear t-shirts with their name on them in the studio. A lot of producers talk about themselves like they do something magical. There’s a bit of art to it, but it’s more craft. A lot of times interviews with producers are them saying, “This is what I did, and it was great, so pivotal, and important in the record.” It bothers me. We’re not movie stars. We’re editors and technicians. I didn’t want to be a face. I tried that as an artist, and I didn’t like it. This was perfect for me to be in a studio and work.
Where did the nickname “Jacknife” come from?
I’ve been married to my wife for 30 years. When I met her, she called me Jack. I was putting out a record in ‘98, and I didn’t want to be Garret Lee, so I put it out as Jacknife Lee. When I started producing, U2 have a habit of giving nicknames to people. They asked me what I wanted my credit to be on the record, and I said, “Garret Lee.” They said, “We’re not. You’re not Garret Lee. You’re Jacknife.” So, my wife still calls me Jack.
It was another way of me being able to remove myself from the process a little bit.