Years ago, I met John Plymale at one of our TapeOpCon events. He currently lives in Norfolk, Virginia, and has helmed amazing projects including the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Superchunk, and the Meat Puppets. Recently John produced the album Steadman’s Wake for one of my favorite bands from North Carolina, The Connells. We hadn’t chatted in years, and it was great, and maybe even surprising, to catch up!
We seem to have a very, very similar path into recording.
Very similar. In your Tape Op End Rants, it’s hilarious, because they’re almost always parallel to the way I look at things. I guess a lot of that comes from both of us going through the process and being in this business at similar times.
We both started off in bands in the punk, post-punk, whatever era. Did you go into studios to record and get fascinated by it from there?
Totally. We were seniors in high school when we started our first band. We all liked a bunch of those British ska bands, like The Specials and The English Beat, and we started playing their covers. Two or three months into being a band, our guitar player wrote a song, and we’re like, “You can write a song?” So, me and the drummer were like, “Heck, let’s try to write songs too.” That band picked up and got popular quickly because we were high school kids; we were the hip thing to go do, to go see.
That was Pressure Boys?
Yeah. The guy who booked Cat’s Cradle at that point said, “Hey, I could get you gigs out of town if you had a demo tape.” He set us up one early Sunday morning at the Cat’s Cradle and recorded us. At the end of the day, he was like, “Well, I’ll tell you what. This is not going to come out that good. You guys should go to this guy everybody talks about in Winston-Salem named Mitch Easter [Tape Op #21], because everybody says he knows what he’s doing.” We agreed. Walking into the studio with Mitch was probably the same way it was for you at that point. We walked in there and it was all these things we didn’t recognize. Big 2-inch tape machines and mixing consoles. Mitch is, of course, known for all kinds of cool, funky gear. We thought it was magical.
That’s really lucky too, to work with someone who’s not only a top-notch musician but sympathetic to the music you were doing.
When we let him do his thing, it was great. But, at one point, he made the mistake of saying, “Hey, I need a couple of extra hands during mixing. How about when we get to the chorus you turn the trombone up a little bit, right here to this mark on the board.” Once he taught us how to do that, we were all over the board. Everybody’s inching their own instruments up a little bit when no one’s looking. By the end of an hour of mixing, I’d look over and everybody’s faders were at the top, and all the needles are in the red. We printed a pretty hot mix. [laughter]
Oh, my god.
But you’re right. We were really lucky. We did come out of there with a much better-sounding demo than your average band might have gotten. That helped the band. It also exposed all of us, and maybe me in particular since I went down that path, to more of what a real session could be like. And the magic in the studio! Especially at that time, when the magic was more physical and in front of you than it is with a mouse.
Right. Hands on faders.
If somebody had a harebrained idea, we really had to think for a minute on how we could pull it off. Maybe we’ve got to turn the tape over and run it backwards or really carefully spot erase a section to make room for this nutty idea between the really important backing vocals we spent three days cutting. We had to plan it, and it took several people together to learn what to do, then rehearse it, and do it with the red light on at the right time. Also, the budget kept us from going too far down that pathway. After the first record we did with Mitch [Jump! Jump! Jump!], we scheduled time to do a second record [Rangledoon] within a year. Both of these were soon after we started the band. At the last minute he couldn’t do the second record, because his band, Let’s Active, got a record deal. They were going on the road with R.E.M. So, Don Dixon [Tape Op #8] came and did our second record. At first, we were terrified of that. We were pretty irreverent. Once we knew one guy was in, that was the only guy we believed in. We didn’t trust anybody else. Dixon came in very different, but also very great in a different way. He was more of a father figure. He’d tell us, “Shut up. Get your hands off the board. Let me try and finish what I’m trying to do.” [laughter] I’m sure we were hard to work with because we were loud.
Because you were young.
We were really young. Mitch and Don were ten years older than us. We were 17 and they were 27 or 28. To us, they were old as hell! The first time we met Don he was in the middle of finishing R.E.M.’s debut record, Murmur, with Mitch. We were at the end of the day with Mitch, working on our first record. Don showed up with this 1/4-inch reel and says, “I’ve got the first mix. Let’s play it!” We stuck around and listened. They put on the mix that Dixon had just done of that song “Pilgrimage.” Compared to what we were doing, I remember our minds being blown. It sounded amazing. We were lucky to work with people like that right off the bat. It definitely did inspire me to like that side of the business as much as playing.
What was your path towards the studio, at that point?
I guess my first attempts at recording were in my house with The Pressure Boys and all of our equipment. I’d bought a Fostex X-15 in 1984.
A cassette 4-track?
Yes. I still have the receipt for it. I was psyched to get the damn thing. I would record a couple of bands, like Dex Romweber came over with his sister [Sara Romweber]. We would just use the beat-up [Shure SM]57s and [Shure SM]58s our band was practicing through. I had no concept, at that point, that I had to put the sound I wanted in front of the microphone. I thought a snare drum was a snare drum and a mic was a mic, and I just had to record the thing. Then later I’d make it sound like Rush, Aerosmith, The Cars, or whomever. I figured that out later! So, The Pressure Boys did a couple records with Don and with Mitch. Then, the last record we did, our bass player was like, “This guy in town has a small studio. Let’s go in there and do it ourselves.” It got it off to a good start, but we didn’t really know how to make a record. We ended up taking it over to this other guy, the only guy in Chapel Hill who had a 2-inch machine. He was a very good engineer, but sort of a stubborn individual. However, he did finish the record with us. A little bit after that, me and another guy started the second band I was in. We went back to that same studio. I had a good relationship with this cranky engineer. Other bands wanted to make records, and he was the go-to guy in Chapel Hill that had a 2-inch machine. People started calling me, because they knew I had been in there and knew the guy. They said, “Come help us make this record. You know this guy.” I had absolutely no idea how to produce a record, and certainly no idea how to engineer a record. But I went in there and I produced a few records by default. I got lucky, because I got to be the guy sitting on the sofa making comments. After a handful of records like that, I got frustrated in not being able to get this engineer to do what I wanted. He was good, but he was also rigid. I was thinking, “I’ve got to learn how to engineer.” I had learned how to run the equipment, from a simplistic standpoint, turning things on, punching in, and running the tape machine. But I didn’t understand the actual engineering very well. At some point, he just started walking out of the room and I had to figure it out. About that time, Wes Lachot [Tape Op #21] was moving his studio [Overdub Lane] out of where he had been forever. It actually used to be in part of the current Cat’s Cradle location in Chapel Hill; Wes’s old control room glass is still a window in there. Wes was moving into studio design and getting out of engineering. He said, “Hey, man, you can come into my room all you want.” I had the key and learned how to do it. I got lucky in the first couple of months doing sessions at Wes’s studio, Overdub Lane. I got to mix a song that Don Gehman had produced.
This 2-inch tape showed up; it had all the mix notes and had all the tracking notes. I could see how it was put together. It blew my mind. I put the reel on, aligned the tape machine, and every single fader I pulled up sounded fantastic. The kick drum was “done,” and the snare drum was “done.” The bass and the guitar tones were right on, and the vocal was right on. It was not hard to mix, because it was there already. I looked at the track sheets and it wasn’t magic what he was doing. He was using good gear, but it made me immediately aware that, “Oh, if I want this snare sound, put it on tape that way.” It’s supposed to sound that way from the beginning. It’s not a “fix it in the mix” situation. Up until that point I don’t think I knew that. From 1995 on, I knew that and it changed the way I tracked. It took me a while, but I’d heard what a fat snare drum can sound like recorded. I would listen to the one I’m recording, and I was like, “I’m not there yet.” I figured it all out, eventually.
Did you have any local mentors, or anyone else at that point?
In the beginning, I definitely picked up a lot from Steve Gronback, the guy who owned that 2-inch studio [TGS Studios] where I was taking all these bands to. And Wes would say things like, “Just because it’s a bass guitar and you think there’s too much bass, you might think you need to turn down the bass knob. That’s not necessarily the right answer. What part of the bass is the problem?”
“Get more specific.”
At the time, he had an Amek Angela console in there which did have nice EQs on it. Then pretty quickly he got lots of nice Neve and API preamps. Those made a big difference. Eventually he had these nice API consoles in there. I knew what I was doing by that point too, so I guess that’s some of it. But I got to a place where I didn’t struggle getting the sounds anymore.
It’s one thing to be able to record, put a mic up, and get a sound. But for the next step, I need to make it sound like I want it to sound. That Don Gehman reel set the bar.
Oh, yeah. It can go different ways. There are some bands that don’t want to sound like that. They don’t want to sound big and fat and full. Working with Mac McCaughan from Superchunk [Tape Op #76] over the years was always interesting. I’ve done records with him since ‘95. He was the guy who helped me talk Wes into getting a 2-inch tape machine at Overdub. Back in the day, it was hard to get Mac to let me mix with much of a stereo spread. He didn’t want it to be big, loud, powerful, and wide. That changed a lot over the years. Gradually, as I worked with him, the records got wider and bigger-sounding. Then there are some bands who want to make the next U2 record. My own bands were always trying to go against the grain. By the time I started producing records though, a lot of the bands I was working with were trying hard to make commercial records and making big league sounding records. That was a problem, if you had a drummer in the band who was not very good.
I knew what I was trying to make, and what they were capable of, and it was tough. Especially when we were tracking on tape. I remember, with a lot of bands, where I’d just be happy they made it through the song without dropping their sticks.
“A full take! Awesome.” You’re still at Overdub Lane, right?
Yes and no. What you don’t know about me is when COVID hit, Wes closed the studio temporarily. It’s open again now, but at that point he closed it down. He said, “Nobody in there.” So, COVID hit. The studio closed. And I was in debt. I had gotten into aviation in my twenties and gotten my pilot’s license. I love aviation, and I always wanted to get back into it in some way. I had started a side drone business in 2016, doing aerial imaging and mapping and civil engineer-type aerial work. That led me to a bunch of freelance work with a drone startup company based in Virginia Beach, VA. In the middle of COVID they offered me a pretty killer job as the director of their testing department. It was a pretty fantastic opportunity, and I was lucky to be offered the job. I’ve been doing that for a living lately. Overdub Lane is a fantastic place, and Wes and I are still on great terms. But I had to make some income and move forward with my life. I’ve been traveling a lot helping to set up residential drone delivery hubs where we’re delivering from Walmarts to peoples’ homes with drones.
Every day I walk into this place and there are half a dozen new people they’ve hired. I’m in the middle of that whirlwind right now. But you’re never out of the music business. I’ve had lots of work offered that I couldn’t do because of the time it would take. What I love is getting in the room with people and working through problems, being a cheerleader for everybody, and helping figure out the best way to do everything. It got to where there were so few projects I got to work on that were like that. They were all tracking drums and sending drums to some other place. Or someone’s sending me drums, a guy’s cutting 4,000 takes of a solo, and no one’s ever even editing it or finishing it. I’m trying not to sound jaded. I mean, whatever method people use to get there is cool. But it wasn’t as fun for me to make records like that. It all comes down to great songs. I’d much rather spend time helping make the song great. Sometimes that is more about musical ideas; either arrangement ideas, or a lyric ideas.
If I can get creative people to make sure they’re considering those aspects, it’s nice. A lot of folks can be pretty tied to whatever they come in the door with. I don’t want to beat anybody up. It’s their record. I want them to love the record. But if I see something that will make the record better, and I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot, I’ll try to figure out a way to get that idea in front of them and try to make it happen. At least to hear the idea. I don’t care if I had the idea. It’s not about my victory. It’s a victory for the song. As a producer, we have to learn dynamically how to work with the people, on any given day, and figure out which person is driving. Set the environment.
A lot of recording is about managing people. I was telling my wife the other day that I’m always highly aware of the quietest person in the room.
Absolutely. They’re probably holding in some magical thing. The Connells are like that. A huge thing I was trying to do with them was make sure that everybody in the band got to say and try all their ideas. I don’t think that was something that most of them had gotten a chance to do as much of. Of course, they also hadn’t made a record in quite a long time. Everybody in that band has cool ideas, and sometimes they have great ideas. But, since they’ve been a band for a thousand years, they’re used to getting shut down. Either voted out or never getting a chance to try an idea.
That’s a definite “band”. You’ve got Mike Connell, the main songwriter, his brother David on bass, and Doug MacMillan, the singer, who have always been in the band. And Doug sings Mike’s songs.
Yeah. It’ll stress Mike out, because he knows how he wants it. He also sings a lot more on this record.
He’s got a great voice.
That is hard for anyone to watch the other guy sing his lyrics, but Mike also believes in Doug. It’s more of a cheerleading session, to find that magic thing. Doug would ramp up to a place where he was delivering some magic takes. Mike was the same way with his own singing, but he was more intimidated about singing. He has a vulnerability in his voice that can be really useful. David has a million great ideas. In the middle of a session with those guys, there’s a lot going on at once. Everybody’s got ideas, and everybody’s talking. They started the record with Mitch Easter. Mitch did the rhythm tracks for maybe six songs. For whatever reason, they never went back over there. It was a little bit farther down the road for them to drive I suppose.
Right, it’s further away.
That’s how I ended up in it too, because their drummer now, Rob [Ladd], was the drummer in the Pressure Boys. Rob and I have known each other forever. Rob had moved out to L.A. and became this huge L.A. session guy. Rob played drums on Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” He played with Meredith Brooks, Susanna Hoffs, and Wilson Phillips. Then he ended up as Don Henley’s [Eagles] drummer. He got disillusioned with the music business and moved back to North Carolina. The Connells needed a drummer and he’s been playing with them for six years or more.
That’s so funny.
I work with him a lot on sessions. I knew The Connells guys, but not intimately. They came over with those tracks and then we added another six or seven. We spent two more years finishing the record. It would be a four or five-hour session every month. Getting those dudes in one room was tough. Everybody’s there, and the first hour and a half is everybody telling jokes and going, “What have you been doing the last month?” I’m like, “We’ve got to get some damn vocals on tape. How about we get Doug in there?” Each one of those sessions, we’d come away with one good part for a song. A lot of lyrics got changed, and parts got changed; for the better to be honest. They’re busy guys, with full-time day jobs. We did track the band together for the basic tracks the way you’d normally track a band. There’s one song called “Song for Duncan” that’s totally live. I think there is one great and freaky Mike Ayers guitar overdub, actually. The bass player on that was actually Robert [Sledge] from Ben Folds Five. David couldn’t make that session. He was out of the country, or something. He was like, “Oh, cool; let Robert do it.”
You did quite a bit of work with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. How did that relationship start out?
Well, there were two different trumpet players in the Squirrel Nut Zippers at different times. Stacy [Guess] and a guy named Je [Widenhouse]. Stacy and Je were both in the Pressure Boys. They were both also in the band I was in after that, The Sex Police, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. [James] “Jimbo” [Mathus] and Katharine [Whalen], the husband and wife that were in the band, were people I knew. Everybody had day jobs at the same restaurants or Kinkos. The Zippers did a lot of work with Brian Paulson [Tape Op #78], and then they went down to work with Mike Napolitano in New Orleans and fell in love with him. Separately, I had worked with them since I lived close to them. I ended up living almost next door to Jim and Katharine. At that point, we all lived way out in the country. They started coming to Overdub Lane a bunch because it was convenient. Katharine and I got along well when tracking vocals. I would spend a lot of time with her getting a good vocal. Some people are intimidated working with singers, because it’s personal to tell someone that they’re not singing well or could sing better. We have to have their trust, in order for them not to be insulted and for them to want us to tell them where they might do better. When I can forge that relationship with a singer, it’s great. I forged that with all of them; with Jim and Katharine especially. They wanted me to get involved with the Zippers. For their next record, I went down to New Orleans; me and Mike worked together on their fourth [Christmas Caravan] and fifth [Bedlam Ballroom] records.
And how did the Meat Puppets come about?
I did a bunch of work with The Meat Puppets for many years. I was doing this record with a band called Hobex, with this talented guy named Greg Humphreys. Greg was in Dillon Fence, which was a big band in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Chapel Hill. They were on Mammoth Records. Hootie & the Blowfish always said that Dillon Fence was their favorite band. Hobex got a record deal with London Records. So, I got to make their record [Back in the 90s] for London Records. At one point, the label sent us plane tickets to fly to New York and have a meeting. I felt like we were in trouble. [laughter] We flew to New York and had this meeting, which was so weird. We spent a day sitting in a couple of guys’ offices, listening to records. Nothing was really ever said. I still don’t understand to this day why we were sent to New York. But I was sitting in the A&R guy’s office, and on his desk he had a bunch of Meat Puppets cassette tapes. I said, “What are all these Meat Puppets tapes?” He said, “Oh, they’re on our label. I’m the guy that deals with them.” I said, “Man, I love the Meat Puppets. I love Curt [Kirkwood]’s voice.” He stopped what he was doing and said, “What?” I said, “He has the coolest voice.” He was like, “You love Curt’s voice?” “Yeah, he’s got a really unique voice. It’s cool.” He said, “Would you want to mix some of their music?” I was like, “Fucking-A, yeah!” They were in the middle of trying to finish a record. He said, “Yeah, we’re working with this guy named Dave Jerden [Tape Op #86], and we’re not happy with it.” I’m like, “What? He’s the king! He’s one of my favorite producers!” He said, “Come up here to Sony Studios. I’ve got three songs I want you to mix.” I came back a few weeks later and mixed these three songs. Anyway, it turns out everybody dug them. The next thing I knew, I was in Texas. We recorded 25 songs together, or more. I must have mixed 40 or 50 songs for them, in addition to the ones I’d already recorded. They had all these songs. They had bought a bunch of ADATs, set them up in their practice space, and recorded a ton of songs. It was kind of rough, but it was musical. I mixed a ton of that, as well as a bunch of other stuff. They had also recently been working with the guy from the Butthole Surfers.
Paul Leary [Tape Op #94]?
Yeah, Paul Leary, because Paul and Curt are super great friends. A record called Golden Lies came out, where Paul did two tracks, and I did most of the rest. Then I mixed three or four more records for them, because Curt and I got along well. I loved working with them. I got to spend an inordinate amount of time traveling around with those guys. When we made records, we did not spend a lot of time tracking. There would be a lot of sitting around, chilling, getting ready, talking, getting amped up, and plenty of cutting up. Then, when it was time to record, it was like, “All right! You got the mic set?” I learned how to be prepared for anything.
To be ready?
Yes, because here it comes! It came, and they’d nail it. There were not usually second takes of anything. Curt plays great. Fantastic guitar player. He understands the studio, too. Live he’s going after some wild, long, crazy jams. But in the studio, he understands it’s a little different. He plays for the track. It was quite an experience to watch him ramp up. Every couple years I’d get a call, and it would be from either Curt or their manager. “We’ve got a record, but we’re not happy with the mixes. You got time to do one?”
Do you have any real regular clients at this point; people who do a record every couple years?
Yeah a few, like Tift Merritt. I’m always doing something with her every, now and then, because she’s close by. Sam Beam [Iron & Wine] also lives nearby. He’ll pop in. He did something recently that I couldn’t do because I was busy. I’ve helped mix Chris Stamey a lot, because he always wants another opinion.
That’s pretty interesting.
He’s always working on something. There are some pretty great jazz artists, like John Brown, a fantastic bass player. And Superchunk is always doing something. I’ve been doing sessions for Superchunk for over 25 years, at this point. Good grief! [laughter] The most recent thing I’ve done with them was an acoustic version of their Foolish album [Acoustic Foolish].
The whole record, just acoustic, as a 25-year anniversary.
I imagine now, with your career shift, you’ve got to be pretty selective. What mix projects pique your interest?
Things that are exciting. I would always find mixing my own projects that I recorded was generally easier, because I’ve already got it in the neighborhood of what I want it to be. I do like mixing, but when people send tracks to mix, quite often it’s messy. Sometimes it’s really rough. It might even be a pretty big artist, and I’m surprised by how janky it sounds. They’re like, “Hey man, make it great.” It’s definitely tricky if they don’t even realize that it’s this rough. I’m trying to satisfy myself, as well as making sure the artist and the label are cool with it too. It forces us to be creative. It makes me try different techniques when I’m mixing somebody else’s tracks. When someone hands me a rough mix, I’ve got to get a vibe from that and at least understand what was going on in their mind. Even if it’s a shitty rough mix, it’s what they’re used to. If it’s not a good mix, and I need it to be different than that, then I’ve got to figure out how to transition into that different sounding mix without making people feel like I messed it up. Sometimes I find that they don’t even want to change it that much from the rough mixes. They want that sound. Sometimes we can totally miss that, as mix engineers. I’ve had that happen before, when a band sends tracks that have, for example, two very distinctive guitar parts and I misinterpret which part is the foundation of the track. They’re like, “What? This is all wrong!” You have to use your intuition and have plenty of confidence, but you also have to be open to other ways of looking at things. There’s never just one right way to do something.