Feature Photo: Kenny Siegal Photographed by Rayon Richards
One of the thoughts I push back on is when people say "there's only one way" to making records.
Right. It's part of our jobs, as we get older, to stay open. To remain creative. The more I live, the more I actively work to make sure that I don't close up. It's one of the reasons that I play music so much, and I continue to write songs. Producing is a skill for me, and so is engineering, but playing and writing music is a quest. I have to stay on it and keep doing it, and there’re so many benefits to that.
Some artists are slow to release albums and others churn records out.
I've been through prolific phases in my lifetime, where I felt I didn't have time to perfect anything. I used to say to myself when I was younger, "One of these days it will slow down, I'll look back, and I'll maybe work on the craft a little bit more." It took a long time for me to slow down. I'm going to be 50, and we started a family, had two kids, and their energy was so intense that I had to slow down just to be a parent.
Yeah. I never had kids, partly because of what I was doing.
In some ways it feels like sometimes I'm trying to do the impossible. My wife is an amazing songwriter and musician, and so music is very real in our home. The kids now are playing, and it's incredible that it didn't skip a generation. They love it. Music is the language at home.
I would imagine. Is the studio connected to your house?
I'm here at Old Soul in Catskill, and this is a 3,500 square foot brick building built in 1855. There are five bedrooms here, but we don't live here. We lived here when our first daughter was born, but it became evident pretty quickly that it was not possible to live in the studio. Bands travel here, and they come here from the city a lot and they stay here and record. Mixing all that with family was not possible!
No, I can't imagine! [laughter]
We live about 20 minutes from here. We have a small house, and we have a little shack on the property that we turned into a studio. I needed instruments where our family was. We call it "Little Soul." It's got enough cool shit in it to make good recordings. If somebody else is working or making a record at Old Soul, I can still be creative there.
Did that come in handy during the early pandemic?
The pandemic and the shutdown had forced me to embrace remote working. On the new Hunk record [HUNK II], we worked with Jack Douglas and Jay Messina [both in Tape Op #90]. They mixed the record. It was an incredible creative experience for me and the band. I had to prep the tracks, essentially pre-mixing, and what I realized quickly was that the more work I did before I sent them the files, the better it was going to go. It was an interesting process, especially with the way I work. It's almost like two separate minds. When I'm creating, I don't want to stop to be organized. I find that to be a separate part of my brain. I like to work fast, with a lot of energy. I try to get the best out of everybody who's involved, including myself as a player. With that in mind, I had to do the comping, the muting schemes, and consolidating files. I was making sure the levels were communicating in the way where the energy rises, where the energy dips. I didn't leave it to Jack and Jay to do that. We're paying them by the hour, and these songs got expensive. And as much as I love and respect their work, we still would have tweaks and revisions. It was a creative process. After the first song was when I found that the more work I'd do before I sent it to them, the smoother this was going to go. It got easier. It was great to work with Jack and Jay. Those guys were inspiring. I was getting a kick out of what their work meant to me as a music lover. Every time they would send me a new mix, it would sound even better. I couldn't remember a time when I'd sent music out to somebody and was so pleased with what was being sent back to me. It was such a pleasure.
That's why you hired them!
The other thing that's funny is that when the music's done, we don't remember any of this shit!
I don't remember any of the emails back and forth or trying to figure out what to do. All that has disappeared, and we're left with the songs. It's better for your mental health to make decisions, commit, and move on. I've put a lot of thought into this. It's like developing a muscle specifically to finish projects. A lot of people are not well-versed in it. You're referring to an aspect of the process where people are indecisive or uncertain; that space of uncertainty is like purgatory to me. I don't like to remain there for long.
People ask me, “How do you know when a mix is done?” Well, I feel it.
Right. Trust has a lot to do with this. If I'm working with people I've never met, and they don't know me well, this gets into psychology. Making music with people and producing; there's a certain psychology to it. Sometimes with people I need to ask, "What's the goal? What do you expect of this song?" Maybe it's communicating clearly to me as the listener. Some people can get hung up, and they get stuck. I tend not to work with those people very much, but they do exist. We can mix the same song 500 different ways. It helps if we're working with people whose vision is understood, and if they don't have a vision, they should let us have our vision.
That's why a person may choose a different producer for different records.
Yeah. Different producers bring different aspects out of people. I've been blessed over the years to collaborate with some amazing people. I can listen to music I recorded with Bryce Goggin [Tape Op #40] back in the '90s at Baby Monster Studios. I listen to it now and still love it. Bryce is somebody I've done a lot of inspiring work with. I've done work that I love with Tom Schick [#132], and I've also worked with Joe Blaney. There are recordings I've done with Joe where the music just jumps out of the speakers, and I'm proud to hear it.
Those three are such quintessential engineers.
It's true. They bring a lot to the process, in that regard. When I know that somebody has got all the sonic stuff covered, then I tell myself that I can now concentrate on trying to be the best artist that I can be, because I know it's going to sound good.
Did you ever have any bad experiences when you first started trying to record your own music?
I definitely did. Early on, there was one guy that we worked with that liked to smoke a lot of weed, which is usually totally cool, but in this case we all felt it got in the way of the work.
It can work for some people!
I don't judge, but I do believe that it created some sort of barrier for us. You get into the studio, and to reach these spiritual highs and to expose yourself creatively and be as free as you can be, I want to believe that the people I'm working with are “there” with me. There's that sense of trust. Looking back, I think this one record might have come out better if the producer wasn't stoned the whole time. [laughs] But you live and you learn. On the upside, some of the negative experiences helped me to realize how to work "right." Through this, I developed my philosophy of what I need when I'm working. It also helped me to realize that I should become a good producer in my own right. Even the negative experiences were valuable. It was an important experience. Sometimes we need to work in ways that are not right to figure out how to work correctly. I guess it comes down to energy. Staying with positive energy is the way to go forward.
Yeah. I totally concur.
When I was younger, I would party. I wouldn't ever judge anyone for partying. However, working on music was a sacred thing to me. It always was, and it remains that way. It's something that is almost hard to express. As an artist, I've got to work with people who I know, love, and trust and that I feel I can be at my best around. Who will push me to reach higher creative heights and will challenge me. I'm lucky that when I need to work with outside people that I have a shortlist of professionals I can call who are pretty fucking great to work with.
When you're working on your own music, like Johnny Society, do you produce yourself?
I definitely produce it, but I welcome co-production. I'll bring it to Bryce or Joe Blaney. Sometimes Matthew Cullen records our foundational tracks. I see the power in collaboration. When you put good teams together, you can end up with results that are way beyond what you could have done on your own. The other core members of Johnny Society, Brian Geltner and my wife Gwen, also contribute so much creatively. I love their input; but after our sessions many hours of grunt work go in on my own, hence I think of myself as the main producer. Someone's got to see the work all the way through.
Yeah. Sometimes there's a crazy myth that as producers we're always going to have 100 percent of the direction mapped out.
That's weird. It defies the idea of what is actually happening. To get music done, you're diving into some mysterious process. That's why I love to do it, and why I still continue to do it. It'd be boring to know exactly what it will be. You start something and usually it becomes something completely different than what you planned. Mistakes sometimes are the most fun things to listen to. I want to love this when it's done, so my desire to really love what I'm listening to, and what I'm working on, is what I'm wrestling with the whole time that I'm working. That's where the conflict is. You try to drop a song into the speakers, and you ask yourself if it's it speaking to you the way that you believe it can. In some cases it is, and you're lucky. If it's not, then you have to figure out, "What can I do to make this speak more?" Try not to get in your own way. Try to be free. Try to work with chaos and try to get parts to sound like they're alive.
I always tell people that it's not done until it's mastered, and even then, maybe it's not done.
That's a good point. I'm not afraid to say, "Okay, this version is good, but I think there's a better version in us." I've done that. My band works hard, and I'm thankful that they put up with my standards. They have high standards too. My wife, Gwen, makes music under the name Blueberry, and she's got such beautiful songs. She has a vision that is so unique to her. We work on that together. The drummer in Johnny Society, Brian Geltner, is a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist who I've been making music with since I was a little kid. He has high standards. He has opinions. When you have a band it's like a family. You're working with everybody's sensibilities, trying to get everybody to be excited about the results, and it's challenging, but we get there.
I was recently on some sessions with a couple of artists that go back to my basement studio days 28 years ago. Many parts of it just fell into place.
That's a beautiful thing. I believe in that. Chemistry is really important, and intense in that way. People who did not see each other for 20 years, and then suddenly they’ll be playing and linked together. It's unbelievable! Sometimes it can get lost in the session world, but I could say that around here, in upstate New York where I'm working, I'm lucky to be surrounded by such great people. I'm constantly bringing people in to work here on different projects. I can't think of a session that hasn't been inspiring in years here.
How does work come to you?
The first thing I would say is that I realized years ago that to survive in this business, you have to [be able to] do everything. When I was younger, I told myself if I'm going to try to make something of Johnny Society, I'm just going to do Johnny Society and I'm not going to do anything else. That served me for a while. But all of that inevitably led to me buying this building in Catskill and starting Old Soul. The studio was the perfect creation, because it is a place to concentrate. It's like a laboratory, and it's a place to execute visions. Because I have the studio, some people reach out to me because they just want to work at the studio. They don't give a shit about my ideas. [laughs] So, sometimes I'll just be an engineer. Some people reach out to me because they heard Johnny Society's music, and they want me to produce their songs. In that situation, I just so happen to have a studio and we can get work done. Some people reach out to me because they want me to play guitar. Sometimes I get called for songwriting. I have to keep an open mind and tell myself, "If I can be creative and making a living, I'm very lucky."
It's important that we look at it that way. It is a multitude of different jobs to offer.
When I used to go out on the road with Johnny Society, I used to bump into bands, and I'd say to myself, "I could produce them. I would love to make a record with them." The feeling would be so fiery, so passionate, and so real that it would overtake my state of mind. I would become engulfed in this feeling. This is why Old Soul was the perfect creation. It alleviated a certain [amount of] searching – a lot of unknown elements were suddenly out of the picture. I have the building, and, if we have an idea, we can execute it.
When did you get the building and this space up and running?
In 2001. I was 28 years old at the time. I wanted to buy a shack in the woods; a small space that I could call my studio. I had a publishing deal, and instead of living off of that money over a year, I took that advance, found this building, and I put the money down. Then I had no fucking income. [laughs] I had the keys to this building, and I had no money left. At that point, I told everybody I knew in New York, "I just bought this building. Come up and I'll produce or play on your music. I'll do it for cheap." That's how I built this place up early on. Now it's 20 years and over 110 records later.
Were you living in New York City before?
We were living in Brooklyn. I used to live in Dumbo in 1995. It was very different than it is now. Larry, we were the only space in that J Street building, in the basement there. My old friend, Chris Rael, found this crazy, lone work space, and we rented it to use as our studio. Then the Hasidim, who owned the whole area, saw that it was working for us, and they built up all the spaces around us. All of a sudden, they were renting to tons of people. There were death metal bands around us. It started out good, then suddenly I found I couldn't concentrate. I had a session with one of my heroes, who was a friend of mine. He passed away. It was a Johnny Society session and Chris Whitley came down to play guitar on some of our music. There was a death metal band rehearsing down the hall, and I remember saying to myself, "That's it! I'm fucking changing this scene." I started thinking about finding a space outside the city. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and I moved out of the city. A local real estate agent brought me to Old Soul. It was the first place she brought me to. When I came into the space, I was silent. I knew something heavy was going to happen. I bought the building, and I'm so glad I did. Not that it's been easy. We've been through many ups and downs and slow periods and times where I was worried if I could keep it going, but we always managed to make it work.
One of the aspects that people often don't understand is that it's not about putting gear in a room, but about having some larger scene based around it that generates something else outside of the room and the gear.
Oh, totally man. I do think that there are many people that don't understand what you just said. The gear is there to help us record our musical visions. Yes, gear matters. But it does not matter more than instruments, your desire to express yourself and to be creative, and to get something going musically with your friends. My roots were about playing, writing, and being creative. Inevitably I had to own my own space, and I lucked out by getting Old Soul. It gets into taking care of yourself. Music is about energy. We have to have energy to give, right? In other words, we get a gift, and we have to honor our gift. Part of that is taking care of your person and yourself. You have to be in a good state of mind.
When your body's not at 100 percent everything is harder.
With every artist that I work with, I say to them, "When we have to do vocals, you have to sleep. You have to get rest." It's taxing and quite physical to sing. We used to tour with Cheap Trick, and we couldn't believe the way that it sounded when Robin Zander was warming up his vocals. He's got such an incredible voice. I asked, "Robin, how do you do that?" He said, "It's just a muscle!" It was a workout for him to get ready to sing those sets. As I developed more as a singer, I also realized singing is like putting your life force into it. It's a very important aspect of making records. The voice is what most people are listening to.
I hate if we haven't started getting to vocals early on a project and it's all piled up to do at the end.
I would say this to anyone who's producing music all the time. Get a rough vocal down early!
Oh, 100 percent.
If the singer's not going to sing live, if they're not going to go for it live, then right away after you get what is considered the basics, put the vocal down. The main thing that I've realized over the years is that the vocal informs the rest of the production decisions. I think about the vocals, and I always think about tempo. If the tempo is too slow it could do a great disservice to the material and to the song. Getting that tempo right is so important. A good trick is finding the original songwriting – like a voice memo or a cassette. When they sat and wrote it, what was the original idea? That's a telling, useful thing. Ask the main songwriter, "Play the song for me as if no one's ever heard it before. How does it go?" At the end of the day, this just gets into communication. They're communicating a song to somebody. I do think people get fatigued in the studio and they lose perspective. That could be the enemy, and it can do a lot of damage.
Like if the process of "building" the record becomes more important than the results.
Yeah. If you're working with people who are really insightful and they're really good, they may have some amazing, unexpected views. I believe in pre-production. In pre-production rehearsals we'll turn songs upside-down. My friend Nick [Kinsey] has a studio called The Chicken Shack. He's a drummer who plays with Elvis Perkins. Sometimes he will say, "Let's completely change the groove and do a whole other take on it." Jared Samuel will come in and play keyboards, and sometimes he will have a reaction where, "This song is great, but we should try a completely different take on the whole thing." Jesse Murphy is an amazing bass player who is also a producer and songwriter, and he'll do the same. And I, as a producer, I welcome this.
But there are also times when I have to say, "Nope, but thanks for the idea."
Exactly. I use my gut for that. I welcome any idea, but I don't accept every idea.
There's a bluntness that we all need to carry, but also with a sensitiveness beforehand.
That gets back to trust. The people I work with, I tend to feel that I have good relationships with. We trust each other. They've seen me dig deep and I'm not afraid to be wrong. I'm not afraid to fall on my face. That's what the studio is there for. I don't dismiss my own crazy ideas. When they come, I honor them.
Are there engineers in the area that work in your place too?
The studio is a little idiosyncratic. It's not really a commercial studio, but it's pretty simple to work there. I have Old Soul-affiliated engineers who know the place. They've been part of good sessions here. Matthew Cullen lives a couple of blocks away. He works here all the time. Tyler Wood's also in the area; a talented mixer and an amazing musician. There are people I can call who are good. They know what it's like here, and how to be productive. I want people to come through here and be serious. We do ten-hour sessions. I don't like to go longer than that.
You've alluded to a life/work balance.
In order to have a proper reference point for our work we have to continue to live, and we have to continue to keep challenging ourselves and striving in other areas of life. Music sounds better when we have some life force to resonate with. If you're too tunnel visioned in the studio you can lose your way, or lose your perspective as to why music is even fucking good in the first place.
It's certainly true of songwriting.
My father passed away a year ago. I was sad; experiencing anguish and grieving. I knew that I was off, and I wasn't living life, whether it was depression or just the grieving process. I sat down at the piano, I wrote a song, and I got the whole, complete feeling, all of it, out in this song. The song gave me my life back. After I wrote the song, I felt so much better. I felt that I had said exactly what I needed to say about my feelings about grieving. To me, that alchemical process of taking this pain and turning it into something beautiful is the essence of why I write music and why I always have.
So much music is fascinating to us in its sadness.
It offers something to us listeners. It's like a service to the people.
"You are not alone."
Yes. You get into these other areas of why music exists and the power of it, the healing qualities. Music therapy, and the deeper meanings of what music can do, is something I've been considering. It involves a lot of school, so I don't know that I'm going to ever do it. I did a project years ago that Sam Cohen [Tape Op #151] was involved in, playing some pedal steel. It was with Yodelin' Mickey Holt, who was in his seventies. I met him in a music store. I overheard him singing, and I couldn't believe how beautiful his voice was. After he was done, I said, "Who are you, man? And where can I get one of your records?" He said, "I never made a record!" I said, "You're going to make a record now." He said, "Kenny, I can't remember what I ate for breakfast, but all the songs are still in my head." He had Parkinson's disease.
Oh, shit. Yeah, my dad had that.
I’m sorry to hear that. At the time I met Mickey, he was struggling with everything, but the last thing to go was his ability to play and sing. He remembered the lyrics, and we made this amazing record. To this day, his family still sends me notes and thanks us for this music. To me, that was music therapy. It was one of the most meaningful projects I’ve ever worked on.
Sometimes there's a greater calling to this than we anticipated when we began.
Researching you, I could not put some of the dots together on your life. How in the world did you end up on a Tears For Fears record [Everybody Loves a Happy Ending]?
An old friend of mine, Charlton Pettus, has been in the band for 22 years now. He and I have co-written a lot of music together. He worked on some of Hunk's first album [Hunk]. We continue to stay in touch, and we've worked together a lot over the years. At some point when they were making that record, Charlton said, "Can you and Brian [Geltner] do some parts on a couple of songs?" He knew that if he asked me to do something, that I would work really hard on it. They sent us a couple of songs. It was a click track, a couple of acoustic guitars, and some vocals. We got it early in the development of the tracks. It was really fun to work on.
Did you get any guidance?
He knew he could just let us go nuts. I don't believe there was anything strict. His producer idea was, "Get Geltner's drums and get some of Kenny's guitar playing," and it might have been that simple. We worked hard to make sure that we got good-feeling parts. I remember playing my Les Paul through the analog delay from MXR  through a Fender Vibroverb. It was pretty quick, and pretty simple.
I interviewed Roland [Orzabal, Tape Op #147], and it was fascinating to talk to him.
I'm in touch with him, every once in a while. Actually, we did some here at Old Soul. Then we went out to California, and we all sang some backing vocals. That's when I met Roland. We used to see Curt [Smith] all the time, because he used to be down at the studio in Dumbo working with Charlton back in the day.
I also listened to Chris Whitley [& The Bastard Club]'s Reiter In. That record's wild.
After making that record, Chris said to me that it was the most fun he'd ever had in the studio. At that time in his life, he was struggling. He wasn't well. Each day we would get a window of time when Chris was feeling well enough to work, and that's when we'd record. He was going through something pretty intense. He was an old friend of ours. I just wanted to work with him as best as I could. When he asked me to produce a record for him, I thought he was going to show up with a bunch of songs, like the Chris Whitley records that I had heard. When he showed up, he didn't have anything.
He said, "All right, Kenny, what are we going to do?" It was a pretty crazy position to be put in. I started writing on the spot. We started jamming and coming up with ideas. Some of that is on the record. I'd come up with a riff and musical direction, and he would come up with some poetry. We had this nice song "All Beauty Taken From You in This Life Remains Forever." It's a great message and a great song. It's really loose. On that record, Chris wanted to do what other studio experiences never let him do. He sang lead vocals with no headphones, right here, with the studio speakers going. When you listen to it, you hear a sense of it being a little more lo-fi, and it's because of crazy decisions like that. But man, it was fun to work on. It felt like we were capturing some special performances together.
I think you did.
Thank you for saying that. We were actually gearing up to make another Bastard Club record, but then Chris passed away.
Yeah, it's sad. Do you stockpile song ideas?
Sometimes I'll get a question like, "I need a song for…" and something will brew in me. I'll think, "What would be good?" It could be a weird song from ten years ago. It's a lifelong process of trying to organize ideas and a musical vision. I've got songs that I love, and for one reason or another I haven't seen them completely through. They're alive in my mind. Lately I've been making music with Ron English, who's a pop art artist, like a modern day Andy Warhol. He's created an alternate world called Delusionville. He's a lyricist, and loves to make music, so he's been sending me some lyrics. That's something I've been having a lot of fun with. It hits a certain aspect of my mind, and it's fun to create songs with somebody else's lyrics.
There are probably good exercises all around, different starting points or intent.
Absolutely. There's always something to learn. On my phone I have over a thousand song ideas. It's so important to take that extra step and document it, because you don't know when it's going to come in handy. These song ideas are little gifts.
I was just at John Baccigaluppi's Panoramic House last month. I know you've worked there.
I don't think I've ever been in a more beautiful environment to make music. It's an incredible view of the ocean. Unbelievable.
What were you working on out there?
I made some music with Langhorne Slim. We've worked on a few records together. The first record we made at Old Soul was called The Way We Move. It was the most commercially successful thing I've ever worked on. The second record [The Spirit Moves] we went down to Nashville and worked at [Andrija Tokic's] The Bomb Shelter [Tape Op #111].
Oh yeah, I've been there.
We did some good work there. At Panoramic we recorded a bunch of material, and that also got released. Then we made some music at Dockside [Studio] in [Maurice,] Louisiana, which has not been released yet, but hopefully will be soon.
You went to some cool places!
Yeah, we even worked on the island of Hydra [Greece] at a place called The Old Carpet Factory, which was an incredible experience. It's always good to get out of your element. I get a kick out of it. Sometimes I think I do my best work here, but I don't know. I pride myself on being able to work anywhere. I can always access the creative flow. Where do you feel you do the best work?
It's so much easier to work in my place! But I think I focus the same wherever I am.
It took me a long time to figure out this thing that we're talking about. Mainly what I concluded is how to finish projects, and where can I get a certain equilibrium and a sense of balance. That balance comes from being at Old Soul. I can venture out and get great performances, but I like to finish music here.
I feel the same way. Most projects where I tracked and produced elsewhere, I finished at Jackpot! [Recording Studio, Portland, Oregon].
That's a valuable little bit of information there. At the end of the day, people are only going to hear this end result. The end result matters. Knowing where we can get the best results as producers or mixers, that's an important thing.
Another part of that is that the more I mix, and the better I get at mixing, the more I'm going to push to track with better intent. "Why was that so hard to mix? Well, I fucked up. That's why."
That's a great point. You know who told me exactly what you're saying now? Henry Hirsch [Tape Op #56]. I've done a little bit of work with him, but not much. He said if a song is well-produced and recorded, then when you push the faders up to unity it should sound great. It challenged a lot of what I had been doing before. It's not unlike what we were talking about with pre-mixing. Getting your shit together [laughs] and making sure that you're recording what you want to hear involves a lot of vision and commitment. You make up your mind.