I don't know anything about your origins!
I was born in Memphis, but my younger years were in Miami. Then I moved to L.A. for junior high and high school. My teenage years in Los Angeles was when the music started happening for me. I got into guitar when I was ten. While I was in high school, I was in various bands. I always enjoyed the studio side when we had the opportunity to go in and make some recordings. That was my favorite part. I was inspired by Wire [Tape Op #88] and the Cocteau Twins [#50]. I play a bunch of instruments, but guitar's my main instrument. You can probably imagine the effects pedals and racks that I had for my guitar back then! [laughter]
Right. Looking for the sound.
Exactly. Trying to emulate all that. Going into the studio was always cool, because we had a little more space to experiment with and get interesting sounds. I always enjoyed that. I moved up to San Francisco when I was about 24, and I got an internship at a studio called Earwax Productions. I hassled those guys for months for an internship, and finally I called at the right time, and one of the owners, Barney Jones, answered the phone. He said, "We don't have any openings, but come down. I can show you the studio." He showed it to me and said, "There you go, that's the studio." That was it! A couple months later I kept hammering him, and he finally said, "All right, we'll give you an internship. It's unpaid. You'll be getting burritos, filing, and handing faxes to people." I was like, "Great, I'll do it!"
Did you pick that studio in particular for a reason?
Before I moved, I had heard about it. It seemed like a cool, cutting-edge studio. They were also doing a lot with tech at the time that was interesting to me, like video games, museum kiosks, as well as commercials. They rented several rooms in Hyde Street Studios. I was trying to figure out what to do at that time. I wanted to do music, but I didn't know how… "How do I make a living, pay rent, and all that, with music?" I thought maybe I could do music for video games. They were doing museum installations and interesting projects. With the internship, I was able to go in and use the rooms if no one was in. That was helpful and educational for me. It was helpful to see what it sounds like if you blow up the input of an [Eventide] H3000. It's cool! Run drums through that. I got to try these experiments. Some ended up being things that I still use to this day. Eventually, I became a staff engineer at Earwax, working on a lot of cool projects, and learning how to work fast. They were getting into things like [Digidesign] Sound Tools, Sound Designer, Pro Tools, and SampleCell; all the newer stuff at the time. I was up on all of that right as it was coming out. It was good timing for me.
A lot of it was being developed just south of San Francisco.
Exactly. These guys had connections with Digidesign (or, later, Avid), and with some of the early plug-in manufacturers. This was all new territory. Because it was a cutting-edge studio, these companies were giving the software to the studio to try it out. Beta testing it, in a way. Then I would go home and work on my own music, applying what I had been learning at the studio. A few years into that, my friend, Justin Meldal-Johnsen [Tape Op #93], who I was in a band with in L.A. for many years, was playing bass with Beck. He had played Beck some music that I was working on. It was some mangled bossa nova thing I had done with my five samplers [Roland S-550, E-mu e6400, E-mu e4XT, Kurzweil K2000, and E-mu SP 1200]. It was insanity what I had going on. Beck was like, "Tell Tony to come down and let's work on some tunes." I jumped in my car with a crate of records and came down to try some things out with Beck in the studio. We ended up working for a day on a song. We built up a track around a sample I found off a Boney M. record, "Nightflight to Venus" that I brought. We did a little thing with that that was super cool. He said, "Hey man, can you come back tomorrow? I need to work on these lyrics, and we'll record vocals tomorrow afternoon." I came back the next day, and we cut the vocals in probably an hour with a [Shure] SM58 and Beck on the couch. I was like, "That was quick. Should we start another song?" We got something else going, and he said, "Hey, can you come back tomorrow? I need to finish the lyrics and we'll cut the vocal." It basically kept going like that, and then it turned into a year-long project.
These Beck sessions were at his home?
Yeah. It turned into this whole thing. That's how my involvement with [Beck's] Midnite Vultures came about. I was having to return so much that I ended up moving back to L.A. When that record came out, it got a lot of attention. It got nominated for two Grammys, and a lot of people seemed to like it. That helped me get the gig with that French band, Air [#39], to work on 10 000 Hz Legend. That was through the drummer of that band who was a friend of mine, Brian Reitzell [#107], who was their drummer at the time. He was working on a project that I had done some recording on. He loved how I got the drums to sound. They're super dry. I'm always trying to recreate the sound of a DrumTraks [Sequential Circuits] drum machine. That kick and snare sound; that's all I'm trying to do with acoustic drums.
Yeah, bone dry. We did that, and Brian's like, "Oh my god, these are amazing." He told the Air guys about that, and they heard the drums and loved it. They're like, "Why don't you come out to Paris and help us finish our album and then mix it?" I went out there and did a couple weeks of production and then mixed it. It was crazy, because this was all pretty new to me. I had only really worked on my own music and Beck's songs prior to that. Somehow, I didn't fuck the whole thing up. [laughter]
Were Air in that studio they used to have that was a big open space? I went to visit them right after this record.
Oh right. So, they tracked it (maybe) in the studio that you're talking about, which I believe was a studio they were renting at the time. The studio that we did the production at was Studio Apollo in Paris. Then the studio where I mixed it, was Studio Plus XXX. It was a famous, bigger studio. I was on a [Neve] VR, and they had an SSL in another room. The other studio where we did production was a bit of a smaller studio, but they had a lot of cool instruments and outboard gear.
Did you learn to adapt pretty quickly in order to jump into these different places and environments?
Yeah. No joke; that's reading Tape Op, Sound On Sound, and all these magazines. I was trying to figure out, "How do you do this without super high-end equipment? And what in the hell is a compressor?" All of that helped me. There was no YouTube. There were no tutorials.
It was so different then.
Yeah. I knew the sounds I was trying to get. You and I were talking about some of these records earlier. That's what excited all of us when we were in the room, getting some "broken" Wire or Bauhaus guitar sound. It doesn't matter whether I'm boosting 2.5 kHz or 1.5 kHz. Does it feel right? Because of all that, I've been a "big brush stroke" person in terms of production and mixing. I've never been into real tweaky, surgical EQ'ing. I didn't spend much time on SSL consoles. I came up on Neves and APIs, which have more of a wider EQ shape. I'm used to treble, mid, and bass.
Like a home stereo!
Exactly! I love home stereo EQ. Anyway, doing that Air record put me out near the UK. I took some meetings in the UK, and that led to a bunch of UK records that then did quite well. Then that led to a lot of UK sessions, more French music, and U.S. work.
You moved down to L.A. to work with Beck, but you didn't move to London.
We contemplated it. I was spending so much time there at one point. I do love London. I assume you're probably an Anglophile?
It feels like something is happening there. It's also such a small country. Things can happen really fast there with music. I've seen it happen where we finish a song, it's mastered the next day, it comes out in two or three weeks, and then it's on the radio. I really love the immediacy of that.
There's such a music media presence.
Yeah. People love music there, so they want to know what's going on. It's cool in that regard. The first time I went was in 1988, and I have a photo of me in Victoria [Underground] Station. I'd just heard My Bloody Valentine [Tape Op #26] for the first time at an HMV [record store] in the train station, which was mind-blowing. I felt like I might see someone from the Cocteau Twins walk by. I really felt this. Of course, it's nonsense!
How did your career develop after that? It's so international, with groups like Phoenix and the UK bands.
There were certain milestones along the way, but one thing led to another. If you start having some success in the UK, then labels will reach out. "Do you want to work with this artist?" I was fortunate with a lot of those earlier records. I felt it was paramount to find artists that have a true sonic identity, as well as something interesting vocally. They don't have to be a good singer, but something interesting about the voice. Something identifiable. Obviously, artists with good songs. Thankfully, the artists who were coming to me had a lot of those qualities. I would choose the ones that ticked all those boxes, and people liked those records.
You seem to have taken different roles on projects. More co-writing and collaborating on some, and then other times wrapping up with mixing.
A lot of it depends on the needs and wants of what the artist or the label has. If I'm starting a project from scratch, I'm going to have a pretty big role. That's going to take some time to figure out the songs and how we're going to sonically dress things up. What's the palette going to be? Then there are other times where someone's coming to me, especially more so in the past five or seven years, where a lot of artists are doing pretty cool work at home on laptops. I'll tell them, "We don't need to recreate all this. Why don't I come in and help you finish some of these songs?" Maybe some of them are missing sections, or they need help with lyrics. I'll help finish some of the writing, and then we'll dial in the production. Perhaps if we subtract parts from super dense sections, then maybe it will sound a lot more interesting and cool. There are other projects where I had no hand in the production, and I'm just coming in to mix. Everything is done. When I first started doing this, there was no delineation between production, mixing, and engineering. We were just working on music, and we had to get it done. I usually mix what I produce, but I don't always produce what I mix. When I mix, I am mixing a little bit with the producer's hat on at times, especially when I'm asked to go deep and reinvent the current presentation. Sometimes when I'm mixing, people will tell me, "Feel free to tweak things. Remove everything if you're hearing something." I may fly some drums around; maybe there's a certain rhythm that's better on one section. I might add some instruments if they're open to that. It's always fun to do that. But yeah, it just depends on what's needed.
On Blondie's Pollinator you worked on a handful of songs as "additional production." What does that mean?
John Congleton [Tape Op #81] produced that, which was great, but the label brought me in to "sort out" four or five songs. Play some other parts and do whatever I needed to do to get them sounding more how the artist wanted. I went quite a bit further with their initial ideas, and everyone was happy. The artist was happy, and it was cool speaking with them. I don't do that kind of thing a lot, but if Blondie calls, then I'll do it! They'd written a lot of the songs with several contemporary artists I love, like Charli XCX, Dev Hynes, Johnny Marr, and [Nick Valensi from] The Strokes. It was a cool project.
What is Tiger Tone Records?
I started a label two years ago called Tiger Tone Records. I partnered with a distributor called PIAS, who are huge globally. They were trying to expand in the U.S. and set up a new team here. The person who was setting up the team reached out to me, "Do you want to do a label?" They have the Co-Op division, and it would be a label that would be part of that. The other labels in that are Mute, DFA, Bella Union, Heavenly, and Transgressive. I said, "Yeah, that could be cool." I've got two artists, DEVORA and VHS Collection. With the help of the U.S. PIAS team and the PIAS teams globally in different countries, we're releasing music and trying to break these artists.
Is this a way to make sure that music you are digging gets out there?
Yeah, to put music out that I like and felt that other people would like. I've worked with a lot of A&R people over the years; a lot of really good ones, and some maybe not quite so much. [laughter] I've learned what works and what doesn't work, and it's good to know that. I felt it would be interesting to try to apply what I've learned over the years and see if I can get something happening with some of these artists. It's been cool. It's fun learning about the other side of the game.
It’s interesting to learn what happens after we finish the records on our end. Are you still in L.A.?
We moved to Austin [Texas] six weeks ago. We were away in France for two and a half of those weeks. I'm in the process of building the studio that I'm in now, which is almost done. We're almost there.
Is it just a place for your personal use?
Yeah, and the artists I work with. Not commercial.
What prompted the move?
We were getting a little tired of L.A. L.A.'s a great place, but the past few years it's gotten pretty bad. There are high crime rates, homelessness is out of hand, and I don’t know if there are going to be any solutions any time soon. I have a nine and a half year old daughter, and we were wanting her to have a bit more of a “free-range childhood,” like my wife and I had when we were growing up. We'd be hopping around from house to house on our bikes, but where we were in L.A., you would never let your kid run around like that. We picked Austin and got a place here that's in an awesome neighborhood. The day when we closed on the house there was a knock on the door and there were three kids from the neighborhood who knew there was a kid moving in. Kids around my daughter's age, and they're running around. We're trying it out for a year. We have a house in L.A. still that we're renting out so we can go back if we want. I also kept my studio in L.A. My Austin studio is a near exact duplicate of my awesome L.A. studio, except with a window! So far, it's cool.
There's a lot of good music going on in Austin. There have always been some good studios, musicians, and engineers.
Yeah. I'm looking forward to checking it out. There could be some cool Austin artists I might work with, or I might not work with any. Who knows? It depends on what's going on, and who's doing what.
Does it not really matter where you live right now?
It doesn't matter. Doing so much UK, French, Canadian, and Australian records over the years, by nature I've been a little remote, sending files back and forth. I do need a room that sounds good. That's the key thing. George Augspurger designed this room; he’s absolutely brilliant. He did my L.A. studio, which I still have.
How big of a space is it?
It's really for mixing, overdubbing, and light tracking. I could probably record a band, but everyone would be crammed in. It's probably best suited for overdubs; a place to have the time to experiment. If I need more space, then I’d use a proper commercial studio here. I still travel a lot and use studios where there are more microphones, space, and flexibility for having a variety of instruments set up and scattered around. Then I come back here and tweak.
With the mixing you're doing out of your studios, is that completely in the box at this point?
Yeah, I'm 98 percent in the box now. For years, I was on desks, mainly API. If I was outside of the U.S., where there is much less API to be found, I'd be on Neve VRs or '70s Neves. I switched over to in the box in 2013. I felt the plug-ins were sounding a bit better at that point. Before, when I tried in the box, some plug-ins were just too tweaky sounding for me.
Yeah, I still open some plug-ins and there are too many controls. I can't sort this out!
Yeah. It's too complicated and too surgical. Again, I like the treble knob and the bass knob and the mid. Over the years, I've been getting more and more all the way in the box. Now, I have a bunch of outboard effects – like weird reverbs, delays, lots of pedals, and gear that can't be emulated with plug-ins – so I'll still go out of the computer. I'll run sounds through those pedals and then back into the computer. I do that when I'm mixing or producing. I might take what we recorded and go further with it here, with additional processing.
It's still so interesting how different it can be, especially distortion-type effects.
Yeah. There are some compressor pedals that I love, because there is no plug-in that's grabby and extreme enough. The cables are routed here and ready to go. I've got everything set up, so it's pretty easy.
Is a big part of the move to in the box about recallability? It has been for me, with remote mixing.
That's become expected that you can make an adjustment and turn it around quickly. I rented Sound Factory Studio B for seven years, and we had gotten the analog recall down to about 45 minutes per song.
That's pretty fast, honestly.
Yeah, it was super-fast, and things came back amazingly well. A big part of that was also how I mixed. I worked a certain way where I assumed that mixes were going to be recalled. "Let's not make a big deal about it. Let's assume they'll be recalled so that if it doesn't get recalled, that's great, and if it does, it's not a big deal." It's also funny, but when I had that assumption, I started having hardly any recalls!
I have the hardest time predicting whether I'm going to get ten pages of revision notes or a sign off on my first mix pass. Strangely enough, when I work with bigger artists they go, "Great. It sounds good. We're done."
With people who have made many albums, it definitely helps. They know the process. But it can go either way with amateur ones. It can be like what you're saying, where they're either very particular or, "Sounds good to me!"
Do you get a range of mix work between established and unknown artists?
Sure, yeah. If I like the music – those parameters that I said earlier – I might be interested.
Does a lot of work get filtered through your manager?
Yeah. I'm with AAM [Advanced Alternative Media]. Some comes through them and some directly via my website or on Instagram.
You were talking earlier about dry drum sounds. Everyone talks about the best mics for overheads, but then it turns out that our drum mix is 90 percent kick and snare mics.
It has to be deader than dead! I'll tell the assistant engineer, "We're going for a dry, dead drum sound. If you can grab whatever baffles, blankets, or whatever else is available, let's build a whole tent around it." I'll come in, and there will be a little something around the drums. I'm like, "No, we've got to go deep. Let’s build a roof on this thing." It's like making a dead room around the drums, and it sounds awesome in there! I can put some room mics on the other side and have complete separation of bone dry versus roomy. On the chorus I can bump up the room, or not. Even if it's not a real roomy room, without the tent there will be too much room sound going into the snare and kick mics to some degree.
And the more we compress it, the more we hear the room sound.
Yeah. The key thing is knowing what sound you want. What record has the sound that you want? Then you try to get something like that. Hearing what you want it to be in your head before doing it, that should determine what you do.
You've worked with Metric a few times [Tape Op #152]. What was your involvement on the new record, Formentera?
I mixed some songs on the album. I love those guys. I'm such a big fan. It's always great working with them. They’ve made a lot of albums over the years, and they definitely have a clear vision of what they want to do. It's great working with them. Before they send me the files, we always have a conversation. Jimmy [Shaw] always says, "Here’re the tracks, and this is how far we've taken it. Do your thing. I'll tell you if we don't like it. We want you to do your thing and push it." I appreciate that. I'll try to come up with interesting vocal treatments for Emily [Haines]. It's always just amplifying all the cool elements they have in there, as well as the production they've spent a lot of time on. It's finding ways to amplify the best of the best.
Are they giving you a rough mix to start from?
There would be a rough mix of where they got it, so I can hear where the rocket is pointing. More on the electronic side or a little more on the organic side of things? I'll often start with their concept and then start expanding on it or, if need be, help create a new concept for the song.
In our interview with Jimmy, he does talk about how he needs to be produced in some way. It looks like a healthy way to work.
Yeah. Having an objective ear, especially near the end, is probably helpful.
With the Belle & Sebastian albums you did, how did those sessions start?
I was in London finishing an album when their manager reached out to my manager to set up a meeting. I flew out to Glasgow, [Scotland], to meet them at their studio, and they played me a bunch of their new songs. I was already a big fan of their previous records, and I thought the new songs were amazing. I met them, they all seemed great, and there was a lot of them! We hit it off. I flew back out to do some pre-production with them on what was going to become The Life Pursuit. In their rehearsal room there was so much energy and enthusiasm when they all played the new songs together. I knew I wanted to capture, and hopefully end up with, an album that sounded as vibrant and lively as that. We spent a lot of time in pre-production, going through the structures, tempos, and song keys. We worked out a lot of parts in rehearsal, so everyone had a good idea of what they were going to do but didn’t go too far. I still wanted there to be spontaneity when we got to the studio to record. We basically cut the majority of the album live. Several songs have live vocals as well. We tracked it at Sound Factory Studio B on a '70s API [console], which had been Tchad Blake's [Tape Op #16, #133] old room (that I took over from Tchad when he moved to the UK.) I then mixed it at Sunset Sound Studio 1 on their custom API. A lot of the playing was somewhat dynamic, so I put a Chandler TG1 on the stereo bus, and it brought out the dynamics and excitement even more. That piece of gear worked great on those mixes. Write about Love was pretty much done in a similar way. Pre-production in Glasgow, record at Sound Factory Studio B, but this time I mixed it in Studio B as well. The track with Norah Jones ["Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John"] was done live in two takes, with everyone playing and singing. It probably could have been done in one take, but we were still obsessing over something trivial, like the hi-hat!
I listened to the Ziggy Marley track you did. How did that come around?
I've been trying to work with Ziggy for several years now. His manager is an old friend of mine, and we would talk about doing something. I was a big fan of his album Conscious Party that was produced by Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from Talking Heads. We never could figure out the timing for a longer project. Something came up where it was just one song. I talked with Ziggy and he was like, "Yeah, let's do it, man!" He wanted to do a specific thing. A lot of people he's worked with over the past several years, they go very reggae with his music. But he wanted to do something that was maybe a little more alternative-leaning, or not straight up-the-middle reggae, but he still wanted it to be reggae. I said, "I understand what you're saying. Let me push things a little bit." I'm a big fan of dub music, like King Tubby and Scientist [Tape Op #136]. For years, I've been bringing that into what I do. If I'm working with an artist like The Kooks or M83, I'm sneaking in what I love most about dub mixing and producing from those records that I love. Particularly with effects, and drum, and vocal treatments. I'm always sneaking that into the electronic and rock records that I work on.
I wish I got more chances to do dub mixes and work on reggae music.
It's super fun. There are so many great references. The sounds and the processing are amazing. It seems like with a lot of current reggae that I hear now, a lot of it is super straight-up. Sonically, it's really good; but it's not very adventurous like it was back in the '70s and '80s.
Are there any new projects coming up that you're excited about?
There's a new M83 album [Fantasy] out soon. We just finished that.
You mixed their hit, "Midnight City," right?
Yeah. That song and album was mixed on a console. I was a huge fan of Anthony [Gonzalez]'s music before we worked together. I'm excited for people to hear the new one. It's one of those records that we were talking about earlier, where it's so different and cool.