In his twenty-five plus years in the music business, Andy Wallace has grown from an unknown home recording enthusiast to the premier mixer of his day. Andy's first commercial breakthrough came with his co-production (along with Rick Rubin) and mixing of Slayer's Reign in Blood and continued with high-profile work on such projects as mixing Nirvana's Nevermind, Rage Against The Machine's self-titled debut and it's follow-up Evil Empire, and production and engineering of Jeff Buckley's debut album, Grace.
Where were you raised?
Well, I grew up in New Jersey — that's where I was born. Clifton was the town I lived in until I went away to college. I spent time out in the Midwest while I was going to the University of Notre Dame. I got involved with playing in bands out there.
What did you study at Notre Dame?
No kidding — you must be a bright guy.
[laughs] Not bright enough to go into chemical engineering!
And you finished your degree?
Yeah. I was out in the Midwest and started playing in bands. It carried on after I finished school. I didn't go into chemical engineering — I really wasn't interested in that. I continued playing in bands out there and doing some recording. I got a job working at a small studio in Illinois.
So you pretty much learned as you were working there?
Yeah. Pretty much. After I had finished with school I was out in Illinois for some time.
Could you frame this in a time period?
I was in college during the '60s. Then I was out playing in bands in Illinois for the first part of the '70s. I went back to New Jersey and played in some bands there for a while. I guess it was in 1973 that I got a deal to do a record out in Los Angeles.
After you had received your degree in chemical engineering, did your folks think you were nuts trying to pursue a career in music?
No, they were pretty supportive. They figured that I'd find a way to do whatever it was that I was going to do. So yeah, they were pretty good. In any event, I got sort of a record deal — it was more of a production company deal. I was supposed to be with Paramount records, but that whole thing ultimately fell apart. It did get me out to Los Angeles though.
Was that assignment based on the work that you had done with your own band?
I came up in bands playing as a singer/songwriter — a bass player, guitar player. It was based on recordings I had done.
Had you played in bands that anyone would remember?
Probably not. I put out a couple of indie albums with my band First Friday back when I was in college. That band dissolved in 1970, but for the past thirteen years, we've been getting together to play one gig a year. We made a whole weekend party out of it, inviting our friends and family. We've done it all over the place — East Coast, West Coast.
So you got this deal with Paramount...
Well, it was with a production company actually. It was supposed to result in an album that would be released on Paramount.
Were you engineering?
No, it wasn't so much engineering. I had a little home studio, right about 1970 when they first started having those 1/4" 4-track machines. It was there that I did the demos that led to the project in Los Angeles. I started doing work out there, playing in a lot of different types of bands to pay the bills. I was still trying to pursue the artist aspect of my career. I got really involved with the music community out there. Playing bass on other people's records. Singing backup. This was the early '70s — 1974 maybe. It was around that time that I started looking for a place to set up my little 4-track studio. At the time, rent was really inexpensive out in Los Angeles. I had been working in a lot of these little 8-track studios, these really old, old 8-track studios — but doing really great stuff. I got a commercial location and built a studio. You know, went in there, did the carpentry. That was called Hit City West.
What types of records were you working on at that point?
Well, we did everything. We did a lot of publishing demos, a lot of artist development demos for different companies. Ultimately some of the albums that were recorded in that studio were the first Mötley Crüe album [Too Fast For Love, Lethur 1981], and the first Dwight Yoakam album, A Town South of Bakersfield, [self-released 1984] aka Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Warner 1986] — although I didn't work with those specifically. I eventually took on two partners and later sold out my partnership in 1979 because I wanted to go to New York. I thought that for the type of music I was doing at the time, club records mostly, New York was a better location.
Were you still playing music?
Yeah. The entire time I was out there I had been playing to help pay the bills — well, I shouldn't say that because toward the end I wasn't doing so much of that.
What kind of music do you play? Where do you come from stylistically?
Well, my personal favorite is the really old R&B stuff. Not the R&B of today.
Can you name some of those artists?
Almost anything from old Stax. James Brown and Little Richard were my early heroes. When I was out in LA I was running the studio which did really well. It became a successful business and I learned a lot from that end. Another thing is that I was engineering day in and day out with pretty good musicians. We had a lot of talented people record there. We also had a lot of variety. Being in Los Angeles, there was a lot of Mexican stuff going on. I recorded mariachi bands and all sorts of things. That was when I really got my engineering chops.
Have you received any formal training?
Not in audio.
So you decided to bring the family back East...
At that time I was doing a lot of production work with other artists. What I was doing was definitely rock- based stuff, but it was almost what ended up becoming rock-based club music. There was no market for it out in LA at the time. I knew that a lot of the music that was becoming popular out in New York wasn't very guitar-based, but the spirit was very close to where I was coming from. I went East and became involved in that. In the early '80s I did a lot of records with Arthur Baker, club records, and ultimately club re-mixes with rock instruments. I spent a lot of time working at Shakedown, which was Arthur Baker's studio on 37th street. That was a very incredible period. I did work with Shep Pettibone too.
So you started doing mixing and re- mixing with club music?
Right. Lots of club music. I soon met Rick Rubin though and started doing all sorts of stuff with him.
You guys buddies?
[laughs] Well, we don't hang all the time, but we know each other very well and are on really good terms.
Back then Rick must have been just an up and comer.
Yeah, he was running Def Jam records out of his college dorm. Rick had just gotten involved working with Run-D.M.C. who I worked with. I later would mix their 1986 Raising Hell album [Arista]. I also worked on a lot of Beastie Boys stuff before they released their first album.
Around that period, you were saying that work was fairly constant and that you were doing well financially.
Yeah. I was certainly busy. There was never any lack of work. Eventually, somewhere around the mid-'80s, I hooked up with my managers and that has been a very long-lasting relationship.
Who are you with?
I'm with Advanced Alternative Media. That's been a great hook up — they're very solid. They really helped keep the pot boiling. I received a lot of opportunities to focus on mixing.
At that point were you engineering, or just strictly mixing?
I guess it was a combination of both. I was setting up for people like Arthur Baker and I ended up co- producing these club records. Then I got involved with doing a lot of re-mixing on my own. I started getting hired to do re-mixes for so-and-so's album, which was a big thing in the '80s. Around that time, based on some of the additional production work I did on the re-mixes, I started getting some retention as a producer.
You make it sound so easy!
[laughs] Well, it took a lot of time and boy was it a lot of work!
How did you steer away from being an engineer to solely working as a mixer?
Well, the way you steer away from being an engineer is by saying, "No."
So what do you call yourself?
Producer and mixer. I haven't engineered for anyone, other than myself, for years.
Do you enjoy that aspect of recording?
Oh, I love engineering. For the sake of mobility — so that I can be out in the live room when I'm working with bands, I'll sometimes be taken on as a second engineer for the project. You know, to roll tape and deal with some of that stuff so that we can work faster.
At what point did you become aware that you had transcended working as just another mixer or producer? The name "Andy Wallace" has this whole legendary mystique surrounding it, as far as the work that you've done over the last twenty years. Was there ever a particular moment when you had that realization?
Well, it was kind of gradual. There have been certain key records. One was the Cult Electric album [Beggars Banquet 1987] which I engineered and mixed. Rick got me onboard after he had signed Slayer and I went to Los Angeles and did the whole Reign In Blood album [Geffen 1986] — that was another fairly important album. It received a lot of attention. Those two were very important. Obviously, Nirvana [mixing, Nevermind, DGC 1991].
When you go to mix a track does the band sit in with you? How involved are the artists during the process? Do you do alternate mixes or do you just record one mix?
Well, I try to get one definitive mix. I definitely do involve the artist. I don't just take the tapes and hole up in the studio. I really believe that there are a lot of little decisions during mixing that are not necessarily right or wrong, they're primarily personal preference. I think that all those little subjective decisions added up have a lot to do with establishing the identity of the artist. So many of those decisions, for the lack of a better word, are arbitrary. They will not make or break the record, they will not make it better or worse — they lend a certain quality to the recording. I feel it's really important that the artists' vision be reflected in the mixing, so I really try to incorporate that as much as possible. Also, there are some very major things that vary from one artist to another. If the artist is very aware and is on top of what is on the tape and how it all works together, that is very useful to me. I also like to know the set up that they have in mind. Like, you really need to hear this guitar, or not to worry about it so much. That kind of information. I really do try to incorporate whoever is involved. Sometimes it's one person — sometimes it's the entire group. Other times it's the producer alone or the producer with one of the band members. I certainly like to have their input. I do spend a fair amount of time working with it myself after having talked to the artists. I get the material to a point where I feel it's rocking and then they'll listen to it.
I guess it's different if you're mixing an entire album, but if you're just mixing one song, does the artist or producer come into the studio with you and sit there while you mix it? Also, how long does it usually take to mix a track, let's say a single for a rock band.
Like I said, I certainly like to have the artist around for their input, but I'm not sitting there with them talking about the mix while I'm working. After I get a picture of where they want to go with it, then I like to spend 3 or 4 hours going at it myself so that I can work fast and stay focused. If I was just mixing a single track for a rock band, I would probably do that in one day. Usually it takes anywhere from eight to twelve hours. Sometimes it's shorter, sometimes longer. In terms of mixing an album, I'll almost certainly cover a song a day. A lot of times I'll do three songs over two days. It really depends on the material.
Do you think that you have a signature mix?
I wouldn't consider that an Andy Wallace mix has a certain sound. I try to find out what the band is about and then have the mix reflect that as much as I can. The other thing that I try to do is to bring out the best of everything that is on the tape. If there is any one thing that I've heard people say that defines my work as a mixer is that there is a certain definition and that you can distinguish the parts. Hopefully you'll say, "Oh man, I've never heard those parts before..." If there is something that is important and worth hearing, then I try to make sure that it's heard. That can be sometimes tricky and people lose parts during the mix. So I suppose if there is a quality that is standard with my work, then it is a certain definition in the mix.
What do you usually mix from? What do bands generally bring you? Do you mix from DAT or 2-inch tape?
It varies. I generally mix from analog 2" or from the Sony 3348 digital tape recorder. Those are the two formats that I most often mix from. If someone has a project that is entirely on ADAT or something like that, then I'll have them transferred to the Sony digital 3348. Sometimes, even with the analog tapes, I'll also have them transferred over to the as well. That depends on a lot of different things. I primarily use the SSL [Solid State Logic] automated mixer and the SSL G or G Plus model.
It seems that you've gravitated toward rock music as far as your output in the '90s.
Yeah, I certainly got away from doing a lot of the club music, hip-hop and rap.
Do you miss that at all?
Uhh, it's kinda cool. It's hard to say. I like the rap. A lot of the hip-hop that's going on now I seem to catch walking down the hallway from other rooms.
Busta Rhymes records a lot here. I don't miss doing it. I really like the band concept — I like working with bands. Particularly rock. But I do try to get a lot of diversity there as much as I can, particularly in production. I'm happy that I got the opportunity to record the Jeff Buckley Grace album.
Jeff Buckley and Slayer — that's quite a dichotomy.
Grace was one of the albums that you produced, engineered and mixed completely by yourself.
Yes. Jeff was a complex, diverse character. Very entertaining. He was almost always in a stream of consciousness — it was often funny. I don't know if you ever had the opportunity to see his solo shows before Grace, but he had been playing solo gigs in the village and they were brilliant. They were really what everyone was hearing initially.
Did you ever get the chance to see any of those performances?
Yes. I would go to see Jeff and he would be talking and doing songs — just sort of extemporaneously. Often funny, sometimes very enlightening. He was just a really interesting guy. Working with him was an extension of that whole process of expression. I don't remember any particular anecdotes, though if I think about it there is probably a zillion of them. Jeff was a very entertaining guy. One of the most talented musicians I have ever met.
Did he come to you directly asking you to record?
Yeah. Jeff had signed to Columbia records and I guess that they had just talked about possible producers. I'm not exactly sure what brought my name up, but they approached me. I had never met Jeff, but we sat down to talk and hit it off pretty well. Jeff felt secure that he wasn't getting hooked up with a producer who was going to run him through a scheduled system. He really wanted to feel confident that he had someone who was going to be very sensitive to him as an artist. But at the same time he needed a lot of direction. Jeff was very scattered at time and it was hard for him to stay focused. He had so many ideas — he was so diverse. The album would never have gotten done if he didn't have someone there to pull the reigns in.
What was the time frame for recording? How long did you work with him?
It's kinda hard to measure. I would say that we did probably about 2 1/2 to 3 months of pretty straight-ahead work. We recorded at Bearsville Studio up in New York, by Woodstock. We were probably there, recording the bulk of the album and then Jeff went out to Los Angeles for a little while — I think he played some gigs. Jeff had just put his band together and I think that they wanted more time to play out as a band. While out in California he came up with a couple more songs. "Dream Brother" was one of them. Jeff came back and we continued working for maybe another two months, but even that started and stopped a couple of times. All together it was over a time span of about six months that we were working.
Do you still listen to the albums that you've recorded or mixed?
Yeah, there are some.
Are there any particular albums that you find yourself checking out more frequently?
Going back to and listening? Well, yeah. I always enjoyed Nirvana Nevermind. I've always thought that it was a brilliant album. I've been playing At The Drive-In.
Relationship of Command?
Yeah. I love that album. I mean, I like most of the albums that I work on. It's often difficult for me to choose which album to work on and which to pass on — hopefully I choose the right one! Certainly one of the criteria of whether I get involved is if I personally like the music. Along with it being commercially viable.
Is it usually a record label decision to go with you or is it more a band that may be familiar with your work?
Everybody's involved. It could be the management people. It could be the label. But certainly I think that the impetus for someone wanting me to mix the album usually lies with the artist. Sometimes it's a combination of the above. If I had to list one, it would be the artist.
Is there a particular record that you've been involved with that the bands are usually most familiar with?
Yeah. Certainly Slayer — that was a key album. And Nirvana. A lot of people are just familiar with my body of work. Sometimes they won't have a particular album that they say, "Hey, this is the one that you sold us on."
You haven't handled the production and engineering work on an album in several years. Do you see yourself working again in the capacity that you were when you recorded Grace?
Well, yeah. If the right situation presents itself. I mean, I'm still very much interested in production as well as mixing. I tend to elect not to focus on production because it would take me out of the mixing pool for four or more months. I don't want to get that far away from being active in mixing. I have to be able to select the right album, not just a good album. In fact, just before Jeff died I went down to see him and we talked about recording his next album. Those demos eventually saw release as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. He had talked about how he had wanted to record an album from scratch, which I would certainly have recorded. After he died I was disappointed on a number of levels. In any event, if you mean stylistically would I be willing to record an album like that, then sure.
Are there any tracks that you've just finished mixing that you're excited about? I guess that may be hard to say considering the band hasn't made its final decision.
Yeah... I just finished mixing a band called Systematic that I really liked — otherwise I wouldn't have done it. That will probably be out in late May. [Somewhere In Between will be issued on Elektra]
It seems that most of the work you do is with major labels. Do you ever do anything for any underground artists or indie rock bands?
Well, it depends. A lot of bands I work with basically were on an indie but now (in the case of At The Drive-In) might have a deal with Grand Royal or something like that. I do enjoy working with bands who are doing their first major label album. There's a certain freshness to it.