Seattle-based Chris Ballew has been a sideman for Beck, a front man for The Presidents of the United States of America, an integral part of Supergroup, the entire mysterious cast of The Giraffes, and most recently fifty percent of Chris & Tad. He recently chatted with producer/ engineer/artist Pete Weiss [Tape Op #23]. The two have known each other since Chris' years in Boston, back in the early '90s. Pete, always a fan of catchy pop with a wink, covered two of Chris's songs on his 1996 solo album. These days, Ballew's been keeping a slightly lower profile than the mid- '90s when "Lump" was everywhere. But he's been more productive than ever. Here's what's been happening:
How ya been?
I've been excellent. Super creative. Busy. Just movin' and groovin'. I'm working with this guy Tad from the Young Fresh Fellows. The drummer. And we've been super busy trying to get our soundtrack business up and running. And I've been building stuff at my house — I built a studio in the yard and I'm painting it inside and out — doin' all kinds of stuff. So I've been feeling good, feeling busy. Sleeping deeply and all that goodness.
Excellent. Do you want to tell me about the studio? Is it up and running?
Yeah, it kind of is. It's really simple. It's a little 8' x 12' shack. It's mostly for mixing and tracking vocals, guitars and keyboards. Stuff like that. I don't think I'd want to set a drum kit up in here. I'm running the Digi 001 Pro Tools LE on a Mac G4. A lot of the studios around here have the same thing, so when we want to track drums or loud guitars we go to Jupiter with Martin Feveyear [Tape Op #23]. Then we take the tracks back to my house and cut 'em up and do some mixing. Actually we'll probably go back to a "real" studio to do the mixing. But at my place we do all the editing, shuffling and, you know, "Let's try cutting that verse in half and see how it sits for a week," which is so liberating. It frees us up from having the feeling that we're on the clock and somebody's looking over our shoulder and we have to explain our ideas. It's great to be able to do the majority of the work at home and still have the opportunity to make the end result "fully realized" and sonically satisfying. I LOVE the computer environment. I can't believe how much fun it is. It turns out I've sort of been seeing songs in my brain the way they look on the screen. I've been seeing music my whole life as, like, this row of tracks and waveforms. In the past I had thought the Pro Tools system was distracting, but it turns out it was mostly because I'd been looking over someone else's shoulder as they were operating the system, and I was always impatient. You know [laughs], "C'mon, can't you just cut that thing and move it over there? Move it! Move it!"
I feel your pain. I've been there.
So now that I'm in there doing it myself... well of course time slides by and three hours later I don't even realize I haven't eaten dinner. [laughing] But I do find that it's extremely intuitive for me and it's great to be able to slide parts of songs around or cut and paste or edit. Tad and I are not really arranging songs before we record them. We just usually have the chords to the verse and chorus set, but we don't initially have a structure ready. We've always done it this way, but it was much more difficult to do with tape. So now it's extremely easy and flexible. There's no such thing as a bad idea when you can do that kind of heavy editing later.
Do you do most of the engineering for your recordings with Tad?
I do all the engineering. But I'd use that term loosely. Actually, Tad and I should work with you some time. You have the ability to get these really exciting, clear, distinct sounds that all kind of lock together to make a unit. I've always been impressed by your work — you always seem to have one really good-sounding guitar part, rather than, like, four poorly-recorded ones. I always fall back on combining an electric and an acoustic guitar to make a nice thick sound, whereas you're able to get the nice thick sound with just one guitar. I'm more of a performer than an engineer. I mostly just fiddle until it sounds right.
Well, there's something to be said for that. I mean, that's pretty much what I do too.
I'm most likely missing some fundamentals that would get me to where I could be quicker but...