Ahh, the saga of Brendan Bell. A British expatriate who somehow ended up in Portland and later a member of the elusive Bugskull to boot. In Bugskull he managed to hone his recording skills and as a long-term "temporary" member of Sone got to play with more recording toys. Along the way he's worked on records by the Irving Klaw Trio, Kaia, Pete Krebs, New Bad Things along with many others and his open-book recording technique has helped many musicians get a grasp on the recording process and should stand as a good example to other engineers who'd like to keep us all in the dark. Anyway, we met at the Tape Op headquarters and after a quick tour of the basement recording facilities we retired to the front porch with a few pints of water and had a nice long chat.
How did you get started in recording?
Well, I first got a guitar when I was 10, I was really into the Beatles, and I had these two little mono, shitty tape recorders and I would just go back and forth through one of those little Realistic 4 channel mixers. I would do all these things live, I had a drum machine, guitar and a vocal all going live and I'd sorta bounce back, play along with...
The cassette? Would you play along with yourself then?
Yeah, I would record along with the backing track onto another tape recorder. It was very primitive and I was getting an awful lot of hiss. My mom's a piano teacher and she was always trying to figure out how to record her students and so I would help her out. She got some okay gear, like fancier boom-boxes, and I got to use those. I gradually got some better gear...guitars and pedals. I got my first pedal for Christmas, a DOD stereo chorus, my parents got me one for Christmas. From then, I went into a few studios and saw how things were done and was never really that happy with the way things came out of there. They were just 8 track studios, very cheap.
Were you playing in a band?
I was. I played in half a dozen bands, in England, from age 14 on. The first studio I ever went to was in this old railway station, this 8 track in the basement, the trains still came by and so every time they did you'd have to scratch that take. It was a really fancy studio, the room was suspended, but of course it would just shake when the trains went by. Other than that, I didn't start multi-tracking or using a 4 track until Bugskull in '91. Sean had this 4 track and he'd just been sort of goofing around with tape loops and doing things straight in.
Like a reel-to-reel 4 track?
No, it was a Fostex X-15, one you could only record two tracks at once, but a really great machine. We still have it and it still works really good, somehow. We've put thousands of hours on it and it's working great. We had this god-awful Tapco mixer which was just a nightmare, a real pain in the ass, and various cheap, shitty microphones. I'm amazed, listening to that stuff now, like the early tape Garbled Melodies and the early singles, that they were all done on that little 4 track. We had this basement room that we built.
And you'd practice down there and record a bunch?
It was very nice 'cause Bugskull was always very organic and we could just make a song. There's tons of stuff that's been discarded. We're pretty selective about what we've given out. There's an awful lot of really dodgy stuff and stuff that was never finished. One of these days we're gonna get through it...From the Vaults, Bugskull!
A four CD retrospective.
Box set! Oh my god.
With Bugskull did you ever record with anyone else?
The only times we've recorded on other equipment was for live things we did. Dean Fletcher, who did the live X-Ray recordings, really liked Bugskull so he recorded us a few times. I have 3 or 4 tapes of us live from various different places and they sound pretty good. Dean had his own idea of how things should sound and we would just go over and mix it, just listen to it once through and get something approximate. Anyway, we had this one room in the basement which was all carpet and stuff and we tore that out and we built a proper room with insulation and drywall, a door, a window and tried to seal it off a little.
Did you take turns engineering on stuff?
Mostly me. Sean [Byrne--Bugskull guitarist] did some of it. A lot of the Bugskull stuff was done a track at a time. A sort of layering of ideas. Particularly the more out-there stuff. Usually it was like when the mood striked you'd go down and listen to the new...