Many fans of the Flaming Lips might know Michael Ivins as that quiet, cigarette- smoking bass player. Indeed, he is often overshadowed by his media-savvy bandmates. However, many may not realize that Ivins has worked at Dave Fridmann's Tarbox Road Studio for the past two years and was assistant engineer on records by Luna, Home and Wheat. He has been an integral part of the Flaming Lips' productions since 1994's Zaireeka — a set of four CDs meant to be played simultaneously on four stereo systems. I met up with him in Columbus, Ohio, while the Lips were on tour in support of their new album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
While you're on the road, are you guys doing demos or recording?
I tracked a record [at Tarbox Road] and now I'm trying to edit it and make fake guitar overdubs on the computer. Every few nights I'll get a couple hours before I go to bed and sort of do some stuff.
On a laptop?
Yeah... but out on the road, there's just no time.
What software do you use?
Digital Performer, just 'cause it's the easiest. The iBook I've got is one of the ancient ones. I've toyed with the idea of getting a G4 [Power Mac] but I don't know if I wanna get involved with having a Pro Tools rig on the road. That just seems like that's asking for trouble.
Do you have an electronics background?
No, everything I know is from working in the band or from Trent Bell's studio [Bell Labs] in Norman, Oklahoma. He does some of our sound in Europe. He put together a studio and had gotten a Neotek series board for real cheap but it didn't work so good. So I volunteered... in hindsight not a good idea. I know a lot better now, but just so I could see what was going on, to figure out signal flow and all that. So I got into the guts and recapped the whole board, put new chips in it, and did a lot of rewiring and stuff, so now it's actually a full 24 channel board. I think it's got four returns. And when stuff breaks, I'm the guy. I have found that 95% of the time, it's a cold solder [joint] and you just have to track it down and find out where something's come loose.
What were you doing before you got to Tarbox Road? Were you working at studios in Oklahoma?
Just at Trent's studio, helping him on a technical level. I'd sit in on some projects and see how he did it. It was really on Zaireeka that I could technically call myself an assistant engineer. Even though I'd look back at tapes from years and years ago and see my handwriting on track sheets. I guess I've always been in there, kind of looking and doing stuff like that. Zaireeka ended up being such a huge project — we ended up having ten DATs full of mixes... [I had] to keep track of everything, of where all this stuff was, and which were the right mixes and all that kind of junk. After we did Zaireeka, I went up there [to Tarbox Road Studios] in '99 to work. I think I was going to go up there for a couple weeks, and ended up being there for two months. I slept on the studio couch in the control room. While I was there, I worked on records for Home and Wheat. Those were sort of my first assisting. We've worked together for so long that it started to blur where I'm officially the assistant engineer, but then sometimes I'd actually be engineering, and sometimes I'd get into production. I think being who I am has actually helped my engineering career, 'cause I didn't have to start off doing the coffee and tea thing. Almost on day two, people would turn around to me and say, "What do you think?" and that's getting into production. When I moved up there, it was right when we were going to start recording Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, so it seemed to make perfect sense. We were going to be up there two weeks out of every month anyway, for a year and a half. I just moved up there with my wife and just went solid. Some months, no days off. It's been great. I think I've been able to squish five or seven years of experience down into these two years that I've been doing it. It's been really great to work with other bands. We did the new Luna record, and we did this band from Scotland called Delgados. Just all kinds of stuff. We recently remastered the whole [Flaming Lips] back catalog. We just got a baby Neve console in the studio, so we ran all the stuff through it. Then we put some compression on it, and maybe boosted it up a little bit to make it a little more modern sounding. And then we'd sit there and say, "Okay, how does that sound?" and we'd do a little bit of tweaking here and there. I got [Dave] to split the difference on some of the low end on the earlier stuff. We had it where it sounded really wicked, like THAT'S how we wanted it to sound! But we added all this low end in and it started to totally change how the rest of the sounds were. So he brought it back down, and I said, "Why don't we split it?" That took about a full day to basically remaster it, and then I spent many days assembling it all. I had to do close edits, and assemble them all how it was going to end up on the CDs. I had a pretty big part — I think I'm actually credited as "Remastered by Dave Fridmann and Michael Ivins."
Is there one big thing that you learned in the time you've been there?
I had a whole top ten list of "Things Engineers Aren't Supposed to Say," and right at the top is, "Oops." That would probably be the biggest piece of advice, to always make it seem like you're in control, and to always let the band exhaust their ideas first, instead of just going in there and saying, "Okay, let's do this, we're gonna do this, and do this!" You always wanna have the band walk away and have had fun. And that's the most important thing, 'cause if they don't have fun doing a record, what's the point of even being in there?
What's the worst experience you've had in a studio?
Well, when I make a mistake I try to only make it once. That would be another good piece of advice. When things are playing back or recording, don't touch nothing! There was one time when I was trying to multitask, and the band was listening to their song, really loud, and I thought, "Well, I'll get this thing going over here," and I pressed the wrong button, and it stopped. You don't wanna do that.
Tell me about The Sirens.
Oh, that's actually the project that I have on my laptop. I've been doing this a year and a half, kind of getting into the hot seat. But never having walked in, opened up the studio, and actually been in charge. The Sirens' drummer is in another band called the Come-Ons. They're from Detroit. My wife plays bass in the Come- Ons, and she's known the drummer for maybe twelve or thirteen years. They're all girls, and they play these obscure '60s and '70s covers. They wanted it this way, but I think I've been able to realize it for them: If the Ronettes had grown up only listening to Black Sabbath. So it's got monster guitars, but really great singing and back-up vocals. They came in and I tracked thirteen songs in two days, hence that's why I'm out here with the computer doing fake double tracks on the guitars, and trying to pile up more backing vocals. There just wasn't enough time to get all the overdubs I wanted to get done.
The Lips have had three projects going on at once: the Okie Noodling soundtrack, the Christmas On Mars movie and soundtrack, and the Yoshimi record. In interviews, Wayne has mentioned that they influenced each other. What about from a recording standpoint?
I think what I have taken away from this whole experience is that if everyone is amicable with the sound, THAT'S the sound. Sometimes people get wrapped up in trying to make things sound like they imagine a kick drum sounds like or something like that. Whatever it takes, GET THAT SOUND. Instead of, "Okay I'm going to put the SM57 2 inches off the center of the speaker and six inches back." Sometimes, though, it'll be just a mic in the room, the wrong button will get pressed, and that will get patched into the tape machine, and we'll be sitting there going, "Wait, I can't figure it out, it's a great sound but... Oh, it's that one over there! Okay great, let's do that." You never know where things are going to come from. And Okie Noodling.... you know, there's distortion all over the place, but it sounds good.
Was that soundtrack recorded in a rehearsal space?
Yeah, I think a lot of that was, and it was brought over and dumped onto the computer at my house and sort of mixed... I say, "mastered" just because with anything the Lips do, whatever you hear, that's it. There's no after stage. It'll go to a mastering house, but we tell them not to do anything. They just make the glass masters.
Really? It's just essentially mixed?
Yeah, we'll basically master it at the studio. With Yoshimi... I know some of the songs had to be turned down, but as far as EQing it, we don't do any of that stuff. That's why usually we'll just go to DAT through the Finalizer, cause that's probably the closest representation of what a CD is going to sound like. We're always pretty anal about that. Instead of, "Okay we're going to send it off, we're not sure what it's going to sound like when it comes back." I always thought it would have been great to dump some of that stuff onto 1/2" and make the vinyl out of that. I actually assembled all the stuff for The Soft Bulletin and ...Yoshimi vinyl. Of course, it's all off DAT. I think ...Yoshimi is going to end up sounding better than the CD. We actually went in there and put some more high end on the vinyl. I didn't get to hear the test pressing when it came back, but Dave said, "I think it sounds better than the CD."
Obviously you guys did some things differently for this album... working with more loops and stuff like that. Were you sampling Steve or programming a lot?
Some of them we just went back to the master tapes of The Soft Bulletin. There's a couple of lifts right off there. That would be one of my jobs in the studio. Okay, get the tape, put it up, okay, record that into the computer, close edit it, okay throw it back onto tape. I think by now we really have a library full of Steven. If he really didn't want to play anymore, he wouldn't have to. [laughs] We've just got him, the kick drums, how he hits them and the snare and all that stuff. Sometimes it's faster to do it that way, and sometimes it's faster to get out there and play a beat or play the whole song. So we're really of the school where it's all just tools to us, whether it's digital or analog. Whichever one is going to get us to the desired result the quickest is the one we'll use. So we're not worried about, "Oh, is it taking off a little of the high end, blah blah blah." Well sure, it probably is, but if we're going to save four hours doing it this one way, we'll do that immediately. And we throw so much distortion on everything that it doesn't really matter half the time. [laughs] We're huge fans of the happy accidents in the studio. Some of that stuff you can plan, and plan as much as you want, but sometimes the wrong button gets pushed or the wrong mic gets used. And it's better than if you had taken the time to actually do it right. Sometimes you can only get it if you do it right. And if it's going to take a U47, do that — if it's a 58, yeah, do that.