A consummate populist, Tony Maimone first caught my attention lecturing eloquently in defense of the women's-only swim time at the Metropolitan pool in Williamsburg to a grumbling bunch of men in the locker room, immediately after we had all been booted out at 10 AM one Monday morning. Only afterward did I realize that he was the bassist I'd marveled at on Pere Ubu's Dub Housing and Modern Dance. It turns out his Studio G is two blocks from my house, so once we met, he invited me to drop in. I jumped at the chance.
Besides playing bass with Pere Ubu, Maimone played with The Mekons, They Might Be Giants, Frank Black and Bob Mould. He's set up a nice, small studio since cutting back on touring, where he and partner Joel Hamilton have worked with Cordero, Soul Coughing, Zeena Parkins, Frank Black, Martha Wainwright and Early Edison, among others. The scene at the pool may seem unrelated, but after getting to know Tony, I realized it was illustrative of something important about his character, and probably accounts for the demand for his services as a bassist and producer/engineer as much as his musicianship does. He is a true team player, with an infectious enthusiasm for people and their ideas.
The day we decided to formalize an interview turned out to be the day their new Auditronics console was arriving. While waiting for it to arrive, I sat around with Tony and Joel and we talked about everything from the old days of recording in Cleveland to digital audio to Tony's favorite bass recipes.
In the Pere Ubu days were you much involved with the recording side of things?
Well, yeah, because back then there was no automation, at least we never recorded with automation, so to do mixes that had any kind of flair to them, you'd always have like three pairs, four pairs of hands on the console, so that was like the first time I ever got involved on that level. All the Pere Ubu records, you know, we fought our way through all the mixes.
Were you allowed to touch your own track's fader?
That was why on those Pere Ubu records the bass is always so loud. [laughs] Oh man. I know David [Thomas] is rolling his eyes right now if he sees that... The first place I ever recorded was this place called Cleveland Recording, with Pere Ubu. I guess that was the summer of '78, a long time ago. I was just so amazed by the studio, and how stuff sounded coming out of the speakers. I remember the first time we recorded, and coming into the control room and they hit 'play', and I was in seventh heaven. I was just like, "I can't believe this." That was Paul Hamann and his dad Ken, who just passed away this year [see Tape Op #13]. Paul was at his dad's side from those days on. His dad did the first Pere Ubu record [Modern Dance] and then Paul sat in for the second [Dub Housing], and he was in the chair for the whole third record [New Picnic Time]. Ken was just really into making things — he made the board. He had like the largest collection of tube mics outside of like L.A. or New York. Now Paul's got this amazing place out in the suburbs of Cleveland called Suma Recording. Big, big live room with wood floors and old barn wood walls, with a huge stone fireplace — you know, the classic stuff.
I've always heard a kind of dub influence in Pere Ubu. Were you consciously aiming for that?
I can honestly say I wasn't aware, back in the '70s, of how dub was really made. I had a bunch of dub records, like Big Youth and Tapper Zukie records. The drummer [Scott Krauss] and I used to listen to dub a lot. We liked that a lot — we liked that Miles Davis stuff. I remember Scott played [A Tribute to] Jack Johnson for me. I couldn't believe how that sounded. And then I found out later Teo Macero spliced a bunch of that record together. Paul was really good with splicing so we did splice in stuff — I mean, that's how you had to do it. But we didn't really think about dub.
How about other experimental studio techniques?
We also had the idea about recording outside. You know, if it's really quiet and you record outside, there's no reflection. We did a bunch of that stuff.
What did you record outside?
Mostly vocals. Vocals sounded pretty cool outside. No reflection. That was at Suma and those guys had all those great mics, so that was a win/win situation... It was really fun because the ambience is gorgeous out there. Suma is built on a lawn that runs down to a cliff that overlooks this beautiful valley, and there were these great trees. It was a great place to get natural ambience.
Did you do a bunch of tape loop stuff?
We were trying to make a really long loop and we had one of those old Ampex 16-tracks there, and we had a loop, smaller than this room, but not a lot smaller, and people were holding drumsticks, holding these big tape loops. I couldn't believe it, we really did it — we had this huge tape loop.
It seemed on tracks like "Blow Daddy O" you'd play around a sound coming from the synth, rather than laying a weird sound on top...
We used to get together three times a week and just play music. And it wasn't really planned that we were going to go on tour and make records. I didn't feel like I was such an experimental musician before I joined that band, but the way Allen [Ravenstine] played the synthesizer and the way David sang, that right there, you're working with two things that are very out of the ordinary. Allen used to practice by playing sounds into an oscilloscope and seeing how the sounds would change by altering the filter or using a sine wave or something... He was a painter, so his whole approach was coming from a different place. He was always very articulate about his ideas... thinking in terms of color, and thinking in terms of when you're creating something, maybe not always putting something next to something, but on top of something, that partially obscures or accents something else. We were really disciplined, we didn't waste a lot of time in the studio, but we had a couple pieces, and "Blow Daddy 0" was one of 'em, where we had the seed for the idea, and when we go into the studio, we'll put the synth down first and we'll add stuff and see what happens. Pere Ubu was always, if you heard something, you could go in and do it. [The Hamanns], I really feel like they fostered that in us, to not be afraid to just to kind of go with the feeling. Don't be afraid to just take a swing at it.
What was it like playing and recording when you first got to New York?
There were still, back in the '80s, a lot more studios, there was a lot more happening, but I was on the road in the '80s, half of the time with Ubu, the other half of the time it was either with Bob or the Mekons. If it wasn't those guys it would be Kelly Willis, or it would be Jill Sobule, smaller tours, but it just seemed like I was always working.
If you were spending so much time on the road as a player, how did you get to feel like you knew the studio stuff well enough to hire out your services?
I was lucky because the friends that were around me were so much help. I read some of the books that everybody has to read about building a studio, but I didn't spend a lot of time studying the facts. We did it by the seat of our pants. We had a really limited amount of space [which we split in half] so we ended up with two roughly 25x25 square foot rooms, because I just felt that the control room is such a big part of what happens now. And time has borne me out on that.
A lot of work that comes in is repairing and improving the "bedroom guys'" stuff, as you called them. What do you do for projects like that?
A lot of the times we'll take, say, the stereo drum group, and we'll run that through the Drawmer, the 1960. That's always a nice one. Maybe if something needs more gain, we'll run it through a couple of the Neve line amps, give it a little oomph. But usually we'll do most of the transfers straight through Pro Tools, then through the mixer, and then put a dbx 165A on the bass just like we do a lot of the times when we have a live band. And then we'll put a bunch of compression on the drums and on the guitars. Just get things out of the digital world and onto the mixer... It seems to add girth, to lose a little bit of the digital sheen. As tape recedes into history, less and less people even know what tape sounds like, and the thing is that tape has this mythological aura around it now, but the thing people forget is that a lot of the harshness then was "lost". It's what Joel calls "the beauty of loss", just taking those transients down. The other thing is the way [non-linear editing] affects the consciousness of the musical community. I've seen it happen here a million times. Someone will come in and play something, and it's a pretty good take, there are a couple of little spots... Joel's really quick. [snaps] Without even asking them too much about it he's already kind of got it fixed. It's so funny to see the way they react to that. Like by the end of the second day there's a flub, and in the old days when you'd hear it, you'd get off the couch and start walking in the other room to go fix your part cause you didn't want to waste time. Now people just look over here to the computer screen and say, "You guys can fix that, right?"
They look up over their copy of Maxim. [laughs]
There's definitely a very dark side to this technology that you have to have a respect for and not forget that the most important thing is actually the playing. It reminds me about how it's so easy to lose that excitement for everyone getting a take, like the way the jazz guys did, the way everybody used to do it.
How do you feel about listening to mixes on monitors? Do you prefer something that's really flat?
We have those Tannoy PBM8s, kind of in the corners at the workstation. They kind of give the illusion of a subwoofer because they're on the wall like that. We know that if there's not too much bass there, we're good. We actually mix adding a little more bass, to the already bass-y speakers so that we never come away with too much bass in the mix. At the console we've got NS-10s and those big JBL 4412s, which Joel describes as big NS-10s. They're these huge 15" three-way speakers, but they are kind of like NS10s. They don't give a lot of fake bass. Then the final test is the little Sony boom box. I just trust that thing implicitly. If the bass is roughing up those little speakers, then I know it's wrong. And usually it's easy to fix — sometimes it's not. Like in a hip-hop session, sometimes someone brings in a really ill bass. It sounds so great on the big speakers, but on the little speakers it doesn't translate, so you really have to figure out how to make bass translate on those little speakers. It's a balancing act between compression and EQ.
What do you like to do?
If it's rock, compress it pretty hard, then boost that 3.5 k. Sometimes that gets in the way of some things, [so] you can't just go nuts with it. It also depends on the bass. Is it a live player? Is it an active bass, does he have flat wound strings? Does he have round wound strings? Is it a Jazz bass, is it a P-bass, is it reggae, is it rock? Rock's kinda easy 'cause all you have to do is dial in the edge, 'cause rock guys aren't looking for a ton of low end, per se, the way a reggae guy is. Different basses require a different bump. But definitely the bump ends up being a bit higher than you think. It's not cranking up all the low end. That's not it. It's tricky. And those little speakers really come in handy for that.
Do you have favorite ways of recording bass?
It depends. Some of the best bass sounds I ever got were from a DI, just from going straight into the Drawmer 1960.That sounds really good into Pro Tools. However, it's really great to have an amp. Some of the things we've done with the [EV] RE-20 on an amp sound great. The Audio Technica 4033 sounds great, back from the amp a little. U47 always sounds good on the amp. It comes down to a lot of things. My friend Jason Mills, who's been bringing stuff over to our studio, has been getting great bass sounds and he's been using that Avalon 737 that's got some nice EQ on it. It's a mic pre with EQ and compression on it, too. The bass has a lot to do with it. Some basses just sound really awesome. And not all of 'em are really expensive. Like the Sadowski basses always sound really good, really big, really bright. Really contemporary sounding. I never recorded a P-bass that didn't sound good. Sometimes certain Jazz basses will be thin. Sometimes adding distortion will really help. John Schumann over at Main Drag Music, Karl and David's place, he just made me that distortion pedal. If you have a dry signal and a distorted signal that distortion will give you that cut sometimes that will help it come through on a mix. The thing about bass is if it's played well, and if it's a good-sounding bass, sometimes it's not about EQ. Sometimes it's just about turning it up. I think [that] bass players that haven't recorded a bunch are not used to playing really evenly. Now I know compression helps, but if you have a bass that has a fairly flat response all up and down the neck, that helps the engineer record it well. So if you slide up to the twelfth fret on the A-string, it just doesn't go like, honk, and come screamin' out. So he has to either turn you down or compress you more than you would like. And you know, your bass. If you don't have the wherewithal to get a bass like that, then write your part around it. Use the bass to your advantage in a song where you want it to pop out somewhere. You have to think along those lines.
What about drums? I remember coming by one day and you said, "Take a look at that set, we have everything mic'ed except the kick pedal spring..."
We do that sometimes, but usually it's a couple of little condensers on the toms, usually a 57 on top of the snare, usually a 421 on the bottom. We tried some different things, like Joel just got these Gefell microphones — old ones. We were experimenting with those. The 57 just works. I know a lot of guys have all the different flavors, but a 57, not an old one, a kind of new one. Pete DeBoer always says, "Is it a fresh 57?" And it makes sense — imagine the SPLs that a snare puts out. After a few years a 57 gets tired. Swap it out with a new one and see if that doesn't sound better.
So, what's the division of labor here? Do you pretty much do the same jobs on different projects?
I think that the best way to put it [is that] if Joel's not here, I'll engineer. [laughter] If it's a really big project and there's gonna be a lot of stuff going on and Joel's not here, I'll turn to Pete [DeBoer] because Pete's a really great engineer, too. These are basically the two guys I work with. I really actually enjoy engineering but there's no reason for me to work on Pro Tools when there's someone that's twice as fast in the same room. I'm a team player. I like to work with people. When there are a lot of people in the studio, if there are two of you, it's easier to entertain and get the job done. A lot of the people that come here never had to have a recording budget, so they don't really know how it works. So a lot of the times I'm not really producing someone's record, but, in essence, I'm doing a lot of the same things that a producer will do. I guess in the end I'm the one who has to make the executive decisions about where we're going to spend the money, but it does feel like a partnership, energy-wise. We both like to hit the ground running when we start, helping people make a record.