On a bone-cold day I rushed up Varick Street in lower Manhattan in an effort to be on time to interview a certain producer with stellar credentials, a man whom I had volunteered to interview with great enthusiasm, a man with possibly the coolest name in the business: Australian- born Victor Van Vugt. In my mind I had conjured an image of a grey-haired, bearded, perhaps bespectacled or wild- looking gentleman in his 50s. I guess these curious notions sprung from the fact that the man has been professionally involved in music since the early '80s as live sound engineer for The Fall, the Go- Betweens, the Pogues, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. At this time, in London, he began producing and engineering in earnest. Whatever the reasons, I had pictured a somewhat grizzled, party- hardened veteran. Buzzed up to his fifth- floor sublet, I realized immediately that the only accurate preconception I had was of a "gentleman". Victor turned out to be a warm, youthful soul with an almost sprightly countenance and a face that shone with humor and wisdom. He immediately offered me some tea, and we proceeded to have a discussion on how one makes a proper cup.
Victor struck me as a methodical, incredibly positive, balanced and confident force, a man not adverse to any form of technical experimentation, with enough savvy to pull it off, yet a producer who always puts the band's interests first. No doubt stemming from his self-taught beginnings as a teenager working live sound in Melbourne's underground rock clubs, Victor is and remains a true fan of the artists with whom he works. His discography includes PJ Harvey's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, Luna's Penthouse, The Walkabouts, Nick Cave and The Bad Seed's The Good Son and Murder Ballads, and Beth Orton. His enthusiasm was evident in the story he told of his first experiences working with bands. It turns out that he had confidence in his skills even before he had any skills at all! I asked him the obligatory question.
How did you get involved in this whole business?
I lied my way. [laughter] I was 15 or 16, just playing in bands. I went and saw this band play, and I just thought that they were the most ridiculous band I'd ever seen. They were amazing, but I'd never seen anything like it in my entire life. I really thought they'd just got out of a mental asylum. They were just generally weird people. So after the show it was almost a dare from my friends to introduce myself to them. I spoke to the lead singer and we got on really well, he was really nice. Somehow he asked me if I could mix. And they were just playing in a tiny bar with 30 people and vocal PA. So I said, "Yeah, I can mix." He said, "Do you want to be our mixer?" I said, "Yeah, I'd love to be your mixer." I was living with my parents in the suburbs [and] later in the week I got a phone call from the singer. "We're gonna be playing this Friday night, do you want to mix us?" I said, "Yeah!" So I missed out on school, hitchhiked into town and turned up. They were supporting a really successful band at the time, and they were playing to like 1,500 people and there's this huge mixing desk. I was like, "Oh my God! This is going to be like hell." I was really full of myself, [a] cocky 16-year old, and I went to the guy who owned the PA. "I'm their mixer. I don't really know how to use this particular brand of board. Could you run through it?" And he obviously caught on to what was going on. So he pretty much mixed the show. And he must have done an amazing job. It was probably the first time they'd played through a big PA, and probably the first time they'd had a professional mixer. He just did a great job. There were a lot of people there — their friends, some of their influentials, members of the Birthday Party were there.
Who was this band?
They were called the Moodists. Their lead singer was a guy called Dave Graney. They're from Melbourne. I went backstage after the show to get some beer, and all their friends just told them it sounded amazing, they never sounded so good. So I went in and they [said], "Victor, you're a genius!" "Yeah, thanks. Where's the beer?" [laughter] So I got the job. A couple weeks later, the Moodists won a free day in a 24-track recording studio. And they asked me to come in to the studio. In those days (this is like early '80s in Melbourne) it was a real changeover period. The new music didn't exist. And it was always a battle for bands to do the new music. I just came in and [said to the engineer], "Can't you just make the whole thing louder?" And he'd just take the master fader and say, "It's louder." I was just giving him a really hard time. I'd never been in a studio before in my life, you know. Anyway, it was released on an independent label or something, and they actually gave me production credit on it, which was really nice of them. They liked the fact that I was on their side. The bass player from the Birthday Party brought this single over with him when they first went to England. He's playing it in his apartment one night, and there's an NME journalist with him just partying with him — he gave it as the single of the week in NME. In those days it had never happened before. A young, independent, Australian band just hadn't had oversees recognition, so it was kind of a big thing. All of a sudden I start getting phone calls from all these other Australian bands. I can sort of remember flying up to Sydney, [after I was asked] to make a record. And I told my parents I was going to a school camp. And I told my school that I was going away with my parents. I can still remember seeing the person who flew me up at the airport, expecting this producer with this weird name that no one's ever heard, but [who] was successful in Europe — they all thought I was European. His face, when I turned up at the airport a 16-year old. [laughter]
You must have picked up some knowledge on the first few projects.
I guess I'm blessed with some technical ability. But I think it was more, as I said earlier, just having someone on [the band's] side in the studio was so important to them. Even though I didn't really know what I was doing. And in the early days there was always an engineer there. I was one of the few people around that was really into the same post punk/new wave thing. For my lack of skills, knowledge — all that — I was such an enthusiastic 17 year-old. I think they appreciated that, rather than just having some old- school guy to make them sound like some '70s classic rock band. And that's pretty much how it happened. Eventually I just got more and more work. The Moodists ended up getting a deal in England. I was going to film school at the time. I never thought I'd be doing [music] as a living. They asked me to come over to produce their album for an English label. So originally I thought I would go over for six months but as soon as I arrived I just stayed. [After I arrived] the manager of The Fall, who was like my total favorite band at the time, rang me up and just said, "Look, I've heard about you. I manage the Fall. We're playing a show tomorrow night at Reading University, do you want to do our live sound?" I couldn't believe it. So 24 hours after I landed I'm hanging out with Mark Smith, doing the Fall's live sound. There's no way I'm coming home!
This would have been '82?
Eighty-three, actually. Really soon after that, I met up with the Go-Betweens, I met up with Nick Cave, and all those Australian bands that decamped there in the '80s. And they all liked me being around — partly 'cause being Australian is a like-minded thing. We're all friends, we'd all hung out together. So I was really busy doing small records, and also doing the live sound, touring and stuff. Live sound was my bread and butter, but my ambition was to be a record producer.
You actually started out as a record producer.
Yeah, and worked my way down! [laughter] To an engineer! I taught myself how to engineer on the job.
So at which live sound gig did you actually feel like you were mixing and had a handle on what you was going on?
I mixed my first gig at age 16, so for the first two years I was doing three gigs a week or so. And then in those two years I'd also built a little studio in my parent's garage. I actually recorded a couple EPs, which were quite good. A friend of mine was the son of the guy who had the sole importing rights for Yamaha gear. I managed to get a Yamaha desk on loan and I bought a reel- to-reel 4-track and a couple cheesy compressors and cheesy microphones and we set up in my parent's garage. So I was already experimenting. Those two years were quite formative, I guess. And then when the Birthday Party broke up, and Nick [Cave] was getting his solo thing together, I'd met Mick Harvey, his main musical right hand man, and we got along really well. He asked me to do live sound for the Bad Seeds (which I did until 1995). I had a really luxurious position with them, and they were really great. I wanted to be a record producer, and I was learning the trade, but obviously it took awhile to be able say I can do this full time. And so I'd always been able to pick and choose which tours I'd do for them. I was really lucky. But what I'd always wanted to be was a producer. You can't just say, "I'm a record producer", so that's how I learned. I never was a tape op, or an assistant. I taught myself how to engineer on the fly. The first few records I did in England were so low budget that we couldn't really afford to have an engineer as well [as a producer]. And also, I really didn't know what a producer did, to be honest. I still don't really know what a producer does.
No one seems to.
And so, for me it was a really good way of justifying my presence in the studio. It was like, basically, if the band was getting on with it and doing whatever they were doing, at least I was engineering it, so if I didn't have anything to say, 'cause I had no ideas or didn't know what I was supposed to say, at least I felt much more comfortable doing [the engineering], so I taught myself how to engineer for that. And still today, it's a budgetary thing, as well. Probably also 'cause I'm a bit of a control freak and I find it really hard if there's an engineer there, and I think they find it really hard too, 'cause I keep wanting to grab the desk and go, "No, this!"
Who made the decision for you to mix PJ Harvey's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea?
Polly's an old friend. She's been a friend for ages, and she came out to New York for six months over one summer. When she came out she found it so invigorating and so enlightening she wrote the album, just in her apartment. Maybe 70 percent of the vocals and even rhythm guitar on that record were actually recorded on a [Tascam] PortaStudio at home. She'd just come home from a night out, or the next morning perhaps, [and] write the song and record it straight into a cassette. And they put that cassette onto the 2", first two channels, and they played along to that.
We hung out a bit here [in New York], and we get along very well. She [wanted] me to be involved, but obviously she wanted to produce it herself with Mick [Harvey] and Rob [Ellis], so she got Head, who's worked with her before, and then I came in on the mix. Polly, Mick and Rob are three brilliant musicians, multi-instrumentalists. And they were in a residential studio, they just recorded lots of stuff in six weeks. So the mix wasn't just faders up, it was a lot of work sorting it all out. "There's two different bass lines in this. You decide, Victor." We did a lot of work on the drums, too.
Did you do any overdubs during the mix?
Yeah, we did some vocals and we worked on songs. The vocals and guitar tracks were on cassette [laughter] and some of the songs literally she'd accidentally bounced the two together so it was lead vocals and guitar, so you only had one channel. It would actually drop in for the vocals while she's doing it. [Her voice] would literally cut [the guitar] out. So the guitars would be going along and it would go "ka-chunk", silence, and then she'd start singing. It would be like, "Whoops, there's a second of nothing." So I'd have to find that chord from elsewhere in the song and move it around in Pro Tools. The drummer found it really hard because the timing's all over the place. He's trying to play along to a guitar that hasn't been done to a click track. I talked to him about this and he's like, "I'm pissed off that we can't re-record this song. But you know, she's really attached to that lead vocal and that rhythm guitar. That lead vocal is great but we should try to do this better, at least it'll be tight." And there's truth in that, but maybe in some way 'cause it wasn't tight it sort of charms the record. It wasn't a standard rock record.
If you're just engineering a project do you ever get comments on your tracks? Do you often get to hear back from other mixers that do the stuff that you don't mix?
Yeah, positive and negative tracks. I did a record a few years ago, which I didn't mix, a very famous mixer mixed it, and he hated what I did, he was complaining constantly when he was mixing about the engineering on it. But when I got the mixes back they were just horrible, I thought. Anyway, they were used. But just really horrible. You know, we were trying to make two different sort of records — he was the wrong guy for the job. But, often A&R guys say, "He's had a few hits, he's great." And he does lots of pop stuff, this guy, but he's probably used to programmed drummers. What he did, for me, was squeeze the life out of everything. It was just thin and he just didn't understand. I wanted to make a much more ambient [record]. It was an acoustic record. I just wanted to have the sound of the room on everything, you know? It just sounded like a band in a room. That was the way it was meant to be. And the band has always said they much prefer the way the rough mixes sound. You know, he's a brilliant, brilliant mixer, but not for that. And so he hated what I did.
Just a clash of ideals, basically.
Yeah. Everything was in everything, he said. And everything was in everything, it was meant to be like that. [laughing] But I've also had compliments too. I think it's really hard. You record [in a certain way with an idea in mind], and you give it to somebody else who doesn't understand that. And I'm sure it's been the other way around.
Yeah, conversely with you when you mix stuff.
Absolutely, absolutely. I'm sure the engineers or the producers that have recorded stuff that I've mixed have had real serious problems. You look at it in a different way, and I'm not convinced it's the right thing to do, to send it off. I think that was a period of time, and I think it probably works with R&B or hip-hop, 'cause they do a remix of it, it's an alternative version. But I think with more organic bands, I really believe in the thing of beginning to end. Particularly for me, because I do engineer on everything and I do a lot of mixing and I think that's a huge part of what I've got to offer. And I think it's weird when a record company says, "Oh you just record it and we'll send it off to someone." That half of it is really an important part of what I do. The sound of a record is really important.
It seems to illuminate a bad practice. But it happens all the time, I know. "We'll send it to Andy Wallace and have him mix it." It's very common.
Yeah, totally. Maybe for a single, sending it off to some guy. Like, "This is the radio thing. This guy compresses the life out of everything, makes everything extremely bright, it sounds real exciting on the radio." I can see that — I never have a problem with compromising a song for radio, 'cause it's really an advertisement, isn't it? 'Cause the album, that's where the art comes in. I don't know what Head thought of my mixes on Polly's record. People liked my mixes. But it would have been really different [than] the way he would have done it.
I have to ask you about working with Nick Cave. It seems he'd be the type of guy that would know exactly what he wants.
For me it was really good school. Maybe my style of production has been formed through that, because they know what they want, but they have zero patience with technical. Even Mick — who's the most hands-on — doesn't really care about the technical thing. So [I said], "You want this, this is how we do it." They're much older than me. I started working with them when I was really young, so I learned a lot of my trade, so to speak, when I was working with them. The main lessons I learned are: Here's a band in the studio, you make everything invisible, the whole technical side, the whole studio side, you make invisible. You set it up like they're in a rehearsal room. And that's a huge thing. To be quick, too. Working live has also helped that. But none of this working an hour on a guitar sound. How do you get around that? Okay, you put five microphones up, you record three of those microphones, 'cause then you can sort the sound out later. Mic everything up so it's all possible, you're flowing. I've seen some people work like, "Sorry, can we stop that vocal 'cause I just want to adjust the compression?" You don't do that. You do that if you want to get killed! And then it's just chaotic. It's total chaos with those guys. There's a lot of just sitting around smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, absenteeism and all that sort of thing — but when they're there, now we're working. It's just insane. There's that one song on Murder Ballads, "Stagger Lee". Okay, that was written, recorded in about half an hour. Nick had the lyrics and they'd been thinking about the lyrics for ages. But they didn't know how to do [the song], and they were just talking, and this was like the first day in the [London] studio. We'd [recorded] some already in Australia and we de-camped to London. And I turned up early in the morning and set up microphones, and it was all rental gear. But the drums turned up in drum cases. And I set up all the drum mics waiting for the drummer. But I wasn't going to set up and tune his drums for him. I mean, there's a limit! They're sitting in the control room just talking and talking, and the bass player said, "I've got this bass line." It's like, "That's it! Okay." And they all went out and they wanted to just record in the first take. And the drummer was like, "My drums. They're not set up!" And all the band, they were sort of jamming and that sort of thing. So we got the drums, literally, just put it there (stands and mimics setting a drum kit up in 10 seconds), and just, "Go!" And it was first take, first or second take. The first or second time they'd ever played the song through. That was it! And there's one overdub.
Blixa [Bargeld] screaming through his guitar pick up, or something like that. Going, "Aaahhh!" Even the lead vocal, Nick was on the organ, and it was just live to tape. And we hadn't done any sound check or anything. I thought we'd do sound check but they just had this moment of inspiration. I hadn't done the drums at all. And they were playing and it was like, "Come on Victor, come on!" "Okay, record!" Obviously we had to work on the drum sounds a lot [in the mix]. But it's that sort of thing where you try to make it as seamless as you possibly can. It is chaotic, and it can be really frustrating. And actually in that session, the assistant engineer just looks at me and says, "You are going to die if you keep working with these guys." And left!
What studio was this?
That was at Wessex Studios. We did like ten days in Australia, we did six at Wessex and that was it. It was pretty much live to tape. That record was meant to be a side project. It was meant to be the soundtrack to a movie that never got made.
Oh really? That's one of his best selling records.
It's definitely his best selling record. The duet with Kylie [Minogue] really helped that. It was meant to be rough and ready. It was meant to be like Blood on the Tracks or something like that. But because of the duet with Kylie and also that thing with Polly, it became his best selling record. It's just sort of ironic because it was done really quickly.
Was there a dark, murder-type atmosphere surrounding [the sessions]?
No, it was hilarious, everyone was laughing. I mean it was actually really fun doing that record. It was really hard work, 'cause it was done so quickly.
Describe your working processes with Beth Orton.
She's a solo artist. I met her boyfriend at a party, he said, "My girlfriend's got some songs, why don't you check it out?" So she rang me up, came around to my apartment and played me the songs on acoustic guitar. I was like, "This is great, let's record it." We got a band together and went into the rehearsal room for probably about six weeks. The initial demos were this band that her brother was in, and she got a deal from that. And so then I got [hired to do] the album. We got a band together and went into rehearsals. And it was a third rehearsals, a third pre-production and a third auditions. She had a bass player and a guitarist she really trusted. And we were getting the other musicians in, and drummers would come in and rehearse, and we were like, "No." I can remember this drummer [Will Blanchard] came in and he'd been playing in early '90s English dance rock bands. And he walked in just sort of disheveled, as he normally is. And we're doing really quiet introspective folk music. He just came in and played this swing beat over everything. And it was just like, "What?!" 'Cause before that every drummer had been doing little folky sort of drumming. And all of a sudden he just played and I was like, "This is bizarre." I just couldn't get it. Sitting there at lunch after, Beth said, "What do you think?" "It's bizarre. But it's good, isn't it?" "I'd never thought of it like that." "Yeah let's keep it." And then that sound was born. 'Cause before that, no one had done that. Now, everyone does it. Nelly Furtado, and Dido. That folky thing with a swing beat. And they're all programmed. This sort of happened by accident and it sounds really prevalent now. I don't know if we could claim to have invented it, but it certainly is the first time I've ever heard that sort of thing. And it totally changed her direction, made her direction. Obviously she's got really strong ideas and that's a part of it. I was doing my usual thing of editing, and listening to what's good. The postmodern way of production, really.
It seems like the music you're most into has layers and layers, very cinematic.
I guess I'm a big song fan. Genre isn't so important to me as the song in general. Often mid-tempo lends itself to telling the story well. I guess the music I work with is often mid tempo. You don't think of the songs in heavy metal, you think of the quantity or quality maybe, or its aesthetic over the song. When I think of any good songwriter it is usually mid-tempo, and I can see why. There's space to tell the story and moods and grooves that go with the vocals. And I guess, with all the layers — that's what I do. It's funny. A lot of the music I listen to [has] low production values. I listen to a lot of Will Oldham, who I'm a big fan of, that's mid-tempo. And Townes Van Zandt, that's mid-tempo. They're just really great songwriters and it's really stripped bare.
Are you a fan of lots of compression?
I think there's a real art to compression. For me, I really don't use much EQ on anything, ever. If I do it's just minor. We were talking earlier about the source. If you want a really bright guitar sound, you get a really bright guitar through a really trebly amp. Right guitar, right amplifier, right mic. I think EQ takes away from the sound. You're distorting the sound — it makes it thinner and weaker. Sometimes you want it thinner and weaker, but I still think if you want a really bright guitar sound, get a really bright guitar. You're not going to get a really bright guitar sound with a Gretsch, you get a Tele. If you want the drums to be brighter, you get the drummer to hit them a little harder. Then I think the art of recording is the right amount of compression and the right microphone. Everything will be compressed to tape — everything goes through a compressor at some stage. Even if it's something that you normally wouldn't necessarily want to compress, I'll just lightly compress it. Just flatten it out a little bit. It seems to make it fuller if everything's like that. I don't make that sort of really compressed rock stuff that you hear at the moment — that's overcompressed. When I see novice engineers, one of their biggest mistakes, or one of the biggest problems is not knowing how to use a compressor. They overcompress things, or undercompress things. There's a real art in knowing how much compression you can get away with. If it's a shaker or even if it's an acoustic guitar or even a hi-hat, run it through some sort of leveling amp at varying amounts. With the drum kit, the bass drum will always be compressed. Obviously [with] the room microphones, I just tend to take off all the top end of the room and compress it as much as possible through Distressors, at 20 to. They sound great. Or 1176s sound great. So one of those two. Sometimes record it through an 1176 to give it that excitement that those compressors do, then mix it through the Distressors. When I'm mixing, I tend to mix on SSLs, and I definitely compress the bass drum again and the snare, often as a stereo group of drums, or maybe it will be the drums and bass through a stereo group and compress that. But individually, definitely the bass drum and the snare in the mix. To me, compressing the snare just makes everything come to life. Just really makes it so you can hear all the rings and buzzes. It becomes full and you can hear everything. All the shallow hits that the drummer often does never comes out in the mix because where it sits in with everything else, so [compression] can hopefully bring that out, which is really important. The bass drum, obviously, so you can hear it every time he plays. You have to absolutely make sure you're not getting rid of all his accents, but I find the accents you can usually hear 'cause of the tone. And then the mix of the stereo group with the bass guitar is just to homogenize it so it just sounds as one. Sometimes the bottom end heavy bass sound won't work cause it'll make the compressor go crazy. But if it's not — okay, you've got all your drums and your bass guitar together, sometimes maybe even a rhythm acoustic — just compress it together, maybe just a light limiting, makes it sound tighter, makes them sound together so everything's pushing and pulling at the same time.
So when you mix, obviously it's a lot of pulling stuff away and pulling stuff out. Do you EQ in mixing ever?
I don't EQ that much. You know, I brighten the snare up, I take the low mids out of the bass drum, the room mics I take a bit of the top off so the hi-hats and cymbals aren't going crazy when you overcompress it. Bass guitar, you fiddle with the bottom end a little bit. Vocals rather than brightening them up, I tend to find out where the problem spots are and just notch filter those trouble spots out. It's usually something around 500 Hz, and there's usually something around 2 kHz — depends on the singer — filter them out and that tends to brighten the vocal, rather than just adding top. Seems like a natural way to EQ something. I actually tend to EQ more like that, listen to the sound and notch filter the problem frequencies out rather than brightening everything up.
How do you avoid things cluttering up?
Panning. Panning is everything to me, just finding a spot can take hours, 'cause if this rhythm part's there, this rhythm part's going to be here — whoops, I've got three rhythm parts now. Where does it sit? I mean, obviously you are EQ'ing a little bit. There's the thing of, 'This needs to be more audible, this picking rhythm guitar part needs to be more audible.' You've got three choices: You turn it up, you pan it further out or you brighten it up. If you're mixing with a band sitting behind you [and you hear], "Turn that picking guitar up more," you don't just turn it up. Often it's just panning it outward. "Okay, thank you." You haven't turned it up at all, you've just made it more audible. And that's much nicer. Because if you turn it up: "Turn my bass up, I can't hear my bass anymore." Sometimes it is just brightening up, just to cut through more. So sometimes you do EQ to give some definition.
What mics are you using?
With drums it's pretty much a standard thing, U47 FET on the bass drum, SM57s on the snare, usually 421s on the toms. That's usually because I know how it's going to sound — they sound good. Overheads, I always stereo mic the drum kit over the top, then it varies. It's funny, I just got a couple of those RØDE NTK microphones, those new valve ones, and I think they sound great for drum overheads. They sound great as room mics too. So I've been using them a lot. There's a studio in Hoboken, which I use a fair bit, and they've got a C24 which is like a stereo AKG C12, and that's definitely the best drum sound I've ever heard. Just put that over the drums, because it's perfect stereo, right over the middle. Make sure your phase is correct between the snare microphone and that, that's the only tricky thing. But you put that up, there's your drum sound. If you want a bit more of a rock sound you obviously turn your close mics up a bit, but if you want just a relaxed drum sound, there's that and the bass drum, you've got it. It sounds amazing. I'll [also] have a really bad '50s or '60s microphone that came with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and run the drums through one of those [Tech 21] CompTortions. It's for guitars actually — it's got combination of compression and distortion. And the compression is really extreme. I put that microphone in front of the drum kit through the CompTortion, find the right compression and distortion and take the tone off it. There's this really crunchy, real exciting drum sound, and you just mix that in, and it just livens the whole thing up.
Is that like the signature Victor trick?
It's a trick, yeah.
Do you usually try to do that for everything?
I always record it. The thing is, with Pro Tools you can have silly microphones all over the place. turn them off, make that inactive, and if you need it, you know? Sometimes you [say], "What could we do with that middle eight? I know, why don't we get this silly microphone and turn it on." Or if it's a loud- ish track, bring that in, and it makes the drums really exciting. But also you could just do it for drum fills, or if you want to make a middle eight sound silly just turn that up.
It seems in your career you've had a certain amount of serendipity, just running into people [i.e., artists, contacts] on the street.
Totally, yeah. But you know, I'm out on the street. I definitely notice it. If I'm in a good mood and my life is going well, I get so much more work. If I'm going through a dark few months no work comes my way. You get back what you give out.
You've got to find ways to bust out of that.
You're a much more appealing person when you're giving positive energy. And if I'm going out and about and seeing bands and really enjoying it and I bump into people that way... You know, I've [got] so many friends that are really talented musicians and producers, and they're just not out and about, and they're just not getting any work. Work's not going to come to you. The best work, I find, comes to me through contacts and through friends, rather than just through the business side of things.