John Congleton has a lot to say about "character." It's what he looks for in his equipment, his rooms and the bands he works with. This intangible desire seems to fuel the Dallas-based producer's increasingly impressive and eclectic discography.
St. Vincent, Explosions In The Sky, The Walkmen, Smog (Bill Callahan), Clinic,
Black Mountain, The Thermals, Shearwater and Okkervil River have all benefited from his work in the studio — an impressive list. Congleton's also the guitarist/vocalist for critically acclaimed avant-rockers The Paper Chase, but it's also apparent that ego and fame pale next to his desire to retain the fascination that sound held for him since he was a kid.
How did you start recording?
At 15 when my first band went to record, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. I'd never felt so earthed in a process at any point before. Sam McCall recorded us, and he played bass in a band I absolutely worshipped called Brutal Juice. He became a hero to me, and I knew I had to do whatever it took to learn how to record records.
That's pretty young. What do you think is the biggest difference between when you first started and now?
I now know to listen without trying to listen. That's an art. Sometimes I'll sit and watch people listen to a playback or a mix and they have scowls, frowns and squinted eyes — they are listening for the problems. Nobody on Earth listens to music like that, or at least nobody I want to make music for. I tell bands to listen like they're hearing it on the stereo or the radio. If your body asks you, "Why did they leave that in?" or, "Why didn't they fix that?" then it's most likely something to be addressed.
Before you realized recording was in the cards, what were the albums that got your attention?
Some records I still absolutely love the sound of. All the early ZZ Top records are the best rock records I can think of — my dad force-fed me those. To me that still sounds like the way rock bands should be recorded. I also was so into Phil Spector. The mystery of the way things sounded on his records still freaks me out today. They are still one of the only true accounts of audio magic I can think of. I was also really attracted to the psychedelic records that my dad owned, because they always invoked a visual response — sounds like colors. Pink Floyd might be the reason I got into recording, at the end of the day.
What are your pet peeves in the studio, whether from people or equipment?
Very little gets on my nerves about musicians or artists. If you have a low threshold for the curve balls they can throw at you, you probably should go get a job driving a truck. I love artists and their unpredictable ways, and as long as they can be serious about the work, it makes for a fun day for me. I hate dealing with badly- maintained studios — that does get my goat. I want to be thinking about making the artist comfortable, not the patchbay. When gear is all trashed and I have to focus on that instead of the artist, I feel like the studio is insulting them, and that bothers me — or when rooms sound really bad or just horribly uninteresting, and I have to start putting the drums in the kitchen of the studio, guitar players in the bathroom or the bass player on the roof or something.
So what are those studios that keep you off the roof?
Even the rooms that aren't necessarily great can have a lot of character. I like Water Music, Pachyderm, Bad Animals, Sunset Sound and Electrical Audio. There are certain kinds of bands, especially drummers, where you think, "Wow, it would great to hear them in this studio." Just having the room, you can dial in that amount of character by how far you put away the mic. You can leave a thumbprint of this room. If you record in multiple studios, it can provide these different and really interesting levels of sound.
And you have your own place as well?
I have a place I share with another engineer, Stuart Sikes [issue #65], called Elmwood Recording. It's my home base and I work there a lot. Stuart and I have been friends since he moved here in 2001. We found it was best just to combine our efforts and gear for the common good, and it's been a good time. The only negative thing is we are both too busy and need two rooms really, so we have our eyes on expanding to a larger building.
So how does your usual recording process...
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