Too often people assume that those of us in the field of music recording had a distinct idea of what we wanted to do when we started. The truth is almost always that it's a wild and unpredictable path we end up on. Vance Powell is a perfect example. Starting off in live sound (from local bands to working with such diverse acts as Tammy Wynette, Martina McBride and Jars of Clay) he also had a parallel path in small recording studios along the way. When an opportunity came up to help build (what would become) one of the largest studio complexes in the world, he was there, becoming chief engineer for Nashville's Blackbird Studios. Projects outside Blackbird eventually beckoned. Vance started working extensively with Jack White III on his groups The Raconteurs, The White Stripes, The Dead Weather as well as many of Jack's production jobs, including Wanda Jackson's new album, The Party Ain't Over and a slew of 7-inch singles for Jack's Third Man Records, including a new release by Dungen (see their interview this issue). His work has earned him three Grammy awards (Jars of Clay, Buddy Guy, and The Raconteurs). Along the way he's recorded with a wide variety of artists, including Keb' Mo', Martina McBride, The Secret Machines, Karen Elson and even Jack White and Alicia Keys' over-the-top production of "Another Way To Die" from the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. I ran around Nashville on a crazy tour with Vance for 11 hours one day and, near the end, we sat down to chat at Sputnik Sound, a fun studio space he shares with producer Mitch Dane.
Where the heck did you come from?
I grew up in Joplin, Missouri. I went to a tech school; I took electronics, so I was with the kids who welded — there was a nerdy, redneck thing going on. I graduated in 1982. At that point, I didn't want to go into electrical engineering — I wanted to be a computer programmer. But I was also the kid who had the coolest stereo! I had a great stereo at home and a good stereo in the car. I had a shitty car but great speakers.
It sounds like you were a huge music fan.
I still am! I'm into what all the kids were into in 1982, like Pink Floyd. My first concert was The Talking Heads. I was in a town where things weren't cool and we didn't have access to a lot of outside culture. But I heard about Blondie and all the good stuff. I met up with some guys who worked an auto upholstery shop and we started to jam. I remember playing a gig and afterwards there would be girls hanging around. I realized I could be with my programs, waiting for something to print out; or I could be at the club with real girls who wanted to talk to me. I quit college. There was a really cool rock scene coming out of Lawrence and Kansas City. All these really great bands would come to our little neck of the woods. I went to this club called Sgt. Peppers to see all these great shows and I just fell in love with making music. I loved the way it felt watching the bands and feeling the kick drum in my gut. I loved watching people react to the music. I went from being a computer nerd to an audio nerd. I started mixing bands and doing live sound. I started working at RadioShack, repairing computers. I was also working at a really cool music store. Working there, I got offered my first road gig. It's kind of funny because the drummer in that band [Danny Carey] is now the drummer for Tool — he was in a cover band at the time. Then I started mixing this band called A Picture Made. We did shows with Sonic Youth, Soul Asylum and Camper Van Beethoven, plus we recorded our first EP with Mitch Easter [Tape Op #21].
How did you first get into studio work?
I'd been recording in a little studio in Grove, Oklahoma, but there was a bigger studio [Massey Studio] in Joplin — the guy who owned the music store in town owned it. It actually had two [Otari] MX-70, 16-tracks, an [Allen & Heath] Syncon B 40-channel desk and a 1/4-inch deck. It was a real studio in its time — it had a carpeted drum booth! The owner, Rick Massey, had taped Maxi Pads to all the drumheads to get that nice gated sound. I immediately took them off! One day a guy didn't show up for work and Rick literally handed me a set of keys. I tried to give them back and he was like, "No, those are yours. You're the new engineer. You know more than any of us, and what you don't know, I'll teach you." I went back the next day and he offered me $5 an hour to engineer and I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. He asked me to get started that weekend with a gospel band. Little did I know how much I would learn! I think the first full album I recorded was by The Crusaders for Christ — Kicking Up Gold Dust. I'm sure I still have the cassette tape in my attic somewhere! That was my start. I worked there until about 1990. That's where I learned to edit tape. I was also still touring with A Picture Made, until they broke up. That was the circuit. You would go play shows with Soul Asylum and The Replacements.
I remember Soul Asylum staying at our house.
Yeah, none of those bands had a lot of money at the time. Anyway, in about 1990, I got...