Twenty years after his entry into the Minneapolis music scene, national success with his band Polara, opening his Flowers Studio and mid-wifing countless projects ranging from local demos to national-release works by luminaries such as The Replacements, Golden Smog, and Brian Setzer, Ed Ackerson is releasing his first solo album. The impressive Ed Ackerson contains twelve songs ranging stylistically, but all featuring Ackerson production trademarks: clear vocals, shimmering guitars, and enough tricks in the background to keep your interest.
So many projects over the years, but your first solo set — the thing I'm wondering is if you had these songs tucked away?
I think a couple of songs had been rattling around for a while but not very long. The bulk of the writing — I think I wrote fifteen or sixteen songs for the project — happened within a two-month period.
What was the artistic concept behind the project?
I got this notion that if I could just do these songs as completely as possible, immediately, and let the thing stand as this sort of work, it could be an interesting approach. "Talk about Your Tablets" is the mix from the night I recorded it. The whole thing, top to bottom, was done in one evening. "Got Your Message" is the first rough mix I ever did of the [song].
So you'd write and then go in and record immediately?
When I came up with an idea I would literally go in that morning before the day's session or at night after sessions and whack out the tune, not as a demo, but as a completed thing. So a lot of the songs were done in one four or five hour session.
For tracking yourself do you have a different setup or do you use the Flowers Studio?
I work it entirely in the same studio area with most everything done in the control room except for drums or piano, gear that's out in the room. Some of the tracks are funny-sounding because I'd take a pretty minimal approach as far as mic'ing goes. When you engineer for yourself and you work it fast, it's not as if you can be very methodical about it. I mean, in certain places the drums sounded just like whatever was up at the time — whatever snare is up, that's the snare, whatever mic happened to be near it is the mic, and whatever was not distorting in the room and sounded okay was the drum sound. It's that kind of approach — very ad hoc.
Did any aspects of this "immediate" process just not work for you?
The success ratio was pretty high. There were a couple things where I sort of backed myself into weird territories. If you're recording extremely quickly after you write, sometimes you find you've got something in the wrong key. "Little White Lies" I had to re-record for that reason.
One of the songs on the album that stands out as very unique is "...Tablets."
"...Tablets" is mono, if you listen to it. It's very minimal mic'ing, too. If I recall correctly it's just one mic. I'm kind of fascinated with the idea of using dynamic microphones on acoustic guitar. I wanted to avoid hi-fi, stinging, crystalline acoustic sounds that people go for in a lot of modern concepts. I wanted to have a grimier acoustic sound — more like what you would hear on American records in the mid to late '60s. Which, in a lot of cases, would have been done using dynamic mics, as opposed to European records of the time, which would have been done using condensers. It adds woodiness — a mid-range tone to it.
Is this an acoustic album?
It was supposedly going to be! The whole thing was supposed to be super-strict on three elements per song. But then, inevitably, I started adding drums to things. Then I'd put a bass on it. But this record is very much acoustic in the sense of using acoustic instruments and acoustic textures where I would normally use electronic gear. Like using ouds instead of synths for droning purposes. Harmonium or melodica instead or organ. I started getting other weird instruments involved like sitar and Indian banjo.
Would you try this type of process again?
I have another solo record that's just about done right now — made almost entirely in my dining and living rooms while other people use the studio for sessions. The first record was all about stealing time in the studio around other schedules. The new one is about not working in the studio at all. I haven't done a record like that for a long time, where it's all done in weird places.
What are a couple of Ed Ackerson's "Immutable Laws of Recording?"
The first would have to be that sometimes you have to be willing to get out of the way of the moment. Simple stuff, like letting the tape go even if there were some technical faults but really great energy. Like on the Replacements thing I did ["Message to the Boys" and "Pool & Dive" from Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?: The Best of the Replacements]. The lead vocal to both those songs wound up being cut live with the band. Paul [Westerberg, lead singer] had an Orange half-stack about a foot away from him, and he's singing into an [Neumann] M149! You're probably not going to get him to do it again. He won't want to, because he'll want to keep the real thing. Sure enough, that's what happened. The second would be to trust the artist — something people don't do enough of. Some people ascribe to the documentarian mindset of, "I'm just an engineer and I take snapshots." That's one approach. Another approach is to create an atmosphere where everything the artist does is terrible: "We'll replace the drummer, we'll replace the guitarist and have somebody else sing the backing vocals." Neither of those extremes is best for me. I feel you have to trust there is something special about what the artist is getting at. You have to figure out how to interpret it. That's what you're there for as a producer. The artists' job is not to realize the product, it's artist's job to have the ideas.
With your focus on the artist, how far do you go to keep everybody behaving?
It usually seems the best bands will have their own personal dynamic worked out before they get in the studio. Even if it's an ugly interpersonal dynamic, they know how to manage it! I think I'm pretty good at relations because I really try to work from a positive angle. I'd rather build up what's good about a performance, figure out what to reinforce, rather than saying, "Your kick drum technique sucks!" It seems like there are some people who make very special records by really trying to "break the band down" as a matter of course. They come in and beat the band down to make them think that's the only way they are ever going to make something worthy. I'm definitely not that guy. I'm much more interested in trying to reinforce the good aspects and find ways to work around the stuff that is a little bit weaker.
Are you past your period of being loud?
Yeah. On the early Polara recordings — which were all done analog, pre-Pro Tools — we worked really hard at getting stuff as loud as we possibly could with the analog tools. I think it's definitely out of control these days, as far as levels and dBs and whatnot. It is really fatiguing if you listen to things that are really, really loud.
That happens to me when I try to listen to something like Green Day. I can't get past the fifth song because I get ear fatigue.
American Idiot is a real standard-bearer for how loud an album can be. Fantastic songs on the CD — a really cool record all around. But sonically, pretty challenging to listen to. It's great when you're standing in line at the supermarket or you hear it on a boom box someplace, but to actually put on headphones and try to listen to that album, it's like, "Oh boy."
You just can't do it.
Exactly. And anybody in his or her home studio with a [Waves] L-2 can crank up their rough mix so that it's as loud as anything a "commercial" outfit can do. I think it's kind of done now. For me, I'm much more interested in making records that have some depth and are rewarding to listen to repeatedly.
That works for you, but how about at the studio, with clients?
I make things louder if I have to. Occasionally clients send out mixes that are pretty loud and the mastering comes back and they'll be comparing it to the new U2 record. At that point you have to ask them what kind of record do they want to make. What statement do they want to make? I work on a lot of indie music and a lot of roots-type music that is not destined to be competitive in a corporate rock kind of way. I think when you hear that type of music cranked it's even worse than when you hear a rock record cranked, because so much of the dynamic in a small ensemble or a solo performer is lost if you really smash stuff up. You get a horrible feeling like the entire thing is pressed up against some invisible barrier. Like when you stick your face on a Xerox machine. It gets very uncomfortable.
What are the pieces of you that float across every recording?
I feel like my job is to translate the feeling I had when I first heard the band, whether it be via ghetto blaster or in a rehearsal space doing some songs. I want to capture the thing that made it click for me. If I can translate it into something that's nice and hi-fi and presented in a dynamically pleasing way, then I think I've done my job. I really would like to think I present "The Artist," with my job being to help interpret and transfer a unique quality from their performances to the ultimate format.