A longtime San Francisco Bay Area engineer and producer, Eli Crews has been quietly churning out utterly unique albums for the past decade. He is probably best known for his work with Deerhoof, Erase Errata and Why? He recently gained exposure with tUnE-yArDs as the shepherd of sound on their critically-acclaimed second record w h o k i l l (4AD), and with them has become one of the rare studio engineers to move on to touring front of house mix duties. As father, husband, and bassist for a number of studio and live projects, Eli is doubtlessly one of the busiest guys I've met. His working methods demonstrate how he can juggle these responsibilities, inspiring me as a developing engineer. In session, he is brutally efficient. Unique, powerful sounds appear on track seconds after a microphone is plugged in, and his intricately layered mixes come together almost as instantaneously. My association with Eli has been both enlightening and humbling. In 2009, I heard that he'd been tracking and mixing my friends Man/Miracle for their debut LP The Shape of Things. When the sessions were finished, the band had one last song they wanted to include, as well as an instrumental interlude. We tracked and mixed both of these at my warehouse project studio, Shipwreck, in Oakland. The difference was clear: given the exact same taut songwriting and crack players, Eli's mixes achieved a visceral impact and depth in each frequency range that would take me another two years to begin to approach. I was floored at the difference, and grateful for the attentive mastering work of Myles Boisen. After that experience, I immediately began interning with Eli at his studio, New, Improved Recording in North Oakland, to see what I could learn.
What were your first recording experiences?
I started using cassette 4-tracks in high school, and after that I had a reel-to-reel 1/4-inch 4-track. I was just recording my own sound collage stuff, not necessarily songs, per se. I discovered that if you put the microphone inside a tin can and sing into that you get a certain sound. If you use the microphone as a drum stick, you get a certain sound. I was heavily influenced by The Residents' early records, which were largely about experimenting with recording. They were messing around with the tape, tracking at different speeds, and using a lot of effects. Early Devo, too, their 4-track stuff.
What was it like for you when you first started recording bands?
Nerve-wracking. As soon as I shifted over to recording with other people involved, there became this stress factor of needing to get it right. If you didn't get it right — which I didn't at first — then the band would get pissed and you'd end up going and spending money to record anyway. I was in a band called the Roofies, a '60s garage girl-band kind of thing, and we got the chance to record at The Plant in Sausalito in 2000. Our friend Billy was an intern at The Plant, so he hooked it up. I think we had to pay some ridiculously small fee, like $100 a day. We toured the room that Sly Stone worked in, and sat in the hot tub that Stevie Nicks used to sit in. It blew my mind. The Plant has the '70s dripping from it... the hot tub especially. That session gave me a shot in the arm for wanting to be involved in recording. Just seeing the Neve console in there and hearing the sounds that we got out of it. I still managed to screw that up though; I took the two-inch tape and dumped it onto my computer and mixed it myself at home. I wish that we had actually followed through and mixed it there.
When you're a band member with some recording chops, it can be both tempting and difficult to mix your own work.
One drag is that economic concerns often trump sonic or fidelity concerns. I use that as a cautionary tale now when discussing budgets with bands: for most bands the mix is not a good place to save money. I'm generally happier with records that people track on their own that I then mix, than I am with records that I record in the studio and people mix on their own.
I've heard you say that you're not as interested in making perfect albums as you are in making unique albums.
I think that the perfect albums already exist. Everyone has his or her own idea of what a perfect album is, but it's less interesting to me to try to emulate that. It's more important to create something interesting than to create something "good," because I think interesting is more universal. If art is interesting it's going to be interesting to a lot of people. If it's "good," it's only going to be interesting to people who are interested in "good" art. Maybe it's just that records that contain unique timbres and ambiences affect me more emotionally than those that sound like other records we've been listening to forever. And it's not a fidelity issue — I'm equally as uncommitted to lo-fi as I am to hi-fi. I'm not interested in a certain level of fidelity as a trademark or as a lifestyle. My role is conveying a given performance in a compelling way, rather than just exhibiting the performance with a certain specific relationship to fidelity.
Like the server who presents a platter to the restaurant patron with a particular layout and flourish.
Or maybe the "seasoner." Somebody else is the cook, but at the end I get to choose whether it's going to have paprika or sage on it. And that's going to make a huge difference, but it's not going to alter the fact that it's either lamb or tofu. It's just going to color the perception of the person eating the food.
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