While listening to mixes at his new Chicago studio, Jay Bennett rolls his own cigarettes, then smokes them with a Hunter S. Thompson-style filter. "It's a good prop," he says. "I have a certain mad scientist reputation that I have to uphold."
Bennett earned that reputation largely during his six years as a member of Wilco. Not only is Bennett talented at playing guitar, keyboards and virtually any other instrument he touches, he is also an engineer and producer, with a knack for fixing electronic gadgets. Bennett took on some heavy recording duties in 2001, during the making of Wilco's album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, documented in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. He co-wrote eight of the eleven songs with lead singer Jeff Tweedy, played various instruments and co-engineered the record with Chris Buckley. Bennett says he was wearing "too many hats," causing tensions that culminated in Tweedy asking Bennett to leave.
Out of Wilco, Bennett wasted no time teaming up with Edward Burch to record The Palace at 4am (Part I), taping much of it (120 tracks at times) in the basement of Bennett's home in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. Over the past year, Bennett has recorded music by the Sun, Staggered Crossing, West of Rome, Brie Stoner, Mark Eitzel, Oh, the Stories We Hold by Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel and others, while releasing an acoustic version of the Bennett-Burch album, Palace 1919. This spring, Bennett moved his Pieholden Suite Sound studio into an industrial loft on Chicago's northwest side, where he shares space with producer Alex Moore. Bennett is in the midst of several musical projects: a new solo album is out (Bigger Than Blue), a limited-edition Bennett-Burch tribute to the music of Rockpile, and an album with Michigan singer-songwriter Dave Vandervelde.
Where did you learn how to do all this? Did you just pick it up over the years?
It's pretty much just bits and pieces.
Did you have any formal training in anything related to recording?
Nah. Well, I took electronics classes in high school. My father used to work as an electrician during summers, because he was a principal, and we always tinkered on stuff. I've always had a bent for electronic stuff. And then at some age I got a musical thing and started playing guitar.
What was your very first experience recording something?
A dumb, old Panasonic 2-track reel-to-reel that someone gave me. I recorded a really horrible song I wrote. I think it was just guitar on one track and singing on the other track.
When did you begin any serious kind of recording?
I was in bands that did some recording, but I never really got involved in the process until I bought an 8-track, 1/4" Fostex reel-to-reel, and then shortly after that, Titanic Love Affair started up. At that point, my musical career and recording career were permanently fused.
I remember looking at the liner notes on the Ice Cream Funeral cassette that Titanic Love Affair put out in 1988. It was almost apologetic about how quickly you guys recorded it, but I thought it sounded great.
That's just a disclaimer.
At that point, was it a pretty quick recording process? I know that on some of your recent projects — I don't know if "bogged down" is the right phrase to use, but you've spent a long time working on songs.
That's the musical side, not the engineer side of me. The engineer side of me is: Put a mic in front of it, and if it sounds good, it sounds good... or put some mic that shouldn't sound good, and see if it sounds weird enough for you. But I've gotten bogged down way more on the music side. Confidence issues. Too many ideas, as well. But as far as recording, what I do hasn't changed a hell of a lot. I have 24 tracks instead of eight. I have good preamps instead of the ones on the board. I have good mics, if I choose to use them, everything from a mic that came with this Wollensak tape recorder to a $4,000 tube mic. And I'm not certain that either one sounds better. We did some drums the other day where we purposefully grabbed every crappy mic we could. We figured we already have a bunch of good-sounding drums on the record that Dave [Vandervelde] and I are doing right now. I don't know if they sound any better or worse than the others. It seems as the engineering stuff gets easier for me, the more I think about the music and not the engineering. Let's face it: I've never had a song ruined for me by a bad snare drum sound — with the possible exception of "Born in the U.S.A." I have everything that I'm supposed to have to do everything right. It's totally spontaneous whether you feel like doing something right or wrong, you know? And that's where it becomes a musical decision. With rare exceptions, if you throw a mic on something and get a good level on tape, you won't wreck the song. The band can wreck the song, but you can't.
You told me once before you don't like seeing the recording levels that show things going into the red.
Yeah, if you see something go into the red, and you're staring at it, you're going to get nervous — or in the case of analog, the needle spinning around twice, going off the screen... If you saw that, you'd start to think about it. There's a story about someone, Bob Rock or somebody, who just comes in and puts a piece of cardboard over every meter in the entire house. Why do I need these? I'm using my ears. [He shows off the Mackie HR 824 monitors in his control room, which are mounted on poles so that they can be spun around.] I've never seen this in a studio, so I'm proud of it. I sit here and mix until I think I've got a good mix, and then I spin them around and chill out there. So when I'm mixing I'm on the other side, and then I can come over here and listen like a normal person. It keeps the whole band from cramming in, back behind there.
Talk about some of your favorite pieces of equipment.
The more important parts of the studio, I think you can tell. Because this room [the control room] is a lot littler than that room [the performance space]. And this room has a lot less gear in it than that room. So it's the instruments.
Talk about how you set up microphones and instruments in the main room.
I have all the good mics you're supposed to have, with the exception of Neumanns, because I hate them.
Why do you hate them?
Because they just sound like shit. They accentuate all the bad frequencies in everyone I know's voice. Now maybe not real singers... [walks into main room] I don't want to get rid of all the crap, because sometimes the crap is what you'd want to use. Like, I don't even know what that red thing there is. But maybe it does one thing cool. With a space like this, I guess the idea is you can justify holding onto a piece of gear just because it does one thing cool... It's all your ears, you know? First of all, the instrument sounds the way the person wants it to sound. That's pretty easy. Don't get in the way. Direct signal path. Put your ear by the instrument and see what sounds the best, and then put a mic that you know is accurate through that frequency. There's a good blend of new mics, valuable old mics and weird pieces of shit. I think all those things are important.
Are there any unconventional ways you've come up with for setting up the mics?
I'll mic up drums differently if they're an overdub than if they're the first instruments the song is being built on. I don't know if everybody knows this, but the easiest thing in the world is to create left-right space, 'cause you've got a fucking knob on your board that says "left" or "right." The hard thing to do is create front-to-back space, because that's an illusion. Creating that space [is important], especially when you're making records based primarily on overdubs.
I remember you saying you were surprised at how good the basement in your house sounded.
It was a fucking basement, you know? I did that West of Rome record in there live, and it's unbelievable. I think what's missing from most records now is a little bit of kick drum in the bass amp, a little bit of guitar coming through the snare drum monitor. And you can get as anal and in-depth as you want about describing that, but if the bass and kick drum are supposed to have some kind of rhythmic alliance, well, they're going to have a little bit of a better shot at having a sonic alliance, if a little bit of one is going into the other.
So it's not total separation?
Total separation just sucks, you know? I'll baffle stuff when it gets ridiculous, and usually it's bass guitar because low frequencies are omni-directional. They're everywhere in the room. I've done two bands live in here.
Obviously, it's different from your basement.
It's magical, I don't know. There are a few smart things, like that wall is not put at a 90-degree angle. This isn't either... It slants over. So this corner isn't 90 degrees, that corner's open. Alex built that wall at a slant, you can obviously see. The elevator kicks ass. We put mics in there all the time. Fucking beautiful reverb. When I was doing Brie Stoner's record we set up this little parlor for her in the elevator. She had a close mic and we stuck one up into the elevator shaft. On the Wilco record, we did snares the same way we do it here. Just dangle a mic all the way to the basement and play it up here. This is just as obvious as hell, this one here. [opens door to stairwell] It's just beautiful, and you have so many places to mic it. [goes into elevator] This, you can vary the reverb on, by where you put the shaft, or you can run a mic downstairs [to the basement]. We'll leave an amp down there, run a send to it, blast something out of the amp and then put the "Sexy Motherfucker" Frankenstein [binaural] head down there and get some good real reverb.
What's in that Frankenstein head?
Two cheap, 1.5 volt Sony condensers. It sounds amazing. If you think about it, this is how you hear, with your ears shooting out like this, with a little something here [points to the "flesh" of the mask surrounding the ears] to help them funnel things in. You hear things different with varying hats, which, if you've ever sung with a cowboy hat on, you'd know, because all these high frequencies reflect back in the microphone. So we're thinking that, depending on what kind of music we're doing, we'd put different kinds of hats on him. The more accurately to represent the listener's experience.
Part of what someone gets when they record here is all of the instruments and equipment.
I have one policy. You can use anything here as long as you don't ask me.
How much do you end up playing on people's recordings?
Inevitably, some. They're getting me, the equipment and the studio. It's a triple bill. If they want to use all their own gear and bring in their own engineer, that doesn't bug me.
I always had the idea of demos being separate from studio recordings. But with both Palace and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you've talked about how some of the songs started off as demos and then you continued recording on top of that.
Yeah, only idiots do demos. In this day and age, when a guy can have a G4 and a little interface that sounds good, why should he make a demo and then make a recording? Okay, he doesn't have a $3,000 vocal preamp...
A lot of your equipment here was used during the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, right?
Eighty percent of it is the gear that record was recorded on. Period. Now there's some more. Jeff [Tweedy] would use his own guitars, John [Stirratt] would use his own basses.
You talked about doing 120 tracks on Palace. Was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot comparable even though it was a band project?
Sometimes it was maybe two 24-tracks.
But you were building up a lot of sounds.
There's a lot of build from acoustic, build from basic rhythm track. There are songs started from the middle, songs started from the end... every which way. We just went through so many permutations.
Was the period when you were trying to mix it yourself when the most tensions came in?
Yeah, I was just on this vibe that everything was sounding good at the [Wilco] loft. But see, that's not a real studio, so we went to CRC [Chicago Recording Company]. Something went wrong there, I don't know. Jeff wasn't around much, so it was kind of weird. I was wearing too many hats.
Since you first talked about "wearing too many hats" causing the tensions that led to your departure from Wilco, have other things occurred to you?
Lots of things have occurred to me along those lines. Like I've delegated a lot more work to my manager. I'm not handling the money. I'm not paying the insurance and the rent and the heat and the electricity bill. Because I want to make music. I no longer associate pride with hyper-responsibility, overtaxed responsibility.
In some of the articles about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot other members of Wilco said you did a lot of last-minute overdubs.
I missed that. That must have been my doppelganger doing that. That falls into the category of wholly made up. With one exception — Leroy [Bach], at the last minute, had a vocal idea, but didn't have the time to execute it. It's the thing in "Kamera" — "I'm counting down" — these answer vocals. He didn't have the time to do it, so he called me up, like, literally sang it for me, and I performed it. That's the only last-minute overdub on the whole record.
I've heard people react negatively to how you appear in the documentary.
All I know is, follow someone around for five months, they can make you look any way they want. That's a fact. It's probably not a healthy idea to think about> what people think of you in general, and god knows, people you don't know. I would like it if people liked me. But ask Dave [Vandervelde] what he thinks of me, not some guy who's seen the movie. I just think it was weird why they [the members of Wilco] had to come out of the gate with a blatant lie... "Our new start is dependent on denying an old part of the band's credit." That makes no sense to me. They could have made it a swan song, which is what it is. It just caught me off-guard. It was weird. What more could I want in life right now? I've got a place. One of my best friends in the world [Edward Burch] is my partner. My manager [Bob Andrews] is one of my best friends in the world. I've got this new musical partner, Dave. I've got this unbelievable fucking studio with tons of great bands coming in here. I'm in the music business to make friends and meet people. I've got zero time to dwell on the past. My philosophy about recording is basically the same: Whatever works. I work a little slower. I'm a little mellower. And I don't try to do too many things at the same time.
Jay's Favorite Gear
Sony/MCI JH24 24-track recorder
The best 24-track ever made, no matter what anybody else ever tells you, because they're cheaper and they last forever. This is in, like, the last six months of [their] production, 1987, so they got most of the bugs out by then. I wouldn't suggest that anyone own a 24-track unless they know how to align it themselves, 'cause they're just throwing money away every time they need someone to align it.
API 550B and 560 equalizers
For acoustic and electric guitar, bass. This is kind of in the good "need to have."
The good Avalon stereo EQ, which I use almost exclusively for vocals, is again in the "good to have one really amazing EQ."
Orban EQ, — 672A
One is a mono Orban eight-band parametric EQ, which is great for saving a snare drum. It has the ability to [Bennett hits shelf a couple of times to demonstrate a primitive banging sound] and turn that into a big, huge snare drum because it's eight-band fully parametric. It's weird and great. This is the same. It's stereo, so I'll use it for toms. But it's only four bands of EQ instead of eight bands.
Urei EQs — 565T pair
More like live P.A. EQs but they're good and they're quiet.
TL Audio 5050 preamp/compressor
This is kind of a mid-fi item but it's really good for bass.
Altec 438C compressors
This has one knob and this has none. The less knobs, the better. Use these to their extreme, and you can definitely hear the Beatle qualities coming out of them.
Urei 1176 compressors
Kind of are in the "need to have." 1178s are two 1176s in one but for my money sound better on bass and vocals than any 1176. Don't tell anybody that, because then I won't be able to buy them up on eBay cheap any more.
Urei LA4 compressors
Optical compressors, good for bass and stuff.
dbx 160X compressors
dbx stopped making good shit and everything they have out now is crap. These are workhorses. They're professional, but you'll find them in a lot of project studios. This is the 161, which is the same as the 160, which is a much-coveted compressor, because it's the only compressor that will not only not take away attack from bass, it'll add a little.
Altec 1567A preamp
A lot of people think they're too noisy. That's because they don't know how to fix them. I do, and I'm not going to tell anybody else. I'll tell you this — it's not the tubes and it's not the capacitors that make them noisy.
Valley People Gain Brain II
Great for poppy, snappy, kicking snare. Modified with Burr/Brown ICs.