Chester Endersby Gwazda isn’t used to being in the spotlight, but he’s certainly deserving of (even) wider recognition. Initially rising to prominence as part of Baltimore’s oddball Wham City collective, the forward-thinking producer/engineer has helped to characterize the sounds of bands like Ecstatic Sunshine, Future Islands, Nuclear Power Plants (for whom he plays synthesizers) and the inimitable Dan Deacon. Gwazda can be credited for much of the voluminous oomph of Deacon’s 2009 opus Bromst, which was undoubtedly one of the best-produced albums of last year. For their forthcoming Thrill Jockey debut In Evening Air (due out May 4th), Future Islands reunited with Gwazda, whose uncanny studio instincts made their Wave Like Home full-length a winner.
The Future Islands sound seems, to me, to be largely defined by the juxtaposition of the slick instrumentation and Sam Herring's affected, snarly vocals. How did you, as producer, negotiate a compromise between these potentially incongruous sonic elements?
[Sam Herring’s] vocals get real snarly, yeah. They also get real tender. I think part of what I find myself working on is snarling up the instrumentation a bit. We do lots of re-amping of synthesizer stuff, distorting things, and adding room sounds. Like you pointed out, it's all part of the sound, so I don't think it takes too much negotiation. When Sam wants there to be an intense moment, he makes it happen. When he wants to sink it down, he can do it. We usually try to compliment the vocals with dynamics in the music, while keeping Sam as the leader.
How would you describe your role as producer? How much input on the vibe and cumulative effect of the record did you have?
As the producer, I do basically anything I can to get the album to sound right. A big part of the job is being opinionated. I know the way I want things to sound, and I let the guys know when something sounds off. It's quality control. I don't always get to have it my way, either. It's not my album, but I feel responsible for getting it to sound right.
I also do the engineering stuff. I don't really fuss too much about mic placement and fancy equipment. It's not exciting to me, and it's not how I get my sound. I really like molding the music in the mix, which is the part of the process I really enjoy.
They're not trying to get a throwback kinda thing going, but the '80s pop stuff is definitely an influence, but so is more modern art-rock sorta stuff. So is...I dunno, whatever the guys are into. The record wasn't produced with one specific model in mind, so it touches on a range of influences. Pop music and scuzz get some special attention, though.
The title track is purely instrumental, extremely evocative, and borderline ambient. How did it come together, and in what ways do you see it helping to “define” In Evening Air?
The title track was actually added later on, after we had recorded and mixed the bulk of the album. I'm not sure exactly, but I think it was written by Gerrit [Welmers] for his side project, Moss of Aura, and Sam liked it so much he asked if it could be included on the album. It had a sound that didn't seem to match the rest of the record, so we passed it through a little box I made with some old cassette players and gave it that warbly out-there sound. I think having these little interludes really help to glue albums together. I really love listening to and recording real 'album' albums, you know? I like when there's a flow, and a cohesive sound. I think having the title track be an instrumental interlude calls attention to that.
More from Gwazda after the jump, including his thoughts on working with Dan Deacon and the critical reception of Deacon's Ultimate Reality.
Having worked with Future Islands before, were you compelled to approach the recording of In Evening Air differently?
The songs were structured a little different from the get-go. The sequenced backing tracks (Gerrit's drum beats and synth lines) were much more involved. They were more complete, and more dynamic. The last album, Wave Like Home, had a live drummer, and the core of the record was tracked live [Ed. note: drummer Erick Murillo quit Future Islands in 2007]. In Evening Air was tracked individually, which gave me more flexibility in the arrangement and tone. More time was given to mixing and editing In Evening Air than had been on previous records.
How does working with Future Islands compare to working with Dan Deacon? Do you see yourself interacting differently with different artists, or do you approach things more on an album-by-album basis?
Hmm...well, working with Future Islands is totally different that working with Dan. Working with Dan is totally different than working with any band! On Bromst, Dan had scores for each instrument, and the task was to capture live renditions of the parts. Most bands that I've worked with (including Future Islands) don't have scores written out. There's more flexibility there. With Future Islands I'm working with every single part of the record. With Dan, I'm still focusing on the whole, but most of my time goes to just the acoustic elements (a greater share of the music is in the computer).
Each project requires a different balance of attention. The quality of the performance and the quality of the sound are always front and center. With Future Islands, I'm focused on getting the energy in the right place. I'm focused on the arrangement and dynamics. Dan's projects need extra attention to the accuracy of specific pieces (the timing of a specific xylophone line, the quality of a trumpet sound). With Ecstatic Sunshine, almost all the work was done during mixing. Working with Cara Satalino, which is more guitar based song stuff, it was all about getting atmosphere and roughness. You see?
You have maybe the wackiest name in music, which is really saying something.
I wish I could take credit for that one. That was the 'rent's doing.
You were involved in Dan Deacon’s conceptual audio/visual performance piece Ultimate Reality, which proved to be kind of critically divisive, especially at this paper. Many people enjoyed it wholesale, while others rejected the project’s pretentions. In retrospect, how do you feel about Ultimate Reality’s ambitions? And more generally, do you think there is/should there be a place in the critical sphere where endeavors like Ultimate Reality and the provocations of the Wham City collective can be appreciated with the same earnestness and treated with the same level of academic discourse as, say, a Nicolas Roeg movie or something?
I actually don't think Ultimate Reality was all that ambitious, and I'm a little surprised that people would think it pretentious. It was centered around Swartzengger [sic] clips, right? I can't speak for Wham City, or Dan (my involvement in UR was solely as an audio engineer) but I'm not certain that artists want their creations to be treated with any specific level of academic discourse. In my world, art isn't created to be discussed in academies or to be written about by critics. Nothing I try to involve myself in, at least.
There doesn't need to be a disconnect between enjoying art in an academic way and simply enjoying art, and everything deserves as much or as little discussion as anyone wishes to put towards it. I hope that didn't sound too hillbilly-ish!