The most heartbreaking scene in Hype!, the documentary chronicling the Seattle music-scene implosion, shows producer Jack Endino recounting his reaction to Kurt Cobain's suicide. "I thought about giving it all up and buying a farm," he says, his eyes cast downward, blinking with their trademark flutter and belying a grief that seemed unerasable. Talking with Endino over Thai food in Ballard, I feel hesitant to bring up the subject of Cobain's death, but it's the pink elephant I must address. Luckily, Endino seems to understand this, and is forthright.
"It was pretty demoralizing," he says. "Nirvana was kind of the home team. It was like, 'Go team--knock Michael Jackson off the charts!' It was like, 'Yeah, stick it to the record industry'--forcing something good down their throats for a change. And you know, I felt kind of personally involved."
As well he should; Endino recorded Nirvana's debut, Bleach, at Reciprocal Recordings in 1988 and gave a copy of the tape to Sub Pop owner Jonathan Poneman, setting off a historical chain of events that Endino is clearly proud of, but also permanently saddened by. "You gotta ask yourself," he says quietly, "by my handing that tape to Poneman.... I started this whole chain of events that led to this guy killing himself."
As painful as that equation may appear, it shouldn't be the defining moment of Endino's career. Since 1985, he has been recording albums by scores of remarkable artists, including Mudhoney, Zen Guerrilla, Murder City Devils, Mark Lanegan, and Soundgarden. He's a busy, beloved, and highly respected member of Seattle's music community. "He's a right-on, thoughtful, genuinely sweet, even-keeled motherfucker with a killer ear for rock 'n' roll and a finely tuned bullshit detector," says Mudhoney's Mark Arm. Former Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic echoes those sentiments: "He's the godfather of grunge. He really cares, and it shows in his passion."
That passion took root in Bremerton, when a teenage Endino began experimenting with recording on two boom boxes in his basement. In 1984 he moved to Seattle and joined Skin Yard, a prototype grunge band that was invited by producer Chris Hanzsek to appear on the seminal Deep Six compilation in 1986. At the same time, Hanzsek was looking for a new location for his studio, Reciprocal Recordings. Endino suggested Hanzsek check out a tiny, triangular building in Fremont. Hanzsek took the lease, agreeing to let Endino share recording duties.
Endino eventually began freelancing, a role he prefers over being the boss. "Studio ownership is not for me--you're stuck there and pretty much have to record whoever calls up on the phone. I like to be a little pickier and just work with bands I like. When I'm working 14 hours a day for weeks at a time, I better like the music. If I don't, I may as well be at Burger King. That's what keeps me going--making sure I work with stuff that excites me."
What's excited Endino over the years could be generally defined as rock--but not always in the conventional sense. He's recorded four records with Titãs, a Brazilian band whose albums have reached platinum sales status in their home country. He also received an unexpected call to do a solo record for Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson. "I thought, 'Hell, if Albini can do Page and Plant, then I can damn well work with Bruce Dickinson!' It was great--like a Monty Python episode." The episode included a plane trip over England, with the British metal icon as pilot. "I was in this plane wondering how life had led me to be flying through this huge cumulus cloud with Bruce Dickinson! Some strange things happen to you in this career," he chuckles.
Strange indeed, and continuously evolving. "I never stop learning. It's this vast body of mad science--acoustics, recording, and the physics of it all. A lot of things are just happy accidents--you try something you never thought of and get some amazing results."
Endino firmly believes those results don't require elaborate equipment or huge budgets. "The most important piece of equipment in the studio is the guy running the equipment," he says emphatically. "That has everything to do with how it's going to come out sounding--not whether you're using a $1,000 mixing board or a $100,000 mixing board. I've been confronted with everything from ADAT studios in Mexico City, full of dust with the power going out every couple of hours, to giant studios like Rockfield in Wales. I used to be a big gear head--and I just don't care anymore. It doesn't make a damn bit of difference. At this point I can work in a basement and get good results."
He's No ObscurantistSteve Fisk's Cuddly Cynicism • by Mike McGonigal
Steve Fisk looks like a cuddly beatnik bear, but he can be a cranky motherfucker when he wants to. The producer, musician, and engineer believes that bands should be recorded in old-school analog studios, and he's into a lot of crazy, weird sounds. He owns ancient synthesizers, an actual theremin, and an Optigan, but he's no obscurantist. He has worked with artsy rock bands, pretty folksy singer-songwriters, and masters of the funk. His band Pell Mell is among the five best purely instrumental rock bands, ever. Most importantly, Steve Fisk is easily Seattle's most all-around versatile producer, up there with Scott Colburn and Phil Ek in the if-they-were-only-in-L.A.-they'd-be-as-well-known-as-Mitchell-Froom sweepstakes.
Like other smart people I know, Steve Fisk portrays himself as not-very-smart, without being pathetic about it. When asked how he got into producing, he states simply, "When my friends in Olympia started a record company, Mr. Brown Records, in 1981, I ended up recording a lot of the music. They told me I was 'producing'; I hadn't really thought about it until then." The short list of folks he's worked with since then includes the Posies, Maktub, Nirvana, Heather Duby, Low, Beat Happening, Soundgarden, Geraldine Fibbers, Wedding Present, and Boss Hog.
In the past year, Fisk has had a hand in lots of different records. He had a solo release on Sub Pop in 2001 called 999 Levels of Undo. He also produced Chris Kowanko's recently released Spell, and co-produced the brand-new Maktub CD, Khronos, with Stuart Hallerman at Avast. Fisk is putting together a solo record for Maktub founder/all-around musical genius Reggie Watts in his home studio. Then there's Cutout, a project of long, Neu!-ish instrumental jams made with Pell Mell mate Bob Beerman on a weird old home organ. And there's the third CD from Pigeonhed (another of Fisk's acts), which has been in the works for years.
What advice does Fisk have for musicians shopping for a producer? "I don't know, really," he muses. "But if they are 'shopping' for someone, they're probably too fucked up to take any advice, or they have unachievable goals, or seven-string guitars with loud, digital, angst-ridden tracks with slimly veiled allusions to date rape." Um, okay. Try again? "Don't take any advice!" he advises. "Most record producers are smarter and slimier than the A&R person. Make a 45. Book your own tour. Really know what your goals are and what you have in common with your band, if you are dumb/lucky enough to have one. A lot of bands break up in the studio.
"There's also a trend these days to look at producers as product branding, like Versace or something," he continues. "We are passing through another dark time in music where the producers and succubi have destroyed the good bands and made digital mummies out of the bits left over and the few imitators who manage to sell a little product (Elvis begat Pat Boone, Blondie begat the Knack, and Nirvana begat Everclear). Too much is made of who's running the knobs, who's running the label, quoting Soundscan numbers. So produce yourself."
Soft ProducersDJ Nasir, Seattle's Reproducer • by Charles Mudede
The production of electronic music (hiphop, house, drum 'n' bass, and so on) is not defined by the standard relationship between the receptive producer and the expressive artist. That is the drama of rock and roll music. The situation for electronic music is much messier, with leaks occurring at every level of production. For example, in hiphop, the producer works the boards and makes the music. Funkdaddy, a local producer who has worked with regional acts like Portland's Kant B Caught, Tacoma's Azarel, and Seattle's Livio, actually makes beats ("two to four a day," he told me recently), and rappers select menu-wise the ones they want to use.
Electronica (music made by the likes of Lamb, Kruder & Dorfmeister, A Guy Called Gerald, Tricky, and Kid Loco) has even more breaks from traditional music production than hiphop. The lines between levels of production is so diminished that the term "producer" is almost meaningless. Indeed, an electronica producer is, at best, a soft producer. DJs like King Britt and Goldie aren't hard producers because they do not actually work the boards; they have an engineer who does that. They are more in the middle of things, more fluid, more vaporous.
Local DJ Nasir Rasheed (who is behind excellent triphop bands like Dragon Fly) is a soft producer. Though he is familiar with the drama of hard (rock/soul) production, and even the language of that drama ("You have got to be able to draw out the creativity of the artist, without belittling them"), his reputation and knowledge is fashioned out of the airy stuff of soft production. As a soft producer, Nasir operates on three levels. The hardest is as a producer of original songs. Next is as a producer of remixes (in both cases local techno wizard Plastiq Phantom usually does the hard stuff). The softest and most vaporous of all is as a producer of compilations.
Mixed-CD production is so soft that there often isn't an engineer present, and there's never a recording artist. "I have to come up with a concept," DJ Nasir explained to me at his office at Neverstop productions, "and then I realize that concept with the right records. A lot of electronic music is easily digestible, and what I want is something that sticks. That is how the concept starts--finding something that has staying power.
"I like to mix different genres of electronic music together. I like to make them flow. It's all very abstract. But there are real questions--like, are these tracks that people have never heard before, or songs that are making it big?--and so on. My job then as a producer is as a filter. I call this 'compilation production,' and the goal or function is to be a filter for the listener." Indeed, the producer (or reproducer) of compilations is the softest hand in the world of music production.
Built to LastPhil Ek's Enduring Production Skills • by Kathleen Wilson
When considering Phil Ek's recording work, two names immediately spring to mind: Jack Endino and Built To Spill. Both names signify local icons who played major roles in shaping Ek as one of Seattle's most in-demand record producers and engineers.
Ek's career path started at 19. He'd enrolled at the Seattle Art Institute to learn about music, but through a teacher, Tom Dyer, he ended up as Endino's assistant. (Endino, we all know, produced Nirvana's Bleach and Incesticide, as well as a slew of other rock acts over the years, including Babes in Toyland, Gas Huffer, and Mudhoney.)
"I don't know what it's like now, but the Art Institute was horrible, just awful, in the '90s," Ek explains of his experience. "Tom had a studio in his house in Queen Anne and a label called Green Monkey. He took me under his wing and showed me his studio and let me work with him. He set me up as an intern at Word of Mouth Studio, where Jack Endino worked, and I became this in-house--but not employed by the studio--kid who hung around and became Jack's assistant, which meant anything from sitting there doing nothing to placing microphones or writing down what he did. I was his assistant for a year and a half while Jack worked on the Supersuckers, Nirvana demos, and Hole--this was pretty cool for a 19-year-old kid. I was excited to just sit there and watch, which is usually what I did.
"Jack was responsible for my even thinking about going into producing," Ek continues. "I grew up in Bremerton, and I used to come over to Seattle on the ferry and go to Sub Pop because they'd never send me my Sub Pop Singles of the Month Club singles. That's how I met [future Sub Pop General Manager] Megan Jasper and [future Up Records founder] Chris Takino--their first introduction to me was my complaining about not getting my singles. I'd hit Fallout Records, then go home and listen to everything I'd bought--with my headphones on so my mom wouldn't get mad.
"I really got into the early Sub Pop stuff, Mudhoney and early Soundgarden, and it was all done by this guy Jack, so I thought, well, I'll do that. It was a revelation--I was a four-track kid who played guitar and recorded things in high school--but it was hearing all that stuff that made me think, well, that's a cool thing to do. Two years later I'm hanging out with Jack Endino, Huge Record Producer of Seattle, and I was psyched."
Ek worked as producer for Built To Spill in 1994, when the group recorded its first album for Up Records, There is Nothing Wrong with Love. "Up opened me up to a huge family of bands that I worked with [including 764-HERO, Juned, Modest Mouse, Butterfly Train, and Mike Johnson]. A sweet, awesome man ran it, who had excellent taste in music and who everyone loved to death. He had smart, great ideas, and it was an honor to be a part of his label."
Ek has produced every Built To Spill album since, and he's very nearly as big an influence on the band's sound as frontman Doug Martsch. From a producer's standpoint, what's it like working with an artist whose vision is so intrinsic to his band? "It's actually really great," answers Ek, "I think because he does have such a vision of what his songs should sound like. He has so much to do with the structure of the songs, and he is the band, for the most part. But he's open to ideas, and we bounce ideas off of each other, and I try as hard as I can to craft his songs to his liking."
Though Ek may be associated with lush sonic layers via his Built To Spill work, he also has an ear for quirky, stripped-down, new-wave-influenced bands like Pretty Girls Make Graves, whose full-length he recently finished recording. Ek's connection to Modest Mouse led to his role in Les Savy Fav's breakout album, Go Forth. It was a happy surprise, says Ek of the pairing. Les Savy Fav bassist Syd Butler got Ek's phone number from Modest Mouse drummer Jeremiah Green, "and he just called me up out of the blue," he recalls. "I'd never even met him before. It was great."
Currently Ek is "between projects," but it sounds like he'd be wise to use the down time to rest up for what's scheduled for the very near future. On deck is another Built To Spill album, another Modest Mouse, "and perhaps something with the Shins," Ek hints. Between projects? Hardly.
Pop SmartsHall of Justice's Chris Walla by • Kathleen Wilson
From the moment they relocated to Seattle from their former home of Bellingham, Death Cab For Cutie made a name for themselves as one of the city's most beloved pop bands. Though all four of Death Cab's albums have been produced by the band's guitarist/organist, Chris Walla, it was 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes that established Walla as a bright new talent with a knack for bringing out the best of small bands with great potential.
Take Carissa's Wierd, for example. The band's self-recorded debut, Ugly But Honest, presented the reserved four-piece in fine, lo-fi form. But it was Walla's involvement with the band's second album, You Should Be at Home Here, that made Carissa's Wierd (by that time a five-piece) an act that commanded huge live audiences and sold albums hand over fist.
The success of You Should Be at Home Here largely comes down to Walla's ability to make the intimidating process of recording an album less so for a band with little knowledge of how a studio session works. Says Walla, "I think in some ways I'm almost as uncomfortable in the studio as anyone who's never been in one before, simply because Death Cab started at home, on an eight-track. So mostly, I just try to make people comfortable. And sometimes it's hard, because if I end up with a band that I've never seen, and that's happened a couple of times, it takes a day or two to figure out what they are and aren't good at. I think that comfort is the key thing in disarming them about my role as a producer.
"Like with Carissa's Wierd--they wanted to get it done so fast. It was like, 'We'll give you two dollars and a bottle of whiskey if you record our record,' and I was like, 'Sure! Totally!' And we did that whole record in like five days--it was actually one of the first things that I did in here at Hall of Justice--and because they'd never really recorded in a studio before, I tried to make it like they were just playing together in a rehearsal, to make it as natural as I possibly could for them. Also, because we did it in five days, that was the only way we could get through it. And in their case it's a perfect example of making people comfortable, because they're great kids but they're definitely not excited about performing." Walla laughs a bit at that, and anyone who has seen the shy band onstage should too.
Walla recorded Carissa's Wierd's forthcoming album, and he produced a few tracks on Hot Hot Heat's Sub Pop debut Knock Knock Knock. But is it harder to produce your own band's record? Walla thinks about it a second and explains, "It's harder from a diplomatic standpoint. It's hard to have your opinion as somebody who is part of the arranging and writing process, and then have to turn around and tell one of your bandmates that something's just not going to work. Definitely, it's tricky, and when we do our next record, we're going to call in somebody else to do some parts of it. I'll still be involved in it, but we'll have others involved too."
Bloch PartyKurt Bloch's Rock 'n' Roll Blitzkrieg • by Jennifer Maerz
Kurt Bloch is my kinda rock 'n' roll guy. Sitting in a small Capitol Hill café that he rarely enters before noon, Bloch takes a sip of some triple-caffeinated beverage and eyeballs his resumé, which boasts over 60 records he's had a hand in producing and/or engineering in the past decade. It's an impressive rundown that includes both old records by Crackerbash and Sicko and upcoming releases from the Makers and the Model Rockets. He's worked with the harder stuff (Zeke, Mudhoney, Gas Huffer) as well as acts that don't blow your hearing quite as violently (John Wesley Harding, the Briefs). When asked how he's amassed such an impressive catalog, Bloch grins, shrugs, and says modestly, "I think most of the bands that come to me are just loud rock bands that play live a lot."
Bloch is very skilled at committing the wily side of rock to tape. As a musician himself (with such acts as the Fastbacks, the Young Fresh Fellows, Pure Joy, and Once For Kicks), the guitarist-turned-producer/engineer tries to rip the beating performance heart out of whoever he's recording. He's not one for overprocessed, overpolished results, and his studio work eschews scientific methods of operation. "I like to make the recording sound like the band, but with the excitement of a live gig," he explains. "It's never cut-and-dried, but it's nice to have an overall idea of what the strongest elements of their performance are. Do they need to all be in the same room at the same time, or can we isolate some instruments? There's almost no substitute for getting everyone in the band in the same room and letting them warm up, and then recording songs when they're on fire. It's also good to know when they play best. Like, do you start a session at noon, or do they need to wait until 10:00 or 11:00 at night?
"Sometimes the smallest rooms are desirable," he says, "'cause they're the size of the place [the bands] practice in, or the size of the stage at a dingy rock club. Bigger rooms give you a little more separation, a little less panic, but for some kinds of music, that panic is exactly what you want. You want people breathing down each other's necks. You want it to smell bad, and to be really hot."
For Nashville Pussy, Bloch thought the insane punk metal act worked best in cramped quarters. "[The album High as Hell] took five days start to finish, and it was in a room about as big as this room [i.e., not big]--and I know there's two girls in the band, but yes, it did smell bad by the end of the third hour," he laughs. "And then, from the production/engineering standpoint, that sort of a recording is not about what microphones you're using, because the basic tracks sound crazy. All the instruments are totally covering the other instruments. And so the technical expertise that's necessary at a place like that is just dealing with this wall of noise. Every track has sizzling guitar and sizzling cymbals and crumbling bass. That's like, 'Okay--how is somebody who comes from a recording school going to sort this out?' But that's how I started recording. Put microphones on everything and let it rip. Sort it out when you're done."
Bloch proudly says he comes from the "don't need no fancy school when I can learn it all myself" DIY style of education, an attitude that still drives him today. "It's a slow, hopefully upward curve of how to do things," he says. "A lot of people go to recording schools and spend lots of money to learn a lot of basics on how to record. I never did any of that, so everything I learned, I learned by screwing up. If you learn a lesson by screwing something up, you really learn it. If you learn it by somebody telling you the same thing in a recording school, you accept it as the way of doing something. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't," he grins. "How can you know that until you've blown it?"
The Soft TouchTucker Martine's Subtle Artistry • by Nate Lippens
Studio wiz Tucker Martine's evolution from being a drummer to producing other people's records first stemmed from an obsession with noisemakers. "I was fascinated with little devices and soundmakers, different ways you can manipulate tape, and layering sounds," he explains. The locally recognized talent behind records by Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Bill Frisell, Sanford Arms, and Laura Veirs adds, "I gradually realized [producing] was something I wanted to do. It made me feel in my element."
Martine, who grew up in Nashville and spent time in Boulder, Colorado, moved to Seattle on New Year's Day in 1993, attracted by the vital music scene. Once in Seattle, he began recording friends, only realizing that he was more than an engineer when the records started to have a certain quality that came through consistently. "I realized it had a name, and that was 'production,'" he says.
For the past five years, Martine has performed with Four Plus One Ensemble, an avant-chamber group featuring maverick Wayne Horowitz on piano. Onstage Martine does live processing, creating collages from snippets that he samples from the players and reintroducing them into the mix at various times for the musicians to react to. "Wayne always equated [the performances] with producing a record, only live onstage," Martine says. "To a certain degree that helped bring to my attention the skills at my disposal."
Part of Martine's job is turning seeming disadvantages or limitations into aesthetic choices that enhance the end results. "I'm learning how to make these smaller budgets work to my advantage," he says. "On something like [Laura Veirs'] record, where the songs and her voice are so strong, it just takes a couple of key elements to make the right world for it to live in." For musicians like Veirs and Jesse Sykes, Martine works organically, allowing the performances to take shape as naturally as possible. "It's not about ironing out every last detail, squeaky string, or unintentional vocal inflection--if it speaks, it speaks," he notes.
While he works with a diverse spectrum of musicians, from country acts to jazz ensembles to genre-blurring experiments, the common thread in all his work is finding the humanness in the tracks. "I've noticed that a project turns out to be successful on artistic terms when the intent is pure," Martine says.
The small labels and self-released albums' budgets allow him to work intimately and not deal with label interference or marketing pressure. "That's a problem I wouldn't mind dealing with a little more--for somewhat better budgets," he says with a laugh. "But at the end of the day, I'm doing what I love with people I really like, and I'm making a living."
That "Fuck Yeah!" QualityMartin Feveyear's Jupiter Studios • by Hannah Levin
It could be argued that Martin Feveyear's most formative musical lesson was achieved via slightly dishonest avenues.
The British-born producer was playing in what he describes as "a cheesy synth band that probably sounded exactly like Depeche Mode" in the late '80s when he called maverick DJ and session man John Peel. "I was trying to get a break, so I sent John a tape. When I called him up, I posed as a journalist to get him to take my call," he laughs. "When he took the call, I just said, 'John, I'm lying, I'm not a journalist--I'm in a crappy band and we sent you a tape. What is it that makes you want to give a band a session?'" Instead of offering technical or stylistic advice, Peel gave it to the young Feveyear straight. "He said, 'I can't tell you--it's just a fuck yeah! quality.' It wasn't until he said that that I got it."
The search for that indefinable "fuck yeah!" quality in music has driven the 35-year-old's decisions ever since, although he didn't realize he was charting a career trajectory in music production. "I learned about recording through necessity, really," he tells me over coffee in a café a few blocks away from Jupiter Studios, the 24-track facility he's run for six years. "I didn't even know there was such a thing as a recording career, and I had no understanding of what a producer was."
Around the age of 25, he began working for a European tour agency, where he met Seattle band Screaming Trees. This crucial connection led to Feveyear's move to the U.S., his production work on frontman Mark Lanegan's solo albums, and ownership of his own studio. Feveyear's initial impetus for recording was making demos for his own band, but he soon bought an eight track reel-to-reel, a DAT machine, and a couple of microphones. He set up a little portable studio operation and began recording local bands at their practice spaces.
Feveyear runs Jupiter Studios with partner Christian Fulghum, and the pair enjoys a steady influx of independent and major-label clients, including Queens of the Stone Age, Alejandro Escavedos, the Briefs, and Rosie Thomas--who Feveyear is also currently managing. "I'm honored to be working with her," he says glowingly. "I think she's one of those true, undeniable talents that can't be ignored. Plus, she cracks me up!"
Aside from good humor, Feveyear strives to pull genuine performances out of his clients. "I get a kick out of making artists feel they've got something they're really proud of--that they feel represents them." He also prefers to lead artists by encouragement and example, not heavy-handed direction. "As a producer, I feel it's my job to drop my ego. If I start stamping myself all over their recording, it's not their stuff anymore. I think some producers feel that their role is more important than [that of] the artist, and that's definitely not the case."