The last few years have seen more Pacific Northwest rock records go big out of town than usual. Records on tiny labels—some practically self-released and with limited distribution—are selling out pressings and getting enthusiastic national and international press. It is probably not a coincidence that many of those records involve José Díaz Rohena or Dylan Wall in some capacity, two young Seattle-based producers and engineers building impressive catalogs. Though they work separately from one another, many of the bands that make up this region's DIY scene—Chastity Belt, Posse, Seacats, FF, the Numbs, the Webs, Naomi Punk, and more—have worked with one or both of them at some point. Their credits serve as a good intro to what's been going on in Seattle's music community as of late.
José Díaz Rohena, who also fronts the band Neighbors (their debut LP, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, is out May 13 on the Beating a Dead Horse label and was, coincidentally enough, mastered by Wall), initially came to recording as someone producing his own music, citing Bright Eyes' Lifted as a major inspiration in learning to be a producer. "The record clearly said, 'We want it to sound this way.' It was one of the first things that made me aware of that role in making the music," Díaz says. "There's the whole thing about Conor Oberst being a self-recordist in the first place, which was interesting from [the perspective of] writing songs and realizing 'I can do this by myself' and 'I could make something like Lifted if I did it right.' I thought that was really cool."
While working on early Neighbors material, Díaz also cut his teeth at the now-defunct rehearsal space/recording studio the Ballard Mine, producing singles for Portland's Hausu and Vancouver's Weed. His most widely known release to date came early last year when he produced Chastity Belt's smirking masterpiece No Regerts, an album that received acclaim from outlets including Pitchfork, NPR, and the BBC.
Díaz is now wrapping up work on Chastity Belt's second full-length, which was recorded at the Unknown, a deconsecrated-church-turned-studio in Anacortes. Though his résumé's filling up, he describes the process of recording as being "a little scary for me, being in a studio and thinking, 'I need to not fuck up this band's recordings.' You need to set up quickly, get out of the way, and let the band do their thing. Ideally, I want a recording that I am involved with to be about the band as performers—I often find myself giving a little extra push and unsolicited advice regarding the performance." Though the pressure's on, everyone involved seems certain good things are coming from it. Díaz has produced upcoming work by Peeping Tomboys and Zebra Hunt, among others; he also recently mixed Posse's surprise hit Soft Opening, which was released in March.
Dylan Wall grew up near Redmond's Old Fire House, then one of the few all-ages spaces in the region. "It was a place that sort of fostered that kind of interest," says Wall. "They would have these things called Band Pools, where we would get all the local bands that wanted to play a show together and everyone would play their demos and stuff. That got me interested in how the recording side of things would happen." An uncertain year at the University of Washington led him to transfer to Shoreline Community College's digital audio production program, which then led to making records in basements and during studio internships. As far as other producers go, Wall cites Seattle's Matt Bayles's work from the early 2000s with bands like Botch and These Arms Are Snakes—the "tappy, noodly guitars" and "raw, heavy-sounding stuff"—as early inspirations.
Wall's first big credit was on Naomi Punk's heavy art-punk album The Feeling, where he is simply listed as "collaborator." "I owe a lot to [Naomi Punk's] Travis Coster. I got to know him way back in the day and recorded a bunch of stuff for his old band, the Last Slice of Butter, and he's come to me with questions, and I've given him advice for production elements and things," Wall says. After that came Total by Hausu and Deserve by Weed—a record that transformed the sometimes-loose Vancouver band's noise pop into a pummeling, dense, and gorgeous contemporary rock record that found major advocates in KEXP's John Richards and NPR's Robin Hilton, who named it one of his top albums of 2013.
For the most part, Wall attributes getting new work to word of mouth. Justin Vallesteros, the composer in San Francisco/Seattle band Craft Spells, reached out after hearing his work and getting a recommendation from former Cairo booker Ian Judd. (Judd now works at Craft Spells' label, Captured Tracks, which also signed Naomi Punk and reissued their LP The Feeling after Couple Skate, run by Judd and Andrew McKibben, sold it out twice.) The upcoming Craft Spells record, Nausea—out June 10—will be Wall's highest-profile project yet. Though it's a big-sounding record for a bigger label (the first single, "Breaking the Angle Against the Tide," sounds huge compared to the band's 2011 bedroom-crafted Idle Labor) and bears little resemblance to the other records Wall's made, he insists his working methods didn't change much. "I've done a bunch of records that have kind of migrated," Wall says. "Parts are recorded in different places, because budget demands you move to progressively cheaper places as you finish the record up. But their budget was a little bigger, so there really wasn't compromise so much as there was 'Oh, we're going to go to a studio that has a good-sounding piano, a studio that's a good place to do guitar and vocal overdubs, an awesome drum space.' It's an absolute fucking luxury to get to do stuff like that."
Talking to both Díaz and Wall, listening to the records they've produced, or seeing them at shows around town makes clear that they care a lot about what's going on. Wall says, "When I was at Shoreline, one teacher in particular beat it into everybody that nobody's going to hand you a job—it's something you have to make for yourself, especially in music. The more people there are interested in something, the more people who want to do it, the bar is that much higher. I kind of just kept working at it. I still am." Díaz's take is simpler, but the sentiment's the same: "I've just been learning it as I go along, with very patient friends."