When ears listen to Seattle's sonic foundation, one of the pillars they hear holding up the city's sound is that of Steve Fisk. He's been a mainstay—producing, engineering, and/or mixing Nirvana, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Calvin Johnson, Heather Duby, Steven Jesse Bernstein, Soul Coughing, Damien Jurado, Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground, and more. What Fisk does with sound is innate, methodical, and unforced. He gets inside a sound or tone to understand where it should stand in a mix, and he possesses a clarity of instinct when it comes to overall mix levels. Fisk thinks with the musicians he works with and not at them, because he's a musician and a songwriter himself. See Pigeonhed and Pell Mell. Fisk also has six solo albums to his credit (four out on K Records, and one on Sub Pop). Really though, what Steve Fisk does best is juggle fire. He throws it up, looks it in the face, and catches it perfectly back in his hand—somehow taking a bite of an apple in the process.
Lord Fisk, you are a guru of sound. How do you approach your production work? What's the Fisk way, oh mighty sonic Poseidon?
First off, thank you. Second off, a guru teaches, which I don't, yet anyway. I'd say I try to let the music I'm working on inform the production process. Also, there are historical precedents that I lean on all the time, especially in engineering. Like, the acoustic-guitar sounds I dig are Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. I don't know the details of the classic records much of the time but can guess the likely mic choice, tape speed, and console. Does that make any sense? I like wide mixes, too. Stereo is still my friend.
Where did you learn this mastery of your craft?
Mastery is an illusive butterfly, Trent. I picked up most of what I know through trial and error. I never studied the hard stuff in school at Evergreen. I've gotten to work in many great places. I learned a lot from my time at Sear Sound. Walter Sear, RIP, was a guru and a font of knowledge, stories, and bad jokes. There's a big hole where he used to stand. The old guard is dying, and I worry about the kids growing up with Big Time Rush records. I've picked up tons of things from my collabs with John Goodmanson, Sam Albright at Velvetone in Ellensburg, Peter Barnes at the Music Source, and Peter Randlette at TESC.
What are the keys to good quality production?
I don't know. I don't like noticing production first when I hear something new.
Who are your favorite producers and why?
Martin Hannett for the Joy Division records, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake for Los Lobos and others. I've studied George Martin, Lee Hazlewood, and Joe Meek. Why is hard to describe. Some stuff is just right and compelling.
How did your mixing the new Soundgarden track "The Telephantasm" come about?
I've been lucky enough to do screwy versions of Soundgarden songs going back to '88. I've done remixes of "Fopp," "Big Dumb Sex," "Spoonman," and some other groovy stuff. With their new record, it just seemed like tradition. "The Telephantasm" remix is a merging of two Jack Endino tracks from a 1987 session. They're eight-track, half-inch, just gorgeous. I lifted vocals and guitar effects from an outtake and grafted them onto an instrumental "jam" track, trying to build on and augment the natural arrangement. It's a little conservative compared to other remixes, but that was what Soundgarden wanted. I did the fun stuff at my home studio. Adam Kasper, Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, and I mixed the end result at Robert Lang's.
What do you think about them getting back together? Do you have a favorite Soundgarden album?
I think it's great to see them playing together again. I like all the records, but Screaming Life is my fave. "She Likes Surprises" off Superunknown is my favorite song.
What did you think of the album Scream that Chris Cornell did with Timbaland?
I have always dug his solo music. He's a very singular talent. And I dig Timbaland, too.
Your band Pigeonhed is back. Do tell. What's the status?
There's a new record. We're looking at a digital distro situation. It could be out in a month or so. Much of it was started in 2000 before our hiatus. We had some artistic differences that a break helped resolve. As far as I can tell we're back full-on. We have an amazing live band: Davee C, Bob Lovelace, Thad Turner, Daniel Spils. I can't wait to get started on the next record. There's a lyric from our new track "Rollin' thru Oakland" that goes, "Just seem like this is a perfect time/Perfect time to get it right."
What made you and Shawn Smith want to get it going again? How'd it come about?
We had a long spell of not seeing much of each other. When I was playing in Heather Duby's band, our paths would cross sometimes. It's been a slow thing coming together over the last two or three years.
What is the new stuff like? How's it different?
Shawn's voice sounds thick and gutsy. It's a home-studio record like the first one. Very out of the box, mixed mostly by hand without automation. It's still funk and ballads, pretty organic vocals, and very little harmonizer. I'm real happy with the beats and grooves. I think it's friendlier than the first two CDs. We played all the instruments, except for Thad [Turner] stealing the show on "Oakland." It's Opcode Studio Vision bumped to Pro Tools HD. My Joe Meek compressor is used on almost every instrument, including the voice. Its photo-optical thing gives Shawn that "Strawberry Fields" tizzing on the lip noise and smacks. Walter Sear sold me the compressor. He was the U.S. rep for a while. There are none of my descending homemade 808 bass drums! My "new" Mellotron and my Arp 2600 synth got used a lot.
Is your production work any different when you're working on your own band or material? If so, how so? Are you able to obtain objectivity?
I make more extreme sounds, meaning heavier compression and more extreme EQ, on my music or work than when I'm collaborating as a writer/programmer/whatever. You should check out the new Volcano Diary record I just finished with Alicia Dara. Simple arrangements and bent sounds. I have NO objectivity.
Have you ever actually juggled fire? What do you think of fire jugglers?
I just changed a car battery. That and a few kitchen accidents are about as close as I get to that. I appreciate the metaphor, but that's a showy precision job. In the studio, you get to totally fuck up and no one hears it, or at least only a few people hear it. I've known some jugglers. Sam Albright is a juggler. And I know a fire juggler. I have no thoughts about their craft other than I respect it. I can't juggle anything.