RL269 - Yelling at the Radio

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: John failed to be quiet, referring to Johns inability to be quiet during the ”quiet is the new loud” era of Indy Rock.

The show title refers to John yelling at the radio when he listens with the ears of a producer and discovers things he would have done differently.

Merlin is trying a new audio interface and John is his first victim. He is not peaking because he hit the limiter dip switch, but John is always peaking without understanding why. He has those little meters on his interface and it looks right every time he looks at it, but when he looks away, he has a peak on it.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Podcon 2017 (RL269)

The Podcon conference was in town recently, put on by Hank Green, his brother Frank Green and the McElroy brothers. No-one had called John! Some fans told him that they were coming through town and a local journalist asked John to introduce him to the McElroy brothers because apparently they had mentioned him from the stage on their show. They always thank John at the end of every episode and tell the listeners where to get a copy of John’s album, which is wonderful, but they still didn't invite him to the Podcon happening in his own town!

John was up early to meet a friend friend for coffee who was here to see the Con before he was recording with Merlin (which is Monday morning at 10:00am Pacific time). He got up, started the truck to let it warm up, got out with a glove and wiped the frost off the windows, drove to Randy’s, had a chicken-fried steak and eggs and he was back in the saddle at 10:03am. After the recording he is going to a radio appearance, then he is going to his psychiatrist and then he is going to fancy dinner somewhere - all in one single day to make up for all the other days where he doesn’t do anything.

In the Air tonight (RL269)

On the way home John started singing Phil Collins’ first solo hit ”In the Air Tonight” Of course he was having the usual thoughts about it, like ”What an unusual single! What an extraordinary choice to have as a first single, who would have thought?” Then he did this thing that he very rarely does: While he was at this two-minute traffic light, he was going to get a little bit more familiar with In the Air Tonight, a song that he knows as well as his own shirt. He looked at the lyrics because they have so much story in it. He was assuming that there would be some lyrics he didn’t know, like some third verse that he had never really looked at and that would gobsmack him when he would read them. John was disappointed as it turned out that he knew them all. There are only two verses and he could sing it through right now. It is even more of an accomplishment that there is nothing in those lyrics. For a long time the story went around that he was watching somebody drown or watching Sting kill his first wife in 3/4 time, but the language is very broad and he could just be mad at his neighbor or having an argument with his sister. Still we add all that menace to it because it is in his voice and the sound of foreboding.

In the Air Tonight is one of those songs that are famously hard to do at karaoke because it has a lot of space and atmospherics to it. It was around the time when Peter Gabriel was doing similar productions with great success. The first three Peter Gabriel albums had a real feel to them, but they had no cymbals! He took the cymbals away! Drummers hate that and he was the first one to ever do it! They talk about Peter Gabriel’s first album being produced by Bob Ezrin! If John was reading a copy of Tape Up magazine, he would be throwing elbows and would be right in the thick of it.

Production choices for the first Long Winters album (RL269)

When you are young and listen to music only as a listener, you are not conscious of production and you don’t hear the work of the producer. All of us who grew up during a guitar pop era first became aware of production when we learned about George Martin and wondered why The Beatles were so good. As you get schooled on it, you start hearing the production on a lot of things like Bohemian Rhapsody. You hear all those stories, like John Bonham wouldn’t let them put the microphones close to the drums. During the making of Pink Floyd albums they used tape loops that Alan Parsons came up with. You hear the story when they were making Rumours (Fleetwood Mac) and they could see through the tape because they had done so many takes on it.

When you get into making records, you get confronted with production as a very real thing that you are deeply engaged in. John had some profound production moments during the recording of the first Long Winters record, because he was collaborating with Chris Walla, Ken Stringfellow and Sean Nelson and he can think back to a couple of key moments where a production choice not only determined the sound of the album, but the sound of the band thenceforth. He thinks of those moments as turning points and at least in one case he wishes he had gone in the other direction.

They were experimenting with a song that did not yet have a band arrangement. Some were been Western State Hurricane songs that John had changed up a lot as he was trying to reinvent stuff. He was trying to go from a band that was pretty post-grunge hard rock. They were a loud band making Indy Rock in the ”quiet is the new loud” school, but John failed to be quiet. He sat down tinkering at a piano and in the process he hit upon this sound of the Roland Juno-106 Synthesizer, an instrument with a lot of parameters that can sound like a lot of things. They ran the synthesizer into a big Muff Fuzz pedal and it created this extremely pleasing fat wall of thick fuzziness, like a giant love caterpillar came into the room and wrapped John in his 5000 little stubby green arms.

It is not like they were the first band to ever run a synthesizer into a big Buff, but it created a sound that John heard in his soul, because it sounded like a really big fat guitar that had no strumming. You could play chords and make all the transitions, but there was no rhythmic aspect to the chords and you could put guitars and bass on it while underneath it there would be that low tone, this wall that would communicate this biggest Rockest sound to John. His eyes were as wide as saucers and in his mind he was reinventing everything! This wasn’t during mixing, but they had been far along in the recording and John wanted this on everything. It was the sound! When ”My Bloody Valentine” made Loveless, they took a Jazzmaster (Fender guitar), ran it into a big Muff and put it on everything. There are 100s of examples of bands, like The Strokes who hit upon that vocal sound that made that record.

John's discovery happened on Mimi and next it belonged on Copernicus. Mimi is a very thick production with a lot going on. John didn’t want that keyboard part to be the loudest thing in the mix, but he just wanted it existing. The chords had this additional fatness that would make a unifying sound for an album and for a band. John has no idea whether or not that sound would have appealed to people more than the sound they went with and it is not a thing that is worth speculating about. The Long Winters weren’t a band yet and they weren’t trying to capture their sound, but John was in the rare position of being able to say that this was the sound of a new band.

John came in the next day and was like ”Let’s call that up”, but Chris said that he had tried to make it work, but couldn’t really make it work, so he had recorded over it. Chris perceived himself as the producer and it wasn’t the direction he heard the band going. They had an argument about it, but Chris had already erased it. It would have been a change of direction because they had already been quite far in the making of the record. In a situation like that you feel that you don’t have the time to do this because you have to get this album done, but 15 years later John realized that they had all the time in the world to make those decisions. You have your whole life to make your first record, but you only have a year to make your second record! That’s the thing about the first Long Winters record: At the end it was what it was and because it was a first record, it established the tone of the band going forward.

This wasn’t the sound of production that Chris had in mind and he didn’t see his job as facilitating the artist, but as a guide, a collaborator or a co-author. From the second record on, John took a much greater hand in making production decisions for better and for worse. As he learned more and more about production and heard it more and more, he couldn’t listen to a record anymore without hearing the production until production was his primary path into music. John arrived at a place where if the production didn't grab him right away, he doesn’t want to hear it. The Canadian band ”Always”, the new ”Portugal. The man” song and Beck-records all have great production.

Bad production is like listening to a bad podcast. His shoulders hunch up, he gets this just-sucked-on-a-lemon face and he has to get out of it. Anything with vocoder on it is bad production, even more than autotune. Vocoder in particular is an effect that is considered almost ”de rigueur” (?). It was superfluous on that Kanye record that came out! Within the autotune/vocoder genre it is as necessary to the sound as distorted guitars are to metal, but John finds it so dull-witted. When he hears it, he is out! The same is true of super-gloss on stuff where everything has been glossed to the point where it is not even conceivable that there would be imperfection in it. For vocoder, you go back to Zapp and Roger (Troutman) or Peter Frampton before that. Zapp and Roger put it into an art form, maybe they beat it to death, but they did some more bounce to the ounce. Eventually people like Cher reintroduced it and ”Do you believe in life after love” turned the vocoder from a memory of the distant past to a thing that you can’t turn on the radio without hearing it. There is lots of stuff like that where somebody seemed to be able to take a pretty tired thing and mix it up. Merlin tends to tune out pretty quickly if it sounds like all the other stuff he has heard.

The OP-1 synthesizer (RL269)

That most recent Bon Iver record called ”22, a million” is an example of a record where John was utterly fascinated by the production to the point that he was yelling at the speakers about it. There are astonishing choices being made and John could feel them being made as they went down. He had this experience of ”Yes! Yes!”, that thing you want from an artist: Making a choice that is both incredibly gratifying in a way where it feels like obvious / almost pandering to his bassist needs, but also completely surprising and it doesn’t feel trite. If you keep scratching on the surface you realize that so much of our media is based on nostalgia and how much stuff is repackaging something familiar.

There is this keyboard called the OP-1, a beautifully machined little synth made in Stockholm, smaller than a Casio SK-1 and longer but thinner than a paper-back book. John saw it for the first time when Mr Gizmo Jonathan Coulton had it and since then he saw it in the hands of a lot of musicians he respected. It gets pulled out of bags backstage all the time! It is very gratifying to have in your hands, it is surprisingly heavy with no plastic on it, the keys feel satisfyingly solid, and it is not cheap at all. It has all this processing power, it has a sequencer, you can loop, it has drums in it and you can make all kinds of music with it. The problem is that it is $1000, so it was the type of thing where John first thought that he needed to get one of those, but then he realized that it is not cheap. The Casio SK-1 was cheap when it was new and later John found them at thrift stores for $5-10. The money for the OP-1 feels absolutely worth it.

It turned out that almost everything on the record ”22, a million” was either made with or run through an OP-1, that little fucking gizmo! That is Bon Iver’s whole trip! He made his first record out in his dad’s cabin on a tape machine made of a beer bottle and a raccoon tail. When ”22, a million” came out, John thought ”Hoho, now you are Mr. got-all-the-money-in-the-world and you are making a $1 billion record in a studio!", but in fact it is just him with this fucking little thing. When John was yelling at the production, it was the best kind of yelling at the radio: He could feel himself in the producer chair and he heard those tiny choices that he disagreed with. ”No, you put the effect on it the first time, but leave it off the second time!” This is what it is like to interact with a brilliantly produced thing: Not as a passive listener, not as somebody who is ”wow, how did you do that?” but as somebody who knows that they have agonized over whether or not to do that and in the end they chose to do it, but if John were there, he would have argued against it. That kind of relationship to production is like when you become a musician and for the first time hear the bass line in ”God only knows” and now you can never hear it without hearing that triangle.

John wanting to be a producer (RL269)

John wants to be a producer! It is an art that he really identifies with! He wants to help the musician find what they want, but then also advocate for things like ”What if we didn’t do it on the second one? What if we didn’t go back?” John wants to be way beyond an engineer, but not to the point where he is just a name that gets slapped on it, but he would have a palette of things that may accomplish what they have told him to do. In fact, John doesn’t want to be an engineer at all! He knows enough about that aspect to say: ”I want to side-chain this so it only triggers the reverb when it goes above this” and the engineer knows what John is talking about. He wants to know the technology enough to be able to express what he wants and what he means, like the director is to the DP / cinematographer. You can describe it, but you got people for executing it. John wants to be in the trenches with artists making music, because it is really hard to be the writer, director, star and producer of your own film. Even if you are the writer, director and star, there is generally a producer.

There have been quite a few artists who have considered John as the producer, but he has only ever produced 3 albums that were not connected to him. The most popular one was Shelby Earls debut record ”Burn the boats” and he is super-proud of it. He also produced a record for Eric Howk who is currently the guitar player in ”Portugal. The man”. He is a very mercurial guy and he unfortunately never released it. It is a brilliant record, but he had whatever insecurity about it and then he was like ”we made that 10 years ago and it is not really relevant anymore”. Then John produced a record for his niece, Elisabeth Roderick that he is also super-proud of, but it is probably hard to find. John was in the running to produce Kathleen Edwards’ record ”Voyageur”, but then she started dating Bon Iver who was at that moment number one on the producer charts. John had a lot of angry things to yell at the speakers listening to that record, because he made a lot of choices for her music that felt obvious to John. She is a female singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar, so you make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but that is probably not what she wanted in her life at the time. It was probably hard for her to say that, because Bon Iver was producing her record and she was also in a relationship with him. John and her had been talking production already and he wanted to make that album sound like the first Pretenders record.

The problem is that the life of a producer is not the life John wants. He has a lot of friends who are producers and that is the career they chose for themselves. It is very gratifying work, but you never see the sun. You go from one completely encompassing project to the next, you work in the studio for 3 weeks with these musicians who are frantically scrambling to get their vision down and you shepherd it all the way from zero to a fully fledged thing. You have to be comfortable with the idea that you don’t have all the time in the world, like "That’s the take! Moving on!", which is sometimes anti-perfectionism. You make choices and you go until you have a finished product. At the beginning of the record, it could be any one of 1000 things, but at the end of a record it is what it is. You can scrap it and make it again differently, but you are probably not going to, because you made it.

John wouldn’t want to do this job all year long. He wouldn’t want to make 12 records in a year because it would be overwhelming. He would love to make one or two records a year with somebody. Every time Death Cab goes in to make a record, he tells them that they should let him produce it. In fact, they are making a record right now. John doesn’t think they understand how fantastic a job John would do as their producer, but it is not a thing that could ever happen. Every time he brings it up, there is that ”Hahaha” and then a little bit of fear in their eyes that he is serious, like when Merlin asks John if he can drive.

Merlin couldn’t be a producer, because it requires a skillset that makes his mind swim. A lot of people in the music world think it is a set of skills that could be learned, but there is so much effort put into recording software and recording gear of all kinds. There are so many boxes and so many instruction manuals! The era of home recordists has produced thousands of people who could legitimately describe themselves as producers, because they have produced albums on their Mac. They read the data, they tried things out, they listened to other records, they got really good sounds, ultimately they were able to competently engineer a record. There is an art that can not be learned! There is feel and emotion and when you are talking to musicians about making a record or when you are shepherding that process, you are dealing with the incredible world of this peak-ego moment for people, but it is also the place where they are most vulnerable. Their music is coming from some place inside them that they are maybe not in contact with directly, which is why it is coming out as music.

The producer is paid to raise above all of that. You are empowered by somebody to be the project manager for this piece of art, which is a lot of responsibility. At a crucial level you need to be right down in the blood and guts of it with people, because there are a million producers out there who have learned to do it on their Mac. The singer has recorded a take and asks ”How is that?” and the person on the other side is ”It was good, how did it sound for you?” which is not helpful at all! Not to diminish the job of the engineer and their skills to make sounds in a studio turn out amazing, but having mostly mastered that and being able to say to try it this way or do that vocal one more time is a very different skill than recording something that doesn’t overdrive the speakers. You go from competent to this hazy cloudy world of value judgements, let alone being able to sit down with the singer and go ”You are singing this from a place that is not completely believable, because it feels like you are singing it from a space where you are examining the protagonist. The song is written in a language as though the protagonist truly believed his situation and not that he was being examined by someone who is smarter than him. You are the singer, you have written this song in this person’s voice and now you are afraid to be that person in the studio. You are thinking you are smarter than that person and you are singing it with your tongue in your cheek and it is not reading.”

You need to be able to say that to a singer in the language of the person you are talking to, so they go ”Right!” One way to accomplish that is to stop having your voice coming from behind your eyeballs and start trying to make your voice come from between your nipples. You need to be able to connect the intellectual experience of the singer not singing it truthfully and giving them a physiological queue that sounds crazy to someone who isn’t a singer. Comparing that job to an engineer is like saying that this guy is a genius at making that race car motor run really great, so that means that he will probably also be a great team owner and a great driving instructor. It is utterly different! The problem is that guys who have taught themselves engineering on their Macs feel insulted by the suggestion that what they are doing isn’t production. In the Hip Hop world, if you just make beats, you are called a producer, that is actually the name of the job. It is because the track is just somebody rhyming over what you built. You are the 808-ist, but it is just a track you made and you are not in the job working with the vocalist whether or not they are singing it from behind their eyes or not.

Rick Rubin or Dr. Dre are involved at that level, but there is a lot of music on the radio where you can just tell. As a casual listener you are not often conscious of the fact that the problem you are having with the song and the reason you don’t like it is because the singer isn’t believable within the music that they have written themselves. They got divorced from what they once wrote, which happens very easily. This is why John can’t listen to modern Country, because he doesn’t believe any of it. It is all so corny now! Just adding a pedal steel doesn’t make it a country song. This is such a versatile instrument, it can make so many tones almost like a synthesizer, but it is criminally underused. The great pedal steel players should just walk out of Nashville and start working with T-Pain.

John has been thinking about being a producer for as long as the fourth Long Winters record went off the trail, because in the making of this record he had evolved to the point where he felt he was doing pretty great production work, which was a separate job from his actual job of being the songwriter and the singer. It was in some ways more interesting to him and what ended up happening was that he effectively produced an instrumental record and he never went in to do his vocals. He partly fulfilled the job of the vocals with melodic instruments and it sounded great, so John couldn’t wait to mix it and it was just this frustrating thing that he got to put vocals on it and in the end he never did! He never put vocals on it and the record just sits there unfinished. From the experience of working on that production every day in conjunction with Eric Corsan who has now become a great producer in his own right and who was a great engineer even then, it felt like this was something John could do.

The 3-item list with things to get done (RL269)

In addition to having three unfinished records, four podcasts, and a book deal that he hasn’t pursued, does he also need to throw his hat in the ring as a record producer? It feels like what John needs to do is figure out a method of finishing things rather than chase down another thing. That is a hell of an insight!

For 10 or 15 years, John has this list of all the things he wanted to do:

  • He has been trying to finish that record for 10 years.
  • He has been trying to finish that book for 20 years.
  • Has wanted to graduate from college for 20 years.

Every morning John would wake up with a long list: Put your pants on, make some toast, get out of the house, but at the end of every day he never had a list where he had checked off everything! At the end of every day, the list he had left was ”graduate from college, finish that book, finish that album”, which seemed quite simple because it only had three items on it. It didn't say ”Start writing that book”, but he already had 450 pages written and he just needed to finish it! John spent 15 years looking at that 3-item list and it was a drag to never be able to check a single thing off of it.

John has never been able to complete a project by making small, manageable choices like ”all you need to do today is to cross all the t:s and dot all the i:s” or ”write 500 words today”.

John’s graduation-envelope from the University of Washington (RL269)

In December of 2015 John received a diploma-shaped Manilla envelope from the University of Washington. He looked at it and went ”There are not many things this can be and I think that this is my diploma. I think I have graduated from the university!” Even two years later, John has not yet opened it! If John went online he could probably find out whether or not he had graduated, but he is not interested in doing that either and as far as he knows, until he opens that envelope it is not official. John doesn’t know why he hasn’t opened it. Maybe because it would check one of those 3 things off his list and it will make those other two things on the list even starker. It is not that he waited 15 years to graduate from college, but he waited 30 years to graduate from college. He walked into Gonzaga University as a freshman in September of 1987 and that is 30 years ago, but he was already thinking about going to college when he was 10 in 1977. It is not that John at 49 years old has ever needed to have graduated and have a diploma from the University of Washington, like ”there it is!” When his dad was alive, opening it, looking at it, having accomplished it and being able to show it to his dad would have meant something to him. It would also have meant something to his uncles, but now he is just afraid of feeling underwhelmed.

In the fall of 2015 John got a call from the director of the Comparative History of Ideas department John Toews, the man who took over in that role after Jim Claus died (the guy John wanted to start a civilization with). John had seen Jim Claus in the hospital where Jim told John that he should not put off graduating just because it is not perfect! Just do it! Hand in your shit and get out! John said: "Jim, you know I can’t do that!" and Jim was like: "I’m telling you! You need to get out! This is my death bed command to you!"

Toews was a friend and a mentor to John and because he was about to retire, he told John that when he will be gone, there will be no living link to anyone who ever taught John or actually saw him as a living person rather than a ghostly chimera that hovers over the CHID-department, a griffin, a winged lion! Nobody will be able to interpret all those weird addenda that are attached to the pieces of paper in John's file, all the post-it notes that say "this looks like that, but in actuality it is this because he did that and somebody promised him this", all the dog-tags in there and the lock of somebody’s hair. He said that if John does not graduate now, it is going to be hard later to find anybody who is going to believe it and John has had enough credits to graduate since 2001, but has been putting it off for whatever 1000 reasons!

Toews had John come down to the college where there was a Long Winters poster at the CHID-department wall. John is a chimera, a wrathe who may haunt a grandfather clock! There was all this stuff that needed to happen before he would be able to graduate and John wanted to hand in that thing about Marx he was working on and he just needed to make some modifications to it and all this stuff that he needed to do. He sat down, they had some laughs and although John’s memory is hazy, he feels very certain that Toews was putting papers in front of him and had him sign things that eventually produced this envelope arriving in the mail. He got a little bit gaslighted and didn’t even realize he was graduating. Then someone from the CHID-department at the university posted on his Facebook wall ”Congratulations!” and John was like ”For what?” and they commented back ”Oh, never mind!” This is all the evidence John has! When that envelope arrived, it had icicles on it. He knew a) not to open it and b) not to throw it away, so it is on the bookshelf since then. He could frame the envelope and leave some instructions about what needs to be done in the unlikely event of his death. John worries already that not opening it is weird and framing it would be a weird affectation, although it feels right to do, because then he would be hanging stuff in his house that he wants people to ask him about.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License