Saturday, July 25, 2015 8 Comments
Here’s where I was at the time……
I was working two sides of one career. On the one hand, I was playing bass in a touring band. On the other, I was a recording engineer. Every time I came home off the road, I might have a day or two before I would go into one of about a dozen or so studios in my Athens-Atlanta circuit in which I working as a free-lance engineer (John Keane’s, Bosstown, Rocketsound, Rock Central, etc) to record another band. I was working with mostly bands in Athens and Atlanta like Seersucker, Fiddlehead, Jack-O-Nuts, Slumberjack, Six String Fever, and Five Eight. Usually, it was make a record, maybe a day off, and then go back out on the road. I had a young family to support and money was not going to earn itself.
The time leading up to making Weirdo was pretty typical for me. In late May, I finished a tour, and went to Atlanta to make a La Brea Stompers record at Bosstown. The last night of tracking, I got home to Athens at 3AM. The next day I was in the car at 6AM to start beach vacation with my pregnant wife and our two tiny children. We got home and I left on a European tour. That took care of June. In July, I mixed the La Brea Stompers record at John Keane’s, which was my home base at the time. Our third baby was born July 30.
In August I started working on Weirdo.
Five Eight was signed to Sky Records, which was distributed by Ichiban Records. I had done one record for Sky, Seersucker’s “Pushing Rope,” so I already knew The A&R Man (I will only refer to this fellow as The A&R Man, rather than his real name for reasons that will become obvious to you as you read this.), at the label. Over the course of making Weirdo, the A&R Man and I had two fairly memorable conversations, the first one and the last one. My end of the first one occurred in our kitchen, with my tiny people playing in the next room. I was on our kitchen phone. It had the longest cord so it was the best one to use when keeping an eye on my youngsters while conducting business. He asked me, “What kind of record do you hear Five Eight making?”
I replied that the kind of record I wanted to make was a raw, unprocessed record that laid the emotion of Mike’s songs bare, “something along the lines of ‘Every Picture Tells a Story.’” This is sort of an important detail. You see, that was not a typical production style in 1993. I had a few friends out there who were really into making those kinds of records – Tom Lewis, Bob Weston, Brian Paulson, Steve Albini – but most records on the radio were way more artificially constructed than that. I regarded what I considered to be these over-processed late-80’s and early 90’s records as likely candidates to seem dated in 10 years to the same degree that shag carpet and Earth Shoes seemed dated by the early 90’s.
When I described the kind of record I wanted to make with them to The A&R Man, he said that sounded great to him. Later on, he would change his mind.
For lots of bands at this time, there was pressure to be the next Nirvana. As crazy as this sounds now, in 1993, this was not an uncommon problem. In the wake of the massive success of Nevermind, hundreds and hundreds of bands were signed to record deals with the idea that they, too, could achieve that kind of success. One major label was rumored to have signed 400 bands. Some of these had barely played any shows. Some were side projects of other signed bands. The idea that someone is going to be the next Jimi Hendrix, Olga Korbut or Thomas Edison just because someone wants them to is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds at first blush, but that didn’t stop the gold rush mentality. It’s one thing for multi-national corporate major labels with unlimited resources to do this, but it is quite another for an indie label.
Five Eight was subject to this sort of thing from The A&R Man.
Weirdo started out with the best of intentions. They had done demos. We were going to do pre-production. We had ample time in the studio. There were complications along the way. I was not the only party involved who had a new baby. Mike Mantione had also just had one and was being pulled in too many direction. At the same time there was a new band member (this is Sean Dunn’s first recording with the band), new songs (most of them are not finished, and Sean has not had time to learn them yet), etc. As a result, pre-production went from 3 hours to 3 days. This would add a little pressure.
Setting up took a little longer than I would like. I generally like to set up a tracking situation that will work pretty quickly so we can get to creative stuff sooner. If it’s not right, then we can try something else. This style was at odds with the way other producers worked at the time, which involved more mics than you needed and every conceivable option left open. To me, that type of session set up is more cumbersome, and more time consuming, adding variables which compound problems that may occur.
The band had worked with a few other engineers and producers before, and would ask about incorporating their techniques. Since I had a way that worked, I would add their suggested techniques rather than replace my own, for what I suspect are obvious reasons, right? I could tell the band no, to trust me, but that might bust the vibe of the session, and I was definitely not taking down what I knew would work.
So it just takes longer, and even though band didn’t intend it to sound like they were second guessing me, it still felt a little bit like that, which added a little pressure on me. Once we got set to record, Patrick Ferguson got sick. High fever, chills, body aches and pains. Just the kind of thing that calls for some rest, but we can’t do anything without him at the start, so he pulls it together and plays sick. I am pretty sure I remember ‘Hurt You’ as being one where he was feeling especially rough. That doesn’t make tracking any easier or go any faster, so this added more pressure.
I can’t really write about making Weirdo without talking about Mike and Patrick’s relationship at that time, which can be summed up pretty simply. It was bad. They both got along fine with everyone else, they just didn’t get along with each other. Their styles of not getting along were different. Mike’s was more aggressive, Patrick’s was more resistant. One particular argument involved Mike’s guitar intro to a song. Mike had fallen out of love with his opening riff to the song and wanted to change it, removing a pause and playing straight through instead. He asked everyone what they thought, and we all liked the original and thought he should stick with it. My recollection of the conversation, paraphrased (of course) 21 years later, is:
Mike: “So what do you guys think?”
Patrick: “You know…Mike…….I really like the original way better.”
Mike: “You’re a drummer. What the fuck do you know?”
He played the new one anyway.[ I clearly remember the argument, but had long forgotten which song started it. 21 years later, when remixing, Mike listened back to the new mix of ‘The Only One,’ and told me that I had the wrong guitar intro in the song. That there was a break in the riff that wasn’t there. I went back through the master tapes, and confirmed that he had only played it one way on the recording. Mike mentioned to Patrick that he could have sworn that he had played it differently. It was Patrick who provided the missing puzzle piece remembering that the argument was about The Only One.]
Then there were the issues with finishing the lyrics. As I mentioned earlier, Mike was busy at home with a new baby, which is not the easiest time to write songs, so Mike was writing in the studio, starting to second guess himself about lyrics. Then there were friends telling him he wasn’t singing like he was when he was going crazy on stage. A little more pressure.
Sean’s guitar parts were, at times, an adventure. He was learning the songs, and trying to find the best way for a second guitar to fit into a band who had been a trio up until now. Maybe a little more pressure just because it was not that quick of a process, but really also a lot of fun. Some of his parts were far enough off of previous Five Eight recordings that I think they helped move the band’s sound in a new direction.
Once the recordings were done, it was time to mix. We still had enough time, but all of these little things (band learning songs, extra set-up, sick drummer, new guitarist, unfinished lyrics, band tension) were adding up, and there was not much margin for error any more. The first song we mixed was ‘Mystery James.’ Only Dan Horowitz and I were at the studio. After a few hours, Mike came by. He listened for about 30 seconds and hated it. Dan said, “You know, Mike, maybe it needs a few things adjusted, but it sounds pretty good.”[Dan doesn’t appear that much in these notes, but his role in making the album cannot be understated. The reason he doesn’t get mentioned more is because he never contributed to the chaos. He was the one person who was always calm, patient, positive and thoughtful. He was, as he remains, the very definition of a mensch.]
Mike listened again for about 30 seconds and said, “Actually, it sounds really great. Don’t change a thing.” And then he was gone again for a few hours. Mike might have been working on lyrics still, or could have been on baby duty. Either way, he was getting pulled in too many directions with not nearly enough time for any of it, let alone all of it. After that inauspicious start, mixing went fairly smoothly. That is, I don’t recall it being unusually stressful.
When I turned in the finished mixes to the A&R Man, he listened, called me and said, “You have made a great record.”
His opinion would change.
After a couple of weeks he called and complained that there wasn’t enough depth to the sound. I pressed him about what he meant, exactly, and we were able to establish that he didn’t think there was enough digital reverb. I pointed out that we had talked about what kind of record we were going to make, and that it was less processed than other current records on purpose. I believed that the hyped, over-processed records of the early 90’s were going to sound hopelessly dated in time. I can’t remember where the phone call ended, but I thought that once he heard it mastered, that he would come around.
Boy, was I wrong.
I originally mixed to three different formats at the same time – DAT, Sound Designer II (predecessor of Pro Tools), and ¼” analog tape. I took all three to Benny Quinn at Masterfonics in Nashville for mastering. Benny said that the ¼” analog sounded best to him, and we mastered from that. Benny did a fine job. I got cassette and DAT copies for reference. The band really liked the mastering and it seemed like smooth sailing.
Only it wasn’t. The A&R Man still did not like it.
He started complaining to the band’s manager, Warren Chilton, about it, and then to Mike. He wanted Five Eight to give him his own ‘Nevermind,’ and this was not it.
Unbeknownst to the band or me, the A&R Man took a copy to a studio in Atlanta to have a listen in their control room. The engineer there ran the master through a device that can best be called an exciter that created the illusion of widening the stereo field, and hyped the high frequencies, similar to “Extra Wide” and “Loudness” buttons that were present on jam-boxes at that time. The widening was accomplished by filtering certain frequencies and putting things out of phase.
Adding processing like this to a finished mix is like continuing to add salt to food. At first, it seems like it brings out the flavor, but if you walk away and taste it later, all you can taste is salt. Essentially, it is a cheap parlor trick, but The A&R Man loved the way this sounded. He reported this to Warren Chilton, who then relayed all of this to me. I told him that this was a terrible idea. If the A&R Man didn’t like the mastering, we could re-master. If he didn’t like the mixes, we could remix. Regardless, the one thing that we absolutely should not do is seriously consider running a mastered album though a cheap phase processor.
Warren understood where I was coming from and it seemed like that settled it.
The A&R Man was not convinced, so he kept telling Warren and Mike that there was something wrong with the album, and that it really needed to have this exciter process to fix it. I held my ground, secure in the knowledge that while the mixing or mastering could be changed, this whole exciter thing was an unequivocally stupid idea, both aesthetically and technically. This went back and forth for a few weeks.
The A&R Man was relentless in his badgering of the band. Finally, Warren asked me if I would go to the other studio in Atlanta and listen to what the A&R Man loved so much. I agreed to do this. At this point, I figured that if I would keep an open mind, go have a listen, and then if there was some quality of this thing that improved the album, we could remix songs, or remaster with that in mind. At least it might stop the incessant back and forth. So that’s what we did.
A few days later, Warren and I drove to Atlanta with a DAT copy of the album. The engineer there offered to let me make the adjustments on the exciter. I said, “You do it. I want to hear it exactly the way The A&R Man heard it so I can hear what he is talking about.” The engineer turned a few knobs and made a copy of it onto another DAT tape for us to take back to John Keane’s studio in Athens so I could listen there since I knew the room so well. Once we were there, we A/B’d the two versions – original and excited.
When I started flipping between the two, the differences were staggering – the original sounded fine, while the excited version sounded like it had a hole blown through the middle. There was too much sizzled treble, effects were louder than intended, the bottom end sounded hollow. Warren said that he could clearly hear what I was talking about and said he could now confidently advise the band not to allow their album to be processed through this thing. I was happy, and that put it to bed, right? Hardly.
The A&R Man kept on the band to the point where they finally agreed that he could proceed with this, but they wanted my blessing, which I refused. I pointed out that it was the band’s record and the label controlled the masters, and as such, they could do what they wanted, but I would never agree to go along with this, and I never did. So the A&R Man proceeded anyway. The signal path of the original finished product was: Mix to analog ¼” tape; mastered by Benny Quinn, then copied onto a DAT as a safety; a defective DAT copy was then converted to analog and run through the exciter, and then converted back to digital onto another DAT. Each transfer, each conversion from analog to digital and back again, degraded the sound quality. From this point, the A&R Man took the excited DAT copy to Nashville to a different mastering studio to re-master a mixed, mastered and excited third generation copy.
I told everyone not to do this because it would create phase problems.
That October, I was at home, sick for a few days. I was napping and was awakened by the phone.
“David, it’s The A&R Man.”
“What do you want?”
“Uh…well…uh…..I’m up here in Nashville and the engineer here says that the album sounds out of phase”
It took me a moment to realize that I had woken up and that this was actually happening to me. I said, “A&R, let me tell you a story……when I was 13, I was walking down the street with Albert Rust. We had been up at High Point school hitting baseballs. When we were about half-way home, Albert decided that he wanted to stop and throw a rock through the window of the new house on our street. I told him that it wasn’t a construction site anymore and that people lived there now, so don’t do it. He said he was going to do it anyway. I told him that I didn’t want anything to do with that, and that he shouldn’t do it, and grabbed my bat and started to walk away, thinking that he would follow. A ways down the street, I heard breaking glass, and turned around in time to see a man run out of the house and grab Albert. By the time I got home, the police had called his parents, who in turn called mine. So my mom and I went back up there. The cop asked Albert what happened, and he told them. He said he was going to throw the rock, I said not to, and he did it anyway. The cop asked me if that was right, and I said yes. The man who lived at the house said, ‘We could hear them talking outside, and couldn’t believe it when the rock came through the window.’
The cop said, ‘Well, I guess that’s about all I need to know…….’ and then Albert’s father, a long-time youth football coach spoke up, ‘Uh, now I been around boys most of my life, and I know a lot about boys and how they are. And when one boy does something, it’s never just one boy. They’re all egging him on, trying to get him to do it, and so when one boy does something, ALL the boys are responsible. They have ALL done it.’
In spite of Albert, the man in the house, and me saying otherwise, I was being held responsible for something that I not only did not do, but that I had directly spoken out against!”
I went on. “A&R, do you see why I am telling you this story? Do you understand what I am saying?”
“Uh……that you’re pissed at me? You sound pissed”
“Not exactly. What I am trying to say is ‘Hell yes, it’s out of phase!’ I told you that what you were doing was going to make it out of phase. Over and over again! What do you want me to tell you now? Do whatever you want because obviously my vote doesn’t count.”
This was the last time I ever spoke to the A&R Man.
He proceeded with the re-mastering of the excited, mastered mix. The record came out and people liked it. They liked it because the songs are great, and I suppose the completely fucked up sound bothered me more than anyone else. I believed we had a much better record before it fell into the incompetent hands of the label. I felt that Five Eight deserved better. I felt that their fans deserved better. When I saw the band play a month or so later, and heard them in all their full force, I really felt like Weirdo was the one that got away.
It felt bad.
Fast-forward twenty years. Mike called me to talk about reissuing the album. Did I have the original Benny Quinn masters? I wasn’t sure where any of it was, so I went over to John Keane’s studio and started digging. I found a DAT copy of the original master, I found the original ¼” analog mix tapes, and I found the original 2” analog multi-track tapes. I sent copies of the original Quinn masters to the band.
They were impressed with how much better they sounded than the original release. In spite of that, I knew we could do better. I knew I could do a better job mixing it to the original concept of what we were after at the time. The idea behind remixing wasn’t to modernize it, or make it slicker, but to do the opposite. To make the raw, emotional record we started in the first place. When I presented my idea to the band, everybody was amenable, so I baked the tapes and remixed the album.
The time spent remixing was really enjoyable. We all heard things that we would do differently today, both the band and me, but nothing was changed, and nothing was fixed. It’s funny, but nobody found fault in what anybody else did on the record, any regrets were all self-directed, and as a result, all summarily dismissed by everyone else.
What stood out to me when I started remixing was how much I love these songs, and how quickly it all came back to me once I started mixing. Diving back into the Weirdo tracks reminded me why I loved the band, and why I originally wanted to make this record. I hope this time I have done the band and their music justice. For the remix, there are less tracks used, less processing, and it was done more quickly.
All just like it should have been done in the first place.
Life rarely presents a second chance. After 21 years, I am happy with Weirdo. It feels good.