Name: John Congleton
Occupation: Record Producer
Bands/Projects: The Paper Chase, John Congleton and the Nighty Nite
Labels: Kill Rock Stars, Southern UK
Musical Recomendations: Suuns, Hospital Ships
When did you start working as a music engineer - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
The first time I recorded a band I was 17, but I didn't think about being a producer, it wasn't a goal necessarily. I came to production through really honest means; I liked recording music and working with bands and working with artists, I just enjoyed the sound of things. It just so happened that by the time I was 25 I'd had a lot of experience, made a lot of records and it just happened organically that bands kind of started asking me to produce. I guess because I was so earthed in the process of making records. It's a relaxing thing for me and I knew how to do it right. I went to school for music, so I had that background already, and little by little people started asking me to produce. That's when things started to click for me in a lot ways, because as an engineer I was always just scraping by and so once I started to produce it gave me something a lot of other people didn't have and it turned out I was ok at it. It was a comfortable transition for me and it turned out that I liked doing it. That's when things snapped into focus for me and I actually started to enjoy some level of success.
I don't have any producer idols or anything like that but if I could pick one it would probably be someone like Brian Eno. He comes at everything from an artistic standpoint and he said something once that really resonated with me about shooting an artistic arrow and trying to hit someone else's target. He said that he preferred a more instinctive approach which instead sets the target at wherever the creative arrow lands. I kind of like that. He was all about doing something creative, honest, something that's forward-thinking and eventually people will come around and I think that's pretty much true. It's the long game - but it's the more satisfying one.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career as an engineer?
Like most things in life you don't realise that something has happened until you look back on it you know? The first band that anybody cared anything about that asked me to produce them was a band from Chicago called 90 Day Men. At best they're a footnote at this point, but they were a band that a lot of people really respected and they asked me to produce them. At this time it wasn't a big deal, but we happened to make a record that people really liked, it sold less than 10,000 copies I'm sure, but the people that bought it, really liked it and they were people in other bands. All the members from Explosions in the Sky bought that record and loved that record and found me to record them and I went on to make the best-selling, most commercially successful instrumental rock record ever made with them. So after that, things really started to happen. It's things like that you don't realise what's happening in the moment until you look back. In retrospect I can now see clearly that it was a turning point. I never could have foreseen that and it happened completely organically. Since that there's been incremental things that have helped me 'climb the ladder' so to speak.
How would you personally define your role in the creative process? What is the scope and what are the limitations of what you are capable of doing? In how far do you feel increasing technical education even among amateur musicians has changed this role?
I get asked that question a lot, and the answer I have to give is sort of the same, and it sounds a little like I'm squirming out of the answer but I'm not - the answer is I don't know. The answer is it's different every time and I pride myself on that. A lot of producers have a method, a scientific method you know, like a formula where they can give you XYZ results, doing things their way to get certain results and not only do I think that's unfair to the artist, but I think it's incredibly boring for everyone involved - myself particularly, honestly, selfishly. I've never liked to do the same thing over and over again and I really enjoy being challenged. Usually the way it works is just a lot of conversation beforehand. Sometimes there's a lot of aspects of the record-making process that they've already got sorted, and then sometimes I get involved before any songs are written and I co-write and I produce and I get very involved. And then sometimes there are records where each note has been pontificated over endlessly before they even get into the studio and really, my only job is to tell them when something sounds good. I would get bored if I did one thing over and over. I like it that it's always different, it keeps me respectful of the artist. I'm just there to help, shovelling coal with everyone else.
I don't know that there's a lot of education going on. There's a lot of opportunities for people to record themselves, to capture themselves, to really refine an idea and take it to its apex which is awesome but that can be a kiss and curse. If they take it all the way - sometimes they can't see it anymore, they see only this one thing and my job is to precisely offer that kind of objectivity that you can't get when you do it alone. By the time they've refined their idea, they're already married to it. Of course there are exceptions. There have been records made in people's bedrooms that are sublime, but it's not always optimal to do it all by yourself.
In which way does the way music sounds change the way it is perceived? How do you see the relative importance of sound and composition?
Yes - of course it's about the way it sounds, it's music. What else is it, if it's not the way it sounds? There really aren't a lot of bad ideas, just a lot of failed visions. I hear songs all the time that I think are a good idea but are presented in a way that's off-putting to me. They don't resonate with me. The way music sounds is the number one biggest thing. You can communicate so much by the way something sounds. Each tone can communication an emotional idea.
In terms of sound and composition, harmonically speaking if you accentuate the odd harmonics for example it'll sound more aggressive, harsher, but if you accentuate the even harmonics it'll sound more pleasant, it's just physics really. Sometimes the way things sound are more important than what you're playing. For example look at The Stooges - a band which most people can agree prototyped punk rock - if you listen to what they're doing compositionally, it's not that sophisticated. But I think everybody agrees that something about the way they executed their music, the sound of it, resonated with a lot of people and changed the face of music. Compositionally, harmonically though - there's nothing particularly interesting about it.
What, to you, are the main goals of recording, editing and mastering? Do you, for example. feel it important that a recording is a reflection of reality or is it by default artifice and therefore subject to its own rules?
It's a bit of weasely answer but the goals are whatever we decide. There's a saying, that the moment you write something down it's fiction - and I think that applies a little bit to recording. Sometimes the only goal of a band is to capture the sound of them playing live. But it's never really the same, different senses are appeased when you see a band playing live. So in some cases the goal is to come as close as possible to capturing reality. My personal taste is to try and make something that isn't cliché, something that pushes things forward. That said, I completely understand when a band wants a documentation of where they're at artistically, which is a lot easier to achieve when the band themselves are completely interesting. If they're boring band, it'll probably be a boring recording.
Recording can be related to a particular location, but thanks to technology, it no longer has to be. How do you see the relation between sound, location and space?
Environment always has an impact but I don't know that it's always the most important thing. Some people think it's important but I've never seen a huge correlation. If you can find a place where everyone's comfortable enough to be creative, then that's all that really matters.
I'm wary of remote collaborations. It can feel empty because there is no real collaboration at all. It's much better to be in the same room, there's so much non-verbal communication that happens. The people are more important than the place I think. It's all about the personalities.
Obviously in terms of sonics, you could have the same record, same material, same everything and you recorded it in a church as opposed to like a 70s style dead room with carpet on the walls you're gonna really, really change the sound of that record without really trying. In that capacity of course, it's really important.
These days I prefer to work in my studio - it's better for everyone if I can be in an area where I have my gear. I can make records more cost-effectively in my studio.
In how far are the objective, universal and measurable parameters for what constitutes quality in a recording? What are currently your main challenges and ambitions in terms of your approach to production?
There probably could be a way to measure such things from an audiophile standpoint. In classical recording things like replicating specific frequencies really matter. Harmonically they really, really matter if you want to capture the sonics. But for me - I don't really care about that stuff. It's not important to what I do. If you want to feel something in a more intangible sense - it's not important. There are plenty of technically bad recordings that I love. The first Suicide record doesn’t particularly sound hi-fi at all but it still means a lot to me.
In terms of challenges, every day is a challenge if it's a good day. It's a boring day if something doesn't disrupt my way of thinking. It's usually personalities, trying to get the best out of people, trying to break though and get to the kernel of what someone's all about artistically.
Technical challenges can be overcome and its no big deal. But trying to figure out how to help bring out the best in someone is the biggest challenge.
In terms of goals ... I just want to make better art. I want to work with people and be a part of pushing music forward.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking. are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My studio is ugly and not particularly special in any way - other than it's mine. It's just a few rooms with a tonne of gear you know. The idea was to make place where people could afford to come, where there wouldn't be any excuse that you couldn't just come and make a record here.
In order to keep it affordable it's not a pretty or inspiring place, it's very utilitarian which I don't mind personally. I've made a lot of records there .... and I can't say for sure, but I think a lot people really like it because it's very cosy and it doesn’t feel too much like a studio. It's particularly a good place to make a record when it's just me and one other person. Like for the St Vincent records, and everything that we've done is just me and her in the studio. She just shows up with her guitar, sometimes we have an idea, sometimes we don't and we just make it happen. It's just that leap of faith that there's going to be that chemistry.