What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
It’s different every time but it always starts with a conversation. I'm big into talking about the ideas, the concept. I'm into developing a short hand of what we're trying to do, so we're always on the same page.
Certain sounds seem to be inextricably connected to particular genres or styles of music or even to different formats, like the CD or vinyl. Do you consider these as limitations, as a given or perhaps even as a compositional tool which can be used in an inventive way?
There's a little bit of a thing happening in music right now where people want a mix to sound good on laptops. Who gives a fuck what it sounds like on a laptop? Do you think that everyone for the rest of history is going to listen to music on laptops? What would've have happened if people mixed for 8-track or mp3? It's ridiculous. How could we possibly know how people are going to experience music in the future? It's always been my goal to make timeless recordings.
I just want it to sound right when we're sitting there in the studio. Steve Albini passed a nugget of information onto me at the right time and the right place, in my early 20s. He said if you know what it sounds like where you're listening to it - you're only job is make it sound right there. The other stuff is everyone else's problem. That's sounds dismissive but it was incredibly freeing for me at a time where I was trying to hone my craft. I would make do a mix and then I make a tape and I would go and listen to it everywhere I could and it was super frustrating because it would sound totally different everywhere else. So was that my fault? Not really. I found that I just had to be confident - make it sound good right there. It either sounds good or it doesn't. I'm very black and white about that.
The line between production work and composition is blurring. In how much do you feel that these two areas could mutually influence and inspire each other?
I think if Mozart was sitting there ready to compose, he would be making a conscious decision about whether or not an oboe should play the part or a violin. The reason he chose one or the other would be because of the sound. Those sort of choices have existed for a long time. You have to pick a sound to communicate something. What's happening now with more and more computer-based composition is that the sounds they have, the palette they have to choose from is dictating what they're playing more and more. Two things are informing each other more. Someone like Woody Guthrie for example - he had a guitar, that's what he had. He was writing in a box car and this is what he had, whatever he played was idiomatic of the guitar. I don't think it's a bad thing that people can explore different sounds in their own homes or whatever, I think the lines are blurring but not in an extremely new way.
Budgets for productions are being reduced and more and more people are choosing to listen to music in compressed formats and on low-quality playback devices. How would you rate the state of production today?
In terms of budgets, I mean a lot people bitch about budgets but there was a lot of waste for a really long time. Producers were charging exorbitant amounts of money to make records. I always thought that was odious to begin with. You’re not discovering particles in the standard model, you're not a genius. The fact that everyone's had to 'tighten their belts' doesn’t bother me in he slightest. It has affected the quality of music. There's always been good music and there's always been bad music, good production, bad production.
I don't let the formats that people choose to listen to music on bother me that much because It's like complaining about the weather. It exists. It's the way things are, and people are going to listen to things streaming .... it doesn’t bother me because as long as I can remember people have been listening to things on badly duped cassettes or with their speakers out of phase. I don't care. It's an exercise in frustration.
The equipment-industry suggests that new equipment keeps making productions better. How much do you believe in the idea of progress in production? What are areas where you could imagine real improvements?
Show me one person who thinks that music is getting better. There are all these things that are around to make music better, things to take a terrible singer and make them in sing in pitch, to make a terrible drummer sound like he can play in time .... all these things that can happen to make the music sound 'perfect'; but I've never once had someone come into the studio and say they want make a record that sounds like 'right now'. It's never happened. They want to reference the 70s, or the 60s - that's what everyone talks about and it's because there's a much more human element to those records.
Music isn't getting worse, it's the same as it's always been. I think a lot of things that could be special are being put through a factory press of highly intonated, highly produced, highly perfected bullshit that takes all of the human element out of it - and none of that is interesting to me in the slightest. I feel very confident that all of that stuff is horse shit, none of it matters. Perfection is not what moves people. I don't do any of that stuff and it just so happens that in the last few years people have started to like what I do.
It has often been suggested that "the future of music is in live”. How do you feel about the ongoing relevance of recordings as an art form? What can recordings provide that a concert can not?
Of course the future music is live. Before there were concerts every night a family would finish their meal and they'd have a few hours before bedtime and they all played an instrument, home-made or whatever, that's what a family did before there were travelling bands, they played music together. I would say there are less people playing music now than there used to be. Music used to be a uniting experience. It was always about the experience of playing music together. Recorded music has only existed for 80 years or whatever, it's still a new thing. Recorded music is the aberration.
I don't make music better, I just make it different. A recording is sort of like a souvenir, a product. It might be unromantic, but what we're trying to do when we make records is we're trying to make an artistic documentation that someone can keep and play back at their leisure. A live show can only be experienced once. Even if you record it, it won't be the same. A recording is a synthesis, a souvenir of the experience of that time and place.
Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the producer and/or engineer to make a recording sound great. But listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
It's phantom until it hits somebody's ears I suppose. I don't think the listener has a job or anything. They hear it and they either respond to it or they don't. The listener doesn’t have a reasonability. I think in a live setting the listener has a reasonability to be respectful but when it comes to records it's up to them. Once it's out of my hands, it's none of my business really. It becomes it's own thing.