Record producer, musician, songwriter, arranger, engineer
Gee Gaws and Gimcracks (a tour of the Wonder Chamber)
The Wonder Chamber is my home studio, in a building next to my house in central south Austin, Texas. It's a very large small studio. A pretty big live room full of desert paintings with tall windows looking out into the trees, a decent sized deadish tiki iso room, a small deadish outlaw country iso room, another iso closet, a large control room full of beautiful art, and my bathroom, which is a REVERB CHAMBER. It's a plenty friendly feeling place... a carefully designed, inspiring, light filled space that just plain sounds great. Plus I've got velvet curtains. (You can draw the curtains if you don't like the light...) I've got microphones for recording sounds, and a Canadian mixing board to make the sounds all get along. For multitrack digital I use a Radar 6. For minimal multitrack analog, we can use my 1" 8 track Ampex 440c. Either way, I usually mix to tape on my 1/4" Ampex ATR. Scroll on down and take a gander at this partial portrait of the Wonder Chamber. What you see is what lives here. Write to me if you want to know more!
Cinco De Mayo, 1995
If you really want to see what my studio, the Wonder Chamber, looks like, watch this video. It's my buddy Robin Chotzinoff singing "Cinco de Mayo, 1995/ Volver, Volver" with Shelly Leuzinger, Dony Wynn, myself, and Mariachi Relampago.
we carry more than 11 varieties of teeth
It's a Marimbula. This one is made by Cloud 9 musical instruments. It's a bass instrument. Yes... it's a large Kalimba (or "thumb piano") with wooden tines. The first marimbulas were Caribbean.... I think especially Cuban. They were originally made from wooden packing crates, and the metal strapping that was used to seal the crates was cut into varying lengths and used as a large tines which were attached to the box with some sort of bridge assembly. You tune the notes by pulling them longer or pushing them shorter through the bridge. Most old style Marimbulas only had 3 or 4 tines, which can work for lots of songs, especially if you can retune between keys. This wonderful thing has the wooden tines, and it's supposed to sound warmer than an old style Carribean marimbula, or "Samba Box".... but I've never heard one of those. And with 9 notes, the world is your oyster!
A lovely wooden cat sculpture by my friend Michael Baggett. He's so cool you can't even FIND his stuff online.
That's my 32 input 460 series Ward Beck console. Blame Canada.
Here comes the drop! The Pin Drop!
My wife, Valerie Fowler, is an amazing painter. Lucky me! I get to hang some of her art in my studio!
It's an Angklung. Can't you read?
8 and 3/4's is too many tone
This is where I keep my pirate food
A Gibson Thor and a Shure 330 cardioid ribbon. Bass heaven!
I want to make a devotional record with this Praying Mantis.
The Oktava ML-16. A wonderful, hefty sounding 60's era Soviet bi-directional ribbon mic.
Reslo. An English Ribbon.
A good old american Shure 300. A bi-directional ribbon mic.
an 80's era soviet Oktava ml-219 cardioid ribbon mic.
My daughter Ramona painted this when she was about 5.
My Mom (Diana Dietrich) painted this. She took dirt from the road she was painting and stuck it onto the wet paint. Will the art never end?
When I put things through these metal boxes it makes them sound different.
This guitar was owned by someone named H. O. Bouchard here in Austin in the 30's. He wrote his address on the inside of the case... (19th street, before it was MLK blvd.) It was in an antique store in Bertram, Texas. I picked it up to coax a little music out of it, and my wife heard it from across the store and insisted that I get it. (Lucky me!) I think it only cost $75.
Studer 169 10 channel mixer. It's a li'l biggie!
I Love Bass! Although I had always piddled around on the piano, the first stringed instrument I ever played was my brother’s Stella acoustic guitar. The high strings were broken, and I soon learned that the low 4 strings of a guitar were the same notes as on a bass, but the bass is an octave lower. Bass players usually just played one note at a time. It looked easy! I got my first bass when I was 13, the beginning of 1975. I went down to Connecticut Music on State street in Stamford and got a blonde wood Univox High Flyer with a white pick guard. I think it cost $149. I loved that bass... it was medium scale, so easy to play, and it sounded so large. I designed and built a small speaker cabinet for a middle school woodshop project. My father brought me down to Radio Shack and we bought a 10” speaker, loaded it in the box, hooked it up to my dad’s mid 50’s era mono tube amplifier, plugged in my Univox, and it sounded beautiful! We had to tighten up the back panel on the speaker box, it was going “BRAAAAAAPPPPP!!!!!” from the vibrations… but after that, it was perfect. I wish I owned that set-up now… I remember sitting in my room, with my little orange and purple plastic Realistic stereo system, playing along with “The Fish” from Yes’s “Fragile”. My Univox was stolen from the music room at school a couple of years later, so I skipped school with my buddy Tom Flynn and we drove into The City in his mom’s sunflower yellow Ford Torino station wagon and I bought a brand new fretless Fender Precision at Manny’s music. That was before the internet, and that one block of 42nd street just east of Times Square with Sam Ash, Manny’s, and a dozen other oddball music stores was the cheapest place on earth to buy musical instruments. 40% off list price, always. I wanted a maple neck on an ash body, wood wood wood. I don’t know why. They didn’t have it in stock, so the guy says, “I think we can hook you up”, and they proceeded to put a Fender neck on some c-grade clone Japanese body (I found out later…) I bought it and went home. It weighed a thousand pounds, and it sounded pretty crappy. I know I sounded like crap then, I was just learning fretless, but after the thick, balanced sound of the easy-to-play Univox, THIS big unwieldy thing had a huge dead spot on the C, and playing it felt like throwing shot-put. I bought it when I was listening to a lot of straight jazz… I was too chicken to play acoustic bass, and they were incredibly expensive, but I soon started a punk rock band called Tapeworm with my friends Tom Flynn and Jason Weinberg after hearing the Ramones on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. The fretless was a little unexpected and incongruous for a punk rock band, so… I thought it that was pretty punk. Musically, I’d gone from a kid who liked the Beatles, to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, to Yes (at about the time I bought my first bass) and then jazz-rock, especially the Mahavishnu Orchestra, they blew my mind!!! Then I started liking mostly straight Jazz, Monk, Ellington, Mingus….Dave Brubeck lived a few towns up and I saw him play 3 or 4 times. I was soaking up every music theory and harmony class I could take, searching out the “other” scales and chords, devouring the meat and bones of the structure of music. Then, when I was 16 in 1977 I saw the Ramones on TV. I immediately embraced my inner primal boneheaded rock child, and started processing music all over again. But I had this fretless bass, and the only fretless player that I knew of in all of Rock was the guy from Bad Company. (Baby… when I think aboutcha…I think about loooooooo-o-o-oooove) It took a few years before I could comfortably play fretless in a loud rock(esque) context. Over a period of years I replaced the pickup, got a Badass bridge and a brass nut, which largely eliminated the dead spot. Then I had a second P-style pickup put in the treble position, closer to the bridge. Now my bass had 2 cream colored Dimarzio pickups, each with a coil tapping switch. I could get tons of cool sounds out of it by then. I moved to Austin in ’79 and immediately started going to shows at Raul’s, a local punk club. I started playing with Steve Marsh in a band that was called C-Sect (among many other things, eventually…) Steve was playing late monophonic analog synths with a Boss Dr. Rhythm on drums. My fretless bass playing added an earthy, slightly flawed texture to these low-high-tech “modern” sounds, a nice contrasting complimentary flavor. I started feeling freer about playing more exotically or playfully in subtle and strange ways, trying to find my voice on the bass. When I was 19 I moved to Emeryville, California to start a band called Fang with my buddy Tom Flynn. My Fender was stolen while we were moving into our new place. We left it in the first load we dropped off at the house, drove a few miles back to Berkeley to get the rest, and when we returned, my Fender was gone. I went to Stupid Guitar Center in San Francisco and bought a red fretless Kramer Stagemaster bass. It sucked. It was the bass I used in Fang. We made a single and went on tour in my ’72 Ford LTD Country Squire station wagon, with the fake wood panelling. (I bought it for $300 from my Gramma Bee.) So that bass went on tour. We played our last show in Detroit at some club full of mirrors with disco balls all over the place and maybe 6 people in the audience, including staff. We had stayed with my dad in Cleveland a few days before, and while I was there I had 3 wisdom teeth pulled out by his company dentist, so at the Detroit show I was loopy on Codeine, and I was talking and singing like I’d chewed up a TV Guide and was squirreling it away in my cheeks. After the show someone came up to me and said “You guys weren’t that bad…” I moved back to Austin right after the Memorial Day ’81 floods. Within a few weeks my Hamer was stolen from my unlocked car. Yes, I was stupid. I felt stupid and I was always a lot more careful after that. Let that be a lesson, stupid. I was young, I was tired from moving every 9 months. I was tired of thinking “what kind of music should I be playing with whom”, so I just stopped playing or thinking about music much for about a year. But, music is leaky and it always comes sneaking back. I worked the overnight shift as a “donut man” at Dunkin’ Donuts, listening to early 80’s country on the little white dough encrusted radio all night long. (Good!) I finally decided I was ready to start playing again. I went to Ray Hennig’s Heart of Texas Music and bought a fretted Peavey T-40. The heaviest bass ever made. (1001 pounds…) It was also very ugly and very cheap, and it sounded kinda kinky. I was tired of my basses being stolen. I had the frets ripped off and the neck refinished. It became fretless. This was 1982. Within a few months my house was broken into and my guitar and my walkman were stolen. They left the bass. Soon my high school buddy and musical compadre Scott Marcus moved to Austin. I got a Fostex 4 track cassette system and Scott and I started recording any nonsense we could come up with. I drove an ice cream truck and imposed upon the world and was victimized by a broken music box version of “The Entertainer” again and again and again and again… (Bad) In ’83 we started playing with Kathy McCarty and formed Glass Eye. I traded in my Peavey and bought a new Ibanez Roadstar II fretted bass, the cheap model, the RB820. What a bass. It played like a dream. A big warm fat growly sound. When you pulled the strings hard, it had sort of an elastic snap. It went “Beoow”. The sound started with a “B”. It had a sensitive, dynamic guitar like response when you played with a pick, and it was explosive when you attacked it with your thumb like a drum. A total pleasure to play. A few months later I bought a fretless Steinberger 5 string bass... that goofy ’80’s black carbon fiber thingy shaped like a shovel, remember? It was the first 5 string commercially available bass that I’d heard of, and I wanted to go low. Steinberger fit 5 strings in about the same width Fender used for 4 back then, so the string spacing was very narrow. It took me at least 6 months before I felt particularly graceful with it, but pretty soon I could sing with my fingers on that thing, and the way it growled along with the growl of my Silvertone amp was just delightful to me. I could roar like a monster with no effects! Probably the most unique relationship I’ve had with an instrument in my life. I wanted an explosive, distorted sound for my basses in Glass Eye, a sound sort of like Chris Squire had on early Yes records, and John Entwhistle in “My Generation”. The bass on Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp” record has some of that quality. One day I saw an old Silvertone 1483 bass head at Walter Hutchinson’s Musical Exchange on North Loop. I didn’t even try it out. That night I dreamt about it. I came in the next day with my bass, plugged it into the Silvertone through my giant 2-15” bass cabinet, and it was all I could have hoped for! A thick, large sound with lots of guitar amp style distortion, but of a different sonic range, one more suited to a bass guitar… (it’s a bass amp!) It made the round-wound bass strings less “trebly” bright, but with more of a simmering distorted aggressive midrange, kind of a spitting, heated sound I could control because of the sensitive and dynamic nature of the Ibanez bass. With the Steinberger it gave this constantly unflowering growl. I could access a world of different sounds by turning the amp up or down. I couldn’t afford an old Ampeg or Marshall or Fender head, but this Silvertone cost me $50 in 1986. I replaced my 40 pound 500 watt solid state bass head with this little 9 pound 30 watt dynamo. I recorded and toured with that amp for years. If I turned it all the way up, I could hold the corner where the neck meets the body of the Steinberger against my speaker cabinet, and the bass would sustain with controllable feedback forever. I could slide my fingers up and down the neck doing melodies and whale calls. Folks would come up after a show and ask to see my “rig”, my “set-up”. It was my bass, plugged straight into my amp. I enjoyed their confused looks. I still own that amp, I love it! As I started to record more, I became more attracted to flat, thumpy, thick bass sounds. My favorite bass for years has been a Silvertone short scale wooden bass with one lipstick pickup, and old flat-wound strings, muted with foam rubber. Doom Doom Doom. Thb Thb. Whoda thunk Sears department stores would have such an influence on my world of bass? In a fit of stupidity, years ago, I sold my Ibanez RB820. I truly regret it. No other bass has had that same explosive elastic snap in my fingers. When I sold it, I didn’t understand how unique it was. Let that be a lesson, stupid. Don’t sell your GOOD instruments, if you can help it. They will become GHOSTS and they will HAUNT YOUR DREAMS, bwah-HAW-HA-HA-Ha ha… I’m bored talking about basses now, but I Love Bass! I love playing bass, I love bass frequencies, I love bass harmonicas and bass melodicas, bass saxophones, Bass Clarinets, bass anything! And all those other frequencies? I like them, too, I guess…
Fretless Earthwood Bass with tapewound strings
This looks just like my first bass. I nabbed this uncredited photo from vintageunivox.com Is that ok? (I mean it's uncredited there ok?) I mean THank you vintageunivox.com. What a great bass that was, and SOMEONE STOLE IT FROM THE MUSIC ROOM at RIPPOWAM HIGH, OK? I mean, ok, I didn't leave it LOCKED UP in the music room... but a few other folks had left their instruments there, too, cuz no one had opened the instrument CLOSET yet... but I think only mine got stolen... so so so...so I left it there unlocked up so it was my fault and I know that ok? ok. I hope it's out there somewhere being loved.
A Peavey T-40... Just what mine looked like before I had the frets ripped off. I stole this pic from someone's sale ad, OK?
That's the Ibanez rb820 on the left. I wrote on it with white out.
My Steinberger. My fingers have put many miles on that thing.
portrait of the artist as some young boom
The Reverb Chamber
My home studio (The Wonder Chamber) has a bathroom built from white Elgin Butler glazed blocks. (you know, like the walls of a 40’s era mental heath facility, or a 50’s era elementary school…) It is my echo chamber. It’s not so big… about 10’ long by 3.5’ to 4’ wide, roughly trapezoidal… by 12’ to 12.5’ tall. I’ve got a speaker and microphones mounted on the walls. Aside from being the loo, the room is used 3 ways, mostly. 1) As an electronic echo chamber, using the wall mounted speaker or an amplifier in the room. I send any signal I want from my mixing board to the speaker or amp, it echoes in the room and I return that sound to the console from a microphone in the chamber which is mounted on the wall a ways away from the speaker. I then blend it as needed in the mix. Natural reverb, voila! (See “pre-delay rant” below.) 2) As an acoustically coupled chamber, where I open the door to let sound in from OUTSIDE of the chamber (drums, vocals, piano, strings, percussion, horns, geetar, anything, everything) and adjust the length of the echo by adjusting how wide open the door to the bathroom is. Open just a crack? You get a longish, 2 second reverb… Great for a piano, or drums on a slow, moody tune, maybe. Open it halfway, you get a nice acoustically altered crunchy sustain, maybe 1/2 a second. Fabulous for explosive medium tempo drums. I’ve never tried loud electric guitar like that… I bet it’ll sound great! I record the mic’ed bathroom sound on it’s own track and blend it with the closer sounds. The coupled chamber method also provides gobs of harmonic glue if there is a well balanced acoustic ensemble playing out in the main room. Piano with string quartet? Mariachi band? In any situation where the musicians can instinctively acoustically balance themselves within a room, the addition of the coupled chamber mic is a fully flexible acoustic miracle to me still. It can be used effectively mixed very faintly, just blended in for subtle harmonic enriching, or cranked up for forced largeness or distance. (See “pre-delay rant” below.) 3) The 3rd use, and probably the way I use it most often, is as an independent acoustic space, with the sound source INSIDE the chamber. Many times I’ll stick the guitar player’s amplifier in there and put up a close mic and an ambient mic. The distant mic will hear quite a large natural reverb which I can blend with the close sound as needed, panning as desired. Folks have sung in there as well, using the close and ambient mic method. (See pre-delay rant below.) The chamber is a wonderful room for rhythm… quite often I’ll default to putting the percussionist in the chamber. Shakers, tambourines, hand drums, scritches and scratches, tapping on the concrete floor with drumsticks… The room is so live, I can blend 3d ambience into a mono sound source by using a good figure-8 pattern ribbon microphone and moving it closer or further from the instrument, essentially finding a good “effects” balance right there on the track when I record it. (See “Dony Wynn in a Shiny White Box” below)
A world of sonic possibilities is unveiled when the chamber mic is put through an echo! (Open your Audio Bibles to the chapter on “pre-delay”) The easiest way to hear this effectively is to replace the ambient sound with it’s own echo. For example, I might take the chamber mic out of the mix, but I send the sound of the chamber to an echo of appropriate length (?) and blend that back in instead of the original ambient sound. The longer the echo, the larger the sonic space I’m creating when combined with the other, closer mics. This works in degrees… a 20-30ms delay will make my little bathroom sound like a grand parlor when combined with the closer sounds, a 300-500ms delay can make it sound like a mid size auditorium, etc, etc. If you begin to regenerate the echoes, you can make the psychoacoustic space seem even bigger, or more surreally reflective. Real acoustics combined with echoes offer an endless universe of unique sonic resonances. That’s no vibe-in-a-box! That’s something unique to your recording’s character, ready for the mining. Even if you have no “chamber” or particularly “wet” sounding space to use (stairway, bathroom, elevator shaft, cistern) you can use this same “pre-delay” trick on the ambient mics on the drums, if you’ve got ‘em. (See "Steve Albini is a Menace to Society")
“Real Acoustics” Rant
I’ve always liked “on location” recording for the unique sonic imprint. In ’81 or ’82 Kathy McCarty, Jamie Spidle and I induced Patrick Keel (who had the equipment and the know how) to do a live recording of us in the empty back banquet room of the Old Pecan Street Cafe in downtown Austin (25’ wooden ceilings, rubble limestone walls) in exchange for the prospect of adventure, $450, and a slice of italian cream cake. In 1988 I recorded Ed Hall’s “Albert” with Mike Stewart and his portable Otari 1/2” 8 track machine in a warehouse in east Austin. ( I think it’s actually still a warehouse…) Before I built the Wonder Chamber, my studio was a garage (infested with rats) behind my house that had a very plain, relatively dead sound. (great for mixing, by some strange lucky mistake …) My Mackie console itself was infested with tiny, electricity loving ants. (Rats! Ants! Rants!) But my equipment was mounted in road cases, and I could break it down and bring it anywhere I wanted. I recorded Daniel Johnston again and again in his garage. I recorded The Barbers and the Asylum Street Spankers at Mercury Hall, an old wooden church that was moved to south Austin and became an event space. On the Spankers record I used the Mercury Hall bathroom as a reverb chamber. I’ve recorded in a bathroom in the UT philosophy department, in an old hotel in Llano, in churches, houses, garages, drainage pipes, art galleries… If anyone I knew, or if the artist or someone in the band had a place, or if they knew someone who had a nice sounding spot who wanted to help, or had access to any place that had interesting acoustics, possibly appropriate for the project…I’d see if we could work something out. I kicked my family out of our old wooden house for 6 days to record the basic tracks for “Black Sheep Boy”, Okkervil River’s 2005 “breakout” record. (Well, Valerie took our 2 kids to visit family in Houston… This was a one time thing, and Valerie loves Okkervil River too, so she didn’t mind… too much…) Anyways my point is go steal that vibe and bring it back to your dark hovel. If you like the way real acoustics sound, go get you some. You’ll always be grateful for that ambient track. And you’ll never have that same kind of badass vibrating reality without it.
Chapter 2- Dony Wynn in a shiny white box.
Over the last few years I’ve made at least 7 wonderful records where I got to be the bass player in a rhythm section with Mr. Dony Wynn on drums. We got a sound, thick and thuddy, tracking in the murk, clear as can be. I’m lucky to be a backbone boy with Mr. Wynn. We’re here to help tell the story, and if we’ve got to go on an adventure to do it, well…sounds like fun!. Now, after a song is tracked and he’s done playing drums, right after playback, Dony is likely to say “I got something… I’m hearing this…there’s this thing…” and then he looks at you as if he’s actually communicated something, and then he says “I’ve just gotta show you”. This conversation usually leads into the big room where he starts digging through his mystical bags of shooka shookas and ching a lings and dings and dongs and little grunty knock knocks, and then we’re walking with a smallish assemblage of such shamanic doodads into the bathroom. The Chamber. The Sound. Dony Wynn in a shiny white box. There’s instantly a lovely acoustic halo around any sound in the chamber, especially evident with percussion, and Dony loves that subtle breathing percussion. In these cases he’s almost always accompanying himself, so there’s this big fat groove, and this light, airy shaking or chinging or clockity clocking. That little bit of the chamber’s glow in the percussion gives such a sense of space to the whole recording suddenly. Dony loves to create these rhythmical shapes and tones. The sustain of the room becomes just one more thing that Dony is playing. I remember, early on, possibly the first or second time Dony did percussion in the chamber… He’s setting in there, we’re getting sounds, and he stops playing and he starts saying “I’m seeing the most amazing things…” and then he laughed like someone having the most wonderful time, saying things like “Everywhere you turn…” and he ooh-ed and aah-ed and giggled and chortled in wonder for a while and then he said “I’m bringing my camera tomorrow”. The next day he brought in this nice camera that I’d never seen before and he took a bunch of pictures of the toilet paper holder and the walls. I don’t know why, but I think my bathroom somehow jump started his shutterbug. He brings that camera everywhere now. He is one camera totin’ rhythm monster. Click here to see his photography! And he shoots a bit like he plays. There’s always a sort of a feeling of “Here’s a way of looking at it!” and suddenly you’re gleefully along for the ride. Anyways, I have found that when Dony Wynn goes into THIS shiny white box, he always seems to make things better.
my motha inda weddin garb
"This Ain't No BBQ" by Dony Wynn
Dony makes poetry with words, drums, and photos. this features a moment of Dony playing in the chamber, his percussion stuff, and some big bam boos.
Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase
Brian Beattie and his wife, artist Valerie Fowler have created something new under the sun, something they call an illustrated earmovie musical. "Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase" is a modern mythical musical set in Austin in 1938 about a 10 year old girl who falls down a hole in a cave into the underworld. It's a 74 minute audiodrama that comes in a fully illustrated 62 page book, featuring Bill Callahan, Daniel Johnston, James Hand, Kathy McCarty, Will Sheff, and starring Grace London as Ivy Wire!
Valerie and Brian have toured the east and west coasts doing their 2 person version of the show. Brian tells the tale and sings the tunes while Valerie cranks the Crankies, 30 foot long illustrations that are spooled along in our home made crankie box. It's a hand drawn, hand cranked video to the accompanying tune! In November of 2014, Brian and Valerie put on a full theatrical production of "Ivy" at the historic State Theatre here in Austin (...if having a Little Rascals style "Let's put on a show" show qualifies as a full production...) with all of the original principal players except Daniel Johnston. The part of "The Big Boss" (lord of the underworld) was played by Gary Chester of Pong and Ed Hall, who also played the Big Boss's guitar parts on the "Ivy" record. It sold out, it was a blast, and WE FILMED IT! You'll find a few videos from the show here. Kathy McCarty and I "directed" the show, Valerie was the set designer and art director, John Clark directed the filming and Justin Morris did the live recording. We'd love to do another production of "Ivy", or do an animation of the album, or to make it into a movie. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for an "Ivy" show near you!
Ivy's Dream - Brian Beattie - Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase
K. McCarty sings "That No Account Cosmo Wire" from "Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase"
Ivy Falls Home from "Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase" featuring Bill Callahan
This is from our live performance at the State Theatre in Nov. 2014. It also features Grace London as Ivy Wire, and Amy Annelle as the omniscient siren.
Sorry Won't Mend the Trouble I Made - James Hand - Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase
Here's Valeries crankie to the song "Sorry Won't Mend the Trouble I made".
Will Sheff and Grace London sing "Busy, Busy, Busy/ Nothing is Something"
"Nobody Understands Me", from "Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase" LIVE!!
Grace London sings "So Far Away", From "Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase"
Grace knocks it out of the park!
Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase - In a world.... under the world
Steve Albini is a menace to society
Back in march 1993, my band Glass Eye recorded 2 songs with Steve Albini. We had foolishly signed something called a "deal memo" with a dude that had a cornucopia of wavy hair who worked at a "major" label and claimed that he was starting a "spinoff" that would soon be distributed by the mighty "major". We had come to Chicago to record with Steve at the Chicago Recording Company. We were mutually acquainted through "The Jesus Lizard", and Steve was letting us stay at his house while we recorded. He had just finished working with some Japanese speed metal band down in his basement on his 8 track. (This was before Electrical Audio.) He'd very recently finished Nirvana's "In Utero", but it wasn't out yet. (His comment on the session... "The drummer was good") A day before we were supposed to start the recording, Steve gave the Wavy Haired Dude a call to talk about money matters. When he gets off the phone, he comes to talk to us, the band, in a very serious tone. This is essentially what he said.
"What I have gleaned is that this guy is a lying asshole and in the end he's not going to put your record out and he'll never pay me OR the studio, and the best advice I can give you is to run away and try to extract yourselves from him as quickly as possible. BUT, you were stupid and signed a "deal memo" which was just a way to enslave you before you'd established your contract's terms. I know you'll be heartbroken if we don't do the recording, so I'll pay the studio and then later when he doesn't pay me back we'll decide what to do." Turns out Cornucopia Hair Dude was a sociopath and a mumbly mouthed lying jerk idiot, and Steve was unfortunate enough to be utterly familiar with the type.
In the meantime, we recorded. The drums were in a lovely medium sized, relatively live room. Steve's drum mic set up was fascinating, and a little overwhelming to me. He had mics on the top and bottom of every drum, he had a m/s stereo mic set up right in front of the kit, and he had a pair of ambient mics, small diaphragm condensers, that he had taped to the floor about 20 paces away from the front of the drums. He was delaying those ambient mics on the floor about 20-25 milliseconds. (see Pre-delay Rant) It sounded great! However, as the session progressed I was getting a little uncomfortable about the feel and sound of our performances... I felt like we weren't quite making it happen. Every time I looked at Steve through the control room window, he was reading a comic book with his feet up on that big MCI console. He wanted US to tell HIM when WE got it right. Well, I was having a hard time honing in on whatever it is that makes something right, and I didn't know what to do, and the clock was ticking... but these subtle concerns did not seem to be Steve's problem. The day before, in the midst of 100 fascinating conversations about everything from Cheap Trick to phase coherence to Madagascar (and any tangent between) Steve had mentioned that he found the word "Producer" to be an offensive and derogatory term, like "Nigger". (Brian sweats, tugs at collar...) According to Steve's approach, the fact that we weren't quite up to par was a problem we should probably have dealt with before entering the studio. But, hell, I don't know... we were on tour, so our music muscle was well toned... I guess we just couldn't quite pull off those 2 songs yet. Either way, we finished the recording, and Steve thought they turned out fine. He did some roughs, and he told Cornucopia Hair that if he wanted to hear a mix he needed to pay the studio first, as a matter of professionalism and respect. Hair Dude said something along the lines of "How dare you... The check has to come through accounting, these things take a while...people give me rough mixes when they finish a session all the time, how DARE you!..." So Steve, against his own better judgement, sent a cassette tape off to Hair Dude. He then explained to us that Dude will never pay because he's a criminal prick, and everything would end bad, but not to worry, because Steve liked us, we had a good time, and we got to work together.
Steve hit the nail on the head, he was never paid, the studio was never paid, and our relationship with Hair Dude quickly went downhill. Over a period of months of strange and annoying manipulation, and surreal "communication" (every time I got off the phone with him I understood less), we soon found out what a complete crappy dumbass paper tiger Cornucopia Hair was. We had a full 3 weeks booked at a studio here in Austin to make our record, and as time progressed, we realized he'd likely do to the studio what he had done to Steve. We cancelled our session a couple of weeks before it was to start, which cost me a $2,000 security deposit... BUT, it turns out that WASN'T money the studio was demanding from me, it was a scam that the MANAGER of the studio was running on me, and I fell for it... I didn't even find out it was a con till years later when the studio manager was in jail for Cocaine distribution conspiracy.... oops! The music industry is full of crooks and suckers!
We eventually made our final record on a 1/2" 8 track Otari that we borrowed, recording most of the songs in the house where our drummer Scott Marcus was living, with our manager, Roy Taylor engineering the sessions. We released it as a cassette, and years later as a full album called "Every Woman's Fantasy".
In order to extract ourselves from the "deal memo" with Hair Dude, he demanded that WE pay to Steve and the studio the full amount that they were owed, just so Cornucopia's imaginary label wouldn't be liable to anyone. Steve, being the prince he is, told us that he wouldn't LET us pay him back, because he couldn't stand seeing us suffer for our own foolishness, even though we fell for the same old crap that dozens of other hopeful bands he'd known had fallen for. He would foot the entire bill. He made a phony payment schedule that looked like we were paying him back over the period of a year or 2, and we all signed it and sent it to Cornucopia Head, and we were officially extracted from the "Deal Memo".
Steve was very happy for us, and he encouraged us to just finish the record however we could, ESPECIALLY if we were to do it on borrowed analog equipment. He thought the tracks we'd recorded at home sounded just fine, and he discouraged us from wasting any more money in a "studio" for this project if we could just do it ourselves. Then, after all of his help, he sent me the sweetest letter ever, chock full of mystical and practical recording advice and secrets. I've posted it here for all to see and share. This letter is full of gold! Gold and Comedy! Steve writes in a perfectly legible tiny cramped scrawl, and his graphic illustrations are fabulous!
Right around that same time, he wrote his famous screed called "The Problem With The Music Industry". He taught a generation of musicians to hate producers, and to think of them as scheming vampires who steal the band's money. (Thanks alot, Steve...) In the meantime, this very same generation grew up around ProTools, so many of them now think it's the engineer's job to tune vocals and copy and paste choruses, and in general to make a recording sound good. (Like a record?) Steve's idea (and it's the truth) is that it's the BAND'S job to sound good before you start recording. I love Steve's work, and I respect his techniques, but "Producer" is no swear word to me. Recording IS a mystery, and it's no big deal to want help from someone you trust.
Anyway, Steve and I don't agree on everything, but he's a Prince and a Badass, and he saved me and my band from alot of misery. AND he never commits the most mortal of sins.... being BORING. Which is why STEVE ALBINI IS A MENACE TO SOCIETY!!!
My Grampa's toolbox
My Grampa Duke (Malcom Lowell McElroy) was a man of his era. (1904-1980) He had tools, he was handy enough, but I don't remember him busting out his toolbox when I was a kid. He must have collected most of these tools in his younger, early married years years, because most of this stuff seems to be from around the early 1930's. But mixed among all the oddities there are tools that are 20 years newer and 50 years older than that as well. The newer stuff can be explained by your average accruing of tools as your building or fixing jobs got more specific. The oldest stuff probably comes from his wife's family... Dorothy Wilson McElroy's father, Albert Wilson, owned a hardware store in Newburyport, Mass. Some of these tools are definitely from the 1800's. Some are works of fully helpful and functional art. My Mother emptied out her mom's condo in Florida , and I inherited, among other things, my Grampa's toolbox.