John Congleton: Meet Indie Rock's Unsung Hero Of 2011
Originally published on Thu December 22, 2011 12:07 pm
The job of a music producer, engineer or mixer is rarely one that will make someone a star. Unless you're a George Martin, Brian Eno, or Timbaland, hard work behind the scenes in the studio can be a selfless task. But thumb through the liner notes of records released in the last few years and you'll see John Congleton's name pop up again and again. As one of indie rock's in-demand producers, engineers, mixers, Congleton is a utility player whose musical fingerprints are all over a ton of stellar recordings from Explosions in the Sky, The Walkmen, Shearwater, and even the sludge metal band Baroness.
While Congleton has been at this now for more than a decade — he co-runs Dallas' Elmwood Recording with engineer Stuart Sikes — 2011 was particularly big for him. An astonishing 20 records released this year have his fingerprints on them in one way or another. These include some of the year's finest albums: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Hysterical, Hospital Ships' Lonely Twin, Mountain Goats' All Eternals Deck, Wye Oak's Civilian, and many more.
The Dallas-based producer has also served as Annie Clark's primary collaborator and musical soulmate on St. Vincent's last two records, 2009's Actor and this year's masterful Strange Mercy. "He's that right amount of creative and practical," Clark recently told the Dallas Observer. "And he's a workhorse, so our energy when we're together is just like, 'Get it done. Let's get it there.'"
Congleton is a uniquely skilled one-man studio whose job description evolves with every album and every band. And since he does everything from placing microphones and selecting gear to co-writing and arranging songs, playing instruments, and envisioning how the final album will sound sonically, he can help shape the music at every stage — from the earliest of musical motifs to a fully-formed song. Above all else, Congleton says, he's simply there to help the artists make the best music they can.
I was curious to know more about how he approaches his work and how he differentiates between all of these various roles in the studio. I recently spoke with Congleton by phone from Dallas, Texas about a handful of the 2011 releases he worked on.
To me, 20 records released in one year seems like a lot of projects. Is that typical of a producer and engineer or is this a busier year for you than normal?
John Congleton: I've been about as busy as I am now for about six years. Ten years ago it would have been a little more touch and go, you know? At this point I'm on the upswing. Things are just getting better — more fun and cooler projects — and I'm able to have my pick of the litter right now. Obviously that'd be great if that continues, but I'm a realist that it may not.
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (4AD, Sept. 12, 2011)
A lot of people, including myself, were drawn to this record because of its sound — the guitar work, the synthesizers, and, of course, Annie Clark's dense arrangements. She has credited you in interviews, saying she worked very closely with you to take her outlines and craft them into fuller works. What was that process like?
JC: We definitely get along well and share a lot of the same tastes. She had some basic ideas, melodies, some chord structures, but no songs, with the exception of maybe one or two. And we just met and started putting them together. She's very open to ideas and she's a great idea person, but I think that sometimes she finds the actual construction of a song kind of boring. Almost everything she comes up with is pretty spectacular, but I think that [she] is sort of like "Oh, now we have to put this into a song." And that is not as inspiring for her.
I find that to be rather fun and when we do it together it's fun. We would put the songs together and do a rough demo of them — just her kind of mumbling a melody and playing through the chords, and then flesh it out with extra instruments. And if it felt like it was going somewhere then we would call in a drummer. With maybe just a couple of exceptions, every song was done maybe two, three times. I know some of them were done even more than that. We just went in different directions on songs.
You would have a specific version and then deconstruct it?
JC: Precisely, yeah. Sometimes completely redo it. For example, the song "Surgeon," which started off as a completely hyper-technical, fast-paced rocker. It was never ever really doing anything for us until I suggested that we try it half-time. The first version was a very on the beat, baroque-sounding version of the melody. We just smeared it as much as possible, played it as behind the beat as we possibly could. And once we did, it instantaneously became one of our favorites on the record.
On Strange Mercy you're essentially serving as co-writer. How hands-on do you like to be when it comes to being a producer?
JC: I get asked this question a lot, usually by people I'm working with before we go into the studio. To me, the producer is there to make sure the album gets done and gets done as good as possible. So if that means that you have to help write a bridge or help write a part, that's what you do. If that means you help tune the guitars, then that's what you do. If that means all you do is tell the band their takes are good and they should stop f------ with things, then that's what you do. If it means you don't do anything except make sure the band doesn't fight, then that's what you do. Sometimes it's a little more stressful than others, but for the most part, you just don't complain about it and you just get it done.
Okkervil River, I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar, May 10, 2011)
Bill Callahan, Apocalypse (Drag City, April 5, 2011)
When you're working with strong musical personalities, like an Annie Clark or Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater or Okkervil River's Will Sheff or even Bill Callahan, how much do you take cues from them to find out what they want from you?
JC: You've got to be really ginger the first few days because you don't want to say something that will offend them, or step on a toe. But there's always a component that they need to be propped up or supported. Everybody does. And the job is you've just got to figure out what that is. Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater [is a] perfect example of somebody who won't leave something alone unless you let him know that it's great. Usually his performances are great right away — they don't get better. They might get worse. So you sometimes just have to tell Jonathan, "No, that has the right spirit." [Whereas] somebody like Will Sheff is very open to ideas and very into open collaboration and hearing what anyone has to say about anything. He's very diplomatic in that way. With Will, there was always an open-door policy of like "Any idea you have, I'm going to consider."
It sounds like it's a constant balancing act between contributing your own ideas and simply implementing their musical vision.
JC: Absolutely, because that's what it is; it's not about you. You can't let it cater to your ego. You need to be humbled. Bill Callahan — the guy is such a genius, you know? He's so peculiar in the way he approaches music [that] the last thing you'd want to do is try to deflate that. With Bill you just stay out of his way. That's the most amazing thing about Bill: The first time you hear an idea of his, it doesn't really make sense, but the second time you hear it, it just seems so brilliant. It's just like, "Oh my god, I never would have thought of that!" and that's kind of what makes Bill, Bill. And the wrong producer or the wrong engineer or the wrong person playing with him could very easily go, "That doesn't sound right," and try to talk him out of that or deflate that in some way, and that would be the worst thing you could ever do to Bill.
What initially drew you to producing and engineering?
JC: I think I can pinpoint the moment when my first band recorded, when I was 14 and 15 years old. I always enjoyed writing songs and playing, but there was something about going in and capturing it that felt very Zen and perfect for me. A light switch went on and I just realized that's where my musical capacity was the most suited. I just followed on blind faith that that was like a calling for me.
And so when did you first start actually working in studios?
JC: I started doing really bad punk rock bands in studios that would leave me alone with the gear. And I did that up until I was in college. I was a jazz composition major at the University of North Texas. I was able to get a job at the [university] studio. Obviously [it] didn't pay well or anything like that. But it was a great thing for me because every week they would have some sort of recital where the whole music program would have to come in and there would be some sort of concert. And that could be anything from a boys' choir to a jazz quintet to two harpsichords, and part of my job was to record those.
So I would be given 30 minutes every day before the recital to get sound as good as I possibly could on these instruments that I'd never even thought of recording. It became actual capturing of sound that was foreign and alien to me. So that was like this huge baptism by fire. That molded me more than anything else because I was forced to get good sounds quickly, and I adopted that into how I make records now.
So where do you go from there? Did you start your own studio right away or did you apprentice or work closely with other producers?
JC: From that point I moved to Chicago for a short while and there I made friends with Steve Albini [Congleton worked at Albini's Electrical Audio studio in Chicago.] He was a huge influence on me and I learned a lot from him — not only about the actual art of recording but philosophies about how to treat bands fairly and squarely. I ended up coming back to Dallas because monetarily I could afford it and started working out of a studio in town and worked there for a couple of years until I was sort of forced to go freelance. Obviously nowadays that's all there is. Those days — the last days of the staff engineer of studios — are kind of gone now, they don't really exist. And I think I was probably 22 when that happened. I'm 34 now and I've been basically freelance ever since. I never really wanted to start my own studio. But over time, the accumulation of gear made more sense to put it all in one place. [It lets me] do work more efficiently and more affordably for people.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Hysterical (self-released, Sept. 12, 2011)
What was your experience working with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah?
JC: I think it's just a spectacular record. Fans love the record, but I think that critics sort of ignored it. But [the band] really brought an A-game that people are sort of taking for granted. What people don't realize about Clap Your Hands is that they had no time to cultivate as a band [because] they were just an overnight success on the blogosphere. Nobody ever thinks about if that was actually where the band actually wanted to be, you know? [With Hysterical] I think the band was able to finally make a record they were really proud of, and not only do I think it's a great record just as a listener, those guys worked really hard on it.
I think it recaptures that magic that fans loved when they first heard that band.
JC: I'm glad to hear that, because I think their creative flower really blossomed, finally, on this record. I really do hope people give it a chance. It's just a great pop record. I would love to work with them again, they're great.
Tombs, Path Of Totality (Relapse Records, June 7, 2011)
With Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Okkervil River or St. Vincent you're serving all three roles — producer, engineer, mixer. But with the Tombs album, Path of Totality, you're simply recording. What role do you feel most comfortable with, or do you even see a difference between those roles?
JC: I don't even feel like I'm doing a different job most of the time. I feel like being brought in just a mixer I'm able to add a lot, sometimes even more than if I'm mixing my own records because it's like a last-minute effort where I can show you a different side or dimension of the song. [With Tombs] that was a very cold line of like, "I'm just engineering, I'm just recording." But I don't feel any less engaged when that happens. Sometimes just engineering a record is just so easy and just so relaxing to me that it hardly feels like work sometimes — as long as the days aren't long.
So you don't feel a creative itch to tinker?
JC: No, not really. I feel just as creative focusing on just the sounds and getting the photographic representation of where the sounds should be. [But] it's all the same bag of bones for me. It's hard for me to compartmentalize production and engineering, and that's why I can't produce things unless I'm also recording. It's very tactile. I need my hands in the dirt.
Is that part of the conversation when a band approaches you and say they want to work with you or do say "If I'm going to do this I want to do X, Y, Z."?
JC: I think [most] already kind of know what the "John Congleton experience" entails. You do a record with me and you don't have to hire anyone else. It's just me and you and that's it. For the most part everybody just assumes that's how it will happen.
Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge, March 8, 2011)
With a project like Wye Oak's record Civilian, where you're just mixing, are you simply handed a nearly-complete project? How much changed from when you got the songs and the final product?
JC: [Wye Oak] handed us the songs. They had recorded it and they had labored over it extensively.
So you're the last fresh ears to touch it before it gets mastered?
JC: Yeah, but from what I remember, that record definitely went somewhere in the mixing that it wasn't before. Certain songs, like "The Alter," [were] extremely different after we mixed it. "Civilian" was [also] really different. When somebody brings me a record to mix, usually they feel like they can only get it so far with who they were working with or with themselves, and they just want somebody with fresh ears to take it to the next level. I just try to have a candid, open conversation with them about each song before we start working on it about like: "What you were thinking about when you wrote the song? What were your influences? If you could get it to sound like anything what would you want it to sound like?"
Wye Oak [was] definitely to the point that they were frustrated and had really labored [on] the record and they wanted somebody to help them at that point. Parts of that record, a good half of the songs definitely took a new turn in the mix. They were both exhilarated and frightened by that, if I remember correctly. They're really great people, and I think that them sort of expanding their horizons and working with a mixer really helped their record and it showed. People really liked the record.
If you look broadly at some of your recent stuff, one could label a lot of it as "indie" rock. But your body of work is actually more eclectic. There's also some folk, some metal, there's hardcore — you've worked with Sarah Jaffe but also Baroness. Is there a musical thread that connects all these records together?
JC: The only thing I say I consciously do is I definitely make an effort to work on different styles of music: not working on too many post-rock bands, or too many heavy bands, or too many folk bands, or just whatever. I have no desire to be known as somebody that just works on a single style of music and would rather avoid it, actually.
Do you think some of that goes back to your days of recording a jazz quartet one day and a choir the next?
JC: Probably. I mean I'm just a music fan. I like pretty much all types of music, and I feel like I can get something out of everything. It just makes work a lot more fun whenever you're working on different things all the times and usually once I work with a band I usually will want to work with them again, just because we become good friends. That sometimes is the only bad thing, is that I work with bands that I already know. Thats not really the best thing in the world because I should always be keeping my eyes out on other things. I mean, Explosions in the Sky, we've worked together for like ten years now.
Explosions In The Sky, Take Care Take Care Take Care (Temporary Residence Limited, April 26, 2011)
You have such a long relationship with Explosions in the Sky. How does it feel to go into the studio with that band at this point?
JC: It feels like second nature to hang out with those guys. We've become close and I really, really care about those guys as humans. They're probably four of my favorite people ever. I would loan that band money. Anytime anything good happens to them I feel pride swelling up, because they're friends.
The first record I did with them (2003's Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place), we did in three days, recorded and mixed. And that was, I still think their most successful record to date, in terms of sales. And the only reason why that record was amazing was because the songs were amazing. I was just the lucky dope who was there to record them, and they liked the way I recorded it. Throughout the years, little by little they've incorporated me into the sanctuary of opinion. On the first record, my opinion wasn't really there, and even if I wanted to have an opinion, I'd only be complicating things. And when you listen to that record what you're hearing is just exactly what I heard the first day.
Their records, but especially that one, always have an immediacy to them. The songs feel spontaneous as they slowly build to a dramatic catharsis.
JC: Right, you betchya. That record is basically just a live record — live in the studio. I don't even really remember there being any overdubs or anything. Once we went to All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone and [this] last record (Take Care Take Care Take Care), they've incorporated my sort of studio comfort. They've asked me to be a little more involved each time, but never to an extreme point. I've never been like the way I am on a St. Vincent record, but for the most part, it's all about lifting them up in the studio and letting them be as creative as they possibly can.
You said earlier that producing felt like the most natural way to express yourself as a musician, but you have also played in bands, most notably The Paper Chase and The Nighty Nite. Do you prefer writing songs and performing versus being in a supporting role, fleshing out arrangements and working with other musicians?
JC: I think I'm better at producing than I am at being a songwriter, but it doesn't change the fact that I still have a desire to play and write songs. I've never wanted to be a career musician. But I still love to play and write. It's a big part of who I am. Songwriting is not particularly easy for me. I think it would be easy for me if I didn't have such high restrictions and feelings about what I want my music to be. I'm not precious at all when it comes to producing music and I can bring that to an artist and let them expand their horizons.
Do you feel you bring a particular sonic stamp to a record?
JC: I think that other people could probably judge that better than me. I definitely prefer things to be dark, I definitely prefer things to not be particularly obvious. I like a lot of mystery in music, and I like it when things don't sound just like what they sound like always, you know? But at the same time I like everything to sound very earnest and honest. So I don't really think that I have a definite stamp, but if people see that, that's awesome.