When it comes to making a record, the most common perspective comes from the artist. For those of us who live outside the closed doors of recording studios, those of us whose involvement in the music industry lies solely on the listener's side, there is a blurry romanticism connected to the soundproofed black walls and endless boards of levers and knobs. We connect those dark rooms to the faces of our icons. Those are the dark rooms where they poured their blood, sweat, and tears over microphones, keys and strings ... right?
"There's a spectrum I would say," came the voice on the other side of the glass. In this particular moment he was the guy on the other end of the phone, but usually he's the guy on the other end of an artist's mic. John Congleton — who owns and runs Elmwood Studios in the Dallas area of Texas — is a producer, an occasional engineer, and once a touring musician himself. He's been involved in everything from producing his own music, to churning out Barney the Dinosaur soundtracks, to teaming up with Annie Clarke during the evolution of St. Vincent, to engineering tracks for Marilyn Manson and R.Kelly. We called him to try and gather a clearer picture of the recording process, the music industry, and a little insight into what it means to be the guy behind the glass. What we gradually came to discover is that John Congleton isn't your average guy behind the glass.
"So," I asked him, "When does an artist pick up the red phone and call John Congleton?"
"There's a spectrum I would say." And it's a wide one. On the one end exists the artist who comes to him with a finished product. This artist has already bled, sweated, and cried outside the studio. The songs are there, because the notes are there, and this fact has been deliberated endless times over before they even walked through the door. Perhaps there is a spot check or a coat of polish that needs to be applied, but the artwork is all there.
"I'm essentially more of like a photographic representation of making a record," he explained such a scenario. "Just going in there and getting the job done professionally and helping them get over the minor problems that might pop up." On the opposite end of the spectrum is the artist who walks through the door with a few sketches, ready to begin painting the ceiling of the chapel. In this scenario Congleton is there from conception to production. "So that's the spectrum I can work in," he paused briefly, "which is just about as wide a spectrum as there ever is." Most records, though, fall somewhere in the middle: Congleton will help them over a few existential hurdles, but in general his role is that of the vehicle and not the creator. He summarized it for me, "there's a spectrum of how that can happen, and so when somebody calls me: [it's] pretty early on if it's something where they want me involved in the writing and in every little step of the way, or it can be basically once the songs are completely done, they're like 'Okay, so what do you want to work with?'" Knowing a little bit about his history with St. Vincent, who really exploded onto the scene this past year, I asked him where their relationship fell on the spectrum. "Well, it depends on which record you're talking about."
Let's talk about all of them. John Congleton has been working with Annie Clarke a.k.a. St. Vincent since they got together to conquer a few existential hurdles on her sophomore album Actor. "She had been spending a lot of time writing these really, really gorgeous ornate arrangements, really beautiful woodwinds. She really got into being sort of a composer, and at that point she kind of hit a wall and came to a point where she realized that she kind of needed, well, for lack of a better word: pop songs." So were born the really, really gorgeous ornate pop songs, like the catchy dark comedy of the album's title track, on 2009's Actor.
Their first collaboration led to a more involved partnership when it came to Clarke's third album Strange Mercy. She walked through the door with a few sketches, but most of the album was written in the studio. As Congleton puts it, "we discovered what that record was all about." Had the two not previously discussed a different approach to her next record, he thinks St. Vincent — Clarke's eponymously titled fourth album — might have turned out to be a dangerously similar product. Instead, he encouraged her to take a little space from everything, including himself, and do some serious songwriting. "When she came into the studio," with what would become St. Vincent, "we already had some pretty flushed out songs, and it was more about the execution and figuring out the grooves in the songs, which is definitely something that I'm pretty comfortable with."
Last year we interviewed Thao Nguyen of Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, and she had some pretty amazing things to say about John. "Specifically," I mentioned, "your ear for fine tuning arrangements."
He thought about it for a moment, and then I imagine he shrugged, "It's all pretty simple to me. If you listen to a song and whatever doesn't seem right, you just mention it to the artist and if they have an idea of how to fix it, that's cool and that's what you should do. But, if they don't have an idea, in a weird way, to me, it's sort of just problem solving."
Congleton has an eye for musical problem solving. For him, it's nearly scientific. He approaches producing a record with the same mindset he approaches engineering a record. "If there's a buzz in the amp you've got to fix the buzz in the amp, but if there's a problem with the song you've got to fix the song." It's as simple as that ... as long as the artist is open to a little bit of fixing.
Trust is a huge factor when it comes to Congleton's ability to produce someone's record. "I don't like a situation where somebody hires me, really wants to work with me, and then wants to argue with me the whole time. That's just not fun." While this occurs from time to time, maybe once a year, Congleton's philosophy on producing minimizes these situations to a rarity. The way he sees it, for an artist, working with a producer is something you have to sign on for wholeheartedly or not at all. It doesn't matter what end of the spectrum you fall on, being produced is something you need to be open too, and if you're not, then chances are you're really looking for a sound engineer.
"I think in the media industry a lot of people think of engineers as people who grow on trees," John posited, "and producers are more bullshit artists, frankly. One thing that I like to try to pride myself on is that I'm the anti-bullshit artist's producer." It's pretty cut and dry as far he sees it, "you don't want me to produce your record, that is totally fine, I get it. It's your art, it's 100% your decision who gets to meddle with it, or who doesn't get to meddle with it." Congleton doesn't seem to have any kind of ego about being the guy to come to if you want to make a record, "I don't claim to have snake oil or anything that I can sell anybody, just if you want me to help out, and help you with the songs and help you make a record, cool."
Way cool. Not only will he help you make a record, Congleton will help you make a record in record time. John's manager, who has been in the music biz a long time, has never come across anyone who works as fast as John. Walk into the studio with your sketch book, bring Congleton in from note one, and the process might be as long as a few months, but almost never more. It goes back to the simple science of fixing that buzz in the amp. Chances are, if it goes over that much time, something is wrong on a more fundamental level. He's quick to say that he only speaks for himself here, and cites that many great records have taken people much longer to complete. On a general scale he's found zero correlation between time spent in the studio and the quality of a record.
One of the first records to really put him on the map as a producer was done with Explosions In The Sky on their album The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. They laid a mix of that record in three days, "That's all the band could afford a the moment," Congleton confessed. "But at the end of the day, that's really all we needed to make a record that meant something to people." Not only did the record go on to sell extremely well, it's still a point of reference that draws artists to Congleton.
"So," I shifted gears, "Thao told us that you're really into early 90s hip hop, and that you can tell a mean dirty joke."
He laughed, "Thao said that?"
I assured him that she had, and he laughed, "I do love early 90s hip-hop, specifically the east coast stuff. The technology at that time, the drum machines, they were still making the conversion from 16-bit to 12-bit ... There's something very specific and raw about the technology at that point." He's done some engineering work in hip-hop, but he's never really gotten a chance to produce a hip-hop album. He's worked on the fringe of hip-hop, producing for Astronautalis, who he describes as having a Tom Waits-y meets Captain Beefheart kind of vibe. "He's really this brilliant hip-hop guy, but certainly not your typical thing." Unsurprising, considering that Congleton isn't your typical thing either.
He ponders where he started — which is essentially with commercial jingles, sound effect records, and Barney the Dinosaur soundtracks. "Oh my god I recorded so many Barney the Dinosaur, you have no idea," he looks back with humor and appreciation. Then he considers the future. Half kidding, and yet completely serious he mentions that if he finds himself in a situation where artists he's interested in working with are no longer interested in his help, he can always just fall back on engineering. It's a thing he still does from time to time, R.Kelly and all. Considering the long term relationships he has garnered with the likes of St. Vincent, the fruits of those efforts, and his uniquely Zen philosophy on process; it is difficult to imagine Congleton ever becoming irrelevant.
I think I've covered all my questions. Do you have anything you feel like you want to throw in?
Well, I'll give you one dirty joke.
How do you get a nun pregnant?
I don't know, how do you get a nun pregnant?
...Mr. John Congleton ladies and gentlemen.
We recently spent a day with Rubblebucket while they recorded their new album Survival Sound with John.