Interview: John Congleton on Producing The Walkmen

It seems that every review I read of The Walkmen‘s well-received new album, Lisbon, prominently mentioned John Congleton as a major factor in the success regarding what has struck some as a change in approach to The Walkmen’s sound.  John is a renowned engineer and runs Elmwood Recording Studio in Oak Cliff along with the equally notable Stuart Sikes.  He also toured to Russia and back as a Kill Rock Stars recording artist with his long-running outfit The Paperchase, however his upcoming musical endeavor is the newly formed group, The Nighty Night.

I mainly spoke to Congleton about his recording methodology, how it was developed, and how it pertained to the group’s new record.  This was a great opportunity, as Congleton and I admittedly haven’t always gotten along over the years.  But after a recent truce, it was a privilege to ask him about his work in a civil manner as opposed to publicly bickering over petty philosophical disagreements on blogs and message boards.  Congleton gave very thorough answers, and even addressed our prickly past rather honestly.  The one distinction I made to his answer on the last question is that the writers of We Shot JR never wrote under each others’ names, and I discussed that with him via email to avoid any “empty chair” journalism.  I want to thank Congleton for being gracious enough to conduct this interview.

FrontRow: Let’s start at the beginning: What happened in your formative years that led you to want to spend 12 to 20 hour days in a studio? A lot of people want to front a band, but it’s a certain personality type that is drawn to that sort of claustrophobic environment and few last through the weeding-out process.  Are you that sort of workaholic or do you try to manage a normal work day?

John Congleton: I knew I wanted to play music, but I never harbored any real feeling of wanting to do that for a living ever, even in my ignorant or idealistic young days. I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do with my life exactly, until the first time my band recorded our first demo when I was 15.  Something really clicked.  Everything changed.  I decided that day I wanted to do that for living.  Everything went into sharp focus: How do i do this?  What are the steps?  And I never looked back, honestly.  In my 20’s I think I was a complete workaholic.  Now in my 30’s I’ve calmed down, a little more insistent about some sort of sanity and control in my life.  I still work just about everyday of my life though.

FR: You interned at Electrical Audio in Chicago when both you and the studio were very young. In fact, I think Electrical was still being built at the time.

JC: I think there has been much undue ballyhoo about my experience at Electrical.  Yes, I was there back in 97-98, but it wasnt a significant amount of time.  Electrical became much more apart of my life [in] 2001 and on, once I started doing more albums there myself regularly.  But you are right; Studio A was just starting to be built when I first went there.  This was back when things seemed so much more untouchable.  It’s 1997, it was sort of “pre-internet” you know?  I just called up Steve, he said I could come.  I bought a one-way ticket to Chicago, landed the first day of one of the biggest blizzards in 20 years.  I had no car, no friends, and was staying at a sort of halfway house that was across the street from Cabrini green.  Anyone who has seen the movie Candyman will know what I’m talking about.

FR: Was there any particularly revelatory experience there?  Was it what you expected when you arrived?

JC: I don’t know what I expected but it was awesome for me at the time being as hungry as I was.  Steve was such a gentleman to me.  I just can’t say enough kind things about him.

FR: I think it’s safe to say that Steve Albini has been an influence on both of us.  Do you feel he has been more of a philosophical influence or a technical one?

JC: Both, philosophically in the way he managed his band Big Black; one of my favorite bands growing up.  There was a real no-nonsense, take-no-s*** attitude that I really admired and still do.  As far as technical inspiration I still think Steve is one of the most exciting engineers to ever be a part of the art form.  I really think his influence on rock recording cant be over-exaggerated.  I don’t know any engineer who doesn’t at least admire his work a little, even if they dont care for him.

FR: He tends to be more of a hands-off type of engineer, whereas it seems you are referred to as more of a “producer” in the traditional sense, at least as far as the media is concerned.  Do you feel this is accurate?  Or do you feel the media misunderstands the studio environment?

JC: See, I think this is strange territory.  I’ve been with Steve working on records where I feel he is very vocal about what he thinks is good or bad.  Of course he is always respectful and will put his opinion on a backseat to the artists, but I think he is a fantastic observer and communicator.  There’s not much [that’s] different in the way he conducts a session and the way I do in a lot of ways.  The funny thing to me is how often I am credited as a producer when I didnt do s*** in the way I think of a producer.  It’s all very confusing sometimes.

But to clarify an answer: Yes, I am hired as a producer in the conventional sense of the word, often.  Sometimes I do become quite involved in the aesthetic decisions; songwriting and arrangement choices.  I think there is total validity to it; I take pride in it and take it very seriously.  I realize not all bands always need producers.  Like, why would a band like the Minutemen ever need to be produced, for example.  But I feel very happy to have been asked to come into the fold and help people finish up or realize their vision.  It can be a lot of things.  Sometimes you’re just like a soccer player kicking the ball back into scrimmage, sometimes you’re just a cheerleader.  Sometimes you’re just somebody to help break up fights, sometimes you’re just telling someone they can do something better.  Or sometimes you’re co-writing or suggesting a different inversion of chords, a different key so the singer can sound better.  It doesn’t mean you have to take my suggestions.  I’m just there to help make the best album possible at that moment with what’s given.  And I think my touch is rather gentle and respectful.  Some people value that, some people don’t.  Nobody has to hire me to do it if they don’t want to, obviously.  When someone calls me to do a record I assume I’m just engineering until they say, “Oh, and we’d like you to produce too please.”  If it seems like a good idea, I’ll do it.  I’m humbled by anyone ever wanting to work with me.  It’s always my privilege.

FR: Obviously your work has taken you to studios all over the place, not just Electrical.  Besides Electrical, you have worked in pretty well-known places like Pachyderm in Minnesota or even your own Elmwood Studio in Oak Cliff.  But you have also worked in the rather unexpected locale of Plano, at The Track Recording Studio. In regard to their most recent record, Lisbon, I’ve read a lot about how The Walkmen scrapped much of their previously recorded work in New York, but were happier with the results in Dallas.  How much do you feel the surroundings effect the work?

JC: It all came from their manager. I dont think the band chose me out of a hat or anything.  I was in England working with a band called Clinic, and Jonathan, their manager, said he was going to send me 20-some-odd Walkmen songs, and I should pick two that I felt I could produce and somehow “improve.”  He sent me the songs and I thought they were demos, but actually it was the attempt at the record.  I chose two songs and we got together once I was back in America.  Those two songs ended up on the record: “Angela” and “The Torch Song.”  I was very happy to help and stoked when they decided to come back and do the rest.

I think we did like 9 more songs a month or so later.  A lot of it ended up on the record, as well as three tunes from the NYC session from before that were as awesome as I thought.  I can’t really speak to how the surroundings effected the work for them.  They would best be asked that.  I think they were just ready for an outsider to peek at things and make a suggestion or two.

FR: Sometimes the media makes Elmwood sound like a four-track in some guy’s bedroom.

JC: It aint!  My debt can prove that.

FR: On that same subject, it’s also been mentioned that your “stripped down” sound is what makes Lisbon successful.  Do you feel that just happens to be your natural inclination anyways?

JC: See, I dont think thats really me exactly.  We just recorded things and it sounded great stripped-down.  They are good band.  I didn’t lobby to make it more complicated, and I think they respected that confidence we had in one another.

FR: Or did you have a predetermined idea of how you want to approach sessions?

JC: I had ideas of how to record the band and how we could approach the songs.  Some ideas they ran with, some they didn’t.  It was like any other record: you see what works and you 86 what doesn’t.

FR: Do you ever refer to an artist’s past recordings?

JC: Always.  I never go into any record anymore without listening to the band’s records beforehand.

FR: How selective are you when deciding on clients?  I know some engineers don’t mind who they’re working with; some complain about having to record the same kind of act over-and-over, and some people are fairly picky.  Where do you feel you fall?  Do you ever work with an act you thought you might not be a fan of that won you over?

JC: Sometimes it’s just timing , but I do try hard to work with artists I like, respect, or understand, rather than anything for a paycheck.  I can basically relate to most any artist, but I do really like to work with people who I can be friends with more than anything else I think.

FR: I know this is tricky territory, but where do you fall on the “analog VS digital” debate at this point?  Have you tried to stay current with advances in digital technology?  Do you prefer tape?  Or is just not even an issue to you one way or another?

JC:  I use both.  Elmwood, for example, is an extremely analog and digital-friendly studio.  But I basically make records the same way I did 13-plus years ago, as I do now no matter what the platform is.  Sound-wise, I like tape but I dont care enough to tell the band they have to spend $1,200 on tape for me to agree to work on their record.  You can make a s****y record or good record on either. I refuse to make it a huge issue.

FR: Now I know you might feel uncomfortable discussing work that has yet-to-be-released, but I know a lot of people had their eyebrows raised by your upcoming collaboration with David Byrne.  Can you at least tell us if that is a studio collaboration i.e. something you recorded? Or were you actively writing together? Both?

JC:  I’m just producing and recording some songs.  It just went down in December.  I don’t know whats next, but I’m told there’s more to come.  I’m just along for the ride, honestly.

FR: I know we’ve had our issues in the past, especially regarding anonymous writing and commenting etc.  What particular aspects of anonymous culture sets you off the most?  Or how about this: Would you rather read something profound that you completely agreed with, but the author is unknown?  Or would you rather read a really silly album review full of inaccuracies and assumptions, but the person signs his or her name?

JC: I think both stink, but honestly the latter.  If “Writer X” makes stupid and inane observations, I can avoid reading them or better yet, wait for them to be fired as they can’t hide behind anonymity.  In the world of anonymous writers, you don’t know who you are reading, or how much stock [to put] into what they have to say at all.  In the case of We Shot JR, I understood you guys switched names sometimes, which is positively frustrating to me.  For what in the world could you possibly trust in them for a critique?  But this all pales in comparison to the message board, blog, and comment culture of anonymity.  I find literally nothing positive about this in any way shape or form.  To me I just see free-floating hostility and negativity.  I know it’s not going anywhere, and bitching about it is like sweeping leaves on a windy day, but I just can’t see what it offers.  It just all seems meaningless if somebody wants to put out some hot air but won’t bother to put their name beside. Don’t you believe what you said enough to take some ownership?  People can go ahead and knock themselves out with it, I just can’t respect it personally.

Image: Congleton in performance with The Paperchase.  Photo by Michael Briggs.  Courtesy of Michael Briggs.


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