[27 July 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
The Daily Adventures of Mixerman has a close literary cousin in the form of Dostoevsky’s classic 1864 novella Notes from Underground. No, really.
Both books feature narrators who are never named and wish to remain anonymous, both texts tend to wax philosophical on human nature and the hypocrisies of current society, and—as is revealed upon completion of both books—sometimes all those heady ruminations skewer our perspective as to what’s really going on in the text, making small social faux pas seem like horrible acts of defiance when, in reality, they’re not.
Mixerman is a record engineer. He has developed somewhat of a name in the industry and has a bit of clout. This fact is made most evident when a young “bidding war band” has asked that Mixerman sit on the creation of their debut album. The band are fans of Mixerman’s work, and when a big-name producer is brought in to help create said disc, both the four young guys and Mixerman himself are positively excited to be on a project that the president of the record label has made his top priority. So excited Mixerman has become, in fact, he even started a blog about the day-to-day workings of the project.
The Daily Adventures of Mixerman is the printed version of the blog entries that Mixerman posted in the summer of 2002 and abruptly stopped in December of that same year. Emphasizing his wish to remain anonymous, everyone involved in this project is given a nickname according to their personality and/or actions. For example: during the first week of recording this hot young band, the “big name producer” that’s supposed to be on the project is unable to make it to the studio for the very first day. He and Mixerman exchange phone calls as the studio is being set up. As the week progresses, the producer fails to show up despite his daily promises that he’s going to. Eventually, Mixerman gives a name to the big-name producer in question: Willy Show.
As the days go by, Mixerman gradually gets to know the band (dubbed Bitch Slap) a little better: there’s perpetually-depressed yet occasionally-brilliant guitarist Paulie Yore, image-obsessed frontman Johnny (whose surname is changed every time depending on what his actions are), below-average bassist Harmon Neenot, and the drummer affectionately known as Dumb Ass.
As Mixerman describes it, Bitch Slap’s demos made their way around the industry pretty rapidly, the band receiving multiple offers from multiple labels before finally getting snatched up. It is during moments like these that Mixerman provides a great deal of insight into the industry: often, when a band of Bitch Slap’s buzz-level is as sought-after as they are, sometimes a label will sign the group just to make sure that other labels don’t get this band—the ultimate game of Keep Away if there ever was one. Such seems to be the case with Bitch Slap, who were signed to the label two years ago and have been forced to write songs ever since. It is only now that they’re actually getting around to recording their debut.
Yet as the days go on, things never seem to be quite right. First off, Dumb Ass is the worst drummer alive, rarely keeping the same pace or tempo during the course of a single song, making his drums sound terrible, and simply expressing general stupidity at every possible opportunity he can. Mixerman tries micing the drum set-up differently and even brings in some new equipment, but no matter what, Dumb Ass cannot drum for the life of him. The rest of the band hates him, but not as much as they apparently hate each other (which comes to a head much later on).
Once Willy finally shows up, the band tries getting around to recording songs, but the process is slow at best. Though Paulie Yore expresses a general sense of disinterest about everything going on around him, Mixerman notes that he’s a great guitarist that can lay down his parts with ease. The main problem stems from the fact that singer Johnny wishes to record his own guitar parts during the same song, and can barely play worth a damn. Bassist Harmon Neenot also wishes to make his own non-rhythm contributions as well, wanting to take vocals on a couple of songs despite the fact that his voice screeches in a most distressing way.
Naturally, this seems like a grand setup for conflict, and lo and behold, it is. The label—expressing positively no restraint in terms of budget—eventually brings in a young drum editor who identifies himself as a “Wegro” and makes continual comments about how his people are being oppressed; A&R rep Jeremiah Weasel wishes to listen to the sessions but insists that the cymbals on the drums should “soar” more (Mixerman eventually obliges him by setting up dummy equipment with a label over a knob that simply reads “soar”, which Jeremiah adjusts constantly), and label president Marv Ellis reiterates time and time again that budget is not an issue as long as he’s delivered hit after hit (which is why he decides to transplant the LA-based sessions to a posh New York studio for pretty much no reason whatsoever).
Mixerman notes how what he’s doing isn’t horribly special: though he takes great pride in his work, it’s impossible for any producer or engineer to be capable of delivering “hits”, as there is no way to determine what is or is not going to be a radio smash. Instead, Mixerman points out that producers and engineers simply produce as many projects as they can, as that gets them more “tickets” to the tastemaker “lottery”, and if you’re lucky enough to produce a band that scores a major chart-topper, then the offers to get more work come in time and time again.
It’s simple insights like these that make The Daily Adventures of Mixerman extremely valuable towards anyone serious about making music, as Mixerman details not only the behind-the-scenes actions of record labels, but also the intricate processes involved in recording, sometimes getting very specific as to how to get certain guitar sounds, do proper drum setups, and how to properly mix and master an album. It’s academic to a fault, explaining these concepts clearly and in detail without going off the proverbial deep end and losing readers in needless jargon and double-talk.
Yet as nice and humorous as Mixerman is, he—much like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man—sometimes finds fault with even the most flippant of things, particularly in regards to making sure he gets a chocolate muffin early in the morning, calling out and marginalizing those who get said muffin before him (all of this is remedied, however, once Willy demands that at least 20 chocolate muffins be brought in to the studio every morning). Though he acknowledges that not every record company executive is a “mook”, most of them are, and—as such—they automatically have little to no idea how to help or aide the engineering of a particular session, again saying more about Mixerman’s own views about himself and how he make records than the industry at large.
We must step back and acknowledge, however, that this is Mixerman’s personal blog, and is entitled to his own opinions and unique turns of phrase. We can’t necessarily hold him accountable for passages detailing his need for fresh batches of socks, his constant use of the word “retard” in terms of describing the stupidity of those around him, nor his tirades against the people stealing his muffins. It should be noted, however, that though we certainly grant him that concession, it doesn’t necessarily make for engaging reading.
The real meat of The Daily Adventures of Mixerman, though, comes from the interactions that the band has. Though Harmon Neenot isn’t that talented and Paulie ain’t exactly a ball of sunshine, there is still a lot of humor to be found on the days when band members alternate days where they bring in their girlfriends (almost as a game of one-upmanship), the time when Dumb Ass trips over himself and falls through a plate of sound-proof glass that fractures his wrist (which would be bad enough if not for that fact that Dumb Ass later runs into the control room with a tambourine to exclaim that he can still play percussion on the record), and the instance when the band members begin fighting over songwriting royalties, soon arguing that for each word a band member contributes to a song, they should get their own one per cent stake in the songwriting credits. Their vanity knows no bounds.
Of course, it’s impossible to summarize all the exciting events in this book without spoiling a few things, but know that the most outrageous stories tend to occur near the end, particularly when a band member steals a stretch limo, the entire group gets loaded on smack during a session, a replacement drummer nearly burns his ears off during the recording of a particular song, the entire album gets re-recorded by absolutely no one in the original band, and—yes—the furious moment that transpires when someone finally discovers Mixerman’s blog on their own ...
In the end, The Daily Adventures of Mixerman is a fun and interesting read, providing a lot of insights in to the realm of music making without skimping on the gritty (and often hilarious) stories that stem out of the recording of this particular session. It’s not great literature, but it’s a worthwhile diversion. Much like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, however, this book is best enjoyed when taking each description with a grain of salt.