Inside the Volcano: An Interview with Steve Fisk & Alicia Dara

For the past year, I’ve found myself asking almost every artist I interview the same question: “What do you think of the current state of the music industry?”

That’s a loaded question, but let’s face it: everything is changing, or at least is in a state of flux. Labels are dying and printed music journalism is in its death throes. Musicians seem to embrace these changes. No longer do they have to shell out money for PR agencies or expensive studio time when they can do everything themselves. All this got me thinking about the role of the producer in this brave new musical climate.

Steve Fisk is a legend in certain circles, and even if you’ve never heard of him, odds are you’ve heard his work. A staple of the Pacific Northwest grunge scene, Fisk has helmed the sessions and shaped some of the most iconic music to come out of the ’80s and ’90s. His rap sheet reads like a Gen X hipster’s wet dream: Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Beat Happening, Soul Coughing, Boss Hog … the list goes on. Alicia Dara, leader of The Volcano Diary, is his latest project, but Dara is no stranger to the scene. After extensive touring and five solo releases, Dara and Fisk crossed paths and the result is the debut, self titled Volcano Diary LP. Driven by acoustic guitar and Dara’s often biting lyricism, it seems like an odd project for Fisk to undertake, considering the decibel shattering guitar rock he’s used to producing. I spoke with both Fisk and Dara in separate interviews to get a sense of the producer/performer relationship, the Seattle music scene, the creative process and Fisk’s own unvarnished opinion on the state of the industry.

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What are your criteria for accepting a production gig?

Fisk: My discography is pretty diverse or maybe confusing. Every record is different.  A lot of it is the meeting process and seeing what the artist wants to do. Most people don’t have labels these days so how self-directed or together they are is also important. I’m lucky not to be pigeonholed and I appreciate the variety of things that people bring to me, but I can tell if I’m the wrong guy for some stuff.

With the advent of Pro-Tools and DIY production, how do you feel the role of producer has changed?

Fisk: Its obliterated the meaning of the word. It has created a totally unrealistic sense of entitlement. With the current system of “DIY/DAW”,  a person might be a producer after he or she had seen other producers work, seen many sessions go wrong and brought “production” to their own sessions through the job title of “engineer” before anyone considered them a producer. What if this happened to the medical industry? You’re a doctor because you bought some software and had some limited success working on your own internal organs? Being a “producer” might eventually mean something new. Right now it means nothing. Production as we experienced it as a culture in the last century doesn’t happen very much these days.

As you’ve seen the music industry shift so much over the years, how do you feel about the current state of the industry?

Fisk: There isn’t an industry. There’s an internet. People stealing music. MP3s are the new audio standard. And convenience listening … fuck! I have never tried to mix something to sound good as an MP3.

Do you miss the past or embrace the future?

Fisk: You can’t put your arms around a memory.

Tell me about some of your favorite, all-time projects.

Fisk: I produced and mixed at Sear Sound in Manhattan several times. Boss Hog, Soul Coughing, and Hal, a great Japanese singer/songwriter. I loved the gear, the board, the acoustics, and the history. Walter and Roberta made it a special place to work. Really outre’ crazy music too. One Boss Hog track had me and Jon Spencer on our knees playing a Hammond organ foot pedal part that needed four hands. I showed Boss Hog the “Green Eyed Lady” organ trick where you unhook the gears and the organ grinds down like a slow motion train wreck. I knew at that moment I was almost cool.

I had a blast working with Shawn Smith on the first Pigeonhed record. We rented some good gear for a summer. It  was written and produced in an old downtown Seattle storefront with Shawn singing in the closet. Sirens and all kinds of street noise were always getting in. It was great to make music with him for the first time. It was really freeing and inspiring and had nothing to do with the grunge thing exploding all around. The Wedding Present at Bad Animals recorded almost a double LP in a very short amount of time. They are great players with great songs and it was a real turning point in their sound. Real characters too. Kind of like a Guy Ritchie movie with the wrong accent. It was great recording the “comeback” at Robert Lange’s in 2004 as well. A different line up. Better songs even.

What are your thoughts on the current Seattle music scene? Was it like a star that burned too bright?

Fisk: The scene’s fine. People living in Seattle never stopped turning out great music all thru the 90s and into the present. The current “Indie” musical climate seems to have way too much reverence for the pre-internet world. There are so many bands that are low on substance but have their retro form totally down. It’s cool, but it’s a world in transition. The web has given today’s “kids” an intimidating access to all the recorded music in history. That makes Dylan way too big. The Beatles are way too important. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, etc. Like a Chinese culture where venerating your ancestors is an overwhelming responsibility. Seattle is as guilty of that as anybody. On the other hand, these last few years I’ve got to mix records for KK and His Weathered Underground, Tennis Pro, Lets Get Lost, Kyle O’Quin and Thomas Hunter. They are all from the same brain trust of producers, writers and players that manage to artfully interpret many older genres and influences into their music while bringing a vital new sound and voice.

What drew you to Alicia Dara and the Volcano Diary?

Fisk: Our mutual friend Sean Nelson from Harvey Danger hooked us up.

How strong of a hand do you exert in sessions? Do you let the artist explore or is it pretty tightly regimented?

Fisk: Alicia’s time was pretty tight. Once I got the percussion programming started the sessions were specific. I didn’t need to direct much. It was about getting takes. The instrumentation was deliberately stark. The dynamics were already in the acoustic guitar arrangement. That pretty much guided where and how much we embellished the choruses.

Volcano Diary and Alicia’s approach are different from many of the noise acts you’ve worked with in the past. Was Alicia more open to sonic experimentation that other guitar based acts you’ve worked with?

Fisk: Alicia wanted “new” ideas and interesting solutions. She and I made a lot of the bigger calls ahead of time. She and Gus would play guitar. I would provide minimal grooves, bass and some keyboard arrangements. We tracked and mixed in my home studio which also helps focus/limit what you can do. She was pretty happy with most of what I brought. She was also looking for my angle on “performance”, like a “correct” take versus a great/fucked up take.  Sometimes the really cool shit happens on the way to point A.  I really liked working together. She’s cool. I hope we can do it again.

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You’ve been writing and recording solo for a long time. Tell me about the origins of Volcano Diary?

Dara: When I finished the national tour for my last solo record, The Secret Dream of Tigers, I had accomplished everything I wanted to do as a solo artist. I’ve collaborated with so many generous musicians over the years, but it was all for solo material, and I suddenly became hungry to be part of a tribe. Everything fell into place quite quickly after that.

Was the sound of the record something that you had always had in your head, or was it a collaborative effort with Fisk and bandmates?

Dara: My parents are symphony musicians. Being their offspring gives you two things: a good sense of melody, and a huge appreciation of the dynamic spectrum (loud and soft). All of my music champions these things. Steve is best known for working with Nirvana and other loud rock bands, but he has a diverse body of work and knows a ton about sonic textures. I told him at our first meeting that I wanted our record to be very much a collaboration. That said, I’m also pretty strong in my opinions, so it was a good challenge to slow down and listen to him, watch him work, and be receptive to his ideas. His communication style is subtle, and he makes his ideas known in a quiet but powerful way. I enjoyed our dialogue so much, but I think I learned the most from just watching him work. As far as the actual sound of the music, we spoke a lot about leaving space for things to breathe in the songs, and I think we kind of collaged it all together. You can hear a lot of this in “Lightning Seed”, in the way he made the sound cloud around Gus’ guitar and our vocals, and “Pacifica”, the way that he created textural moments for me to sing against, to push forward into, and fall back when Gus’ sexy lap steel does its thing.

Tell me about your approach to songwriting? Do you work in bursts of creativity, or are you pretty strict about blocking out time everyday to write?

Dara: I write a lot of songs per year, but I’ve also learned to be a good editor. These days I’m less prolific than I used to be but the songs are better quality (I think!). I think of creative energy as a force of nature, and my job is to harness that power for songs, but it could be used for anything, really. I don’t worry about writer’s block, because I feel that the source of everything is not inside me, but outside, and that I am just making space for it to hang around for awhile. It takes the pressure off. So I guess it’s a combination of both: I keep notebooks and write in them all the time, but I also make room for inspiration when it pounds on the door. “Revival” is a good example of a song that came quickly on a wave of inspiration, but based on things I’d been scribbling in notebooks for a year.

Have you ever thought about leaving Seattle? What is it about the scene and community that keeps you there?

Dara: It’s actually taken this long for me to feel rooted in Seattle, because I used to leave town so much to promote my records. For a long time I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay here, because I find travel and touring to be incredibly inspiring, and there are some great music scenes in other cities. But my network of friends and musicians is now rich enough that I would be a fool to leave it behind. There is a ton of musical diversity here, which I need in order to stay inspired. Seattle’s music community is also very resourceful, and I love being able to trade and barter for stuff. For example, I often trade background vocals for studio time, amp repair, or a haircut!

Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to make music for a living. Was it a specific album or band?

Dara: My entire family are classical musicians. A symphony concert is very predictable, in terms of the relationship between the orchestra and the audience. The crowd shows up on time, sits quietly, and refrains from clapping until the end of the piece. The musicians don’t deviate from what is on the printed sheet music, and they play with a level of excellence that is often taken for granted.  When I moved to New York City to go to music school I started singing back-up in bands in the downtown bar scene. I was thrilled by how completely unpredictable the environment was, the sense that anything could happen and quite often did. I loved rock and pop music from the very beginning, but it took awhile before I could figure out my place in it, because of my background. Hearing Jeff Buckley’s record, Grace for the first time helped me see that everything I loved about music could co-exist perfectly.

Was there a weighted pressure approaching the Volcano Diary album, a feeling of “We really need this to hit big.”

Dara: Not at all, fortunately. Steve and I talked a ton about that before we began recording. When you’ve made records for as long as he has, and to a lesser extent as long as I have, a lot of that anxiety burns off and you’re free to enjoy the process itself. And besides, good music made with love always finds its way around, especially in the era of social media and global connectivity. But more importantly, I get up every single day and remind myself that you can’t please all of the people all the time. I wish I’d known that back in the very beginning. It’s liberating!

Is it more comforting to have a band dynamic and work under the Volcano Diary moniker?

Dara: It has been even more delightful than I thought it would be, actually, to work within this project. It’s more intimate, more challenging, than anything I’ve done before. The songs are certainly more raw, and I allowed myself a greater measure of vulnerability. But any band’s dynamic is arcane and mysterious and wonderful. Finding good people who understand it, like Steve and Gus, has been so fulfilling. I’m grateful.

For the next record, would you like to expand on sonic landscapes or go more minimal?

Dara: We’ve been talking about what we want to do next. The words “psychedelic rock record” have been floating around a lot lately! The Volcano Diary is about exploring the mysterious colors on the softer end of the dynamic spectrum, so it’s unlikely that we’ll turn our amps up to 11 anytime soon. All of the records that have influenced me have this thing in common, that perfect tension where the slow burn of the music could catch fire at any moment. I think this is the quality that makes for repeated listening instead of throwaway music.

What did working with Steve Fisk bring out in you? What makes him such an amazing producer?

Dara: Let me tell you something about Steve: he’s got the best ear in the business, and he could easily make a great living just mixing records that are produced by other people. But his appreciation for songwriting, for the integrity of the song itself, is just so great. He chooses who he works with very carefully, and I am honored to be part of his larger body of work. He made me feel completely comfortable during the recording process, and gave me tons of respect. Working with him challenged me to bring the best that I’ve got. His stories about the music business are the stuff of legend, and he’s hysterically funny! We laughed so much during the making of this record. I so appreciate the degree of integrity with which he lives his life and his music. Thank god he’s finally starting to get his due!