Interviews

The Bloom Is On: An Interview with Producer Tucker Martine

Caleb Caldwell
Photo: Vivian Johnson

He's produced for the Decemberists, Mudhoney, and My Morning Jacket -- and also wrote the Windows Vista theme. A journey through the life of producer Tucker Martine.

Tucker Martine has garnered a reputation over the years as one of the Northwest's most prominent music producers -- and has the bona fides to prove it.

 

Martine, a generous and humble collaborator, is comfortable working with lesser-known indie outfits on a regular basis, but he's also helped take acts like The Decemberists to the top of the charts with 2011's lauded The King is Dead, a clean and roomy album recorded in a converted Oregon barn. In addition, Martine has produced, engineered, or mixed for Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, Spoon, and R.E.M.

 

Part of Martine's signature sound as a producer stems from his willingness to import a idiosyncratic musical vocabulary from his own projects, such as Floratone, a collaborative mix of jazz, dub, and avant-garde collage that snagged Tucker a Grammy nomination in 2007. That means a lot of subtle ambient touches, a willingness to find the beauty in glitches, accidents. He's equally competent working in ProTools and painstakingly splicing tape recorded on vintage equipment. Martine's production of folk artists like wife Laura Veirs, Tift Merritt, and Laura Gibson is usually soft and textured, but never nostalgic -- there's always an edge to it somewhere. Those edges turn into razors on records like The Lucky Ones by Seattle's alt-punk stalwarts Mudhoney, which Martine tracked in just a few days.

 

Martine recently opened his own studio, Flora Recording & Playback. He lives in Portland with Veirs and their two children. Martine sat down with PopMatters recently to discuss blocking out being influenced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, producing for his wife, and what it was like to create the Windows Vista theme.

* * *

You worked on the Microsoft Vista theme: how did that come about?

The guy that was in charge of that project was a fan of an experimental project of mine that was more active back then, called Mount Analog. His initial hopes, as he put it to me, were to have the startup sound be adventurous, "outside the box," push the envelope, etc. You know: all those creative buzzwords that corporations like to think they want. I knew that Brian Eno had done the startup sound for the previous operating system, so that led me to think it could be a genuinely creative outlet. The challenge of making something unique and interesting that is a total of three seconds long intrigued me. By the time the whole thing had run its course their committees had diluted it down to something I didn't even recognize. Bit by bit they asked for the interesting bits to be removed until it was basically the Apple startup sound. Apparently the end result was a collaboration between me and Robert Fripp, but, like I said, I don't recognize it when I hear it.

You moved into your own studio a while ago. I wish I could be there to get a sense of the place, and I'm curious: in what ways have you found that space effecting the recording and engineering process?

There's so much to the place where you record. On a practical level, of course, it makes a difference that I have my favorite tools handy and things are wired in a way that is sensible to me -- I planned it in hopes of having as little time as possible between an idea and the trying out of that idea. I have a reasonable amount of natural light in my space, which helps keep you from going crazy when you're spending a lot of time there. When I planned the place, I spent a lot of time thinking about my favorite places in which I had made records and what about those places I liked so much. I found that the majority of them weren't even studios. They were churches or barns or a house that we'd brought recording equipment into. Also, I grew up in Nashville where a lot of the studios have reclaimed barn wood interiors, which sound great and also have an instantly lived in, non-sterile vibe about them. So my place ended up being some bastardization of those things, though it's not as spacious as a church.

One of your own side projects is called Mount Analog. I'm curious about the project itself, its origin and purpose both, but also curious about the suggestiveness of the name. There's obviously a fair amount of controversy about production techniques in the world of pop music, some of it artificially ginned up, but it's a world that's commonly split between AutoTune and Jack White's purely analogue techniques. Do you have a personal stance on the divide between analogue and digital production techniques? Or is it a divide that you don't recognize as valid? 

Wow, nobody has asked me about that project in years! That's great. It was really just a name given to what happened when I was left to my own devices with the recording gear I was getting to know. Sometimes it was a weird experiment where I would run a note of a pump organ into a digital reverb which was being gently fed back into itself on an echo send while sweeping the EQ. Other time it might be me improvising with friends and then cutting up my favorite bits into something I liked listening to. Often it was a hodgepodge of those things. I've been really wanting to get back to some of that lately. I feel like in the last bunch of years it's been harder to find the time to just be completely playful and free, to totally experiment without concern of wasting somebody's money. I need to prioritize that.

The name itself came after a book I loved when I started the project around 1994. The book is called Mount Analogue by French surrealist author Rene Daumal. It just seemed like the perfect name for what I was getting into sonically. Slabs of low end sound, tape loops, ambient music, noise, that sort of stuff.

As far as the discussion about analog versus digital, I think that's a really boring conversation personally. To me it's really a simple question of "Is the music good?" and "Do you like the music?" I can think of lots of arguments for or against either format, so it really comes down to who is using the technology and what are they doing with it. Are they falling prey to the dark temptations of digital, where it's possible to work on something to the point of totally losing the plot?

The limitations of analog, when embraced can really push you to capturing interplay between people that has an elusive magic to it. It's easy to think in the computer that you're doing something special because you are fixing all the mistakes, but when you listen back off of tape you usually just listen to the big picture because you know how hard or impossible it is to fix most things. With the computer, I often notice people are listening for mistakes rather than getting lost in the music. But digital technology these days can sounds pretty great if you feed great sounding stuff into it, so you can make great records with either at this point.

Does any of that experimentation from Mount Analog and other projects carry over into the production you do for other people? 

Oh yeah. Some production projects invite that side of me out more than others but I'm always eager to tilt things towards experimentation. Not for the sake of experimenting but in hopes of not always sticking to the safest route towards the destination. When somebody reached out to me to help produce their record and they mention the Mount Analog stuff, it's likely to be something I'm interested in doing.

You mention a "non-sterile vibe," and celebrate the possibility of error or accident as an enhancement instead of a defect. How much does accident (happy or otherwise) dictate the recording process, or the production process? 

I think the most important thing is to recognize when something special has happened, whether it was exactly what you expected or it was the result of things going horribly wrong. It can be tricky to have everybody involved agree on what those moments are but ideally everybody is somewhat aligned on that front.

Also, as someone who frequently engineers, mixes, and produces projects, how separate are those processes for you?

The processes have become quite intertwined for me by necessity, as it's rare that people can afford to have somebody separate wearing all of those hats. I'm finally learning to let my assistant do a little more engineering so I can be free to focus all of my attention on the musical side of things and not be totally consumed by keeping a close eye on the technical side of engineering. There is a very creative side of engineering though and I have a passion for that, as well. The production and recording are always setting up the mixing process so those are tightly intertwined always.

What kind of negotiations or navigations take place between the sonic vision of the producer and that of the artists? For example, what's the difference between producing for The Decemberists and producing a Laura Veirs album?

Each artist needs and wants something different in a collaborator. In the case of a Laura Veirs record, I'm in on the song selection process very early on. I'm also invited at the demoing stage to suggest when a song has strong lyrics but perhaps a forgettable melody or to suggest when it needs a bridge, etc.

With the Decemberists, generally, Colin [Meloy] presents a collection of songs that become the record -– there usually aren't extra songs to sort through. Also, he tends to have written them pretty thoroughly by the time I hear them, whereas Laura will finish the initial idea quite quickly to keep it instinctual and then refine it later as needed.

With the Decemberists, you are dealing with a band, so one thing you need to navigate is how to treat the songs with the preset ingredients that are the band members. On a Laura Veirs record, I hear the song with just her playing initially and have pretty free rein to imagine what's needed or not. On a band record, you usually need to get everybody involved in some way even if the song doesn't seem to be begging to have five people playing on it.

What's it like, producing your partner's music? Does the work stay in the studio or does it spill over into your evenings and Saturday mornings?

Laura has a very practical approach to music making which works well when we work together. She works really hard on the songwriting part and practices all of her ideas a lot before coming into the studio. By the time she's recording she's nailing most of it really quickly. She's also good at improvising on the spot when that's called for. Once her parts are done, she usually doesn't hang around much after that. I'm fortunate that she puts as much trust in me as she does and also that she's not particularly interested in the process after her parts are done, assuming she knows it's in good hands. 

Backtracking a little here: how did you get into producing in the first place?

Oh, it's a long, boring story. Basically, I started out as a drummer. I was the drummer who always had a lot of opinions about song structure and sonics. I would record rehearsals and listen to the tapes to try to hear how the music could be made better.

Over time I became interested in how to make the recordings themselves better, too. Eventually I got a 4-track, which led to an 8-track. I started recording friends for free, and I eventually got a 16-track. All the while learning a little bit more about recording, not just how to make good recordings but how to make interesting ones too, hopefully. I started noticing the production credit on albums: guys like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were showing up on a number of the albums I was studying. I started putting the whole "producer" thing together, and it seemed to be where all of my interests intersected. 

Both Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are known for their experiments with ambient sounds and, to a certain extent, minimalism. Where those figures particularly influential in the development of your own style?

Absolutely, both of them. Their compositions as well as their productions of others work. Also, the breadth of styles they moved between and the way they made disparate corners of music relate, made a big impression on me.

What's your attraction to ambient, or found, or field recordings?

It's a lot of things. In many ways, it's the opposite of a studio recording where you can carefully get the sound you want, take your time trying to get the part a certain way, come back later and replace things. My adrenaline really gets going when I'm field recording and something interesting starts happening. There's no way to plan the special moments, there's no guarantee that anything interesting will happen at all, but when it does it's such a thrill. For somebody who spends an immense amount of time in recording studios, it can really be refreshing to wander about in search of who-knows-what. And you're basically mixing the sound while recording it. The recording and mixing process are one process when you're field recording. There's no being overwhelmed by too many options.

I also do have a love for music with "non musical" sounds in the background or foreground. These days it's so easy for people to make a refined studio recording and the excitement in making a "perfect" recording has kind of faded, since it really only requires a lot of time, focus, and a bit of equipment. The outcome can be predictable. Field recording is a great antidote for that feeling.

There's a lot of talk about the state of the music industry as one of crisis, and yet everywhere you look there are interesting artists releasing ground-breaking music–although for a variety of reasons, much of it never receives mainstream radio play. Do you ever produce an album with "the industry" in mind, or produce for radio in particular? 

The few times I've let any of that stuff cross my mind in the album making process I have regretted it. Unless you are dealing with an artist that is already on top of the world, there's no way to know how he general public is going to respond to a piece of art so it's futile to spend your energy guessing. Once you are thinking about that kind of stuff you have officially turned off your own instincts which to me is the most valuable thing an artist can offer, it's what makes them unique.

Nobody knew Bon Iver was going to resonate the way he did. I'm sure Justin [Vernon] was totally caught off-guard by the reaction to that first album, too. I think you just have to focus on making something that feels true to the people involved, something that feels successful by your own artistic standards. You have to hold yourself to a high standard and once you feel like you're excited about what you've made, it's time to let it go. 

How do you conceptualize the shape of a song? Is it rather like shaping a narrative or do you prefer a different analogy?

I feel like every artist writes a different kind of song and in the DNA of those songs, if you can get to it, is some sort of logic unique to the way that person's songs emerge. It's a bit of problem solving. I'll see them live or listen to demos or go to their house. I keep a mental list going of things that are already really working. Those are things I try to protect. Then it's a matter of trying to pinpoint where there's room for the song to have more impact and trusting your instinct as to how to address those areas. Sometimes I really feel like I can see the whole picture at the outset. Other times I can just see the starting point, but once you know where to start, the rest will eventually reveal itself. If I can't see the starting point I probably shouldn't get involved. 

You've mentioned a desire to start recording something on your own terms again, with deliberate technical limitations. Any specific ideas yet? Would it be something released under a previous moniker or something new entirely?

The name of it isn't so important. I just want to stay in touch with what got me excited about recording in the first place. It's possible for that to get lost if all of your energy is going into recording other people's music and chasing their visions. But one of these days, there will be another Mount Analog record ...

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