Interview with JOE CHICCARELLI, producer for The Strokes, The Shins, The White Stripes, Frank Zappa - June 14, 2010
“Everything I’d learned up to that point was about specific ways of playing instruments, and writing or recording songs, and with Frank there was none of that, you just did whatever was right at the moment.”
Since having his career ignited and perceptions blown open working with legend Frank Zappa on the classic 1979 album ‘Sheik Yerbouti’, producer, engineer and mixer Joe Chiccarelli has fashioned a long and successful career defined not by a ‘sound’ but a total lack of one, and its fearless diversity - having worked with artists as varied as The White Stripes (USA Top 3, UK No.1), Tori Amos, Elton John, Julieta Venegas, U2 and The Shins (USA Top 3) – is a tribute to maverick early mentor Zappa.
Chiccarelli talks to HitQuarters about working with singular personalities like Zappa and Jack White, and why The Strokes chose him to helm the recording of their new album when he doesn’t have a recognisable sound.
Having been around and active for a long time in the music industry, do you have any theories behind your long-term success?
You just do this because you love it and, success or not, you’re just going to keep doing it. I started as a kid - I was a musician and an assistant engineer when I was 20 years old - and from there it’s just an upward climb.
When we interviewed the songwriter/producer Lucas Secon the other week, he said he loves producers where you can’t tell it’s them until you read the credits because they’re the ones that stay around …
That’s something I aspire to - I really hope I do not have a sound. Your job as a producer is to help the artist to make the record they want and in the process stay invisible. I’m a facilitator in that I help get the best out of them and get what’s in their head out on to the computer.
If you don’t have an identifiable sound, then what is it about you that makes artists want to work with you? Are they citing certain records that you’ve done?
In many cases people have heard something and they liked the way it turned out or they’re fans of the artist.
What normally happens is that you are with an artist and talk about what they want to do, what they’ve done in the past, and if you’re of a similar mind space, all agree on the direction of the record, and if I feel that I can bring something to it and understand what the artist wants, then you get involved.
It’s been recently reported that you’re working with The Strokes on their fourth album, what was it that appealed to them about working with you and what was it that they want to achieve with their new record?
I came into that with a lot of fresh ideas. I am a big fan and wanted to help out and they were at a point where they wanted to do some experimenting and try different things. The amazing thing about that band is that they are all on this quest, and they never stop wanting to try out new things.
How did that collaboration come about?
We met last year and talked in the same way as I was describing, and they liked some of the thoughts I had and decided to try some tracking.
What needs to happen before the actual recording begins? Do you research artists you work with? Do you sit down with them and discuss what kind of record they want to make?
I spend time talking with them, trying to understand what they want for the recording. I do listen to some of their past albums and I certainly listen to demos for the new recording.
I don’t come into it with some grand vision of what it should be. I come into it listening to the artist and trying to understand what they want to achieve and then I have to make my own personal decisions like, “Okay, do I feel that that’s a good idea for them to do at this point in their career?”
How did it work with The Shins for their album ‘Wincing The Night Away’ – what progression did they want to make from the previous record?
James [Mercer] and I were up in Portland, Oregon, working with Pink Martini - a jazz band - and I would see James socially. He’s a real fan of records and we’d just talk about the process of recording and he would ask for advice, and so we built a little friendship.
When he started the album on his own he decided it wasn’t going exactly the way he wanted and at the speed he wanted. He really needed an outside perspective. So, I came along and basically offered suggestions on where the project could go, where it could be improved, where it was lacking, or what was great. He just needed some fresh objective feedback because he had been labouring on things for a long time. He needed his batteries recharged.
Once we got involved, some of the stuff that he had been recording on his own made it to the record, while some songs we started anew. We probably spent about two months or so working on it.
My Morning Jacket have said that they approached you to work on their last record because of your work with Frank Zappa. Did that inspiration lend itself to the recording in any way?
I went to see them at Red Rocks in Colorado where they were performing. We all spent the night hanging out together, just talking. They’re just so down-to-earth that we all got along great and decided to do something together.
They sent me demos and we talked about the material. The demos they sent were very groove-oriented with hints of old-fashioned R&B in them. It seemed like they were making a much more urban record than they had in the past.
So one thing I suggested to them was not to record in an isolated area. In the past they’ve made their albums out on the farm or in their hometown. I thought it would be good for them to get in an urban environment that had some life and vitality. So, we looked around at a lot of options - San Francisco, Vancouver … and New York just seemed like it would be the most inspiring place for them.
Artists are not usually so technically minded so with someone like Jack White (The White Stripes) is he describing the sounds he wants and then you’re attempting to bring that to life?
The interesting thing about Jack is that with all his technical knowledge, he’s not that technical.
I love to talk in terms of emotion, feel, colour and impact, and also almost in terms of a cinematic quality. Jack’s brilliance is his understanding of great emotional performances, and of what it takes to make something come alive through the speakers and have an impact.
Jack’s technical descriptions to me were next to nothing. Occasionally he’d talk about more distortion on a vocal or something, but usually he wouldn’t talk in terms of compression or EQ or any of those kind of things, it was always about what can we do to give something more aggression or hit you in the face more.
That’s the kind of way I like to work with any musician, whether they’re musicians that I hire to perform on an album - you want to give them their space. You don’t want to be so dictatorial about the parts or the sound or the performance that it leaves them no room for creativity.
Are you actively encouraging artists to experiment and develop their sound?
Every artist wants to be creative and grow and try new things, and I think part of your job is to encourage and hold their hand, and try to get to those ideas in the back of their head, and then execute them in a way that still feels authentic and comfortable to them.
How did that work out with something like ‘Icky Thump’ (The White Stripes), for instance?
They had done some rehearsing and demoing for maybe half the album, and the rest was conceived in the studio. It was all done analogue tape, no computers, and so there was a lot of old skool tape editing. Jack likes to record very simply. Most of his work is only done on 8-track, but with ‘Icky Thump’ we did it 16-track analogue. That was a luxury for him.
So we spent a little more time than he is used to experimenting and trying different things on that album, whether it was different ways to record the drums or the vocals, or different arrangements, or cutting takes together - all those traditional recording things.
Was your experience working with noted iconoclast Frank Zappa on ‘Sheik Yerbouti’ a significant influence in welcoming experimentation in the studio?
Everything I’d learned up to that point was about specific ways of playing instruments, and writing or recording songs, and with Frank there was none of that, you just did whatever was right at the moment, and even though there was a method and a genius behind it all with him, it was really about breaking the rules and trying things that had not been tried before.
He taught me the only rule is that there are no rules, and that was the most important thing for me. He was just amazing at being adventurous, daring and irreverent, and that was inspirational for me to see.
That was a major career break for you – how did that come about?
I was 20 years old working as an assistant engineer in a studio, and Frank booked in. His engineer couldn’t make the session and so he decided to take a chance on me. I’m so thankful ever since that day because he gave me a career.
Working alongside him were you able to understand his genius?
You don’t understand it, you trust it. That’s the way you work with anybody. It’s a commitment, a marriage - you go into it feeling like, “Okay, I agree with this artist. I understand what they want. But I think that they might be a little misguided here, so let me make sure they don’t falter in that regard.”
With Frank you had to have the ultimate trust because he was the most daring person in the world. He would do things that on the surface didn’t seem right but in the end proved to be the best thing you could ever imagine.
Prior to meeting Zappa, where did you initially pick up your engineering skills?
At a studio called Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles. It’s no longer there. But Frank was really the first person to give me my real shot. That was the first complete album that I’ve worked on.
You’re popularly described as a very nice and affable chap; is an easy-going temperament useful in managing artists like Zappa?
With Frank, I didn’t have to manage him - he managed everybody.
You try to be even-keeled, and don’t take anything personally. It’s always a balance between being passionate and 120% committed to the music but then not so committed that you’re precious about things.
Your best asset is your ability to be objective about the music, and as a producer to be constantly looking at things in a macrovision way as well as a microvision way – you can see all the details but are then able to zoom out and look at the big picture. You’re doing that every second you’re working - it’s a constant process of honing in on the details but stepping back and making sure that the big picture is working.
When you are choosing your projects or actually working with an artist, does it make any difference how much you enjoy the music?
I think that’s crucial. You have to make a contribution from your heart.
It’s important to hear the good qualities in the music and to understand what makes it great. You may not agree with every little aspect of it but if you understand what makes it ‘tick’ then you do fine.
If you are a fan of the music do you ever then listen the albums that you’ve worked on?
It takes me two to three years before I can listen to them [laughs].
Why is that?
When you’re very close to a project, when you’re in the very thick of it, all you hear are the flaws.
It takes me a few years to be so objective that I can divorce myself from the process and listen to it as a fan, and think like, “This works and no this doesn’t work. I understand why it didn’t work. I understand what’s great about it.”
But for that first initial period after making the record, all I hear are the things I wish I could have done differently or “if I only had more recording time or recording funds”, or whatever it was - more songs [laughs].
It’s been said that you helped 'discover' Tori Amos – is that right?
That’s a myth. Tori was already signed to Atlantic Records as a solo artist when I got involved. She had heard some works that I had done and liked the albums I’d made and through a friend contacted me about working with her. And she and I hit it off.
She had a very strong vision of what she wanted to do on her first album. And despite the lack of success of that album, it was an interesting process because she was very vocal and very passionate about how she wanted it to sound and what her influences were and the emotions she was trying to convey.
It was a very fun process. Although it didn’t meet with a whole lot of critical love or chart success, my relationship with her was a success. I know she loved the album and all you can really hope for is at the end of the process the artists says, “I love this album! This was what I was trying to achieve! Thank you! We met our goal!”
You’ve said your work is influenced by art forms outside of music. What’s been inspiring you recently?
I am a big fan of modern art. As a kid I always wanted to be a painter and so that’s something that I’m always fascinated with. I tend to go to a lot of museums and see a lot of young artists.
There’s also a lot of new music that’s just fantastic. A lot of people are doing some new and influential things. I think that this is a very good time in music in that the artists now have control of their destiny. Any artist has the ability to reach millions of people if they so desire and if they have the strength, the time and the commitment to do it. So it’s inspiring to see somebody go out and do something on their own terms and create something that’s totally unique and doesn’t sound like anybody else. I’m always fascinated by that.
I love everybody from [Jean-Michel] Basquiat to [Joan] Miró to Miles Davis, people who just go their own path and create their own language.
Mixing is an oft-overlooked art. Can you explain how a good mix can transform a recording?
The same as with producing, you’re looking for that magic in the song, the thing that makes it come alive. You’re trying to get inside the song and find out what makes it tick, what makes it jump out of the speakers and command your attention, whether that’s a guitar riff, a vocal performance, some unique sounds, or a combination of all those things. When a great mix comes together it’s like a light goes off [laughs] … I can’t quite describe it.
Are all good producers automatically good mixers or is it a slightly different skill-set?
There are many great producers that don’t get involved with the technical side of it at all. I happen to have that background myself and there are many times when I don’t mix my own albums, when I feel it’s probably better for the project that an outside person comes in.
Often when you’re spending months on a project, you get so mired in the detail that you can’t bring all the enthusiasm to the final stage that you’d like. Maybe the project has been lengthy or you’re just physically exhausted and need somebody else to take over those responsibilities so that you can sit back and regain your objectivity.
Sometimes I wouldn’t mix things that I’ve produced but a lot of the times the budget dictates that I do. It’s just not often the best way to go by it.
For someone that isn’t interested in cultivating their own sound it’s perhaps unsurprising that you don’t have your studio …
I have a little studio at home for my own, but no I tend to like to go to different places. I tend to choose studios based on the project - like certain big rock records want bigger rooms and more ambient rooms, and other more intimate records want smaller deader simpler environments. So, I tend to choose the studio based on what the music calls for.
Do you have any favourite studios and what is it about them that appeals as a producer?
I tend to look for studios that have a lot of character and a lot of personality. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a commercial studio - it can be a house or a garage – just as long as it has a sound and a character.
I tend to like the older recording studios. I love Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, Avatar in New York, Blackbird in Nashville. They are studios where the rooms have a personality, and that personality imparts a character and a sound onto the recording. Like playing a great guitar, it brings something to it.
You’re clearly very particular about the studio environment because weren’t you involved with designing of Royaltone Studios?
Yes, which is now Linda Perry’s (HQ interview) studio. She bought it. There’s a label in Los Angeles called Alias Records and they contacted me about designing the room for it, and myself and Gary Myerberg designed and equipped the rooms and basically brought it to life. It was a really fun experience bringing something up to the level of state of the art at the time.
Is there any gear that you insist on in your studio spaces?
I like to use different things, but I do rely on a lot of old gear, a lot of gear that was made in the 60s and 70s, a lot of old Neves and APIs. It truly depends on the music. A lot of rock tends to sound better on old consoles because they have their own character – it brings an extra little spice to the recording.
Other times you want something that’s a little bit more generic and impartial, something that’s cleaner and doesn’t taint the record in any way - something purer.
What are you working on now?
I’m just about to finish an album for a new Warner Brothers band called Young the Giant - a great Los Angeles band. They’re very big in scope, very layered, very dramatic. I’ll be done doing that in about a month.
I’ve just finished a new artist by the name of Ben Marchant, who’s kind of the ultimate jangly California singer/songwriter. Then I did an album with Adam Stephens from the band Two Gallants – that comes out in the Fall.
Are there any artists you’d still like to work with?
I’m a big fan of Arcade Fire, big fan of The National, love Frightened Rabbit - that’s one of my new favourites.
What’s in the pipeline for 2010?
A lot of things. Unfortunately I can’t talk about it yet [laughs].
But exciting stuff?
Yes. Like I said, it’s a very good time for music. People are trying different things and coming up with different sounds, and I think it’s a very healthy time.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: We get the lowdown on online direct-to-fan platform Nimbit from CEO Patrick Faucher
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