Interview with PHIL EK, producer for The Shins (US No.1), Modest Mouse (US No.1), Fleet Foxes (UK Top 5 & US Top 40), Band of Horses (US Top 40) - May 25, 2009
“It’s not the same mentality when you’re out in the sun, when you wanna go surfing, ride on bikes and just have fun. Here a lot of the year it rains, so it breeds a certain style of writing and artistic development.“
USA’s Pacific Northwest has become a gushing spring for successful alternative music, with The Shins (US No.1), Modest Mouse (US No.1), Band of Horses (US Top 40) and now Fleet Foxes (UK Top 5 & US Top 40) flooding the mainstream charts. But what is it about the music from this corner of the US that reverberates across the whole nation and beyond? As long-time producer, engineer and mixer for the aforementioned bands, as well as critical faves Built to Spill and Les Savy Fav, the much revered and sought-after Phil Ek is clearly a pivotal force in the success of the Northwest sound.
Aside from offering his own theories what makes the Pacific Northwest such a wellspring of music talent, sonic architect Ek talks about his studio apprenticeship working with Nirvana producer Jack Endino, and recording with major new stars the Fleet Foxes.
As someone who takes pride in being billed as a “producer, engineer, mixer”, can you firstly explain the different aspects of producing and engineering?
Engineering is the technical aspect of recording - the placing of microphones, the turning of pre-amp knobs, the setting of levels. The physical recording of any project is done by an engineer. A producer is the person who creatively guides or directs the process of making a record, like a director would a movie. The engineer would be more the cameraman of the movie. Engineering is the bread and butter/nuts and bolts recording of the project, and the producer is the guy who directs that process.
Going back to the early days. You started off by doing the sound in clubs?
Back in the early nineties I graduated from high school and moved from a small town to Seattle. I did sound in a couple of small clubs - got my foot in the door.
How did you get involved with that?
I moved into an apartment with a friend of mine and she was doing it and I went with her - I had been involved with some small recording-style things when I was in high school and used to be in a band, and all that stuff - and when she left to go do another job she let me have it. So I did that for about a year and a half or so.
Was it always that side of things that you wanted to do?
I guess I just started off being into music, playing guitar and then I got interested in the idea of how records are made.
So you moved on to recording demos for bands in the Seattle area. Is that right?
Yeah, when I was in my early twenties I recorded small demos. Anybody who found their way to the studio and anybody who came to the door I did their three-song demo for release on cassette so they could get a gig at a club.
Was it through working at the club that got you into the studio?
I went to the Art Institute of Seattle for recording. It wasn’t the greatest school at the time, it was okay, but there were a couple of cool teachers there.
At the same time I was doing sound, I was going to school and one of the teachers was really nice to me and took me aside and we did recordings together outside of school. He knew a guy named Jack Endino, a famous producer from Seattle, and became affiliated with a studio that he was doing records at. That’s how I ended up doing demos and then I also assisted Jack Endino for a year and a half - two years probably.
What things did you do when assisting Jack Endino?
I’d show up and set up some microphones and what have you, but mostly I just watched. Every now and again he’d say, “Hey, you do this,” or “You do that.” But mostly I was just a fly on the wall - watching and learning from him for those years. I was pretty young then and he was really gracious to let me do that.
What was the break that got you from there to where you are now?
At the same time that I was assisting him and hanging out, I was doing all those demos and smaller projects. I did a single for Sub Pop during that time. There was a band called The Muffs, and did a bunch of different things around town - smaller records.
Then the big thing was when I met Chris Takino who was a guy here in Seattle who owned Up Records. For Up Records I did a record for a band called Butterfly Train - the bass player of Built to Spill was in that band. And at the same time I met Doug Martsch who was in Built to Spill and he asked me to do their second record which was ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’ (#24 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 albums of the 1990s), and it just went from there.
Would you say you had a particular sound that you give to a record?
I’m sure I do, I don’t know … For the lack of better words I would say a slick-organic sound, super hi-fi, and definitely not lo-fi, but natural and big and clear, with lots of layers. That’s probably what I’m known for. I think I’ve done lots of other things that aren’t that way but they’re not necessarily as known, but I guess that’s probably what you’re looking for if you’re looking for anything from me.
‘Reverb’ has been mentioned as a prominent sound in a lot of records that you’ve been involved with. Would you agree?
Not really. I think that’s just because of the two records I’ve done that’ve been fairly successful in the last couple of years, for Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes. And that’s just stylistic to those bands. I don’t think that’s necessarily a sound of mine, but it’s just suited the production of the record that I was working on for those bands.
As you’re based in Seattle. Do you tend to use the same studios for recording?
There’s three that I use quite a bit here in town.
Is it you that makes the decision on where to record, and if so how do you decide which studio to use?
It’s usually up to me, I guess. It’s just what makes sense for the band, how much money they have, as each studio has a different price and how much time we’re gonna spend there. It’s all relative as they’re different sizes, so what we do is if we’re recording drums we’ll go into a much larger studio to get more of a big room sound on the drums. If we’re not doing drums - if we’re doing some guitars and vocals - we’ll go to a smaller studio ‘cos you don’t need to spend that much money for that much space to do those types of things, so it just varies.
How do you normally first get involved with working with a band?
Usually if it’s not people I know, like Band of Horses or Fleet Foxes - people I’ve known for a while, that I’ve been associated with and we’ve always talked about making records together - it’d be friends of them, through the label, through my website, through my management down in Los Angeles or a combination of all those. So usually I have people come to me. Rarely do I go to them, but sometimes I do.
When you have agreed to work with a band on a record, what kind of things do you do prior to recording?
I try to do a lot of things. If they’re in Seattle I try to go to their practice place and sit in with their practices and work out songs or listen to songs as they have them prepared. I work out what could or couldn’t change about them, if anything. We’ll talk about sonic qualities, the records they like that have a certain sound that they want to achieve on the record. Sometimes we’ll do pre-production, small demo work for a few days to get affiliated with each other in the studio and to work out what does and doesn’t work sonically for the band. Then we go and make the record.
As a producer for the record is it fair to say you are the person in charge of how to get the best out of the band’s sound?
Yes and no. Any good record with any good band is going to be a collaboration of ideas. I don’t think you can take a so-so band with any great producer and bring them in the studio and come out with a fantastic album easily. There’s always somebody who’ll say, “I hear the song sounding like this,” and maybe it’s something I hadn’t even thought of, so I’ll be like, “Absolutely!”
I think a good producer agrees with what is the best for the band and helps bring out the best and makes it sound the best and have them perform at their best.
Whether it’s the producer’s idea or not, that’s the proper creative direction. Instead of saying “I disagree” and taking it this direction which could be bad, saying “yeah, I agree with what you’re saying” and “let’s expand on that and make it the coolest version of that idea as we can,” whether it’s your idea or not. So I think the best producer is someone who listens to what’s the best thing about the band and brings out the best in them and sometimes that’s just letting the band be the band.
I guess you must have a good relationship with the bands you work with, as there are many examples of you working with people on several occasions. You mentioned Built to Spill and you’ve done the first two Band of Horses albums.
Yeah and I’m making the new one right now.
So there must be something that works well between both parties?
Absolutely. It’s when you have mutual admiration for the music, you respect each other as people and as creative entities in themselves, producer and band and just simply like each other as people and friends. I think that’s what was so great about Band of Horses and The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, bands that I’ve done a lot of records with and been with in the studio a lot of times.
When we’re in the studio we’re buddies, but you have to let me tell you how we should direct this and it’s understood and there’s no hard feelings - then it’s a good collaboration and you’ve got a good thing.
I interviewed Sue Busch at Sub Pop a couple of weeks ago and she said in addition to producing the Fleet Foxes album and their EP, you did their demo tape as well.
I did, years ago. I was a big promoter of that band maybe 3 or 4 years ago.
How did your relationship with Fleet Foxes begin?
I knew Robin (Pecknold), I knew Robin’s sister and knew all his family. He’s been around Seattle for a long time. He’s a fairly young guy, but just by being around town and knowing his family and stuff like that. We’d talked about it and I helped him do some of his demo, mixed his demo and helped shop that to labels. It was a very different sound but it was still very good.
As he started writing differently I thought we got to do something for real, so we went into the studio and over a period of a year made that first Fleet Foxes record. Then I helped shop them to Sub Pop who eventually picked them up. So the record was made on the band’s dollar without Sub Pop’s involvement until it was actually finished. The ‘Sun Giant’ EP was done after the LP was finished.
In addition to working with the same bands on several occasions, as we’ve already mentioned, you’ve worked with labels like Up Records and Sub Pop many times. This must be another successful relationship.
At Sub Pop my friend Megan Jasper is the General Manager - I’ve known her since I was 17 years old, so we’re old friends. So I know a lot of those people. I don’t know if it would happen again - I’m probably younger than most of those guys by a couple of years - but I think it was the time in the early/mid-nineties, in a small city like Seattle, the grunge thing had come and gone and the group of people that were making music became the Northwest sound.
We were a small-knit group of people that all knew each other, that all were friends and would collaborate on different projects with each other. It just grew from there and because we were all pretty earnest and cared a lot about it, I think that - not to get hokey about it - but I think it helped it become a national thing.
The whole Pacific Northwest is an area with a particularly high concentration of successful indie bands. What do you think it is about that area that makes it so special?
I think it’s the same weird stuff that’s been talked about forever. It’s the dreary months of fall into winter when you don’t do anything but write songs. Making this new Band of Horses record - and the band lives in South Carolina now with the sun and the surf - and talking to Ben (Bridwell), the singer from Band of Horses and he was like, “One thing I really miss about the Northwest is those times when you sit in your room and you write songs for four months and all of a sudden you show up with a record.”
It’s not the same mentality when you’re out in the sun, when you wanna go surfing, ride around on bikes and just have fun. You don’t do that here, a lot of the year it really does rain! So it breeds a certain style of writing and a certain artistic development.
The weather sounds quite similar to England!
Yeah, I think it’s the same as a lot of Britain. London, Scotland, a lot of bands that came out of those scenes grew a style, Manchester for sure and Glasgow. They all spawned each other by the same thing, they sat around and wrote songs with friends and just wanted to impress each other.
So you’re doing the Band of Horses album now, and is that being recorded in Carolina?
In North Carolina, yeah.
Is it quite rare for you to do a recording away from Seattle?
Well I did a band for many months last year called Animal Kingdom from England. They came here because it’s just so much cheaper. Especially for a band from England recording in the Northwest is much cheaper just by the power of the pound. You get more for your money coming over here and the studios over here in Seattle are so much cheaper than most places in the country, just because it’s not as expensive as Los Angeles or Memphis or New York or places like that. So mostly it’s done here just because of ease of use and cheaper lodging and stuff like that.
And I guess you’ve got the pedigree and the history of working here so it proves that it works.
Theoretically any studio you walk into is the same, but they all have a different sound or a different thing about them. It’s a little bit of a learning curve any time you go into a different studio, you have to work out the different ways that studio sounds. Here I know what they sound like, it’s not necessarily trying to make a similar sounding record but I know what works in those rooms. If it sounds cool there, then that’s where you put the drums or what have you.
You seem to specialise in working on indie or rock records. Have you worked on any records with a different style of music?
Oh yeah, I’ve done country records, reggae records, soul records, just not as many of them and maybe not as well known, but I’ve done lots of stuff. I just think that bands I choose to work with are bands that I just like and would like whether it was me working with them or not. So I just follow my personal taste I suppose.
Considering they’re chiefly on independent labels, a great number of the artists you’ve worked with have achieved commercial success. Why do you think that is?
I just think they’re good bands. They’re earnest, smart songwriters, great singers and we work hard to make records that shine and make sense of what the band is and people like it. That’s what every band wants: to make a record that does well so they don’t have to work! That’s a big part of it. Like I said like-mindedness, I think there’s a ton of respect in the studio. I believe the bands respect my opinion and I respect them as musicians to get the best performances out of them and I think that shines through. In certain cases it shines more or in certain cases it connects more with people like maybe the Fleet Foxes or The Shins. The Shins have done very well. Those things just work out when they do.
Is there anything you’d like to do in the future that you’ve not yet done?
I don’t know, I guess! There’s a million bands that I’ve always wanted to work with. Things that you like when you’re young. I would love to work with Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, that’d be fantastic! There’s always something out there that’s an aspiration.
You said that you’re doing the new Band of Horses record. Are there any others that you’re working on this year?
I’ve also been working with a band, The Dodos from San Francisco. I’ve been working on their record - I’ve actually just finished doing some main recording with them a few days ago. The Band of Horses record’s going to be an ongoing process for a while, then I’m not really sure what I’m gonna do.
And are you going to be involved whenever the Fleet Foxes do their next record?
Yeah, I think so. They’re not going to be doing anything for a while just because they’re still riding the wave of that last record, but Robin and me have talked about it many times and he sent me a couple of demos of new songs that are really cool. You never really know, things change but we’ve been talking about it so whenever that comes around, maybe early next year, we’ll do something.
Interview by Bob Noble
Next week: An exclusive Artist Diary from hit songwriter Mike 'G' Guerriero
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