Working With Jack
Step one is, send me a demo or a weblink. If you're serious, and I like it, we'll talk. BTW, I'm not as expensive as you probably think. But now you might wonder...
How the heck DO I choose who I am willing to work with? And then, how do I schedule my sessions, months in advance sometimes?
These are two related, but separate, problems. Here's a typically long-winded explanation. I wrote this because aspiring young engineers and producers might find this useful food for thought. Thanks for reading!
HOW I PICK 'EM
Here's some things I have to weigh carefully when deciding whether to record someone... i.e., whether to take their hard-earned money, in exchange for giving them a big chunk of my life and emotional energy.
- Do I like the music? That absolutely overrides everything, including the money being offered.
- Are they jerks? Psycho head cases? Junkies? Divorced from reality? If so, AVOID. They can't pay me enough. Life's too short.
- Are they old friends or repeat clients? If so, there's mutual loyalty at work, and I MUST try to accommodate them. Repeat clients go to the front of the line.
- Can they come here (Seattle, where the studios are familiar to me), or do I have to travel to wherever they are? If I can do it here, I can better guarantee the result, PLUS I can charge less, and my expenses will be much lower. And, chances are, the studios here will be cheaper than wherever they are.
- Here's one which may surprise you: will the recording I make get distributed/promoted? Will anyone hear it? Are they "signed" by someone... anyone? Even a tiny label? Or will the band at least play a lot of gigs? If not, it will do almost nothing to help my career continue, no matter how brilliant of an effort it is. To keep my independent producing career alive, I need to maintain my visibility and maximize word-of-mouth. Even a tiny indy label is better than no label at all; it will ensure that someone, somewhere, will care about this artist, and hence about my recording/producing work on the record. Years from now, a musician will discover that I worked on that record, and they will call me about recording, and the cycle of my career will continue. But if no one ever hears the record, that cycle is broken, and in a sense I have wasted my time, no matter how much I liked making the record. You know that story about the tree falling in the forest and no one hearing it? This is also why I don't do "demo" recording sessions. Someone else can do those. I approach everything as though it going to be released (which, strangely enough, usually happens).
- I can't deny the budget factor. Records made in three weeks or three months are more satisfying to me, from a craft standpoint, than records made in three days; plus they pay much better, and the stress is less. Sometimes I get to travel, which can be cool. If I said I didn't like well-paying gigs, I'd be a lying sack of shit. However, I have turned down plenty of those -- yes! -- because I didn't like the music! I'm pretty picky about what I like, and nothing sets off the alarms in my head like a really terrible band who want to give me loads of money. It's the slime test: does thinking about doing it make me feel like slime? Occasionally I am offered really lousy situations disguised as "big money-making opportunities." I learned early on, that these always become a living hell for one reason or another, and I end up wishing my name wasn't on the record. Years later I will hear someone say "I bought this CD partly because I saw your name was on it. Boy, what a stinker! What were you thinking working with them?" And I'll know they're right, and that in some sense I have ripped that record buyer off. Ask yourself, would you want to spend 6 weeks (or days) in the studio, 12 hours a day, with a band whose music you dislike? Me neither... not even 6 hours... unless just possibly I was about to go broke and be evicted from my house and have my car repossessed. In that case, what the hell, it'd beat digging ditches. But I'm not there yet.
- And on the other hand, if I've got free time available and I like someone's music enough, I'll work within their budget... within reason! I'm not a charity, but if I like your music enough, and can fit you in, I'll bust ass for you. Rock records made in a few days can be a crazy good time (or just crazy), and are guaranteed to be honest and raw and fun, if not necessarily slick and professional. I'm still good at making records like that, as plenty of my Seattle pals know, but you better be well-rehearsed! All the great grunge records from the start of my career (1986-89) were made that way, and they obviously had an impact, even if it was those same bands' later, slicker, more "professional" (i.e. safe) records done by LA/NYC-connected "pros" that made the album charts and got on MTV.
So, what exactly do I mean by "if I can fit you in"? This is a harder question than you might think.
HOW I SCHEDULE MY LIFE
If a prospective client gets my interest, then it becomes a matter of prioritizing and scheduling so as to maximize both my enjoyment of life, and my income, so I can keep doing this. This is the tricky part. Self-employment requires great care. When someone asks when they can record with me, often I am vague about my availability, and it drives people nuts. It's time I spelled it out in a way that anyone can understand.
Basically: the farther in the future I am asked to commit myself, the bigger the project needs to be. If someone just wants to reserve one particular weekend three months away, I won't do it. I'll just say "Maybe. Call me in a month and we'll see." You see, my phone will ring every single day until that time, and way too much can change. I need a certain freedom of action to be able to arrange my life in the most optimal way, so that if big opportunities arise, I can jump without having to screw a bunch of people by canceling their sessions. I also have an existential need for freedom... if my future is mapped out too far in advance, with every day planned out, months ahead of time, I get depressed, even if it means guaranteed income. That's one big reason I'm a self-employed person. (It's probably also one reason I don't have kids.)
Here's a scheduling priority list, highest priority first, and it's not quite the same as the "who will I work with" list above:
- BIG RECORDING JOBS: Bands that don't suck, who also have decent budgets and national or international distribution with major or big indy labels... they get the first crack at my calendar. I am willing to firmly reserve time for those gigs months out. They don't happen all the time, and when they do, I sit up and take notice, and everyone else has to step aside. These gigs are essential to maintain my career visibility, and to keep a roof over my head. They generally pay well enough to de-facto subsidize all the starving-indy-clients that I fill my other time with. One reason I don't commit myself to smaller gigs or unsigned bands too far ahead of time, is that when these bigger jobs come up, they generally have a firm timeline in mind (due to band touring commitments, release schedules, etc) , and I either follow their schedule or I lose the gig. So I keep my distant time horizon open to accommodate these possible gigs. These jobs also have a habit of appearing on the horizon, and then falling apart (band loses deal... record company folds... A&R person fired...drummer quits... etc), which is frustrating, but them's the breaks.
- OLD FRIENDS: A very close priority after the above, is PREVIOUS clients and old friends (these mostly overlap). Nothing is more fun that working with someone more than once, because each time I do, I learn something new that I can try with them next time, and the records get better and better. I develop a feeling of firm personal loyalty to the band. If someone liked my work enough to want to entrust another one of their records to me, and making a record is something very magical that most bands and musicians will only do a few times, then... I'm honored, and I'm gonna completely bust my ass for them. There's a handful of bands who've made 3 or more albums with me, and they're all very special people in my life. Once you've worked with me, and we had a good time, you are at the top of my list if you want me in the future, unless something an order of magnitude bigger in scope (see #1 above) conflicts with it at a particular time; and even then, I'll try to make it work somehow.
- FRIENDS OF FRIENDS: People referred to me by people I know and trust. Word of mouth, baby! Of course, I have way too many friends and ex-clients by now, but I still try to stay available. There's loyalty involved here in both directions, and I try to honor it if I can.
- RECORDING SESSIONS OR LIVE GIGS FOR MY OWN BANDS: If I'm in a band, as I am currently with Rocket Surgery (and was formerly with Kandi Coded, Slippage, Upwell, Wellwater Conspiracy, Suitcase Nukes, Earthworm, Skin Yard, CK5, Ones, Actual Size etc), then recording my own band's stuff deserves a certain priority, as do any possible LIVE GIGS. Sometimes I might be trying to keep fridays and saturdays open for live gigs. This is more important than recording for complete strangers (next paragraph). My bandmates are depending on me to at least try to be available for them. If I can't make this work, I would have to quit the band. Sometimes I have live gigs come up in the middle of long recording sessions, and I just tell my clients "That will be your day off from the studio." It's rare, and we just deal with it.
- EVERYONE ELSE: New clients, new bands. I love it when someone comes out of nowhere and blows my mind. But I have so much from the other categories above that I can only take on new clients when I get some holes in my schedule; and unless I am crazy about their music, I am unwilling to commit myself too far in the future. What happens is, I make a waiting list, and one day I look at my calendar and see that I have an opening this month, cuz maybe someone canceled or whatever, and then I start calling people on the list and try to fill the time. I actually fit in a lot of (very patient) people that way. (Try me, you never know, maybe things are slow right now.)
And what's my absolute last priority?
Projects with no clear goal, no firm time horizon, or no actual performing entity. You know who you are. Often these are what I call "vanity" projects, usually a singer-songwriter with no band that just wants me to "help them record some songs" in their spare time. They bring "friends" in to play, or else I am expected to find them backing musicians, a responsibility I do not want and a process I do not savor. I rarely ever take these gigs, because it is not satisfying on any level to take months or years to make a record, one evening at a time, and that's what these sometimes turn into... "hobbyist" projects by folks with day jobs and families and no prayer of ever getting heard by anyone. They deserve respect, and deserve help from professionals who are willing to take their money... but it doesn't have to be me. I particularly dislike the responsibility of "hiring" people to be the backing band on a record, although I have done it a few times. The whole dynamic of paid professional musicians coming in and being told what to play, RIGHT NOW, without having time to rehearse the songs and develop their stylistic approach over time, the way a real band would... it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Yuck. Great for jingles, but that's not what I do. I've been in plenty of functional, practicing bands with world-class musicians, and I know what's real, and that it takes time to gel and be good. Even improv players are better when they know each other. And don't even ask me to write and play all the music for you on my laptop and have you sing over it! B-O-R-I-N-G! Not to overstate the obvious, but the best rock music is an organic interaction, in real time, between players who know each other and know the music. So, all you aspiring "session drummers" who've given me your business cards, that's why I never call you... I just don't usually take on those kind of projects. I like bands: they're alive, they're an organism, they live and breathe. Calling in an occasional keyboard player, violinist, brass or reeds player, that's a different story, and can be fun... that means we just want icing on the cake, but at least we had a cake to begin with. And if all this means I'm less of a "producer" than some people, well, call me whatever you want... just call me when you want to make a killer rock record. And if you don't have a band, get one, and start rehearsing! Live gigs are your single best form of self-promotion.
Summarizing: I prefer situations with functioning bands or performing entities who have a clear goal in mind and a time horizon. The performing entity is self-contained, well-rehearsed and motivated. There are plans to engage with the outside world and promote the recording... somehow. I get immediate gratification... I start the job, I finish it, and a few weeks or months later, we have a record... cool! Mission accomplished, let's get on with another one! Hopefully, the artist will gain friends and fans, and someone will actually care about the record, and hence about me, and so my phone will ring someday when someone new hears the record and sees my name... and the cycle of my career will continue, and I will stay happy and sane, and there will be more great rock records for people to enjoy.
Final comment: One other thing I avoid like the plague are so-called "artist development" gigs, whereby a producer supposedly takes an artist "under their wing" and really "PRODUCES" them (start from nothing and... um... "develop" them or something). Shit, where do I start? I'm not interested in "developing" anyone. I'm not your babysitter or your Dad, and I'm not God. I'm not a wheeler-dealer with contacts in the "biz." I can't get you "signed", make you a star or write your songs for you. I don't want the responsibility. I'm not interested in writing with my big ego on the blank slate of your music.
But if you have some songs and you can play 'em yourself, I'll help you make the best record you possibly can, right here, right now. And if you suck, I'll tell you, but as constructively as possible, and with a smile.
The idea is to make the best possible YOU record, not the best Jack record. You see, I've already made plenty of Jack records. I'm not a frustrated artist.
I sometimes wish there were more of me, so I could make a lot more great records for deserving people.
(P.S. And BTW... click tracks suck!)