Countdown to AES with Peter Katis

BRIDGEPORT, CT: In the old days, there were engineers who came up through the established studio system, rising from the ranks of interns, and there were engineers who worked their way into their living by diligently slaving away in hodgepodge basement studios on quirky indie releases. Peter Katis did both.

Peter Katis, Tarquin Studios (Bridgeport, CT)

“I was always a DIY kind of guy,” he says, ”But I thought it would be stupid to reinvent the lightbulb. I figured there were a lot of people who were really good at it already, and I could pick up a lot from watching them. I think it was good to see both sides of it. Otherwise I always would have gone my whole life wondering if I was doing it wrong. Although nowadays I think that secretly, everyone still worries about that.”

Katis had become obsessed with recording after taking a class at SUNY Purchase and never looked back. “For a long time every cent I made was another cent I could put into new gear, and every spare minute was time I could be in the studio.”

He’d soon go on to work on breakthrough releases for artists like Interpol and The National and build up a clientele of some of the most active and unordinary independent rock bands of the day: Frightened Rabbit, Mates Of State, Mice Parade, Tapes N’ Tapes, The Swell Season, Mobius Band, Guster, Mercury Rev, Tokyo Police Club.

Katis first worked out of his parent’s basement, and then built out a residential studio in Bridgeport CT named after his brother, Tarquin.

“When I started interning in studios back in the early 90s, people would really beat into your head that there was a right and a wrong way to do things. Nowadays, I don’t think anyone is that arrogant. I remember thinking ‘wow, I’m coming from a really different place than these people are.”

Recently, Katis has completed a solo project for Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Ros, signed on to another with Trey Anastasio of Phish, released an album of his own music, and was commissioned to teach a small class of recording enthusiasts and burgeoning pros at a private villa in the South of France. We asked him about all that and more in preparation for our “Studio As an Instrument Panel” at this year’s AES Convention.

I hear you’ve been doing some recording workshops overseas. Can you tell us a little bit about this Mix With The Masters program? It seems to be getting a lot of attention lately.

The name of the program is hard to say without sounding insanely immodest, but it was a really great experience. The whole thing takes place in this really beautiful residential studio in the south of France [Studio La Fabrique] organized by two of the sweetest people.  They’ve had a bunch of other speakers – Michael Brauer, David Kahne, Andy Wallace, Tchad Blake. Pretty good company!

I mean, it was hard work in the sense that it’s not easy to talk to a room of people for 8 or 9 hours and try to be interesting and educational the whole time. It’s harder than making a record I think! [Laughs] So in that way, it’s demanding. People were coming from all over the world, so if you were really boring… well, that would suck.

But it wasn’t all just talking. I also got to bring in some sessions from records I worked on. On the 4th day we actually got a French band in and pre-produced, tracked and mixed a song. In the last couple of days people played their own music and we all got to talk about that too. It was a great time.

People ask me sometimes if they should go to one of the other sessions coming up with other engineers. They’ll ask if it’s worth the money. It is expensive – but honestly, even if no one was there to lecture you’d have a great time, it’s such a beautiful place. People are hanging out all day just talking about recording in this amazing environment.

Well hopefully it’s left you prepared to talk to our crowd at AES. Thanks for agreeing to participate on the panel by the way.

Yeah, thanks for inviting me. The name “studio as an instrument” was kind of exciting to me. I think with my own band, The Philistines Jr., even more than any other, I get to approach things that way because there’s no one to answer to. I’ve been intrigued by that idea of the studio being an instrument since I started, since the very first time I got my hands on a 4-track.

Can you tell us what that phrase means to you?

Sure. I mean, as an artist and a producer I’ve always been frustrated with the straight-ahead and normal approach to making music. It’s always weird to see you words in print, so I hope this comes out right, but I can’t stand to just pick up an acoustic guitar and write songs that way. What I like more is coming up with general ideas that I can stomach to start with, and then twisting them around in ways that aren’t offensive to me. [Laughs]

Some people can do it the other way, just pick up a guitar and write songs, and that’s great. Some of my favorite music is like that. But when it comes to making music, it’s just not what I want. I’m not sure I would keep making music if I didn’t have the studio as its own kind of instrument.

To me, part of what makes recordings interesting is when you experiment. You can make great plans, but sometimes the most interesting things come out when you set yourself up to make great mistakes also. That can happen in the studio – You’re not under any direct pressure like you are in front of an audience. You can try anything, and if it’s terrible, who cares?

From what I’m gathering here, when you work on your own music, it’s an exaggeration of the approach you take with other bands, rather than a whole different process?

Yeah, exactly. In all the years I’ve been recording, I guess I’ve kind of noticed all the things one can do to end up with a record that sounds special. You’d be surprised, but the worst people to do that with are often the young bands who come in and just want to play their songs the way they wrote them and perform them and be done with it.

Sometimes in the studio we’ll mess around with a guitar sound and you get it to a point where everyone’s thinking “Wow, that sound is amazing!” But then they’ll go to do the take and they’ll play their part and it just sounds kind of okay. So I always talk to bands about playing your part to the sound. “Play to the sound.” If you play with no regard to the sound, just playing it the way you wrote it no matter what’s coming back through the speakers then the odds are a lot lower that it’s going to be very interesting.

Some of the more commercially successful records you’ve worked on, the ones a lot of our readers will be familiar with, like Interpol and The National, were they immediately receptive to that process?

Katis co-produced/engineered Interpol's debut album for Matador

Interesting question. I like both the records I did with Interpol. The 1st record definitely has kind of a cool sound. But to be honest, those guys did not play to the sound at all. That’s an example where things ended up sounding cool in spite of the fact that they just wanted to play them as they wrote them and arranged them. So that one is an example of where it worked out alright where they didn’t do it that way at all.

Now the National is a tricky one. We have a funny relationship – I love those guys. They’re some of my best friends in real life, even outside the studio.

I’ve known them and worked with them for so long, but we seem to butt heads all the time about sounds. In a way we agree on everything, but there’s also loads of disagreement between us, and within the band. But in their case that’s all part of some chemistry that really seems to add up to something in the end.

Interpol has this great gift where they write music, they play it and, for the most part, that’s it. They like it, people like it, done. The songs end up sounding as they were initially envisioned. But with the National, it’s kind of like with my own stuff. When we make music, at first we almost hate it, and we sort of have to beat the sh*t out of it to make it aesthetically acceptable. It’s like if you have a really pretty, really beautiful song, the production can’t necessarily be perfectly pretty and beautiful.

I remember playing in bands years ago and being frustrated and kind of envious of the Smashing Pumpkins sometimes. You know, Billy Corgan has this really strange whining kind of voice, so he can sing these really beautiful melodies and they don’t come off as cheesy.

So with the National, it’s kind of like that. In the end, on the records they’re trying to mess their sounds up more because otherwise, it’s just too pretty to hear.

The tough thing is that sometimes a band with those priorities doesn’t get that I get that too! I like to really work for a great sound, but I don’t want to spend all this time making everything too slick and perfect. It’s so important to The National that they end up with things that don’t sound phony.

But there’s a fine line between having sounds that aren’t too polished, and having sounds that are unintentionally lo-fi. There’s this certain new lofi aesthetic that’s developing now since so many bands are self-recording completely. It’s not just purposefully rough around the edges avoiding overpolish, but instead it’s lofi in the sense that it’s just not well done. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a jerk.

A lot of the coolest sounding records I’m part of are the ones where people come here with the intention of making an interesting sounding record working meticulously from start to finish. But that’s not always possible.

I also work with a lot of very-indie bands that don’t have the budget to come into the studio and experiment. That means that a lot of the projects I do now are this kind of hybrid where the band will come in and track a bunch of stuff and then leave for a month or two, sometimes more. They’ll do a lot of overdubs on their own, sometimes spend time getting the vocals right at their own studio, and then come back here for a couple weeks to mix.

That way, they spend a fraction of what they would have, but they get the luxury of starting off with some proper sounds to judge everything else against, and they get a proper mix, but they also have months to tinker away and use their own home studio as an instrument. I think more and more bands are about that now, which probably, they should be.

Sure, I’m definitely seeing a lot of that. A while back, I mixed a DeLeon record you tracked drums on. I think that when the band went to record a lot of the extra stuff at home they did so well with it because everything else they tracked had to live up to that drum sound in some way, which was just a great foundation.

But what effect has that had on you? If more and more of your projects spending less time with you is it good because you get to take on more projects? Or bad because you get to spend less time on each of them?

I like it. I like the fact that I get to do a lot of both of those things.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of projects start to finish which is great, but it can also be harder on you in some ways.

I’m not a fan of really long, long projects — you can get kind of beat down, you lose perspective, and some of the inspiration can be lost. So I really do like these projects where the band comes in, you do a lot of hard work, the band goes away for a little while. When they come back to you, its all fresh in your head and you say “Oh, yeah! I can mix this!”

Since I work with a Pro Tools system I’m kind of mixing as I go. Even though the final mix happens in the analog domain, I like to tweak and clean things up as I go. So it can be hard sometimes to think of doing a fresh mix. What am I gonna change? I mean, if I didn’t like the way something sounded, I would have changed it already!

So yeah, I like the combination of full-album projects combined with mixing other people’s records, or mixing albums I’ve worked on partly. I’ve even done that with bands like Frightened Rabbit on their second record, or The National on their most recent one, High Violet. They wanted to take a year to record it in their home studio. After that they came here for two-and-a-half months to mix it, which of course meant we were doing a lot of overdubs and fixes and rethinking at the same time.

Wow, that’s a long time for a mix.

Katis co-produced/engineered The National's "High Violet."

It is, but it’s the way they work. The one before that, Boxer, was an agonizing process in many ways. They were nervous about time and money so I gave them a kind of an unprecedented deal. I don’t want anyone nervous about that stuff if I can help it. [Laughs]

We were going to do 3-months straight over the summer of 2006. But at the end of the 3 months, nothing that had to do with the album was really done. There was a lot of trying things out, re-doing and re-doing, scrapping whole songs. The National guys call it“circling the vortex”.

So that was the first time where I kind of sent them on their way to go flesh things out. With them it’s become this kind of hybrid situation and that’s great. They’re the kinds of guys who need time away so they can just throw everything at it. When they came back we mixed for about 6 weeks, which is a long time too. When we’re mixing we’re still doing massive amounts of overdubs and changing things and rearranging.

It’s interesting to hear about that kind of tension on some of your biggest projects. Do you think a degree of tension sometimes it leads to better results? Have their been projects that you’re just as happy with that were a dream to work on?

That’s a good question. I think one of the best records I’ve ever been a part of was for Jónsi Birgisson from Sigur Ros. I worked on his solo record Go a couple of years ago and I just loved that one. That was truly using the studio as an instrument, I think.

When you hear that record, its hard to remember that there were no electric instruments on the whole thing. They’re all acoustic instruments but it sounds almost like an electronic record. It’s just acoustic guitar and voice with a string ensemble, a brass ensemble, a woodwind ensemble, an upright bass and crazy percussion, no drum-kit. It’s just that it was manipulated to all hell in the end.

It’s interesting because that wasn’t the initial intent. So that might be a good an example of the recording process completely overtaking the initial vision of what the project should be – but in a really good way. Every time I did something weird or crazy with a sound, Jónsi would say “More! Yes, yes!”. I would tell him: “You know there’s no way we can undo this? We’re going to be recording all overdriven like this and he’d just say “I don’t care”.

On that record, no one was scared if it would be screwed up. I think that’s one of the benefits of working with people who’ve already done a whole bunch of records. They can have this attitude of “I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I just want to do something different.

That can be a really exciting thing. He wanted it to be very different from Sigur Ros. One of the only frustrating moments I can remember was working on one of my favorite tracks on the record. It had this beautiful harmonium intro that he’d recorded at his house, and I thought it had to go on the record. But in the end, he said “No, no, we can’t use that, It sounds too much like Sigur Ros”. I just thought “Nooooo, it’s so good![Laughs]. I mean, it ended up being great without it, but it took a minute to get over.

Sounds like you’d be a good choice for an artist looking to reinvent what they do.

Yeah, if they want that. I’m hoping the record I’m going to be doing with Trey Anastasio has some of the same potential to have some of that kind of energy. He’s the lead singer of the band Phish, and he wants to do something totally out of left-field for him. They’re the kind of band that’s always been about live performance more than anything else. But this time I think he wants to make a record that’s just about making a record, and it doesn’t have to be the kind of thing that you could re-create live. We’ll see!

Hear more from Peter Katis at the AES Platinum Engineers panel on Saturday, October 22 from 11AM – 1PM, at the Javits Center (exact room # TBD).

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at http://www.justincolletti.com.