CHINATOWN, MANHATTAN/FORT GREENE, BROOKLYN: What headspace are you in? For a music producer/engineer/mixer like Allen Farmelo, getting your talents to that sought-after place is all about finding yourself.
In the process of doing that, of course, people will find you — that explains why one of Farmelo’s fans is an artful outfit like Cinematic Orchestra, the engrossing British jazz/electronic/soul influenced outfit led by Jason Swincoe. The ever-evolving group recently called on Farmelo to engineer their upcoming release for Ninja Tune, a project that he executed in the semi-exclusive confines of Chinatown’s intriguing Mavericks Studio.
Whether working at Mavericks or mixing/mastering at his rapidly evolving Fort Greene facility, The Farm, Farmelo’s primary angle – a sound he gravitates to that he calls “Post-Pink Floyd” – and artist-centric philosophy shows how an NYC audio pro gets on the map. As his list of credits grows (The Loom, Second Dan, Cucu Diamantes, Jonah Smith, Ian Gillan, The Cabriolets, Jesus H. Christ), so does his insight on what makes today’s music, and the business of it, tick.
You’ve been working a lot with Cinematic Orchestra the last few weeks. How would you describe that workflow?
I wouldn’t say it’s improvisational, but I would say it’s a very grand project that operates on a lot of different levels and that there’s a lot of exploration happening. Jason’s done a lot of writing beforehand, and he brings in musicians to flesh out the ideas. The writing is extremely intentional, and harmonically/melodically very plotted out. He knows the goal of those songs.
He’s an amazing producer because he manages to get people to do stuff that works for the song, without telling them what to do. Is he micromanaging? No. But is he getting the micro-details he wants out of people? Yes. So I’m watching him closely and learning from him.
Cinematic’s not like the Beatles where you have the same four members, and without one of them you’re done. Jason’s brought in people he feels will contribute to that particular song in the way he thinks it will happen best. Different singers for different songs, that kind of thing. So far it’s a bit of a different-sounding record than the previous one, and I think the lineup will reflect those changes.
So what’s it like coming into the project as an engineer? Do they let you do your thing, or is it a collaborative process?
Jason knows what he wants to hear, he is extremely good at communicating it, and he lets me achieve that. He can sometimes get right down to the gear. They were working at Livingston Studios in London, using those Coles 4038s as the overheads. He described that setup, and I did that here to get the specific sound that worked well when he tracked in England.
So sometimes he’s very specific, other times he’ll describe a vibe or metaphor to get what he’s looking for, and then the way I achieve that is up to me. Mixing the Grey Reverend record that Jason produced was a lot like that, where both Grey and Jason would articulate well what they wanted from the record. Then I sent them home, said, “Let me do this,” and then let them come back.
My first stab was good on about 70% of the material — and then fell on its face on the other! We talked about that, and they were very good at articulating what they wanted changed. So we freed up some things in the mix, found the center of the record, and let those things happen. As the record went on, I was able to take more ownership of the aesthetic. So the collaboration is very easy and open.
So is it easier to go into this project now that you’re in the same headspace? Are there traditional references to other records he’s listening to as far as the approach, or is it like you’re already aware of what he likes based on the past experience?
Jason has written amazing, amazing music that is dictating everything about what follows. The songwriting is so strong and beautiful that everybody else is just there to serve that song – including Jason. I don’t feel any references to anything outside of those songs happening at all. Instead we’re coming from the center of those songs. And when you hear them, they all have their own character, life, logic, feel, tonality and beauty that’s obvious from the get-go, even when they’re just played on acoustic guitar. You say, “That’s freakin’ beautiful. Let’s make it more beautiful.”
How do you go about taking the song further at that point?
So everything from changing a mic to subdividing a beat to figuring out how to lay a crash down is there to serve that inner logic. Jason makes sure we’re there to serve that inner logic and the inner beauty of the song, and he communicates it very easily. You have the songwriter, the vision, and the songs are giving you tons of information from that.
You don’t have to do that much to know how to get the studio to sing properly for the song, and that’s where I feel I’m trusted to make some good choices along the way. It can be something as simple as, “Wow, slow tempo – let’s raise the overheads and let the drums sing a little more,” or for more complex patterns I might think, “Let’s get things a little tighter.”
For me, setting the tone on the guitar amp is instinctively informed by the guitar pattern. Since we feel very much in tune with the music, we all kind of trust each other aesthetically and say, “OK, let’s make this happen.” There’s not a lot of discussion about this stuff. It’s kind of obvious when things are working or not, everyone’s got great ears.
The thing that’s refreshing about working with these guys is that there’s no ego to get in the way of this discussion, so it’s an aesthetic conversation at all times – a really clean and artistic conversation.
That sounds like a rewarding way to be recording. Why is this studio a fit for this band and record?
Well, Maverick’s fits any project really well, as long as you don’t need to record forty musicians here. I had thirteen here once – that worked surprisingly well. That was a big, amazing, raucous New Orleansy anti-war album. So Maverick’s can kind of do that. We did the strings for Grey Reverend’s upcoming album here – we had a quartet in the main space. I did the whole Loom record, Teeth, which was a six-piece band all playing in the room together. A lot of people come to just do drums. It’s a very versatile space, and as long as your mics are in phase, you’ll sound good. There’s really no crappy-sounding place in here. For the Cinematic record, there’s just something wonderful happening between the songs and the room sound. They match beautifully.
It feels that way. What do you think about the “open concept” (studio in the round) format here?
I’ve been on two Tape Op Conference panels with other people talking about open concept studios, so I’ve thought a lot about it. And of course the most famous reference is Lanois. The number one benefit of it is being able to speak face-to-face with the people you’re working with and not through a talkback system. The alienation of a talkback system is apparent as soon as it’s taken away. It’s so nice to pull off the headphones and talk to the person you’re speaking to.