Renowned guitarist and music writer Knut Schreiner (of deathpunk rockers Turbonegro) met with producer John Agnello, together with TIDAL Rising artist Luke Elliot, while they were in Norway finishing up Elliot’s debut album at Athletic Sound studios. The three of them sat down for a lengthy conversation about music history, the role of the producer and how digitization has affected artists and the recording process. We hope you enjoy it.
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Can you call John Agnello a legendary producer?
It should at least be safe to call him “the legendary alternative rock producer’” John Agnello. His work has found its way into the ears of several generations. He will forever be associated with seminal indie acts Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., but his legacy extends to the present with newer acts like Kurt Vile, the Hold Steady – and now Luke Elliot.
Agnello was once an unskilled New York kid who tinkered with studio equipment back in the 1970s.
He started his career as an errand boy at the historic recording studio, the Record Plant, where some of the biggest album productions of the 1980s took place, including LPs from Aerosmith, Cindy Lauper, Tom Petty and many others.
Agnello eventually became an assistant in the studio and, step by step, he was sucked into a mysterious and fascinating world of musical magic-making, surrounded by great talents and even greater records. He learned everything you want to know about making a record, as well as what you’d rather not know.
In the ’90s Agnello was a major force in bringing alternative rock to the mainstream, and without making any compromises.
Since then, he’s had an impressive career as one of the East Coast’s top producers of rock and indie. This stretches right up to the latest rock worth listening to today, with his name credited on records by Kurt Vile and The Hold Steady.
I had the pleasure of working with John in 2007, when Turbonegro traveled to Hoboken, NY to finish up our album Retox. The last time I had seen him was on a humid evening at South By Southwest that same year.
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What was it that got you into music and making records?
Well … If we go way back to when I was a teenager…
I am still a child! [laughs]
I had a brother ten years older than me. He was a hippie, went to Grateful Dead shows and stuff. In college he did everything that hippies did in college at that time. Not that he was a slacker or anything. On the contrary, he worked a lot and got a degree as an electrical engineer. In the mid 1970s he got a job as a product designer at a company called Eventide, making studio effects.
When I was old enough, I began to take summer jobs at Eventide, where I put together digital delays, flanger and every possible facility effect. They just handed me the schematics. I was pretty young, so I learned fast. I ended up being this 16-year-old kid who could buy himself a big bitching stereo – a Pioneer 737x – with huge speakers, and began to listen to tons of music.
I went to concerts with prog bands like Yes and Pink Floyd. I was simply the guy all the punks hated! So I listened to records, like Queen II, and thought, ‘How do they get to all the backward-stuff?’ There were lots of weird things happening on the Beatles albums in the ’60s too, but I was too young to actually reflect upon it. But now I was beginning to think about the recording process.
I went to college for two years before boredom got me. I read sociology and anthropology, but at that age I began to yearn for something else. When I was offered a job at the Record Plant as a so-called “runner,” I just said fuck college. I was not motivated for that at all.
When was this?
It was in 1979. I worked at the Record Plant, cleaned and washed, sharpened pencils, logged analog tapes. I worked really hard, and it was everything I wanted. After ten hours of work I hung out in the studio, and if the artists liked you, they’d let you into the control room to attend the session. I was the boy in the back of the room who didn’t say anything.
They let me come in and look at people like Meat Loaf and the Blues Brothers making records, and I sucked in all the information I could get. It was so cool! Suddenly they were sending me into the studio to set up a Shure SM-57 microphone for Tom Petty, while they made Damn the Torpedos.
That was my way into the music industry. I was lucky that I had an older brother who got me into this path. He was my gateway. Otherwise I’d never even considered working in music studios. In the ’80s, there were no specific education programs, as it is nowadays. Studios at the time were large, enclosed buildings, and it was not like that they just brought in people from the street to work there. You had to know someone.
You were assistant at the Record Plant in the ’80s, and worked with some really big names in the industry at the time: Cindy Lauper, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Bruce Springsteen. How was the recording process at the time, and have things changed a lot since then?
Oh yes, there has been a dramatic change. The most obvious is how much more time they spent on records at the time, maybe three, four or five months in the studio. I made an album with The Outfield. I flew to London on October 25, 1986, and returned on March 1. Apart from a few days at home during Christmas, we spent the whole period to create the album. Not a week here and there, but six days a week, and long working hours.
I thought it was the other way around – that the artists spent more time now because they can sit with their own digital studio as long as they bother?
Well, I’m talking about the time spent in a professional studio here. On the indie records I make now, I am still a guy who works in real studios. I just think the record companies had much higher budgets back in those days. The industry had big earnings from re-launching their back catalogs on CD. Besides maybe a thousand dollars for the mastering process, it was all profit.
But anyway, I worked with Aerosmith, and we spent months on the overdubs alone. It took forever.
It was much about perfection in the ’80s, right?
Yes. And it was a lot about not having auto-tuning, and we had to edit the tape, which obviously takes much longer than editing in Pro Tools.
What was your involvement with Springsteen’s Born in the USA?
I was an assistant for a guy who mixed three songs for the album. The best part was to actually sit in the same room as Bruce for four days straight. He was delightful, with his baseball hat in his back pocket. He was so him! At the end of the day he said, “I want to see some real tunnel.” It meant that he was tired and wanted to go home through the Lincoln Tunnel.
You saw the Beatles and experienced the ’60s as a child. You grew up in the classic rock era and got your big break in the ’90s with alternative rock. Now that we are deep in the 2010s, you’re looking at over four decades of music here. Is there a time period you feel has been particularly good for music?
For me personally it’s the early ’90s: Grunge rock, the Nirvana thing on the west coast, Sonic Youth and the noise rock on the east coast. This era, which I just call alt-rock, was a good time for me because it meant that people started playing live together again. It was a reaction to hair metal, which was a ridiculous thing. And this alt-rock blew plenty of life into the music again, for many years.
I struggled a bit with the 2000s. The way I see it, there was no mark or something unique happening then. I have no idea about that decade when it comes to music. Of course there are records we all like from the time, but one cannot talk about a bigger movement.
What about bands like White Stripes and Strokes? They were part of a scene I guess, but it didn’t feel like a brand new thing?
No, correct, there was no revolution.
But that’s what they called it: “The New Rock Revolution”!
Luke Elliot: In the ’90s you just knew that what took place was important. That this was music people would listen to at all time thereafter. You realized that Nirvana came to be band of the decade. But in the 2000s you never got that feeling about anything. And although I like lots of records from that time, there is nothing that really makes me nostalgic.
John Agnello: There was no movement, and that’s how I remember the ’90s: as the last major musical movement. We’ll see what the decade brings. I hope at least something unexpected and exciting happens. Perhaps some really good music will occur in the wake of EDM…
Back to the control room: There are many opinions about what a producer does. One has an idea of the knob-screwing nerd or the visionary mad genius. How do you explain what you’re working with?
Every recording process is just different. Take Dinosaur Jr., as an example. I can’t explain how to arrange a song to that guy. He would immediately kick me! [laughs] Same with Sonic Youth; there’s no way to tell Steve Shelley how to play his drums. But with Okkervil River it was completely different. We sat down and re-arranged every song! We did things shorter, added new sections, changed the themes, you see, we did so much with tge songs before we even entered the studio. And that is production.
On the records I am well known for, those from the early ’90s, I was really only a qualified technician, I had not yet taught me totally myself how to really produce. But fortunately I was old enough to have seen a few classic producers at work. As the Cindy Lauper record I worked with, where Rick Chertoff was the producer. He did everything possible.
Firstly, he wrote many of the songs. Secondly he brought in a band with wonderful musicians and they got to work in the same room. Thirdly, he found the song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” It was written by a guy named Robert Hazard, from Philadelphia, and written from a man’s perspective. They turned it upside down and did it from Cindy’s perspective. They made it into something completely different!
With Sonic Youth it’s more about just organizing the whole thing, making sure they all come into the studio and do their parts, find out when Kim Gordon is back in New York, stuff like that.
I have worked with some producers over the years. I’ve had the pleasure to work with you, and people like Matt Sweeney and Steve MacDonald. I think an important value for producers is to make the artist to feel good, to enjoy themselves, and thus create a creative environment.
And I have the impression that it is one of your strengths. What do you say, Luke, as one who works with John these days?
Elliot: It is not just what happens in the studio, but everything leading up to it. You feel like you really are well cared for and that stimulates good songwriting.
Can you be a good producer and an asshole simultaneously?
Agnello: I guess so! [laughter] I’ve been on many sessions where the band hated their producer, the producer hated the technician, and the air in the room was so thick with bad vibes you could cut it in half with a knife. And then the record comes out and it is fucking great!
I have worked with people like Don Fleming, who is a total feel-good master, and I’ve worked with people who everyone hated. You just finish the record and never work with that person again. One reason that I can still work as a producer after 30 years, is that there are very few contexts in which my name pops up, and someone says, “That guy is a fucking asshole.”
It is an industry where you work with people, often sensitive types. I’m not looking to crush people; I want them to feel good.
So would you say that working with music, technology or people?
Good question. When it comes to technology, I am reasonably old school, and I’m happiest with the tape recorder. But I also use Pro Tools and can sample and edit and ‘fly into things’ and all that shit. I’ve come to a point where I think it is pointless to auto-tune the vocals. It makes me sick. In many ways, it destroys what an artist does. Some people can sing in one take. Others need 30-40 shots. And after 40 attempts I can tell you: they feel like ass. So one must find a way to get past it, and give people mental massages and confidence.
I have some nerd question here: What is your best tip for getting a good drum sound?
First, have a good drum technician, which provides a good set and can tune it, and has a collection of useful snare drums. Then you need a good room – a live room. And the most important: A good drummer! It’s mostly about the drummer. If he can hit the drums in a way that makes the drums sound good it is mostly done. I would say that it is 75 percent of the job. Microphones are only microphones – they just pick up what’s happening there and then. I can be in a rehearsal room and get a good drum sound with a good drum, a good drummer and quite simple equipment.
So it’s about the drummer then?
I would say that it is about how they hit the rails. My best albums are likely records with very good musicians.
Does rock drummers play harder today than they did in the ’70s and ’80s?
There is a common problem that they hit too hard on the hi-hat, so you get leakage in all the other mics. Then we have to turn to samples and stuff, and suddenly you lose the entire organic sound. I’ve done things like adding towels over the hi-hay or simply that ’80s thing where you take away all the cymbals and record the drums separately.
Was that an ’80s thing? I thought Queens of the Stone Age invented that trick?
Oh no! It was a big ’80s thing. They stole it from Phil Collins! [laughs] But the point is; you should fix things during the recording process. Don’t tell the artist we’ll take care of it later.” It’s important to make it sound good there and then.
So you want the artist to come into the control room after a take, and then be totally blown away by how good it sounds?
Exactly! And that is what inspires them to go out and do a good job on the next song.
It’s what I said; you’re good with people!
I am good with people, but [with crying voice] I’m a shitty father. Maybe I should have taken the kids in the studio? [laughs]
You have worked through many stages in the history of sound recording. We are now in the third decade of digitization. What values from the old way of making records are important for you to take into the future?
When there are so many digital opportunities it’s becoming increasingly more common not to arrange things in advance. One thinks: We’ll fix it later. If there’s one thing I think is important, it is to meet up in the studio prepared with the songs. And then start recording. If something doesn’t work, you can always edit it. But I feel that people these days do not appreciate this, because they know that they can change and do anything afterwards.
So there is not enough focus on arranging the bands and the songs?
No. It has become too easy to do it in the studio. The result is that people spend way too much time on constant redo their songs because they are never satisfied. And because they can do it. I think that even if they can fix everything, one should not necessarily fix everything. Is anything directly wrong or bad? Then fix it. But if a tone is special or weird, leave it there.
Everything has become a little too neat and tidy. If you yelled something during a solo, it became a part of the record. I miss those little details, they mean a lot to me. But it’s probably because I’m 55 years old and this was what I grew up with. I often tell artists: “Let’s make this record fun.” But this fun element seems corny for the young generation, so it is something you lose. Things are too auto-tuned, on grid, flown in and edited. It’s not fun.
Who is the best singer you’ve ever worked with?
I’ve worked with so many, it’s hard to pick one.
If I twist your arm?
He-he, Mark Lanegan is my favorite singer who has kicked me in the balls. Is that a good enough answer? [laughs]
I have a question of personal interest. One of my favorite songs from the past couple years is Kurt Viles “Waking On A Pretty Day,” which you recorded. The electric guitar there, how did you do it?
A lotta pills! [laughs] It’s just his thing, I think: Fender Jazzmaster, Fender amp, and one of these electro Harmonix phaser pedals …
Yes! And just the way he plays. He plays all the guitars himself. Or, for Smoke Rings For My Halo he played with Adam from War on Drugs, but on “Waking On A Pretty Day,” he does everything himself. He has a very fluid way of playing.
It is such a good song!
Yes, even at 9 minutes in length, it is impossible to be bored.
You talked about movements earlier. What about the east coast indie scene from the last few years: artists like Kurt Vile and The Hold Steady. You’ve been in the middle of all the style developments. This is some of the best rock music today.
Yeah, I’ve been lucky. But once again it was the word of mouth thing. Kurt Vile warmed up for J Mascis and J tipped him off me, “Call John if you wanna do a record.”
Why didn’t you make “Waking On A Pretty Day” three and a half minutes long?
Because he is another one of those guys who does not listen to what I say! [laughs] I urged him; please write a three-minute song. And then he went out and did this. We listened to it, and Kurt said: “Wait, I have idea for a outro,” and then shortly afterwards, “I came up with another part.” He doesn’t care about what I say.
You mentioned J Mascis. You’ve probably worked with many demanding artist types?
Are you crazy? Mark Lanegan, no matter how great a singer he is, he’s probably among those I’ve had the greatest challenges with. He asked me to wake him when he was going to sing, but then he threatened me with a beating when I did it.
So it’s not the guys from Turbonegro?
No, you guys were great! You were so much fun.
There’s something odd about artists in the studio. They are surrounded by expensive technology, high budgets and ticking meters. Yet it is almost expected that artists should behave like children?
Yeah, that’s the dichotomy of it all. It is the childish behavior that makes them so good! But sometimes … As the Kurt Vile album, where I just felt like a kind of adult supervision that made sure things were actually being done. People can have fun and do what they want, but there is always something that needs to be done.
I think your sound is often a bit dirty, but massive. But on that album you cleaned up bit and wiped some dust off?
Yup, the entire album is inspired by this Southern Californian music from the ’70s.
I heard Kurt read the Barney Hoskyns book ‘Hotel California’ during the recording.
He read that one and many others, like the Keith Richards autobiography. That was when he got the idea of working from five o’clock in the afternoon until five o’clock at night. There were some rough weeks for me.
Really? You agreed to do that?
I had no choice. That’s when the creative juices are flowing! It’s Kurt Vile and it’s his album. I can’t decide ‘when you can do it, and then you can not do it’. I’m there to help him. He follows his muse. He made a mix tape before we made the album, with over 50 songs for inspiration. We heard lots of it; there was everything from Flying Burrito Brothers to Ween and Gerry Rafferty.
He’s a big music fan?
Big time. And this was his vision for the album.
What happens with the major studios in New York, in the face of the new music business economy?
New York is difficult because it is based on renting. But places like Sears Sound, Avatar and Magic Shop are still open and doing well. Nevertheless, there’s some natural selection in the field now, for good and bad. If you’re not popular, not good with customers, you lose your business. Dave Grohl was just around and did an episode for Sonic Highways in the Magic Shop studio.
This year there has been a debate about the future of the album format. In the streaming era we tend to increasingly focus on individual songs, and put these together in different playlists. What do you think? Can you imagine a future where you do not work in the album format?
I think there is room for both. Just look at the little vinyl renaissance. These are people who love music and the album as a whole. But for many bands the EP is a good format. The EP used to be a bit silly, but today it’s an awesome way to show off. For many artists who do not have a big budget, one can pick their 4-5 best songs, and present them. And you can do it more periodically. It’s up to the artist to consider how to present the music in the best possible manner.
I’m no traditionalist. I recognize that times change. I will not be the man on the horse and carriage as cranks to motorists and says, “Hey, you assholes!” [Laughter] You have to be realistic.
Be sure to check out the first single from Luke Elliot’s upcoming album, as well as an exclusive documentary – only on TIDAL.
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Knut Schreiner is a Norwegian musician and music writer, also known as Euroboy, the guitarist of Turbonegro. He has also been a part of bands like Kåre & the Cavemen, Euroboys and more recently Mirror Lakes. Schreiner writes about music and musicology for numerous dailies and magazines.