Michael and Colin traveled from the boros of Philadelphia to the lovely Victorian home-and-studio in Connecticut of indie rock producer Peter Katis(Interpol, Tokyo Police Club, The National). He took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about his current projects with both The Swell Season and Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós and also offered some insight into the role he plays as an indie producer.
Mike: Where’d you go to school?
Peter: I went to the University of Vermont. But I went there as an (Laughs) athlete and after one year, I quit sports and sped into art and being into bands. So that’s the way it normally goes, I think.
Colin: What sport did you play?
Peter: I was a downhill ski racer.
Colin: That’s pretty cool.
Peter: But I used to be a hockey player, too. And bands always think it’s funny that twice a week I leave a little early to go play hockey. It keeps me sane. This job can be incredibly brutal…the hours and just the intensity of it and stressing out over it. So doing something like that helps me avoid going crazy.
Mike: Yeah I hear that.
Peter: But I didn’t study music or engineering in school. I got into four-tracking my own band. In the old days when it was still just a four-track in your dorm room. But right away I was really, really into it, and I was also kind of good at it right away. When I got out of college I took some classes at S.U.N.Y. Purchase, which is a college near where my parents lived.
Colin: Yeah, recording your own stuff probably helped you mess around with it and get familiar with the whole thing.
Peter: Yeah definitely.
Mike: I mean that was sort of like your break into music, you know, just playing your own music and recording yourself. So how did you get into the industry after deciding maybe I have a chance at this?
Peter: Some guy in a band, like all my friends’ bands started asking me to help them record because everyone was just recording themselves. And they said “You’re good at this, you should do this for a living.” I thought “That’s crazy!” who would do that because it sounds like too hard of a thing to get into. But then I thought I do really like it and the next thing I knew I got this assistant teaching job at SUNY Purchase and the guy who taught the class worked in a studio in New York. I asked him if he could get me a job and he said he’d try. And I thought that was the end of that. Then a bunch of months later he said “I got you a job!”, an internship, and so that’s how it started. It was at this really nice studio with three Neve rooms but also the worst place in the world : They just made high-end karaoke songs. But it’s pretty funny that’s where it all started and built from there.
Mike: That’s pretty funny though.
Colin: That’s cool.
Peter: Yeah, it was funny. And that was definitely, that was 1990, you know so that was still in the old days.
Peter: When there was no Pro Tools.
Mike: The good days.
Peter: A lot of old school attitude in the studio you know.
Peter: Not something I think is very cool. That’s what I like about this place. There’s not a lot of cool dude attitude here even though a lot of cool dudes come here.It’s not tolerated.
Mike: That’s Good.
Colin: So when you get work, do the bands come to you or do the record labels come to you?
Peter: It’s both, but it’s usually bands because I think nowadays the kind of bands that I record are mostly bands that care about recording and are on indie labels mostly, who you know, they get to make those decisions. Once in a while I’ll get approached by a band’s manager or something but usually it’s the band. Like I said, in indie rock, the bands make the decisions.
Mike: Right. Are there any bands out there that you find mind-blowing and you find yourself thinking, ‘Wow I’d like to work with them’? Or maybe not mind-blowing but just interesting.
Colin: That you haven’t worked with…
Peter: Sure, I guess so. Yeah. But it’s always a tough call… Be careful what you wish for sometimes. Especially bands that already have really great sounding records that come to you. “Oh, no…”
Peter: One thing that is kind of cool… I think one of the best bands in the last ten years is Sigur Rós. And in a few weeks, I start a record with Jónsi Birgisson from Sigur Rós. It’s sort of his solo record.
Colin: Is it with his partner or? There was a rumor that he and his boyfriend were doing something together?
Peter: Yes, but it’s not the “Riceboy(Sleeps)” thing. That’s a strictly ambient record that they made by themselves and comes out pretty soon.
Colin: That’s pretty cool.
Peter: But the other collaborator on the record is Nico Muhly. Do you know who he is?
Peter: He’s this sort of wunderkind, composer, arranger, conductor guy. He’s more from the world of contemporary classical, but sometimes, he’ll slum it with us indie rockers. So it’s going to be a largely acoustic guitar record but also with a lot of “out there” string arrangements. Strings, woodwinds, brass and double bass, actually.
Colin: Yeah we’re speaking with Sigur Rós’ string band Amiina.
Peter: Oh, right, right, right.
Colin: So that should be pretty cool. We really like their stuff.
Peter: I’ve never heard them and in fact when I saw Sigur Rós in the Fall and went to talk to Jónsi and stuff, it was their first time in seven years where they were touring without the strings. So I saw them as a four-piece rock band. I was pretty impressed how they still pulled off that big sonic landscape, not-bullshit-rock sound with four guys playing guitar, bass and drums.
Mike: The drummer beats on that kit. You know, live, at least when I saw them, he was so impressive to watch.
Peter: You know that’s where I give the sound guy credit at that show. It was at this really cool venue in New York, called The United Palace which is on W 176 St., way, way up town. And it was this beautiful old theatre. It’s like a smaller version of Radio City Music Hall. It sounded great but I think that’s because they didn’t put too much of the drum kit in the mix at all ‘cause it would have just been a mess. If you mixed it big rock-drums style, it would have been a wall of noise. Smart mixing…
Colin: That’s awesome.
Mike: So how did you get involved with Tokyo Police Club Did they approach you?
Peter: That was the very first band that approached me through my manager. I have a manager now.
Peter: I avoided management for years, and well, at first of course, like a band, when you want a manager you can’t possibly get one.
Mike: Of course.
Peter: But I avoided it for a while cause I just never had the right feeling about it, and it’s basically people saying give us part of your money and we’ll make your life better. That said, I think I have a great manager. I actually love it, and it’s been two years now. They get where I’m coming from, how I work and what I’m into. But still, ninety percent of the projects just come straight to me. But that was like the first thing they brought me, and I said “Sure”, that’s right up my alley, I like that band.
Mike: We heard that the noise at the beginning of “Centennial” on Elephant Shell is a door closing in the studio. And the noise seems to be identical in some repeats and we were just wondering if that was natural or if it was just like in the edit in Pro Tools.
Peter: I’m guilty of not remembering now. And a lot of Elephant Shell wasn’t recorded here. That record’s kind of a long story. They recorded here when they weren’t really ready to record it. Then we stopped before we were done, and they went on tour for like a month or two with uh, for a while with, what’s their name?
Michael: Ra Ra Riot?
Colin: Vampire Weekend?
Peter: I’ve almost got it.. Bloc Party! So they played all these songs that they were sort of winging in the studio and got them down much butter.
Peter: And then they re-recorded a lot of it in a studio in Toronto when I was in the middle of another record. Then they came back a couple of months later and we mixed it all. But it worked. Some of the sounds were a little rough, but it gave them that raw edge that they need. Sometimes some of the songs recorded here can feel a little too polished. Not that we tend to make things that are too polished, but they’re the kind of band that has a really raw energy that definitely needs to be recorded a little rough around the edges.
Mike: Yeah, I love it. So when you’re recording or mixing with an artist, how often do you find yourself itching to suggest that the band may be making a poor decision?
Peter: Oh. (laughs) I’m a pretty honest person. I think part of the required skills of being a producer is to know how to say things in a way that doesn’t make you sound like a jerk. And if you’re genuine and just say…you know, you don’t say “This is a bad idea”, but why don’t we try this, why don’t we try that, not in a bullshit kind of way. I find people actually deal with criticism or basic disagreements pretty well if it’s presented the right way.
Mike: Right, yeah I know. Is it more in terms of like, you know, say a tone on a guitar or a synth that you might be like, you know, it might be a little better..
Peter: It all depends. It depends so much from band to band. Some bands will be really in tune to subtle sonic textures and production things, and other bands won’t care at all about those sorts of non-musical details. It’ll be more about the music. It varies a lot. It’s bad when bands don’t care at all about the sound, and it’s bad when bands totally obsess over it.
Colin: Yeah, they need to find that balance I guess.
Peter: Yeah, yeah. And a big thing to me is embracing just what a recording is. Sometimes when you start a recording, you have a plan. It could be a great plan, but who knows what’s going to happen. And then you record something ,and if it’s not good, it’s not good and you’ve got to change it. But if it’s really good, but it’s not what you planned, you should reconsider what you planned because it’s so easy to ruin something that’s good just trying to make it something different, something you thought it might be when you started. If that makes any sense.
Peter: So bands will have a plan, but then we start, and we do something and we stumble onto something really great even if it’s totally different than what we planned. And if they’re open-minded enough to embrace it, that’s really exciting to me.
Peter: It kills me when bands say no we can’t do that: it’s different than the demo. It’s like oh no.
Peter: I mean…I think you do all the best things by accident. Well, not totally by accident, of course. But leaving room for happy accidents is always a good plan.
Colin: Yeah, just let it flow.
Peter: In the old days there was a lot more: write the songs, practice them to death, and then record. But now bands definitely compose stuff in the studio. It’s just the nature of recording to computers versus just tape. I mean I still use a lot of tape, and I live by analog sounds, but because you can do take after take and save dozens and dozens of tracks, I think it just lends itself more to that kind of thing.
Mike: Plus it’s cool, I mean, you have so much stuff here why not experiment in the studio you know rather then just stick to the idea you had before.
Peter: And I find a lot with young bands they do less experimenting and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They just sort of come in with it all together. But the more records a band makes the more they just get bored of writing songs and bored of their instruments and they just want to experiment in the studio. I think it makes a lot of sense.
Colin: So are the guys from Interpol as serious as they look?
Peter: (Laughs) Ah yes and no. But they’re also pretty fun?
Colin: I’ve talked to Sam before in a different interview for Magnetic Morning, and he’s a pretty cool guy.
Peter: Yeah, a great guy. I just spent a bunch of weeks with Paul Banks, the lead singer, doing his solo record. And he’s a hilarious guy. And you know, Daniel is funny and believe it or not, Carlos D. is very funny. Yeah, I don’t know, I guess their public persona is kind of intense.
Colin: Yeah they always have their suits on.
Peter: They do wear their suits regularly. That’s true. But they look good…
Mike: So how often do you go to concerts, and when you do go to concerts, do you find yourself thinking about the mix the whole time instead of passively enjoying?
Peter: (Laughs) No. No. Not really. I wear earplugs. I’ve worn earplugs to every concert I’ve seen for almost twenty years because I’m so paranoid. But any quieter moments I pull them out and stick them right back in. But, no no, I try not to obsess over the sound at shows. But I do try to get out. I mean it’s so easy in this job to get locked in here like a prison. You know?
Peter: I’ll confess I mostly just see bands that I’ve worked with or that I might work with. But that’s still a pretty good bunch of shows I guess.
Peter: But, of course, I get to see other bands, too. For example, the band, The National, I’ve done a whole bunch of records with and they’ve sort of become some of my best friends, and a couple times a year I’ll go see them play. And when I saw them at Madison Square Garden opening for REM and Modest Mouse, I got to see three bands.
Colin: Good bands too.
Peter: And actually the reason I went and saw Sigur Rós was to meet with their managers because I was doing this band, Fanfarlo, who are from London, who I spent the Fall with making their record. A brand new band that is really good. Fanfarlo. And uh, yeah because of them, I got to see Sigur Rós, etc. When I went to see Tokyo Police Club at Madison Square Garden’s The Theater, I saw Bloc Party.
Colin: So it’s all just interconnected.
Peter: Yeah, yeah, it’s fun. I complain about my job a lot because it’s kind of miserable and then also it’s the greatest job in the world, so, I can’t really complain.
Colin: Cool. So you were saying you’ve worn earplugs for a while, are you finicky about your ears like protecting them I guess?
Peter: Yeah! You better be. I mean, I’ve played in bands for so many years and at one point fairly early on my head would just be ringing for hours after shows and I just though I’ve got to do this.
Colin: I’m only 20, I’ve got to last this much longer.
Peter: I’ve tried all different types of earplugs I even went and got fancy $200 earplugs, whatever. I hate them. I like the cheap $1 or $2 30db foam earplugs.
Colin: I’ll keep that in mind.
Peter: To me that’s the sound of “live” music.
Colin: Right, I’ve just started to wear earplugs when I shoot shows up-close.
Peter: Well you should.
Colin: Oh yeah, definitely. Especially like The Black Keys they’re just like *exploding noise.*
Peter: Right. And if you see a band that has long quiet passages you just pop them out, and put them back in.
Colin: Sigur Rós, I guess.
Peter: Exactly. Periodically, my brother Tarquin and I will try and get back and play shows again, do our band called The Philistines Jr. Do you know that band at all? Believe it or not, it sounds so odd to say this, we’re a 90s band. (Laughs) We actually just almost finished a new record. I should give you guys a copy. I’m sort of excited to do it again, but it’s just so hard to take a break from this when I keep getting offered all of these really great bands to work with.
Colin: What kind of music do you play? Like 90s rock I guess?
Peter: I hope not!
Peter: No, we’ve always gotten some pretty good credit for making oddly uncategorizable music I think.
Colin: I’d be interested in hearing that.
Peter: Yeah, I’ll let you be the judge. But like I said, I can’t complain This is my dream job. My favorite part of being in a band wasn’t writing songs or even playing shows. It was getting the song together and then producing it. And recording it in the studio and building it up. In fact, there were many times where we were like, ugh, I wish I didn’t have to write another song. I just want to record one. You know?
Peter: So bands bring their songs, and we record them!
Mike: Great. What do you use to reference check after you’ve been listening back on these studio monitors and everything sounds great you know. What about apple ear buds or do you have anything you usually go to?
Peter: Ear buds are so painful because they have no low end. But I know you have to reference everything. I have a bunch of references. First of all, I have four different sets of monitors in here, which cover the bases pretty well in terms of studio monitors. Um, and it also matters which part of the room you sit in or stand in. And every night even during tracking we usually burn a CD of what we’re working on, and I’ll listen to it in my car, in my wife’s car, in my home stereo in our living room, and then the little stereo in the kitchen. So I’ll listen to it in a lot of places. If it doesn’t pass the car test, it definitely doesn’t count.
Mike: I agree.
Part Two will be posted tomorrow. Come back tomorrow and your car will get nine more miles to the gallon. If you ride a bicycle, you’re already ahead of the game.