Chris Eckman is an acclaimed songwriter, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and producer currently residing in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Throughout his career he has collaborated with a raft of artists such as Brian Eno, Warren Ellis, Mark Lanegan. His renowned production can be heard over thirty albums spanning in his career. And if that was not enough, he is the leading member of the acclaimed US rock band The Walkabouts.
by SAE Ljubljana, photos: Ziga Koritnik
Drop the three words “music industry producer” into conversation and you risk getting a blank stare. So to clarify, how would you describe the role of a music producer?
I think that one of the main reasons that people have a hard time understanding the definition of a producer is because those of us in the industry itself also grapple with this term.At this point in time the role really stretches across a lot of different activities.There are still records being made very much like they were in the seventies or sixties – bands in the room performing alongside an engineer.Yet you have this other guy or gal who sits in the room watching over the entire proceedings and we call this person the producer.Of course in hip hop and electronic music, a lot of times there are no lines drawn between the producer and the artist as often they are the same person as people now have direct access to recording set-ups in their personal studios.
The definition has really been stretched so it is of little surprise that there is a lot of confusion of what a producer is. Personally, in the type of music that I usually do, I look at the producer’s role as pretty much two things. First, you need to concentrate on songs, you need to make sure the songs are there. You need to make sure the songs are ready to record and that arrangements are solid – in the world of singer/songwriter everything comes down to the “song” really. If the song itself is not sensational then you have a problem right from the beginning. The second thing is performance, something I believe is a rather undervalued element in making of a record these days. There are great performance records still being made, which is nice to see.
But obviously in a time when we can do all kinds of incredible tricks and manipulations with digital technology the performance becomes potentially less important because it is quite possible to manufacture performances. However most of the records I do are fundamentally built around performance. I try and help create an atmosphere where wonderful, powerful and even very surprising performances can take place. Obviously rooms themselves are important in setting the vibe and setting the parameters of the type of performance that is possible. I generally like to set up the room so everybody is playing live, preferably without headphones and with sight lines between each other. That is definitely going to give you a certain kind of performance.
So how much creative influence do you give when working as a producer? Do you feel the need to influence the creative flow or do you let it linger between the band members? Does it vary?
I think this really varies, as the producer needs to be very conscious and aware when to step in and when to step out.If things are going along in a really smooth and super creative way, there is usually no reason for the producer to be throwing diversions and adding too much commentary into it.It is really interesting to see when people stop by the studio when I am working with the band on a particular day and they say: “Wow, you really don’t say very much.”But if they come the next day it is possible I’m talking non-stop. So it is really a day-to-day situation as one song can go very easily and the next one can be just a long series of challenges thrown at you.During a production there are 4,000 ideas being knocked around. Sometimes they get added by the producer, sometimes by the engineer, sometimes from the artist or even from a friend that decides to visit for 15 minutes.
Part of the producer’s central role is to be able to arbitrate from these ideas and highlight the best or at least the most functional offering. Sometimes seemingly accidental ideas are the best ones and the ownership of them is not so important as the quality of the idea and the producer can be crucial in helping navigate this.
There is a great story that happened during the making of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run album. Steven Van Zandt was not in the E-Street Band at this point. He was a friend of Bruce and he stopped by the studio. They were recording the brass on the 10th Avenue Freeze Out and he basically sat on the couch for a while. He just could not help but speak up and said: “No, you got that part wrong!” and walked out of the recording room and interrupted the session. He started to sound out the part of the horn section which was adopted and after that point they did not let him leave the studio. In fact he stayed for the rest of the recording of the album and he is in the band to this day.
Working as a producer you often have to establish yourself as a communicator between the band members as often the tensions rise high. Do you feel the need to act as a negotiator every time band members start disagreeing with each other, or do you leave it to them to work it out if the creativeness is at its peak?
I do not think you can act as a negotiator for every decision as you need to let many things happen naturally.But part of what you do in the studio is to try and ensure some consensus is achieved.Art can never be completed by consensus but there needs to be a sense that people are involved and are signed up to do it.If people feel like they are literally having their teeth pulled out to play the part a certain way, or to approach the song as a band in a certain way, it just creates a lot of negativity and a lot of bad feeling – it pollutes the project.There needs to be some creative tension but I do not think great art usually comes from out and out conflict. Common purposes are important and worth searching for.
You produced the Mali based band Tamikrest, which fuses traditional African music with popular Western music stiles such as rock and pop. How did you find yourself working with such amazing musicians?
I came across Tamirkest through a rather long process. In 2006 I decided that I was in serious need of some fresh musical input, not really a direction because I did not really want to change the music I was making.I just really felt like I wanted to hear music in a different way. As you work longer and longer in this business as an artist or a producer it is very easy to get lost in your own way of doing things and your own obsessions and habits. I wanted to break out of this.I had been very intrigued by the music from the West African country Mali for many years and I decided I would go and travel there. I booked a plane ticket and went to Mali for one month.
I essentially just traveled around and just listened, as my goal was not to get involved in any projects. I did not take any recording device or my guitar with me. It was a wonderful experience and I ended up at a festival near the ancient city of Timbuktu in the dunes of the Sahara. It is called Festival in The Desert and it happens every January. There, I saw a really large number of fantastic bands and artists and I noticed there was something happening. Several young Tuareg bands, which are nomadic people from the Sahara, were playing what could be called rock music. The line-up consisted of two guitars, bass, drums and maybe a percussionist and the songs were based on a traditional song forms. Often the guitars were played on battery-powered amps because in the Sahara there isn’t really electricity. I was really intrigued by this and after I got back I ended up starting a new project called Dirtmusic.
After working with those guys for a little bit I had this idea that we could go back to this festival and play because every year they have a few Western bands that get invited there. We applied to play in the festival, got accepted and went to the festival. Within 10 minutes of being there we heard from the tent next to us this band playing and these guys were Tamikrest. They were quite young at the time, in their early twenties, and one thing rapidly led to another. We spent three days in their tent just basically jamming and one year latter we found ourselves in Bamako the capital of the country, making a record with them. This record is called BKO and it is made up of Dirtmusic songs we performed in collaboration with Tamikrest. After that it became clear that these guys had a wonderful album worth of songs of their own, ready to go. I looked for a situation and a label where we could record their album and they asked me to be the producer.
I have noticed that in their album Toumastin, which you produced, there is an interesting viola sample in the last track. Is this choice of instrument anything to do with the folk and Americana influences from your work with The Walkabouts? Do you ever feel the need to bring the sounds of American Western music into your productions?
You certainly gravitate to certain sounds as either an artist or producer. I do not think that in anyone’s hand all sounds and all tonalities are equal. We tend to have for whatever reasons a pallete of sounds we favour over another. In general I like darker sounds, sounds that are not particularly bright. Violas are wonderful instruments that combine a nice range of tonality, they have more warmth then a violin but can also reach some of those notes. They really cover an interesting tonal range.
Albums you have produced are all very natural sounding. Do you ever feel that processing the mix a tad too much can give a “fake” feel to natural sound? What are your thoughts regarding over processed mixes?
I am a fan of so-called organic sounds but if one is to be truthful, a lot of what I do is in a sense “fake” organic. That is because there is a lot more processing going on than one might think. There is constantly some sort of delay somewhere, there are reverbs and I use a lot of compression especially on vocals and to some degree drums. I tend to try to process very discretely but also very democratically. I process a lot and almost every instrument has some sort of processing in the mix, so it would be wrong to think of it as strictly organic. We are in an era of dangerously over processed mixes, especially in the terms of compression and limiting. I think if you listen to rock records from 25 years ago or great jazz recordings, one thing that really attracts us to them, without even knowing the technical side of things, is the sense of air and space in them.
We are now creating claustrophobic sounds and everything is at the same level, everything is equal to everything else and it takes away a lot of our sound dimension. It takes away a lot of potential magic. I think sound quality is obviously important. I don’t think it’s just important because we are engineers and producers and we think it is important. There is an emotional element in great sound that really wraps around the listeners. If you look at the life of records like Dark Side of The Moon or any number of the so-called classic records, parts of why they remain on our iPods or stereos is the wonderful sound experience they create. And it’s not just about pleasure. Sound itself helps communicate something, it helps us communicate our intentions.
Looking at historically acclaimed albums, those that changed or tried altering the philosophy behind recording/mixing and producing, such as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon, Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, we can actually hear the philosophy behind making these outstanding records. Do you think that philosophy on creativity and workflow is an essential part of being a producer? Do you have any special philosophy of your own regarding creativity at the recording sessions?
I do believe that great records require a great concept or even a philosophy. Even if it is a really simple philosophy. I have made nearly 30 records as a producer and another 30 as an artist and I really find myself working very hard on outlining some general approaches before I start a project. Whether this is dictated strictly by the songs or whether this is dictated by the way we are going to record a song or some combination of those things, I really do try to look for philosophy for each recording project. I do find this is probably the most inarticulate part of the process for many of the artists that I work with. I am trying to get them see the album as more then just a random collection songs.
I do believe that now there is so much music out there, so many more bands than there ever were before, and so many more people with access to recording equipment and ability to release their material online, that we really have to work even harder to do something that is unique. It really benefits you if there is a story behind what you are doing. Again that story can be many different things. Like Talk Talk, the story can even be about how the album is recorded because that is one of the main concepts of Spirit of Eden – the strange recording process itself.
I have noticed that you have done a number of film scores. Is this something that you wish to continue doing or is it just a side project in your diverse life of producing and writing music?
The thing that is really challenging about film music is that you are very much dealing with someone else’s vision, that is the filmmaker’s or the director’s vision and you have to be very open to compromise. I learned very early on that this is not your film, it is their film. You really have to keep that in mind, you really have to navigate this relationship between the director and their film. Of course films also change through the editing process.
You can have really wonderful things that you think are worked out but then suddenly six minutes of the film are missing and all the work you’ve put into those sequences are gone and you have to start over. So it is a highly challenging thing to do, but I like it because it uses a different part of my brain and allows me to explore musical ideas that I would never find on my own.
Sometimes certain scenes call for certain genres of music and sometimes these are genres I would never touch in my own music or production work. Suddenly you find yourself doing a Caribbean steel drum piece for some scene or something really crazily out of realm of what you normally do. That keeps things exciting, having to investigate different genres and realms of music.
For the last question I’d like to ask you a classic interview question. Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone trying to make it in the world of music production?
Words of wisdom are always hard to come by. One thing I would like to say, that may seem obvious to some people but I think always needs to be underscored, is that the best of what we do does not always come out of our desire to make money.We obviously need to make a living and that is why we are enrolled and teach in recording programmes and that is what forces us to look for work with different artists.
However I do find that very little great work is done when only money is being thought about. There has to be other motivations, there has to be an interest of the project itself. There has to be the passion that the project produces in you, and my guess would be that your best work is not going to be done strictly for hire. I truly believe the more interesting the work you do is the more solid your career will be. Build an interesting, passionate discography and my guess is you will find work. To some extent, quality is always trendy. A great example of this is my friend Phill Brown, the English engineer who put together Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden album. That record by Talk Talk’s standards was a commercial failure. Ten years later he recorded Dido’s debut which went on to sell like 10 million records.
Phill has pointed out that he never got a single phone call based on the Dido record but more or less his phone has been ringing for the last 20 years because of the Talk Talk record. Spirit of Eden is something that is extremely unique and Dido’s record is just a pleasant pop album. Real artists tend to be looking for somebody that can really help them move their music forward in some amazing way. You are going to need a special discography to attract those sorts of people.
Tell us more about your African adventures?
Over the past few years I have recorded six albums some as a producer (Tamikrest, Ben Zabo, Lobi Traore) and some as an artist (Dirtmusic) in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, a land-locked country in West Africa. As one could imagine there are serious technical challenges working in such a place. Most of the records I made were done at the famed Studio Bogolan, a studio with a wonderful live recording room with beautifully reflective adobe brick walls. That said, most times I went there much of the recording equipment was in various stages of disrepair and gear that had been there the time before had suddenly vanished.
I learned to travel there with at least one durable, good sounding microphone – my multi-capsule Neumann Gefell condenser – and a lot of patience. The humid climate of Bamako is brutal on equipment and many electronic parts are unavailable so maintenance is a big problem. In the end, you find a way to make it work and these experiences have certainly reinforced something I have believed for many years.
While a cool gear list can be a wonderful tool, it is just that, a tool, and the important thing is the amazing music being made in front of you. Your job is to record it with whatever you have available, things are happening fast and there is no time for excuses. Wonderful performances will most often rise above technical limitations.