An Interview with Brian Deck
Brian Deck is the man behind the scene, but not just any scene. He is the man behind the scene of many brilliant records in recent history. When you first heard the opening bars to Modest Mouse's "Third Planet," you were hearing the production work of Brian Deck. When you first heard the soothing vocals of Iron and Wine, you most likely heard Deck's production on Our Endless Numbered Days or the Woman King EP. Any fan of Califone certainly admires Deck's production. More recently, you can hear Deck's production on Iron and Wine's The Shepherd's Dog, a beautifully complex, yet very accessible record.
Deck has been producing albums since the late '80s and, since his beginnings in the music industry, he has kept his artistic integrity intact, only working with artists he truly admires. He's also a musician himself, a percussion major in college, and loves to be actively involved in the musicianship of albums he works on. It is this artistic integrity and musicianship that makes Deck such an incredible producer; that combined with his gift for comprehending and manipulating sonic terrains. He understands that appealing sound is not limited to the standard sources such as guitar, bass, and drums. He employs a wide range of instruments during recording sessions, particularly worldly instruments such as the marimba or sitar. Conversely, he understands that music is not limited to musical instruments in general. I asked him if he's ever banged on trash cans for a record and he wryly, yet somewhat honestly replied, "I like to think that's my signature sound." Although trash cans seem to be an unconventional instrument, Deck has the ability to turn din into Debussy. He could compose a concerto from the clamor of New York City gridlock.
Recently, I'm Losing My Edge caught up with Deck and discovered that he's been attempting to compose such symphonies in between work with a major act in rock and roll, as well as some up-and-coming indie artists.
What projects have you been working on lately?
Deck: I recently finished a new record for Hot Club of Paris, a bizarrely Chicago post-rock obsessed guitar trio from Liverpool. Margot and the Nuclear So and So's - could be the best name ever or worst name ever - are coming to make revolutionary new music in January. Between the two I'm doing an LP with Chicago's Unicycle Loves You and finishing another experimental/blues/rural-space/snuff record with Ben Weaver. Oh, and a quick 6-song EP with Strange Young Lovers, a Chicago garage/psych outfit. After all that, a couple weeks in Betty Ford and a month in Montego Bay would be in order.
Are there any records you've worked on recently that you're excited about? Anything different we should be looking forward to?
Deck: I'm a really fortunate motherfucker that I pretty much get to work on only stuff I'm excited about. I recorded half of the next Counting Crows record and it has a seriously different feel that I'm psyched for people to hear. The songs I worked on are largely songs of regret with a very audibly raw nerve. We kept the recording spare and raw and Adam delivered vocal performances that will rip your guts out!
Have you been recording at Engine or have you been traveling?
Deck: I recorded the Counting Crows record in Berkeley, CA last spring at Fantasy Studios, an historic studio established by Saul Zaentz in 1971 - lots of awesome vintage gear. I mixed those songs at Lookinglass Studios in NYC. That's Philip Glass's studio. I was surprised at how rock and roll it was - very lived in and comfortable. Everything else has been done in Chicago at Engine. There is a chance I'll mix the Margot record at John McIntyre's Soma Studios (McIntyre founded Tortoise) because of scheduling conflicts at Engine. That would be fun because he has a huge wall of modular analog synth-gizmos that you rarely see at any studio. We could do appropriate mind-bending for Margot with said fun boxes.
I know you traveled for Iron and Wine's brilliant new record, The Shepherd's Dog, recording it at Sam Beam's ranch in Austin. Was it difficult to build a studio in such a rural location?
Deck: There is a guest house at the Beam estate which, in many ways, was perfect. The main room is large and round with a panoramic view of Texas hill country. We could vary the acoustics of the room by raising and lowering the blinds! The room is naturally very live. In fact, there isn't an ounce of vocal reverb on the whole record. All the ambiance is the natural sound of that room. I spent so much time in that room with its very distinct sound that, initially, it was very weird for me to hear those songs elsewhere. It was difficult to resolve the sound I was hearing with whatever room I was in. Psychoacoustics are a bitch. And, gear is gear. These days it's so cheap and easy, you can order a complete studio online and have it delivered 2 days later. It didn't used to be so easy. So, no, it wasn't difficult to get the studio up and running. The hard part for me was living in the studio out in the middle of nowhere. Living for a period of time with no unchanging circumstance is seriously exhausting. It's hard to stay creatively motivated.
Speaking of The Shepherd's Dog, many reviews have mentioned your influence on Beam's work, which is obvious when you hear the difference between the lo-fi The Creek Drank the Cradle and the well-produced Our Endless Numbered Days. What sort of influence did you have on The Shepherd's Dog?
Deck: When we made Our Endless Numbered Days, Sam was very concerned with not completely abandoning the fidelity and simplicity of Cradle. Our work since then has been a steady march toward more complexity and more experimentalism. I'm definitely a co-conspirator but I'd hesitate to say that I've influenced Sam. I'm more of an enabler.
You're a seasoned drummer and percussionist. Did you provide the West African rhythm and feel that is heard on that record?
Deck: Again, I wish I could take more credit. Sam knew the rhythms he wanted and had demo'd the songs with most of the basic rhythms. I replayed them for the album and elaborated on the parts a little.
You were in Red Red Meat and Isaac Brock's side project, Ugly Casanova. Tim Rutili also dubbed you a member of Califone. Have you considered becoming an artist yourself? Have you been working on anything?
Deck: I constantly wish I had time to work on my own projects. Every time I think a window of opportunity is appearing in my schedule, some irresistible project comes along and I get put off again. I've been working off and on for a couple years on an instrumental project I call Volv, which makes use of environmental recordings that I subject to massive processing in order to reveal inherent rhythms in the recordings. That becomes the starting point and I just amuse myself from there. But, sadly, the world may never hear this since I'm the guy who can't say no.
I hope you do find the time to finish it. It sounds very interesting. In the meantime, what have you been listening to lately? Anything inspiring?
Deck: Fennesz, Radiohead, and old music. I've been particularly inspired lately by going back to my original drumming idols - Bonham, Ringo, Mitch Mitchell, Ian Paice, Elvin Jones, and especially Tony Williams.
- Caleb Morairty