1. How did you start playing music?
I was always into music, even as a little kid. There were serious musicians on both sides of my family. My father's younger brother was a hippie guitar player/songwriter in Boone and my mother's uncle was a jazz trombonist and music educator in Colorado. My mother played piano, as well. My parents always took my brother and me to concerts of all types-- popular music, classical, musical theatre, all that. My elementary school had a radio station in it that the kids ran and it broadcast via closed-circuit TV. So in 4th grade, I became a deejay and started buying records. Every two weeks when I got my allowance, I would ride my bike down to Park Road Shopping Center and buy 45s at Ernie's Records. By the time I was in 5th grade, I really developed an interest in actually playing music. I loved the bassoon and wanted to play, but when I signed up for school band, I was told to start on a single-reed instrument. Well, Men At Work had a pretty cool saxophone player at the time, so I thought that was the route to go. I wound up playing saxophone in school band all through junior high school, even though I developed other interests. Drums got me pretty good not long after I started playing saxophone. I remember seeing footage of Stewart Copeland and thinking, "That's what I really want to do." So, over a period of a few years, I begged my parents for drums, built a drumkit out of upturned plastic buckets, bought a Kent snare drum at the flea market for $25, and made noise for a while. On my 12th birthday, my grandparents took me to a bunch of pawn shops to look for a set of drums and we found this great gigantic 11-piece drumkit. That helped me get past the big drumkit thing pretty quickly. I didn't find out until like twenty years later that they did this without consulting my parents! My grandparents were great supporters of the whole thing. They had seen all the great big bands and all the great big band drummers and hipped me to a lot of really great, great records when I was a kid. My grandfather also bought a couple of the first Walkman-type devices when they came out and he used to record everything. He was a pretty serious documentarian. My parents were also EXTREMELY patient and supportive of the whole thing -- driving me to band rehearsals or allowing kids to "jam" at our house and stuff. There was very little music stuff they ever tried to talk me out of doing.
All through junior high school I took classical percussion lessons from an amazing teacher named Carol Stumpf, who was the timpanist in the Charlotte Symphony at the time and one of the most amazingly musical people I've ever met. She was an intense teacher and instilled a lot of really, really great life lessons, in addition to musical knowledge. At the same time, I was also studying piano with Mark Tysinger, who was the pianist in the Charlotte Symphony and playing alto sax in the school band. We had an amazing band teacher at my junior high school named Bob Reid. He was a big prog rock fan who hipped me to all kinds of great music and was really, really supportive. All of that continued up until high school, basically. I continued studying with Carol until I went to the University of Miami and she's still a good friend and mentor to me to this day.
So, I had interests early-on, but I also had a lot of great people around as my "support system."
2. What got you into engineering, and producing?
I was in a band in high school called Relayer (that included Bruce Hazel and Justin Faircloth) and we decided to record an EP. Our bass player, Joe Wilkie, had a connection at Jay Howard Production Audio and so we went there to record. (Jay Howard Production Audio would actually become my freelancer "home base" studio for several years before I took over at Old House.) Lucky for us, we got to work with David Floyd, who is an absolutely amazing recording engineer in Charlotte. David had a reputation for being particular, but he was incredibly patient and good to us high school kids. I remember being really fascinated by the process and David was good about explaining things. So after like five or six days of working on this stuff, we had a cassette to sell to people, which I thought was terrific. You could do all of this work and have something to show for it, which was different from playing a gig and just having the memory. But the process of recording and the creation of sounds was interesting to me, so I looked into it further. I would borrow Tascam four-track recorders from Joe Wilkie or Justin Faircloth and just make these demos all the time. I was in a band called Lefty for a little while and we actually recorded an EP in the basement of the Children's Theatre on Moorehead Rd. with that little setup. I loved it. And when I got to Miami, I spent a bunch of time hanging around the Music Engineering majors and soaking stuff up, even though I was a Studio Music and Jazz (performance) major. I did a bit more "guerilla recording" stuff in Miami and then basically talked my way into a job at a studio when I moved back to Charlotte. I joined a band with a guy named Eddie Z, who owns a rehearsal building in Charlotte called The Playroom. At the time (the mid 90s), the Playroom was over on Graham Street downtown and there was a recording studio in there. Eddie needed an assistant and I knew just enough to be able to help him out. He showed me a bunch of stuff and was kind and trusting enough to eventually let me run the place for a while. I worked for Eddie for about three years.
3. What was some of your first gigs as an engineer, and producer?
The first commercial release that I ever did any engineering for was interesting. There's a dude in New York named Eytan Mirsky who writes very cool pop songs. He was friends with this guy in Miami who I played with for a couple of years. Eytan came down to visit and was there for like a month before I found out that he sang or wrote songs. Anyway, he asked me to play drums on a recording at this home studio that my friend had and I wound up doing a lot of the engineering. We didn't finish the record down there, but Eytan took the masters back up to NY. Not long after, I moved back to Charlotte and about six months later, I got a handful of CDs in the mail. It was Eytan's record and he had finished it up there and sent it to me. That was the first time something like that ever happened to me and it was great. Strangely enough, I met Michael Slawter (of The Saving Graces) years later and he told me that he really liked my playing on the Eytan Mirsky record! Small world. Eytan has actually popped into my life again on a few coincidental occasions over the years. He's one of those guys with far-reaching connections.
Other than that, my first few years at the Playroom were really important. I did a lot of recording with Mike Shannon, who was eventually in Big Bus Dream, and Mike was really good to me and fun to work with. The first record I actually produced was for the band Static..., who I wound up playing with several years later. They were young and they won the recording package in a raffle. I asked Eddie if I could produce that record and he said yes. I'm really thankful that all happened because all of those guys have remained very good friends of mine over the years. I did one of my favorite recordings, ever there, too -- the first Tesser EP, which I don't think was ever commercially released. I did some very early recordings for Joe Firstman when he was in college, before he moved out to LA and signed with Atlantic. Gabe Dixon also played on a session I did there. I also got to assist on a fair amount of pre-production stuff at the Playroom, including Jolene's In The Gloaming, where I met Jeff Powell who is still a friend, and tour rehearsals for Buck Cherry and Aliyah.
4. For the laymens out there, what is the difference between producing, and engineering?
Well, engineering is the technical side of recording. Setting up mics, operating the recording devices, making sure there's no unintentional noises or distortion or stuff breaking. Producing is a more nebulous thing. Traditionally, a producer's job was quality control for a record label. Their job was to make sure that the artists were submitting a record that was going to make money for the label. That primarily means something that is somehow marketable to someone and done within the budget allowed. Over the years, that has frequently morphed into a quality control job that often inflates the budget. Not always, but often enough to mention. But where the engineer is supposed to fix mechanical problems, the producer's job is usually to help guide the artistic decisions. Is that note out of tune? Are the musicians playing with an appropriate amount of energy for the song? Was that take worth keeping? All that sort of stuff. Sort of like a movie director.
I always go into a recording project just assuming that I'm going to just engineer, unless the band specifically asks me to be the producer or to help out with the producing end of things. Eventually, certain suggestions come up in either scenario that cross the line, but those are the basic differences.
4a. Chris, you did some work at Arthur Smith/Studio East. Talk about that, and the musicians you worked with there.
It had been called Studio East for about 15 years when I started working there, but the Arthur legend still loomed large because he's such an important figure in entertainment in the south and quite a character. Arthur's nephew, Tim Smith, was another mentor of mine growing up, so I knew all about Arthur and partially because of Tim, I managed to do a fair amount of recording with Arthur some years after that at Arthur's home studio. Studio East was a great room at the time. It was a large studio with a lot of great history. I was there for about two and a half years and most of what I did there were sound-alikes. Like, recreating hit songs for karaoke or commercials and that kind of thing. That was their bread-and-butter. But I also brought in bands that I knew and would record them there. It was pretty well-equipped and I had a lot of fun experimenting. Probably the most memorable work I did there was with the late, great General Johnson. He was at the studio almost every Thursday when he would come up from his home in Atlanta and record before going out and doing gigs over the weekend.
Working with General was amazing. He was always really protective about his age, but you know he was very, very young when he got his first record deal. And all that stuff with The Showmen was really early experience for him. So, he had been at it a really long time. He understood the process and always had a vision for whatever he was doing. He always pushed everybody. He was good at figuring out people's strengths and making use of that. If he had a song that he waned Danny Woods to sing, he would cut the track and add a scratch vocal to it for Danny to learn. But he would do the scratch vocal while imitating Danny. And he could do it! When he was producing, he would be up dancing in the control room and he was always full of energy when he was working. A friend of mine in LA did a session with Quincy Jones and his stories about Quincy sound VERY similar to my experiences with General. He was very particular about things, but he was right. He had a great wit and was a phenomenal story teller, too. General inadvertently gave me one of my favorite compliments. The first time I ever mixed anything for him, he didn't use my mix but had Joe Kuhlmann re-mix the song instead because he thought my version sounded "too rock." HAHA! Mission accomplished! Playing drums on the re-make of "Give Me Just A Little More Time" -- the one that's on his anthology -- is one of my proudest achievements. I never got credited for it and the entire rest of that album is programmed drums, but I'm happy to have been able to do that.
But really, I recorded a lot of great stuff at Studio East. I worked with David Via, the bluegrass artist. I recorded three different college big band jazz albums there. I did entrance music for WWF wrestler Even Karagias. That had Calvin Richardson singing on it, a few months before he got signed to Hollywood. I did some development recording for Calvin there, too. He was great to work with. And I learned an awful lot in having to do those sound-alikes. Mundane as it seemed, it was a terrific way to figure stuff out quickly and it really helped get my engineering and listening chops together.
5. What led you to form Old House Studios?
Well, I didn't really start it. Old House was converted from an 1870s Gaston County farm house into a studio by David Black and Scott Applegate. It was a really great studio and right before I left Studio East, when I started doing more freelance stuff, Old House was one of the places I started taking projects. David Black and I became good friends and I liked working there. When David passed away in 2005, Scott and David's wife Janet asked if I would be interested in continuing to run the studio, which I did for seven years.
***********This next part is completely cool to publish if the book's gonna be out after like December.**********
In 2012, I bought the studio from Janet and Scott and moved all the equipment to Charlotte. It was always a very comfortable and well-equipped, musician-friendly studio and we're working hard to keep the same kind of vibe at the new location.
6. What are the advantages of running your own studio?
Not having a boss!!! HAHA! No really, I like that I can be responsible for stuff and take care of things like they should be taken care of. I can't stand having broken equipment and that has been an issue at every studio I've ever worked in for any period of time. If it breaks, get it fixed! But I also like, for instance, always knowing where the flashlights are and where the extra batteries are and knowing that if I get out of the studio late one night and don't have something booked the next day, I can just leave everything up and not have to tear it down for the next guy. And of course, buying gear is always fun. I've only got so much room in my house, so having a studio in which to store it becomes an important factor. But having my own place also means I've got a little bit more flexibility to provide certain things for clients that might not necessarily be possible if I'm working at someone else's studio. I still do that on occasion when it makes sense, but I really, really like working at Old House.
7. What has been some of your favorite artists, and records to produce?
I wholeheartedly endorse Mike Strauss and Sunshone Still. I've done multiple records for both those southern artists and they are both an absolute joy to work for. Their records are rewarding on so many levels and they're just plain good people. I'm very proud of the work I've done for both of them. With Mike, I've just engineered. With Chris (Smith, of Sunshone Still), I recorded some early demo stuff for him, but I mixed the first two Sunshone Still records and he was kind enough to give me a co-producer credit on the latest one (ThewaytheworldDies). I did a beautiful jazz piano trio album for bassist Ron Brendle entitled Photograph. It features pianist Frank Kimbrough and drummer Al Sergel. We recorded it with a remote recording setup in a church in Charlotte and the whole session, setup and all, took less than three hours. It was amazing. I've done a couple of records for Todd Bush that were crazy good. I engineered the Flyweb album and I mixed the Bushovski album. I'm kind of an archivist for folk singer/activist Si Kahn, who is also one of my favorite people on the planet, and I do a LOT of recording with Si. In the last few years, I've done several projects with Bon Lozaga, who was the guitarist in Gong, including the last Gongzilla album, Five Even, an EP for his new band, Tiny Boxes, and some solo stuff that he'll finish and put out some day. I've mixed two records for indie rock band Lunch Money (Original Friend and Spicy Kid) that were pretty great. Wisconsin-based David Tomaloff's album Birds On Wires is another one of which I'm really proud. I played drums on it, engineered a good bit of it, mixed it, and co-produced it with David. I've done some really good recordings for pianist Chad Lawson. I also got to spend three amazingly intense days in the studio with Oteil and Kofi Burbridge, Kenny Soule, Ron Brendle, and Scott Sawyer for Scott's album, Go There, which I engineered and co-produced. That was a totally magic experience. And Burning In Hell by David Childers and the Modern Don Juans is another favorite. Of course, I'm also really happy with the albums I've done for my own bands, including Bunky Moon's Schtuff We Like, The Public Good's A Varied Program..., and the self-titled Big Octave album and I've been working on a fun recording-only project with some out of town friends for a few years under the name A Town Called Robot.
I've also had the good fortune to work as alongside some really, really great producers and engineers including Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, Mark Berry, Don Zientara, Jamie Hoover, Arthur Smith, General Johnson, Mark Lynch, Randolph Lewis, Matthew Everhart, Daniel Grimmett, Mark Williams, and Brian Paulson.
8. How do you balance producing other artists, and playing with your own band(s)?
It's just a matter of scheduling. And I really do just sort of book on a first-come, first-served basis. If Mitch Easter books a tour and I can move some stuff around to do it, I might do that, but it's rarely an issue. It's important for me to try to not move things once I've committed to them. I love both playing and recording because it allows for a lot of outlets with a lot of different people in both areas. If I'm playing in a band or a few bands or whatever, doing different stuff and doing what's enjoyable for me, that allows me to be way less dictatorial in the studio. Bands can do what they want and I'm there to facilitate that. I don't have to foist my own creative outlet on their stuff because I have these other outlets. I also think it's helpful in my desire to be a musician-friendly recording guy to be out there "in the trenches" playing and going through the same stuff my recording clients do. And in fact, it's not uncommon for me to sub with some of my recording clients on occasion if their drummer can't make a gig. I get asked to do that a fair amount and it's a lot of fun.
9. Talk about the North Carolina music scene. It's diversity, any specific musicians you like working with, as well as being a part of the NC scene.
North Carolina has an enormously rich history of great music. Even stuff that isn't generally associated with North Carolina can be traced back here. I mean, several of the most gigantic jazz innovators of the 20th Century were from NC, even if they left for New York or Philly before figuring out their thing. Arthur Smith was a pioneer in recording in the South. He had the biggest, baddest studio around for a long time. Not just in NC, but basically the biggest place between like Austin and Philly or something like that. And he had one of the first mixing consoles with pan pots on each channel. That was a big deal! WBTV was one of the first and largest TV stations in the country and many people don't know that RCA/Victor had a huge office and sort-of recording facility in downtown Charlotte for most of the 20th century. And although there have been trying times, Charlotte has maintained a ASOL Symphony Orchestra for 80 years. The Arts & Science Council is an extremely successful example of an arts support group in the US, as well. Even when I was a kid, there was lots of live music in Charlotte and a lot of good original music. I was playing gigs with other junior high school kids in Charlotte in the late 80s. There were those kinds of outlets. And for as weird as Charlotte can be about tearing down old architecture, you have to give credit to places like the Milestone and the Double Door Inn for their longevity and ability to survive some really tough times.
Outside of Charlotte, there's a rich history of pop and college-oriented music in the Raleigh and Chapel Hill areas. Black Mountain was an amazing haven of arts development in the earlier part of the 20th century. And this is all modern stuff compared to the generations of passed-down folk music like bluegrass and gospel that are a key part of North Carolina's history.
As far as people I like working with, the list is HUGE. I'm extremely fortunate to work with the people I work with. In particular, I have to mention bassist Ron Brendle, one of the most fantastic musicians and cool people I've ever met. I've played in a trio with Ron and John Alexander called Big Octave for something like twelve years. "Johnny A" is a terrific saxophone player and composer and those two guys really have a great grip on the concept of trio playing without a chordal instrument. They can also play a huge variety of styles. I've learned a lot from those guys. Guitarist Troy Conn, who is in Bunky Moon with Ron Brendle and me, is another stellar, stellar musician and great guy to be around. My bandmates John Elderkin and Steve Ruppenthal in The Public Good are really terrific songwriters and brilliant guys. They were in the Chapel Hill band The Popes, and later in the bands Stumble and The Lovely Lads in Atlanta. I was a huge fan of all those bands, so for me to be playing with those guys is like a dream come true. For several years, I was a frequent drummer in Don Dixon's live band with guitarist Jamie Hoover and being on the road with those guys is great. Some of my fondest memories on stage have been with those guys and I owe a lot of my career and playing personality to them. And of course, my dear friend, mentor, and bandmate Mitch Easter is one of the coolest people I've ever met. I'm fortunate to have played in his band since late 2006 and I have the utmost respect for him. He is absolutely astounding at what he does both playing-wise and recording-wise and he in one of the most knowledgeable people I've ever been around. It would also be a travesty to not mention drummer/percussionist Jim Brock, one of my heroes, mentors, and friends who is a beautiful soul, as well as an extremely gifted and largely under-rated musician.
10. At the end of the day, what do you hope that listeners get from CDs that you've produced, or engineered?
I hope that there's something that someone will like about an album enough to play it over and over again. I have so many albums that I was obsessed with as a kid (and still am) and I hope that someone, somewhere can get that same kind of enjoyment out of at least one record I do in my lifetime.