Tucker Martine Interview
By Scott Colburn
Introduction by Peter Monaghan
Photo by Jessi Cinque
In his solo projects and work with his group Mount Analog, Tucker Martine uses collages of tunes from several genres, as well as electronic soundwashes, field recordings, and fragments from diverse musical domains. He mixes pre-recorded kids clamoring, engine squeals, truckstop jukebox with improvised passages as well as material recorded on stage on the fly, then digitally reconstituted and fed back into the live mix. In this way, he plays his samplers and processers, converting the recording studio into an expansive musical instrument. The result is a shifting, woven, wafting aural cinema of acoustic and electronic sound.
In addition, he has become one of the most in demand engineers and producers among Seattle's more idiosyncratic soundsters, from jazz pioneers to songwriters. He has worked at his Flora Studio on projects by Bill Frisell, Land of the Loops, Farmer Not So John and many others. He has also performed and recorded with Sam Rivers, Julian Priester, Wayne Horvitz, Lori Carson and others. The son of a Nashville songwriter who has written for folks like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Reba McEntire, the soft spoken Martine has a clear grasp on what it means to make interesting records in our contemporary times.
Do you know what the first recording that you ever made was, or the first one that made you decide that recording was what you wanted to do for a living?
Well those would be two different incidents. I definitely spent a lot of time as a kid with my single component stereo and a little boombox, multi tracking like that, you know, playing something into the boombox, then playing back on the stereo and adding to it until you had your hit.
And that was the first thing you had done?
Well, thatís the first recording that I can remember that seem to relate to what I do today, but weíre talking 10 years old.
It was a funny transition when I started doing it for a living because I was really just accumulating some equipment so that I could mess around and make stuff for myself. I was just fascinated with all the possibilities. Then over time, while figuring out recording by myself and at the same time trying to decide what I wanted to do for a living, it just started overlapping. People I knew were saying, ďWell you should record usĒ. So you do it and ask for a little bit of money just to cover your costs, then as time goes on you ask for a bit more until one day, youíre doing it. Any money I made went right back into the studio, then after a year or so, you see how itís grown and you have a little legit facility
Did you go to college at all?
I took some courses at this place in Boulder, CO called the Naropa Institute, which is like a Buddhist college. Allen Ginsberg and Harry Smith and William Burroughs, and guys like this were teaching there.
Wild! Were they any of your teachers?
No. But I did spend some time with Harry Smith. He always intrigued me but I didnít know much about him at the time. Since then, Iíve found out and now, I have more to say to him but heís gone. I did take a recording class there. It was a small 8-track studio and a bunch of weirdos teaching this stuff. They werenít really trying to show you how to record instruments as much as they were showing you how to make tape loops and tricks like changing tape speeds and running it backwards. Our assignments would be to make music concrete pieces or collages, playing for the class and critique each other. Thatís the extent of my formal education in the studio
So you got into it from an experimental or documentary angle rather than listening to music and saying, ďI want to record recordsĒ
I was super in to music but when I graduated highschool, all I knew was that I wanted to play drums. As much as I knew it was a long shot to do that, I thought that thatís what I was going to do and it revealed itself to me in this way.
I find that I am playing on some of the projects I record and others that I do not record, but recording is what puts food on the table (hearty laughter). But itís a blast and itís not a compromise. Itís what I love doing. Itís just as creative if not more. Iím being exposed to different peopleís ideas and approaches
Flora Ave, is that the first studio you had?
Everywhere Iíve lived for the past 12 years has had some version of a studio, but this is the first full-blown one. This is the first one, where Iíve been paid to record other people
Whee the other ones the corner of the bedroom sort of thing.
Pretty much. In the house we lived in when we first moved to Seattle, we had a spare bedroom, but with a drum set in there and the equipmentÖthe space fills up real quick
So how did you make the transition from wanting to play drums to wanting to record, or has recording just taken a priority but youíd really rather make a living playing drums?
Well, at a certain point I was getting a lot of calls to record people but only the occasional call to play drums. I wanted to get good at recording people and the best way by doing it a lot. So I took anything that came my way. Iíve been fortunate to be associated with some pretty good people. Itís a perfect way of learning something, by doing it rather than sitting in a classroom where they say, ďWhen youíre actually doing it, hereís how you should reactĒ.
Thereís going to be a knob called trim, gain, mic preÖ turn that.
Hereís what to do when the artist throws a tantrum.
They donít teach that in school though, thatís a problem.
They donít. Making a good recording with someone has as much to do with compatible personalities as technical know-how.
Since you went to a Buddhist college, did you have an interest in Buddhism?
What Iím getting at is, that if you did have an interest in Buddhism, that might affect the type of personality you have become and how you deal with artists in a session.
I donít have enough of a perspective to see how that factors in, but I did have an interest in meditation and the types of minds that were teaching at this place. I learned about discovering somethingís true nature rather than forcing myself on it. I donít think I can figure out the connection much past that.
I asked that because your personality and demeanor are very low key. So when you said that you went to a Buddhist college, I thought, ďthat makes senseĒ. If you were versed in Buddhism, then it might put you in a better space to deal with the egos that are associated with musicians. To be able to let those egos roll off you, instead of taking it personally.
I agree with you. The ability to see tensions that are going to be counter-productive, thatís definitely a valuable skill to have in the studio. To know when to come forward and take charge and when to be transparent
You were working at a radio station at the same time you were at Naropa?
Yeah, I was a DJ. Before you can be a DJ, you had to take this course they offered which showed you how to make radio announcements, not so much as how to say them, but how to prepare the carts and the reels. I learned tape editing there.
What year was that?
So Iím learning tape editing from this radio station and this college of freaks, but I was interested in it from all those angles, so I saved up and bought a Teac 3340 4-track and an editing block.
Seems like everyone had something like that at some point.
I just sold it last week. It didnít seem worthwhile to have around anymore what with a 2Ē 16-track and ĹĒ 8-track.
I still have my Tascam 234 cassette four track.
Iíve had people bring in their cassette 8 tracks. They have a really cool sound. I guess those Latin Playboyís records were all started on cassette multi-track. In their shining moments, I canít think of a cooler sounding record
I told you that story about recording Sun City Girls on cassette four track and mixing it through a Neve? Thatís probably what they are doing. Recording on these cassette formats and mixing through million dollar boards
Or dumping them to a Studer 2Ē
Itís a different sound
Yeah, it will sound a lot different than if they started with the 2Ē.
So if youíre in Boulder in 1991, when did you move to Seattle?
I moved to Seattle at the end of 1992
Itís probably not that interesting to people, but it was an instinctual thing. I got really burnt out on Boulder and spent four months traveling around the country, living in my truck. I knew it was a rare transitional time, when I could actually do that. Seattle was one of my stops and I got a great vibe off of it. I was here just a couple nights and saw Pigpen, Amy Denio and got to know the guys at Wall of Sound all within a few days. I knew that my interests would have an outlet here
Was that the type of music you were into at the time?
I remember Charles Hayward was really inspirational, because he was a drummer. He was making these records with unusual textures. Electric Miles Davis stuff too. I was also inspired by Daniel Lanois sensibilities and Brian Eno, the way they would use the studio as an instrument, definitely opened my eyes a lot. Where the sound you get is integral to the music rather than peripheral
Would you say that jazz or that type of music was your preferred listening genre as opposed to pop or rock music.
It probably leaned towards that but on my radio show, I was able to play whatever I wanted and it was in the wee hours of the night. I was playing, what I felt was every type of music. There would be string quartets and pop and field recordings and jazz and ambient stuff and then there are the segues in between where you have these serendipitous moments where the layers collide and itís a whole new piece. That was really inspiring, because you just created a whole new world out of these pieces just for a moment. Thatís mixing right?
Now thatís a great segue into Mount Analog and field recording. You said you traveled around the states for four months, but did you record at that time?
I recorded a little bit, but not much at all.
Well, I used a bit of tape from your Morocco trip in the Climax Golden Twins ďLocationsĒ CD, and we edited the Mali recordings together and other tapes make their way into Mount Analog. It seems that you have more than a passing interest in field recording. In addition, Mount Analog, the CD is a perfect reflection of the type of personality you are. At times itís a bit dark like a Lynch movie, but depending on the listeners frame of mind, it could make you relaxed, which is a lot like the kind of person you are. I also feel it is like a mirror to you rather than a collective thing with other musicians
Definitely the first record is that way. There is nothing collective about it. It was me in my basement with all my knobs and wires jut stumbling around until I found something interesting and developing that. Most of those pieces where created for Butoh dance, which I was really interested in at the time. Butah dance is slow and dark and a little bit humorous and I think that is reflected in a lot of those pieces, but there is also something serene about it. Yes, I brought a few friends in to provide textures that I couldnít create, people that are proficient on various melodic instruments. I more of a rhythm oriented texture kind of guy so yeah, let people do what their strengths are
Do you think that Mount Analog was a labor of love like Pint Sized Spartacus is for me, where you were able to accomplish things that you always wanted to accomplish but couldnít with a group because they didnít want to get that experimental.
Yeah, I think it was the result of the frustration to find the perfect band mates and not wanting to wait around for that to happen. Finally, I didnít have the excuse of not having the equipment anymore and I had plenty of ideas. I was stockpiling sounds on various types of recorders. So what happens if I take this into my own hands? At the same time, friends were asking me to do something for these Butoh pieces, so I decide to try it. I didnít sit down with the intention of making a record but when I reviewed the material it seemed like there was a coherent theme, which documented a period, which is different than what I would do now. I love it! Thatís what I think records are about is documenting the ideas of that time
Did you employ interesting recording techniques or discover looping or ideas like that on the Mount Analog tapes?
Yeah, I remember feeding effects back into themselves, just hanging on to that point where itís about to get out of hand. Also alot of processing of sounds to the point where the source becomes unrecognizable.
Thatís a kind of Eno thing
Yeah, Maybe you start out with a sound thatís not that interesting on its own, but you zero in on the 5 percent of it that is interesting and bring that outÖthatís fair game
On the Andrew Drury record you told me about running the drum tracks through an effect and then into an amp and micíing that to create a beat box effect
Certain sounds will trigger and idea. When you get a strong vision for something, you just have to hook it up and try it. At the time when I donít have a strong vision. I will try to be more transparent and let things take itís course, when working with another artist. I like to keep a lot of those 120 DATís around. Even when something has the slightest hint of being worthwhile, just run it to DAT for a bit. More often than not, Iíll come back to it a month or two later, not even remembering how I arrived at it and say, ďwow, thatís amazing! It would be the perfect introduction to this other piece thatís coming togetherĒ. So itís the constant stockpiling of sounds. Maybe Iím producing a band and they are setting up and shitís all set up wrong and it sounds amazing. You ask them to keep doing that for two minutes while you roll some tape. Iím now getting better at logging all my DAT's so if Iím working on a project and it needs a certain texture, I can go to the DAT and find it.
Do you think that stemmed out of not remembering how you created a given sound, especially if itís by accident? I have a fear that I will forget so I take pictures to document it.
Iím actually different than that. I rarely remember how I arrived at something, especially if itís complex, but it always occurs to me to capture it.
Youíve started working at other studios now, other than your own. In doing that, do you think that has improved your techniques? And another part of the questions would be, are you hearing things that you hadnít heard before or prefer some piece of equipment to other pieces.
It really helps in determining what is and is not you as far as sound quality is concerned. If I used the same mic techniques on the same instrument in a better sounding room and you get an amazing sound, you know that itís not some special magic box. The room is how they get the sound in that case. Sometimes you find the sound is not as cool.
The more I work at other studios the more confident I am that the sounds I get are going to translate to the outside world. If you only work at one place, you might know that your speakers are too bassy so you mix with less bass, but the more I work at other places, the more I understand the subtleties of what frequencies are wanted and which are not. Iím not sure how to put it.
I think what youíre trying to say is that by working at other studios, you are gaining a confidence that the sounds you are getting are good. Your home studio might only have $20,000 worth of equipment and another place might have $200,000 worth of equipment but you are realizing that it doesnít make any difference how much equipment there is.
Thatís what I was trying to say. I think itís more important to have the proper amount of time to make a recording than it is to having the right equipment.
But have you not come across certain pieces of gear that you just have to have?
I have. Otherwise youíre just reading magazines that say, ďwe used a U47 on the vocals and U87 as overheadsĒ. What does this mean to someone who has an eight track and couple SM57 at home? There are definitely valuable tools and a few things that Iíve fallen in love withÖ
Like the 1176 compressor by Urei or the Empirical Labs Disstressors. Those are the shit. But I think itís just as challenging to get good sounds in a $1000/ day room as it is a $200/day room. Itís just different parameters to work within.
Do you ever feel compelled to pull the 1176 out and take it with you?
Yes, but I try to find studios that are geared towards the approach that I like to take. I still find myself showing up with not a lot except a few cheap pedals or a tape delay and other things that a studio of that caliber might not have on hand because itís too cheap
Do you still feel at home in your own studio or do you want to branch out into other places
I feel at home, when Iím not rushed and Iím working in a situation where the dynamic really gels as far as the people go. Smaller things. Iím comfortable at home, you know three or four people, but for bigger things? The weakest link in my chain right now is not something I can buy and bring inÖitís the room. I have a nice 2-inch 16-track tape machine and a cool sounding Neotek board, enough decent mics and some outboard gear, but none of those things are going to give you 15 or 20-foot ceilings. I had a dream once that we dug into the ground at my studio 30 feet and I finally had all this space and boy was I bummed when I woke up! (laughter)
Thatís what Zappa did, he just started building bunkers into the ground on his property.
One cool thing at Flora is that I now have a snake upstairs so I have the acoustic options of the living room with the higher ceilings and hardwood floors or the bathroom with the tile or a stair well. So not only do I have the acoustic properties of these rooms but also the extreme isolation. I have an upright piano upstairs too.
Excellent. How about techniques? Letís get into that.
One thing I found lately is that you can get some really good sounds direct. For a long time I was pretty opposed to that except for maybe bass. But with the right sequence of pedals or slap back delay or a Sansamp. You can get sounds that will sit in the mix like it has air around it. Itís an artificial air but it can be really cool. You can get textures out of a guitar that youíll never get out of an amp.
More on the production end, I like to have people overdub without hearing some of the defining tracks like the rythmn section. I just give them the organ pad to play to. Then I erase all but the best moments of their performance. Thatís something thatís been working with Mount Analog lately. You end up with a really interesting take on things.
Do you tend to use techniques like moving the mic rather than eq or combination of both?
I will definitely try anything I can before I touch the eq and then, I would very rarely do anything that is considered extreme. In mixdown, itís usually just for carving out some conflicting frequencies. Itís a powerful tool but you can really screw things up as much as you can improve them.
What are you listening for when you mix?
Basically trying to create a fascinating world that will draw someone in. Unless itís something like a bluegrass band or a jazz live-to-DAT or something like that, I donít let myself become to pre-occupied with the sounds being too pure because so much of the music that I loved before I knew the first thing about recording is totally impure. Like double tracking vocals or guitars. I look for a lot of depth and balance. I try to find the best way to arrange the sounds on a tape. If that means whipping out all the effects or none at allÖthatís what I do.
Letís talk philosophically for a moment. Other than the point weíve already made of ďjust doing itĒ, what suggestions do you have for the up and coming?
I would say, let your enthusiasm for it guide you rather than your desire to make a living. If it turns out that youíre actually good at itÖpeople will notice that. As long as you are interacting with people that are making music on some level, itís really just a matter of time before you have use for one another. People just need to see that youíre doing it and that youíre serious about it. The more you do it, the more your sensibilities improve and then people will come to you for what you like to do. And the more you do what you like the happier you are.
Itís a long road. I think that a lot of bands are not at that point where they are thinking about who theyíre going to record with because they donít think itís that important. Then they get serious about it and find out that you donít want to go with the cheapest studio because youíre not going to get the caliber of recording that youíre looking for.
Right, if you want strings on your recording, do you look for the cheapest string player or the one whoís going to make the song sound right? (laughter)
Exactly. It takes some time to get to that point though.
Yeah, you finally realize that people buy records because they sound good, not because of how cheaply they are made.
Are there any engineers that you admire?
Yeah, Tchad Blake comes to mind. His records always sound interesting but he has a lot of respect for the songs. Itís not like; ďhey look how much I can mess up these soundsĒ. He seems to be consistently putting out stuff that I like
Was he an influence for your interest in location recording?
No, I didnít even know until recently that he did that sort of thing.
What possesses you to travel around the globe, record sounds and then come home and put it in a form thatís presentable on disc?
The Moroccan disc was because I was entranced and enamoured buy the Gnawan music and I felt like I had to know where this music comes from, what kind of environment does this happen in? What does the air feel like? So I had to check it out. I had a pro Walkman D6 and an Audio Technica stereo mic. I went there to collect sounds because I knew that even the everday sounds were going to be interesting, but there was no intent on making a record.
I met a guy playing the guimbri on the beach. We started talking and I asked him if heíd play me a song. It was amazing so I asked him if I could record it. So we did. He then communicated to me that I should meet him at noon the next day. I did that and found seven of them rearing and ready to go. They were there with the ritual garb and made an elaborate meal and passing around the kif. They would point at the mic indicating that I should get it out. I found myself in this situation where I basically spent the next six days there recording. A few days into it they started negotiating and talking about money. At this time they also pulled out photo of them playing with Pharaoh Sanders. I then started to piece it together that these guys had just been paid a decent chunk of change and thought I could do the same. After I explained that I didnít have an Island Records budget they were cool and we agreed of something like $700 and everyone was happy. I had my cassette and when I got back, I just put some tapes together and gave it to friends and everybody was talking about it way more than I expected. Someone offered to put it out so I had to put it together.
So when I went to Mali I was much more organized. Again I heard music that I found really interesting and it all pointed towards Mali. So it was time to take a new trip. I like throwing myself in a situation where you canít rely on any of your daily habits or routines right down to speaking and not knowing anything about your destination or how youíre going to get there and things like that. Mali seemed to fit the bill. I was just fascinated by the ngoni. When I got there I asked around for which villages I could hear the ngoni. I met a guy that understood what I was looking for and he became my guide. We went all over and met these master players, gave them some money and recorded. I came back with 17 hours worth of stuff. Itís fun and a challenge.
Field recording is appealing I think because it cuts to the core of why I love recording. In order to get the good stuff you have to always be ready to have the tape rolling immediatley when you encounter the sounds converging in the right way. You dont get another take or seperate tracks or any of that business. But when you get it, itís magical. Itís already mixed too!
A Mount Analog website is in progress at www.starrystarrysites.com/mountanalog
Mount Analog Ė self titled (Pehr)
Eat the Dream Ė Moroccan Reveries (Tinder)
Farmer not so John Ė Receiver (Compass)
Land of the Loops Ė Bundle of Joy (Up)
Eyvind Kang Ė Theater of Mineral NADEís (Tzadik)
Hughscore Ė Delta Flora (Cuniform)
Wayne Horvitz Ė American Bandstand (Songlines)
Julian Priester and Sam Rivers Ė Hints on Light and Shadow (Postcards)