An Interview with Scott Colburn.
Gravelvoice Recording Studio
Projects include: 300 full length records from Seattle’s finest musicians, as well as sound design for films, theatre, and gallery installations.
A sampling of clients includes: Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Sun City Girls, Mudhoney, Hypatia Lake, and People and Arts (Discovery Channel) He also teaches a class in audio engineering at the University of Washington and has received a Parent’s Choice Award for his work on Elizabeth Falconer and Aiko Shimada’s Japanese Lullabies.
Website @ www.gravelvoice.com
Our record store conversations were always entertaining, flowing easily from band and music stuff to something a lot less concrete .The scientific and the magical freely associating, calling out curious examples of the strange and wonderful. I enjoyed Scott’s zest for the puzzle pieces and had been looking forward to visiting with him on his own turf for quite a while. A studio visit seemed like the perfect opportunity.
The studio itself is transformed from an old church in what was once considered working class Ballard, where an obsolete law required the building of a new church for every bar or tavern that was added to the community. Consequently there are quite a few sprinkled throughout the neighborhood. In the car on the way over, I find myself wishing I hadn’t assumed I knew which church it was and paid more attention to the address. Luckily, my timing is good and when I arrive, Scott is outside doing Sunday things. After some warm hellos, we weave our way up to the door and then we’re inside, words drifting invitingly into the large room where the former worshipers met. The church’s earlier architectural function provides lovely high ceilings and comforting wood details. It was easy to see how creativity might live here.
They say the journey is a nice destination, and lately I’ve been wondering how people make their lives happen. Do we just follow our inspiration like glowing bread crumbs illuminating the path ahead, or is there something more to it? I ask Scott about what sorts of things fascinated him as a young person and he shares a childhood memory of seeing the film The Jungle Book.
“I guess I was so excited by it that when I left the theatre, I was like, “Can we go see it tomorrow?”. Everyday I wanted to go see Jungle Book. So what my parents did, was they bought a set of Walt Disney soundtracks that were gatefold with a picture book, and the sound track of the film on a single record and told the story and had the songs. I got Bambi and Pinocchio and Snow White, all the classic Disney films, but Jungle Book was the one I liked the best, and I think it was probably, not knowing it as a child of five or six years old, but it was really the most psychedelic Disney film. I think weird things were attractive to me even as a child.”
With a growing curiosity about things he didn’t quite understand, and both parents encouraging his healthy sense of discovery, Scott talks of growing up in an artistic environment, and his family’s unique identity.
“Our house always had things a little bit outside of what everybody else in the community had. My dad painted the numbers of our address the size of the double car garage door, and he wallpapered the rec-room with a photograph of the moon surface, which was not just repeated, but the full surface of the moon when you looked at it. I remember as a kid laying on the floor and looking at it a lot because you could see detail in it.”
Among Scott’s youthful creative outlets was an appearance as a small child on the local television show Kindergarten College, which leads me to ask a question about accomplishment becoming a form of play.
“I think I owe it all to my parents for supporting that sort of thing. I recall one Halloween I wanted to be Frankenstein, I was into the Hammer pictures and everything, and I always watched the horror host out of Indianapolis. My dad turned it into a learning project; he taught me how to use power tools. We took a jig saw and a sheet of plywood and he took my shoe and put it on there and outlined it many times, and he built some platform shoes for me that I would wear to be taller. I built a Frankenstein head out of chicken wire and paper mache, and he helped me paint it, that sort of thing. So those projects were something like, you have to come up with a costume, or you have to do this or that, my dad would use that as a way of teaching you how to do something.”
The band years, hardcore roots, and the grand storytelling tradition.
Playing in what was essentially a southern rock cover band, because they were from southern Indiana, Scott recalls a junior high talent show from 1979, and his lead guitar part on the Cars song, “Just What I Needed”.
“I botched it, and I mean really botched it. There were five hundred people there and it really cured me of stage fright from that point on. I played the lead so bad I was horrified, but I finished the show and at the end everybody clapped and went crazy and screamed and yelled, and I thought, “you can do something really stupid on stage and people will still appreciate you”. That was the beginning of the end for me as far as performance was concerned because I realized that you could get away with anything.”
“That band stopped at one point, and that was about the point I started getting into punk rock.”
As it often does, the next part of the journey involved a good friend’s older brother and a bottle rocket shot into Scott’s back. This of course was followed by a flowering sense of belonging.
“I opened up Trouser Press and saw an ad for Alternative Tentacles and a compilation they put out, Let them Eat Jellybeans. And it was $5.00 postpaid. So I ordered the record and opened up the poster that’s inside and saw a picture of Black Flag. That was it.”
That Black Flag photograph made quite an impression, and I ask what about it turned him on.
“Tthe picture was just them standing there and nobody was smiling. They were just wearing work shirts and work pants and the song on the compilation was ‘Police Story.’ You were asking me about story telling… and punk rock, even though you couldn’t really understand the lyrics a lot of the time, when you did, you really understand how angry everybody was. And that really spoke to me. It’s not so much that punk rock disregarded authority, it was just the aspect of questioning.”
A time honored response and something worthy of bonding around, but as often has it, there was a menace lurking in reaction to all that questioning.
“It was a nice community building sub-culture. You could drop yourself anywhere in the United States or anywhere in the world, walk around any city, and immediately identify someone who was into punk rock. You’d have an instant friend that day who might actually put you up and feed you that night.”
Whose story is it anyway, and who gets to actually tell it?
“Making people accountable for being assholes made a lot of sense to me. I was telling my wife the other day about, you know at a show, any punk rock show, and especially at Black Flag shows, what was invigorating was that you didn’t really know what was going to happen at that show. It wasn’t a safe environment—anything could happen at any given time. It did get kind of violent sometimes, but it was because there was an infiltration of people that didn’t really understand the community that went behind it.”
“It’s also interesting now so many years later to run into people that I knew or corresponded with in that period of time who are now editors of magazines or in a different position. Or are still artists doing all these things, fitting into normal society, but still have the punk rock aesthetic behind them and apply it to normal life and it works.”
In some circular way, we continue to find direction from our roots. Scott observes a truth from his earlier band years.
“When I listen back to the tape of that 1979 show where I botch the lead, it sounded like Greg Ginn was playing guitar, and I realized you can do it, that’s exactly what’s happening, you can play emotionally from the heart and people will appreciate you.”
The irony of this interview being done on my primitive tape recorder, in the midst of all the professional recording equipment causes me to ask Scott if he’s used any unlikely gear to achieve a recording result.
“Yes and no, I would say that I’m very much an engineer that uses what’s ever available to me at the time. So even the ‘earliest recordings’ I made, and that’s got to be in quotation marks because they were recordings yes, but they weren’t of music. It was me recording my sister crying.”
I inquire about Scott’s age when that was going on.
“Well, she was probably, you know at a crying stage, like three or four, which would have made me thirteen or fourteen. I would record my sister crying, then play it back to her to make her cry again, as a mean brother would do, but I used it to try and debunk the Santa Claus Easter Bunny myth by trying to get the Easter Bunny to answer questions on tape.”
“We just had fun making these weird things and listening back to them and laughing. I thought it was normal, you know, I thought everybody did that.”
I suggest that people who had a tape recorder did that, but having the seed of some gear you could document with, or create with, even the desire to make evidence, might not be universal.
“I understand that, it’s interesting that you use the word document, because I’ve always thought of myself as an archivist of sorts, of my life, I’ve almost certainly recorded every punk rock show I’ve ever gone to, and subsequently traded recordings with people all over the world to hear my favorite band. Even though Black Flag put out like four albums a year, that still wasn’t enough.”
Another constant thread in Scott’s life has been his taste for psychotronic films. His favorite film of all time is David Lynch’s Eraserhead. All of this may have something to do with an earlier story of being confused and horrified by the vampire and cannibal implications of his communion experience as a young person in the Catholic Church.
“I mostly like fifties science fiction because the sounds are weird and it’s about alien things, there’s nothing real about it. It’s all fabricated and maybe they’re making a statement about atomic bombs or maybe there’s this underlying theme or something, but most of them, it’s just like people are making films.”
“It goes back to the thing, they did the best they could with what they had. That kind of goes around to the way I approach engineering or producing records. I don’t need to have a particular piece of equipment in order to make the record or make a quality recording. I’ll use whatever is available to me, and I’ll do the best that I can with what I have. Over time you realize the skills are all in your head.”
Motto: It’s not the wand, it’s the magician.
“Some people say well, “he’s a self proclaimed audio wizard”. You know? Yes, I am a self proclaimed audio wizard and I only use that term because it is kind of like alchemy in the sense. It’s not that I’m operating the recording with my hands and magical things are going on, It’s just my idea about recording music is to put people that are really creative in a space that they feel like they can be creative and perform the best that they can. It doesn’t mean putting people under a microscope.”
I ask a complicated question about his contribution to the recording process, and how he aligns differences in perception between himself and the bands. He gently brings me back to an inherent truth in what he feels his role in the process actually is.
“As the caliber of musicians went up that I was working with, all of a sudden my recordings started to sound better, then as it went up another notch, it started to sound better again, and another notch, it started to sound better again. And I’m not saying the musicians are completely responsible for what I’m achieving now, but we’re moving together.”
“I want to build this reflection free zone thing, but where are the plans?”
Dovetailing deep research and a seemingly chance encounter with hidden information, aspects of Gravelvoice’s acoustic design have evolved around principles of the golden mean ratio, as well as other elemental design theories.
“I talked to a painter friend of mine and he told me about different colors and the oscillation of planets, and how different colors, their light waves, can affect certain things. And stuff that affects humans. So I chose colors that would enhance creativity and control electrical interference because there’s all this electronic gear in the control room, bringing that thinking into it as well. The studio has a flow to it that is very fung-shui and provides that energy, but the color series and the combination of colors you get as you walk through the studio and start working in it, are also conducive to creative work.”
What does it sound like inside the sound pyramid?
A friend who had taken Scott’s audio engineering class suggested I ask about this phenomena unleashed during a Hypatia Lake recording session.
“Lance was into numerology and really liked that I designed my studio around phi and augmented fourths, he was just really into that. He was into seven seven seven.”
“He brought in a recording that he did of a sound, a guitar sound, and we split it to three amplifiers. Two amplifiers that were identical in the sense that they were the same power and the same size speaker, basically the same amplifier, and a Fender Twin Reverb. The sound was split out from this delay pedal that was stereo so that he could physically maneuver the sound, the delay, in the two identical speakers, while the sum of it was going to the single speaker.
A further description of the imaginatively involved set up was mesmerizing. “Angling the speakers up so that they hit the lamp to form a sound pyramid of this plane, this plane, and this plane. Not really a pyramid in a traditional sense, but still a pyramid of sound, an environment. Then putting microphones close on each one of those amplifiers, and also building a seven, seven, seven triangle from the Twin Reverb out to where the room mics were going to be. So like here and here, but the measurement being seven feet, seven feet, seven feet. I did that for Lance because I thought he’d be into it, but it creates this other kind of triangular pyramid type pattern.”
“When I stood in the pyramid, in the center of it and was playing I almost fell over because it was like wow, you just get hit from all sides with the sound, all over your head because the pressure around your head was disorienting.” “Lance and I have talked about doing it as a gallery installation, that would be kind of cool because then you could experience the disorientation of it. We’d also have to get waivers signed for the volume level.”
Apparently, sound like shadow has its own logic, or as Scott would say,
“You can’t just go like completely out on a pickle; it’s a lot of responsibility”
It’s been a delightful afternoon, and I ask Scott if he has any final thoughts on the nature of detail in art and music. Not unexpectedly, some related conversation on popular culture follows.
.“You know what I was talking about earlier in film, that is trying to control what the viewer is watching and where you’re going, you can tell the story that way. I think about that the same way in music. That’s my correlation to film mixing and music mixing. They’re identical to me because in music mixing what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to highlight, every given second, the cool thing that’s happening at that particular time. You’re trying to reveal to anybody who’s listening, on a very open, above the board thing, THIS is what’s really cool about this song at this moment in this section.”
“There’s no accounting for what’s going to be popular and what’s not, so the only way that you can go, is to do what’s personally satisfying and hope that somebody understands and also appreciates what you’re doing.”
In my mind, we’re happily back where we started, following the glowing bread crumbs. I think they must have been left by the storytellers.
“Put the right microphone in the right place and let the band play.”