Burke Reid Pt 1: ‘I’m There For The Artist’
In the first installment of a two-part interview, DOUG WALLEN talks to producer de jour and one-time Gerling member Burke Reid about his relocation to Canada, working on The Drones’ ‘Havilah’ and the Yass estate that gave birth to recent albums by Jack Ladder and Gareth Liddiard. Colour photos by DANIEL CAMPBELL, black-and-white by MCLEAN STEPHENSON.
A native Canadian who moved to Australia in 1994 at age 14, Burke Reid has done all too well in his adopted home. Since his fruitful years in the spacey Sydney trio Gerling, Reid has amassed a dream CV as a producer. Following EP work for Warhorse and Ghosts of Television, the very first album he helmed won the Australian Music Prize: The Mess Hall’s Devils Elbow (2007). He’s done other AMP-nominated LPs since – from The Mess Hall’s For the Birds and The Drones’ Havilah to Dan Kelly’s Dream and Gareth Liddard’s Strange Tourist.
On top of that, Burke produced PVT’s Church With No Magic and more recently Liam Finn’s FOMO and Jack Ladder’s Hurtsville. And as a mixer, he has overseen Ghoul’s Dunks, Seekae’s +DOME, Holly Throsby’s Team, and Mike Noga’s The Balladeer Hunter, among others. Also bearing his production credit are upcoming albums by Re:enactment and The Bungalows, a Wolf & Cub 7”, and songs by Machete Moon, from members of The Mess Hall, Wolfmother and Tucker B’s.
For the moment, though, Reid is in Toronto. He’s been living there since June with his girlfriend, exploring the city while pondering a return to work with an old friend. In a hour-long interview via Skype, Reid took stock from this new vantage point and reflected on some of his career highlights thus far. An instantly friendly presence who talks about sound in visual terms and drops evocative metaphors along the way, he shared plenty of insights. Including this telling one: “You should probably do a psychology course prior to working in this field.”
What brought you to Toronto?
Well, I’m Canadian originally. I had planned on moving to the States in 2008, and then I came over here. My friend Al-P is half of MSTRKRFT and I ended up doing sound for them across the States. At the end of the tour, he was like, “Why don’t you come back to Canada?” I hadn’t actually thought about doing that, but then I did and I was in Toronto for a couple months and really enjoyed it. I flew back home to record an album for a band, and when I was back in Australia I met my now girlfriend. So I stayed back in Australia for a couple years.
I guess I just wanted to get out of Australia. I wanted to travel for a long time, to do it while I can. I love Australia, but I felt that impending need to invest my interest in the world and get out. I am hoping to get to a situation where I can work and spend time in both places. My whole musical career and prominent points in my life took place in Australia. I’d like to be able to get Australian bands to record over here and get Canadian bands to record in Australia. And make visits to Cuba in between.
So you’ve been working there?
A little bit with Al-P in his studio. We’ve just started. It’s like a shot in the dark, really: I haven’t got anything over here to come to or lined anything up. It’s really just about going on an adventure and seeing what happens. [Laughs]
It’s a funny time to get away, because you’ve done such high-profile stuff lately. The Jack Ladder and Liam Finn albums came out at the same time and sort of doubled the exposure for you.
Y’know, I think when you do anything in life, it’s always a weird time. It’s never a good time to do anything, or you’ve missed your opportunity to do something. I mean, I’ve been really, really fortunate with the people I’ve worked with since I got into doing the production/recording side of things. I hate to say it, but an overseas band isn’t going to come to Australia to work with someone [as a producer]. And the general premise is that most people, in bands and musically, do well [in Australia] but then you want to get overseas. I’d worked with a lot of people I’d wanted to and had really good experiences, and I had the confidence from doing certain albums to go overseas and just see what happened. It was good to leave on a good note, so to speak.
I know there’s always a lag between when you’re finished working on an album and when people get to hear it, but is it right that Jack Ladder’s record was made before Gareth’s?
Kind of. Around the same time.
Gareth said in interviews that all the gear was still at the house from Jack Ladder…
Yeah, well, we rented the gear off Gaz. So I trucked it down there [from Havilah to Yass]. Gareth had found a spot near his place in Havilah at the time. It was an old scout hall that was just empty. When I was doing Tim [Jack Ladder’s] album in Yass and we got there and saw the place and set up all the stuff, I said to Gaz, “It’s pretty cool. And I reckon I can wrangle us a good deal.” And all the gear was there. It would be a lot less of a pain in the ass if he came there and did it. [Laughs]
He talked about collecting firewood and walking dogs while there recording. It sounded like a really immersive thing, committing to this remote location.
Yeah, it is. It was really special. The house itself was this beautiful old Federation-style mansion that was laid out like a castle. It had the grand entrance and wings all through and a stairway that led to the top. And then all around it was this really aesthetic property. Kangaroos would bounce through the forests. It was wintertime, so the only heating was keeping those fires going 24 hours. [Laughs] And it was a big house.
When you’re in an environment like that for 24 hours a day, it seeps into the sound, how they write, the lyrics. And just being there all the time, ready to record whenever. If it’s nine in the morning or if it’s two in the morning. You just get into this mindset. It’s hard to describe: almost like a cabin fever thing, but in a really glorious world that you’re happy to be stuck in. And you have to make it your own. There were a lot of hiccups and things to work around, and that all seeps into the music and the album. I mean, talk about a fire crackling: there’s shitloads of it on Gareth’s album.
How tough is it to work in a space that’s not built for recording?
Well, I’m a fan of the recording space. You know when you walk into a room and visually it looks really good? It’s the same thing when you’re going to record something. You walk in and you can hear its sound. The studio I produced a lot of my stuff out of, BJB [Big Jesus Burger], they have fantastic sounding rooms. Really kooky. The recording space was two giant loft/warehouse-y rooms with timber and skylights. The idea of recording not in a studio is much more appealing than the idea of what a normal studio is.
Was it interesting to see how the house could be used differently for two albums?
Yeah, it was funny. It was a bit of headfuck. The space was just this wonderful palette. Any colour you’re throwing at it, there’s just tones everywhere. Beautiful. So it was probably more of a headfuck the fact that Tim’s album had so much going on. So many layers to work out. Whereas Gaz’s was just Gaz and a guitar. We’d use it as a reverb space and incite sounds. It was going from one to the other and back again. Anytime we do an album, it’s always going to be different.
[In his interview with M+N Jack Ladder talked extensively about recording in the Yass mansion. Read it here]
What was your experience working on the Drones album Havilah? When I interviewed Gareth, he talked about how quickly it was done.
That was funny, ‘cause that was the third or fourth album I’d done. That was the first one I’d done outside of BJB and my first experience having to put a studio together. I mean, I had such immense respect for those guys that the initial thing was “Oh wow, this is going to be so exciting.” It’s like a fucking kid at Christmas, recording The Drones. And I’m shitting my pants. [Laughs] Because I was still figuring out how to record bands.
So maybe as much as Gaz says he was underprepared, I was the same. They were really nervous about playing me the demos. It’s funny, when a band plays you the demos or snippets of what they’ve got, they’re always like, “It’s not ready. It sounds shit.” Don’t worry about it! The vibe was there. When I started working on it, after the few initial days of everyone getting used to each other, it was just fun. Everyone was staying up trying stuff. It became not so much a worry of where the songs were at: they were just blossoming like flowers.
Is it strange to know you might spend so much time on a particular song or approach that might end up on the cutting room floor?
Occasionally there’s one or two, but most of the stuff we end up working on makes it to the album. I’d like to think that I’m there for the artist. I’ll have an opinion on things, but if someone wants to go a certain way, I’ll just let that go and then adapt to what they want to do. So if we’ve done something and they go, “Fuck all these songs. I wanna write new ones,” and you’ve just spent three days wide awake not sleeping, you go, “Okay. Sure. Yeah.” Start getting the tape measure out and off we go. I like to think I’m someone that will give an honest opinion and push an artist, but also completely back them up. I’m there to take that dream that’s in their head and put it out however they want it put out. Just to give them the confidence.
So there’s not really that ego on your part?
Hopefully. [Laughs] I’ve tried to come across like [that]. I’ll give an opinion, but it’s only ever to support what that person wants. And if they want to go this way and do a certain thing, my job is to back that person up. I’m like … they go into a bar and smash a bottle on someone’s head and they’re like, “Alright, we’re gonna fucking go for it,” I’m the big guy with the pool cue in the back who’s like, “I got your back, buddy.”
“I’d like to think that I’m there for the artist. I’ll have an opinion on things, but if someone wants to go a certain way, I’ll just let that go and then adapt to what they want to do.”
I hope that’s a metaphor and not an anecdote.
[Laughs] I think we all go into a war together. You’re in the ditch. You’re there to get through it.
Is it easier to work with a single artist than with a full band?
I think a band is easier, because by the time there’s maybe a little bit of a problem and it gets to me, everyone’s out of breath and it becomes easier to [solve]. Sometimes when I’m working with a solo artist, they feel so much pressure on themselves to try and think of everything. Everyone [in a band] thinks about their parts when they’re playing something, but for a solo artist it’s like, “Shit!” They can maybe get a bit freaked out here and there. But everyone wants to do their best.
A solo artist might have trouble knowing which of their ideas are good or not.
Yeah. And with a band, they feel like a bit of a gang. So they’ve kind of worked stuff out. For a solo artist, it can be like, “All these are all my eggs. But which one has a better taste?” It can be tricky to get across that hurdle and not be seen as threatening or critical. Trying to be whatever band member someone always picks on: be that person. Edge them towards what sounds better, and hopefully it does.
Mostly Havilah has that four-piece, electric Drones sound, but it’s got a few acoustic songs as well, like ‘Your Acting’s Like the End of the World’.
That one’s nuts. There’s a funny story behind that. But not really: I think they were wanting to do something a bit different than their last albums. They had a lot of colour in them, but maybe just a couple colours were being shone. The album we did together was one of the first times we had a good chunk of time and we’d spend every day painting. When we got to a song, there was no idea of what it was going to sound like. They would start playing and we’d do a couple takes to see if it sounded good or if they’d get inspired by a certain idea. Once we heard it a few times, we just tried to pick what it would look like. So we didn’t think, “This is new.” You never think like that in the studio. If you start thinking outside of the studio or what people think … the best things come when there’s an idea and everyone’s out there with their net trying to catch it.
What’s the funny story behind that song?
Gaz wrote that while we were there, so that song came out of nowhere. Then when we recorded it, I think we were pretty beat. We’d done the majority of the album and we were all feeling pretty cocky and comfortable with each other. We were like, “Let’s be all Van Morrison or whatever and have everyone in the same room together.” It was cold, so we were all around the fireplace. We did a live take. As an engineer, I thought it was really romantic at the time. But I hadn’t really done that before and didn’t know much. So I learnt a lot about how acoustic instruments only give out so much volume next to drums. There was drums in everything. And because everyone was figuring out their bits and pieces and it was a long song, there’s that weird red-light fever where if someone makes a mistake it can really choke them up.
“I hate to say it, but an overseas band isn’t going to come to Australia to work with someone.”
So there was lots of moving around as we were trying to get this song written and also figure out what sounds the best. Then we did it and it was done. When we were listening back to it later, it got shortened and there was some things that needed to be changed for Gaz lyrically. And the thing is, because he sang it in the room with everyone, as soon as we tried to overdub vocals, it so sounded like an overdub. So we got Mike [Noga] to come back to Havilah and we ended up recording the song again. We ended up splicing the two versions together, even though they were recorded at different times. We had the same gear, but the mics were in a different place. There’s a couple of areas I know where it changes.
Then we mixed it once and something was wrong with it. I went back to the studio that night and the desk was being used, so I only had eight channels free. I went back in like a week after we finished the album. I think I got in there at three in the morning and then mixed it until eight in the morning, on my eight little channels. I think we ended up using a bit of the first mix with that mix. So there were two mixes combined with two really different takes. But in the end, when you don’t know that kind of stuff, it sounds cool. Because of that, it moves in a certain way and does certain things. That’s the process you sometimes have to go through to get a song where it needs to be.
PART TWO: Reid on mixing Holly Throsby and Ghoul, working with Dan Kelly and the (un)likelihood of a Gerling reunion.
Related: Casey Rice – the anti-producer.