Burke Reid Pt 2: ‘You Should Do A Psychology Course To Work In This Field’
In the final installment of a two-part interview, uber producer Burke Reid talks to DOUG WALLEN about the difference between mixing and producing, why studio sessions are akin to surviving jail and the likelihood of a Gerling reunion. Photos by DANIEL CAMPBELL and LUKE BYRNE. Part one here.
I want to talk about your mixing work: you mixed the Ghoul EP [Dunks] and the second Seekae album [+DOME]. Both are more electronic and textured. Did you have to approach them differently than your usual work?
Sometimes mixing something you haven’t worked on [as a producer] can be a little bit easier and refreshing because you’re coming into it not knowing everything and not worried about stuff. The other great thing was that those guys had recorded it themselves – both bands – by all sorts of different means. So right away it’s fantastic because what seems like problems is actually really beneficial to the spice of the whole mix. You’re getting something done on an SM57 [microphone] plugged into the computer while Mom’s vacuuming in the background. [Laughs]
Those kids are great: they come up with this awesome music through this great limited means. And you get it and try to boost it up for them by having gritty next to clean or light next to dark. That’s what makes the balance interesting, and the mix interesting. You get crusty sounds with some good sounds. With that kind of music especially, it’s really about being spectral. It’s about the sound. It’s not so much about the lyrics or certain things. It’s “make it sound interesting”. So those were really fun projects. Both those bands are super sweet guys and really fun to work with. They’re interested in that side of things. I’d be doing something and look over my shoulder, and it was like having a bunch of parrots there. [Laughs]
So the band’s usually there with you when you mix?
Yeah, always. I mean, I like to get time to myself for the first few hours, to get things on the board and try and get something happening. But I’m mixing their music, so I want the band to think it’s good or tell me if it’s not good. I’ve had times where I’m doing stuff and I’m like, “Yeah, this is cookin’!” and people come in and go, “Uh, I don’t really like it.” So you just grab the faders, pull them right down, and start again.
Is there a standard amount of time it takes to mix a record?
No. It’s weird. Sometimes the ones you think are going to be the easiest wind up putting you in the insane asylum. It’s just intense. And other times you think it’s going to be a nightmare and you can get it done in a few hours. You just keep doing it until everyone thinks it sounds cool.
You also mixed Holly Throsby’s latest album [Team], which is an interesting mix of acoustic stuff and loops.
I mixed some of it. I mixed it, and then I think Holly went back and did more stuff for the album. I think I just finished doing Ghoul, so I was in that headspace of trying to go a bit out there. Holly was like, “Yeah, that’s cool, but maybe back a bit here and there?” We took a while to reach that happy medium and satisfy what she was after. Once we got there, it was really fun. We joked around heaps, making fun of each other. We’d walk out with about 300 new nicknames.
That must be a crucial part of what you do: getting along with these people and being that friendly presence that they can trust with their work.
Yeah. I think you should probably do a psychology course prior to working in this field, because you have to be able to make sure people trust you and that you’re not gonna bullshit them. You have to be there at all times to talk about anything. Sometimes people just need to get shit off their chest, and then you get a really good take. [Laughs] It takes a while. And everyone’s different. One session is so much different from the next. What’s working with someone doesn’t work with the next person, so you have to be really flexible with your attitudes whilst still being honest. [That’s] critical. It’s like how you would survive jail: if you’re locked up with someone for 18 hours a day, you’re gonna be their best friend so they don’t fucking stab you. You have to be charming.
I want to talk about the latest Dan Kelly record. When I interviewed him, he said he ran out of time and money and still wasn’t happy with it. He wound up finishing it elsewhere.
Yeah. We did the recording in Daylesford [in regional Victoria], in what was supposedly a real environmentally friendly cottage. Because the theme through the album was the demise of the world due to waste. We were going to record it in this solar-powered house, but then there just wasn’t enough sunshine to run all the gear. So we had to get a generator. It was just when gas prices shot up. We ended up having to get so much gas: it was a real thirsty generator. It started off trying to be environmentally friendly, but we were probably pumping more chaos into the air. [Laughs]
But that’s probably a good example of the pressure [on a solo artist]. [His] band was coming together just before we started to record, so [we were] working that stuff out and stuck in the middle of nowhere. In the end, Dan had such a strong vision for things that he was working on more, more, and more. He needed so much extra time to get it done. Then his really good friend Aaron [Cupples] did an awesome job [finishing it in England]. It was really good to see that when Dan was good and ready, Aaron was there to take over the captain’s seat.
It came out beautifully.
Yeah, it sounds amazing.
Another record you worked on that I love is the Tucker B’s’ Nightmares in the Key of (((((WOW))))). I know for them it was about going into a proper studio and having a real deadline, which they’d never done before.
[Laughs] Those guys are hilarious. I finished mixing Havilah at 8 in the morning, and the Tucker B’s showed up at 10: “Where do we put our kick drum?” I literally went into the shower at BJB with all my clothes on and just poured cold water on my head. Gaz stumbled out the door and these guys came in. We started recording two hours after finishing my last thing. They came in and again were super sweet guys and really funny. They had all their instruments and stuff, but [also] just cases of beer. It was like going to camp. Like, “We’re going to record an album. Let’s get pissed!”
“It’s like how you would survive jail: if you’re locked up with someone for 18 hours a day, you’re gonna be their best friend so they don’t fucking stab you.”
That album’s all over the place musically. How did that translate on your end?
It was good. Again, probably because I’d just come off of doing something so different, it took me a couple days to switch gears to how they were thinking. And then in the end, just remembering all that early Pavement stuff and Trumans Water: “Oh yeah, that’s what these guys sound like.” Then it was really fun. That song ‘No Lazy Death’: they’re writing lyrics as they were going. We finished that and I thought I’d mix it, because it was the last thing. It was really sweet. They got back from this gig and I played it for them and they were like, “Oh man, this is the best thing we’ve ever done.” [Laughs] It was this song that came out of nowhere. It came out like one of those funny but tragic [Stephen] Malkmus things he always gets away with, where he gets your heartstrings and makes you laugh at the same time.
I’ve heard of bands making a CD of reference material for a producer in advance. Does that happen to you often?
Yeah, I’ll probably request it. And we listen to lots of music in the studio. Initially for a band, if they’re not sure of their sound, they’ll make me a CD of things they like, just [so I can] hear what triggers excitement [for them]. Then when we’re in the studio, it’s fun just to listen to other people. What is it about a song that gets you and why is that a song? Is it the groove, is it the lyrics, is it the sound of whatever fucking guy’s guitar? It can be a little bit of inspiration to push yourself forward and make sure you’re doing the best you can and set benchmarks for yourself. Not to sound like something else but … we might put on an old Curtis Mayfield song that’s got nothing to do with the music we’re making. Why does that sound good? It’s more to spark ideas and create your own fire.
You’ve done two Mess Hall records and worked with Gareth twice. Since getting to know them is out of the way, I imagine you can get right down to working.
Yeah. Your barrier’s broken down. But it’s almost like this second album thing for a band: you’ve got to equal or better the previous thing. So it’s great that you’ve got the connection between you, but you’ve also got that pressure on yourselves to not get too comfortable. We’ve still got to push ourselves to do something different. So you’ve got the benefit of knowing each other, but you’ve also got the benefit of really poking each other as well.
One of those Mess Hall albums won the Australian Music Prize [The Devils Elbow], and other albums you’ve done have been nominated. Do you have a sense of pride when things are recognised that way?
I get excited for the band. Those albums we’ve spoken about specifically have all been really amazing experiences, and I became good friends working with a great calibre of musicians on the way to trying to satisfy everyone’s musical needs. It’s nice to think that those albums are heard and listened to in the way that you wanted them to be heard. But I’m bad: I don’t really take much notice. I don’t read the newspapers or listen to the radio. But when a certain album is nominated, it’s like, “Yeah, good on ya! Fuck we worked hard.” [Laughs]
“Sometimes the ones you think are going to be the easiest wind up putting you in the insane asylum.”
You worked on PVT’s Church With No Magic, which was the first time they had proper vocals.
The way they did that album was a little bit strange. We did all these different recording sessions. They were kind of writing it at the same time. We did this session and then they went on tour and turned these instrumentals into songs. We did that again and I think Richard [Pike] worked on some of that again in London. He was writing lyrics at the same time and singing. So it wasn’t all happening at once. It was in bits and pieces. But when you’re doing these projects, you don’t think “This is different for them.” You just figure out how to do it. And again, because they’re doing something new, I’m there to serve and encourage. But they’re pretty self-sufficient. We’d do some stuff and they’d go and work on it between other projects and I wouldn’t even recognise it.
Just finally, I was wondering how Gerling opened your eyes to the whole sound thing, and if there’s any plans for the band to do something more in the future.
Getting started, a lot of the experiences I had in Gerling – being in a band for 10 years – was vital to doing what I’m doing now. Just to go into the studio with a band, it makes sense to come from a band. That’s how that helps. As far as [reuniting], we’re all doing our own thing now. I think when we left it, it was a good place to leave it. I don’t know if Gerling is really one of those [reunion] bands. [Laughs] It was a really fantastic, special time. But the way we came to the end of its road, the car stopped and it was a good landscape to look back on. [Laughs] Rather than try to see if you can get a few more miles out of the fumes left. It’s more exciting now for all of us, going forward rather than trying to go back.
PART ONE: [Reid on 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.