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John Congleton’s Quest for the Truth in Five Records

on March 11, 2015, 12:30am
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Photo by Jeaneen Lund

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Dusty Henry speaks with producer John Congleton about five of the 2014 records he worked on, which all happened to be among the best releases of the year.

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Producer John Congleton doesn’t worry about making hit records. He’s much more interested in having a hand in something timeless, something honest. His career has been a testament to this ideal, as he’s worked on landmark albums for Explosions in the Sky, Wye Oak, and David Byrne, among many others. For someone who’s never chased success, Congleton had a big year in 2014. Several of the albums he produced, engineered, and mixed received widespread acclaim; five showed up on Consequence of Sound’s own year-end list.

Congleton has worked on records for over 20 years. Ever since he made his first eight-track demo, he’s been enamored with the act of recording. He says he came to it through honest means with the assumption that his opinion mattered. Throughout his career, he’s hardly concerned himself with making music that appeals to the masses.

“There’s a tendency in records to take away every sort of offensive element,” he says. “I guess the goal is to make a record that appeals to most people. And while that might work sometimes, I feel like in the long run what you do is make a record that isn’t memorable.”

Congleton’s methodology has him looking a bit farther out. He doesn’t aim to please in the here and now; he’s more interested in recordings that will have a legacy.

“This all sounds sort of pretentious, but I just try really hard to make records that will sound good 30 years from now and not sound silly. Maybe a broader way to put it would be really, truly honest,” he says. “I want to make records that connect with people.”

After such a landmark year for the producer, Congleton took the time to reflect on some of the 2014 albums he worked on that were most celebrated by fans and critics — each of which let him stay true to his mission of highlighting the “truth” behind the artist.

St. Vincent – St. Vincent

st vincentCongleton has been working with Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, since the genesis of her career. He even knew her back when she was playing guitar for the Polyphonic Spree.

While Congleton started recording the Spree’s The Fragile Army in a house in Minneapolis, Clark was left with little to do for the first week and a half. Congleton found Clark in her basement bedroom recording demos on her laptop that would eventually become her debut album, Marry Me.

[Clark] played me a couple songs and I was like, ‘You’re gonna be something, people are gonna like you,’” Congleton says. “She’s come so far from that record, but there was a raw talent there that couldn’t be ignored.”

The two developed a kinship as they finished recording the record. After Clark released Marry Me, she turned to Congleton to produce her second album, Actor. He’s worked on every St. Vincent album since, including 2014’s self-titled breakthrough. Throughout the years their friendship has become something more familial.

We act like brother and sister,” Congleton says. “I have two older sisters so I’m pretty familiar with the brother-sister dynamic and that’s what it feels like. It feels comfortable, but also I think we have pretty big bullshit detectors on each of us. She can tell whenever I’m overthinking and I can tell whenever she’s overthinking. We’ve always had a really good way of being able to keep each other in check.”

Congleton says that he and Clark have tried to approach each St. Vincent record differently. While 2011’s Strange Mercy, a record they both felt immensely proud of, was created by fleshing out rough ideas in the studio, Congleton encouraged Clark to spend more time writing alone. The two would dialogue intensely about the tracks before laying down any tape.

“I think that’s why that record has a little bit more pop sensibility that people are connecting with,” Congleton says. “There was a lot of work on just writing the songs before we ever pressed ‘record’ on anything.”

Many of their conversations in the studio revolved around a question: “How can you be weird nowadays?”

“It’s hard to be striking in a post-Lady Gaga world or Marilyn Manson world,” Congleton says. “Like what can you do that isn’t hyper-sexualized, you know?” He adds that he and Clark would often discuss artists like PJ Harvey, Prince, and Holy Mountain for inspiration.

Part of why Congleton and Clark work so well together is their mutual respect. Despite the sibling-like bickering that’s bound to come up working in close quarters, the two let each other excel in their respective roles.

“She just lets me do what I think is right and I let her do what she thinks is right,” Congleton affirms. “We’re pretty much sympatico on that. I love her as an artist and she loves me as a producer. We don’t want to get in each other’s way. We just let each other thrive.”

Last month, St. Vincent ended up winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. While Congleton and Clark never went in with the intention of winning awards, he still expresses gratitude.

For us to finally feel like people are paying attention, it’s just really rewarding because it took so long to get there,” he says. “I mean, we also believed in what we did. We always felt like the records were good. I don’t know what the fuck it is, but it happened and we’re really happy for it.”

Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness

When Jagjaguwar first sent Congleton Angel Olsen’s music, it came with a disclaimer. The label told him to specifically listen to her voice and the songs themselves, not just the Americana singer-songwriter aesthetic.

“I get sent a lot of music and I really do try to listen everything,” Congleton says. “With Angel Olsen, they sent me ‘Acrobat’ [the opener from Olsen’s 2012 album Half Way Home], and I pressed play and I heard her sing maybe four bars and I stopped it and emailed Jagjag, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’” He laughs. “‘Cause I just know, that’s a special voice, that’s cool. That’s usually the way it is, man. It’s a visceral thing. You just know that’s important, you just know it. You have all these filters, insecurities and social constructs that make you feel like something isn’t special when really all you gotta do is listen to your gut and fuck what anybody thinks. If it means something to you it will absolutely mean something to somebody else. It’s just the law of probability.”

The recording setup for the album was modest. Olsen brought along some friends to support her as her band, but they hadn’t rehearsed extensively. Congleton and Olsen’s conversations about the record were vague, more centered on the core feeling of the record than practicalities. A line was drawn early on; Olsen didn’t want “slick” production. To achieve this, Congleton opted primarily for microphones that cost less than $150, often using harmonica mics to record her vocals.

“She didn’t want to sound pretty,” he says. “A lot of people want to sound pretty — she didn’t want that. And that’s fine with me, ’cause in a weird way she connected quicker when it wasn’t pretty or gussied up.”

“Little by little, we culled the performances to sound really hungry and raw in the right way that moved her, that meant something to her,” Congleton says. “There were gentle suggestions, all for the vehicle to get across what she felt like she wanted to say with the record. And we were simpatico like with Annie [Clark]; we both agreed on what kind of record would be cool to make.

“I think she’s a tremendous talent and I think that we’re going to see more and more of her if she continues to make music. I hope she does. I think her next record will probably be even better. I think she’ll make a very viable artistic record next.”

Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

cloudnothings_hereLPThough Congleton isn’t set on making records a certain way, he does prefer recording live. He says the method makes it easier for him and the band to spot something wrong when playing songs back, there’s less overthinking when avoiding overdubs, and it’s pragmatic and cheaper for the artist to get it done in a timely matter. “You’re gonna get more inspired, humane performances when you treat it as that: a performance,” Congleton says. When he worked with Cloud Nothings on their third album, Here and Nowhere Else, the band embraced this ethos.

“There wasn’t even a discussion about how to do it,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Get in there and play.’” Aside from the vocals and some overdubs, Congleton classifies it as a live album more than anything. The band worked with Steve Albini on their last album, Attack on Memory, but told Congleton they wanted something even rawer. Congleton lists Albini as one of the “best engineers, alive or dead,” so he considered it a challenge to try to figure out how to make the record feel even more like a live performance. He opted to just let the band go for it and experiment while he recorded it all. The trio would jam, even kicking over amps just to see what noise they’d make.

“If you listen to that record, there are moments of sheer fucking chaos where the rhythm is almost incomprehensible and the guitar is so noisy that you can’t even tell what notes are being played,” Congleton says. “But that’s what [the band] wanted. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to capture that sort of lightning in a bottle that’s their live performance. Just sheer chaos and almost non-musical moments.”

One of the facets of the album that many critics and fans were quick to point out was the insanity of Jayson Gerycz’s drumming. Even Congleton is taken back by the drummer’s prowess, calling it “fucking nuts.” Having listened to the previous record and the band’s practice demos, he assumed the rhythm section would align with what was on Attack on Memory. Instead, Gerycz came in with an even more manic intensity.

“Jayson really goes for it,” Congleton says, grinning. “It’s fucking dangerous, man. His drumming is dangerous. I would sit there and watch him play and it was like, oh my God, is he gonna make it to beat one? He’s so fucking all over the place and I would watch him like, oh my God, and boom, he’d land on beat one.”

Congleton doesn’t try to take credit for showcasing Gerycz. He claims the best thing he could do was sit back and let it all happen.

“There was nothing specifically that I did — except I didn’t tell him to calm down,” he says. “I didn’t bother. It was exciting. Most producers would tell him to fucking calm down, you know, or play a simpler beat. But when I listened to it all, although maybe in its individual things it sounded messy, together it sounded like really confident and cool and really fucking wheels-off and punk rock.”

Swans – To Be Kind

Swans To Be KindJust because he prefers to record live doesn’t mean that it’s always easy. When the topic of Swans’ To Be Kind is broached, Congleton immediately interjects with a guffaw and an “oh God dammit.” He’s a longtime fan of the band, but on their 13th studio album, he had his work cut out for him.

To Be Kind sounds a bit more produced than the Cloud Nothings record despite also being recorded live. But Congleton had to do more damage control. Frontman and Swans mastermind Michael Gira, a self-proclaimed maximalist, insisted that the whole band record at the same time, in the same room, playing as loud as they could stand, and without anyone wearing headphones.

“On a technical aspect, it was a fucking nightmare,” Congleton recollects. “An absolute fucking nightmare. To have somebody singing into a condenser microphone literally six feet away from the drums. And if you’ve ever seen Swans, you know how loud they are. Well, imagine them even fucking louder. Fucking huge Marshall stacks in a live room just pointing right at the drums. It was technically a total fucking disaster, but you can’t argue with the results. It does get across a feeling that is hard to do any other way.”

Gira explained to Congleton that this was the way he had always dreamed of making a record. Congleton saw no harm in at least trying it. If there were moments that got too far out of hand, Gira was receptive to Congleton’s input and trusted his judgment.

“I knew the worst thing that could happen is that we made a record that maybe sonically wasn’t as hi-fi as I wanted it to be, but would communicate something far more important than the fidelity,” Congleton says.

Congleton also plays piano on the album. As he puts it, Gira expects everyone to be able to play. When Gira mentioned wanting a female vocalist on the record, Congleton was quick to suggest St. Vincent. Congleton had gotten Clark hooked on Swans while they were recording Strange Mercy. Gira had no idea who Clark was, but when Congleton played him her tracks, he approved.

“Michael doesn’t like much music,” Congleton says. “He really doesn’t. But he was quite impressed with her. I felt happy that I was able to turn him on to an artist that he actually respected.”

Officially, Congleton is listed as the engineer on the record and Gira is given the producer credit. Congleton points out that he really saw his position as just helping Gira get his insane concept out of his head and onto a disc.

“I think that Michael wants to be credited as producer because he’s got a lot of pride in what Swans is,” he explains. “He identifies with it in a very specific way. He’s very stubborn in how he wants it to be perceived, and I think that the idea of somebody having sole production credit and it not being him just isn’t truthful to him. So while he might not know how to do things from a technical standpoint, he knows what he wants to hear.”

Strand of Oaks – HEAL

strand of oaks heal1 John Congleton’s Quest for the Truth in Five RecordsCongleton came to HEAL late in the process. Even though he wasn’t with Strand of Oaks frontman Timothy Showalter while the album was recorded, he still had an impact on its final aesthetic as a mixer. Having been a fan of Pink Mountaintops’ Outside Love, which Congleton mixed and engineered, Showalter felt certain that Congleton could take his tracks and push them to a ludicrous level of boldness.

“[Showalter] gave me the tracks and he said, ‘Dude, fucking do whatever you want,” Congleton remembers. “He gave me carte blanche. Usually when people say that I’ll do that and then they’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!’ But with him it was like, ‘Oh fuck, go further. Make it more ridiculous. Make it more absurd.’”

Showalter was into rock and roll absurdity, Congleton says, with blaring guitars and everything pushed to the max. “It was cool because I think in the process of the way we mixed that record, we really did make a record that had a sound that maybe it wouldn’t have had had I not mixed it,” he says.

Despite the request for ridiculousness in the mix, HEAL is still a remarkably solemn album. Showalter copes with depression, falling out of love, and the inevitability of death. Congleton describes it as “the shit you have to wade through in life that fucking sucks.” He especially commends Showalter for doing it all without a sense of irony.

“There are things that he’s singing that aren’t very … cool, you know what I mean?” he says. “He’s singing about real life, mundane pain. If it was a hipster band, they would either not sing about that stuff because it makes them too vulnerable, or they would pretty it up with such cryptic lyrics that it would never mean anything anymore. [Showalter is] completely anti-hipster in that way.”

That candor is what makes Showalter so personable to Congleton. His openness about all of his struggles is relatable to anyone who’s gone through hard times or has been around someone who’s coping themselves.

“You know what that record’s like? It’s like your friend talking to you,” Congleton says. “It’s just your friend sitting on the couch saying, ‘Man, this fucking sucks, this is what’s going on in my life.’ That’s what it meant to me when I was listening to it. This is like a friend talking to you. But it’s a really good friend and it’s an emotional friend who has ups and downs. It’s somebody who sometimes is really animated and cartoony; he’s kind of a silly guy, but he hurts, he’s emotional and sensitive. It’s your best friend singing you songs. So I think that’s how I tried to make it feel.”

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