JONATHAN KREINIK INTERVIEW
By Bob Massey
Originally ran in Tape Op Magazine 2006
Since he first hit the road in 1996 with Washington, DC skronk-rockers Kerosene 454, engineer Jonathan Kreinik has never slowed down. His resume as a live and studio engineer includes work with Trans Am, The Fucking Champs, Hot Snakes, !!!, Rocket From the Crypt, The Sea and Cake, Trail of Dead, The Shins, Le Tigre and LCD Soundsystem.
What attracted you to the engineer’s life?
I wanted to pick the brains of the people who inspired me. That’s how I got into it. On tour with Trans Am is when it started happening. They needed a live engineer. Our second day on tour, I was hanging out with Dave Pajo. I casually asked him something about Slint at breakfast.
I didn’t want to be a road dog at that point. But then I got a call from Rick Froberg from Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes, who were among my favorite bands ever. And that fucked me up. I thought someone was messing with me. I don’t know whether I hung up the phone or it cut out, but he had to call back. That turned into this awesome situation where now those guys are my family.
I felt comfortable enough to invite myself along while Hot Snakes worked on their record. Not to step on anyone’s toes, because they had someone to record it. But I became sort of a band liason to themselves. Trying to convince John to stretch out, to get away from the guitar he’s used forever, to start from scratch. I pointed out that none of the records he’s into now have anything to do with his past -- Michael Yonkers, Ethiopian music, reggae. The end result is still totally him but he’s playing a Kay or a Silvertone through a St. George or a Vox or something.
Then Trail of Dead happened in there, and then The Sea and Cake. And I was like, I get paid to watch John McEntire play drums all day? Hell yeah. Then along came Le Tigre, Elephant, LCD Soundsystem.
Now my job is basically to just be me on call. Like today, Johanna [Fateman, from Le Tigre] IM’d me for help with her laptop. That’s a daily situation with any number of people. I’m totally getting tracks over IM from name engineers asking ‘Can you fix this glitch?’
Do you remember the first time you thought about recording music?
I don't remember thinking about it. I just remember it happening. We were stationed in Germany, the Army. I was probably around 6 or 7. My dad played in a couple of bands, one was a more traditional orchestra where he played bass clarinet. The other was more of a show band, meaning they had things like electric guitars and drum sets. The Panasonic Cassettecorder or whatever it was called, ya know, the one Kurt Russell uses in The Thing, was pretty much a staple in my life at that point. Someone had to record my dad's shows. Usually he stuck it under his seat. When I had it I'd sit next to the drummer. I think we made a lot of tapes for my grandma who lived in NYC. There was an RT-707 reel-to-reel that I started using around then too. My dad said there was a way to do sound-on-sound recording...he would overdub and harmonize with himself. I didn't understand it for a long time but once I did things got interesting.
So how did you first come to start playing in bands, or making songs, yourself?
We'd always had instruments around the house, lots of 'em. My dad had a collection of reed instruments, recorders, and there was a french horn, a tuba (which eventually got traded for a Volvo), and a trombone. We also had a Wurlitzer electric piano which is still around -- a wooden console version of the thing you hear on Stevie Wonder tracks.
I think I also conned them into buying me a $25 guitar -- a Kingston I think -- which I'd figured out how to play through one of our junk stereos lying around. With blown speakers I could make it sound like what I thought an electric guitar should. Flash forward about 5 years and I'd begged and begged and begged my folks to get my a synth. I really wanted a Jupiter 8 like Nick Rhodes had...but I got a DW6000, which served me well for a long time, but, alas, wasn't what you'd call a "cool" synth to have at the time.
Joining a band was something I found to be heartbreakingly hard to do. I've always just been a basement hacker and didn't really relate to people on that level until I moved to Boston and hung out in a different scene than the insular DC punk scene. I later found out that forming a band was more about hanging out with your friends than "starting a band". Those have been the best bands.
What were you recording on then?
From like 85 to 89 I was recording to cassette and reel to reel. I got a Yamaha 4-track in '89 and went mad in the basement pretty much until midway through college. It's funny to think that even back in '90, the DAT was this pretty spectacular advancement -- CD-burners weren't really around at all. And recording to computer was totally a novelty.
How did you first come to record other people's music?
I pestered a local studio called Cue to let me be an intern. This was probably in 1990. I would go there after school, or actually during school, and stay until 8 or 9 depending on what was going on there. One day this dude MC Solski was working on some hip hop. The producer was gone but Solski was nearby and heard me combining the normal break with one 1/2 speed and offsetting them and whatever and asked me to produce a track for him at this place called Stargate down the road, an old-70's era studio with shag carpet and a guy that drank orange soda or root beer, generic soda, out of a 3-liter bottle.
Then I went to Berklee and didn't record anyone. I'd originally wanted to go their for their synthesis department, but declared Film Scoring as a major, and hated it.
Then I quit and joined Pork Trimmer as a singer and ultimately got kicked out cause I lived too far away, but went down to Blacksburg, VA to record them on my 4-track. That was my first official recording of someone else as far as I was concerned. And it turned out pretty great. At that point I'm not sure I was still really interested in recording anyone. I was mostly into my own tracks and trying to be in bands. I did play in a band that rehearsed at American Univesity's recording department -- incidentally they had a furniture-based Moog and a Synthi -- so I was around recording stuff a lot. Then I knew I wanted to go back to Berklee and live in their studios. Which I did. I managed to sneak in a bunch of stuff, me and my friends. Christina Files recorded Come there. Nick Hubben got the Swirlies, my band 33%, and Milk Money in there, I recorded Spore and a Karate side project called Run for Tin, and a really great gnarly punk band called Ambush at Junction Rock. Oh yeah, and I can't forget getting Vehicle Birth in there for a class because no one knew any other bands. Around then I knew I really wanted to record bands.
At this point it's 1995, I was making appearances at WGNS Studios in DC when I was in town, just to, ya know, hang out, I had been interviewing bands thinking I was going to start a 'zine about recording, mostly as an excuse to talk to people I'd been watching who produced indie bands. I had a good interview with Mark Trombino who at the time was in Drive Like Jehu and recorded my favorite record of theirs Yank Crime, and I had a famously bad interview with Steve [Albini] and Bob [Weston], who spent a good amount of the interview ridiculing me for going to Berklee. I hated being the interviewer and not being treated like a peer, and that was the reason I bailed on the 'zine as soon as I met Larry [Crane] in a recording forum online, they did impress upon me one thing that's probably gotten me to where I am now: Record your friends for free to start and if you're any good eventually people will want to work with you.
Later that summer I thought I'd fallen in love with a girl some 1100 miles from me, got a murky offer to work at WGNS. I dropped my core classes, finished out the summer and moved back to DC. The funny thing is, I actually walked the ceremony at Berklee, kissed Natalie Cole on the cheek and shook James Taylor's hand as I got my fake degree. This was after his key note speech about how going to a music college really won't prepare you for what's "out there."
I recorded a couple of really weird bands in my folks' basement using an Otari Mx5050, a Mackie 1202 and probably my Biamp 6-channel mixer, which had the dopest sound, and my random collection of cheap mics.
Tell me about your current recording work, your gear / software preferences, what you make do with, your dream gear.
Currently I've been starting projects at NRS [National Recording Studio, Washington, DC, owned by members of Trans Am, now defunct.] The reality is sort of a Pro Tools reality. That's to say that because of the portability of PT and my schedule I've not been the only engineer on almost all of the recordings I made/mixed last year. Out Hud, !!!, Measles Mumps Rubella, Certainly, Sir, and the Apes have all been worked on by other people. I'm not super sad about it. Were that not to be the case I either wouldn't have gotten to work on those records, or to be pragmatic, I would've had to pay rent somewhere and not be able to travel and get paid loads for it. [The Apes and MMR records] were tracked on the 3M 2"16 and dumped to PT to be finished. Out Hud and Certainly, Sir were tracked on PT and thusly farmed out to wherever.
I pretty much have only worked out of NRS since it opened and I stored away my beloved MX5050 (which is now the property of Nikhil Ranade in his studio which kicks ass). They've got the Trident, the API Pre's, 1176s, 3M 16trk 2", and the Drawmer gates which I pretty much never take out of Key Listen so I can use the filters. It was like home for a long time until I went on the road perpetually, Phil moved away and it kind of got neglected...turned into a practice space basically. They had what I would consider the essentials for making good records, the mic selection was basic and esoteric, but not large. Between NRS and me we had probably the biggest selection of ribbons in the area, I'm just guessing. I originally thought I'd never be one of those people that only used certain mics but after a while I narrowed it down and there were only a few mics I wanted to hear. I really had a good time with the Beyer 201. I could use it on almost anything and I think I did. It was essential. Eventually the 421 was like that. Of course SM57s, and I used 414s on drums a lot. My Audio Technica lecturn mic was pretty essential -- it's a uni directional condenser that ignores low end fairly well.
Literally every session was reinventing the wheel, mostly because I never worked with bands that didn't seem to want to do something out of the ordinary, or had some sort of limitation as to how they were able to work in the studio. Then it was reconfigure, reinvent the studio.
The ultimate piece of gear - and the only reason I forgot is because mine was assassinated by baggage handler – is the Delta Lab Effectron II ADM 1024. The greatest piece of audio technology ever conceived and brought to life. I swear it made things sound cool even having the "effect mix" knob or whatever turned to SOURCE. I had that on tour with Trans Am forever. Between the Effectrons, my Filter Factory and the Drawmer gates (only in key listen!) I'd be happy with anything as long as I could have those. Ok, and the API pre's and any compressor as long as it worked.
And you're doing live sound. Compare/contrast, speaking as a guy who loves making music that sounds cool. Any lifesaving gear you take on the road?
Most of the time you talk to studio people they can't imagine doing live sound as a job. I really feel comfortable in both, and right now I'm kinda missing the studio. I think both jobs have been well informed by the other. I mean, right off the bat, doing live sound with no rewind button, no privacy, and a lot of pressure has made me able to get a mix going in like no time. Especially if it's something I've tracked. That's probably why !!! calls me the day before they need a mix when everyone else has had more time to work stuff up -- cause they know I can do a song in no time. On the other hand, doing stuff in the studio has really informed the live sound thing because that's when you really get to spend time learning the nature of certain processes and gear. You can really live inside a compressor in the studio, in the controlled environment. And all the stuff I did with !!! and Out Hud I used lot's of shelving filters, really concentrating on narrowing tracks down to their essential frequencies... I brought that into the live world and all of a sudden I was able to make these really dense yet clear mixes and further terrorize house sound people by being able to run their amps that much further into the red.
Who are some favorite engineers and/or producers?
Brian Eno pretty much does it for me. I'm actually listening to Before and After Science right now and just amazed at how basic and deep it is simultaneously. But he pretty much nailed it. I liked Rick Rubin back in the day, but I can't say the same now. Kraftwerk's records sound amazing. Colin Thurston's work on Duran Duran has never been touched by anyone else that recorded them.
I have a pretty "they don't make 'em like they used to" attitude about records, which is probably why I listen to a lot more dance music and electronic music now. I think DJs have been a lot more sensitive to what makes records good than so called producers.
I'm pretty stoked on James [Murphy] and Tim [Goldsworthy] from DFA. I think they've got the right combination of taste and daring. I think they could make a great punk record if they wanted to, or a great soul record, or whatever.
But most of all, I gotta give props to Nikhil [Ranade] and Phil [Manley]. Nikhil is one of the few people I know who, besides me, can really cross the tech/music divide. He's got a really musical ear. I think the same of Phil, though I think we both look at each other's records with the view that "I totally wouldn't have done THAT" but I love that he's so different from me, even though it used to make me mad.
I’ve heard of some really weird things you've tried during recording. What worked? What didn't?
Early on I did a record with Frodus that was a cover of Devo's "Explosions". I didn't have a lot of mics but I did have some Crown PZMs. I heard somewhere that Rush made a record with one taped to Neil Peart's chest, so we did one better, we recorded with one taped to Jason [Hamacher’s] BARE CHEST, and it was a great mono overhead. He was always facing whatever you wanted to hear. That session also had a really weird PZM placement for guitar... there was an Ampeg V4 going through a Marshall 4x12 slant cab which was on casters in the laundry room. I put a PZM under the cabinet and mixed it w/a 57 and it really captured this killer ambience without actually being roomy. I think it's safe to say that Shelby [Cinca] and I agree we'll both never record such a dope guitar sound again.
Probably the best accident we had at the studio, and I think Phil might have been the first to discover it, though it may have been me, was that recording drums in the dead room with the door to the live room shut made a great reverb in the live room. I think we had a vocal mic up in there, someone started playing drums, and the bleed was perfect. No crap from the cymbals or hi-hat or wash from anything.
Are studios dying?
As long as you're perceptive, there's no reason you can't make the record you wanna make on any device capable of recording audio. It may be a pain in the ass but you can do it. So in a way I'd love it if studios died, but I think in the end they never really will. If big studios die then small personal studios will just absorb their gear and be studios. I think places like NRS will be harder to find. Places that are more set up as creative spaces and hang outs and nerve centers.
I think there's a spiritual component to music, however you define that term. Agree/disagree? How can a good musician / engineer/ producer capture, highlight, or destroy that component?
I totally agree, even if it's something as simple as conveying emotions to which people can relate. When there's a transference of the creator's mental state -- or assumed mental state -- into the listener's mind and an emotional reaction takes place I would say is spiritual.
The biggest part of making records is being perceptive. No one ever listens to hi-hats or tambourines in reggae records, but when they're swinging really hard and the rhythm is just right, like on a Horace Andy track, with all the elements in place you can get goose bumps. When a band or artist is in a place where they're comfortable and psyched they're more likely to let loose. I think that's where the spiritual element can be found. Of course, you can cover up, edit, process, filter, distort, compress destroy any sound you record in the studio, so I guess not respecting the track or missing the point could kill it.
I just wanted to mention also I'd done a couple remixes: Oneida (w/the Manleys under the name Chancers), Mount Simms (Memory Boy vs. Limousine Unlimited), and Poison Arrows (under Jonathan K.), in addition to the single mix for !!!'s Pardon My Freedom and tracking some extra guitar and whatever for their record (uncredited).