Mad Scientist on Wheels
The room we're in complements his actions perfectly: Huge and heavy,
mismatched doors swing groaningly into a concrete-and-wood
castle/bunker, with junk and recording equipment strewn about and a completely non-level floor sporting crevices so wide you're just positive it has to be directly over a fault line. There must be a storm outside, too, you imagine, of the sort such mad doctors dream of, but if there is, you can't hear it. That's because, of course, the place is soundproof. This is Brian Beattie's studio.
Is the shabby state of this hybrid sanctum and Wacky Shack the result of lack of funds? No, Beattie likes it this way -- if he has to be in a studio at all, that is. Brian Beattie, 35, record producer, also likes garages, houses, and stores, having recorded tracks in all of them. "I hate working in studios," he laments. "I will work in studios and there's some really nice things about studios, but I'm convinced that most musicians have an especially difficult time because most studios are so sterile." He offers Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Studio in New Orleans as an exception to his rule: "That place is in a mansion, but it's a house. There's nothing studio-like about it. There's none of the big windows looking into the control room. It's just big rooms with nice tile floors and a beautiful mixing board in there. Every other studio you walk into there's this sickly sour smell of bad coffee and this vague tension -- you have to walk by the studio owner and he's usually creepy."
Beattie feels that mixing musicians -- especially young and inexperienced ones -- and big studios is nothing short of unnatural. He explains, "Whatever that physics law is about things behaving differently when they're observed, this is what happens constantly in studios. Musicians are mostly practicing in their stupid practice space with the beer-soaked carpet and the cigarette butts all over the place, and if you bring them into a nice pristine studio they're not gonna feel at home -- unless they have a chance [and a big budget] to sit there and sit there until they spill beer all over the carpet and put their cigarette butts everywhere." He pauses before adding the final crystal of logic, and the main reason he likes his studio to look like a sloppy, ugly practice room: "It's when you forget you're recording that the best performances come out."
A great deal of Beattie's sonic idiosyncrasies come from the manner in which he got into the business of producing. His former band Glass Eye was well-known for their unusual sounds and beats and were frequently (though somewhat misleadingly) termed "avant garde." When Glass Eye graduated to the recording stage, Beattie took the role of producer. He had to, he insists. "I hated the way almost every record I've heard sounded, especially if I was aware of who made it and where they made it. A band you loves goes and makes a record and you go `What the hell is that?'" Looking back on those first efforts, Beattie's pleased for the most part, but he admits that "It probably would've been smart to have had someone work with us, but the main thing with me is I wouldn't have been able to learn the way I wanted to learn; I'm real boneheaded and stubborn. Engineering is the exact opposite of the way my brain works, but I had to learn it because I didn't trust anyone else."
In 1986, Beattie, who'd moved to Austin from Greenwich, Colorado in 1979, took on his first production job outside of his own band. Glass Eye had met the Dead Milkmen a few years earlier at an annual party in Philadelphia called the Human Barbecue, and when Beattie and Co. came through town, it was the Milkmen that came through with a place to sleep. Beattie recalls dozing -- or trying to, anyway -- as the Milkmen assaulted him with tapes of their first album. "What is this shit?" he recalls thinking as "Bitchin' Camaro" drilled itself into his half-awake brain.
"A year later it's being played everywhere and selling 100,000 copies," laughs Beattie. "At that point I told them, `I'd like to record you guys.' Then, after they did their second record and had absolutely no fun, their manager suggested, `What about Brian? He said he'd do it.'" The rest is history. Beattie went on to produce three albums for the band: Bucky Fellini (1987), Beelzebubba (1988) and Metaphysical Graffiti (1990). Beelzebubba yielded the hit "Punk Rock Girl" and introduced Beattie to the notion that his instincts aren't necessarily always on target
"I remember thinking, `Oh, that song is okay...' and their manager goes, `This is gonna be the hit song!' and I was going `Oh, okay.' Basically, what he did was make me pay attention to that song, and I tried to make it more clear than I would've otherwise cared to. And he was absolutely right and I'd had no idea. I was amazed."
As he honed his craft, Beattie found himself with two main goals: To master simplicity and to avoid normalcy -- both things done best away from large commercial studios. In fact, Beattie pinpoints the exact moment when he decided he never wanted to work in a big studio again; when he heard the results of his producing Sincola's What the Nothinghead Said. "I've always hated things that sound really normal," says Beattie, "and with that, I don't know how we ended up making a record as ultimately normal as that sounded."
Hindsight is of course 20-20, and Beattie now realizes that once he and the band began disagreeing on various elements of the recording, he should've known the project was in trouble. "The clock is ticking, their money is disappearing and meanwhile, in the studio, things are going wrong right and left." Once that sort of pressure is on, explains Beattie, there's little hope for the participants to have fun and ensure a good, energetic performance. Sure enough, the result was a record that neither he nor the band were particularly happy with -- not to mention the cost overruns that forced the band to renege on their vow of prompt payment to the studio and Beattie (they did pay, but not as quickly as they had promised).
Today, Beattie still insists that, "If they'd recorded it at my house, which is what I had wanted to do, I really believe it would've sounded a hundred times better. They would've been much happier, we would've had a lot more fun, I would've made a lot more money, and they would've spent a lot less money."
So now, Beattie is the mad producer on wheels, quite possibly appearing soon in a garage, private home or local pub near you. His production of his former bandmate Kathy McCarty's Dead Dog's Eyeball took place at all of the above, and though all the songs were recorded on eight tracks (or less), the album runs the gamut from drunken barroom chorus to elegant Beatles pastiche -- complete with strings. How does he manage this with his "less is more" setup? "You don't need much," he sniffs. "I record on ADAT, which is as big as a VCR, and I just bring a few nice mike pre-amps and compressors and microphones. I can record a remote with three road cases and a bag of microphones and cords. I can easily fit into my van an entire rock band and their equipment and the recording equipment."
Currently, Beattie is working on new material with McCarty, some solo material of his own, and a project with Craig Ross called Daddy's Pants of which he allows that, "We don't know exactly what it is, but whatever it is, it's stupid." Continuing his string of strange decisions, he's spending most of his time on a project in which his chances of monetary reward are -- to say the least -- questionable: A new album by manic-depressive songwriting whiz Daniel Johnston.
Seeing as Johnston is on Atlantic Records, a major label with plenty of cash to throw around, what's so questionable about Beattie getting paid for producing his next album? Well, for one thing, until this week, Atlantic had no idea that Johnston or Beattie were working on a new album. The label, however, had been running somewhere between sluggish and glacial on getting new material out of Johnston, and since Beattie had previously done a track with Johnston for the soundtrack of the film Kids, he tried out for the job of producing his next album. As a result he learned yet another valuable lesson: When an A&R man says, "Don't worry, send me a rough mix -- I don't care," ignore him.
At least that's what Beattie should have done, judging by the reaction of Johnston's A&R rep, Yves Beauvais, who has been sent a demo of a new Johnston song. "The first thing he said to me was, `The drums sound like shit.' He hated everything about the way it sounded. The only thing an A&R person -- or anyone -- can listen to is an absolute crappy tape. If it's anything approaching studio quality, it had better be all the way. And anyone who tells you they can listen to a rough mix, just send the shittiest tape possible. Or something you would be proud to release on a record. Never anything in between."
Beattie quickly found himself on Atlantic's bad side, but, undaunted, took it upon himself to start a series of treks to Johnston's home in Waller, Texas for work on a new album. Atlantic finally got wind of the project and, while Beauvoir warns Beattie that he may well be wasting his time, the label is allowing him to continue recording with Johnston. Of that project, it remains to be seen what results will come from the teaming of the meticulous Beattie, zooming down the highway to Johnston's garage and laboring carefully to get that one microphone in just the right place, and Johnston, known for knocking out a new song at a moment's notice, declaring it "perfect" and refusing to re-record or change anything about it.
One thing is guaranteed, though: It won't be anything "too normal." n