A Different Question for Every Situation
Stuart Sullivan is recounting the events that led to his moving to Austin. We're talking on the phone late on a Sunday night, but I can just picture him at the other end, his handsome, angular features grinning broadly, his blue eyes bright with creativity (and maybe mischief), and his fingers habitually running through his red hair. Producing, engineering, mixing... since moving here in 1983 to pursue studio work, Sullivan has gone from earning studio time as clean-up person to claiming at least three gold records for acts whose diversity only reinforces Sullivan's talents: Little Joe y la Familia, Meat Puppets, and most recently, the Butthole Surfers.
Sullivan is also remarkably unphased by the stellar work he's done, not to mention the critical acclaim he's garnered for recordings with local and regional acts such as Lou Ann Barton, Kim Wilson, Junior Brown, Toni Price, Starfish, Sincola, Euripides Pants, Ruben Ramos, the Texas Tornados, and Poi Dog Pondering as well as national acts like Toadies, Supersuckers, Lucinda Williams, and Sublime. But between an Indiana native's desire to make music, not just play it, and the gold records of late, lies a lot of territory.
"[Growing up in Indiana] I had seen a couple of bands -- the Fabulous Thunderbirds with Jimmie Vaughan -- that were, whew! This was `81-82. And then a friend of mine told me about Austin, said he was gonna move there. He was the best guitar player I'd ever met, so I figured if he thought it was cool, there must be something to it.
"My friend did move down here, but I stayed home to work for the summer because I had a bunch of debts and stuff to pay off. At the end of the summer in late 1983, I decided to get the hell out. My friend seemed to be doing okay in Austin -- we didn't stay in close contact but I knew he was enjoying it -- then the drummer from the band I'd been playing with announced he was gonna move to Austin.
"Well, I knew I was gonna be poor for a while, and I figured I'd rather be warm and poor than cold and poor, so I moved down here. My guitarist friend promptly left Austin to go out on the road with Mitch Ryder. So I got a picture of what was going on around here, and got a stupid little resumé together and took it to all the studios in the yellow pages and said, `Hey, I'll work for free.' Everyone laughed at me but I knew I wanted to do this. Whatever it was that was driving me.
"Paul Leary and I have talked about this, that that drive is purely tenaciousness, that unwillingness to give up... and maybe fear in there, too, playing a large role. Not so much fear anymore... maybe it's anxiety, now."
Sullivan laughs. It seems odd to hear this well-respected producer talk about his fears and anxieties so freely. After all, this is a man with a Number 1 single on modern rock charts, "What I Got," by Sublime, and one that could legitimately collect additional gold records for engineering work with Eric Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"I'd gone to every studio and said, `Hi, I'll work for free,' and they all went, `Sure.' But Lone Star [Studios] hired me to clean up, vacuum, sweep -- all that shit for $5 an hour. Then I would get credited $5 an hour against their studio time at card rate -- $45 an hour. So every nine hours I worked, I got an hour of studio time. In retrospect, I've laughed about the fact that I was so compulsive about it -- that place must have been antiseptic. Pretty soon I had enough for a couple of days.
"The first record I produced was the Wild Seeds' Life Is Grand (In Soul City). I was also working at Texas French Bread, and knew this woman named Laura who had a boyfriend in a band and they wanted to record, so I said, `Yeah, okay!' That's how I met Mike Hall and the Wild Seeds. About that same time, I met this guy Al and his brother who had a band called the True Believers, and did a demo with them... The Hickoids, I did Corntaminated. Of course, I did think these people have to be out of their minds! They're psycho, but I like it!
"Then I met this guy from L.A., who came around talking like a big shot, and one of the other guys at the studio, Stan Coppinger, decided he was gonna produce him, and put up the money for it, so I engineered the record -- that guy was Dino Lee. Dino has always entertained me. He has frequently been shunned by the community; sometimes he's been hailed as the king and sometimes he's been spit on... He's gone through so many cycles in this town. What I learned from him is that they'll love you then they'll spit you out. Whether he's being sick or being Frank Sinatra, he's always entertaining. And because Dino had this revolving door of so many people playing in his band, I knew all these musicians.
"Besides Lone Star and TFB, I also had a flexible job at the Performing Arts Center, but I still wasn't making any money. I wanted to make records, but I wanted to enjoy my music. This was the form of expression I had and if I didn't enjoy it, I was making a mistake with my life and I should've taken that advertising job."
What's is a producer's job? "Whatever you can get away with."
Sullivan's only half-kidding when he responds wryly to the question, but it's dicey enough a position that he's quite justified in his offhand answer.
"It varies so wildly not just from producer to producer but from project to project. Some bands are so together that all you do is let them get it on tape. Other bands, you have to write their songs, play their instruments, tune their instruments, bail them out of jail, keep rent paid. Unfortunately, to say, `What is a producer's job?' is almost un-answerable. It's a different question for every situation."
"For me, personally, the producer's job is to see that the music gets onto the tape as honestly as possible, or at least as close to what everyone agrees on as possible. Sometimes, you're trying for an honest perception of an artist, sometimes a stylized perception, and sometimes you're trying to create something that isn't there -- an image, a concept, a persona, a feel."
And maybe that's the biggest challenge for a producer, to at once enhance and leave be. More like a jeweler, polishing rough material to a high gloss or sometimes, knowing when to leave a gem relatively uncut. Sullivan seems to agree though he came to that understanding of sound somewhat reluctantly.
"When you've made a record -- and I am getting better at this --" he jokes with self-deprecating humor, "and it's done, the process of giving birth is so... not traumatic but so consuming, that is takes me a good period of time to pass before I have any perception of it. A beautiful example of something I came to really like was Lou Ann Barton's Read My Lips. I was working with Antone's, sort of the first big cool record for me, and between Paul Ray and Derek O'Brien, we got this very ambient, traditional-sounding record.
"Now, I'd grown up listening to rock & roll, heard some blues and liked it, but it scared me to make records like that. I loved to listen to them, but it scared me to make them because I was afraid people might think I sucked -- that I just stuck up a mike. I had all this anxiety about what a "good-sounding" record was versus what this Lou Ann record was.
"The manager I had when I had the gig in England -- I was working for WEA with a band called Underneath What -- loved Lou Ann Barton. He'd been over here and worked with Nick Lowe and the Thunderbirds, and was dying to hear that record. I hadn't even brought a copy because I was scared he wouldn't like it and take me off the project. I had totally bit into what Paul Ray and Derek were doing during the recording.
"So I'm there in England and pick up Rolling Stone and saw a review of it. The guy raved about it, specifically the sound of it! So I finally played it for the manager and he loved it, and all of a sudden I realized that maybe more than about 10 people liked the sound of that record.
"The remainder of [my recording work in] the Antone's catalog has been an exploration of that style, culminating in the Kim Wilson stuff, especially Tigerman. I just realized this approach to recording captured something nothing else did. An intangible feel... making things sound that way made people feel a certain way and they played that way and that supports a sound. That ambient sound, that traditional style of recording, I just love it now.
"Clifford [Antone] was a fanatic for that sound, and Derek has propelled it all the way, in the sense that when you get someone like Kim, someone like Snooky Pryor, somebody like Luther Tucker or James Cotton -- these people are not putting on acts, they are just themselves. And the more honestly I can portray that, the more honestly you can feel what they're trying to convey. That approach has not only made me feel good about music, it has given me an identity.
"I've always been wracked with self-doubt, and to have someone like Clifford and Derek believe in you gives you a certain confidence to go further. Then you stop questioning what comes naturally, and the less you interfere or impede the process. You don't have to consider every decision, things just happen. You just get that groove, that flow. And when you're talking about traditional blues music, the concept of "assembling" something like that is absurd -- it's the performance you're after.
"Paul and I have developed a thing where, I make what he does better, and he makes my thing better -- I see that as a value to each other. We've got things now where there's common ground for us -- he's got his thing going and I've got mine. He's the producer but he gives me a lot of leeway. He wants me to chase things, go to the corners and look at weird things. He can always say no. He encourages me to throw ideas at him, and he'll shoot down a lot of them, but some of them will help. And I really appreciate that. It's the shit, y'know?"
So it would seem that following a couple of musician friends down here has paid off big time for Stuart Sullivan. He takes his success in stride, more willing to look for other projects than rest on his laurels. "I'm missing some stuff that I'd like to have more of," he says. "I'd like to do more bluegrass, some big band stuff... But for the most part, I am fortunate and lucky enough to have worked in so many genres."
And that's almost an understatement, even by Sullivan's standard. No sooner is he back from Mexico City where he produced a band called Ansia, than he stepped into the studio with Marcia Ball, after which he plans to work with John Croslin for Meg Hentges, then the Derailers, and then, oh yeah...
"Paul just called and he's gonna book me up after that -- he's been a Butthole Surfer for a year but wants to be back to the studio."
By the way, that guitarist friend of yours who went off with Mitch Ryder when you moved down here, what happened to him?
"He came back and started playing with Joe Ely, then John Mellencamp and now Storyville."
"David Grissom." n