Sound & Vision: Tony Mangurian

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Welcome back to “Sound & Vision,” the new Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. In this installment, I’ll be talking with Tony Mangurian, an uncommonly gifted and versatile engineer, producer, composer, and musician. Mangurian’s richly textured beats, samples, and loops perfectly captured New York City’s rap-rock vibe in the ‘90s. His early work with Luscious Jackson led to a longstanding creative partnership with the legendary producer Daniel Lanois that’s brought his talents to Bob Dylan, U2, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young. Mangurian has also worked with emerging artists like the alt-folk musician Devendra Banhart and the dance pop crooner Sextooth, and he has a foot in the advertising world—among his most famous commercial jingles is “Easy, Breezy Beautiful Cover Girl.”

We recently met at Mangurian’s Soho studio to talk about how he got his start and how his musical career has evolved. Although Mangurian has long been considered the go-to guy for beats and samples, he has a subtly nuanced view of technology and the critical differences between making and performing music. I’m especially excited that our interview is enhanced with videos and audio clips, including drumming and loop demos that show how Mangurian does his work.

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The Rumpus: How did you first get into music?

Tony Mangurian: As a kid, there was always music in my house, and I remember when I was about seven or eight years old my parents took me to see the Rolling Stones’ movie Gimme Shelter. There was something about seeing that film—I just knew that I wanted to be a drummer. I took some lessons at the Third Street Music School, but learning traditional music on a practice pad was not what I wanted. I wanted to be in a rock band, so I gave music school up after like six months and got into comic books. But then, a few years later, I went to junior high at I.S. 70, which had a great arts program. In your first year you would do music, acting, musical theater, and art, and then you would stay for another two or three years and focus on one of those things.

Rumpus: Did you know right away that you would focus on music at I.S. 70?

Mangurian: Pretty soon… The school had a really cool jazz band and they would give great concerts and tour around, so when it came time to do the auditions there was a huge crowd of kids in the music room. We were all lined up at this doorway where a lady had all these mouthpieces. When it was your turn to audition, you could tell her what you wanted to play and she’d give you a mouthpiece and let you try it. The coolest guy in the jazz band was the sax player, so of course when it was my turn I asked for a sax mouthpiece, but it wasn’t easy to make the right sound without knowing what I was doing. So she handed me a trumpet mouthpiece and I ended up playing trumpet. But then summer vacation came around, and when I came back to school that fall there were suddenly like forty trumpet players and the guy who was running the jazz band need drummers. He asked if there was anyone who wanted to play and I lit up.

Rumpus: How long did it take to revive your old dream of becoming the next Charlie Watts?

Mangurian: Not long at all! I stuck with drumming, and after junior high I got into Music and Art [the prestigious NYC performing arts high school that inspired the movie Fame]. I studied classical music there while I was playing in rock bands, and I got into New England Conservatory on scholarship. It was the Julliard of Boston, but I knew as soon as I got to the Conservatory that I did not want to study music anymore. I just wanted to play in a band, so I went right back to New York.

Hear Mangurian playing the drums (iPhone/iPad users click here):

Rumpus: How did you go from playing to recording and producing?

Mangurian: I was working days at an art gallery in Soho, where I was [Jean-Michel] Basquiat’s assistant. But I also had a studio at 8th Avenue and 38th Street, and when I wasn’t working, my rock bands used to jam up there. We had 4-tracks, and that’s where I learned how to record stuff. It was so much fun!

Rumpus: How did that lead to working with sampling and loops?

Mangurian: I was still into rock but I also got into other kinds of music, like club and dance music, and I was also doing some experimental stuff with an old friend of mine from high school, working with odd time signatures, polyrhythmical pieces with xylophones and drum machines. This was in the early ‘80s and that kind of stuff was happening, and we’d just keep recording and bouncing stuff. I also kept on writing music, and playing drums, and then I started teaching myself to play guitar and keyboards. Eventually I wanted to start working with other artists and producing their music.

One day I ran into Gabby Glaser, who used to hang out with a friend of mine, and she said, “I have these three girls I play with, and we call ourselves Venus Flytrap.” They all came over to my studio, and it was Gabby and Jill Cunniff and two other girls who were sisters. We were playing with a few of their songs for about six months or so, but they broke up, and then Jill and Gabby came back to me as Luscious Jackson and we started recording some demos that eventually became the band’s debut EP, In Search of Manny.

Rumpus: What was the recording technology like back then?

Mangurian: We had an old analog 8-track and we would sync it to a sequencer that would trigger the samples, so we’d have drum loops playing through the Atari computer, and back then our sampler had like nine seconds of sampling time. Back then the technology was so limited but you could still make music with it. Jill and Gabby would come in with cassettes of stuff they had recorded in the streets, like weird people saying stuff or random instruments, and we also used records that we would sample from, and they would sing over all of that.

Rumpus: As you started producing other artists, did you keep working on your own music?

Mangurian: I was always trying to write an R&B hit that would be on the radio and I got my first record deal with this guy Mark Kamins, who was the DJ who discovered Madonna. With a singer, I wrote a song called “Girl, You Should Have Told Me,” but it didn’t go anywhere. I also started doing ad work scoring commercials and that did go somewhere.

Like I said before, the technology back then was ridiculous. You had to have a VCR with a time code on it to trigger the computer, and if you wanted to record live instruments, you’d have to have a tape machine that was triggering off of that. I taught myself how to do it, and I remember I took extra care to put my audition tape in stereo so it would sound really great, but when I had my first presentation meeting at the ad agency the guy’s machine was only playing half the sound! Still, it went well and I ended up working on Cover Girl, Pantene, and a bunch of other stuff.

Rumpus: Is doing commercial work a lot different than working with musicians?

Mangurian: When I’m doing commercials, I’m writing and producing. With musicians, they usually have their own demos or concepts, and I work with that, although sometimes I also co-write, and I like to play a lot on the stuff I work on.

Rumpus: Are the musicians who work with you looking for a particular “signature sound”?

Mangurian: Not really. Usually I let the artist lead and I always think of a producer as being like a director who keeps the show rolling by helping the musicians stay focused, introducing them to potential collaborators, and throwing different ideas at them. So like one day Dan Lanois left me a phone message saying, “Hey, there’s a band I’m working with in France. Are you free for a week to engineer some demos? It will be really easy, just drum machines and acoustic guitars.” I called him back and it’s U2! And then I get over there and it’s not that simple. It’s the whole band and Brian Eno and real drums. Sometimes the band would have these twenty-minute jams and I would just edit it down into a four-minute song. Other times, Dan and I would sometimes go in before their session and come up with drum beats and samples and we would create these beds of music and then they would come in and hear it and play over it.

Those sessions became a few of the songs on the record, including “Cedars of Lebanon.” For that one, I’d taken a Harold Budd sample and made a loop out of the keyboards and Brian Eno gave me a drum beat, and then it changed a million times until eventually it became that song.

Rumpus: Wow. The scene has certainly changed a lot since the days of 8-tracks and Ataris. Back then a lot of the conversation seemed to be about whether sampling and using loops and stuff really counted as “making” music. Today that debate seems moot to me. I’m wondering: as an engineer and producer, what’s your take on this?

Mangurian: In the old days you had a mixing board and a bunch of faders and EQs, which are the treble and bass on each sound, and all these effects, like echo and reverb. You’d spend all night mixing a song and then you would think, Oh god, I hope we’ve got it. And then if you had something else to do the next day you’d have to change your mixing board, and then you’d get a phone call two days later: “Oh, I don’t really like that mix. The vocal’s not loud enough.” Or: “You know, I think it’s too loud.” Then you’d have to go back in and recreate the entire mix, so you’d start making charts of your whole mixing board before you walked away.

Now that everything is inside of your computer, you don’t have to worry about any of that because your old session is always there. Well, that’s really nice, but you can keep working on it forever and you don’t have to be as thoughtful about the choices you make. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but today there’s too much reliance on technology and not enough emphasis on craft.

Rumpus: Do you think that’s also true for artists? When I think back to the ‘90s, people like Luscious Jackson, The Beastie Boys, and Beck were drawing from all different genres and influences to create idiosyncratic, sometimes kaleidoscopic sounds. Why hasn’t technology fostered more of that kind of sonic experimentation among musicians?

Mangurian: I think that was a more creative period when the focus was still on originality and individual expression, not just on using technology to make something sound artificially flawless. Look, technology is really cool and drum machines are great but honestly, I don’t think it’s better than a real drummer, and it can take some of the personality out of it. If you listen to the iTunes Top 10 today it sounds like the same drummer on every song. In terms of time keeping the feel is always “correct.” The technology has allowed non-musicians to make music, but I think there is a difference between making music and playing music.

Hear Mangurian show how drum loops are made, and discuss the creative pros and cons of sampling (iPhone/iPad users click here):

Rumpus: So even though it’s easier to “make” music, we’ve lost something essential in the mix?

Mangurian: Well, yes. I’m thinking about a conversation I had once with Jim Keltner, a super-famous studio drummer who’s played with John Lennon and a million other guys. He worked on Time Out of Mind, the Bob Dylan record I also worked on, and then a couple of years later we worked on another record together, and we were all playing as a live band with the singer for the takes, which just doesn’t happen anymore. Jim said to me, “Usually I go in to do a session and I’m just there with the engineer and a bunch of the music has already been recorded and I just do my drum bits and they edit it together, and that’s the end of it. Back when I was in a studio band situation, when you needed real musicians to create the music, all the guys would be in the room together and then the red light would go on for ‘record’ and you would have rehearsed the song a bunch of times but you’d still be scared because you didn’t want to screw up in front of the other guys.” You know, Jim had a good point. When you’re performing there’s a different energy than knowing you can just “fix it.”

Rumpus: Tell me more about that.

Mangurian: You can also make music in a computer that sounds great, but actually sitting down and playing with a bunch of people is a different experience. When you’re buried in the sequencers and computers you can come up with tons of stuff, and it’s incredible what you’re able to do. The part that’s probably missing from that is it’s really fun to play with other musicians—the actual experience of making music with other people, being in the room with them, hanging out with them, joking with them, and feeding off their musical feel, which will be different than yours, but when you put it together you come up with something that isn’t just you. A lot of times, when people play and record all the instruments themselves, it sounds sterile because they have the same feel. I think people who can really play, and especially those who play with other musicians, can put a lot more emotion into it.

Hear Mangurian talking about what it was like to play and record live with Willie Nelson and his band (iPad/iPhone users click here):

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here. 

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Featured image of Tony Mangurian, courtesy of Tony Mangurian.

Image of John Bonham © by Neil Preston.

Still from the video for the Willie Nelson song, “My Own Peculiar Way,” which was recorded live and appears on the 1998 album Teatro. (That’s Mangurian on the left.)


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, and her own subscription-based channel, Vanishing Ink. More from this author →