Sound & Vision: John Congleton
Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. This time around I’m talking with John Congleton, who is best known as the GRAMMY-winning producer/engineer behind artists including St. Vincent, Swans, The War on Drugs, Explosions in the Sky, Angel Olsen, and the Mountain Goats. John is also an accomplished musician in his own right, formerly fronting the Dallas-based band the Paper Chase, and currently with John Congleton & the Nighty Nite whose album Until the Horror Goes was just released via Fat Possum. John has a really smart take on what it’s like to make music in today’s rapidly evolving technological and economic environments, and he makes a convincing argument for the benefits of being open to adaptation.
The Rumpus: I know you’re from Texas, and I think I read somewhere that your dad was really into ZZ Top. I’d like to hear more about your introduction to music.
John Congleton: My father was deeply entrenched in the Texas ’60s psychedelic garage rock scene, and yes, ZZ Top. My parents divorced when I was eight years old. I don’t know if I’d call it a “midlife crisis,” but my dad rediscovered music then, went back to playing drums, and started a new band when he was probably about forty. And my older sister, Angelique, was into Riot Grrrl and was kind of my “gateway” to punk. Between my father and my sister there was all this music around the house, and there were also musical instruments. I’d just pick stuff up and start banging around. I didn’t have any desire to become a great guitar player, or great anything. I think I just liked the idea that I could make something, that I could communicate some sort of idea through music. That was really important to me because I was a pretty awkward kid, painfully shy—and still can be actually—and before I started making music I felt like I couldn’t affect anything in the world.
Rumpus: Were there artists whose music you identified with or spoke to you in some way?
Congleton: I’d have to say Pink Floyd for one, and Roger Waters specifically. The Wall really meant a lot to me. It’s one of the only records I can think of that no matter what age I’ve been, eight or eighteen, or twenty-eight, or thirty-eight, which is how old I am now, that record has been profound to me at every stage of my life. And yet when I put it on, it can still feel like it’s the first time I’m hearing it. Maybe it’s because that’s the first record I ever heard where I realized music could be something much bigger than just catchy songs. It can say something about the human condition. Roger Waters isn’t a “great” singer but he’s always able to communicate this intense desperation. At times he’s not even singing, but shouting. There’s no melody and his shouting isn’t even in key with the song.
Rumpus: You’re reminding me of The Squid and the Whale. Do you remember how the older brother related to, and ultimately appropriated, “Hey You”?
Congleton: Yeah—he’s stealing the song and passing it off as his own, but it’s because he doesn’t yet know how to communicate what he feels.
Rumpus: Do you relate to that kid?
Congleton: Thankfully I had my older sister—the older sibling thing can really bail you out of a lot. She ushered a lot of life-saving music into my life. It’s an incredibly cliché thing to say, but if I had not heard let’s say the Ramones when I heard the Ramones—which was at like age thirteen or so—I genuinely don’t think I would be talking with you right now. I think my life would have really gone a different way. I mean, I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas and there was a lot of machismo, football, a lot of horseshit that I was subjected to, and I really felt like there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t interested in those things. I got picked on a lot, and beat up, but punk rock showed me that I wasn’t alone. There was no Internet back then, but punk rock became a far off beacon to me. I started buying up records, cultivating my own tastes, and eventually finding a handful of people I could connect with.
Rumpus: How old were you then?
Congleton: I was in high school. Nirvana became big. In half a year, I went from being the weirdo kid, into the weirdo music that nobody knew about, to kind of the guy with the inside knowledge. And it wasn’t just where I was either. Everything on MTV switched from dance music to the sort of naval gazing grunge rock. While I wasn’t an enormous fan of all of that music, it was a lot closer to what I was interested in. It got me through school, even allowed me to have some nice experiences.
Rumpus: I think that whole era is so interesting, when anti-anthem “grunge” bands became anthemic—I almost feel like they were embraced by the mainstream kids even more than they salved the alienation of the weirdo kids. It makes me wonder where Kurt Cobain would have gone musically had he lived. Obviously I can only speculate, but I can say with some confidence, probably not the Foo Fighters.
Congleton: [Laughs] Yeah, there was nothing revolutionary about Nirvana as a band harmonically or melodically. I think it was the right band at the right time, plugged into the zeitgeist of Generation X. There’s actually something childlike about the songs that had mass appeal. They’re easy to understand, and Kurt Cobain was able to use them as conduits to communicate something very deep. When I look back on the ’90s now, it seems like Candy Land. The things we considered enormous problems in America sound ridiculous now. But Nirvana’s message back then was, “You know, things aren’t as great as they seem.” In contrast, things in America are not so great today but in pop culture a lot of the music is about lifestyle, like, “Hey, look at my ass! Look at all the shit I own!”
Rumpus: Was there more of an infrastructure to support “indie” culture in the ’90s? Were there more opportunities for artists?
Congleton: By virtue of the Internet, today pretty much any tiny marginal subculture or interest group can have their home base very easily whereas Nirvana coming in and bursting through the hair metal thing, it was just like, “What in the fuck is this!”
Rumpus: Well, that’s the pro, right, that you can make your statement and effortlessly send it out to the world. But can others find it and can you get recognized and compensated for it fairly? That’s a question that has come up a lot in this column.
Congleton: Certainly that is the con. But talking about the way art is digested is like talking about the weather. You can talk about how it was ten years ago, and maybe that’s interesting. But ultimately the weather today is what it is. You can either adjust or you can die. Of course there are things I miss about the way art and culture was disseminated before. For example I really miss going to a record store and talking to the record store guy about what I should buy, and I miss the excitement of hearing that record for the first time because I had to wait two years for the band to release it, of bringing it home and putting on my headphones, and just living with the music. Now there is no mystery in these things. I can watch on Instagram as they record the record. I can see the teasers, the previews they put up on YouTube, I can hear the advance tracks they put up on Pitchfork every two months leading up to the record, which I’ve basically already heard before it even comes out, and then I can download it any time I want. That’s not all that sexy to me, but the generation below me thinks that’s just fine.
Rumpus: So you’re basically saying music making isn’t over as much as it’s just changed—and that younger people are perhaps better able to work within the current parameters? I think I recently came across a similar argument about New York in Ada Calhoun’s book St. Marks is Dead.
Congleton: I think New York is a great microcosm of what I’m talking about. I was just there producing the new Blondie record at the Magic Shop—it was actually the last record done at the studio before it closed. Magic Shop was in the heart of Soho—you know thirty or forty years ago there was a lot of character and really cool shit going on there, and now, and I will not apologize for this assessment, Soho is basically a shopping mall. I personally think that sucks, but I’m a thirty-eight-year-old guy who’s been going there since the ’90s. New York is going to constantly grow and change as it always has. There are things about it that aren’t as attractive to me anymore, but it’s still a great place and people are constantly trying to move there, and for those people New York will have its own meaning.
Rumpus: Okay, so let’s not be too nostalgic. But would you agree there are some advantages to the older way of doing things? For example, you were just at the Magic Shop producing this Blondie record. You first learned to record on tape I presume? How, if at all, does that affect the way you make records today?
Congleton: That’s a big conversation. I would say working on tape made me a better engineer and I think that’s true for most people because it gives you badass chops. A lot of young engineers just get it all into the computer, then endlessly fuck with it till it sounds remotely like something someone would want to listen to. I’m more interested in getting something that sounds inspiring from day one. The more you commit to a sound, often the more confident you are at the end of the day. For example, if you record the guitar clean in order to fuck with the sound later on, as opposed to having an effect on the guitar and putting that to tape, you just robbed everything else going along with that guitar from the benefit of playing together and how that might influence the other players.
Rumpus: Can the band even reproduce the sound live if they never make it together to begin with?
Congleton: Well, people can figure out all kinds of workarounds for that, but in terms of actual discovery in the studio, the stuff that helps you figure out the vibe or personality of a recording, it’s best to make the record as you go as opposed to leaving those decisions until the mixing phase. It’s much smarter to leave as few decisions as possible. A digital audio workstation gives you infinite possibilities, but one of the great things I learned from working with tape is going with your gut about what’s the best take.
Rumpus: You’re a very busy guy these days, working on something like twenty plus albums a year. But when you select what to take on, I heard you take John Peel’s approach—listen to everything. Practically speaking, how do you do it?
Congleton: I once said in an NPR interview that I listened to everything and then people started sending me everything! I still try my best, but these days I would say I listen to most but not all. I still agree with Peel’s attitude that genius can come in many forms, and from many different places. As I’m deciding about taking on a particular recording project, I’m looking for creativity and originality, a kernel of truth in their music, because that’s rare. If I am intrigued by something then I’ll want to talk to the artist and get a sense of whether the collaboration will work. One thing that’s fascinating is often what’s great about a certain artist is the one thing s/he wants most to change.
Rumpus: Does it also work the other way around—when an artist who wants to grow with a new sound comes to you to shed what isn’t working anymore? Without asking you to talk out of school, I’m thinking now of Angel Olsen. There was a big shift in her sound on the album you produced for her.
Congleton: I think she wanted to make a record that was a little more “rough and tumble” rock ‘n’ roll. For me, I thought it would be interesting to get away from some of the more “Americana” aspects that were in her music before. I just feel that there’s something special about her, and so much more there than just a girl with a guitar—I don’t mean that as a sexist statement by the way—there are plenty of guys with guitars out there too.
Rumpus: Sure—I knew what you meant. And when you say “girl with a guitar” a specific image does pop into my mind right away, actually I immediately bring to mind four or five artists who perfectly fit that description.
Congleton: When I heard Angel for the first time, I remember the first song started off with the guitar, but then within a few measures of hearing her sing, I heard something so unique and uncaged and wild! I emailed her label and said, “I’ll do it!”
Rumpus: Let’s talk about how you’ve applied your approach to your own music with the Paper Chase and now with the Nighty Nite.
Congleton: When I make my own music, there is no external producer. I just do everything as quickly as possible. I try not to overthink things. When it comes to trying to figure out what songs should go on a particular album, to be honest, I essentially give a bunch of the songs I’ve recorded to Adam Katz, who’s my manager, and a confidant in general, and say, “Help me pick ten songs.”
Rumpus: Cover songs endlessly fascinate me, and I love your take on the Magnetic Fields’s “Meaningless.”
Congleton: I feel kindred to Stephin Merritt, not that we write similar songs, but share a kind of humor about the human condition. If you live in a state of constant dysthymia as I do, and I believe Stephin Merritt does, you see there’s something oddly hilarious about that. I saw in the song “Meaningless” someone who’s struggling to get out of his head, a brilliant and meaningful two and half-minute lament on how this relationship he had with someone was completely meaningless. I just think it’s beautiful and really funny and sad too, what good art is to me. In general I think art is most effective when it makes you feel many things at once.
Rumpus: I definitely see some of those ideas at play in your recently released record with the Nighty Nite. Some of the melodies are upbeat, but the lyrics can be on the darker side.
Congleton: I’m certainly a little more gallows than Merritt, but my lyrics shouldn’t be read too literally. They’re coming from the brain of someone who grew up watching ’80s horror films, where horror borders on ridiculousness.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/243258729″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Rumpus: Is it the discordance that interests you? I’m thinking now about other recent songs where the music seems misaligned with the lyrics, like Beck’s “Girl” or Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.” The humor is in the idea that these things don’t appear to go together, but by putting them together, you’re showing that they actually do.
Congleton: Yes, and I think there can be a kind of catharsis that comes from recognizing that both elements are always present in life. As someone who’s a depressive personality, there’s no difference in me when I’m depressed versus not depressed about how I view the universe and my insignificance in it. It’s just that when I’m not depressed I find it funny.
Catch John Congleton and the Nighty Nite live:
4/24 @ The Bishop Bar, Bloomington, IN
4/26 @ Brillobox, Pittsburgh, PA
4/27 @ Black Cat (Backstage), Washington, DC
4/28 @ Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY
4/29 @ Columbus Theatre (small room), Providence, RI
4/30 @ Great Scott, Allston, MA
And here’s a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite tracks by John and produced/engineered by John:
Feature photograph © Jim Batt. Second photograph © Fat Possum. Photograph of John with Joan Jett and Debbie Harry at the Magic Shop © Tommy Kessler.
This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.