Behind and beyond the curtain: Nashville producer Loney Hutchins talks with Ernie Gray about the role of Nashville in modern culture, the collapse of Tower Records, his Cleft Music label, and how bad radio causes school shootings.
EG: You were raised in Middle Tennessee, went to school for film production and subversion in Florida, and were the only one from your graduating class that didn’t head to LA or California. What brought you back to Nashville?
LH: First off, I’ve always found Nashville to be a very friendly city. In my own experience, and in watching others, I’ve found it to be a very welcoming community and, if people seem standoffish, it’s usually because they’re socially awkward… and then they end up being really interesting/creative people.
My motivations were half practical and half creatively inspired. The practical side had to do with my family being so close and also the idea that the film industry seemed like a hellish rat race I wanted no part of. It seemed rather daunting to a freshly graduated film schooler.
EG: Not necessarily a hotbed of the American film industry..
LH:We do have an independent film presence, but I was more inspired by the city’s independent music scene. I didn’t expect there to be such an eclectic community here. I started seeing out of town bands play at the Springwater. I remember seeing a Tallahassee band I knew, Syrup, play there and everyone knew the words. This made me happy.
Around the same time, I caught Lambchop and Yo La Tengo at the Belcourt. I was hit with such a strong sense of community at that show. It’s even become one of those shows where people now say things like, “ohhh you were there, too?”
I ran into an old friend, Kyle Hamlett (of Lylas fame) there. We were standing in line and noticed each other. I think we were both pretty excited to find out we’d each caught the songwriting bug.
EG: So you really can come back home again?
LH:I guess what I’m trying to say in the short sense is that all the road signs of fate were pointing to Nashville. The interesting thing was, even though I’d grown up around here, the city might as well have been somewhere I’d never ever set foot in.
EG: Many people never appreciate their home communities until they have another time and space to compare it to.
LH:I’m a second generation musician but all I really knew of Nashville’s music scene while growing up in Gallatin was Johnny Cash and a forgotten era… and then the Garth’s and the Reba’s of the late 80’s-90s. I tell people all the time that I never would have imagined falling in love with Nashville like I have.
It’s strange, the very things that I didn’t find all that interesting as a kid are the things, I believe, interest most folks on a “global scale” as your mentioned. In today’s media age, people have so much thrown at them. There’s a zillion indie bands, and films are catching up to these numbers. I think people are yearning for music with deeper roots.
EG: Yes, I realized at some point that beyond the psychological effects of sound, music taste is based on social associations.. That is, what group do you identify with this music? The degree of this may depend on how imaginative, open-minded, or creative the listener is. When you listen to a piece of music, what really makes is work for you is when it somehow evokes a fantastic ideal: role playing, inclusion with an abstract other, escapism, or memories real and imagined. Romanticism.
LH:Music “scenes” are also romantic notions. They can even be packaged and marketed but I think it goes beyond that with Nashville. It’s not necessarily a scene as much as it is a tradition. The concept of the “song” is so much more universal and that’s where the history of this city truly lies. To this day, there are people carrying on the traditions of songwriting that were set in stone before there was such a thing as “pop” music. I think people are yearning for an immediate sound and a song that says something to them. Country/folk/Americana, they all offer this, I believe.
People get bored with “now” because it’s hard to really say what, exactly “now” is. With so much music out there, I think there’s a tendency to want to go digging through another era. They want to experience that feeling of discovery that’s hard to find these days. The halls of history are always there waiting.
The Great Escape is a good place for that sort of thing.
EG: Nashville acts have seen significant success in the past few years in the UK and Europe. What is it about Nashville indie music that works across the pond?
LH:Truthfully, there are a lot of benefits to being from Nashville. It’s unavoidable. There will always be some drunk guy going, “play some Cash!” no matter where you travel. I counted about a dozen of those types on a trip to Norway and Sweden with Bobby Bare Jr.
Funny enough, I spent some time with a band from Stockholm called The Concretes. I mentioned Lambchop and how they do much better in the U.K. and Europe than they do in the states. The Concretes told me how they don’t usually do huge shows in their home city, either.
It’s my feeling that a city’s most interesting music often can be an insular idea, even in Nashville. Think of how many different genres are represented in this city. There’s always going to be some response to the status quo in any music scene. This being the case, those folks have to look elsewhere. Imagine being Lambchop 15 years ago! On the audience side, I think people simply love an import. Just think about all that tasty imported beer we have. This idea of an imported sound is also romantic. People love connecting these dots. Sometimes people simply love the stereotype of Nashville, of people living on dreams and just getting by. The thing of it is, this stereotype is true for many of this city’s most talented musicians.
Beyond the history, Nashville has been getting some buzz going with its contemporary scene in the last 5-6 years. Increasingly when I travel, people tell me things like “I’ve been hearing the scene is really great in Nashville”. What’s so great about it is that it’s just so versatile. Lots of great indie-musicians have been coming here to record. You can go out and be unnoticed if you want but, the city is still small and connected at the same time. The indie scene here lets you move at your own pace. You can be a De Novo Dahl and be super motivated or a Lone Official and be ready when the opportunities come. Whatever one’s work ethic is, there is a wealth of musicians, studios, producers, engineers, and now indie labels to get involved with. But honestly, I think those European folks only like us ’cause of our bar-b-q.
I notice that a lot of youngsters in Nashville just don’t appreciate how freakin amazing our bar-b-q is. You simply can’t get this stuff anywhere!
LH:Taken for granted, totally.
EG: I really don’t know many times we can reinvent this country-rock thing, but is the great crescendo of the so-called New Americana movement helping Nashville?
LH:It’s BEEN helping it for years. I think in the most general sense it’s helping because it’s pulling people’s ears back to a more traditional and simple sound. Commercial country music has become so pop it’s hardly country any more. The Americana movement is happening all over North America and even further abroad.
The way it helps Nashville is that the lyrical themes and musical traditions all lead back to Nashville and the South. Americana becoming more popular can only be a check on Nashville’s commercial country industry. They can’t ignore its rise in popularity. The only thing I’m not crazy about is that the term is often applied to anyone with an acoustic guitar. The negative flip side of this movement is that it might increase an already somewhat homogenized genre.
EG: In the past 20 years we have seen a migration through quite a lot of interesting production styles in indie music: from the washy, over-effected sounds of the 80’s, to the crunchy walls of sound in the 90’s, to the deconstructionist orgy of non-linear digital editing around the new millennium. Surprisingly, there seems to be a retreat back to the sound of people recording live in rooms. It’s almost as if when you have seen and heard it all, and everybody can do it too, what matters is the same thing we started with a century ago: a man standing in front of a Victrola cone.
What is your take on the current state of production aesthetic, ambience, miking techniques, and lo-fi?
LH: I guess the popular sound has caught up with what was so popular with indie-bands from the last 10-15 years. Granted, most folks captured that sound because that’s what they had to work with but, people responded to it. It’s more real. It’s got more texture to it. As far as my take on the current state of production… I can’t really say. There’s just so much different stuff going on, it’s hard to pin one particular sound down. I suppose in the indie-realm, more folks are going for the open room effect. There’s certainly a drive to capture vintage sounds. With the disappearance of professional studios, a lot of what’s happening on the indie side is simply circumstantial or a case of “happy accidents.” People can’t afford a lot of mics and pres. They often have to do the best with what they have to work with.
I guess it’s a case of history repeating itself. When the big fat industry dies and the consumer technology advances, the engineers of dorm rooms, one bedroom apts, or warehouse lofts find themselves back in the same place pioneering engineers were in, capturing a lot of sounds with few tools… except… with computers, now.
Ambience is something most people overlook. I often enjoy putting buried sounds into mixes that you are not consciously aware of. Ambience has so much to do with the subconscious.
One of my favorite recording artists today is Broadcast. Their recordings are usually very dynamic yet there’s a thick velvet curtain of ambience behind most of what they do. It’s usually created through synths but they often utilize straight up noise as a canvas to put their songs on. When I was a kid, my Dad had a Korg M-1 and then later a Peavey DPM SI keyboard. When I was 13-14, I started fiddling with these machines. The latter keyboard had a built in sequencer. Playing with this machine was my first introduction to composition. I would make very ambient, almost score- like sequences. This was mostly because I wasn’t very accomplished on the piano at that point and it was easy to loop very simple sequences.
After college, I worked with a Mackie 1604 powering one Audiotechnica 4033 and handful of Shure dynamic mics going into a Cubase VST (v 3.7) system for about two years. It certainly wasn’t the most unique signal path… to say the least. Despite this, I learned more about getting a good sound straight from the source. When you have one microphone, you sort of HAVE to use it in a whole bunch of different ways. These days, I’m mostly interested in finding ways to use a couple of mics for mono sources. Some simple comping of two channels for one source can do wonders for your sound without going near a reverb pre.
For my personal taste, I feel like the open room thing is becoming a little boring. For one, most bands aren’t as good live as bands from the days when they HAD to do that style of recording. Most importantly, any amount of cool production is not going to make up for not being able to write a good song. I know this is subjective to the listener but, I find it to be true in both high end pop stuff and indie-garage rock.
The thing is, I’ve heard indies do both accomplished recording techniques backed up by well versed composition. I really like certain kinds of tight, slick production. One of my favorite indie labels in the late 90’s was Minty Fresh. My fav artists on there were all very well recorded and all independently produced. They had the songs to back it up, too.
I was a big fan of Thrilljockey and Drag City as well. This was all independently produced stuff and while these folks had garage type bands, they were putting out records really stretching the boundaries of indie-music. I can’t help but think the popularity of albums like Kid-A owe a boatload to groups like Tortoise who were doing albums in that vein almost a decade before. As far as the local scene goes, How I Became The Bomb’s debut ep is probably the tightest recording to come out of here in recent months, I think. Of course, it’s my understanding that Lake Fever studio has a pretty sweet setup.
EG: With computer based recording, the barriers to entry have been almost eliminated from audio production. What do you think are the pros and cons of this.
|The pros of everyone having a studio these days are that anyone can make a decent recording and the floodgates have been opened to a lot of beautiful music; the cons are that anyone can make a decent recording and the floodgates have been opened to a lot of… not very interesting recordings.|
LH: The pros are that anyone can make a decent recording and the floodgates have been opened to a lot of beautiful music; the cons are that anyone can make a decent recording and the floodgates have been opened to a lot of… not very interesting recordings.
I think most folks have this opinion. I tend to look at it in less of a technical way. I most often look at it in terms of how it affects the creative spirit. In many ways, I think it’s taken some of the wonder and excitement out of music. It’s sort of hard to create a Ziggy Stardust these days. That which is out of reach is that much more magical. This is a double sided coin. On one side is cynicism and apathy, on the other is a positive motivation for those truly talented people to work that much harder to write songs and create an act that really captures folks’ imagination.
Sometimes, because of this, you see bands exploring more complex musical concepts and leaving songs in the dust. I think you can see this in indie music and college radio’s most popular groups. There’s a lot of style exploration going on… certainly a lot of “genre copping” as I like to call it. This is good in terms of sounds.
Look at Deerhoof. They’re amazing. How would you describe them? Rock? Jazz? Electronic? Could you recreate some of their recordings? Probably not… at least a good number of them, anyway. On the flip side, could you pick up a gut string guitar and play them to friends around the campfire? It’d be tough.
The flip side to all this technology is, I believe, less people taking time to hone the craft of songwriting. Music production has become so homogenized over the last twenty years that we literally have an entire generation making music now with a cross pollenated musical upbringing. commercial radio is STILL suffering from years of Red-Hot-Chili-Peppered rap- rock knock offs. In fact, I’m just going to go ahead and blame all these school shootings on the commercial rock radio format. Not really sure how that works but I’m sticking with it. The kids don’t know it’s terrible music. It drives them to do crazy things… as in bad crazy things.
EG: For similar technological reasons it has been a tumultuous past decade for the music industry in general. Tower records just closed in Nashville. How do you see the cottage industry’s role in this, and where do you see the whole thing evolving?
LH: Ahhhh the meek shall inherit the Earth! Muah ha ha! But seriously, I am personally saddened by the closing of Tower. I can’t tell you how many albums I purchased there, growing up. I’m talking life changing records. Granted, I must admit, I’ve done most of my cd shopping at Grimey’s in the last five years. I guess I’m going to miss Tower’s stellar video rental dept. This question really raises a lot of issues that sometimes keep me awake at night…. or keep me from wanting to get out of bed in the morning. I sometimes think to myself…. Sex Pistols screaming in my head “nooooooo future! noooooooo future!” It’s really freaking some people out.
There are some long time industry veterans that can’t even begin to understand the nature of web based culture. The thing of it is, I don’t entirely blame the technology and for the recording industry to squarely blame piracy as the reason for its decline well… I think that’s just plain insulting to the consumer. They might as well title their records “You’re Going to Buy This Britney Spears Record And You’re Going To Damn Well Like It!”
In know it’s not fair for me to say this, because I haven’t been working in the industry for the past couple of decades, but I can’t help feeling this way – I think the big time labels are getting exactly what they deserve. They’ve kept getting further and further consolidated into areas of business that simply don’t operate the way creative enterprises need to function in order to maintain a healthy catalog of new and most importantly, established artists that appeal to listeners.
For Christssakes, U2 is STILL one of the most viable major label artists today. Yet, it took 3 albums before they caught on with a mass audience. Think how much money they’ve made the industry. Certainly more than most one album wonder bands that have come along.
EG: The lesson learned is that a board of directors of a publicly traded entity and a rock and roll record company are a fundamentally incompatible relationship. If not now, eventually one will eat the other.
LH: Exactly. For the most part the only place you’re going to find genuine faith today is with the indies. They can’t necessarily afford it as much as the big labels can… but they can afford it spiritually. Most indies wouldn’t have it any other way, I think. Just look at Subpop and The Shins or Merge and Magnetic Fields. It’s my understanding that things were getting tight for Merge at the time The Magnetic Fields “69 Love Songs” came out. I think they had to stop packaging it as a three-disc set but still, a release like that, to me, is a big act of faith and I think it’s had to have paid off. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have gotten into the Merge catalog because of this one release. It’s hard to classify indie-labels like this as a “cottage industry”.
In this day, I think that particular term applies best to companies that have found a niche or a particular area of the industry that the major labels have already left behind… or haven’t thought of yet.
For instance, CDbaby.com started out as an alternative to sites like Amazon and Mp3.com and because it embraced the indies, I mean, literally the folks making music out of their apartments, they grew by leaps and bounds. Now, they’re doing digital distribution for anyone that signs up. They offer webhosting, design, and you can even get a credit card swiper to take to shows.
EG: No kidding?
LH: Yeah.. It’s my understanding you can slap your band sticker on a thriftstore vacuum and sell it with the swiper… or sell the shirt right off your back… I still want to do that. The thing is, CDbaby had the foresight to not only venture into these other avenues of indie-marketing but also the practical mindset that the internet is the great equalizer so, they made their company a no-frills kind of operation. They managed to do things for such a low price that their “client base” skyrocketed. They leave all the promotion up to the artists yet are always offering tips and financial shortcuts for folks.
I think the real “cottage industry” that rises out of the ashes of a decaying record industry are the people making things like stickers, buttons, or silkscreening. As the majors die, all the “middle-men” go with it. The indies are looking for alternatives to the people that have been servicing the big fish for years. You see more home based or small scale operations like this because there is a genuine demand and everyone and their mother is starting bands. There are even upper levels, so to speak, with this “cottage industry” idea.
There’s a handful of major booking companies that rose out of the 90s simply because there was a need. There are publicity companies servicing small labels and people just getting started. The Team Clermont folks in Athens are a perfect example of this. They offer a handful of options. They are successful enough to be selective about what artists they take on but they maintain a flexibility that allows them to offer very affordable services for the folks that don’t have the finances to execute a full scale promotion.
|I think the future of the music industry has much to do with the live show. It’s the only thing that is “sacred” any more. It’s the only thing you can’t squeeze into a plastic disc or harddrive.|
I think the future of the music industry has much to do with the live show. It’s the only thing that is “sacred” any more. It’s the only thing you can’t squeeze into a plastic disc or harddrive. If I had to guess, I would say we’ll all see a change in the way touring works. I think American clubs will do more to take care of bands. You can already see the change in smaller cities where there’s maybe ONE club that offers alternatives in music and more likely than not, it’s a grassroots type operation where they make sure people are fed, have a place to stay, make at least 50 bucks to get to the next show, etc. With the advent of people starting more bands, you get more people that appreciate the work that goes into getting out there and making it happen. I guess we should be looking at the curve of hostel creation. I guess all these bands are good for something.
EG: You are the man behind the curtain on a variety of projects, as a collaborator, producer, engineer, and manager via your label, Cleftmusic. You have your hands in many baskets. What drives you to coordinate for others in such an ego driven art form?
LH: Hmm… maybe to keep MY ego in check??? It’s real simple. When I came to Nashville, I didn’t know anyone. I needed to collaborate before I could dive into my own ego trip. I’ve been writing songs since I was pretty young. In college, I’d really caught the writing bug. I did a ton of recording after graduating. I had all these songs but I felt I needed to shadow some folks for a while before setting off on my own. I felt like I had all these great ideas but I needed to let things slow cook for a while. Helping other people has helped me. It’s put down the foundation for which I hope to try out some ideas with my own group.
I think lots of artists have tons of great ideas but there aren’t many folks willing to put themselves out there as someone whose talent or niche is being an objective voice. Most folks don’t like to handle the abstract of their creativity. It’s difficult to keep two minds about these ideas… or three or four or five. The biggest drive to coordinate for others has really been a matter of necessity. If I have a friend who I think is talented, I’m going to help him/her. I’m just thankful I have the means to do so. The idea of “producing” artists has always been the most attractive role to me in terms of being behind the scenes. That whole avenue of music sort of re-introduced me to how I listen to records.
EG: What’s brewing in Cleftmusic land?
LH: I’ve just finished recording and mixing a record for Hot Pipes. They did an entire album almost a year ago and then got a new drummer. They came over and did three demos. They liked them so much they decided to redo the whole thing at my place with their awesome, new drummer. They banged it out pretty fast. It’s been a fun project for me because this is the first, full album I’ve done in my new, home studio.
I told them upfront that it could be a guinea-pig type scenario but they were cool with it and everything went great. I’ve been in my place for a year but, as far as the music is concerned, hearing my house for the first time has been very thrilling. In other news, I’m also helping mix a massive amount of material for Spiritual Family Reunion.
Another very exciting project coming up is my dear, old Dad. He’s been going through old tapes and demos to pick out some songs he’d like to work on. I’ll be putting his session group together. Obviously, I’ve spent my whole life listening to his music. I can remember riding to kindergarten and him putting reference mixes on the tape deck. To be able to man the controls for him, today, is something I will truly relish. I have a couple other projects on the horizon but, my lawyers would kill me if I talked about them prematurely. I suppose the most exciting thing “brewing” in Cleftmusic land these days is my own project. I’ve given some demos to a couple players. I am currently going through dozens of songs. It’s been over five years since I’ve done my own music.
EG: One of your primary projects, The Mattoid has seen some changes in the past few years, with the addition of new talent. After “Eternifinity” What is the next phase for this project?
LH: Last year, I took Ville, The Mattoid, and drummer extraordinaire, Ben Martin, to San Francisco. We recorded at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio, an analog dream. A fellah named Jay Pellicci engineered the sessions along with his brother, Ian, assisting. Jay’s done some albums for Deerhoof so I was very happy to have him at the controls. The result of this basic tracking is the tentatively titled “Glory Holy” album. We finished overdubbing this beauty from fall of ’05 all the way through summer of ’06. It’s looking like this album will see an Infinity Cat release in early ’07. I’m very excited about this one. I wish it was already out but, it’s made sense to wait until the time was right. I’m also excited that it’s going to come out through another local label. The Mattoid has gone through a handful of different players in the last couple of years. It’s been difficult for him on the live front when he’s had players that are involved with other, more established projects. On one hand, it’s been good for him to have the association with other recognizable groups but, on the other hand, it’s made it hard to keep a solid group together. He’s currently doing a stripped back, solo type thing which, he’s done off and on as long as he’s been in Nashville. Expect the full band to shape back up when the new record comes out.
EG: A kitsch, almost Dadaist sense of humor abounds projects you are involved with. What elements of music usually attract you?
LH: can’t help but be attracted to acts that take the concept to some weird level. It’s one thing to get a rockin’ band together, it’s another thing to put some great songs together, it’s a whole different matter when you take the focus and obscure it to some new vision. Maybe it’s the instrumentation you choose. Maybe it’s a persona or a twist on how you present your performance. Maybe it’s simply what you have to say. If you have words and ideas that hit the soul with a resonant immediacy, you don’t need all this other stuff.
I wouldn’t say I necessarily have a “Dadaist” sense. There are lots of folks in Nashville exploring this side of music and performance to a much greater extent. It’s a loose term but you could apply it to everyone from Big Nurse to The Cherry Blossoms.
I would say it’s fair to describe much of what I’ve been involved with as “kitsch”… I mean, I HAVE spent four years in The Mattoid… oh and I WAS the original bass player in Party Cannon so… all I can say about that is I must simply be attracted to the idea of overt roles. I think it makes it easier to express certain ideas. All this stuff is really superfluous to what is most important to me, really. The element I am first attracted to is melody. I am attracted to songwriting in the classic sense. Granted, I might have a hard time noticing a kick ass melody if it’s presented in the standard Nickelback/Creed production/performance style… I call it the lockjaw vocal.
What do you think are the most important projects coming out of Nashville today?
Everything is important! My unformed band! It’s going to save the world, lost puppies, and failed marriages! Okay this is tough because there’s so much going on. If you’d like me to list all my favorite Nashville bands, I’d be happy to. For now, I’ll answer this in broader terms. First, I think the further establishment of Nashville’s indie-labels is vital to securing a foothold on exposure for the “less major label sounding” bands on a wider, regional, or even national level.
Theory 8 has got their thing going. Fictitious Records is currently undergoing an interesting evolution. Infinity Cat now has a distribution network. It’s an interesting time for everyone involved, including folks like me with Cleft Music or Dave Stein’s Set International. Don’t be surprised if you see some consolidation happen at some point.
A second project of importance I have been very excited about is Dave Cloud touring Europe. Dave represents a part of Nashville you will not find on any tourist brochure. The great thing about his show and his music is that it actually is accessible to a lot of people despite how bizarre it can be. I mean, when you get down to it, it’s old fashioned rock n’ roll. There are many other folks in Nashville that have found inspiration in this kind of band and for Mr. Cloud to get out there and finally get some love outside of Nashville is, I believe, a beautiful thing. I hope more opportunities arise. A third “project” I would mention is Eat Books. Nashville’s indie scene is in great need of more promotion and booking folks. With so much stuff going on in this scene, it helps having some people who are dedicated to this side of things.
EG: What is your desert island record?
LH: I’m terrible at these questions. First thing that comes to mind: Komeda’s “What Makes It Go?”
EG: What are 3 things you would like to see change in US politics?
LH: Only three??? An end to one party rule, TRUE campaign finance reform, and making our pathetic (apologies to the few folks fighting the good fight) congress work more than just a couple months out of the year.
EG: Well, Lonnie, we’ve got a plane to catch.
LH: It’s been a pleasure.