In his emergence as one of the most creative producers of the day, Craig Street has worked on a string of projects with artists including Cassandra Wilson, k.d. lang, Chris Whitley, Javon Jackson, Chocolate Genius, Holly Cole, Jimmy Scott, Will and Charlie Sexton and the talented young newcomer Shelby Starner. Cassandra Wilson’s provocative Blue Light ‘Til Dawn was Street’s debut as a producer; it’s a bold calling card that attracted much attention to the singer’s incredible musical and emotional range, and to the producer’s wide-open ears. When we spoke several months ago, Street was in Austin, Texas, completing work on an album by Will and Charlie Sexton. On tap were projects with Alejandro Escovedo, Susanna Baca and Me’shell Ndegeocello.
Street was born in Oakland, Calif., and moved with his family to L.A. when he was 11. They moved back to the Bay Area for Street’s high school years, and he started playing guitar in bands in Berkeley at age 14. He once dreamed of designing buildings and is still drawn to architect Frank Gehry’s work, which has the look of buildings still under construction-works in progress, if you will. “It’s an interesting notion, one that for me really works,” he says.
He worked as a photographer and did some programming for a public radio station in Berkeley. In 1981, he and some colleagues received a grant from National Public Radio to produce a four-hour documentary on Jimi Hendrix. They decided to interview producer Alan Douglas, the music curator of the Hendrix estate. Before then, Street had thought the word “production” meant the drudgery of tape and turning knobs and had nothing to do with the magic of making music. But meeting Douglas and producer Elliot Mazer changed his perception of production and became significant in pushing him in that direction.
How did meeting Alan Douglas affect you?
I knew Alan Douglas from records that my dad had, these amazing records like Money Jungle with Mingus, Ellington and Roach. He did a bunch of Eric Dolphy records that I really love, and the only Strayhorn record in existence, which is this really odd thing. He’s the guy that discovered and produced The Last Poets. He did the early John McLaughlin records like My Goals Beyond, and then Devotion with Larry Young and Buddy Miles. Those were amazing records, and his approach, even though I didn’t really know what production was per se, kind of sunk in.
At this interview, we took a slightly hostile point of view towards him. The attitude going in was this guy had gone in and screwed up these Hendrix records or something. [Douglas put together several posthumous Hendrix records with modern players added to Jimi’s original tracks.] In fact, he’s probably the sweetest guy in the world, one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, and over time has become a friend.
I was asking him about rumors I’d heard of tapes that were sitting around. He took me in a little room and said, “Well there’s all this stuff but there’s nothing here. But take these tapes, mix them, use them and then send them back to me.” He wound up giving me three or four 2-inch masters. We took them back to the Bay Area to mix, and one of the people working on this radio show knew Elliot Mazer. We met with Elliot, and he agreed to work on it. So we went through these 2-inch tapes and mixed what we wanted to use on this radio program-some stuff with John McLaughlin and Hendrix and Dave Holland, and some of it was just extended jams. Elliot and I got to be very good friends.
I was playing in a band at the time and was constantly telling him about bands I thought he would want to hear, and he would bring me and some of the guys I was playing with into the studio. Elliot was the first person that actually pulled me aside and said, “You should be a producer. You’re not thinking like just a guitar player, you’re thinking like a producer.”
Is there a certain type of artist that you’re attracted to, that you look for?
I’m interested in anybody that has an individual voice, in terms of their approach to music. I’m attracted to an aesthetic or a basic way of looking at life. A lot of it is actually based on preliminary conversations or meetings that I have with them. I don’t really care what somebody did before. I’m a little more interested in what they’re interested in doing right at that moment. And I have got to feel like I can be in a room with somebody for a while.
If there’s any selection at all, it’s just in picking people to work with that I really believe in. I can’t imagine going in with somebody that I didn’t believe in, going in with somebody that I had to create something around, that didn’t have their own thing. It’s not about that. I think that’s part of why I really enjoy when something’s like a co-production. In general, the artist is always the co-producer anyway, but sometimes it’s formal, like in the case of k.d’s record, or Will and Charlie’s record, or the Patty Scialfa thing was a co-production with T-Bone Burnett. It was fabulous working with k.d. in that sense because it’s easier to do it. The same with Charlie.
Making records is really fun, and making music is really fun. And I look for that. I look for somebody that’s got a sense of humor, somebody that’s kind of fun. I look for surprises; I don’t ever want to make the same kind of records with people, and I’m not interested in just doing the same types of things over and over again. As I work with more and more people that have made records, I realize that a lot of people don’t work the same way that I do.
From a technical basis?
Not technical. Technical is the simplest, most boring part of it. I really tend to go for performance somewhere in there, whether the end process is going to be documentation, as in the case of a one-day record, or whether it’s something where it’s about taking advantage of what you can do in a studio. I like things to be finished. They should be finished, and they should be well-done-I don’t think you should put anything on that would embarrass them-but I’m not really very interested in polishing things to the “nth” degree.
Do you fight that a little bit with artists?
I don’t think that I really fight with artists. I really believe that I’m just helping somebody get what they hear in their head out to tape, and eventually to a disc, and part of that can be a pushing process. Somebody’s brought me in because they want an outside opinion about what they’re doing, and they want somebody to push on them a little bit. At the same time, in the end it’s an artist’s record, so I’m not going to fight somebody on something that they really need to do. There are times when I would like to see things done in a slightly different way, or that I think somebody’s being way too hard on themselves. And I’ll call those kind of things. If I think somebody is really picking at something needlessly, I’ll do my best to be supportive and say, “Hey, man, it’s killer. Why change it?”
Artists must like somebody that will stop them and say that.
A lot of what I do is just create an environment that’s comfortable for people to play music in. That’s the majority of it. People, at this point, that are searching me out are searching for that. Some come to me because they’ve heard a record that I’ve done in the past, but that’s not a very good barometer for me. Because I can’t make a Cassandra Wilson record with k.d. lang, or a Javon Jackson record with Will and Charlie Sexton. All those people are completely different, and the approach is different. I get bored doing the same thing over, so I’m always wanting to change things. I think it’s about environment.
What was your first real break in terms of becoming a producer?
One of the musicians that I’d been working with on a couple projects, and who had become a really good friend-we would always argue about music and stuff-was Cassandra Wilson. Cassandra got signed to Blue Note, and I ran into her in the lobby of the building we both lived in. She was sort of bemoaning the fact that she had to have a producer. The label wanted her to have one, and they were looking at really big names. And we got to talking about what she wanted to do and what she was thinking about and who she was looking for. And I said, “You know, I’ll produce it.” So she went to the label and said, “There’s this guy, and I have a feeling about him-I want to take a chance.” So Bruce Lundvall let us go in for what was ostensibly demo work, and basically Cassandra let me do whatever I wanted to do. She put herself in my hands, and I put whatever I wanted to hear around her voice. When the label heard it they flipped out and said, “Let this guy do the record.” Cassandra was amazingly generous in allowing me to follow my instincts.
It was an interesting collaborative process on both of the records that we did together. One thing it did was really place her as an artist at a certain point, and I think it defined how people looked at me. People were suddenly calling me up and saying “Will you do this record?” Partially through Bruce Lundvall I started being able to pick and choose projects that seemed interesting.
Were there certain producers that you particularly enjoyed before you got into production?
Tom Wilson was on the staff at Columbia in the 1950s and was doing these radically different combinations of records-Velvet Underground, early Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel. He’s probably the first person I was aware of as a producer. I was 8 or 9 and my dad bought Bringing It Back Home, and I remember hearing “Bob Dylan’s 113th Dream” and thinking to myself that somebody had made the decision to leave this mistake at the beginning of the tune, this sort of false start, and then start the tune over again. I remember seeing the word “produced,” but when you’re 9 years old you don’t really know what that means.
And I absolutely adore Glyn Johns. I’ve realized that a lot of what I’m interested in doing comes directly from guys like Elliot [Mazer] and Glyn who weren’t working in traditional studios. There’s kind of a rawness to what’s done. I sometimes think that Cassandra’s second record was just a really bad imitation of a Glyn Johns record, because all I was listening to at the time was [The Rolling Stones’] Exile on Main Street. That’s Glyn and Jimmy Miller, who’s also fantastic. Glyn and Jimmy were like hand in hand. Glyn engineered a lot of stuff, and he’d do stuff on his own, like some of the Zeppelin stuff that was done in houses. That was part of the whole reason of going into The Barn [at Bearsville, N.Y.] and doing stuff there [on Shelby Starner’s record].
You like string sounds.
One of the things that always appealed to me in music is the notion of orchestration, whether it’s in the sense of Ellington and Gil Evans, or sounds from films-Morricone and the kind of sounds of putting different things together. When I was a teenager I played with this guy Butch Morris, a cornet player, composer and arranger. Butch has a great sense of orchestration, of putting things together, and I learned a lot from being in this large band that he had.
I was thinking of some of the de-tuned guitar tunings that you do.
That’s from other stuff, from my love of Hawaiian music, a lot of African things, and I love real raw, raggedy blues. I also think guitars sound better when they’re tuned down, so I’m attracted to guitar players that tend to work in open tunings, de-tuned things. I like playing with that, especially when it’s appropriate to really orchestrate. Let the orchestration be a really low-tuned guitar and maybe a VSO’d harmonium, and pedal steel, and some actual strings, and maybe a Chamberlain or mellotron, or maybe some samples or loops or something. And then you play with what sits out in front. You can really trick the air. If you have an accordion, a pedal steel and one violin, you can make it sound like a symphony by just placing the violin in front and pulling back the accordion some so the accordion-ness of it doesn’t read so much. I just love what you can do with sound and tape and weird instruments. And I love the idea of pushing acoustic instruments as far as they can go, or switching the roles, like maybe the acoustic instruments are pulled up to the front and the electric instruments are pulled in the back.
If you think of some of the stuff that Teo Macero or Eno did texturally, that stuff’s really inspiring. I’m just grabbing from every place. I’m the kind of person that would sit down and listen to something by Eno, then listen to some Gil Evans, then some Robert Johnson, and I can’t really separate it. I hear stuff that I like, songs that I like. To me there’s no difference between Monk and Son House, or Radiohead and Mary J. Blige.
You like to have tape rolling from the time people walk in, don’t you?
I tend to like early takes, because I think people have kind of said it all. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go in and edit, fix things or do any of that. But there’s a basic energy that’s not going to get any better by doing what Brian Wilson did-doing 45 takes of something. If you haven’t hit it in five takes, put it aside and come back to it another day. To me it’s about an environment, it’s about getting something that’s alive, trying to get life onto a piece of tape, and then to this little hunk of plastic.
I can tell you in five minutes what I use or how I use it. That changes all the time. I think you gotta beat the technical up a little bit. For me that’s what it’s about. It’s like, what you have is a drum. So why do it the way you’ve always done it? Why not start with the fact that they’re drums, and you’ve got a great drummer, and they sound good in the room? Why not start with the room, rather than starting up close with a magnifying glass, and then add to that what you need on a tune-by-tune basis? Do you need a snare on this, a separate hat? Maybe you’re not going to do the whole kit at the same time. Do it at different times so you can put it in different places, or do different things with it, change the speed or whatever.
I use a combination of things that will allow for warmth to get through. I tend to work in analog, but I don’t really care. For me, analog is a happier medium, so staying there until the very last minute and then going over to digital in a specific way allows some of what you’re going after to make it to the end. Digital could be more convenient in some ways, but I prefer the sound of analog. I don’t care if the other stuff is old or new. I use a combination of brand-new things and really old things.
The thing that’s probably most important to me is what I monitor on. For the last three years, I’ve been monitoring on these ProAc speakers, Studio 100s, and I’m using them in conjunction with a discreet 130-watt Audio Research power amp. With this combination, the mixes would sound great wherever I went. I don’t know if I’d be happy working with anything else. I have a ton of mics, but I got a couple old 67s that I love from Walter Sear. I haven’t gone anywhere for the last four years without any number of Coles microphones, 4038s. I just love them; they’re great on everything, guitar amps, Nationals and dobros, strings, overheads and kick drums.
What was the challenge of working with young vocalist Shelby Starner?
The key to putting a band together for that project was finding people that were versatile, that could move musically through a lot of different styles. And I wanted to keep the group of musicians very intimate. I didn’t want to have more than three musicians, and I looked for some kind of a connection. This needed to feel like a family. We were going up to The Barn at Bearsville to record. So I used Kevin Breit, a fantastic musician, wonderful guitarist, and he plays mandolin, banjo, whatever. His brother Gary is a keyboard player, and I wanted that sibling thing happening. And I used Abe Laboriel Jr., who also worked on k.d.’s record and on this Chocolate Genius record I did. Abe is a drummer, but since his dad is one of the best bassists in the world, Abe also plays bass. So we did the whole thing, basically with those three guys, except for one song where we wanted a string quartet. So it formed this intimate kind of family.
I felt comfortable that these guys weren’t going to cop an attitude at making a record with a younger artist. And that was critical to setting up the environment. Here was somebody who had never played with a rhythm section, and I wanted to make sure that we didn’t overpower her, that what was going down was something that she wanted.
What kind of approach did you take to recording Chris Whitley’s Dirt Floor?
We were going to record it in his apartment, and at the last minute me and Chris and this wonderful engineer named Danny Kadar got in a truck and decided to go up to his dad’s place in Vermont. We did the record in a workshop, where there’s a wood-burning stove and a lot of old motorcyle parts. It’s where Chris does a lot of his writing. He was real comfortable in there. We just hung the mic up by some wire because Chris stomps his foot a lot. Well, also because we forgot the microphone stand, but it was a blessing in disguise. I used two mic pre’s that were designed specifically for a ribbon mic, prototypes made by Tim DeParavicini. We used a pair of those and ran a Speiden into that. We recorded to an old Ampex 440 that the engineer had, and did backup on a little Studer CD-R that I use instead of a DAT for backup and rough mixes. I carried up the ProAcs, and an Audio Research preamp that I use in my work space to monitor with, and we used that as a 2-track select. We set up everything in the kitchen and ran wires back to the shed, and that was it. Chris sat down and played, and we did all the songs in a day. The next morning we got up and made a master reel. Greg Calbi mastered it for us. I love the contrast between that experience and the grander experience of working with Patti Scialfa with T-Bone [Burnett] where it’s huge production, tons of musicians, lots of edits.
You pick the equipment that will help each project happen. I like to have people performing in the room together. Even if you eliminate everything that happened in the room except the bass, and put everything else on-new drums, guitar, vocals-there’s still something for me about having a feel that came down with everybody in the room together. We use dynamic mics for vocals and send them into a really great mic pre like an Avalon, in case it’s a keeper vocal. Sometimes we keep them, sometimes we don’t. On Will and Charlie’s thing, some of those we kept, because they were just great vocals. Sometimes you go back in and do another vocal with a different microphone.
I do a lot of stuff with outboard mic pre’s, because mic pre’s are kind of like microphones. Each has its own kind of color and characteristic. I know engineers find it convenient to have a board, but there’s a tremendous range in terms of color that you can go to if you’re careful in your selection of mics and pre’s. It also means that it doesn’t matter what kind of room you go into. I tend to pick rooms because I like how the room feels and not because of what kind of board it is. It doesn’t matter because I’m going to bypass the board and maybe only use it in a couple of places. I’d rather get to the tape as simply as possible. Most of my stuff is done 16-track tape. If I need more room, I get two reels, but I like how 16-track sounds. I’m not crazy about tons of digital processing where I can read that that’s what it is. But I like combinations of stuff, plates and springs and room sounds and tape.
The people that I’ve been using to mix things have similar tastes. Some of the mixers I’ve been working with a lot are Kevin Killen, Pat McCarthy, Roger Moutenot and John Hanlon. And I do a lot of the recording with Dan Kopelson. I just love his ability to get things on tape. I know you guys are a technical magazine, but so much of what I do is so loose. Danny is always laughing because I’ll go in and pretend like I’m going to be really structured and organized and rehearse and do this or that. But he knows that I just kind of hit the ground running. I want to record before the first guitar is out of the box, and I think it’s critical that we’re able to do that. There should be experimentation in the studio, but part of being a producer is that you have to look at the realistic side of that. If somebody wants to do the same guitar overdub for a week straight and you have a fixed budget, then that’s not something that you do. There has to be a point where something stops. But I really believe that when a musician has an idea that they’d like to try, you need to go there and find out if it’s going to work.