The Dust Brothers, aka Mike Simpson and John King, worked on an avalanche of records during the late ’80s, ’90 and ’00s, trying their hands at a great number of studio activities: sampling, composing, mixing, remixing, recording and producing. The results were varied, with some of their projects biting, so to speak, the dust and many others being only moderately successful. But on a remarkably large number of occasions, the Brothers managed to add a touch of fairy dust.
Some of those best-known albums are Tone-Loc’s Loc-ed After Dark (1989), Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin‘ (1989), Technotronic’s Trip on This (1990), the Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon (1997), Hanson’s Middle of Nowhere (1997), Santana’s Supernatural (1999), Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory (2000) and Tenacious D’s eponymous album (2001). As a staff producer for Dreamworks, Simpson produced The Eels’ Beautiful Freaks (1996), while King gained distinction last year as the producer of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s End of the World Party (Just in Case).
John King (L) and Mike Simpson collect keyboards and beats as The Dust Brothers
Not a track record to be sniffed at by any standards, but the duo’s reputation has become the stuff of legends because a couple of their projects did a rare thing: changed the course of music. The first was the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989). Simpson and King, at the time unknown college whiz kids eyeing careers as lawyers and computer programmers, had become rather adept at their hobby: using the era’s state-of-the-art sampling equipment to create musical collages of their favorite recordings. The Beastie Boys liked these concoctions so much that they asked to rap over them. The result, Paul’s Boutique, was awash with innovation. It reputedly featured the first recorded instance of intentionally added vinyl crackling noises and turned the Dust Brothers into the Godfathers of Sampling.
The other epoch-defining masterpiece the duo co-created was Beck’s Odelay (1996). As co-writers and co-producers, they guided Beck through myriad musical styles and samples, all delivered with a deadpan attitude. Odelay was the perfect marriage between the Dust Brothers’ left-field sampling, engineering and production skills, and Beck’s playing and songwriting inclinations. Simpson and King later contributed to Beck’s Midnite Vultures (1999), and their relationship with the artist continues with Beck’s latest album, Guero, which has garnered mostly strong reviews and sales since its release.
In the many years since their 1989 breakthrough, Simpson and King have remained relatively publicity-shy and a certain mystique has begun to surround them. When the duo recently spent more than two hours spilling the beans, it came as a welcome surprise.
Your name reputedly is a reference to PCP or the drug Angel Dust. Is this correct?
Simpson: Not quite. When our name was to appear on a record sleeve for the first time [in 1989 on a single by rapper Tone-Loc for Delicious Vinyl], we reckoned that since King and Simpson are pretty common names, we’d better come up with a cool name. We were bringing back music that no one was listening to anymore, so we wanted the name to be an anachronistic reference to things of the past. While we were working for Delicious Vinyl, many people had been describing our music as “dusted,” and that’s what we took the name from. The state of hip hop was pretty minimal at the time, and we were doing these very textural, tripped out, almost hallucinogenic remixes. Angel Dust was just an additional whacked-out reference that also fit with what we were doing.
Can you elaborate on the exact nature of your innovations on
Simpson: Up until that point in hip hop, people had been using samples very sparsely and minimally. If anything, they would use one sample in a song and take a drum loop and that would be the foundation. But what we were doing was making entire songs out of samples taken from different sources. On Paul’s Boutique, everything was a collage. There was one track the Beastie Boys played some instruments on, but apart from that, everything was made of samples. But we never had a grand vision of trying to make groundbreaking music. We just enjoyed making music in a way that was an extension of our DJ’ing: combining two to three songs, but with greater accuracy than you could do with turntables.
In 1989, it was still relatively straightforward to clear samples, but anti-sampling legislation and attitudes tightened soon afterward. How did you respond to that?
Simpson: It was tough. People asked us why our stuff from the late 1980s sounded so good, and we said that it simply was because the original recordings that we sampled sounded so good. After Paul’s Boutique, we signed a publishing deal that gave us some money to live [on], and we took the opportunity to buy a house and build a home studio, which we called PCP Labs and existed from 1991 to 2001. We spent several years there learning how to record and engineer. Paul’s Boutique and Odelay were sort of the crowning achievements, but there were a lot of less great records in between.
The Brothers’ studio, The Boat, combines old and new technologies_great creative grounds for artists.
was the ideal synthesis between your sampling activities and the traditional ‘record what people play’ approach to making records.
Simpson: During those years, when we learned how to engineer and produce, we sometimes would record musicians the way you would traditionally record a live band and then add samples. And not very successfully, because for some of the more traditional musicians we worked with, the idea of sampling was sort of foreign and they wanted to play things right. But we don’t necessarily want you to play things right; we want you to play things cool. You play over a groove until you have a good bar, and then we take that bar and loop it. I always say that our best music comes from mistakes. You’re trying to do one thing and then someone makes a mistake and that mistake ends up being the hook of the song, the coolest part of the song.
Beck really understood the benefits of sampling from the beginning, and he understood all along what our goal was. He’s totally uninhibited and not necessarily trying to play it right. He’s just trying to play it with attitude and flavor. He really understands the medium and what we do, and he hand-delivers us these great out-of-control performances that leave us with tracks that we can draw all these great loops from.
is Beck’s eighth studio album. How does it compare to its predecessors?
Simpson: Beck wanted to do more of a contemporary R&B record with Guero. To me, it picks up where Odelay left off. There’s a little bit of everything: rock, hip hop, blues-inspired, 1980s dance-inspired and so on. It’s a melting pot of all the types of songs Beck loves. Sometimes, there will be a few genres within one song.
Was your way of working on the new album similar to
Simpson: We had worked with Beck on some songs for Midnite Vultures and we finished off only two in time to make the record. There were six other songs that were pretty well developed, sometimes only needing Beck to finish his vocals and some sprucing up here and there. Beck loved those songs and wanted to revisit them. So we pulled them up and took some of them apart and reconstructed them. We began this the way we did with Odelay, pulling up loops or samples, pulling out records, saying, “Oh yeah, I want to do a song that sounds like that.” Whereas Paul’s Boutique was made from samples, a lot of Odelay and the new record is more based on sound than on the samples.
Now that it’s harder to get permission for samples, what do you create your loops and rhythms from?
Simpson: Many of our samples come from years of tracking. Everything we ever tried or worked on, apart from the Stones’ material, which we were forced to turn over, ended up on hard disk. When making backups, we would pull out all the beats and other samples and put those on a separate drive. At one point, we had one of our employees compile all the samples from throughout our history, and we now have one sample library called Dust Beats.
was recorded at your commercial facility, The Boat, in Silverlake (Los Angeles), which sports a 1969 56-input 8028 Neve desk and a Pro Tools|HD3 system. Odelay was recorded at PCP Labs, with a 24-channel Soundcraft Spirit desk. Did the equipment make a difference in the way you worked?
King: Yes. The creative process in making the new album was very similar to the making of Odelay. It was about Mike, Beck and myself in a room, having fun, coming up with ideas, then embellishing and finishing them. But the major difference is that for Odelay, we used Studio Vision software and Digidesign hardware with a 2-channel interface, so we could only record or play back one or two tracks of live audio at the same time. I had to take everything that we did and convert it into samples that could then be played back with the SampleCell card and make MIDI notes that corresponded with wherever I wanted the samples to happen. But for the new album, we had many inputs and outputs and as many tracks as we wanted. We don’t use a sampler anymore because there are so many tracks. And so we got to layer more vocals and instruments, using multiple mics on instruments, which we couldn’t do before.
There’s more live playing on Guero and it’s thicker with sound, but the spirit is similar. One thing Beck remarked on was that we did everything so fast this time. He remembered with Odelay having a lot of time to sit around and write lyrics or melodies while I was converting playing into samples and thinking about how to make it all work. By the time I was ready for him, it seemed like he had a finished song ready to go and we’d do a first take. But this time, he had to sit and listen more to what we were doing because we would accomplish everything so quickly.
Was there other equipment that played a pivotal role in the making of
King: We began songs written from scratch in Ableton Live, running with Pro Tools. I love Ableton. It’s a quick way for me to get the ball rolling and quickly make ideas happen that Beck likes and then plays over. I get that going and then I set up microphones, like the SM57 combined with Neumann 47 or 47 FET for electric guitars — I tend to use 47s on almost everything — sometimes a Royer 122 ribbon mic using an LA-3A compressor and a 47 with a Royer for acoustic guitars.
I record all that stuff in Pro Tools and pick out my favorite things and cut and paste and create verses and choruses. Then I see what Beck likes and start some arrangements. We continue to go back and forth with each other until I feel the song is there, at which point, I hand things over to the studio’s Pro Tools assistant, Danny Kalb, who would continue to work with Beck on overdubs.
Because of the way I produce and create with samples and loops, Ableton is what I dreamed of back in the mid-1980s, when I was using primitive software with numbers flashing across the screen. I had to program it all and it was just so complicated. I knew that the ability would be there to do what Ableton does, which is that you can work with loops and time stretching in real time. If I have a beat going or even maybe just a tempo running, I can click on Files in my library and then on Samples, and audition beats or music or guitars or basses or whatever, and they will instantly play back to whatever I’m playing. In the past, I had to pull the sample up, choose which one might work, trim it, tune it, sync it and after a long process, I could decide whether it really was cool or not.
There are a lot of really weird noises on the track “Emergency Exit.”
King: Those are strange digital artifacts and stretching noises in Ableton. I think it has some loops that went at half-speed. The average person would say, “That sounds horrible, they need to improve their stretching algorithms,” but Beck was like, “Wow, that sounds amazing!” A lot of the exploratory nature of the work we do with Beck comes from his open-mindedness and eagerness to do new things. The same happened with several effect-y plug-ins, like SoundToys and some of the GRM Tools stuff, which I used for creating crazy, freaky effects.
In addition to The Boat, you both have pretty elaborate home studio, where you can create finished products.
Simpson: My home studio setup contains a full Pro Tools|HD3 rig with a couple of Neve mic pre’s and LA-2A compressors. Basically, all the stuff we have at The Boat minus the Neve desk. I have probably one-third of what The Boat has in terms of outboard gear.
King: I have converted one of my two houses into a studio complex where I have two studios. We moved here six months ago. I’ve always had a studio in my house, and in the last house I lived in, we converted this huge beautiful living room into a studio [called The Medina]. I have Pro Tools|HD3 with ProControl so I can mix virtually. I also have various Pultecs, a couple of LA-2A compressors, a couple of 1176s, LA-4A, RCA BA6A, Neve 1073, 1076, Neve stereo compressor, Neve mastering EQ, Manley Massive Passive, Manley DI, Manley mic pre’s, Telefunken V72, V76, Mastering Labs mic pre’s, Distressor, the SSL compressor and all the great microphones.
And we use tons of synthesizers. You name it, we have it. They are all hardware synths. I don’t like using soft synths; I like to have knobs. I don’t really like presets; I like to be able to tweak things. We have every keyboard ever made. Many of them are in The Boat, but we also have them in storage. I have closets here at home that are stacked floor to ceiling with all kinds of crazy keyboards. We have all kinds of Moogs, and I’m a big fan of the whole Korg line of keyboards, so I have Korg PolySix and Mono/Poly.
So what about The Boat? It was originally purpose-built in 1941 as a broadcast studio. You bought it in 1997, made several changes and then stacked it with a striking combination of state-of-the-art digital and vintage and valve analog equipment.
Simpson: Combining old and new has been our goal as musicians and producers and now as studio owners. We’ve made our name staying abreast of the latest technology, but at the same time, we’ve used that technology to sample all those brilliantly recorded recordings from the 1970s. As it got more and more painful to use samples, we realized that we were better off creating those sounds ourselves, and the way to do that is to get all the equipment it was originally created on.
King: I love collecting gear, and after I collected all the gear I could handle, I kept finding more and that’s how I started acquiring what we have at The Boat. The old gear has the aspect of a vintage car. It’s beautiful, it’s historic, there’s a definite nostalgia to it.
Surely there’s more than nostalgia involved in running a commercial studio. Do you still feel that there’s a place for analog now that we have HD digital?
Simpson: The Pro Tools|HD system sounds a lot better than the old system, but there’s still a huge gap between analog and digital. HD digital still lacks a certain emotion. The late 1960s and early 1970s probably saw the pinnacle in sound reproduction. The imaging and dynamics are just so much better. I’m sort of a bass junkie. I like it when you can really feel the low end, and those late-’60s and early ’70s records were the last time you really felt that, at least in the rock and soul stuff. Now everything is so thin and brittle, it makes me cringe when I hear snare and kick drums.
The centerpiece of the studio is the wonderful Neve console. It’s such a nice-sounding board. Being able to record and pump channels back through the console really makes a huge difference. But a year after we had The Boat up and running, we found that neither us of was using The Boat that much. Instead, we spent most of our time at our home studios so we could be closer to our families. So we decided that it was a shame to just have The Boat sitting there and began interviewing studio managers. And Adam [Moseley] really brought The Boat to life. He had great ideas and started pulling clients in.
After The Boat was opened as a commercial studio in January 2003, you’ve seen artists like Madonna, Avril Lavigne, Marilyn Manson, Lenny Kravitz, Don Was and many others there. What have you done there yourselves?
King: The only thing we’ve done at The Boat is record and mix Beck’s new album. The mixes we did there sounded fantastic everywhere else. I really trust the room and the monitoring, especially the UREI 813C main monitors, which are great. We didn’t really use much outboard during the mix because it was already sounding so great. We used the SSL [Logic FX384] compressor pretty much on every mix. If nothing else, it’s a security blanket and lets you adjust the levels nicely as the mix is going back into Pro Tools.
Having seen your 20-year-old dreams about what sampling gear should be doing finally come true, what dreams do you now have for the future of technology?
Simpson: I’m pretty satisfied. The next step would be me not having to enter commands with a keyboard and mouse anymore and computers being able to read my mind.
King: I’m still a student of recording and producing. I would love to do a Dust Brothers album. We’ve been working on a Dust Brothers album since 1987, but songs continually are given to artists we work with. And now we’re both so busy with things we’re working on, and we both have families that it’s hard to get around to doing your own thing.
Paul Tingen is a Dutch guitarist and writer who lives in Scotland.
The Dust Brothers bravely produced Tenacious D’s self-titled album. Read about the process here.
Click here for audio clips from Beck’s new CD, Guero.