FROM PUBLIC ENEMY TO GALACTICNew York-based engineer/producer Nick Sansano has forged a solid career out of working away from the mainstream - out on the edges where creativity thrives without the constraints that commercial considerations impose. The irony of his situation is that in toiling in the studio for so many forward-looking acts during the late '80s and through the '90s, he's also unexpectedly been part of a number of popular albums that were, rightfully, discovered by a public eager to hear something new and different. Sansano's impressive resume includes engineering, mixing or production on groundbreaking albums by Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions...), Ice Cube (AmerikKka's Most Wanted), Bell Biv Devoe (Poison), Sonic Youth (Daydream Nation, Goo and Dirty Boots), Rob Bass (It Takes Two), Manic Street Preachers (Generation Terrorists), the Grassy Knoll (III) and this year's fabulous New Orleans funk-feast Late for the Future, by Galactic. Toss in CDs by the likes of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Getaway People and a host of unknown (at least in the U.S.) European acts, and you've got a broad and fascinating career that's still accelerating.
Sansano was born in the Bronx (N.Y.), but his formative years were spent in New Jersey, where he played keyboards in a succession of mostly new wave-ish bands in high school. He went to the Berklee College of Music (in Boston) on a musician's track (performance, theory, composition, etc.) but ended up in the engineering program. "As I was finishing up an arranging degree at Berklee, I realized there was still something missing, and I found myself being more attracted to the studio and all the trappings of the studio, and that's where I found myself being really comfortable," he says. "But it's not like I was very technical or anything. And I'm still not. When it comes to the actual construction of equipment or maintenance and knowing how to change a capacitor, I can't help you with that, I'm afraid. But I like using the technology creatively, and that's kind of what got me interested in getting studio experience. It was like a big instrument to me.
"My first job out of Berklee was at Newbury Sound in Boston," he continues. "I had recorded demos there with bands I was in and as I was finishing up at Berklee, they were looking for some assistants, so I would go over there and work there a couple of days a week. I moved on to doing sessions very quickly. I don't think it's because I was particularly good, but circumstance always seemed to follow me. At Newbury, they needed people to do sessions, and they were simple sessions, and I did them. Then, when I moved back to New York, I worked at a studio called Eras Sound, on 54th Street between First and Second Avenue. It was two big rooms, and it was a very popular studio in the disco era. This guy, Boris Midney, who owned the studio, produced all these dance classics. I wasn't involved with that, but they needed people to do other kinds of sessions, so I did that."
From there, Sansano moved to Greene Street Recording (in Manhattan), and that became his home base for a number of years. "That was a great studio," he recalls. "The whole hip hop thing exploded down there, along with lots of other things. That's where I started to get involved with the Bomb Squad, who produced all the Public Enemy stuff, and Ice Cube and Bell Biv DeVoe. I engineered and mixed on Fear of a Black Planet, It Takes a Nation of Millions, AmerikKka's Most Wanted, some Run-DMC stuff, Slick Rick, 3rd Bass."
Did Sansano know that these projects would be so important and influential? "Not initially," he says, "because it was a very comfortable situation. The Bomb Squad, before they were officially the Bomb Squad, would come in and work on a lot of Def Jam R&B-type stuff, so we all knew each other really well. But they never would bring Public Enemy stuff to Greene Street at first. They would do all that at a place in Long Island. Then they started to bring it down to Greene Street, and that's when I started to get a lot of those sessions and started a real relationship with the production team. We had all sorts of celebrities and political activists coming down to check it out - people like George Clinton, Africa Bombaataa, Spike Lee. That's when I knew something was going on there."
Working with Public Enemy and other rap and hip hop groups constituted quite an education for Sansano - technically, because the sonic approach favored by the Bomb Squad was consciously low-tech; and socially, as he was a white boy working on some of the most politically charged African-American music of that era. "It seems as though in the beginning everything I'd learned, [the Bomb Squad] wanted the opposite," he says with a laugh. "As I would work to clean things up and to get it to sound what I thought was presentable, I quickly learned that this was what they were about, and this is what the whole movement was about, and this is the way it should be, and I had to serve that. I had to forget about everything I knew and just serve what they needed. Then I came to realize that it was just as valid an aesthetic as a more conventional approach. We would go through tons of ways of doing things. It was about experimenting with sound and twisting sounds. And that would influence what I would do later with Sonic Youth. Between what we were doing with Public Enemy and Sonic Youth, by the time I had finished that string of records, I was completely twisted in the other direction.
"With Sonic Youth it was, `What is the best way we can overload this preamp? How many can we chain together? If we press all the buttons in on the 1176 and chain it to some other compressor and then overload a preamp, what'll that sound like?' We were looking for ways to change the rules and include the dirt and to make the dirt as valid as spending $3,000 a day at a top studio using top-of-the-line microphones. I remember that when we did [Sonic Youth's] Daydream Nation, the H3000 had just come out, and by the end of the night, we had everything running through it.
"We were looking for a way to present a different picture. It wasn't like we didn't know what we were doing. It was conscious, we had a real direction and a certain quality that was undeniable. There was stuff that was accidental that came from just wildly experimenting, but there was always some thought behind it. Just playing, trying to find ways to make things a bit different. And I got that from working with Public Enemy and all those other groups."
As for the racial issue, "There were times when it would be a little tense," Sansano acknowledges, "but it was always with some extra bit player; never with the core of guys we worked with day-in and day-out. I still keep in touch with those guys. We had some problems when we did the Ice Cube record, and we had a whole bunch of L.A. people come. Then, with Bell Biv DeVoe, there was a posse, and there would be some hanger-on, some friend-of-a-friend that shouldn't have been there in the first place that makes you feel uncomfortable or says the comment about race you don't want to hear. It was unavoidable, I guess, but it never ever got in the way.
"But the musicians always stood behind me. I cleared out the posse a few times," he chuckles. "You could be the fall guy, because [the group] didn't want to be the ones to throw out their friends. But there would come a point sometimes when I could just say, `Look, we've really got to get this done now,' and people usually respected that."
Though Sansano is no longer a staffer at Greene Street, he still does the majority of his work there while also nurturing what has become quite an international career. He produced The Bats from New Zealand, Hunters and Collectors from Australia, Ghosts of American Airmen from Northern Ireland, "and then I have a whole French thing going, and I also work a bit in Italy," he says, citing stints in such studios as Capri Digital near Naples, Studio Le Manoir in southern France and Plus XXX in Paris.
"What happened was the hip hop stuff I was doing attracted some of the French hip hop people, so I went over and mixed some French hip hop, and I realized there was this whole other world to discover outside of New York," he says. Evidently, French and Italian A&R people were excited about the prospect of landing an American with such impressive hip hop credentials, and this has led to considerable overseas opportunities for Sansano and his occasional partners-in-crime, Franck Rivaleau and Dan Wood. One group, I Am, "went on to become the biggest French rap act ever; we did two albums together and won all kinds of awards," he says. Sansano also had a major hit in France producing a rock/world music band called Zebda.
Of differences between working with French and American artists, Sansano says, "The vocal is more important in France than in the U.S. The vocal is everything, and everything has to revolve around the vocal. Their whole musical heritage is based on lyrics more than anything. So a lot of attention to detail is paid toward the choice of vocal microphones, the takes, the comping of the vocal. Everything is the vocal, where in America they're looking for that huge low-end thing to be happening. In France, they're not looking for maximum impact. They're looking for a vehicle to carry the vocal."
Stateside, the coolest disc Sansano has been involved with recently is the incendiary, ultrafunky Galactic album, Late for the Future. Regarded as one of the finest of the current wave of jam bands, Galactic has had some trouble capturing both the power and the nuances of their live shows in a recording studio. And initially, the band's label, Capricorn Records, invited several different producers to go down to New Orleans to meet with the band and try cutting a couple of songs. Sansano and the band hit it off in their two days together, and that led to him being offered the production gig.
"I tried to get across the idea that they should try to establish a recording identity," Sansano says. "I got them to think of the studio as another tool for them to use and to approach it song by song, instead of just going in and playing live, which is the way they'd done it. So we rehearsed and worked out arrangements and tempos, which is a pretty standard way for me to work. Then we went to the Egyptian Room [American Sector] and Magazine Street Sound, and I set up my Pro Tools, and we began to make all the loops and samples that we wanted. We knew that we were going to try to incorporate more loops and samples into the record, but none of us was ready to use found loops and samples. So we set up some drum kits and keyboards and guitar amps and started making loops. Then we proceeded to construct the skeletons of the songs with the loops we'd made. We had a few days doing this busy work, and then, once we had those laid out, we went to Kingsway [also in New Orleans], which I loved; it's one of the best studios I've ever worked at."
Kingsway is located in an old house and for these sessions, Sansano and the studio's Ethan Allen had the group set up in different parts of the building. With a collection of loops and samples for a foundation on some tracks, Galactic then recorded fairly live. Sansano cut the band straight to tape (Studer 24-track, Ampex 499), using the studio's vintage API console mostly for monitoring and two Neve sidecars for its mic pre's. Guitar and keyboards went through API mic pre's; drums used Neves.
"I also brought my rack with some MIDI stuff and Pro Tools, my computer, etc. I had a Pro Tools engineer, Danny Madorsky, helping me out, particularly at the beginning and end of the sessions. The good thing about that is he can actually be editing while a session is happening. I have a Mackie mixer built into the rack, and there are ties on the back of the rack so I can flick a switch and he puts headphones on and he's totally self-contained. It's almost like having two sessions going at once."
Sansano says that his approach to this recording was influenced by the fact that Galactic has a "very strong, straight-up, jazz influence" combined with a drummer (Stanton Moore) and bass player (Robert Mercurio) who are great groove players. Their material ranges from free-wheeling, funk instrumentals to R&B rave-ups featuring singer Theryl de'Clouet. Keyboardist Richard Vogel, guitarist Jeff Baines and reeds player Ben Ellman are all top-notch soloists and ensemble players, conversant in blues and more "outside" styles.
"The band was looking to make a more produced record, but still have it be intimate and true," Sansano says. "Kingsway is an incredibly comfortable place that allows you to do anything you want and feel like you're in your own living room. And New Orleans definitely has its own feeling and pace, and you have to find it yourself. If you're going down there thinking you're going to run the show like you do at home, forget it; it's not going to work. You're going to piss people off, and you're not going to get anything done. You gotta get inside what they're thinking and bend to their schedule."
Still, for the mix, Sansano went back to his proverbial living room: Greene Street. Working in France and Italy and New Orleans is all well and good, but New York City is still home.
For more info check out nicholas sansano.com.