Mike McCarthy landed in Austin just as the city's music scene started to blow up. It was 1994, and in short order he worked with indie darlings Spoon, produced demos for a young band by the name of Magneto U.S.A. (who became Fastball before the release of their 1996 debut, Make Your Mama Proud) and a handful of other locally lauded acts. It took five years, he says, for him to feel like he could make it in Austin as a producer, but since 1999 he's worked with an eclectic range of acts including Spoon (every album since the 2001 offering Girls Can Tell, including the latest, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), Patty Griffin (Children Running Through), …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, The Features and The Sun.
Mike McCarthy (foreground) with Spoon’s Britt Daniel
What are you working on these days?
Right this very second, I'm working on a Patty Griffin song [“No Bad News”] that the label wants to release for a single. I'm rebuilding the track, because when she records she goes first with the acoustic guitar and vocal, or piano and vocal performance, and then everything is built around that. In lieu of having a band track that's stellar, the concept is that she gets her ultimate performance and then [the band] has to go to her. It's backward, but I think with a singer/songwriter/performer, a lot of times it works best.
How will you change it for radio?
I'm adding some percussion, a little electric guitar and I want to make sure the drum track is in there most of the time.
Who would have thought that Patty Griffin would be getting a radio single?
I don't think that's what we were intending for originally. The label feels like they want to give it a shot, and this is the song they want to do for it. They asked if I wanted to do a remix for it. I said, “Well, I don't know that I would beat it, or anyone else would, but if you let me add some things to it and re-record a couple things, then I bet I have a better shot at making it more like what you want.” I don't necessarily believe that radio people play these things that often; they still tend to go with what's on the full-length, but it's worth a shot.
The musical genres you work in range from the folk singer/songwriter vibe of Patty Griffin to Trail of Dead's prog-noise rock to the indie pop of Spoon. Was your record collection like that growing up?
Definitely. I've always been a fan of “the rock” for sure. I just can't get away from the guitars and the attitude, from Iggy to The Beatles. But another side of me has always wanted to go out and find what else is out there. Even when I was a kid, I would listen to Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. Maybe that's not that wide, but as a teenager it was. I was exposed by my dad to a lot of country stuff and Appalachian, Carter Family-type of things. I always thought that was weird and corny, but I was fascinated. So I would listen to all of it, and as time went on I got into jazz. Now if I put on anything in my house, it's a Charlie Parker record or whatever '40s or '50s jazz record I can get my hands on.
How does that influence you when you start to work with an artist?
There might be some ideas for instrumentation. I never get weird for genres, and say, “Well, this won't work for what we are doing.” I spent some time in Nashville and I got exposed to a lot of instruments that I would have never seen. For instance, I don't even know if this is that special, but lately I've been talking to everyone about the [Fender] Bass VI, and they all look at me like, “Six-string bass? That's crazy. That's like Tool.” That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the tick-tack bass, the one The Cure used on Disintegration, the bass The Beatles used on the White Album [The Beatles]. I brought one in, and they're like, “Oh, okay. We thought you were talking about the heavy-metal bass.” Then I incorporate that thing into any kind of music. We used it on Patty's record, and she'd never heard of it before. She'd never even heard of doing tick-tack style, which is what they came up with in Nashville in the '50s. She loved it, and we used it on several songs on the record.
Do you engineer your own projects?
For the most part. I like having Jim Vollentine, who works with me a lot, do a lot of it. He's an excellent Pro Tools operator. He's also a great engineer. It's always good to have somebody else around for that, but I'm still the main person getting the sounds because I just don't trust anybody or I've got something in my head and I've just got to go do it. It's part of putting the whole thing together.
How diverse are you when mapping out equipment calls?
I'm always going around and finding the right mic for each instrument, but I pretty much know what I want to use for something. In Patty Griffin's case, I had been listening to her records and felt like her voice sounded a little bit thin. I didn't think that was right because I would hear her sing live and thought she was wailing and amazing.
My experience with people that have a dynamic voice and can get up to that upper register with an edge is that a Neumann 49 is best because it handles the quiet-to-loud stuff the best. Britt [Daniel, of Spoon] sounds good on a lot of different microphones, so it makes it cooler in the way that I can pick and choose what mics I want to use for each little part within a song, or for whatever song in general.
Are there any special pieces of gear that you like to bring into a session?
It depends on what it is. On Patty's record, I brought in an autoharp and the tick-tack bass. It wound up seeing little action, but it did bring a little bit of a vibe. We brought in an upright bass, too. For Trail of Dead, we're always bringing in different keyboards and new ways of doing some sequencing. But, generally, it's all the same guitars, amps and drums. For Spoon, I started to bring in a few extra things. Britt got a koto. We had a flamenco guitarist friend of mine play on it a little bit. I usually like to bring in little things like vibes or xylophones. There's always a wild-card thing.
How about in terms of recording gear?
For the most part I have what I need. I have a substantial amount of Neumann tube microphones. I cut on tape and use old tube preamps from Neve, Altec and API. I have two racks taller than me of all that stuff. Every once in a while, we'll do something weird like use a little TEAC 4-track, and I have some special cables made for it to get it back on the 24-track. I have an [Akai] MPC 4000 that I use quite a bit for sequencing. It usually gets incorporated in [the project] somehow.
What about recording philosophies for bands vs. artists? Do you have a different take on how you'll go about those dates?
I don't think there's a set way with any of them. It's sort of what can be accomplished and what's going to make the best result from song to song. So if Trail of Dead has a song that they can perform live as a group and that's going to get the best energy and the best performance, then we'll do that. If we have to piecemeal it, then we'll start with a sequencer and build the track. Patty, for the most part, is getting her performance and building the stuff around it.
I think you have to go song to song, really. I don't like to go in, cut drum tracks and then make a record. The only difference with a band as opposed to a singular artist is the psychology of dealing with the bandmembers. I mean, a lot of times with a singer/songwriter, or even if it's the leader of the group, you can go to them and stick up for what the final outcome needs to be. With a band, you have to deal with a lot of different personalities. With somebody that's [working with] a main artist, I'll maybe be a little more of a hard-ass and tell them that we've got to make the artist sound best and to stop eating up all the space with what they are playing. Maybe with a band I'd be a little more diplomatic. [Laughs] People know that I'm pretty straight-up.
Is it important to be direct?
I usually don't beat around the bush too much — it winds up being a waste of time. Some people get angry, some people get their feelings hurt, but I try not to make that happen. I try to keep everyone in good spirits, but sometimes it's just inevitable; it's an emotional situation. That part sucks and it's not my favorite part, but it happens.
Do you do your homework by listening to an artist's past catalog before you get into the studio with them?
So many producers seem to think that they only have to hear where an artist is right now rather than finding the touchstones in their past and building on it.
Well, you have to do both. Listening to the past records could mess you up. It's tough. It's like having to produce a band's record when they've already done full-blown demos. People get that demo-itis and they listen to things and think it's not beating the demo.
For instance, for The Sun, I was listening to their album and their demos quite a bit before they came down to record. Their new songs are different and they sound different. They still have their main sound and you want to bring that out, but you want to improve. You want to keep growing and make it more interesting, but you also want to know what that band's sound is, too. It seems like The Beatles' records really changed when they started working with Geoff Emerick. I think at that point, Geoff was really the producer. I mean, all the different sounds on Rubber Soul and Revolver are quite different from the first stuff. I know he was there listening to the other stuff. He had to have known the other music, because then you can say, “Hey, I hear this, but I think this can go here.” I think you have to know all of it somehow.
Many of the music tracks that you work on — and I'm thinking of the song “Stay Don't Go” from Spoon's Kill the Moonlight — have a real meticulous underpinning.
On that song, Britt had a loop that he made with his voice through a [Shure] 58 into a 4-track machine. When he does demos, there will be certain things that I keep. I'll dump them onto the 24-track machine and start from there — but not always. He keeps it open to do something better, but if I like it and I think that he got that one, we use it. In that case, we did use that as a building bridge. I took that loop, re-EQ'd it and put it on the 24-track.
But, yeah, we get pretty meticulous about what goes and what doesn't. The whole idea is, “Is this making the thing more interesting? Is it more exciting? Do I like the song better?” If so, then we keep it, and if not, shit goes. We might go through and play the entire song with a sound and wind up using one little four-second blip from it in the song and get rid of the rest. That happens a lot, where we'll put down a lot of different things and that way you have all these little sounds that come and go.
So is there a consistent thing that you do from project to project?
I think that the whole idea goes back to working on a song-to-song basis. Each song has to be dealt with for what it is and made the best that it can be. I don't bounce around from song to song during the sessions much, but I try to get as far as I can and get into a vibe. Certainly, you're going to revisit ideas for this or that song, but it's always a song-to-song basis — making it the best for what that is. There's not a lot of concern for how this fits in with the record. It's just like, screw it, it's going to because we're working on it at the same time with the same people. If you stick with that idea of treating the song for what it is more so than trying to make it fit, then you leave your options open for creativity and making it something you'd like to listen to. I hear kids around here that are recording say that they did all their drum tracks today. How? How do you know if it's the right tempo? How do you know if each part should be there? You've got to deal with one thing at a time. That's the only way for me to feel like I can get what I want out of it.
So right before Spoon's Girls Can Tell was released, Britt was talking about ending his music career if the album didn't work out. Trail of Dead was on shaky ground before deciding to record So Divided. Do you have a special touch for these people who are on the edge of walking away from music?
Maybe I feel like I'm in the same boat. I'm not going to go do anything else. I can't. I wish I had a degree and could go to medical school or something, but I don't and I'm going to stay in music. That being said, when people are that talented, I think it's too important. They just have to have somebody there that believes in them to see it through.
Britt said the same thing after Kill the Moonlight, too, which was weird because I was extra hard on him throughout the entire process. He wanted to kill me by the end of the record. It was tough love. He didn't get that I was trying to get the best out of him. I knew that “The Way We Get By” would break 'em out, and I fought them for months on how that song was going to be arranged. They finally came around to it, we made the record and that was the one that got them on the map. It wasn't easy. They actually put my name last on the credits because they were so pissed at me. That happens. People think I'm too hard on them, but I'm just trying to get the best out of them.
And they keep coming back.
I think they try to get away sometimes! I don't like it when I have to [say], “You're wrong on this. We have to do this.” I don't like having to go there, but when I really feel like it needs to happen, I take the risk. You can't have regrets: “Well, I was nice to them. I let them have their way, everybody hates the record.” If you know how it's going to come out and you need to go somewhere with it, you have to take that risk that they might leave you. In the end, though, they might thank you for doing that, too.
David John Farinella is a San Francisco-based writer.