We’ve waited long enough to unveil perhaps one of the most fascinating interviews we’ve ever conducted. Zach Weeks, the engineer behind some of our favorite punk and hardcore records last year, was kind enough to go on record with us about working at God City, landing a gig with The Armed, and much, much more. You’re going to want to sit down for this one.
It’s pretty rare for us that an interview flows right from the beginning: there’s always kind of a warm up period, where you’re getting used to each others cadences, whatever delays might be present in recording devices, etc. But Zach started this phone interview with a resounding bang: killer tacos and the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 Soundtrack. There’s no quicker route to our heart than either of those things, let alone both of them.
So let’s not waste any more time. We’ve got some hella hallowed ground to cover.
Zach: I’m gonna hit record on my mic so I can send that over to you for high-res. I don’t have your thing recording so you’ll just have to sync in.
FB: Oh no problem, I know what I sound like.
Zach: I understand, same. Whenever I listen to myself on a recording I’m like ‘oh god, that’s my voice?
FB: (laughs) It’s how we get interested in engineering right? Like, how do I change that?
Zach: Yeah, how can I change the way my voice sounds when I talk to people on the telephone or out loud?
FB: It’s interesting how universal that seems to be, a while ago I read this book by Jay-Z, it’s one of the first things he talks about. He’s like ‘I noticed the mic gave a low end weird thing that I just don’t feel in my head, it didn’t sound correct, but I loved it.’ But at least he liked it.
Zach: Yeah, he’s probably one of the lucky few. Well, I apologize for the delay I was picking up takeout, and they were forty five minutes behind, and then on my drive home, I hit every single red light. I just dropped the food off, hopped in here and got on the call.
FB: Aw dude, I’m sorry.
Zach: Oh don’t worry about it I had a late lunch. Normally I pick up food and it sits around for thirty minutes to an hour before I actually end up eating at all.
FB: What did you get?
Zach: There’s this place in Salem called Spitfire Tacos that I’d highly recommend if you ever visit, it’s probably the best restaurant in town. It’s takeout only, and they just really know what they’re doing and clearly care about their craft a lot.
FB: Dank, duly noted! Do they make their own hot sauce?
Zach: They do have their own hot sauce they make in house. There are a couple of them, one of them is a habanero that’s very fucking good, among other things. Their menu is very unique and interesting, they only have tacos, quesadillas, and sides, but despite the limited menus, they know what they’re doing. It’s very good shit.
FB: And this is in Salem?
Zach: It is in Salem, yes. I pretty much don’t go anywhere other than Salem, where I live, I’m a bit of a hermit. I don’t go anywhere other than work or my house (laughs).
FB: Sure, and the last few years the lines are blurred between the two so often.
Zach: Oh correct. It’s funny, not too much has changed for me in the past two years. Obviously social aspect and things to do, commitments have changed, but at the same time, I’m kind of like… ‘this isn’t too much different than what I was doing before. I’m just not interacting with as many people.’ It’s interesting living in a small town where there’s a lot of stuff to do at all times, like anything you’d want in this small city… why ever leave?
FB: I understand, I guess there are spots like that all over. You find out there are huge benefits to those kind of environments. Despite you know, decades of youth wasted hating it all!
Zach: Oh yeah, correct. I mean I live in Salem, I grew up in literally the next city over, and went to high school twenty five minutes away from where I live right now. I never once pictured myself living anywhere near here at all. Yet here I am, twenty minutes away from where I went to high school. It’s very bizarre in some regard, but also I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not because of high school, absolutely not, but it’s comfortable. And not comfortable for the sake of what I know, but rather I have a completely different perspective on it now as an adult.
FB: Sure, all I can say is it’s very relatable. Especially with housing being what it is, a lot of people are forced to at least get closer to their hometowns, if not directly go right back to mom and dads house.
Zach: There’s nothing wrong with that, I’ve had a few stints in between moving places where I went back and lived with my mom for a few months, that kind of thing. I used to live in Boston, and I was on the road working for bands a lot, so it didn’t make sense for me to pay rent. So I’d live at my moms for a month, then be on the road for a month, so on and so forth, and eventually moved to Salem. And I’ve been here ever since!
FB: Do you think the town you grew up in, or Salem, affected you musically? What was the beginning of your musical journey like? Did those environments affect that journey at all?
Zach: I’m sure they did, I’ve never actually really thought about it, that’s a great question. I was always interested in music as a child, my uncle was a bit of a musician and I got into playing music at nine or ten years old. I started taking drums lessons in 2001, and I really liked Linkin Park, and shortly after that, I got into The Ramones. So I don’t think I would have got into rock or punk music if it wasn’t for where I grew up. The town I went to high school and likewise middle school, was very boring, very suburban, and when I was there, no culture whatsoever. Genuinely. I graduated with like a hundred, maybe a hundred twenty kids, so being in a very stagnant environment, like most millennials who got into punk rock music, it’s because they grew up in a weird suburban town where there was nothing to do and they didn’t feel like they belonged there. So yeah, absolutely, my surroundings as a kid ended up having a lot to do with how I do music.
FB: It’s interesting, that punk rock pipeline of suburbia, to and from. I live on a street in a house that looks literally just like the cover of Suffer from Bad Religion. I cannot check the mail without picturing myself as this flaming little boy.
Zach: (laughs) That’s sick, I know exactly the record you’re talking about.
FB: So at this point, you’re interested in music through punk rock and Linkin Park, who um, you know, at the time didn’t really fit into punk rock, but still breaking a lot of boundaries.
Zach: Oh sure, I was like ten years old, it was 2002, and THE Linkin Park record came out, and everyone at my school was obsessed with it. So Linkin Park was the first scary music I ever heard, like rock music that was aggressive. That was the first thing I’d ever heard that was like that. I was probably only interested in Linkin Park for about a year, before I got into other music. A big stepping stone for me was the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 soundtrack, specifically that one. I had all three of those games when they came out, and that’s a big thing for millennial and punk music, the Tony Hawk soundtrack. It very much shaped my taste in music.
FB: What were some of your favorite tracks on that third one? There are some gems.
Zach: So, my cousin had the game, and that’s where I played it. I didn’t have a Playstation 2, I’m in front of my computer right now, so I’m looking it up…
FB: Perfect time to be grilled about Tony Hawk!
Zach: So that was the first time I’d ever hard The Ramones, for whatever reason on the Playstation 2 one, as soon as you started the first level, which was like the factory or the foundry, “Blitzkrieg Bop” would start playing. So every time we booted up the game, I was like ‘this song is amazing, this band is amazing.’ I liked that one, there’s an AFI song that I liked…
FB: “Boy Who Destroyed the World” is damn good.
Zach: Yup. Of course I liked the CKY song, I thought that was wicked, wicked badass. You know there’s not as many songs on here as I thought!
FB: Yeah I also went back recently and scanned through a few playlists on Spotify… but they released a Tony Hawk 3 Inspired By soundtrack, and it kicked ass. It had NOFX and weird nu-metal stuff on it like Pressure 4-5.
Zach: Wait, was it like, a CD? I think I had that… yeah, I had this exact same CD, the NOFX track, Outkast, Papa Roach, Deftones… that was the first time I ever heard Deftones… 2001 is probably when I bought it. I would have never remembered that if you hadn’t mentioned this (laughs).
FB: Man, that whole thing… I did not think we would go there, but I’m that glad we did!
Zach: Yeah, that’s very specific!
FB: Well, in this very important time for you musically, did you know you were going to get into mixing or mastering? Did you hear anything and go ‘what the hell is that?’
Zach: The way I got into recording music was sort of like a lot of people, out of utility. In 2005, when I was 12 or 13 years old… it’s a very funny story that I’ve mentioned to a few people. In retrospect, I’m not embarrassed by it, but it’s definitely like, embarrassing content if that makes sense. I was in a band, my first band that ever played shows, and we wanted to have CD’s. What we ended up doing was we had the guitarist in my band, who I ended up being in other bands with him later… basically, he had this old boombox cassette deck that had a built in microphone that was actually fairly good sounding, even in retrospect. We recorded our songs by strategically placing amplifiers and PA speakers around this boombox. I took that and figured out how to get it onto a computer, and burnt a CD of three songs. Extremely black metal fashioned, essentially. I was in literal seventh grade, and I was like ‘there has to be a better way to do this.’ I didn’t have a great computer so the way I learned to record was getting a TASCAM 424 tape recorder, that was the first good recording rig I had.
But before that, this is the embarrassing part: I was really into punk music like Rancid, Operation Ivy, Dead Kennedys, like, ‘my first punk records’. I thought I was on some next level shit. But I was also really into indie music, mid-2000’s garage rock that was wicked popular… and The White Stripes were my favorite band in the entire world. I thought that Jack White was the coolest person in the entire fucking universe, I would find b-sides on Geocity sites… every single thing about that band. That dude is pretentious as hell, but… everything he did was super cool to me. When I found out that he recorded music, I was under the impression that he recorded all of their music, which is to be taken with a grain of salt. Around this time in 2005, there was a White Stripes record with that song “Blue Orchid” on it. It’s like their best record. But that record has just come out summer of 2005, and I was still in school. I read in some article like Rolling Stone or whatever, that he recorded the whole thing at his house, on tape machines. That was the whole thing with the White Stripes, they recorded everything to tape, didn’t use any computers, any digital effects, all tape. It’s probably debatable to some extent, I’m sure they recorded to tape, but who knows how pure that actually was. So in my head, that was it. He made this record with dynamic microphones in a living room, and I could do that too. So what I started doing was being up old tape machine, like quarter inch tape machines, one track, or two track but mono on each side… finally, I got it right and ended up with one that could record four tracks at once in one direction. You couldn’t overdub but you could record four tracks at simultaneously, like a quadraphonic machine, because that was a thing in the seventies. In 2005 people were not buying reel to reels at all, I would get these things for like twenty bucks. I don’t think I ever paid more than forty.
Then after that I got a real four track, not a mixer or anything but essentially a Sony DJ mixer that I’d plug microphones into. So I pretty much borrowed any microphone I could from people… and I would hook up these things to record drums bussed down to one track, with kick mic, snare mic, and a mono overhead. Then I’d record guitar and bass at the same time to track two, and vocals and another guitar to tracks three and four, and this is how I recorded for a while… I learned about punching on that, how to splice cassette tape which was pretty fucking crazy that I was even trying to do that, its way over the top… that’s how I got into recording music. The bands I was playing in needed to record, make a demo, and couldn’t afford to go to a recording studio, there wasn’t anyone else in my town who did anything like that, so… I figured it out.
FB: Jesus! Did you record any Cerce like that?
Zach: Oh no, not like that, absolutely not. By that point in time, I had an actual multi track computer rig with Pro Tools and stuff…
FB: Were there any particular producers or engineers that made you aware of the fact that there was more to do?
Zach: Yeah, I understood how multitrack recording worked even though I was limited to four tracks, and in my dreams would have sixteen tracks to work with but because Jack White was my hero, and punk bands had recorded on four tracks and eight tracks in the eighties, I was like ‘oh, if they can do it, I can too.’ and the whole lo-fi Modest Mouse recordings were done on very limited track count machines. That stuff interested me because I could relate to it based on my workflow…
FB: I remember finding out about automation as a total amateur, I’d watched people use Pro Tools and Logic, but after recording an album with Childspeak, and watching someone do a massive Pro Tools session, my heart was sinking every second. I was like ‘I had no idea you could do this, goddamnit!’
Zach: Yeah, totally. I had a very similar experience the first time I recorded anything in a professional studio, I was fifteen. I’m twenty nine now, but that was when I realized I wanted to record music for sure. I had my heart set on it for a minute. I used to be a drummer, which I haven’t played in a decade because I have really bad carpel tunnel and it showed up when I was twenty years old. But when I was fifteen in my schools music program, I was in the jazz band, and one of the girls I was in the band with, her mom was a famous voice over artist and worked at a recording studio in Boston. But they had us come in for a late night session where they set up everything in the live room, and recorded the high school jazz band in Pro Tools. It’s still there, it’s so professional that it’s like $1500 a day to book without an engineer. They mostly do film score and stuff but it’s a dudes private studio in an old masonic temple, with the live room being an old masonic hall with crazy painted ceilings. It was insane, and that was the first professional recording studio I’d ever been to and I was like ‘this is absolutely fucking crazy.’ But the dude had the massive Avid S-48 control surface and a projector screen… it was exactly like you were saying. Watching that dude on the computer moving faders, putting plugins up and editing, I was like… ‘Whoa, I want to do that.’
FB: It was like seeing the inside of Startship Enterprise for the first time, like, I’m betrayed right now.
Zach: Yes! For sure!
FB: So how did you end up working with Joan of Arc on their last album?
Zach: Oh, so that was a fun record to master, I liked that band a lot when I was a teenager. I found out about Joan of Arc, Cap’n Jazz, and American Football… all those related projects when I was sixteen or seventeen. Tim, who I was in Cerce with, went to high school with, etc. He’s the most modest person in the entire world but was always finding the best music. But he was like ‘you should really check this out’ and he’d found those Kinsella bands, and we were obsessed with them. Joan of Arc was the freakiest one of all of them, I worshipped that shit. I don’t remember how it happened but in 2018, I worked on a project for… actually, once sec, let me check my email for the timeline on this, but I think I mastered a record for Neil Strauch, who recorded a lot Joan of Arc stuff, and he recommended me to Tim to master one of his bands called Good Fuck, that he’s in with Jenny Pulse. I don’t know how exactly I ended up in it, but I had mastered one of Jenny’s other records. She used to perform under the name Spa Moans., and I guess she liked it, then they hit me up to master their Good Fuck album… so then, Jenny and Tim kept sending me Good Fuck records or songs to master, and they had a lot of material, like constantly putting out material for two years. And it’s all really cool stuff.
As a result of that, Tim asked me to do this other band he was playing in, what was it called… he’s got so many bands… Friend Enemy! And it was like a Joan of Arc record, but it was a full band, and the original record I think Zach Hill played on, it was a star-studded thing. I actually have no idea who played on the one that I ended up mastering, it came out at the beginning of the pandemic. I think someone from Mute Duo was in it. But Tim liked it, and ended up asking me to do the final Joan of Arc record, and I was like ‘yeah, of course!’ but in the back of my head I was like “that is fucking wild.”
FB: They had a lot. Tim’s output is so vast, at least we knew it doesn’t mean that music is going to stop, just go somewhere else.
Zach: Yeah, he and Jenny are putting out a bunch of new music now. I didn’t work on it, but they were actually trying to come to Salem and record it at God City.
FB: Oh, shit!!
Zach: The timing didn’t really work out, and the financial things didn’t work out, but damn, it would have been pretty cool if it did! But I think they’re finally putting out that music that they’d been working on for a long time.
FB: So I’m gonna try not to ask the same question twice here, but when you’re working on mixing or mastering, what’s the biggest difference in your workload when comparing something like the Ghengis Tron record and like… Fuming Mouth? Do you approach them with a different philosophy as far as what you do?
Zach: For sure. I didn’t master either of those records, but I worked on recording both of them, one more than the other, and mixing both of them. The Genghis Tron record was really interesting, because they had a very clear cut idea of what they wanted and it ended up at the end of the day, me and Kurt Ballou were co-mixing it. Kurt would work with the band 10-6 and I would hop in from 7-10 or 11 for more mixing, it was a long process. Every single detail of that record was extremely nitpicked, very microscopic. There were some things that I brought to the table that the band liked and wanted me to do across the tracks, and things that Kurt did that they wanted across the tracks… so it was cool collaborating like that.
And that music is obviously quite different than Fuming Mouth, and those people are really good friends of mine. I’ve known all of them for like ten years. They are another band where they know exactly what they want, which is like guitar tone is like…HM-2 cranked, that kind of thing. Approaching recording and mixing that band, you know what they’re going for and be real mean sounding. While other things like electronic music I would not approach at the same way at all. Working on hardcore or metal is actually pretty fun for me because I don’t listen to that kind of music literally at all. There are a few bands out there… I think Fuming Mouth is one of the best heavy bands in the game right now, not just because they’re my friends I just genuinely think that. Obviously I was in punk and hardcore bands for years, so I have a frame of reference, and when I recorded other bands they were all punk and hardcore bands. And I mean, the recording studio I work at is like, all punk and hardcore bands (laughs)… but I don’t really listen to any of that music.
My knowledge of hardcore clocks out around 2011, and I’m not really knowledgable about metal music at all. Other than what I’ve learned from friends and people I’ve worked with. But I like to record music because it’s actually in my wheelhouse, and set and forget, etc. bit I also like it because it’s not something I listen to all the time. I can approach it with a very different mindset than I would if I was doing that all the time. To sum up your question, approaching a record like the Genghis Tron record which is not a metal record at all versus Fuming Mouth… the Genghis Tron was actually closer to what I’d consider my wheelhouse, even though it ended up being an extremely different sounding record.
FB: From the outside as someone who wouldn’t have known any of that, everyone I think was waiting for a dynamic from Genghis Tron that was actually closer to what Fuming Mouth was doing!
Zach: For sure! When they came in with the tracks to put it all together, I edited all the drums and threw those sessions together and I was like ‘oh! this is not what I thought this band sounded like. This is interesting.’ And I think maybe some people were disappointed by that record but for what it is, I think it’s really cool.
FB: Oh, fuck them, then. (laughs) No, that record is really very special to me, my fiancé got me that thing for Christmas because I wouldn’t shut up about it. It’s got a huge sense of scale, it’s larger than life in a way. They were always like that, and had that vision, but I like that they gave in to it and grew up without sacrificing too much. But anyway! How would you describe your initial connection with God City?
Zach: I moved to Salem in May of 2016, and at that point in time, I’d been making my own guitar pedals, repairing guitar amplifiers, that’s what I was into for a year-ish. I say a year because I was actually comfortable with it at that point, I’d been messing around and messing things up for many years before that. But around that point in time I started working with my friend John Sneider who runs Electronic Audio Experiments, which is now a very successful pedal company… but I’d be building pedals at his house in Brighton or Boston and also be building more pedals at my house. John had started working with Kurt, who he met through Scott who runs SnK pedals. Kurt was just getting into doing GCI guitar pedal stuff, just learning how to do that, and probably December of 2016, John was like ‘hey, I’m gonna go meet up with Kurt. You should come.’ And I was like ‘Oh shit.’ I had never met Kurt- well, I did meet him once.
This is a very funny story that does have something to do with my involvement in God City. The band Cerce that I was in, our first record that was actually…cool, we recorded to 16 track tape with Alex Garcia Rivera. He runs Mystic Valley studio, and he played drums in American Nightmare, Cold Cave, Piebald, he’s a killer drummer, whether its session or live, he’s like top five best drummers I’ve ever met in my life… but he has this studio in Medford that’s all analog. We wanted to wok with him on a Cerce record because he worked on our friends record called Mountain Man, who were a band called Last Lights in the mid-2000’s. They’re good friends of mine but they were on the come up as a pretty important and awesome hardcore band, definitely check them out. I’m not trying to get to off-topic, but… their lyrical content is amazing, it still holds up. But their singer Dom Mallory essentially died onstage. He choked himself with a mic cable and burst an artery in his neck, the show was over, and he went home, and then he died. It was fucking insane.
But after that they started Mountain Man with a different singer, I made a record for them in 2019 which was actually the first record I mixed at God City. They’re really good, they’re a lot different than Last Lights, but they’d made a record with Alex Garcia Rivera, to tie it all back together. And it’s a crazy sounding record, it sounds wicked weird, I’ll send you a link to it. But in Cerce, we were like ‘yo, this sounds amazing. We gotta record with this guy.’ We went there to record and it ended up being the first seven inch we put out with Cerce’s greatest hit “Weary” on it. And we recorded it in a day I think, and mixed the next day, and the one day we were recording, Alex was like ‘I’m having a barbecue during your session but I’ll be doing it once you head out. If you wanna come have some food, feel free to do so!’ I’m vegan and other people in the band were too, and so was he. So we went out back, and Kurt Ballou is there.
When I was a teenager, Kurt had quickly become the most important engineer to me in the world. Something about his work and the records he was making in the late 2000’s era… the shit was incredible. I’d never met him but I knew he was around. And so Kurt is at this barbecue, and he’s making this vegetable and fruit skewers on the grill. He was just like ‘hey, I made these kabobs if anyone wants them. You want one?’ And he just handed me one, and I was freaked out. I’m nineteen years old, sophomore in college, and the other guitarist of Cerce, we both walked out to our car to grab something, freaking out about Kurt Ballout handing me a vegan Kabob. Fast forward to 2016, John Sneider brings me to meet Kurt in Salem at God City, and Kurt’s like ‘have we met before?’ and I told him the same story I just told you. He was like ‘oh yeah, I remember that! You guys seemed really nervous.’
I was building guitar pedals, repairing guitar amplifiers, and he was like ‘you wanna take this broken amp I have and fix it?’ I brought it back, and we had this exchange for most of 2017 and we’d stop by the studio and he’d ask for different capacitors or resistors, as he was just figuring out and building GCI pedals at this point. I was literally a five minute drive from the studio, and I still do now. But we had this tech relationship, and I still liked his recordings, and I’d pop into the studio while a session was king on and bite my tongue, try not to be a punisher (laughs). But I’d known Kurt for over a year at this point, and 2018 he texted me and was like ‘hey my assistant is moving to Colorado, do you want his job?’ I’d never talked to Kurt about recording, ever. I’d sent him a mix for critique in kind of a panic, but he was like ‘oh that’s good! change this, change this, change this, and you’re good!’ So obviously I said yes.
FB: Do you think there were certain parameters he was happy you hit in that demo?
Zach: Genuinely, I have no idea. Part of the reason he wanted to hire me I’m sure was that I’m local. Kurt lives like thirty minutes from the studio, and I had tech experience so I could repair stuff whether it be a compressor or an amplifier. That probably had a lot to do with it. I’ve never actually asked him why he hired me, maybe I should do that…
FB: It might be an on-the-spot thing, he might just be like ‘what the fuck is wrong with you?’
Zach: Oh that’s probably exactly what he will say, I’m hoping for that reaction. (laughs) But I’m not sure, it’s been a pretty wild ride, and I’m very grateful for it. It really did change my life.
FB: You’re out there working with Mutoid Man right?
Zach: Currently, yes. They just finished recording drums.
FB: Hell yeah, I just saw a quote from the drummer where he said ‘it’s pretty much heavier than I can handle.’ That’s pretty cool, the drums are very important in that band, always very spider-y.
Zach: The drum parts are wild. It’s a really cool record without giving away much information, they recorded everything live with no click track. It’s really crazy stuff, and Jeff from High on Fire is playing bass for them now, and he’s awesome. He’s probably the best rock bassist I’ve ever recorded, or ever seen. I met him for the first time a week ago. I’ve worked with Steve a bunch, and I’ve worked with Ben, so the three of them recording this record live is extremely impressive. It’s really cool stuff.
FB: Everything they do is pretty impressive, they go balls to the walls no matter what’s going on. I love that guys work on Two Minutes to Midnight too. Would you say there are any particular parallels between pedal/amp repair and working in the studio?
Zach: They have a lot in common, I’m more interested in amplifiers and pro audio equipment than I am into pedals, but I’m also into those a lot. I think a good parallel is part of the reason I became interested in them or modifying them or building them, was as an engineer but also a performer. I was always searching for the tone. Like I said earlier working in a recording studio, having the knowledge to repair and make modifications is super valuable. You can basically cobble together what you want to do your work, and a lot of me getting into that is strictly utilitarian. I’ve always been into old amplifiers, my first vintage amp was a Fender Bandmaster when I was thirteen years old. I was into very into the equipment, more than I was into playing the instruments. I’ve been collecting amps since I was thirteen but eventually king a musician and going on tour you know, things break and the few repair shops in Boston are kind of hacks, they charge a lot of money for a little bit of work and I was like ‘I don’t want to keep doing this.’
All the stuff I have that is nice recording equipment whether it be outboard gear or fancy guitar amps, I bought that shit broken and then fixed it. I couldn’t afford to buy the real deal. Having that knowledge as a recording engineer, where those paths cross is huge. I’m very grateful for my ability to do that. Like ‘hey what if I need an EQ for our B room, but I can’t afford it. Word, I’m gonna build it myself.’ Knowing what to listen for, what capacitors you can change, little things like that very much intersect. I know with Kurt that’s why he got into GCI and pedals for the same reason, coming up with something unique not just as a product but as a tool.
FB: Of course. I think I’ve seen a couple videos of Joe Barresi putting pedals in the place of a lot of standard outboard gear scenarios, like with an Earthquake Afterneath instead of a rack reverb…
Zach: Oh yeah I’ve had one of those.
FB: I’ve had three or four, they changed it over to the soft-touch thing which is great for comfort and feel but I fuck them up all the time. But between pedals, mixing, mastering, the repair skills, which do you feel like gives you the most control?
Zach: Ooooh… that’s interesting. I mean, I’m like… you can’t track a record without this one amp, or guitar pedal that I’ve either repaired or built, but I wouldn’t have had to do that if I wasn’t making this record… working at a recording studio, I’d say the best thing you can do is just have technical knowledge of repairing equipment. At least inner workings of how it works to some extent, circuitry, or what transistors or tubes to use with that circuit. I went to school for recording, so one of the first things I learned was block diagrams, figuring out signal flow, which is essentially a simplified version of a schematic. A lot of people don’t get into those things, and I hear a lot of younger engineers, even people my age, basically saying using to learn a recording console, or large format console, isn’t important or relevant. And sure, it definitely isn’t to some extent but having the technical knowledge from block diagrams and understanding how circuits work, makes your ability as an engineer much stronger.
FB: It sounds like repair itself sounds like it might be one of the quickest ways to familiarize yourself.
Zach: Absolutely. For anyone looking to get into audio or electronics, I always say get a guitar pedal kit like a simple linear power boost, there are like six parts in it. Or if you like guitar amplifiers, find an old Fender Champ to work on, because that’s such a simple design that you can hear the schematic. And there’s a bunch of documentation on the internet on how it works, it’s not as hard as you think!
FB: Sure. I got into it because I loved the people in the industry, all the people that I love are in audio and it’s always been something I wanted to do for myself. I’ll never be as good as the people around me, but there is this unfortunate stereo type that people who are into performing music might be a little lazy or at least not want to diversify certain skills. But you meet people that constantly want to get better at engineering and recording so they can put out results closer to their initial idea, and I just think those people are… dope.
Zach: I totally agree, that’s also how I get into audio. Seeing other people do it, you’re like ‘wow, I want to do that too!’
FB: Okay, so I have a subsection here of questions here about Fecking Bahamas Album of the Year last year, Ultrapop. Obviously, a lot of people fucking freaked over the record. It was a great record. From your perspective, and you know it from several different angles now… at least from what we know that you know! How do you feel about it one year later?
Zach: I actually listened to a couple tracks off of it within the last month or so to reference it. Well, technically two years later. The mix was done in January of 2020. So I’ve heard these songs many times, and I also mixed the live movie, and the Adult Swim performance.
The movie stuff was mixed in a completely different way than the album, from an engineering perspective it’s unrecognizable in comparison. Looking back at the record, it’s very interesting. At that point in time it was the most difficult, most in depth project I’ve ever worked on in my entire life. And by the end of it, I was going full super-sayan mode on the mix, like ‘ok, we’re so deep in this, I don’t even have a frame of reference anymore.’ Not in a bad way. It’s a pretty crazy sounding record, and I don’t think it would have got to that point if it weren’t for endless revisions and hitting it over the head with a hammer it wouldn’t sound as crazy as it does.
A big thing about that record is it’s wicked loud, everyone says it’s over compressed, but it’s actually not over compressed, it just has a really loud limiter on it in mastering, thank you very much! But if you ever listen to that album in Apple Music, it sounds more dynamic.
FB: Sure, I have the wavs for that album and I’ve listened to it on several different systems. I get that if you listen to it in a more typical scenario like shitty headphones… I don’t know there are a number of ways to get it to not sound the way it does in Apple or the wavs on headphones. But one of the best examples I thought was “Big Shell,” the first time I heard it I was like, ‘how do I actually hear this?’ I heard it in my car for the first time, and I ended up fixing the EQ in my car but I did it through headphones later. And dude, it sounds really rich, there’s all this weird sub frequency shit happening I still don’t understand, but a lot of the record was beautiful and accessible. However long it took, you guys did such a good job getting a diverse, but cohesive thing.
Zach: Yeah, there is a lot going on on that record. Most of the songs have over one hundred tracks. The ones that didn’t probably have eighty. It was to the point where, we have two rooms, the A room and the B room, and eventually it got to the point that I couldn’t work on it upstairs anymore because I’d maxed out my track count on Pro Tools. So that just goes to show how much is going on on that record. It’s a really loud record, and that was the intention. I think a lot of people think it’s overcompressed, but it waskind of the point. It wasn’t loud due to the mastering engineers choice, it was mores the band saying ‘ok, let’s make it even louder.’ So it was 100% intentional.
FB: Sure, and there is a lot of commentary with the band out there that talks about that and I’ve wondered why it goes over people’s heads: it’s obviously meant to be this ultra-statement. It’s great that so much of it came out of God City, because it takes the signature sound of it and pushes it in this weird, perverse direction.
Zach: I agree, every single choice on that record was intentional and under a crazy microscope. Most of the songs… typically when I do a mix, I’ll do two or three mix revisions with the band, until they’re happy. I try to ail it on the first mix. With Ultrapop, we did anything between ten and fourteen revisions per song. It wasn’t that people weren’t happy with it, it was just like, ‘alright, let’s just keep it going.’ Right up to the eleventh hour I’m at the studio by myself, being asked to play the riff of “Today” by The Smashing Pumpkins in 3/4 time, and add it to the background so it’s barely noticeable. So I rip a guitar out and record, stuff like that. Or Dan sending me tracks when we had to deliver the record in six hours. That’s no exaggeration – constantly doing more stuff. My friend Jess Hall who did backing vocals on the record, she came in at like 11 PM two nights before the final mixes were due, did all the backing vocals between 11 PM and 1 AM. After there had already been six or seven different mix revisions for the song. The record had been recorded the course of that previous year, it wasn’t that any of it needed to happen, but then it did. Like I said, probably the most difficult project I’d ever worked on in my life.
FB: Was there a particular song that was the most challenging for you?
Zach: Let me look at the tracklist… I think that the very last song on the record with Mark Lanegan, that I think is very overlooked by most people, that’s one of the busiest songs. There’s string arrangements, orchestral arrangements, percussion, electronic noise, and I remember dialing that one in took a lot of work. That was actually supposed to be the first song on the record. Then at the very last minute, it became the last song on the record.
FB: I can hear the similarities between the first song and the last long, so that’s really interesting.
Zach: Yeah, and “Ultrapop” the first song was supposed to be the last song. The first song and the last song “The Music Becomes a Skull,” all of those song titles were different before. I’d look at the track listing, and… “Big Shell” was a different song, “Big Shell” was “Real Folk Blues.” “The Music Becomes a Skull” was “Bad Selection,” and “Bad Selection” was “Ultrapop.” Then “Ultrapop” was “The Music Becomes A Skull.” I don’t know if it was them fucking with me, and that was the plan, but going back and forth and having the names change was a trip… but yeah the last track was the most challenging one. Most people can’t get through a whole album anymore. The song “Bad Selection” was also extremely challenging because it’s mostly electronic and chopped up drums. That one had the most track count out of everything, I think that one had at least a hundred and twenty tracks. That one took a long time.
FB: I love the live version of that song.
Zach: Yeah, that was a really cool recording.
FB: How surreal was it that after you’re done with all of these crazy band things that happened in the studio, what was it like doing the tracks for the performance at the Masonic later?
Zach: So I didn’t actually track that at all, Urian who plays drums and is also a fantastic engineer, him and this Detroit engineer Chris Coulte did it. It’s funny I’ve actually never met anyone in The Armed, except for Adam the singer. And I guess Urian as well, because we were friends before he was in the band, and I’d met Troy, but not anyone in the band. I’ve been working with them for almost three years now. I’ve never even talked to anyone in the band except Adam, and that says something. But yeah, working in the studio the only thing we tracked at God City was… well, Kurt is on some stuff, I play on some stuff, and we recorded drums for probably two thirds of the record. Adam was there coaching Urian on how he should be playing but… other than that, I haven’t tracked anything for The Armed. So I didn’t track the live stuff, I just mixed it, which was a trip, and also the next most challenging project I’ve ever worked on. Like, ‘hey we’re doing this live movie and live album, and we want it to sound even better than the album’ More hi-fi, more clear, which is gonna be released eventually, is the opposite approach of from the record.
FB: Was the mix that was on the livestream the one you’re talking about?
Zach: Well, that was actually a film mix. I mixed it, sent out detailed stems to be remixed for film. I’d never done anything like that, it was in surround, and I don’t have any way to listen to surround, I wish I did, but it was cool having the mix reinterpreted for film. Like using ambient microphones, this guitar needs to be panned over because that’s where it picks up in the ambient mics, things like that. The version of the record that’s coming out on vinyl, which Sargent House had up for pre-order, it’s a slightly different mix.
FB: That’s crazy. I watched that thing like three times and pre-ordered immediately, I’m looking forward to it.
Zach: The masters have been done since October, and it sounds awesome. Anyone who pre-ordered that is in for a big treat if they’re a fan of the bands music. I hope people listen to it because the biggest comment I’ve seen about the movie and the Adult Swim is like, all the people who hate the album because it’s too loud, is ‘I wish the album sounded like this.’ But that’s what we were going for. Best of both worlds kind of thing.
FB: I know that it’s loud but also, it’s like that’s what the whole thing is about, that’s why everything about this is extreme and chaotic in general, so this is absolutely to be expected. Ultrapop is like… well, I heard it, I let it sink in, and I quit my job that day.
Zach: Oh shit, okay!
FB: You know it was probably going to happen already, but I had just moved, all my band stuff was put on hold because I was working on a film, and I moved out here to Utah, and it was a very depressing moment while I was trying to build website shit, and it was just not fulfilling. The record just pushed me to push back.
Zach: Where do you live in Utah?
FB: It’s a place called Saint George.
Zach: I’ve been to Salt Lake City, but not really into Utah.
FB: I want to talk shit, but it is very beautiful.
Zach: It’s a really cool place to drive through.
FB: Yeah, there’s occasionally some cool stuff behind the scenes, like the doc I was working on was on ties between Native American mythologies and more modern supernatural connects if you will, but things just move super slow in film, so it’s not really something I want to get involved with ever again. Anyway, let’s get back into the interview here. So with Cerce, I noticed there’s a “years active” note on your Bandcamp, so is it an on-again, off-again thing?
Zach: Oh, that’s just from me neglecting to update our Bandcamp page! Cerce started in 2011 when we were in college, and broke up in 2013 at the end of our junior years. We got back together in 2018 for like three shows… we had a lot of fun playing them. I have this bit where I say ‘I quit music’ because I don’t play in any active bands but I obviously I didn’t quit music because I do it every day for a living. But we played these Cerce shows, and we had really great time and realized now that we’re older, no longer children anymore that can’t express their feelings or communicate things, it’s actually really fun. We didn’t do anything for a minute but in late 2019 we got together at God City and did preproduction and songwriting for new music. We’d been sending music back and forth all over the country, Tim was living in China at the time, everyone was super disjointed. Pat lives in California, Tim lives in Chicago, other guitarist Zach lives in New York, and our vocalist lives in Richmond, Virgina. But we got together and worked out some new songs. Some of the songs on the new record that came out a few months ago were actually from 2012. But right now, like what you said about on again, off again, I’m just not really sure. We got together because we were friends and wanted to make a record. The global pandemic lockdown happened on the last day of our initial tracking sessions, everyone wasn’t sure if they were gonna be able to get planes home. But that’s all I really know, we just have fun and talk about fun stuff, at the end of the day, if we weren’t all friends, and didn’t take friendship as the priority over making music together, it probably wouldn’t function.
FB: It sounds like a good outlet though!
Zach: Yeah, it was fun, and we didn’t want to make a record unless we were having fun, and that’s why we had a long pre-production session before tracking it. We were either going to walk away from that session with a record, or just ‘lets go home.’
FB: Pre-production can be pretty stressful.
Zach: It can also totally damage a record too, you can end up with demo-itis. Where the artist is so used to hearing their recording or the way that it’s been… so when they come to record it, it’s like ‘I want the guitar to sound like the demo’ but… yeah, it’s dangerous (laughs).
FB: If you haven’t already I highly recommend picking up a copy of Stompbox: 100 Guitar Pedals, it’s like a big coffee table book… I was going to ask if you had a copy already, but it speaks very much to the nerd side, the capacitors, the compressors, the real guts… but also the more practical take as well. I think you’d really like it.
Zach: I’m on the website for the book right now. I really like coffee table books. I look through once and never touch them again. There’s a really good coffee table book by Sylvia Massey that’d I’d definitely recommend back about her recording techniques and funny cartoons and stuff. She’s got like the biggest collection of pre-world war microphones and stuff… it’s awesome.
Well everyone, there you have it. We hope you got as much out of that interview as we did – getting into the literal guts of equipment and hearing about all of the interconnected gear and personalities behind them made for a lot of insight for us personally. Time to buy some broken gear! And how about those Ultrapop factoids, eh? We’ve always been fans of the phrase “keep ’em guessing,’ but now… now we’re just exhausted. We’ll be putting up a slightly edited version of the audio up on Youtube in the coming weeks as well. Coming up we’ve got all kinds of fun stuff from bands like Pound and Snowpiler, an inside look at one of Seattle’s most legendary recording studios, a doom review, and more. If you’d like to donate to our Buy Me A Coffee, we need all the caffeine we can cram into our veins. You can do so here. Until next time!