Interview by Nate irbernethy
Photos by Carlos J. Matos
A conversation with Frenchie Smith is as unpredictable as it is entertaining. There’s no telling which route an answer will take you down no matter what path the questioned posed. He has a habit of bursting with intermittent unbridled enthusiasm mid sentence as if he’s just remembered himself how awesome something is. One minute he’s explaining something like a seasoned professor delivering opening remarks the next he’s involuntarily bounding about the room with an ADHD interpretative dance while spouting off bizarre metaphors and anecdotes that capture the imagination. His genuine excitement for music, comedy and all things rock n’ roll is eccentric, endearing and above all else incredibly infectious. We sat down with Frenchie and his producing partner Sean Rolie and discussed everything from running a production studio in an age where no one buys music, how The Bubble all began and their partnership.
Nate Abernethy for OVRLD: How has the changing state of music affected what you do?
Chris “Frenchie” Smith: It used to be if you were playing kind of one night stands you were a cover band, but the explosion of punk rock brought a touring circuit to people putting on basement shows or playing in pubs and all that. You fast forward, what changed in that timeframe was bands like The Replacements or bands that wanted to be like them, they would put out a 7-inch or two, have like an 8X10 and be really awesome in Ohio. And have a buzz about them right? Then you could go tour on that alone for two to three years. So anything that is going on in the songwriting and the believability of the tracks happened before you made your first album. Albums in 1984, even a cheap record by today’s standards was about $80,000, a cheap record. So obviously that’s changed now, if you don’t have a record now you can’t do anything, you have to start off with this really great record. So because I remember that era, I lived through it, if I’m asking bands questions I’m trying to ask them questions to gauge that they would have already gone through that whole process by touring for two years on the material before making a record. It’s completely different.
Ovrld: With the rise of more and more music streaming services each day, I wondered mainly, how is this possible? How do you survive? How do you adapt? Just economically it all seemed so impossible to me. The internet has brought a double edged sword to the music industry. On one hand no one is buying albums anymore, on the other hand bands that never would have been given a chance outside of their hometown can have massive worldwide exposure with a few clicks of a mouse.
Sean Rolie: We’re at a unique place in the music industry right now too, [Frenchie] always says we’re like cowboys in the old west or astronauts floating in space. Nobody really knows what’s going on in the industry as far as selling music. Maybe we’re just dumb enough or smart enough, I don’t know which one it is, to continue down the path of trying to make records that compete with records that existed in a world where it can be a million dollar record. So using a combination of old technologies, new technologies and a vast knowledge of a hundred years of recorded music we are trying to get stuff out there for people to hear. It’s weird to say but it’s almost not about selling it at this point, its about having someone be able to take a band home with them so they come to the show or they do this, they do that. I see more people walking around with headphones that I ever have in my life and yet nobody’s buying music but everybody is listening to it? So its still important that music sounds good, it’s really important wordings somebody has a $500 headset on the sound of it is important, they can tell what’s good and what’s not. With where we’re at, bands have to sound like themselves not to necessarily sell a trillion records but they represent one piece of many of somebody’s repertoire of moods in music. If they put on a Metallica record and it sounds like Yanni, its not what they’re looking to hear at that time. So sometimes you create these monsters that are genre specific and when people want to go listen to that brand…
Ovrld: It becomes synonymous with a feeling.
Sean: Sure, and we have to play into that and at the same time create these new ideas and push forward in space as astronauts trying to figure out exactly what it is that the industry is doing.
A kindred spirit with the rebellious punk of Residual Kid and the weird genius of The Front Bottoms, both of whom have spent time creating albums in The Bubble, Frenchie’s energetic spirit has always been so striking to me that I wondered how in the hell he was content spending so much time behind dials and buttons instead of onstage ripping it up. His previous band Sixteen Deluxe enjoyed moderate success and the one that followed Young Heart Attack still sounds like it was produced yesterday. I couldn’t imagine what could tame this rock n’ roller into a career out of the spotlight.
Ovrld: So how does it go from loving music as a kid to playing in bands to this? “Oh I want to open a studio, I want to help others, I want to hone my skills behind the scenes, I want to do this, this and this”
Frenchie: Well I’m relatively new to only being in the production side of things only. So from four.. five… nine years! So it’s nine years since I actually played music and produced and I did that for a long time; I had a foot in both spheres as deep as I possibly could. I always knew that I liked playing guitar. I liked playing gigs, I liked being in bands, I liked tossing a guitar in the air and doing crazy effects. I just loved all that. Obviously I’m a child of MTV and seeing Van Halen videos like, “You know David Lee Roth is not having to do his homework right now. Fuck this, mom! I wanna be in a band!” So me and Residual Kid? Right there, I get it. So probably right when I should have been only thinking about my band? Me, me, me, me and I knew that “me” loved the recording process. It was much different than it is now, it was extremely hands-on and only tape based so if it was a great record it was because stars aligned. The trickery that you could do in a mix was very limited to what was absolutely recorded to tape. You could turn it down, you could make it bassier or brighter or you could add reverb. That was pretty much it.
Ovrld: So you learned your craft pretty much by experimentation?
Frenchie: I was educated in the studio experienced by being an artist in the studio and being around producers that would enlighten me to why they were doing whatever engineering process or sonic process. Or if I had a guitar sound in particular that they didn’t quite get because I liked kind of brash guitar sounds, they would let me touch gear to help us arrive at the bastardized rock ‘n roll sound I was trying to achieve. Which is far from Chuck Berry and it was crunchy, but not supposed to be Metallica. If it sounded like it was coming out of the broken car stereo, I liked that. So somehow being in bands I was always appointed to be the spokesperson to our producer or engineer. Ages ago, ages! I mean this was a good while ago, I was a big fan of Trail of Dead and they needed to make a record. Okay ,well clearly they need to have someone that can see the beauty and ridiculousness in the recording studio and just be there for them. And at the time a lot of Austin’s recording studios just geographically where we were, the sign of the times, you kind of had a few different types of sounds. It was like brutally punk, or kind of a Stevie Ray kind of thing. So I don’t think it needs to sound like Stevie Ray and I don’t think it needs to sound brutally punk. It needs to be somewhere in between. So I put myself in the hotseat of being their producer and that was a gateway for me to have a duality. Okay, I’m going to be in a band and be heavily involved in production with the music our band is doing and make sure my band is happy. That’s what that producer role meant, it wasn’t that I bossed my band around. Then on occasion if there’s a band from Austin that I really love and we have a similar sense of humor, maybe I can help them record. The music thing for me went down, the studio was more busy. The studio got slower, all of the sudden I’m in another band, I’m touring again just learning new experiences, living life, making some healthy decisions and seeing a lot of the world. Then coming back to the studio relationship? Okay, now, let’s do this for real. And that’s probably the evolution of what the studio is now… Did I answer that at all? [laughs]
Ovrld: So what were the baby beginnings of The Bubble?
Frenchie: The beginning stages of The Bubble essentially was a warehouse that Sixteen Deluxe rehearsed in and we had a few other rooms that our friends would rehearse in and there was some recording gear in it. On any given night you could have four bands rehearsing and then that energy was just around and I loved that. You could have one band going over lyrics and there could be a recording session happening in the first floor. A lyric session happening in second floor while people are fighting over the bathroom. It was kind of wild.
Ovrld: Sounds like college for bands…
Frenchie: It was college for bands and every Thursday, whether we meant to or not, it was just the place to be at from two until to five in the morning. We had no neighbors and there were always multiple drum kits set up so I got to hear all my favorite musicians play the worst notes ever because of the time of night and whatever headspace people were in. It was the splatter paint version of an audio studio. It had a blend of all my favorite musicians of that era year. It was just our world headquarters, our Hall of Justice or Hall of Doom depending on the night. It was just my destination where I drove my crappy minivan every day and anything went. I couldn’t control it if I wanted to! The more that chaotic environment kept budding really special recordings, it almost scared me. “Wow, is this for real? Can I do this? I thought I was going to be in a band?” I was a little perplexed and I don’t think I could’ve verbalized it in real time but I remember the feeling coming to a resolution: we need to get out of the space that can do 10 random things at any moment, and let’s get into a space that can do something that focuses on recording. Let’s tighten up our intent. I don’t think that this is some kind of mystical power, why am I in disbelief that there’s cool recordings happening here? Of course! We’re busting our ass so why fight that? So at that point if I wanted to go party somewhere or I wanted to go be loud I went and did that somewhere else. When we wanted to record we had the sanctuary for that, and we could be very loud and ridiculous doing that.
Ovrld: Some controlled chaos?
Frenchie: Limited personnel! Just focusing on the parties that are just there to record and then have the same ethos of the splatter paint artform. “Yeah, that’s kind of working, oh wow, it dripped down, oh wow, it looks like a gummy bear! Now it’s baby Jesus aaannd it’s a unicorn. Awesome, song is done!” [laughs] That’s going to look great as written text.
Ovrld: Do you still get the itch to play?
Frenchie: I will play with Sixteen Deluxe, we play every once in awhile. We’re recording new music; we’re going to remix our debut album that’s 20 years old this year so we’re going to rerelease that. We’re doing new material, I’m real excited about that. Any itch I have to play music, I get to play with them every once in a while and we entertain people… What playing live music used to mean to me is a little different, and so if we happen to play a show and it means I get to see someone after the gig or before it that I haven’t seen in forever? If our musical vehicle is to bring people together that don’t come out a lot? “Wow, that guy is here? I thought he was in jail! I heard he became a chick! Nah, he’s actually really cool!” …Becoming a chick can be cool too [laughs]. We had some really crazy fans in our prime; relating to the audience of Sixteen Deluxe as fans is almost condescending. They’re our friends. They’re all in bands. Our community was the cream of the crop of the most curious minded people of that era. So playing shows now I just get to see people that I’ve kind of missed because I spend my time with Purple, Leopold & His Fiction, Residual Kid, younger bands. So seeing some crazy ’90s alt rockers keeping that freak flag flying does a lot for my soul.
Just being around Frenchie and Sean for an hour, you begin to feel how their energy plays off each other like long lost brothers. Sean is more reserved but seems to know just when to chime in with his thoughts and you can see one word he mentions or annunciation he makes will spark a light in Frenchie’s eyes that sets him off on a whole new tangent. Its a truly complementary partnership and they feel like the sort of telepathic friends that interacted upon their first meeting the same way they do now.
Ovrld: Is it is to be able to rotate where you’re not always getting the same band or the same genre every day? Eventually anything can get tiring. Instead you’re getting something fresh again. Today is a new day; different collaborator today, different sound today.
Frenchie: Between Sean and myself we’re very inquisitive about the human experience. We’ll critique how a record went and then we’ll try to avoid taking that path on anything we could have changed. So we’re always in theory, sonically or just how we talk to people and encourage them, we’re always trying to improve it. “Well, that worked really well for us, let’s use those examples. There are some commonalities for this group and this group, let’s use those techniques to get the tracking up and running at a speed that they feel relaxed.” We’re always coming back to it in a sense. It’s like when you watch ESPN and you see all the highlights: four glorious plays and then you see the quarterback throw it and get intercepted. We cover all those! It’s not all just, “You were awesome and I was awesome!” More: “Well, we did this really well…We really fucked that up. We fixed it in the end but we can avoid that kind of thing in the future by knowing that can be a slippery slope to take that technique with someone.” Not just with the humans but just sonically, let’s track music that is believably played by this group of people. So it never gets mundane.
Ovrld: How do you balance wanting to experiment without going too far off the deep end?
Frenchie: It just has to be believable to their skill set and so when someone falls in love with a recording, the live show has it. They fall in love with the live show, some of those imperfections are in the recording, but even if people are playing drum kits, basses and guitars and singing in English it never gets boring because it truly is different. Even if you’ve recorded a band before, they come back and they’re a different trip. “Alright cool, we’re starting fresh! You guys have a whole brand new idea of things.”
Sean: One of the things that you had asked about was missing playing in a band, playing live. I definitely miss it, but this is our band. This thing it’s become: “I’m in a band with Frenchie and we make records,” you know? Our relationship is based off of communication, having fun and dreaming and never resisting each other in trying to create the ultimate rock song. We do it every single day. So for me coming from being in a band into this, as much as I miss playing live, I enjoy this in a whole other way because I never really stopped being who I was my band just changed into something else. Frenchie is more like I am with music; we’re both focused on it. We have commonalities, we both enjoy the same type of records. Whatever it is, the magic of starting from kind of crazy parties in a warehouse to ending up in a place like this or even bigger places that we’ve gone, whatever that is we both share that same dream. So our “band” is something that can help others, and its a cool thing to be a part of. Having someone listen to a three minute song and have that experience of what they saw live be captured in three minutes? And that they can go sit in traffic and escape into this moment that they had on Saturday night where they were really happy. In the modern world where we have all sorts of negative stuff being thrown at us, it’s really cool to be a part of something that allows someone three minutes of freedom. At the same time you’re helping someone realize their dreams and what they want to do. I mean, I can’t think of a cooler thing.
Frenchie: Above all of it we’re very hip to the fact that we’re here entertain. I can’t really speak for other people, sometimes bands don’t really know why they’re in a band…
Ovrld: Drink beer and have chicks come up to you, man!
Frenchie: Yeah, if it was the ’50s they would have a bowling night! We really want to entertain people no matter what wild stuff that goes into the tracking, we want desperately to be involved in your favorite music coming out of your playlist. We are aggressive on that, and neither one of us have any issue with admitting that.
Sean: I think that’s the baseline of everything that describes who we are, in terms of from you playing a show with Sixteen Deluxe and seeing some friends out, to making a track spending hours on one little part of a song. It’s all to entertain people and it’s just this positive flow trying to make the world a better place one song at a time whether you’re on stage or in studio, whatever part of it you are you’re an important part of the whole collective movement. what that
Frenchie: Nothing is more important than music. You know happy hour only lasts an hour. After that you’re not happy anymore. We have our favorite sports teams, they always lose the pinnacle game, our boyfriend or our girlfriend are cranky with us, our boss at work sucks, there’s so much stress related to the complexities that follow the history of mankind with which religion you’re supposed to be part of… There’s just so many no win-no win situations. Music? And a track that talks to someone? You win. Even if you’ve got it in your earbuds and you have a break at work you go, “All I have to do is survive four hours of being in this day job with these pricks!” You put on your track, even if you’re into Eminem, I respect him but he’s not my thing. You’re in the employees’ lounge and you go back out, “Hey everybody, it’s good to see you again!” Most every human in the world through a bad day has that track that connects with that person. Unless I’m wrong here? We got any takers, anybody want to go in on this debate? [laughs]
Sean: We create soundtracks for people’s lives.
Frenchie: All 20 of them!
Sean: [Laughs] Yeah!
Frenchie: I’m your biggest fan. You’re the soundtrack to my life.
Sean: You’re the soundtrack to my life too! [laughs]
Tonight is one of the rare chances to catch Frenchie Smith play live as Sixteen Deluxe takes the stage at Empire Control Room for the release of their new 7” inch. Doors are at 9pm and you can grab your tickets now. See you there!
Nate Abernethy is a magical sprite we captured and forced to write for us. He somehow also wound up with a twitter account @NateAbernethy