by Nate Abernethy
Photos by Carlos J. Matos
We previously paid a visit out to The Bubble Studio and chatted with producers Chris “Frenchie” Smith and Sean Rolie about being in the record business in a modern day market, the beginnings of The Bubble studio and their working process together. We spent some time in the past learning how a full fledged studio formed from crazy days of playing guitar in your underwear in a boiling warehouse in the Texas heat. We addressed the present and how to survive in an industry dominated by streaming. We hypothesized the future– would being behind the dials be enough or is the itch to play your own music still a driving force? It was a delight to get some insight into who these guys are and how they work together, but what’s their relationship like with the musicians that come into the studio every day? I wanted to know what they personally bring to the table as producers and how they operate with other musicians.
Nate Abernethy for Ovrld: How do you help someone who has done some DIY recording but they want to take it to the next level? What are the benefits in your mind of having people someone like you there to help guide?
Frenchie Smith: You know, I think every band before they have a producer has to know what their strengths are and maybe areas that they can tighten up on. They really need to feel that and hear it, and it’s not something that they verbalize amongst themselves. They just need to experience being in recording studios without someone giving them too much feedback. If they’re a band and they’re rehearsing four, five nights a week, they’re beating the shit out of each other to make it excellent amongst themselves. They’re playing material live and people are freaking out. That’s great! Go record who you naturally are and just be in that format and get those wheels rolling.
Then if they do decide there are some aspects of the studio where they could benefit from having a more hands on producer, or maybe they don’t need a producer, maybe they need someone to help with lyrics. Then they can keep recording with their buddy and like it being kind of punk. It’s all really the DNA; the diabolical composition of a band is they’re all imperfect, perfect beasts. But coming into a recording studio and you’ve never made a record and someone’s producing you and giving you a lot of feedback, it’s hard to pick up the positivities of it. Because we all get into rock ‘n’ roll to be rebels and all of the sudden they’re like “Wow, why is this dude trying to be my boss?”
But we’re not, we’re trying to help you! But without experiencing life without that like,
“Oh, cool, it’s really nice to have someone encouraging us…” The translation of producer isn’t boss or dictator it’s more of an enabler, that’s my definition of it. They’re not the most powerful in the room, they’re the least powerful person in the room because they have to bring balance to everyone. So it’s not…
Ovrld: It’s not the Hollywood caricature.
FS: Mhmm it’s not the film world.
Sean Rolie: And that’s kinda, to touch on what you were saying before about how records have changed, the definition of a producer has changed. You have bands that go and record stuff on GarageBand with their buddy and then they need help with writing lyrics and putting that on top of it, like you said. Or mixing it! Or they want to track the basic tracks and then go off and do a bunch of other stuff. Track guitars and things on their own then they come back. Depending on budgets, things change. The original definition of producer was somebody who assembled the recording. So you hired the studio, you hired the artist, you hired the writer; you’re the overseer of the whole thing.
FS: Old school!
SR: Old school, that’s where it started. So slowly we collectively as producers made our way into the studio or into the writing aspect and now it’s kind of all-encompassing. It’s everything, you’re just an overseer and enabler as Frenchie said.
As daunting as hiring a producer may seem, Frenchie and Sean seem to embrace a hands off approach. Pushing bands where they need to be pushed but offering helping hands where needed more than anything. At the end of the day everyone in the room wants to make great music and if the band is hitting its stride why get in the way of it? For a guy with a decade of production experience there’s no ego about the way Frenchie operates.
SR: We want to help people figure out exactly what they are as a band. I’ve even seen Frenchie do this a lot where it can even go into helping with touring and their live show or going into rehearsals. I mean, the definition of producer is someone who is there to guide people through their career.
Ovrld: I think that was actually the first thing Purple said when we interviewed them in England, was how much you helped with the live shows even more so than the studio initially. Helping them really become a band on stage in a sense.
FS: That’s nice that they said that, I always loved their show. Well I think with them… You know, when I met them Hana was 19?
Ovrld: They were kids.
FS: Yeah, and I asked them, “If you want me to help you with your band, do you want to do this the slow way or do you want to go into the fast-forward machine?” If you choose the path of the fast-forward machine you can’t go back and have smaller expectations and be happy with just little expectations. We’re gonna go for this and we want to really win fans and entertain on the highest level and push the level of art: make the live show as packed full as possible, make recordings believable, make your album one sound like a band’s album four. You know there can be some positive and negative rippling effects of this, but you are employing me to take you into the fast-forward machine and we’re going to discover what that means.
So at that point I forgot what their age was and what their tour history was just, “Okay, this is the song, you’re this band. Let’s push it to this level.” Here’s something we can all agree on: we love Kurt Cobain, if he was at this show is he throwing a banana at the stage right now or is he rocking out? But it pushes both ways, they aggress me and I aggress them and then the song kind of finds its own truth. But you know, even their rawest ideas, their most barely formed of anything they showed me, I was like yeah, I love it. Cool. [Laughs]
SR: There’s a real magic when they get in the room together, you know? And maybe it has something to do with where they come from or how they’ve grown-up in similar upbringings or what. But they have a thing and from the second you showed them to me, you were working on our band at the time, you showed me a track you’d cut with them right at the beginning stages of them meeting and it was really special right away. They’re a band where where you have to let them figure out what they’re doing, show you all their ideas and then you can start building off of that. But this isn’t an example of a band that’s just assembled and here’s your song and go play it, and whatever. They’re really a band, they’re a true band, and that’s something I find really intriguing about them is that they came from playing in a garage together and you don’t see that a lot in modern music unfortunately.
Purple is one of the first bands Sean has gotten to work with from the ground up. Often times he’s working with already pre-formed bands, so there’s a special importance to him personally watching the trio grow. Whether the band is touring on the other side of the planet or recording elsewhere, Frenchie and Sean take a genuine pride in continuing to lend their expertise.
Ovrld: I think you can feel how organic it is when Purple are switching off lines in the middle of song. It feels natural and it brings special quality to it.
SR: They really mean it, and you can see there’s nothing fake about it.
Ovrld: There’s no “well, I did this song, so now you do this one” obligation, no mercenary aspect.
FS: It’s all kinda Purple-ified by the time they’re playing a song, they all have DNA in it.
SR: Even if they wanted to, I don’t think they could make it something other than what they are. They wear their heart on their sleeve.
Frenchie and Sean have built up quite the reputation amongst local rockers as THE producers for anything rock ‘n’ roll. Purple, Otis The Destroyer, Residual Kid all recently released records that have been cut or influenced by the happenings inside The Bubble. I was curious about whether the duo has any interest in dabbling outside their wheelhouse and how it comes together, whether they’re crossing genres or geographic boundaries.
Ovrld: Do you ever get bands that are maybe not particularly to your tastes? Something way out of left field, like a hip hop band?
FS: They never contact us.
Ovrld: Would you ever want to do something like that? I think it would be interesting, at the very least.
FS: My barometer for something I want to do isn’t a hundred percent about what my tastes are. Is it believable? Because if it was my taste, it would sound like “Rumble” by Link Wray, and “When The Levee Breaks” and “Hot For Teacher.” Every song would have an element of those three songs! [laughs] Bwaa Bwaa Bwaa. Cool, we recorded that part of the song again today!
Ovrld: You guys ever run into a situation where an artist and an engineer, they don’t meet eye to eye on the overall picture? A track or a whole album maybe where the vision is not quite cohesive…
FS: Not so much. I’ve heard of that happening with other producers that I think are brilliant and I trust that the band is brilliant, but just for whatever reason doesn’t align. It’s really important that if a band can share demos of their songs and then objectively take a historical look at recorded music from the 1930’s through 2015 and make sonic references of anything they’ve heard that they like. “Why do the drums sound so great on this Buddy Rich record?” Anything! I’ve had bands bring the most esoteric examples. Listen to the synthesizer work on A Clockwork Orange. Yeah, but how the hell are we going to do that? Well, first I guess we’re going to have to go rob the liquor store and get a time machine and go buy every synthesizer ever made. With a little bit of preparation, and the band and the producer sharing ideas before going into the studio, you maximize how positive it can be. It’s really important for a band to listen to the body of work that a producer has done and to have realistic expectations of what that person can do.
Ovrld: Do you ever get something though that you have to detach yourself from? Like, maybe this isn’t for me but I still want to make this the best it can be; I still want to be involved in it.
FS: Nothing is for me. Even though I’m a real consumer, I actually buy music all the time. That’s something that Sean and I talk about, “Hey, have you heard any new tracks?” Neither one of us will go to a band’s Soundcloud page fifty times and listen to the thing. Clearly we like this, we go buy it. But they’re not for me. It’s not because of my age, my ethnicity, it’s not because of my religion and it’s not for any other reason. It’s because I’m a musician and making music for musicians is going to come with a lot of different rules and it’s going to limit how a song can blossom. Most music fans, they don’t have a clue how to play drums, they don’t know how to play riffs, they’re not songwriters. So whether it’s my cup of tea or not, I’m going to be biased because I’m a musician. I started playing guitar in 1980 so my era for what something connects with is going to be all over the place.
SR: I think working with any artist, I’m really lucky to be a part of Frenchie’s world because there’s a filtration process to things where we decide do we like each other? The band and us. It is one hundred percent always cool, it always has been. We have always worked with people that we enjoy being around and it starts with just that. Then whatever genre of music somebody is playing, you find something in that music that inspires you. Whether it’s a vocal line or a guitar line or whatever, it doesn’t necessarily have to be our Led Zeppelin sounding band that we dream about. It can be anything, you find inspiration in people’s desire to push themselves.
FS: The perfect example, this has happened a lot in ten plus years for me, I used to only record people that I knew. Then it turned out I only knew four people so then that came to an end. Well, I like doing this but obviously it can’t be, well, I know someone’s cousin so I record their band. It’s not realistic and historically the albums that we love weren’t made that way.
The Front Bottoms are a classic example, they live very far from here. That band had reached me and I listened to their demos that they had recorded on an iPhone and they interviewed some other producers. By the time I got to talk to them, it was clear to me that they were doing the coolest thing a band could ever do: they create their own world. The Dead Milkmen did it, Queen did it, Ween did it, The Butthole Surfers did it, Black Flag did it, They Might Be Giants did it; I mean, they created their own world. They were just tapped into this thing where they’re breaking rules and it’s so cohesive and right. I loved their demos. So we had talked through email and on the phone a ton before they showed up and started making music.
There’s a song called “Twin Size Mattress,” we set that drum kit up and they just did rehearsal takes just to kind of get comfortable in the studio because I wanted them to get to a place where they could detach from how important the studio was. They just started playing that song like “it kinda goes like this,” and that’s the take! We didn’t have any kind of mishap once we all got in the studio and finally started all communicating and being open with each other in person for the first time. That door was very open on my end. Seriously, I heard their demos and went back and listened to their catalogue… Oh my god, this is so not what if I had been praying to Allah, Satan, Jesus, Buddha, whatever, that I want a band to fall from the sky that just rules would be like! I wouldn’t have envisioned them but there they were.
SR: He had kind of briefed me on the band before…
Ovrld: They’re hard to sell with words. They’ve kind of always thrived on that unironic uncool kid base and they’re so off kilter in such a uniquely good way.
SR: Yeah, he’s trying to explain it to me and I’m like okay well…I guess we’ll see.
FS: And I’m pumped!
SR: [Laughs] He’s all excited and making all sorts of weird comparisons and stuff. And I’m still like, “Alright, well, we’ll see how it goes.” So they came in and I remember firing up the first track and hitting record. Brian starts singing his first note and we just looked at each other like “That’s awesome!” I mean he has such a unique voice and it’s one of those moments in music history where somebody is just completely being themselves. Not trying to pose or be anything than who they are. I mean who they are behind the scenes is exactly who they are onstage. It’s great to see that and have it come out in somebody’s music.
FS: There’s no pose about the guy. He isn’t comfortable trying to be some kind of sexy badass dude like Fabio and neither was Joey Ramone but they needed to exist.
Ovrld: Does it ever happen in reverse where you hear a band or a song that catches your ear and you pursue them?
FS: It’s always different. But a lot of times where we tend to fit is when bands have been to a base level but they’ve kind of checked off some big parts of the list: they have a band, they have the ability to tour and have done it, they have a fan base, they put music out. And then? What happens if we have a producer in our relationship? That’s an amazing place to be.
A harder place to be is where a band has sold a tremendous amount of records, and they individually would love to try a ton of ideas but their brand is so big it’s got to stay right there. You can get pumped up about millions of micro details on any record but those are harder records because it has to stay right here. If that band had been around awhile or the world changed a little bit, well you just have to emote with them and take chances where you can but alienating their fanbase could be something that’s bad for them. It sounds like the worst form of selling out, it really does. If a band isn’t the most giant band in the world but they’re growing and they want to make a record that makes an impact, that’s the most amazing place to be in the studio with that artist. If an idea is good, that’s it, that’s the path. There’s no “Well, let’s go look at our x-rays and find out if they line up for what this is doing.” Ooh, coloring outside the lines!
I know when people choose to listen to The Front Bottoms, they’ve cracked open their first beer, they’re smoking a joint and avoiding a phone call from the college loan guy calling them back up. Like “Okay I could pay this dick five hundred dollars or go party tonight and try to pick up someone?” That’s our fans!
Ovrld: Do you think it’s necessary to compete with the loudness war in order to stick out from other albums?
FS: I don’t think we purposefully make it as loud as we can and we don’t make it as quiet as we can. You just choose the right mastering people and it’s something that works itself out.
SR: Depends on the medium too, because if you’re doing a vinyl record you can’t blast it, it has to have dynamic range. That’s sometimes something we’ll discuss on the frontend of a record. Where is this going? What is the destination for this?
Ovrld: What format is this intended for.
SR: Yeah! Is it going to be an mp3 thing that’s streaming and someone is going to have it in an earbud while they’re driving their car and it needs to be as loud so they can hear it? Or are they going to sit down in front of a hi-fi stereo system and sip on a cup of tea and listen to it? Kind of genre specific.
FS: We just try to figure out how to make it loud without it getting destroyed in mastering. We’re loud.
As we wrap things up Brandon Keebler, our part time resident sound expert and full time drumming dynamo steps in to pick their brains about all the gear and generally geek out at all the knobs and dials. Frenchie rattles off a few technical terms and inventory but it isn’t long before he launches into one of his world famous rants.
FS: It’s a lifetime of very conscious decisions… Personally I’m not a giant fan of creating sounds in the mix stage. If a band walks in and listens to playback from live tracking and it’s not there yet? Then there’s a believability on their end that’s being diluted. Then by the time you cascade to lead vocals they’re just hearing kind of wonky drum sounds in their headphones and the vocal sound is kind of dusty and boingy. Whether they verbalize it or not, you’re going to hear them perform like they’re playing a show at a club that has no vocal monitor. They deserve better than that. Queen or AC/DC wouldn’t have walked into the control room and have some guy go, “Angus, I’m going to make your guitar sounds tits with my plug-in package tomorrow!” That motherfucker would have been fired, if not had his ass kicked.
Or Lemmy in Motorhead! [Spot on Lemmy impression]: “What’s a plug-in?” He didn’t know about that, it sounded awesome!
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, if Neil Young was showing the band a tune and you had the mic too hot in the pre and they’re just playing together and they’re kind of learning it? Oh, clearly they’re going to play this again because the drums are off. Nope. If he liked his vocal? It’s done. And if you didn’t have your gain structure right on that vocal take with all that bleed in? He wasn’t going to do a live take again.
They would just tell you, “Cool we’re going to leave the studio and we’ll go book another one.”
“Could you do another vocal take?”
“Actually, we’re going to go smoke some weed, ride Harleys and go record this song with someone else.”
Historically the greats didn’t have a lot of patience in the recording process because they were geniuses. If they expect you to be a genius, why should they have to explain everything about how to wipe your ass to you? My God, could you imagine Eddie Van Halen, all the thoughts in his mind when he was 22 years old and he was kind of a revolutionary guitarist and musician? Could you imagine him having to explain to the producer how to get his guitar sound? Thank God that Ted Templeman [producer of the first five Van Halen albums] had no idea what they were doing other than he liked it. I met him ages ago and I asked, “What did you do on the first Van Halen record?”
“I put microphones on and I got out of their way. I had no idea what was going on, but it was cool.”
But if he just didn’t have the right studio and this stuff to track it right, Eddie would have been 22 walking in and the brilliant guy he is going “Well, I feel it’s lacking in…” You’re fucking up! Just get him in there and play! Send him surfing later but do not dumb that guy down by making him explain “I’d like my guitar to have equal elements of butthole, sharktooth, ocean wave, battery acid and popping a cherry at every diabolical moment of its existence.” The second he’s had to explain that to the producer, he’s worn out. Like I’m wearing you out right now! [laughs]
It’s just flat out impossible to keep track of all the hits coming out of The Bubble but if you want a taste of the latest you can still grab a copy of Otis The Destroyer’s new EP, Belushi, Purple’s second full length album Bodacious is out now and Residual Kid’s EP Salsa hits stores now.
Nate Abernethy is a magical sprite we captured and forced to write for us. He somehow also wound up with a twitter account @NateAbernethy