Heart of the City: Jim Eno

by Morgan Davis

Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos

Jim Eno Heart of the City

Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here and can view in person at SIMS’ December 3rd Heart of the City event). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversation with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, veteran hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, and today we present a conversation with beloved Austin producer and musician Jim Eno, who drums in Spoon and has produced a number of great bands, including Future Islands, !!!, Har Mar Superstar, White Rabbits, and more. 

Morgan Davis for Ovrld: We’re beginning these interviews by basically asking people about their journeys to Austin, how they got to this city and why they chose to end up here.

Jim Eno: I grew up in Rhode Island, went to school at NC State, and started playing music my junior year in college and moved to Houston for a high-tech job at Compaq and then moved to Austin just to work, basically. So I have a high-tech background, electrical engineering degree, so that’s how I got to Austin and then I started hanging out and playing drums with people and that’s how I met Britt [Daniel] from Spoon, back in, let’s call it ‘94. [Laughs.]

Ovrld: That time in Austin was an era where there were a lot of groups starting to get major label attention. I know you guys had a very fascinating journey through the major label process and eventually ended up at Merge.

JE: Exactly right, yeah. Yeah, so we started at Matador Records–great label–did a record with them and then had a major label deal with Elektra and got dropped, but that’s, you know, pretty much every band gets dropped, or at least around that time everyone was getting dropped. So, that stuff happens. But Britt was writing great songs and we kept recording and Merge ended up liking it so. That was in, what was that, 2000? 2001?

Ovrld:  Spoon had a focus on production right from the get-go; I think the band that’s very much associated with the way that you guys produce your music rather than just the writing. 

JE: Yeah, we tend to like little sounds. I feel like our first two records, they were produced by John Croslin, and then Britt has an RTF major from UT here so he knows about audio. But one of the things about it is that we did a lot because we had to be self-sufficient. We felt like if we got our own gear and if we recorded our own records then it’s under our control and that’s sort of how we wanted it to be, you know. We’ve always had, I guess as you start recording and start doing more music, you tend to gravitate towards things that you like as a band, whether it’s like, for us, you know, not a lot of clutter, I guess, and making sure that every sound and every instrument on there really means something and I guess that became part of our sound or our style.

Ovrld: When you guys were first working on being more independent with that, it was a time when there was a lot of lo-fi indie production, that was a major aesthetic at the time. How do you feel that compares to how home recording and independent recording is done today when people have more access, more equipment and it’s less lo-fi?

JE: That’s true. I feel like back in the mid-90s a lot of it was four-track or eight-track cassette, or just really barebones kind of recording. Now, there are really really good records just made on laptops and they sound great. You know, more access. As a studio owner, though, I’ve had to sort of broaden what I do, trying to think about where people that work on their laptop may need some help, so it could be mixing, it could be helping with the songs, production-wise, or any number of things.

Ovrld: Something I’ve always noticed about your recording techniques is just the way that the arrangement is done. On a lot of the records that you’ve done not just for Spoon but elsewhere, you can tell that you’ve produced it, it has very signature traits. When you were working on that was that something that came about just through experimenting on your own or was there certain records that you were always drawn to that you reverse-engineered to try to figure out your own sound from there?

JE: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s hard to say, I mean, with the Spoon records when it comes to arrangement, most of that is Britt and whatever producer we use but some of the songs he brings in and we hash them out as a band. But I mean I’ve learn a lot by working with Mike McCarthy, John Croslin, Jon Brion and all these other people who we’ve been lucky enough to work with and I feel like I’m trying to take little pieces of everyone to try to either have a style or, really my goal is to make the best record for a band so the more different styles I can work with, then the better it’s going to help the artists that I work with.

Ovrld: Since you mentioned Mike McCarthy I think it’s important to bring up the fact that he is now leaving Austin…

JE: I just heard that, yeah. It’s a bummer.

Ovrld: As a studio owner yourself, do you feel like it’s now much harder to make your studio efforts sustainable and viable when so many people can home record?

JE: I don’t know. I feel like I’m in an odd situation because I play full time in a band and our schedule jumps around week to week, so when we’re done recording, that is sort of my window to produce, so I have to schedule things in advance and I have to make sure the band isn’t doing anything. It’s very difficult for me but I feel like a lot of it has to do with my sort of situation. I feel like there are a lot of producers that still make a living and still work with a lot of different bands. I feel like now when you own a studio, a lot of it comes down to: does a band want to work with the guy that’s running it? As opposed to just being a freelance studio owner and renting it out. Do you know Tiny Telephone and John Vanderslice? I feel like he’s one of the ones that I know who has a profitable business just as a studio owner which is amazing.

Ovrld: And he’s pretty dedicated.

JE: He’s very dedicated. And what he does is, he’s like flat-rate, it’s always this [amount] per day and he books about four to five months out. I can’t do that at my studio just because I don’t know if like, something’s going to be pushed a week and then I need the studio you know, so it’s a little bit of a weird situation for me. But that being said, it is very unfortunate Mike’s leaving because he’s a big part of Austin music from the ‘90s up until now. He’s an amazing producer and I’ve learned a lot from him and it really sucks. But I think a lot of it has to do with people doing records on their own and him trying to find a way to still be a part of that.

Ovrld: Do you think we’re going to be seeing more of that in Austin, especially as real estate is becoming more valuable?

JE: I don’t know. I’m just starting to hear about everyone moving out of Austin. Danny Reisch is moving. Is Erik Wofford moving too?

Ovrld: I’m not sure. [He’s not, the owners of the property his studio is on decided to work with him at the last minute to keep Cacophony running]

JE: I almost feel like it’s just sort of a different studio model. I feel like if you own your place, you’re not going to get kicked out, but you have to make enough money to pay the mortgage off easily. So that being said, things are probably going to keep pushing out. But that’s just like housing that musicians can afford. Everything is just sort of getting pushed out.

Ovrld: You’ve also been involved in some projects in the city that have tried to kind of help musicians finance things, like Black Fret, and you’ve had some involvement in the upcoming Mosaic Sound Collective. What are some of the challenges that you see a lot of younger artists are facing that perhaps people coming from your generation hadn’t faced?

JE: I feel like– well, at least right now, this is probably the past ten years or so– I could find a band and I could put together a couple of songs, send them to a few labels, and we could possibly get some money to finish the record. Now, that’s pretty much nonexistent. Any time you send out a record to a label they’re like “Hey, Jim, I really like it. That sounds great. I need to hear the final record.” So then what that means is that me and the band have to finance the whole record up front and then shop it around. It’s a really difficult situation to be in. Especially I mean, I’ve worked with artists like Walker Lukens, like Dana Falconberry, these people are working day jobs, they’re working maybe three jobs while we’re trying to make this record. That is not how this should be.

So I feel like the biggest barrier for recorded music is just money, just cash. So one of the things I’ve been involved with, Black Fret, for a couple of years, is a great organization in that money from the dues from the members go directly to the bands. And giving grants of $10,000, $15,000 for an artist, I mean, that’s a game changer. That’s a record, and press, and some other things. So I feel like models like that help these bands write music. They should be writing music, they shouldn’t be working three jobs in order to get the money up to pay me to record their record.

Ovrld: And Spoon was also a band that eventually had to leave Austin to kind of get noticed, it seemed like. It seemed like you guys really blew up once you had kind of relocated. Do you think that’s something that more bands need to look at, kind of stretch out, get into different cities?

JE: Are you saying touring-wise? Or are you saying moving?

Ovrld: Relocating.

JE: Well I still live here. I’ve always lived here. I mean, Britt moved to Portland because of the relationship he was in, but I feel like that had nothing to do with us really getting national attention. I feel like touring outside of Austin is always a big deal and also depending on what label you’re on. So if you look at Matador Records, that puts us on the map with anyone who ever bought a record at Matador. Merge, the same thing, because people look at labels, they used to look at labels as a curation method.

Ovrld: Like a seal of approval.

JE: Exactly right. I feel like that helped us more than us moving to a different city. I wouldn’t recommend the band splitting up like we did because it made it pretty difficult. And I look back on those older times when I would just get a call from Britt and he’s like “I’m working on this new song, let’s go into the studio and hash it out.” And now it’s just like “Okay, what’s open, when are you coming to town?” it requires a lot of planning and not much spontaneity on the scheduling front, which can be exciting.

Ovrld: Do you think the level of talent that’s in Austin right now is on par with some of the previous eras of what was considered the golden ages of Austin music?

JE: I think so, yeah I think there are a lot of great bands out there now. Like I said I work with Walker Lukens, I just did something with Hard Proof Afrobeat, I like all the stuff that Adrian Quesada’s doing, I love the stuff Danny [Reisch] does, Erik Wofford, there’s just so many great bands. I feel like it is a very diverse music city. I’m hoping it continues that way. But I feel like it is right now.

Ovrld: Also, just kind of spinning off of the Mosaic Sound Collective there’s been a lot of efforts by the city politicians, specifically this year, to kind of work toward resolutions that can make things better for musicians. What do you think are some of the challenges that entities like the city especially need to look at in order to make things better for people that work in the music industry?

JE: Oh, boy I don’t know. Grants and things like that. I think the Mosaic Collective is a good model where you can work at certain parts within the collective and then get discounts on either rehearsal space or CD pressing or mastering or whatever. I feel like anything to help with the recording process would be beneficial. Because it’s not just about playing live.

We learned this a long time ago. You can tour, you can tour, you can tour, you can hit a city maybe three or four times on a record, but after about two times of going to a city, the press doesn’t write about you anymore because there is nothing new. So, everyone talks about “Oh you have to tour, you have to tour,” I actually feel like you have to keep putting out recorded material, because that’s what going to get the press. I mean, no one’s going to know a band is in Austin if someone doesn’t write a review about it. I mean you can comb through the listings but it would be way better to have a feature or even if it’s just recommended that week in the Chronicle. So getting recorded music done and completed and put out, even if it’s digitally and having a small sort of press campaign around those allows you something to tour around and allows you to get press in each of those cities. So, I feel like the key is just getting recorded material done however that is done.

Ovrld: Building off of that, what are some of the mistakes that you see bands from this generation making?

JE: Oof. I don’t know. I feel like I talk about this story of like, I don’t know, I go to a conference or a panel, and people are like “Hey, Jim, how do I get signed or how do I get popular or something?” And I look at a band like OK GO and if someone from that band was in the crowd and raised his hand and was like “Jim, how do I get my band some publicity?” I never would have thought to say “Make a treadmill video,” which is exactly what they did. I mean, you just can never tell what is going to strike a nerve with someone. Future Islands is another good example, the Letterman performance they did, I mean, who would have thought that?

Ovrld: Yeah, they’d been around for a while.

JE: I know, yeah, they put out what two, or three records before that one? So you never know. You just have to keep putting out music that you believe in and not try to push in a direction that you think maybe all the crowd is going into just to be cool. I just don’t feel like–it never sounds authentic to me.

Ovrld: The final question we’ve been asking people is just–or specifically people who have moved here from somewhere else–is what is a piece of advice you would have given yourself when you first moved here to Austin that you know now?

JE: Ayee. Let’s see. That’s a tough one.

Ovrld: It can be personal, professional, whatever you feel like.

JE: Well, since I…See I would say “buy a house” [laughs] because back in the early ‘90s you know, then it’s sort of like, “Hey, buy a little place on the East Side as a recording studio” and then twenty years after you’re set. I guess I feel like sometimes I feel like bands play a little too much, you know like maybe once a week or something like that. I feel like you need to sort of play the hometown less, because I feel like then, it’s not, someone is looking at the shows like “Oh I can see them next week,” or “Oh, they’ll play again next month,” or whatever. So make it more of a thing, like you’re a touring band even if you live in Austin.

Carlos J. Matos’ portrait of Jim Eno will be on display alongside eleven other portraits SIMS’ Heart of the City gala event at Emo’s on Saturday, December 3rd. You can also donate to the project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department.

Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.