Sometimes you get what you need

Twelve years ago, Larry Crane moved to Portland from Northern California with the intention of "getting away from music all together." To do so, he opened Laundry Rules and became the founding editor of Tape Op, a renowned creative music-recording magazine. With semi-partner Elliot Smith, Laundry Rules has grown into the largely analogue and mostly famous Jackpot! Recording Studio. And Larry Crane is nowhere near his goal.

Larry Crane has recorded some of the biggest names in independent music to date – The Go Betweens, Quasi, Elliot Smith, Stephen Malkmus and Sleater-Kinney – and was nominated for an Oscar for his work as a producer on the Elliot Smith song "Miss Misery," which appeared on the "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack. Today he still offers up a thorough facility for anyone in and out of the local music community who wants a comfortable and affordable place to record some music. It is the rest of us, the listeners, who should be thankful that Larry Crane came to the wrong damn city to get away from music.

Do you consider the sound engineer to be an artist?

I think it’s an art. It’s not a science. You have to know – well you don’t have to know anything. You can basically put up a couple of mics and record something. You know, they call it an engineer, but it’s not like you go to school and get a degree like an electronic engineer.

But [to] talk in respect of a band that comes in to your studio and says, "We have this particular way we want to sound on tape," you are a facilitator.

But a lot of times the sound that they are making determines what they’re going to sound like more so than anything that I am going to do. We were listening to "Son of a Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield the other day and the artist/producer said to me, "Get me that guitar sound." I said to him, you’re not playing that. It’s probably a different guitar and everything. It’s the way your fingers are on the fret board that determines a lot of the sound.

I don’t want to say that I don’t [influence] anything, but a lot of things are shaped by who the people are who are creating the sounds. When someone says to me, "Here’s this record, we want to sound like that," I want to just start laughing because I can’t make them sound like that. I can take their ideas and go in that direction, but I can’t make someone play like Buddy Rich, or Mick Fleetwood, which really determines the sound. You give those guys totally wrong or cheap mics and the playing is still going to sound like theirs.

Have you experienced problems working with groups or artists where they just weren’t satisfied with sound, where you might have liked the outcome of the recordings?

For example, working with a punk band recently, they liked what they had done before but they thought it sounded too clean and that the vocals didn’t mesh with the music. They played me recordings and the recordings sound nothing like [the band sounds]. They’re very stylistically different, and a lot lower fidelity than what they’re shooting for. [Some musicians] make me shoot for something completely different and the examples don’t make sense.

The language of recording isn’t as big as it could be, so you end up in these little boxes with people saying, ‘Just kind of distort it, but clean.’ Those are two completely different things. Or they’ll say put it in the background, but make it really audible, and I just sit there like, ‘What the…’

The language of sound just isn’t that great. Even if you talk to someone who does arrangements in orchestration they can talk in a certain way, but they still can’t tell you about the depth of field and the actualities of sound.

Right, so you have to interpret that.

Sometimes it’s really easy, and sometimes you just sit there scratching your head. Sometimes you go down the wrong path and then you have to backtrack.

That’s an interesting part of the process though, isn’t it?

Oh, I certainly think so. I think the best thing is when there is a wide open door and something different might happen in the studio than anyone expected, which is cool. That’s kind of the best thing to me. Walking in and having a very preconceived idea usually is going to be a failure. If you walk in and say, ‘We’ve got some songs, let’s see where it goes,’ it’s like throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks. Some of the things will stick that you throw up, some of them don’t. I mean you can’t imagine My Bloody Valentine were making Loveless and saying, ‘Well, let’s make it sound like Exile on Main Street’ (laughing). They were going in and recording to make something with an interesting sound.

Do you ever get people who want to rent the space out and improvise and record in it?

Thankfully not. It’s expensive, and most people who come in tend to be really focused. I’m at the point in my career, I’ve been doing this about ten years now, and I’m just starting to get really picky about what I work on.

Which must be a nice luxury to have.

Well, I’m not saying that I’m in a financial boat where I should be able to do that, but I’m doing it anyway. It’s just that I’m too busy. If someone comes in who sounds a little tedious sometimes I’ll pass it off on an engineer who freelances out of here. If someone wanted to rent this place for 12 hours and [do] improv, I’m like: ‘could be amazing, but I’m not going to sit here through it.’

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on a project with Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley and Matt Ward’s producing it, and it’s just a pleasure, it’s totally awesome. Jenny is a great singer and has great songs and we’ve had some cool musicians come in and play on it. It’s total fun, and I knew it would be. Next week I’m recording with my friend Chris Tsefalas whose record just came out on In Music We Trust. Those have been really fun sessions. I end up playing bass on some stuff.

Are you enjoying the sound recording aspect of your work now more than the magazine, or would you rather be playing music?

My ideal would be to be in a really good band just playing bass (laughing). Nobody makes any money doing that. That is, most people don’t. I like the combination of the studio and the magazine, as far as the job is concerned. I’m really proud of how successful Jackpot and Tape Op are. The maintenance work of keeping them both running is a job. I can’t really separate them and say I don’t want to do any of that, because the rewards come with the work. I enjoy engineering, but I do get a little bored with it. I’m not saying I’m great or anything. It has just become a little routine at times.

You have worked with some enormously talented musicians.

The biggest deal that worked for Jackpot was, I was in a band for eight years that toured, we knew a lot of people, we were on Teen Beat label out of D.C., and knew people from that and playing in New York and out here, and that continued on in a way for some time.

When I moved to Portland I ended up bumping into a lot of musicians immediately. Like Sam and Janet from Quasi, and John from the Maroons, and I had met Steve Malkmus before because his bass player had been in a band on Teenbeat. All of that stuff just sort of built. So when I opened the studio there was almost like a waiting list of people wanting to come in and record. The Spinanes did some demos here. Pavement came in and did some demos for Terror Twilight. So I had a lot of connections. Richard Bukner was someone I had gone to college with. It was all these little things. People would come through on tour and drop in for a day. Elliot [Smith] recording here certainly didn’t hurt. Richmond Fontaine are friends of ours. I was playing music in ’93 and in ’94 I started another band, Flaming Box of Ants, which mutated into a band The Elephant Factory, and those two bands would play out with Richmond Fontaine and Quasi. It was a lot of different connections.

Lots of people have traveled to record here, as far away as Australia, New Zealand and Germany, even the East Coast. We had one band drive here from Hoboken to record just because they liked Quasi so much.

That was all going on right around the same time as the rest of the Northwest’s musical prime.

It was right after Sub Pop had signed a lot of local bands like Pond and Heatmiser. Those hit in ’93, and the studio started in ’97, so we kind of got the tail end of all of that where things were changing, but a lot of cool things were going on.

I’m not a shy person either, so that allowed me to meet people.

Tape Op must help in that respect as well.

Tape Op had also put my name out. For the studio’s sake, Tape Op has not only allowed us to get access to a lot of recording equipment, but has also allowed my name to be spread all over the country and all over the world.

Is there an artist who you haven’t had the chance to work with who you would really love to spend an entire studio session recording?

Several. I don’t think it would ever work though, because they do their own stuff. Grandaddy, or John Vanderslice. If I could record with either one of those guys … In fact, I volunteered to go sleep on the couch and work on John’s new album, but I don’t think they took me up on it.

Um, Death Cab for Cutie. These are all friends of mine who already record really really well, so I don’t see any need for me to be there. Beyond that, I would love to do a new Roger McGuinn album. He just put out a new electric record, which was kind of muddy, and I can’t help think, ‘Damn, I would have mixed that for free.’ Roy Harper I really admire. There’s lots of people like that you would love to work with.

One that did come true for me though a couple of years ago was a Go Betweens record, who I’m a really major fan of. When they got back together after their break up they did their first record here with Janet Weiss playing drums. That was probably one of the most amazing things. But, also working with people like Steven Malkmus and Sleater-Kinney. I mean working with that sort of stuff has really made my reputation, but mostly they’re friends and they are great people.

It’s really lucky to work with people who are great musicians. Anyone can mic up a really good drummer and get a really good sound. You record them with a boombox and you get Guided By Voices, but it’s still great. If you can help it sound a little bit better-awesome.