“You work with a producer or engineer because of their sound,” says Spoon drummer Jim Eno. “And their sound has a lot to do with the type of gear they have, and their workflow around their studio.”
That’s why Eno, frontman Britt Daniel and the rest of Spoon will sometimes go to New York or Los Angeles, where they’ve worked with such producer/engineers as Dave Sardy (Oasis, LCD Soundsystem), Nicolas Vernhes (Dirty Projectors, Fiery Furnaces) and Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Kanye West). But that’s also why a lot of other bands record in Austin, where Eno’s Public Hi-Fi studio long ago took on its own life beyond being Spoon’s home base.
Public Hi-Fi has existed in some form since 1998, when Eno vaulted the ceilings of his Austin home’s two-car garage, partly so the band could cut down on recording costs (its classic third release, 2001’s Girls Can Tell, was made there). By 2006, it was a rebuilt, custom space (still with vaulted, even higher ceilings) that Spoon broke in with 2006’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Since then, the facility has since played host to artists ranging from the Relatives, Black Joe Lewis and the Heartless Bastards (who’ve all made records with Eno producing) to Alejandro Escovedo, Arcade Fire and even Justin Timberlake.
Spoon have just announced they’re making a new record, the band’s first since 2010’s Transference. But for the past two years, with Daniel playing in a second band, Divine Fits, Eno became busier than ever at Public Hi-Fi. Last month saw the release of four albums he produced: by !!!, Telekinesis, Har Mar Superstar, and Dupree.
The latter band, an Austin trio built around the Hammond B-3 organ, also turned Public Hi-Fi into a record label. Dupree’s Nuestro Camino became the label’s first release on April 30. In keeping with Eno’s love of analog sound and old equipment, it’s not available on compact disc, only limited-edition vinyl, digital download, and eight-track tape.
Jason Cohen: What made you decide to start a label?
Jim Eno: I think it’s a natural progression for any studio owner/producer. Because I’m constantly working on music, and it doesn’t come out. For instance, the Dupree record. It’s basically a jazz record, but the way it was done is really old-school intriguing to me: all analog, mixed on the fly. I felt like, “I don’t even know who to shop this around to, and I do want to have a label. This is a record based on sound quality, so let me try to put it out.” See what it’s like.
It’s sort of like when I tried to do a business plan for having a studio. It never made sense, but then, I have had it running for seven years.
JC: So you have this elaborate studio with a mix of modern and vintage equipment, but your label’s first release used the least amount of gear possible to record the Dupree album live.
JE: The interesting thing about it was just not using a computer. We did it all in a day. I would have to ride the solos [on the mixing board] manually, on the fly, as they were playing. And then we had the half-inch tape mastered directly to the vinyl.
JC: How do you manufacture an eight-track?
JE: There’s one company. I think they’re actually in Texas. You just send them the stuff and they do them by hand, one by one. If you actually order an eight track on the site, we e-mail them and say, “ok, make one!” And then we send them 18 bucks. We sell it for 20.
JC: Is it surprising to you that soul & R&B has become the thing you’re best known for as a producer, with the Relatives and Black Joe Lewis?
JE: I try to do as many different things as I can. It’s weird. That’s true, but what came out in April is the Dupree, which is a jazz record. Telekinesis, thats a definitely a rock record. !!! is like a dance kind of thing. And then Har Mar Superstar, which is actually sort of soul. I just try to do as many different things as possible. I’m working right now with Ximena Sariñana, from Mexico City. She was an actress there, she’s only 28, she’s on Warner Mexico, it’s all Spanish lyrics: pretty fun stuff.
JC: Is it a challenge to produce without bringing in your own ideas as a musician?
JE: When I’m working with another band? Not necessarily. When I’m producing, I’m always trying to make the song as good as it can be. And I do realize that it’s their band and their song and their record, and it’s not mine. I’ll usually bring up anything I’m thinking of, but in the end it’s their decision whether they want to try it or go that way.
I don’t really make that distinction, is what I’m saying. I think I use my experience as a musician to help me on the production side. Like, one example is, when you’re trying to get a take out of someone, you have to be careful to keep their focus. You can’t be like, “ok, try it this way,” and then they are almost there and be like, “no, try it this way.” You have to really be the rock and the driving force and not change directions, because it can make sessions incredibly crazy. I’ve worked wth a couple of producers where it’s, “let’s try this” and “let’s try this.”
JC: What do you say if a band asks you, what do you bring to a record as the producer?
JE: I think it is different for every band. I try to make the song as good as it can be, and I try to make the song exciting for listener. I think a lot of bands have the issue of, um… everyone playing from the start of a song to the end of the song. And while that may work really well live, on record, most of the time, it doesn’t translate. You need new elements to be introduced. You need things to be dropped out and come back in. Your ear needs that to feel like the song is exciting.
JC: You always hear that it is harder to know what not to play.
JE: Knowing what not to put in is a whole lot harder to figure out than what to put in. Also, it’s this weird thing, but a lot of times, the more you put in, say, a chorus, the smaller the chorus becomes. Which I think has to do with the cramming of frequencies, and then all of a sudden you can’t really hear things as well. Really sparse records can have really big choruses, even though there’s not really a lot of elements
JC: People were kind of wondering if and when Spoon were coming back, right?
JE: Well, that’s everybody else. We knew what was going on in the inner circle. I’ve been doing this because we’re not doing Spoon stuff, but my first priority is Spoon. If you think about what we’ve been doing, since about 1994, it’s been writing recording touring, writing recording touring, writing recording touring. For seven records, and, no breaks. It was time for us to just step away, and to try different things.
For me, I love being in here. It’s been good to work with other bands and everything, and Britt has been playing a lot, and working with other people and recording, and I feel like now we’re like, super-psyched to get back together. We’re gonna be going pretty hard into it. That is all of our focus.
Below, video of the Public Hi-Fi “reverb tube,” which is underneath the foundation of what will soon be Eno’s rebuilt house, right next to the studio. It is a regular old sewage pipe, but with a speaker at one end and a microphone at the other, and wires running back to the control room.
“The microphone will move back and forth based on how long or short we want the time [of the echo] to be,” Eno explains. “Any audio from the console can now go into that tube.”