Jason Falkner is a Master of Crafting Pop Songs -
Hooky Vocals, Tight Drums, Sweet Guitars.

by Andy Hong
photos by Jeff Gros and Andy Hong
(First appeared in Tape Op, May/June 2003)

He's been a member of The Three O'Clock, Jellyfish and The Grays. His voice and instrumentation appear on albums by Beck, Susanna Hoffs, Eric Matthews, Aimee Mann, and Air. He co-wrote, produced, and performed on many of the songs on Brendan Benson's two CDs. And he has five solo albums, one of which is a children's record of Beatles' instrumentals, Bedtime With The Beatles. In the fourteen years that he's been performing with major-label acts, he's worked with noted producer/engineers like Albhy Galuten (The Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Dionne Warwick); Jack Joseph Puig (The Black Crowes, Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows, Belly, Clutch, Green Day, Chris Isaak, L7, No Doubt, Lisa Loeb); and Nigel Godrich (Beck, Radiohead, Ride, Travis, Pavement). But he's never strayed far from a DIY approach. He's recently taken on the challenge of producing the upcoming Lilys record in his own project studio, and he's currently recording his sixth solo album.

I met Jason Falkner a few years ago, while attending his show at Vynyl in Hollywood. Jason was hanging out with friends in the audience. As we made eye contact, Jason called out to me, "Hey, you're that guy in Tape Op!" So when I was in L.A. for the NAMM conference with fellow Tape Op'ers Larry Crane and John Baccigaluppi I thought it'd be fun to drop by Jason's studio and talk to him about recording and producing - both at home and in big studios.

Afterwards, Jason went out for dinner and drinks with us, with the conversation proving that Jason is a walking music encyclopaedia. He really knows his pop music history. It's clear why his well-developed music sensibility comes across so well in his recordings.

LC: This place is beautiful with all the wood and glass. Do you record anyone else here�or just yourself?

I've been doing the Lilys here. I'll play you something. This song doesn't have vocals yet. It sounds kind of experimental, synth damage. [Jason rolls tape]

LC: The drums sound great. Is that all natural "room"?

Yeah. The drums were right here. Just this room.

AH: How many mics did you use on the drums?

Five or six mics. I have kind of a weird drum mic vibe. I use the same two mics for toms and cymbals. I place the mics carefully so that I get a good mix of all the toms and cymbals just from the two mics. I also mic top and bottom snare, kick, and maybe one mono overhead.

LC: Do you always record in analog?

The Lily's I did to tape. My own stuff I'm doing in Pro Tools. I just bought it [Digi001]. I still haven't figured out how to come out of Pro Tools and go through one of these outboard boxes. I'm sure it's easy. But I haven't gotten that far yet. But I love it.

AH: Are you working on a new album, playing all the instruments yourself?

Yeah. I'll play you a rough mix. [Jason hit play in Pro Tools. We listen for a bit. We are all extremely impressed.]

AH: Having heard some of your previous pop productions, and listening carefully to what we're hearing now, as I look at your screen now, I'm surprised at the incredibly low edit-density and the low track-density. But everything sounds so big and full - especially the guitars. Any tricks you'd like to share on how you get that wide, open guitar sound?

I wouldn't know how to explain. I'm so instinctual. My main politic when it comes to recording is to try to get it to sound as good as possible just from the source, and not do much fucking with it once I've recorded the sound. There's a lot of subtle and not so subtle compression going on before it goes into Pro Tools, mainly through all this gnarly '70s gear.

AH: What's a typical chain that you use?

For guitar amps, I start with an SM57 typically, but sometimes a RØDE, usually into this UREI 1178 compressor through an API 312 mic preamp. I usually go into this API 550A EQ; or if something really needs to be carved out, I'll go into this UREI 546, an old film mastering EQ, with very specific control. Sometimes I'll send the guitar into this old RCA solid state compressor. The RCA also sounds great on snare.

AH: Do you do additional processing within Pro Tools?

As little as possible. Usually a stereo compressor across the whole mix. And usually I'll compress the snare a little again, and I'll definitely compress the vocals. I use the plug-ins more for reverbs, delays, and automated effects.

AH: How do you envision the whole mix as you're recording the song? Obviously, you can't just look over at the band and say, "Let's do a take and go for this kind of vibe," if you're playing all the instruments yourself. In other words, how do you know how everything's going to sound together when you're laying down individual instruments, one at a time?

Again, it's just instinct. I've got a finished sonic picture in my head pretty much before I start. And obviously, that changes a bit with each instrument I put down. And it steers itself somewhat. It's totally a producer thing. I'll kind of make a conscious decision on the direction I want the song to go. My ability to envision a picture so easily comes from listening to a lot of music. My record collection is so vast - from Ravel to Sex Pistols - and I enjoy elements of everything between those two. I guess that's my style, incorporating aspects of all that stuff. But in terms of strategy, I decide first what the drums are going to be like, because the drums and bass for me decide where it's going to go.

AH: Do you think any of your self-producing sensibility came from your experiences with a 4-track?

My whole autonomous thing�it's from the bands I've been in�because they were just so unharmonious. [laughs.] And part of it I'm sure is because of my own personality, and because I can play all the instruments. It's very easy for me to piss off a drummer, for example. I'm not like some singer going like, "Do it more like John Bonham." I can sit down and play what I'm trying to describe, and that can be frustrating to my band members. Also, even though I know a lot of great musicians that I can call up to lay down tracks for me, it's very satisfying to build my own record from start to end. There's something really satisfying about it.

AH: I love how your 4-track record, Necessity, opens with the 16-track song, and you think, "How did he do that on a 4-track? Is this a joke?" Then you read the liner notes, and when the next song comes in, you realize what's going on. The rest of the CD is all 4-track material. You hear dropouts, tape hiss, and that tape-suck you get from bouncing so many times on a 4-track�

Yeah, and my little choker pedal too. Back then, basically everything was going through a little guitar stompbox called the Choker. The Loco Box Choker.

AH: Is it a compressor?

It's an incredible sounding foot compressor. Whomever I tell about this - an engineer or producer - they go on the hunt for it. I know three guys who've got it now. Everything on my 4-track recordings went into that Choker. The mic into my little XLR-to-1/4th converter into the Choker. [Jason moves to the other side o the room excitedly.] And this is the shit too. Have you ever seen one of these? The Nu Fuzz. Torrance California. This is the craziest fuzz pedal I've ever heard. The fuzz you hear coming out of this is incredible, because unlike other fuzzboxes, the Nu Fuzz doesn't lose its low end.

AH: Has working with hi-zoot producers in the past, like Nigel Godrich and Albhy Galuten, affected your own producing style?

Working with Albhy was so long ago, in 1989 with Jellyfish. Our demos pretty much reflected that our albums were already done. Albhy just came in and tried to keep the peace within the band, and he did a good job with that. Working with Nigel on Can You Still Feel was fantastic. He was the first guy I worked with that was younger than I was. In the past, I was always the baby. He was 25 (and he looks like a little kid) and he'd already done OK Computer and made a mint off of Natalie Imbruglia. We went to New Orleans and made the record at Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Studio. Nigel wanted to do it here in L.A., but I suggested we go someplace where no one has an advantage, because I live here and I know everyone here. Plus, living here, I've got all these distractions. So we were cooped up in this mansion that was Daniel's studio.

AH: With big, open rooms and fireplaces?

Yeah, it was literally on old-style mansion in the French Quarter, with candles everywhere. Daniel had an incredible API desk with graphic EQs on each fader. I think he's right around the corner now. He moved his whole setup right here to Silver Lake. Anyway, working with Nigel was really good. He's fast, like I am. He doesn't like to labor all day on the snare drum. There's no way I would do that - I'd be down at the pub! He kinda does things like I do. He's not really a perfectionist. People might think of him as a lab-coat-wearing scientist. But he's not. He's like, [Jason puts on his best accent here] "Put a mic on it, who cares, put a mic on it." He's got a really good ear. He uses the same equipment we're all using. It's not like he's hoarding one little piece of forgotten gear that no one else has access to. He's a very natural talent.

JB: Does he have a picture in his head when he starts, or does it evolve?

I think it evolves with the song. Since he doesn't really write with any of the bands he works with, he starts by getting the sense of the song, and he likes to take things to outerspace a little bit. You know how he's recognized for his feedbacking delay? I think he's getting away from that. He did use his Alan Smart C2 Compressor a lot. It has a crush button on it. He'd push it, and go "Listen to that!" When we first got together, in one of our first conversations, I told him I wanted the record to sound like it was already coming off the radio - like in the '70s, as a child. The sound of those Heart records and early Aerosmith records was incredible. At times we went a little overboard with compression, but it's so easy to overdo because it's such a satisfying sound.

AH: Do you have any formal music-engineering education?

No. It's all been trial and error. On the record I did with Nigel, there are two songs that I recorded myself, after I built a studio in my apartment. One new song and one that I'd already done with Nigel. I wanted to re-record it because it was too slow. I'm sure you guys, being engineers, can pick them out. Back the, I didn't really know about subtractive EQ. Instead, I just kept adding frequencies - just turning the knobs until it sounded better. I'm more knowledgeable now, but I still like to rely on my ears instead of just my brain.

AH: How did you know how to set up this great recording chain you've got going now?

It started with Jack Puig. He was a ridiculous collector. He was amassing this crazy thing. I had the same compulsion to buy esoteric pieces. It's the sound of '70s FM radio.

AH: Do you still have your [Tascam] PortaOne?

No, not anymore. [All of us moan.] I lost that thing like five years ago.

AH: Any formal music education, playing an instrument?

I started piano at six. Studied for ten years. All during piano, I was kind of embarrassed. It seemed so un-rock. I was much more into being like Tom Scholz. I had a Boston poster. He had a white Strat. For years, I asked for a guitar. I was a total slacker with piano lessons. I would panic and do all the week's work in an hour before my class. I'd fool my teacher into thinking I had studied all week. I finally got a guitar when I was maybe thirteen. My parents postponed it for years because they knew it was the devil - that it'd take me away from the piano.

AH: What about drums?

I'd literally follow my mom around while she was cooking and do algorithms on her butt. So they got me a Topper. Blue-sparkle, 4-piece, Japanese-special. I was eight. I was equally rhythmic as I was melodic.

AH: Drumming lessons?

No. I only took the piano lessons. I remember realizing pretty early on that professional instruction on any instrument is a tricky thing and not for everyone. Too many bitter teachers out there inflicting their personalities on students, instead of encouraging one's own style to emerge. The piano training was brilliant because I had a wonderful teacher. But for guitar or drums, with my luck, I would've ended up with the guy who thinks that The Beatles would have been better with Neil Peart on drums and Steve Lukather on axe. Ouch!

AH: Music theory?

All that classical piano. I had an amazing piano teacher.

AH: How did your Beatles CD come about?

My friend works at Sony Wonder. She called me and offered me this project. She told me I was the one person on her list. I asked her if it needed vocals. I didn't want to sing The Beatles - you know, the Peter Frampton syndrome. And she said, "You can do whatever you want, as long as you can sleep to it." So I did it instrumental. The first song I did was "I Will," and I did it with drums. I did it really "sub Ringo" - really quiet. When I sent it in to get feedback, my friend at Sony said, "We all love it, but it's not right for this record." I was basically making my version of Harry Nilsson's The Point! You know that record? With Ringo on drums? It's a children's record - a soundtrack for an animated film from 1971 about a round-headed kid living in a pointed land. It's really sweet, but it's goal is not to put you to sleep. So as soon as I got that feedback, I really got into the idea of taking these songs and blazing them into outerspace, with all the synths and things like that. I was able to get a lot of fun toys out of that deal. I got that that Andromeda, that '70s Tele Custom, that Martin Acoustic Custom.

AH: Well, in the end, Sony Wonder must've saved money since you did it all here, and they didn't have to pay for studio time.

On no, I did it at Ocean Way! [surprise and laughter all around.] I was at Ocean Way for two months! And I finagled all this gear. I'm really good at this. I could start a business advising bands on how to set aside money from their contract to buy a bunch of gear.

Neumann U 473 stereo compressor/limiter
UREI 1178 stereo limiting amplifier
RCA solid-state compressor
CBS Audiomax tube limiter
Summit DCL-200 duel channel compressor/limiter
UREI 546 parametric EQ
API 550A EQ (2)
API 312 mic preamp (2)
API 512B mic preamp (2)
Ursa Major ST-626 Stargate digital reverb
AKG BX-12 spring reverb
Soundcraft Series Two console
Tascam MS16 1" 16-track
Soundelux U99 large diaphragm mic
various Beyer and EV dynamic mics
AH: You're working with Roger Manning from Jellyfish again?

We have a band called TV Eyes now. It's kind of new-wavey, electronic, hard dance - but with real songs that contain that forsaken art called melody. Some late '70s carcrashing into the '80s - but also very modern. In other words, not a novelty act. We're doing all original songs. I sing. Roger and I sort of share the synth duties. I play guitar and bass, and Brian Reitzell from Redd Kross plays drums. We started the record in 2000, and finished it six months ago. We weren't working on it solid, and Brian and I were on tour with Air for all of 2000 and for two months in 2002. The TV Eyes 12" is coming out on Emperor Norton records.

AH: Before you played in Jellyfish, you were in The Three O'Clock.

I was only 18 at the time. I was a huge fan before that. My high school band covered "With Cantaloupe Girlfriend" and "I Go Wild." That first EP was genius.

LC: I saw them a bunch of times. Game Theory was always opening for them.

Did you ever see Rain Parade? Amazing! Their first record is amazing! The Last - do you know them?!?! They're on a compilation with Rain Parade from 1989 called WarfRat Tales that changed my life. It was all about the L.A. garage, punk, and psychedelia scene: Leaving Trains, 100 Flowers, The Clockwatchers. I have Rain Parade's first 7", "What She's Done To Your Mind," from 1982. My friend Mike Murphy plays drums on it. On the cover is a photo of a girl's eye behind a magnifying glass. The girl is Susanna Hoffs. Mike was later in Lions & Ghosts.

AH: Didn't you play with Susanna Hoffs?

I played a lot on her self-titled record, the one with "To Sir With Love" on it. Jon Brion and I played most of the instruments on it, but we never saw each other. We didn't get along. Jack Puig booked us so we never overlapped. We're so close musically that all of our differences - however insignificant - were blown way out of proportion. But we get along now.

AH: Are you marketing yourself as a producer now?

There's a big business of producing and managing here in L.A., and these people have been calling me and asking me, "When do you want to start producing?"

JB: Are you enjoying the collaboration that comes with producing other people?

I think I'm a producer in the classic sense in that I can arrange, help finish, change or write songs for people; and I can engineer and play most instruments if necessary. All of which I love doing. There aren't too many producers like that nowadays. A lot of them are just "vibe" buys. The engineer is the guy doing all the sweating while the producer is like, "Let's go listen to (insert favorite band of yesteryear) and get inspired" - which is fine; but I do think a level of craft and originality has fallen by the wayside. Anyway, that's what I look forward to in producing, because I can do a lot of things to help a band. But for now, I feel like I need to make a little more of an impact with my own music, so when the time comes for me to help a band flush out their music, people will know where it's coming from.

Many thanks to Andy Thompson for the transcription of this article and to Tara Cadenelli for the magazine.

Falk Speaks