X Marks the Spot

Former SST producer Spot brings underground Celtic sounds into the light.

In the rock-and-roll food chain, music producers get more grief than groupies. From tantrum-throwing prodigy Phil Spector and classical innovator George Martin to indie upstart Steve Albini and funkadelic mixmaster DJ Muggs, even the biggest hitmakers are eclipsed by the very artists they help launch to fame and fortune. There are a few exceptions; Spector, for instance, was a limo-escorted teenage millionaire who amassed all sorts of cool stuff like mansions, bodyguards, Wolfhounds, the Ronettes and an antique gun collection. But who really lies awake at night wondering about the contributions of such people, or whether they know the technical difference between a warm, throbby bass line and something that sounds like it didn't even bother to put on its pants?

At best, industry producers twiddle glorified knobs and pinpoint the ever-wavering decibel; they juggle inflated budgets with hyperbloated egos and occasionally end up as reputable icing on a blockbuster cake. Forced to look at everything as a product, they often take a decidedly ambivalent role in the creative process. As hired industry guns, most do what they're jolly well told to do: Enlarge the sound that increases the hype. That moves the units that feeds the giant. That hires the chumps that need the technicians. That work in the house that Elvis built.

"Most producers suck," says 48-year-old Spot, himself a fairly unsung veteran grunt in a business built predominantly upon the pillars of greed and insincerity. "They talk about stuff that doesn't exist. It's like people talking about Santa Claus, you know. Santa Claus either works or he doesn't. The reality is, you go into a situation to do a job based on what you know, and then you get out of there."

One man's treasure: Producer/multi-instrumentalist Spot does his impression of a junkyard dog.
One man's treasure: Producer/multi-instrumentalist Spot does his impression of a junkyard dog.

Details

with Drag the River

9 p.m. Thursday, August 24, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue, $5, 303-320-9200

8 p.m. Sunday, August 27, Surfside, 150 North College Avenue, Fort Collins, $4, 1-970-221-4291

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Spot, who earned his nickname in the early '70s while playing softball in Norway (a miraculous catch he had "no business making" reminded locals of national glove hero, Späat; it was a handle he later adopted and Americanized), shrugs off his own sure-handed achievements behind the board. "I'm more like the plumber," he says. "I've got the pipe wrench, you know. And a plumber's crack."

Yet from 1978 to the present, this humble tradesman from Crenshaw, California, has produced a body of work as prolific as it is impressive. The Billboard Encyclopedia of Record Producers (in which he alphabetically follows Spector, incidentally) lists 108 different Spot-helmed projects. The inventory of independent labels he's assisted over the past two decades should prick up the ears of any self-respecting punk audiophile: Alternative Tentacles, Sub Pop, Toxic Shock, Fistpuppet, Unseen Hand, Homestead, San Andreas, Touch and Go, Grita!, Enigma, Plan 9, Thermidor, New Alliance, Rabid Cat, Fable and, most notably, SST. He's worked shoulder to shoulder with the genre's most influential luminaries, folks who made the days of Reaganomics tolerable: the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets, the Descendents, Black Flag, the Misfits and the Butthole Surfers. Less popular second- and third-tier outfits include Saccharine Trust, the Tar Babies, Saint Vitus, Overkill, Slovenly, the Dicks, the Stains and the Kamikazee Refrigerators.

"I was never that enamored with hardcore," Spot says matter-of-factly -- an unexpected sentiment given the predominantly loud and abrasive nature of his catalogue. "Hardly any of those bands I worked with, with a few exceptions, were hardcore," he adds as if splitting hairs on a mohawk. "Hardcore denotes an intensity. A style more like wallpaper. It didn't appeal to me."

Given his background in jazz, it makes sense for Spot to point out such distinctions; the funky dissonance of the Minutemen's brilliant 1982 offering What Makes a Man Start Fires? belies something of an art band in hardcore disguise -- one whose complex arrangements parallel those of post-bop's Ornette Coleman. Besides, howling against the world's indignities never sounded so articulate, so eloquent, so artful as when D. Boon snarled objection like a chunky economics professor in flannel who cussed a lot. Indeed, Spot produced thinkin' feller's punk in a time of great experimentation and innovation. Alongside Joe Carducci -- somebody he credits with turning SST Records into one of the most significant indie labels ever -- Spot oversaw his share of technical particulars while eliciting several brilliant performances on shoestring budgets. "I've done my time," he says like a hardened ex-con.

With rare exceptions, Spot doesn't produce anyone other than himself these days. He trademarked his name in 1986 when a "lame alterno band from Dallas ripped it off," and abandoned his sound-engineering career in Los Angeles for the grueling life of a professional musician in Austin, Texas. After establishing his own imprint, No Auditions, he began playing and recording -- get this -- traditional Celtic music, among other things.

"We're not talkin' drinkin' songs like the Pogues or Enya," he points out. But rather "fiddle tunes, reels, jigs...hornpipes." Y'know, lads and lasses -- the kind of fun, earthy stuff that got Kate Winslet below deck on her tippy-toes, displaying her wares to the unwashed masses in Titanic.

The music from this period in Spot's life varies. There's a strong Celtic influence as well as the distinct flavors of old vaudeville tunes, classic blues and the occasional hippie-freak jamboree. The sheer number of instruments and styles he plays reads as yet another long and unruly list: fiddle, mandolin, tenor banjo, bouzouki, fiddola, cittern, bamdo, guitar (six- and twelve-string), bass, drums, clarinet, tin-whistle and jug. He also sings and can stomp his feet like a bog banshee, whether he's stomping along to bluegrass, Cajun, country, klezmer, rock, jazz, blues, punk, hardcore thrash or noise.

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