X Marks the Spot
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."
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.
"I got to a point where it just seemed there wasn't any challenge in [producing] anymore," says Spot. "When I started playing around with a Fostex four-track, I actually started having fun. Where you have to just commit to what sounds you want from the very get-go. A lot of times you get more done, and there's something about lo-tech -- that really stripped-down, bare-bones thing -- that sonically has a lot of character to it."
Spot has recorded several full-length solo albums, including Picking Up Where I Left Off (1987), Artless Entanglements (1988), and Yo! Marry Me (1992) before enlisting bassist/clarinetist Julia Austin and drummer Dave Cameron for a trio called Spot Removal. Two more releases resulted from this eclectic lineup: Paper!/St. Annie's Reel (1993) and Spot Removal and Other Isms (1996), an EP that captures the musician's most frolicsome compositions and waggish lyrical style.
Spot's latest collection of songs, Unhalfbaking, is perhaps the best document of what his hands and ears can actually do. Released on the Fort Collins-based Upland Records, the tracks were all captured on eight-track "without all them bells and whistles," but they sound nowhere near as lo-fi as the recording format would suggest. Spot came to realize that "the performance is the thing" and packaged the efforts after originally intending it simply to be a collection of ideas, demos or "glorified sketches."
"The Ministry of Funny Dances" is one such example: It lampoons the click-happy antics of people trying to become the next Michael Flatley -- somebody Spot credits with getting people aware of Irish stepdancing, albeit nauseatingly. "I'm not amused by him," he says. "But I've seen some really silly dancing over the years, whether it's intended or not." Oddly enough, the tune deteriorates into a Celtic rendition of the theme to American Bandstand. Even more odd, Spot's feline companion, Ginger (Fred ran away), deserves partial co-producing credit for the cut's overall development. "I woke up and found that my cat had decided to sleep on the mixing board and pushed all the faders down," he says. "So I grabbed her. I wasn't too violent -- she's still alive. But I kind of went into a state of panic and played my last mix back, then just decided, 'Oh, what the hell. I need to stop anyway.'"
The rest of the disc has its share of surprising moments as well. A supremely strange cover version of Willis Alan Ramsey's "Satin Sheets" provides the disc's best yuk with a loud, belligerent Spot spouting off about hair extensions and demanding his whistle (?) over a low-end din of squalling fuzz. The liner notes that accompany the song question the need for LSD when you can simply just go without sleep; audio-wise, the track approximates Little Nemo in Slumberland, high on a bad dose of Welsh rarebit. "[Ramsey's] pretty revered in the Austin songwriting community," Spot notes. "I've run sound for him in the Cactus [Cafe] before, and I've always been a little afraid to give [the cover version] to him because he's very, very, very picky about stuff." He ultimately did present Ramsey with a copy of his loopy little tribute, but it must have been about as popular as a nun in the boys' room. "He hasn't spoken to me since," says Spot.
Despite extending mixed feelings toward certain debatably sacred cows -- butchering songs that he actually claims to like, for instance -- Spot knows exactly where he stands when it comes to the soul-grinding machinery of the music industry. Regarding Austin's annual South by Southwest band showcase, he sounds as fixated as Texas clocktower marksman Charles Whitman. "I can't be around that many music-business people at one time," he says. "Events like that make me want to buy a gun. I could rid the world of some empty rhetoric, lemme tell ya. I'd look for people with laminated badges around their necks." The abuses of technology likewise find their way into his crosshairs -- so much so that his very own Web site (spotnyet.home.texas.net) devotes as much space to ridiculing the "age of interruption" as it does to chronicling the man and his music. The fact that Spot is using technology to debunk technology certainly smacks of backward Unabomber logic -- an irony Spot is quick to acknowledge -- but it still makes for an amusing cyber-fable. "I contradict myself all the time," he freely admits. "I just bought this speaker phone, and I'm enjoying the hell out of it."
Adapting to change is nothing new. Chicago 7 defendant Jerry Rubin eventually grew up to betray his yippie ideals and embrace Wall Street. Maybe fifteen years from now, Zack de la Rocha and company will stop raging against the machine and finally buy the frickin' thing -- even patent it. History has a knack for repeating itself. For the time being, however, Spot's content to keep it as simple as possible. He's well-connected on the folk and Celtic festival circuits and tours by himself when he gets the call. (Don't "Freebird!" him or he'll punish you by actually playing it.) And since his true love for playing music outweighs actually engineering and producing it, he's become more of a homebody, too -- that is, when he's not out performing. "I can record stuff here," he says of his Austin abode, "but I wouldn't call it a studio." The little house likewise has seen a few changes over the years: Certain walls have been knocked down, others spray-painted.
"We've been in a drought, so I pulled off the roof of my house. Then it rains! So I kinda had my ass kicked. This old reel-to-reel four-track machine I've been lugging around was right in the path of a waterfall. I guess I'll have to give it away to somebody."
It's a gesture not exactly in keeping with the times.
While the ex-Dead Kennedys sue Jello Biafra over unpaid royalties and musclehead-thespian Henry Rollins mouths voice-overs for car commercials, one of punk's long-lost tribal elders tinkers with his '61 Ford Falcon and tends to his leaky roof. And dreams of the Emerald Island.
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