After the handful of world-renowned producers (Rick Rubin, Dr Dre etc.), the list of recognized personnel becomes extremely finite. With certain commercial sounds, it is easy to dismiss the producer as anything but what the title presupposes. But there is that curious group that truly makes (or is that facilitates?) an artist (The Beatle's George Martin and Broken Social Scene's David Newfeld are easy names that come to mind). There are very few engineers that make a name for themselves like the mostly less-than-mainstream bands they produce. Matt Allison is one of the rare exceptions. Punknews contributor Matthew Bentel recently called the modest Allison about the history of his studio, Atlas Studios, some of the more notable bands on his roster, and, oh, that new record by those three dudes from Chicago.
You are something of an institution in Chicago. To even begin going over the records you produced would put most to shame. What do you think of that?
I think itâs extremely flattering and Iâm kind of surprised truthfully. Iâm just a hard working guy. Thatâs how I view myself.
Iâve been lucky in the sense that, you know, Chicago has an amazing scene, and always has pretty much. In the history of popular music, Chicago has always been one of the primary music scenes in the country. So thereâs never been a shortage of talent. So I was lucky to be born in the states, and when I came to that decision this was the obvious place to live. The people that deserve the credit are the bands, not me. I do what I can to help, and thatâs it. Iâm a fortunate person in that regard.
When did you decide to open up your own studio and how did it come about?
I opened Atlas [Studios] in 1996 and I think I had always- Iâd look for a studio in Chicago, some random one I worked at for a few years. I think I always wanted my own place for the ability to focus on the music I liked the most, instead of any random type of music that would come through the doors. So, I started Atlas as a pretty bare bones situation, but was able to slowly, over time, get it to a point to where itâs a pretty great studio at this point. Thirteen years later. Hard to believe.
What is the selection process for agreeing to record a band? Do they typically come to you? Or, are you a bit more discriminatory about who you produce?
A lot of times what happens is, you know, Iâll try to attend as many shows as I can, thatâs a great way to seeing new bands. You might see a band open for some other band your there to see. In general, itâs usually been the kind of thing where itâs a word of mouth thing. They heard the records and they say, "I like what he did for that band, lets see what he can do for us." For example, Smoke or Fire I got to record was because they were on Fat [Wreck Chords] and that was the Lawrence Armsâ label. And the Lawrence Arms Iâve known since way, way back when Atlas started, and I knew them through the Broadways. It sort of has been built up as a way of talking through friends and meeting people more in a social situation.
Iâm sure you get a lot of bands asking you to record them.
Yeah, I do. And sometimesâ¦I do. I get a fair amount of requests. A lot of the time if the band isâ¦ A lot of times Iâll have a dialogue via e-mail with them and try to get a feel of what theyâre trying to do. Whether they are ready to make a full length that is fully realized in a bigger studio. Sometimes these bands can benefit from working in a smaller studio first and get a better idea of what the recording process is like. Iâve had a couple instances where bands have come in and have never been in a bigger studio and they are a little overwhelmed by everything because theyâve never recorded before. And that can be kind of daunting for some bands. So, if they can get some experience recording with friends or elsewhere so they can get an idea of the pacing and how it goes. The only way to basically know what its like is to experience it. So thatâs what its like for some of the younger bands.
After producing the first handful of Alkaline Trio records, what was it like when they enlisted you to produce their latest record? How was the recording process?
It was great. Weâd been friendsâ¦ I met themâ¦I met Matt I think before the Trio was even formed. He was playing drums in a band called The Traitors. So I met them right when the band formed and we had became friends. And even after the records and they made their last three records in Los Angeles, weâre still hanging out in the same town together, weâre still great friends. We were really looking forward to making this together, and I think it turned out like we hoped it would. We had a blast and we are all happy with it.
Iâm sure itâs a brutal market, but do you ever take offense if an artist youâve previously worked with switches off your service?
No, not at all. See, we had made a lot of records together before- the first record they made out in LA was Good Mourning. I want to say it was like 2003, and at that point I had already worked with them for six yearsâ¦ seven years. Jeez, we made a lot of records already. They were, as most bands would be, very curious to work with a huge name producer like Jerry Finn. So I didnât take offense to that at all. And I think working with Finnn was a great experience for all those guys. They learned a lot about the process of making records, how the LA music industry works, and I think for any band if they have an opportunity to do that, to fill your knowledge base, youâd be silly not to take that opportunity. And they are glad for the experience also. They also learned a lot.
We did a lot, a lot of stuff. And then even after that, we still made a really cool EP, The One Man Army Split, which I think was 2004 or 2005. So itâs like, we still remained great friends and weâre always happy to work with each other, when the opportunity popped up.
That was literally right when the studio opened. And the way I started working with those guys was when I opened the studio, the studio itself has been in three physical locations. The one weâve been in now weâve been here since 2006, maybe 2005. But the place weâre in now is a real, completely tricked out 2000 square foot studio. The very first location was essentially in what you would call the attic of an industrial building. So it was pretty small and the gear was pretty much home recording gear. Spartan and cheap recording equipment. It was a very cheap studio and when bands were coming in to just do super fast demos and occasional full-length albums like those guys did. The way that the word got around was thereâs this place that was super cheap and the guy understands punk rock and you can go in there really fast and it will come out half way decent. So thatâs how those guys found out about us. I remember I was working very quickly as far as the Broadways stuff goes. I did an EP with them, and then the Broken Star album, and then something elseâ¦my memory of those guysâ recording was they were a blast to be around, great guys, worked extremely quickly, that record was probably recorded, in truthfully, 48 hours cause they played basically live in the studio. And- can you hang on once second, just one second-
Sorry about that. Uhâ¦yeah, so that was cut very quickly, very fast, and essentially live I would say, except for the vocals, which were overdubbed. Brendan was as funny then as he is now, and just as entertaining, and amusing to be around as he is now. So it was a good time. It was a lot of fun to make it from what I can remember.
Youâve worked with some incredible, and very characteristic bands; Iâm not going to ask what was the best moment in the studio. But, off the top of your head, tell me a good story from the studio.
You know, I thinkâ¦the most recent record in my mind, the most is the recent Trio record, which we had just a ridiculous amount of fun making. And I think thatâs key, enjoying yourself in the studio is key. And we made it a very, very low stress experience. And just tried to keep it- theyâve been used to working with multiple engineers out in LA, we kept this record- we just did it the four of us. There was no assistant engineer, just the band members and myself. And [we] got down to doing the things that we thought would sound good to the four of us without any sort of outside influence. That was a great way to work. It really was. They sort of have this prior, in their more recent experience, to field any number of different opinions form all different sources, and this time they have the freedom to do what they wanted and I think that was a very liberating freedom for them, especially after their last three records.
Does it feel like old timesâ¦.like nothing has changed, thatâ¦you knowâ¦
Yeah I think I might have an idea of what you're saying there. The way I would describe it is that yeah, theyâve been around the world, in every possible respect, both physically and mentally. And in the time as a band here, dealing with all sorts of aspects of the business, then coming back in to record was the smoothes thing that could ever happen. No time had passed at all. Like getting back on a bike. To me they were the same people but a hell of a lot more famous now. But to me that hasnât affected them one bit, theyâre the same great people.
How would you describe the new album?
I had a lot of people come up to me, say, when it was first announced, I had a lot of people, "Wow man, theyâre going back to their roots. And you guys are going to make another Goddamnit, right?" And I was kind of like, we made a lot of records after Goddamnit where we didnât go back in the studio and make Goddamnit And I donât think youâll find too many bands who want to go back in and try to, you know, make a record they made ten years ago. I donât think youâd find too many bands that want to do that. So the whole idea with them coming back here and to their roots had more to do with, Iâm going to guess, coming back to the roots of Chicago where the band was formed, coming back to work with me, because they know how comfortable it is and they know they can be themselves and not have to worry about any sort of outside influence. And I think theyâve been a band now for 12 years, so theyâve got a lot of fans and itâs tough to please everyone because over the span of that 12-year career theyâve made many different sounding records. But I think this one that weâve just done is sort of a great combination of where theyâre going and also definitely where theyâve been. I think itâs a perfect record for them right now. I personally love it. And Iâm hoping the great time we had making it comes through to the listener. I really doâ¦
Ah. Well, Iâve got nothing else. Do you have anything else you want to add?
No, I think that about covers it. Just- I hope people enjoy listening to this [Alkaline Trio] record half as much as we had fun making it. I think people will like it a lot Thereâs a little bit of old, a little bit of new. And I think theyâll enjoy it. I really do.
Are their any artists youâre pining to work with?
Good question. Let me ponder that for a secondâ¦ I need to make a record with NOFX. I donât know if that will ever happen cause theyâre pretty tight with Bill Stevens. But there is definitely a part of me thatâs always wanted to work with them. Iâm hoping to maybe work with The Draft sometime.
Yeah. Yeah I love those guys. Theyâre awesome people. Chris [Wollard] is an awesome songwriter. Would be great to work with them.
Have you ever worked with any of them?
No, no, just friends, just drinking buddies. But hopefully sometime in the future, maybe an EP or a [compilation] track, it would be a blast to work with them.
Anyone in the Chicago scene?
Iâve had a lot of people talk to me about a band called The Brokedowns that I was hoping to see with the Copyrights on Friday, but I wasnât able to go. I have many people tell me they love that band and that I have to get out and see them. If you have any suggestions, let me know. Iâm always interested.
[Interviewâs note: Do it. He was completely serious when he said he would like suggestions. Plus, its nice sharing music interests.]