In conversation with Aki and James of Nu House Studios Part 1
by Interviews

Nu House Studios was brought into being in Central Massachusetts in 2019 by longtime friends and bandmates Aki McCullough and James Goldmann. The duo have brought their years of audio engineering, recording, production, and music composition experience to many projects since they began including Victory Over the Sun, Arón Speer, Embrasa, Blade of Marrow, Jisei, Sludge Bunny, Vivid Illusion, Thrashing Mossdog, Necroplanet, Dreamwell, and their own band A Constant Knowledge of Death. While there is no doubt they have tremendous technical skill Aki and James also work hard to provide a safe and comfortable space for trans and queer musicians to create their art. In addition to providing support and knowledge, Nu House Studios has a Trans Musician Fund (more on that in part 2 tomorrow) that helps cover the cost of their services in order to make high-quality recordings and studio time more accessible for trans musicians. Aki and James prove that when community comes first, everybody benefits.

Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with Aki and James to talk about how Nu House Studios came into being, making the studio a safe space, the importance of sharing knowledge, uplifting trans and queer voices, and so much more. Read part one of the interview below!

This interview between Em Moore, Aki, and James of Nu House Studios took place on March 5, 2024 over Zoom. This transcription documents their conversation and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. All photos used are credited to Sheri Furneaux with the exception of the photo of the studio which is credited to Jared Shute.

You’ve been working together for a long time and you founded Nu House Studios in 2019. How did the idea to start the studio come about?

Aki: So me and James knowing each other actually goes back even earlier than that. We first met at a music camp in California in 2008. I think we just realized we liked similar enough types of music. I taught James about death metal and James taught me about post-hardcore and stuff. I could kind of play guitar and James could kind of play drums so we kinda played music.

James: Emphasis on “kind of”.

Aki: [laughs] We kind of played music until we actually played music. In order to kinda play music we had to record it too. I think the first thing we recorded together must have been in 2010-2011. I remember being in James’ garage at 3 am tracking guitars and vocals and stuff.

James: And then we moved to your garage and started tracking guitars and vocals and stuff.

Aki: Us recording together has been a thing for a long time just to make our own music happen. We never really had the money to go to a studio and also we always had an interest in it. I went to school for music engineering.

James: And I didn’t.

Aki: The two genders.


Aki: It started as “We need to make our own music sound as good as it can”. When you’re only kinda good at making music you have to make up for that in being able to make the music sound good. So we did that for a long time. We were living on separate coasts and we just accumulated gear in our own respective home studios. Then you moved across the country in 2019.

James: Yeah. I had been in a punk band out in California called Struckout for a really long time. We actually flew cross-country to tour with Dreamwell in 2018.

Aki: Yeah, that was the first ever Dreamwell tour.

James: First ever Dreamwell tour with the OG vocalist and with Struckout. That was fun. [laughs] We flew out and did a little tour and I fell in love with the East Coast. Relatively soon after that Struckout ended things. I had gotten out of a relationship around that time as well and was hating my job. I worked in the healthcare industry for half a decade or so and was just miserable. I was like, “I have nothing really going for me in California anymore. The only thing that keeps me going is music”. Specifically doing it with A Constant Knowledge of Death, which me and Aki have been doing for going on ten years now. I had always talked to Aki like, “Why don’t you come back to California? We’ll start a studio and do stuff again. We could be on the same coast”. It finally got to the point where Aki was like, “Why don’t you come to Boston?” and I was like, “Well, how expensive could that be??” It turns out it’s five grand and so much credit card debt.

You can just upend your life, take your dog, and move across the country, and start a studio. So I moved out here in July of 2019, started a new job working for Guitar Center, and six months into that, the world ended. We got a whole bunch of unemployment money from the government and just had a whole hell of a lot of free time on our hands. We were like, “You know what? Now’s the time”. We bulked up on gear and started on it full-force.

Aki: Yeah, I think it was just a combination of how things came together because even when James moved out here the primary purpose of having a studio was still, “We can work on ACKOD stuff in one place and it’ll be easier”. Because ACKOD likes to record five albums at once. [laughs]

James: Don’t do that, that’s a bad idea.

Aki: We did that in 2019.

James: During the move.

Aki: It was also the last year before we couldn’t go outside anymore and we spent it being inside making four fucking albums. So the main thing was still doing ACKOD stuff and recording our own music. I’d always thrown the idea around in my head of professionally doing recording engineering, mixing, and stuff. At the time I felt like I didn’t quite have a vision for what it would look like. It almost felt self-indulgent like, “Who am I to do that? Why do I think I’m so special to do that?”

When we first started putting out gear together in the space we were like, “This actually looks like something! This actually looks like a studio!” We soundproofed the basement, we soundproofed the upstairs, and eventually got a new computer. It was again the two genders: programmer and Guitar Centre. So programming money plus Guitar Centre discount helped build the studio. [laughs]

James: That was a killer combo! It helped so much. Obviously, the pandemic was absolutely horrible and we would never wish anything like that upon the world ever again but the combination of increased unemployment money plus my ability to still source things from Guitar Center was an interesting side effect of everything that personally benefited us quite a bit. Just to get things off the ground, it was a lot easier than it would have been otherwise.

Aki: The government was forced to care about us for five seconds in order to keep everything from collapsing. I’m sure they’re not going to do that again. I’m sure they’re regretting that.

James: I think they’re actively doing the opposite.

Aki: I’m surprised they haven’t asked for all that pandemic money back with interest. That seems like a Joe Biden thing to do. There were a few other things about the pandemic being an interesting and unprecedented time, one was that everybody’s main bands went on hold for a while when there were no shows and we weren’t even sure if people could meet in the same room as each other. So a lot of people started side projects and stuff. With full bands, they have who they want to record with all set up and it’s kind of hard to break into that but with people doing their little side projects who also need drummers for their side projects, it was perfect. No one’s a drummer except James, he’s the only drummer.

James: In the entire world. I’m actually the only one, it’s crazy. [laughs]


Aki: We were getting people who needed work for side projects and also needed session drums. The first few things that we did in that first summer of 2020 were mostly people needing stuff for those sorts of projects.

James: It seemed like a little interesting niche. You can find plenty of studios that have good setups for drums and you can find plenty of session drummers to go there but having them both under the same roof was definitely something that helped us out a lot in the early days.

Aki: The vision for what the studio was or if it was going to be a whole thing wasn’t quite there yet. I remember we made a website around that time so it was starting to get real. The other thing was that the summer of 2020 was also the time I started transitioning. I feel like that reframed a lot of things for me and a lot of my own ambitions. I started seeing myself differently. I feel like a lot of that, “Who am I to be a recording engineer? There’s so many recording engineers, there doesn’t need to be another boring cis dude engineer” was a lot of self-loathing of not being out and not feeling like I deserved to pursue the things I wanted to do. That started to change from not having to live that way anymore and also starting to be more in trans circles online, especially with Twitter. It’s interesting because this whole saga runs parallel to the saga of Dreamwell becoming a band that people actually knew. Both at the same time and both because of the same community on the now dying site I will only use its deadname. [laughs]

James: It’s ok to deadname Twitter. But that’s the only exception.

Aki: It was also just reframing things in the context of being a trans engineer in a trans community full of trans musicians. I started to see the value in that. One moment was working with one of our friends at the time and recording vocals with her. Especially for trans people, I knew that the last thing I wanted to do would be to hear my unprocessed voice while I’m tracking something because I’d be like, “Urg, that sounds like shit! I hate everything about that”. I was trying to be very understanding and supportive of that whole process and making it as easy as possible. Like putting on a bunch of compression and reverb and stuff from the start so it was like, “You’re going to hear your voice but you’re going to hear how it’s going to sound in the actual mix so you don’t have to have that, ‘urg, I hate this’ moment”. After we tracked vocals she was saying, “That was the first time I’ve actually been able to successfully record vocals! I went to this random cis dude engineer and he was so adamant about doing things his way and I wasn’t feeling it”.

So much of this work requires great technical skill but a lot of it is being very perceptive and empathetic and trying to proactively accommodate people’s comfort. It’s a very vulnerable space when you come to a studio with all of your really personal music and have to present it in its rawest form and fuck up doing it and struggle with it. There’s a lot of talented trans engineers out there but the vast majority of people in that position are cis men and I’ve noticed there’s like a fraternity, hazing ritual about it where they give people tough love. I feel like it’s effective and it works for a lot of cis musicians because a lot of them have never had people give them any sort of negative feedback and they maybe need to get knocked down a peg in order to actually perform well. When you’re queer and trans, you’re rejected your entire life, you’re doubting yourself your entire life, and you’re struggling to find self-acceptance and that shit doesn’t work the same way. I think a lot of engineers would be like, “Well you’re not cut out for that because you can’t take the heat” and it’s like, “No!” There’s so many talented trans artists out there and it’s all about finding somebody that they can work with comfortably.

James: Yeah, it’s about the culture you want to produce out of the business or the community you’re developing. As you said about the technical vs emotional side, everybody can get the technical side down if they have the skills to do it. There’s a certain level of education that you can have to do things well. Same with a restaurant; you can hire amazing cooks who cook food really well, and plate it exactly how you want it. You can have serving staff that gets it out to you super fast but if that staff isn’t kind to you and doesn’t make you feel like they want you there and doesn't show you that hospitality, you’re probably not going to go eat at that restaurant again no matter how good the food was. If they treat you like crap, you’re out of there. I feel like that’s the idea with the culture of the studio we wanted to make. We have the technical skills to back it up but we want to have that emotional side that makes people feel like they want to be here and make them feel valued and supported in their endeavors with us. Like you said Aki, it’s raw. This is a creative process and every single project is different and personal and it means the fucking world to every single person who walks in.

If you wanna be one of those engineers that’s all just tough love and has a hard, aggressive way of doing things and basically just beating into people how you think they should do it, sure, go for it. But that’s not who we want to be. We want to have that supportive, nurturing culture here that makes people feel loved and appreciated and that their art matters. I think that far outweighs the technical skill of anything. To go back to the restaurant analogy, you can go to a restaurant and have a mediocre burger and kinda soggy fries but if the waitstaff treats you like family and makes you feel super good and you had a great time, I would much rather go back there than go to the five-star Michelin restaurant where the waitress slapped me after giving me my burger.

Aki: Some people might be into it. [laughs]

James: I’m not that into it, not in that context.

Aki: So come to Nu House. We’ll make your mix sound like soggy fries.


James: It’s not to say that we’re not technically adept, I feel like the emotional side of things carries a greater weight in a creative environment. If you are both technically very skilled and have the emotional side to support people, that’s one in a million.

Aki: I’d go as far to say that no matter how much gear an engineer has, if they’re not listening to their client’s visions then they’re really not shit as an engineer. You’re not really doing your job at all.

It was around 2021 when we started realizing what we had to offer and that we had something to offer at all. It was a very eventful time looking back. Dreamwell released Modern Grotesque and I was having a very long-standing falling out at my old career which eventually ended with me leaving that job. I won’t complain about that too much but obviously, it was a very hard decision to leave a weekly paycheque and jump into this. I feel like rationally it’s a decision that's very hard to make at all. You never know if it’s going to be a good idea. I feel like I almost had to be forced into that situation where I had to take the jump. I just remember some of the straws that broke the camel’s back - am I a camel? I guess I’m the camel here. [laughs] But the straw that broke my back was basically getting a call at 10 pm. I was supporting automotive tunings and there was some emergency with tuning a car. I looked into what the emergency was and it turned out that our manager had just not allocated the resources for us to do a project and then of course, the thing didn’t work. So the emergency was that we hadn’t built an entire project for them to use until they were in the middle of it and then we needed to do it. We basically had to do all hands on deck to save the day and I was like, “Nah”. I remember laying in my bed staring at the ceiling like, “I don’t think I can do this anymore. I can’t get up and start doing this. I’m not getting out of bed unless I’m writing my resignation letter”. So that’s what I did. Got out of bed, wrote it up that weekend, and sent it in. I quit my job at the end of July 2021 and have been struggling since then. [laughs]

Doing what you love!

Aki: Yeah, I love struggling! [laughs] Fuel for creativity.

James: It was also good that we had a very firm idea of what the mission of the studio was by that point because before then, like you said, we were just looking at it more as personal use for our music. Then after you transitioned we kind of realized what we could do for the community and the world with the studio. It was like, “Ok, now that we have this more streamlined vision it’s a lot easier to sink into that”. I’m not saying that doing this full-time freelance is easy but it’s a lot easier to put yourself into it when you actually have that firm direction. I think if that had happened in 2019 or 2020, there’s no way. It would’ve been way harder without the direction we have now.

Aki: It would’ve been very hard. I’ve been mixing my own music for a long time and when I started mixing clients freelance I knew my way around what I was doing, but looking back it’s wild the degree to which I was ill-equipped to be ready to jump into that full-time and I did it anyway kind of oblivious to that. I’m glad that I had to say “fuck it” and not examine that because we just had a vision and some savings and that was about it.

James: Key word: some.

Aki: We’d only been taking freelance clients for less than a year at the point that I quit my job and started doing it full-time. It was like, “Oh shit, ok”, I was figuring all of this out on the fly. I was figuring out how to actually run social media for a studio and for bands and stuff - I’m still figuring that out. All of that was trial and error but that’s kinda how it has to be. You don’t get the full taste of it until that point.

You have to be fully immersed in it.

James: And here we are, fully immersed.

Aki: I’m gonna mix after this interview and after the business meeting. I mixed before this interview. I’m mentally mixing right now while I’m saying things. [laughs]

All the equations and stuff floating around.

Aki: Yeah! [laughs]

James: Honestly, it’s so brutal having that in your head all the time because we’re mixing and working on stuff so much now. For me not having a formal education in audio engineering, I’m very much more of a raw, feel-it-out sort of person without knowing any of the wizard magic of how sound actually operates. Now with being so into the engineering side of things, I’ll be in the car listening to music and I’ll be like, “Ok, how do I get my kick to sound like that? How do I get my snare to sound like that? How does the guitar sound so wide? How does all this stuff sound like this?” instead of actually sitting there and enjoying the music itself. That’s very interesting and kinda funny in a weird, sad way. [laughs]

Aki: Half the time I listen to really good music these days I’m like, “Sounds great! I kinda hate myself”. [laughs]

How much of mixing would you say is instinctual and how much is learned?

Aki: I feel like we both probably have some takes on this. I guess my approach to balancing instincts and knowledge is to try to frontload as much of the knowledge gaining as possible until things become absorbed into my brain and then I can act on instinct. I wanna be at a point where I know what I need to do in a mix and I don’t have to explain to myself why or justify to myself why but it’s not purely vibes-based. It’s based on that accumulated knowledge and experience. It is very important to be able to operate that way in mixing and also in recording, especially when you’re working with people and you have a tight deadline. You can’t be rationalizing with yourself constantly, you kind of need to be like, “Oh, this mic!” If you were to ask yourself, “Why this mic?” it would be, “Well, the condenser is good on this instrument and I had good results on this mix with it and bad results with this other mic on this one”. All of that experience and knowledge has to be distilled down to the ability to make quick decisions that you can trust in mixes.

Some of my mixes, I’ll blow through in the first draft in an hour or two because I’ll hear it and I’ll be like, “Ok, we need to do all of this and then I guess that’s it”. I used to agonize over tiny little parts and spend hours and hours tweaking them because I told myself I should and then I would just realize that I was happiest with my stupid demos I would do for my bands and mix in five minutes. I was happier with those than I was with the things I was agonizing over. When I was doing those demos I just needed to do what I needed to do to make it sound good instead of agonizing over what I was supposed to be doing and what techniques I was supposed to be using. So I started approaching every mix as if it’s a rough mix, not half-assing it but focusing on what I want to hear and what I want it to sound like instead of what I believe it should sound like in some idealistic level or some standard that’s externally imposed.

James: I think there’s a very delicate balance between the technical knowledge and the raw instinct and leaning too far either way can produce worse results than having that balance. If you go on pure instinct and just rawness like, “Whatever, this sounds great!” it could just be a mess. Absolute chaos, muddy, blown out, and no definition whatsoever - just loud. But like you said, if you’re too technical you might start agonizing over every little thing trying to get every little thing perfect and then you lose the humanity in the music, it just becomes very artificial. I personally definitely have those ebbs and flows because I don’t have the formal education, I’ve just been doing it for a very, very long time and learning piece by piece as I go. I’m always learning new tricks and learning new ways about how things should sound to get them to sound right with other things.

There are times when I’ll get really nitpicky and really get into it and try to figure out, “Why is this sounding so bad? How can I fix it?” There are other times where I’m like, “Eh, whatever!” and just throw it together like, “That’s loud. That’s fine, it’s cool. Don’t worry about it” and use presets or whatever I need to do. You’re always trying to find that balance and that self-control to either tell yourself, “Hey, you’re getting way too into this. Back off and move onto something else” or “Hey, you’re not paying nearly enough attention to this. Get back into it and maybe give it a little bit more time”. I think that learning that balance is in and of itself kind of a raw, learned skill. Formal education on how sound works isn’t going to teach you that balance. That’s something you have to figure out for yourself and I think that different engineers lean on one or the other. I don’t think that one or the other is necessarily better or worse, it’s just what gives every engineer’s final product that unique sound. If you’re looking at Will Yip, he has that really specific sound that he goes for every time because he knows what he’s doing.

Aki: That snare!

James: Yeah, that snare! I’m sure he’s running on instinct with a lot of stuff too but he has that technical knowledge to back it up. He’s been doing it for so long that he’s got it. Personally, that’s still what I’m trying to find but I’m close.

Aki: The Rick Rubin book showed up on my Spotify account one day and I was like, “Oh, I should check that out!” I’ve heard a lot of mixed opinions about him as a producer and person but I was still curious. I’m always willing to take it or leave it with books like that. I did like how the entire book so far has been nothing about technique and it’s all about how to cultivate the creative mindset. Basically how to get yourself into a mindset where you can act on instinct and can actually trust yourself like that to get into the flow of it. It kinda validated a lot of the ways I approach all of this. I feel like with creativity taking care of myself in a way that allows me to create is half the battle.

James: I think he also straight up said in an interview that he has no technical knowledge like, “I literally don’t know how anything works and I run on pure vibes”. Respect. [laughs]

Aki: He’s also purely a producer and not a mix or recording engineer. I’m sure he can do a mix or recording but I think that mindset is probably especially valuable in a producer’s seat because if it’s not hitting with somebody who doesn’t know about any of this shit, it’s not hitting. It doesn’t matter the technical work that went into your mix if the album doesn’t hit at the end of it. I remember - and James can attest to this - we really used to agonize over those ACKOD mixes. The earlier albums would take hundreds of hours to mix. Then when you start getting paid professional projects, that’s not really viable. You have to figure things out or else you’re gonna be like, “Cool, I made $5 an hour on this”. I feel like it forces you to live with your decisions and also to not agonize over them.

I think the best mixes are the ones I’m working on right now, but my proudest one I did for somebody else that’s out there right now is the Victory Over the Sun album. That’s a fun story because I wanted to mix that album really badly. I’d mastered her last album before this one too. We had a Dreamwell tour last April and I was like, “Do you have a deadline? I think I can get this done before that tour. I think I can, as long you don’t have a deadline”. I got the tracks in early March and I was like, “This is a dense album! This is gonna take a long time”. Then I saw that she’d announced the album for May and I was like, “Alright, we are all in on finishing this mix before tour! This is kind of my fault, I don’t want to ask her to change the date because of me so we’re doing this!” [laughs] I didn’t have time to hate myself about how the mixes were going, it was like, “I’m doing this. I’ve gotta get everything there and I’ve gotta send it to her and I’ve gotta get mix feedback. Even if I have doubts about it, I have to send it to her to get mix feedback”. There’s a few mistakes. There’s actually a little noise blip somewhere but I feel like overall the album hit really well and people liked it. I didn’t ruin it, at least. It’s an amazing album on its own. The fact that it was an incredible album coupled with the fact that I had to purely act on my first instinct really did make it successful.

James: I remember working with Struckout and we went to record at the Atomic Garden with Jack Shirley. I’m pretty perfectionist-y when it comes to drums and I kept messing up on some spots. I got through a really good take and I was like, “Uhhhh…” and he was like, “Look. All of your favourite records have mistakes. Every single one” and I was like, “Yeah, alright”. Then we moved on and it changed the tone for me for the rest of that recording session. I got a lot more raw and put a lot more feeling in it. I feel like the next takes came out a lot better because I wasn’t hyperfocusing as much with that in mind. Every single one of your favourite records has mistakes on it. It’s those imperfections that can actually make it more memorable than a record that’s pristinely, perfectly synchronized, and quantized and a million different takes strung together for each of the most perfect parts. That raw energy can really make or break an album.

You really get a sense of who made it that way

Aki: Yeah. It’s always been really interesting following Jack Shirely’s career as a producer. I actually just listened to his podcast with Jeremy Bolm a few weeks ago and I was just blown away because he was like, “We did the remix / remaster of Sunbather and it’s kinda the first mix because I didn’t really mix it the first time at all”. [laughs] He said he pretty much dialed in all the settings on his analog gear, hit record and recorded them, and that was what the album was more or less. I’m sure he pushed some faders but that was basically the album. It’s one of the most influential, heavy albums of the last twenty years. He definitely knows how to capture some sort of magic with artists. I think the most important thing is seeing something in artists and being able to bring that out. Another one of my favourite stories was how when he was tracking New Bermuda by Deafheaven, they used the soundcheck take. [laughs]

James: We were recording with him right after New Bermuda came out and he was like, “You know that second track on the record, ‘Luna’? That was the first day, first take. We just ripped the whole song and it was done”. He said they could’ve finished that record in three days. The only reason it took longer was because they were still writing. They finished the songs they had with him and then they went to another studio and spent the next two weeks writing the rest of it and finished. He was like, “Their drummer’s ridiculous! All of them are ridiculous and just had it on lock. They were like, ‘Let’s do ‘Luna’!’ Boom, done”. One take. Amazing.

Image What do you find helps bring out that creativity in the artists you’re working with?

Aki: I think it goes back to what we were saying before where having a musician who is nervous or self-conscious is one of the biggest ways you can sabotage them so having them feel comfortable and not anxious is very important. Also having the resources helps, like not having to worry about the logistics in the studio, and knowing that everything’s taken care of. I’m not very good at hiding my emotions at all but my shit could be falling apart and I have to be like, “I can’t stress this person out. This needs to be about them. My shit doesn’t matter right now. We’re here to make their album”.

James: The two primary things are communication and empathy. With every single artist that comes in to work with us, everyone is different. The biggest thing you can do to help an artist in the studio is to listen and have a conversation with them where you are actively listening to their needs. To keep that in mind or even to straight up tell them, “Hey, you’re paying us to be here and to do this. We’re here to do what you want. You wouldn’t be paying us otherwise. You wouldn’t be taking the time to come work with us otherwise. So whatever’s gonna work best for you is what we’re gonna do even if it might be in the back of our heads technically against what we would normally do”. If they’re like, “I’m super used to using a bass drum mic for vocals” it’s like, “[inhales] Ok, it’s gonna be fun, let’s do it!” If that’s what makes you happy and that’s the kind of sound you’re going for, we’ll do it and we’ll figure it out. If we think something is actually technically impossible, we’ll make every effort to try to find a workaround that works for everybody. It all comes to the forefront with that empathy and communication and making sure the client understands that, “This is a safe space for you to do your art the way you want to do it and it’s our job to make sure it comes out at its most pristine form of what you think it should be”. If we’re doing our job right, we’re doing more listening than we are directing.

Now there are some people who need a little bit of direction and that’s ok, but there’s also different ways to give direction. Like Aki was talking about with engineers who give tough love, that works for some people but being really harsh and being like, “NO, do it again, do it again, do it again. We’re not stopping until this is perfect. I know you can do this, let’s go! Get it together” doesn’t work for everyone. There’s also plenty of people who, if they’re getting bad takes, need something like, “Hey, what do you need? Do you need to take a little break? Do you want to move on to something else? Do you want some water? Do you just need to breathe?” Or sometimes being like, “Hey, I’m not going to record this one. Just do it, go”. Then they do it and it's good and you’re like, “Haha I was recording you!” [laughs]

Aki: That’s one of my favourite tricks! Oh yeah, we’re just practicing it. [laughs]

James: Giving people that space and comfort is important. Is it a little sneaky? Sure, but if it gets the result they need with the minimal amount of stress, I think in the long run that’s worth it. You wanna give people the best experience you can while they’re here. It’s hospitality. The restaurant analogy again, you want the server to treat you like a human being and you’ve gotta sus out that vibe too. Some people walk into a restaurant and they don’t want the waiter to chat them up, they just want their food and they want to walk out. That’s a perfectly valid form of service. If we have a client come in and they just want to get straight to business, no small talk like, “Give me your best mic and vocal shield. I’m ready. Let’s do it!” Cool, let’s do it. Match that vibe and get right into it. If people wanna hang out and chat about their vision of the album and they wanna go through and talk you through every little thing, let’s do that too. You’re paying for this much time with us, let’s use that time how you want to use it and we’ll get done everything we can in that time.

Aki: One thing I noticed while tracking with Ryan Stack for the Dreamwell albums was that he did a really good job reading all of us and knowing what was going to work with us. I didn’t actually record with him on Modern Grotesque because of COVID. One of the first things we did at our set up at Nu House was tracking my parts for Modern Grotesque because it was April 2020 and everything was shut down. I had been there for the other musicians and he was the type of person who was like, “Yeah, that sounded like shit. Do it again!” and I was like, “Oh god, I don’t know if I can do this. I’m going to be hating myself”. I was kinda scared when we were doing In My Saddest Dreams because it was gonna be my first time actually tracking an album with him. He was giving Justin a hard time the whole time and being like, “That sounded like shit!” But Justin loves that. He was like, “I love how we talk shit about each other!” [laughs] When we got to me he’d be like, “Yeah, I think that was fine. We’ve done this one bar of music fifteen times because you asked to and I think this one was fine” and I’d be like, “Really? You don’t think it’s horrible? You don’t want to destroy my psyche right now? Because I want to destroy mine!” [laughs] I think he actually did a good job figuring out who needed to be pushed to do another take. I would’ve sat there five more days trying to get the one note to hit the way I wanted it to. I got COVID three weeks before that and I was operating on 70% of a brain probably. [laughs]

Another fun example came to mind when I was thinking about, “How do you interact with an artist in a way that brings out that creativity?” I was working with my friend Lux who released an album under the name lux vs lumen in November. It’s kind of a songwriter-y type album. She’d spent most of the time recording stuck in the live room. Our live room is kind of a dead room because it’s a bedroom. It has a lot of soundproofing and you’re stuck in there with doors closed and with headphones on. We don’t have a fancy glass panel that you can look at the artist through so you’re in there alone with your thoughts. It’s good for sound but it’s not always the easiest environment for people coming in. So we got to all the aux percussion stuff and we both had the sense of, “Yeah, let’s record this out here. This isn’t that important and it’s also something we need to be extra loose about and have fun with”. We didn’t even say that much. It was more like, “I have a feeling this will be correct for this. This is the vibe”. I don’t wanna lock somebody in there to do aux percussion after all the other recording is done unless it’s James. He can deal with it. [laughs]

James: I’m the opposite kind of person where I just wanna be in that room by myself. I don’t give a shit if it’s vocals, drums, aux percussion, trumpet, guitar, bass, anything. Put me in there by myself, give me a set of headphones, and I will tell you when I think I got it right. That works for me. It doesn’t work for everybody. I think that circles back to the technical vs emotional side that separates a good producer from a great producer which is knowing what emotional things to tap into for each client that works for them. Any business, especially one that’s creative like this, is just as much technical as it is psychological. You have to figure out the best thing that is going to work for everybody and it’s not going to be the same thing every time.

Aki: I think James and I have recorded each other more than we’ve recorded anyone else. I know if James is doing drums and he stops, I’m going to be like, “Alright, I’m hitting record again. I’m not saying shit, I’m not stopping because you’re gonna be like, ‘gogogogogogo’”. [laughs] That’s what he needs. He doesn’t want a break, he’s in it, and needs to keep being in it.

James: Yeah! If I need a break I’ll say so like, “Hold on, give me a second. Can you play that back?” Then I’ll be like, “Ok, gogogogogo” because I want to be done and get it out and crush it. If I don’t right away then it’s, “Let’s keep doing it until we’re done. Let’s get going because the faster we get this done, the more we can do”. But some people don’t want to do that, they want to take their time and make sure everything is spick-and-span and they don’t want to come back for another day and that’s fine too.

Aki: The other thing is if somebody is struggling with a part, some people might need to keep drilling it without a break and some people might start getting overwhelmed and need to stop. The other thing about that album with Lux was when we were doing the aux percussion out here, she had a friend over just hanging out for the recording process and there were a few takes of the aux percussion where something funny happened. We were hitting things with pencils, like notebooks and stuff, and her friend started laughing at that during one of the takes. I was like, “That was fun! I’m gonna keep that”. [laughs] Little fun things like that happen if you’re willing to be open-minded to that and not be like, “All these recordings need to be immaculate”.

Those parts that are left in are some of the best things as a listener to hear. It brings such a sense of life to the record.

Aki: We pick and choose. We took out the twenty, “Oh fuck!”s and “Goddamn it!”s and kept the fun parts. [laughs]

James: It’s also particularly cool when you hear a really overproduced, crazy album and then they still leave those things in. Devin Townsend’s Deconstruction really comes to mind where he hired a whole-ass choir, I think it’s the Prague Philharmonic, for that album. One of those songs ends with this giant “Amen” in perfect cadence and when it finishes you hear everybody clicking around on their music stands and laughing because the lyrics they were singing before were about dicks and stuff because it’s Devin Townsend. He loves doing that back and forth of, “This is really epic and crazy and hyper-produced but we’re also just talking about dicks”. Hearing all those little chitters and laughter in the background and then immediately slamming into the next song was such a breath of fresh air. There’s millions of moments on that record but that’s one of the first ones that pops into my head. I specifically really really like that little breath of humanity in this super over-the-top hyper-produced progressive metal record. It’s nice. It’s just fun.

Aki: You can also tell where artists and producers and engineers fake that stuff like, “Oh yeah we’re having fun. We’re totally friends. With our million dollar budgets. We are people who don’t want to be in the same room together but we have fun here”. [laughs] People can tell when it’s inorganic. As much as some people believe that mix engineers and producers can be replaced by A.I or whatever, I think most people have a craving for humanity.

James: For now.

Aki: Yeah, check back in a few years. Maybe that statement won’t age very well.

If that’s the quote that gets pulled from this and put into an A.I machine, I’m gonna scream.

Aki: A.I knows what to say to sound like a human like, “We like being human here. We like doing human things”. [laughs]

James: Boy howdy, do I love humanity. Gee willikers.


Aki: I’m going to program an Aki-bot to respond to all the emails like, “Hi, I am Aki. I am normal. I like talking to people. What can I do for you today?” [laughs]

James: That exists, it’s called ChatGPT unfortunately.

Aki: But it’s gotta be an Aki signature version. It’s gotta have all my catchphrases.

That just comes to another part of it because we’re talking about the recording stuff a lot but honestly a majority of what we do is remote mixes and masters. We formed the following for the studio around an online community so we do work with artists here but a lot of the time we’re getting sent mixes and masters and doing remote feedback. It kind of brings up the question of, “How do you get those performances out of an artist in that situation where they’re recording themselves?” I’ve definitely given artists recording tips and critique and stuff but also I feel like I’ve started a lot of new friendships that started with me talking to an artist about our project. I’m not going to be super uptight and formal if we have to be talking about this constantly, I’m just gonna be a person and we’ll come out of it as friends. I feel like that’s important too. I’ve done albums for people who were trans and hadn’t come out yet and were writing music about that. Also talking them through stuff about transitioning like, “Hey, check out Planned Parenthood and stuff like that”.

James: Something we talked about in the past is how so many producers love to keep their cards so close to their chests about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and why things work really well. Fuck that! People are coming to work with us because of the skills and knowledge we have and the fact that we can make their stuff sound really good but also we’re innately curious people and there is something to be said about sharing knowledge and creating a community where everybody can get better at their craft regardless of what part of the craft it is. There’s plenty of advice we can provide on playing your instruments or whatever but everybody already has their own style of playing, that’s why they’re coming to us, but not many people have the same knowledge and skills about the recording process or about mixing or about mastering or about production. We have that kind of knowledge and if they’re gonna work with us, why wouldn’t we try to share that and make everybody’s lives better? If you’re going to be an engineer that’s going to hold all those things so close to your chest, what are you doing for the music community other than doing it just to make money and to make a better name for yourself?

Especially in a connected remote environment where people aren’t coming in to record with our thousands of dollars of amps and thousands of dollars or pre-amps and a huge fancy computer with 64GBs of RAM and massive amounts of plug-ins, we want to give them enough knowledge that they can use at home. Let’s give people the skills that they need to do things better on their own so when they come to us next time, they have a better product to give us and we can make it even better from there. Everybody wins. You get your raw recording even if you’re recording with Little Scarlett and the mic it came within the pack. We just teach them like, “If you get yourself a screen and you set yourself up in a closet, your vocals are going to be a lot cleaner and we’ll have more room to work with” or “If you get a pop filter, you’re not going to get so many of those harsh pops and we can make a better final product with that”. It’s kinda counterintuitive to the business, but in the most ideal situation, you wanna give people the tools for them to be able to do it themselves. That’s the best thing you could hope for because giving people that power is better than any amount of money or recognition that you could get personally. It means so much more to see people flourish than it does to have them be dependent on you because you won’t share.

Aki: I’m mixing an album for our friend Arón Speer who was in the band Struckout that James was talking about. This is the third thing that I’ve worked on him with. We did an album for him and an EP - which he released as a couple singles - and now we’re doing his second full-length album. He said straight up to me when we started this, “This is the last album I’m gonna mix with you. Not because you haven’t done a great job but because I’ve learned how to mix”. He’s always sent me in-progress mixes. It definitely makes something more challenging to work off a partially finished mix session for me but it’s like, “I’ll do it. I trust you believe this is how we’re gonna get the best album because a lot of this is stuff that you need to dial in and I need to be able to change”. After we mixed his last set of songs that he released as a bunch of singles, he was like, “I want to pay you a bunch more money, and then can we go on Zoom and can you show me what you did?” I went through track-by-track and showed all the processing and everything I did. Now I’m not sure how much music he’s mixing but I know he’s mixing a lot. He’s getting paid to mix podcasts and stuff. He’s been practicing and learning that. I’m not gonna lie, I’m trying to kill it on mixing this album because I’m pretty inspired by what’s going on on it but also I’m like, “If I do good enough, maybe you’ll have to mix with me again”. [laughs]

I mean, that’s part of it having people be able to do stuff on their own and that goes back to the vision of the studio. If I wanted to do this to make a fuckton of money and be comfortable, I would’ve stayed at my last job. Where that got me was staring at the ceiling wondering what I was doing with my fucking life and realizing I was vastly unhappy with everything I was doing in my life. That goes back to the vision of what the studio is, which is flying in the face of the music industry and all of the capitalist bullshit.

James: I said it might not be the best business decision in the world to give people that power because they stop spending money with you and working with you but at the same time there are a lot of people who want to learn this kind of stuff for completely different reasons than starting their own studio and taking clients of their own. They just want to learn how to do it themselves and have absolutely no interest in doing it for other people. If you give people that kind of power and they learn how to mix from you and from a studio that is in existence, when people come to them and go, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this! Do you do this kind of thing?” There’s a good chance that those people will go, “I learned how to do this from working with this other studio because they gave me access to that knowledge and power. If you want to have a really good product and learn a bunch, you should go work with them”. For every person we do that for, they’re more than likely to recommend us to three more people that will come our way and you can just continue that boulder rolling down the hill. That snowball effect of getting one person empowered, then they drag in a few others, and you keep it going and going and going. Eventually, we can build a community of - ideally - queer and trans musicians who can do everything themselves and not have to rely on the “powers that be” of this fraternity of cis, white engineers that control the majority of the music industry.

It also helps us out because obviously, we’re trying to make a living too. We wanna give people that power but we’ve gotta balance it with taking care of ourselves. I think again, it all cycles back to that empathy and emotional side of things where you treat people really well, you give them the power, you give them the knowledge that they crave, and you give them a really good experience. Even if they move on, they’ll recommend you forever and send more people your way because if you gave them a great time, they’ll trust that you’ll give their friends or their colleagues as good of a time

Aki: I firmly believe that a lot of the structures that exist in the music industry do so as forms of gatekeeping and they exist like that because the powers that be know that music is powerful. People have started revolutions over fucking songs. A lot of these structures are set up so that you can’t be a popular, accepted artist unless you have the right kind of mix. This entire field in a way is a form of gatekeeping. You have to have an expensive enough sounding mix in order to be acceptable to be listened to popularly. We’ve trained people to hear that and recognize it and see that as good and listenable like, “Oh this is good music”. Obviously, there are exceptions to that but in general that exists. In order to access that you either need a lot of money on your own or you need a record label who, as a business, is mostly run by rich people. They get the final say on what is and isn’t palatable and what’s appropriate and acceptable. If every message that people are hearing has to be filtered through a record label or through somebody who has enough money to pay for it on their own and then what messages are you getting? You’re not hearing the people who have struggled the most, you’re not hearing the most marginalized voices, and you’re not hearing from the people who have been fucked over by capitalism the worst. You’re hearing from people who are probably going to say that everything is pretty chill in the greater world.

We’ve set up the Trans Musician Fund in response to this. We try to not charge exorbitant rates and we try to work with people how we can so that people who don’t have those resources can still have their voices heard or they can learn how to do it themselves. More than anything I hope that my existence on this Earth can be somewhat of a huge middle finger to capitalism, to the music industry, and to all this running it. It’s not going to matter to me whether I retire comfortably, that’s probably not going to fucking happen. It matters to me that I did everything I could to dismantle this shit. I try to make myself think about, “Am I serving that purpose?” with every decision we make with the studio.

James: In the immortal words of Fred Durst, give me something to break.


Image There is so much more of the interview to come! Part 2 will be out tomorrow afternoon on Punknews.