Interview: Jonathan Wilson on Producing Father John Misty, Conor Oberst, and Himself

Jonathan Wilson became recognized more than a decade ago as a champion of the Laurel Canyon sound. He hosted jam nights at his home and studio there with a who's who of LA musicians, right in the heart of the historic neighborhood where Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, and others had made a crucial scene of folk rock 40 years prior. In the process, he honed his playing and songwriting, befriended some of those legendary figures, and became a sought-after producer to a new generation of artists.

As can be heard on Rare Birds, his 2018 solo release, the multifaceted musician is not beholden to any one sound. And in addition to having a dedicated ear and deft engineering hand for capturing live instrumentation, he's not at all an analog purist. In recent years, he has produced and recorded artists including Father John Misty, Karen Elson, and Conor Oberst.

Late last year, Jonathan Wilson spoke to us from Mexico City, where he was touring as a guitar player on Roger Waters' US+THEM Tour. Below, he shares with us a detailed account of his production process, how he merges analog and digital techniques, and picks some of his favorite pieces of gear that help make everything happen at his Fivestar Studios in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

Let's start first with a little bit about your beginnings. When did you get interested in recording, as opposed to just being a musician?

Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds

It all started for me super young, but the recording part started when I got my first Fostex four-track, a Fostex X-26, and I got that when I was about 12. So, from there, I started to basically figure out—oh wow, I can stack myself on top of myself, and I can figure out ways to sing Motown songs and The Temptations, stack up all the harmonies like that and The Beatles, just figuring out that whole thing. So that would be when it all started.

What about the process of recording this new album at your studio, Fivestar. Can you talk a bit about your general day-to-day approach? How long were you working on these songs?

Well, I was woodshedding and figuring out, composing the songs for kind of a long time. Different songs from different times. But the actual studio process took us about 18 months or so to do. Because we started the sessions in the summer of 2016, finished it fall 2017.

But basically, I did this project the same as I've done most of the stuff that's sort of a bigger project. We always do all the basic tracks to the Studer tape machine—primarily the drums and bass and stuff like that—and then we transfer. But most of the time, I'm constantly tracking to the tape machine and Pro Tools at the same time, so I can go back and choose. Sometimes we do shit, like on "Trafalgar Square," the first track, where I'm super boosting the top-end of the snare drum. So on something like that, I'll use the rest of the drums from the tape version but the snare will be from the digital version.

But on the projects that are a big deal to me, usually, all the basics go to the Studer and then we transfer into Pro Tools. And that's when the fun starts, like all the crazy shit that we do. You know, some of these songs on Rare Birds—I mean, they were basically about to break the fucking computer, because there's just lots and lots of tracks. In the case of my records or, like, the Father John stuff, it's always mixed through a console.

Jonathan Wilson - "Trafalgar Square"

Well, I was reading an article where you were talking about the mixing of Rare Birds, and you referred to is "a big, fucking complicated album." I guess now I have more of a sense of what you were saying.

Yeah, I think I was saying before that, for whatever reason, I can't just do a simple five tracks—drums, bass, and guitar, and the drums are all on one track, and there's your song—it's done. I mean, for some reason, I pose myself with a complex set of audio problems that I have to figure out and algorithms, you know? But that's the process—I enjoy that part, the choices and particularly the editing of the frequencies, and what should be there and what should not be there.

You were referring to your song "Trafalgar Square," and I had a question about that. I really like the rhythm guitars in that song. There's a really cool distortion sound that's very distinct. What were you doing there? Do you remember?

Yes. That is a '57 Les Paul Junior, that's been converted into a Les Paul Special, so you could just say it's a Les Paul Special. But neck pickup, tone all the way down, and the fuzz is a vintage Mosrite fuzz called a Fuzzrite. Those can be found. They're expensive, but not that bad. The amp would have been a Fender Princeton 64. That's the amp I've had since I was 13. So, it's on almost every album.

Mosrite Fuzzrite
1964 Fender Princeton

I notice, the way you use choruses to achieve tension, for example, at the end of "Ballad of the Dying Man" and also before the solo in "There's a Light." Is there any mixing or recording secret behind those?

Sometimes I will do something where I will boost the chorus, do like a master boost in a session. You know? Like, I've done that where I boost a chorus like a dB or something like that.

I sometimes use the Paul McCartney trick on bass where you take the bass out of the mix and mix it to zero, and then you put the bass in and let the mix hit plus two, so that you have a big thick fucking bass and stuff like that. But, as far as compositionally, it's just trying to make some of those choruses pop with the different frequencies.

I was watching a video and I saw in your studio you used to have the MCI JH-416, but now you have the Cadac. When did you make the change? What's the Cadac doing that the MCI couldn't?

The Cadac is very, very special, but one of the last things we did on the MCI was we went back and remixed some of the Father John songs that we had previously mixed in Seattle, not for Pure Comedy but for Honeybear. If you listen, for example, to "Chateau Lobby # 4," that was mixed on the MCI. And what's written about those consoles is kind of the truth—it's got like a light transistor overdrive and stuff like that. That thing sounds great for a rock band. It's just got the color.

For example, like, against the MCI, a lot of times I would go down and mix at my friend's place, Jackson Brown's place—he's got a big Neve 8078. So, I would pull up the same tracks on that console and I would hear all this shit that I didn't hear on the fucking MCI. Mostly the bottom and the top end. So, that's when I sort of knew, like, the MCI is great and it's charming, but it's time to get something that shows the whole fucking spectrum.

Cadac G Series console

So I found out about this Cadac, which is a super, super, super hard-to-find thing. It's a weird one, because it's kind of like the last hidden thing. So, I found it and I shipped it over from England and we did a total restoration. We took the whole thing apart and did all the caps. That board is one of six. It's a Class A, all-discrete, 32-bus, five-band. So, the modules are similar, say, to something like a Neve 1081.

But that [Cadac] console was made and designed in 1977, and it was made for Pye Studios. So, it, during its time at Pye, it did a bunch of the cool Cat Stevens shit and some rad Jethro Tull stuff and some stuff with Queen. The only other one of those that has been functioning was—I think maybe it's been sold off—but one was in use from Radiohead. So, that was kind of like the only one.

But they had two of these consoles at Wessex. The Sex Pistols did their thing there on the Cadac. And lots of Supertramp was done on the Cadac by Ken Scott. But anyway, it's really rare and fantastic—it sounds incredible. Incredible. So, it's sort of like become my thing. And it doesn't have a name—it doesn't have the Neve fetishism—but still, it sounds so good.

It's a one-of-a-kind thing that nobody has. That's quite incredible.

Yeah. It's the only Cadac in the States, for sure. There's a guy in Laurel Canyon that has a small Cadac sidecar that came from Pye, but yeah. You can't find modules and stuff. It's got a Marinair transformer, the same one that's in the 1073. So, it kind of shares that, but what's really interesting about it is it's a plus-44 volts. Its most similar circuit would be the Trident A range. One of the guys that made that console made the Cadac.

I want to talk a little bit more about you as a producer. I know that you work with different types of singers, like Conor Oberst and Josh Tillman. When you're recording vocals, do you have certain mics or compressors you always use first? Or are you into experimentation? Because all of them sound quite different, actually.

Most of the Josh stuff is my 1957 Neumann 47. But then I changed on him. On most stuff these days, I've been using a 67, because I feel like it sort of has such a natural sound, like, to me, it just sounds like the singer.

We always use the BG2 Compressor, which is made by my friend at Highland Dynamics. That's a really thick, creamy vacuum tube thing that's on all of my productions. For tracking, that's a thing where I definitely don't squash things to an extreme. If I can choose for tracking, for compression, I would choose an LA-3A.

What's the BG2?

It's sort of like a combination of the modified Altec—the back end are 6V6 tubes similar to the RCA BA-6A. So, it's kind of like a combination. But it does that Fairchild-y thing where it's so big and it's extremely forgiving.

So, it's very '60s-like, for Beatles-type compression and vocals?

Yeah. It's a combination of that same EMI circuit, but with just some extra control of speed and things like that.

I was listening to Conor Oberst's "Time Forgot" and I was really interested in the sound of the drums especially. There's a lot going on in those drums. I was wondering if you can tell me a little bit about it. There's a ton of spatial effects.

That album, we mixed that at Blackbird, which has everything known to man—you can call for this piece of gear, that piece of gear. For the drum setup, I think on that album we were probably squashing some Coles through a Fairchild to get the smack.

But the drum setup usually starts with a mono 47—that's sort of like at the drummer's skull. So, that gets the bottom end. Then it's sort of the standard—it's 421s on the toms. You rarely use something under the snare. Same with the hi-hat most of the time. I just don't have those.

But it's like a 57 on the snare, a U 47 FET on the kick, and a lot of times, these days, I got a pair of these things called Upton 251s—they're so great. So those bring that 251/C12 sparkle to the overheads.

That song that you're talking about, the Conor stuff, that would have been a pair of those AKG C12s, and that's sort of my favorite for cymbal sparkle. As far as the spatial stuff you're hearing on that album, it would have been some really rare shit that you can't find. It's from France—it's called the Publison Infernal Machine. It's basically sort of like a doubler. Those things are extremely hard-to-find, but they sound great. It's similar to a Cooper Time Cube or something. That might be the effect. Like a digital ADT.

Conor Oberst - "Time Forgot"

So, as far as the mics, it would be like a three-microphone combination for overheads? One with the perspective of the drummer and then the overheads?

Yeah. That's the vibe. The two out to the sides for the cymbals and toms, they used to be Coles. But now, I've gotten to where I kind of dig the sparkle, and my favorite sparkle are the C12s and these new Upton 251 copies that are outstanding. They're so good.

Listening to Father John Misty's albums, I can't help thinking about the changes between Fear Fun and Pure Comedy. How did you achieve that transformation? The latter sounds, I don't know. It's more mature and so different.

Yeah. Well, it was the first time that we had some real budget [laughs] and we were going to spend it. We were going to spend it on the studio, the horns, the strings, the musicians, you know? Fear Fun was done at my house. Just a couple of stoners, smoking a pipe, and doing fucking overdubs.

But then when we got to Pure Comedy, it was like, Now we finally can do it. Sort of like what we've been dreaming of: the finest studios, the finest arrangers, microphones, blah, blah, blah. It was finally—that was our shot. Since then, we sort of dialed it back and have gone more into a sort of smaller band sound. But that was purposely grandiose.

What's the biggest difference between producing artists and your own music?

I mean, it's nice to be able to practice. For my own stuff, I get to practice on someone else [laughs]. And I get to practice all the techniques and things to try and stuff like that. But I think that the process is generally the same. I'm kind of trying for the same goal, which is to get something to sound fucking great.

Is there any more specific gear that you are super proud you actually have?

Jonathan Wilson

Yeah. There's a few things. There's one thing that I use a lot that I love, a vintage Camco drum set, which are definitely hard to find. This particular kit has an 18" bass drum. That's great. Also, I bought for $55 on the side of the road a Yamaha DX1, which is the first of the DX [line of synths]—it's this giant thing. Those things probably sell on Reverb for like 10 grand or something like that.

Then one of the pieces of gear that I love is my piano, which is a 1913 Steinway A. So, it's 6'4". That piano is just, once I got that, that was like, Fuck man. This is it. This, to me, is success. Then tons and tons of other gear. Like, pedals and guitars and shit tons of things.

Something else I recently got too that I would add is a Synthi. That's something that I got on this tour. I got it from Berlin.

What are things that are still on your wishlist? Is there something that you've been searching for and couldn't find yet?

I have a Yamaha CS60, but I really want the CS80. That would be something on my list. Also, some sort of large modular. One thing that I've sold and I wish I had not was my old Mellotron. I bought the digital one, thinking it was going to be great, and it is—it's OK, but it doesn't sit in a track the way that the old one did. So, that's something that I'll get.

But I mean, as far as guitars and amps and stuff, I'm totally all set. But that's taken a long time to do. Since I was 12. Basically, I've just been stacking up things, from cymbals to tambourines to shakers, and they're all meticulously curated. It all fills up about two shipping containers or something like that. So, basically, that's the rig. [Laughs.]

I know you are an advocate for analog recording, but how much of a role does software play in the process that you have these days? Do you have any favorite plugins that you are using?

I don't like plugins necessarily for dynamics. When I put on a Fairchild [emulation] or the [Waves] Puigchild, I listen to it and it's like, Give me a break. It sounds nothing like anything. You know? There was a compressor back in Logic 4.6 that I thought was rad, but I haven't really been able to find something that I like as far as the dynamics. So, I try not to use those.

I do love to use some of the weird modulation and pitch [effects] and stuff like that. I'd say the package of plugins I use the most is all of the Eventide stuff, like the flanger, the phaser. And I'm a big fan of the hardware and software version of the H3000. I will occasionally use EQs and stuff, but definitely not the compression.

For my last question, I wanted to ask you for some kind of advice for people who are just starting in the world of production. What would you tell them?

I would just tell them to get their hands on all the fucking hardware that they can. And the hardships and the pain-in-the-ass of it and the fixing it and wiring it up and sometimes it doesn't work, and you have to drive it to somebody to repair it or track down a tech to come fix it... Sometimes I go into studios—quote, unquote, studios—and there's no gear there. There's just nothing there. There's like, a desk with a computer and a Focusrite preamp thing and thunderbolt blah blah blah, and that's it.

And I'm like, well, my advice would be, go to the pawn shops. Go to Reverb. Go to eBay. Buy a bunch of little weird shit and experiment with all of that stuff, because that's when you're going to find some sounds that you can't find. And the other thing I would just say is, through that kind of a setup, you only have 16 choices or something like that. With your computer setup with all the plugins, you have 93,000 choices, which is not good.

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