Erik Wofford: The cause of cacophony

Listening Parties
listening_20080111_erik_3.jpg
photo / Paige Maguire (all rights reserved) Erik Wofford and the Black Angels at Cacophony Recorders 

It’s the biggest spider I’ve ever seen. Its web takes up an entire window pane, and it just wrapped up a caterpillar for lunch. The spider is one of the newest residents at Cacophony Recorders, an East Austin studio run by Erik Wofford and Darwin Smith. Erik tells me that the spider showed up as he was recording the new Black Angels album. Most producers, I think, would’ve swatted it down long ago – but most producers wouldn’t have chosen a studio with gigantic windows looking out onto the Colorado River. And for that matter most producers wouldn’t put their mixing equipment in the middle of the same room the band plays in.

For Erik, it seems, recording is an organic process. This has gotten him some clout in the Austin recording scene. He’s worked with big names like Voxtrot, The Octopus Project, The Black Angels, Explosions in the Sky, My Morning Jacket, Zookeeper, What Made Milwaukee Famous, and Okkervil River. He’s also worked with local mainstays Belaire, Ghost of the Russian Empire, The Black, Zykos, For Those Who Know, and Brothers and Sisters. I visited Erik at Cacophony to ask him about the secret to his success.

Related links

That Other Paper Your mixing board and equipment are out here in the same room as the band. What does that bring to the recording process?

Erik Wofford It gets me a little bit more engaged with what the band is trying to do and a little more hands-on than I might be otherwise. A lot of the time the engineer or producer is sitting in the control room talking to the band through a microphone and that causes a disconnect. I’ve worked in studios where it’s been frustrating trying to communicate and it can get complicated. A lot of people feel at home in here or really relaxed. They comment on how easy it is to play here as opposed to playing in a studio that looks like a dentist’s office.

But here, you can’t just sit there and twiddle your mouse. It gets you more in tune with the conversations the band is having and the direction things are going. Itmakes for a good open, creative atmosphere.

TOP How involved do you usually get in producing the albums and helping bands shape their sounds?

EW As involved as they want me to be. Some people have a pretty good idea of what they want to achieve, and then I’m just a facilitator. I’ve been doing this for a while and listening to a lot of music and I have an idea of how to achieve what they want. Sometimes a band comes here and says, “Let’s go crazy, do whatever you want,” and I’ll do that.

But I don’t see myself as a producer right now. I’m more of an engineer and a guidelines-type person. I rarely tell people how to do things. We all discover it together. That’s how I started: I worked with bands who were open to the idea of creating something in the studio and not really defining those terms. By the end of the project I realized I’d had quite a bit of impact on this, and if that’s what you call producing, that’s what I do.

TOP When you’re calling the shots, what do you like to bring to the process?

EW Of all the bands that come here, there’s a unifying theme. Somehow they all gel together. There is a sound I try to do, slightly psychedelic and organic at the same time. I’m a big fan of David Lynch movies. You have that sense of reality but it’s skewed a little bit, and that’s my thing. Some people like it, some people don’t. I try to do what they want me to and it keeps them coming back.

TOP How did you form Cacophony Recorders?

EW I basically run the studio with a friend of mine, Darwin Smith, who found the place twelve years ago. I came in five or six years ago and brought my equipment and a lot of my clients.

I was in school before that, and I learned most everything that I know working on Local Live. I did over a hundred shows there, so I got a real broad sense of genre and time pressure and instruments. We once did the Polyphonic Spree with all 28 people in there.

Darwin played guitar for the band Seela on Local Live. He was selling microphones in the paper and I remembered his name because – well – Darwin isn’t a common name. So I came over to get some, and I just said, “Wow. This is an amazing place.” And he said he needed an engineer. I knew I liked the studio environment and Darwin shared a lot of his experiences with me. He’s a talented guy.

TOP Why did you decide to call it Cacophony Recorders?

EW It didn’t have a name where I first came here. It was similar to this in that everyone was recording in the same room, but basically all the equipment in here is mine. Once it was clear that this was becoming a successful studio, we needed a name, so Darwin came up with Cacophony and it stuck. It embodies the place and how we do things pretty well.

Cacophony is about chaos and things that don’t seemingly make sense. That’s what we do here, just throw everybody in a room and see what they come up with. A lot of the time when you hear the word cacophony it’s associated with an orchestra tuning up before a concert. Sometimes it’s a little haphazard, but it becomes this beautiful thing.

TOP What are some of the best experiences you’ve had recording here?

EW The most fun that I’ve had in the last couple of years was this fairly new band called Til We’re Blue or Destroy. They started out as this guy, Will Rhodes, who’s my friend. He had all these song ideas he wanted to flesh out in the studio. He had no idea what he wanted to do but he knew I liked to work like that, to take stuff and run with it.

We’d write a song the night before we came in and play it for everyone, usually starting with the drummer. So we’d play it a few times, and on the third or fourth take you’d have a drum part. All the parts were made up in one day and we’d have different people come by. A lot of it was him and Kyle Hunt, who’s playing for the Black Angels. There wasn’t even a band name at the time – it was all just messing around. But it was fun and it was cool that he ended up forming a band around it. It ended up being a nine-person band, and he pulled it off pretty well. That sort of thing, where it’s open-ended, is really fun.

TOP What else?

EW This band Low Line Caller started out as an instrumental group. Mark, the singer for Black Before Red, had been hanging out with us, and halfway through recording he just came in and said, “I have some ideas for your songs.” He transformed these instrumental tracks into something completely new. It was fun to create something that hadn’t existed before.

One of the funnest bands I’ve worked with – and people wouldn’t believe me if I told you this – is the Black Angels. Those guys are rarely serious about anything. They’re happy, hilarious people. We just finished their newest record a few weeks ago, and it’s even darker and slower than the first one. It’s gonna blow people’s minds.

TOP What about negative experiences?

EW Generally my negative experiences are with people who didn’t really wanna work with me in the first place. That’s when it’s more of a job. I work at four or five studios in Austin, but this is my home base. But sometimes when I go to another studio as a hired engineer, and it’s much older people, it sucks. If the music is bad it’s hard to get into it. You feel like you’re just punching the clock.

TOP You’ve had a hand in most of the Austin bands that have recently blown up onto the national scene. How does that affect you?

EW It feels weird having a hand in those records. I don’t know exactly what I bring to the table. They’re all very different bands, and I’ve come in at different stages in their career. I feel fortunate that when they blew up, it was when I was involved.

The Austin music scene is stronger than it ever has been in terms of indie music. I’ve been here for sixteen years -– middle school until now -– and I’ve always been a little bit involved in the music scene. But now everybody’s really supported by each other and really challenged to step up a level and make something worthwhile. That’s what we’re trying to do: make these documents of time. And now is a really good time.

As for me, I’ve been very fortunate to know the right people. Some of these bands that have blown up don’t know each other. I’m the third degree of separation that brings it all together. Sometimes it’s been a matter of luck. I’ve had time available and somebody needed to do something and I work really quickly so if somebody wants to make a record but they only have ten days I’ll try to do it. That’s a big part of why I’ve been successful. I work quickly and work a lot.

TOP How much is a lot?

EW A lot of time I’ll be here from twelve to eighteen hours a day. If you do that over and over and over you’ll go insane. It’s quite a roster of bands I’ve worked with, and it’s because I worked my ass off, so now I’m trying to just work with really good bands instead of trying to work with everybody. I’m going to have to be a little more choosy, but it’s hard because they’re all really nice people and they’re all my friends. It’s like telling your friends, “I can’t hang out with you.”

TOP What’s the wait time for bands to record with you?

EW Right now it’s a month or two wait time. Ironically I just finished up the What Made Milwaukee Famous record. I was so focused on that and a bunch of other stuff in my life that I neglected to book anything. I went down the rabbit hole, and a week before I finished the record, I was like, “What am I gonna do next week?” Luckily I had a vacation planned, so I thought I’d just go decompress down in Mexico. As I got off the plane, Will Courtney from Brothers and Sisters called me and asked me what I was doing next week.

listening_20080111_erik_4.jpg
photo / Paige Maguire (all rights reserved) Erik Wofford 

TOP And how quickly do you record songs?

EW On average it takes about a song per day. For something of the scope of, say, Voxtrot, which has many layers and they’re perfectionists, three or four days per song. On the other hand, I’ve done a record in five days, including mixing and mastering. It just depends on what you’re going for.

For the most part the music business doesn’t provide the support to put a band in the studio for a month and focus on that. Everyone’s working side jobs to fuel their desires. Most of the stuff is just funded by the bands so sometimes it only allows for a couple days a month. We do it piecemeal. The Til We’re Blue or Destroy record took two and a half years. You have all the time in the world to make your first record.

TOP Do you read the reviews of the albums you work on?

EW I try to keep up with the reviews. I don’t really seek them out, but if somebody puts something up on their Web site, I’ll look into it. I haven’t read a really bad review of a record I put out in a while. But one of the first records I did, over half the review was about how bad the production was. I went back and listened and I didn’t hear anything that bad, and that kind of pissed me off. For some reason bands like to drop my name. More and more often I’ll read reviews where it actually mentions my name. It’s pretty surreal. When I worked at KVRX I was a DJ for four or five years. I reviewed hundreds of records, so I’ve been a record reviewer myself.

TOP Do you try to go to a lot of shows around town?

EW I’ve been going to shows since I could drive. It’s just something I enjoy do it, and I view it as necessary to stay in touch with musicians. Going out to shows is always really fun, but it’s weird because it’s like, “Is this work or is it fun?” Almost all my friends are musicians and everyone I work with I end up friends with. It’s a good way to get out of the studio to hang out with people. You see the same people around, but I spread myself out between a few different scenes in Austin.

TOP Who are your influences in recording?

EW One of the biggest proponents of open-room studios like this is Daniel Lanois ,who did a lot of the great old U2 records and has done some good records with Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. I’m a huge fan of Brian Eno, even though he’s not really a producer or a musician, his ideas speak to me pretty strongly.

TOP You don’t consider yourself a producer or musician either.

EW Yeah. There’s also a team, Mitchell Froom and Chad Blake, who did a lot of great stuff in the ’90s. Chad Blake still does stuff and he’s a sonic pioneer in terms of looking at stuff in a really weird context. I’m kind of a fan of Steve Albini but not as much as other recording people who view him as the be-all end-all of producers. I’m not so much into that documentarian type of stuff.

TOP What bands are you into, aside from the ones you’ve recorded?

EW I’m a big fan of Spoon, but they’re friends of mine. Music is a personal thing. I’ll listen to a friend’s band or someone who I really believe in what they’re doing. I’ll buy anything Barsuk puts out. I love Arts and Crafts and I did tour managing and live sound for them, for Amy Milan from Stars. I’ve always been a fan of Stars, even before Broken Social Scene. Those bands I like quite a bit.

TOP What’s next for you and Cacophony?

EW I’ve been getting into managing the studio and having a few different, younger guys here working on projects. There’s this other guy that worked on the What Made Milwaukee Famous record with me – he just moved to town and was looking to work on a record. I’d love to see this place blossom into a meeting point for artists, where people can work together. This could be an awesome clubhouse. I’d love to get it set up so that people could just work here and create whatever they wanted to, and I could oversee things and tie things together.

One of the things I love about music is the mixing aspect. You get the tracks together and make them gel, you have to have a vision for that. Other people could do the production and engineering and I could just mix and master the stuff that other people do.

TOP Do you have a philosophy of recording?

EW I like things to be pretty free-form. I’m not an extremely opinionated person, so I’m not gonna put my foot down on something unless I really believe in it. Sometimes bands want me to call the shots, and I’m fine with that, but usually it’s a collaboration with the band. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of bands where we see eye to eye.

Creativity and uniqueness are at the top of my list of things that need to be nurtured. I’m not interested in making carbon-copy records. I want to make things that sound like nothing else out there. Thinking outside of the box, letting chance take a role. When you have a studio with a control room, that’s a perfect word: control. Sometimes I like to throw it all to the wind and take a chance. If some weird noise happened in the room, utilize that. It’s all about having fun.