Jacknife Lee: “Ego’s vital, and if you’re in a band you need a pretty good relationship with it”

Studio insight from the producer behind U2, The Killers and many more
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Irish producer and mixer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee began his career in the music industry manning the sound desk at The Underground on Dame Street, Dublin. 

After his punk band Compulsion and rock outfit Thee Amazing Colossal Men were emphatically dumped by major labels, he reassessed his approach, learned the art of sampling and began mixing. Credited for a mash-up bootleg which he played no part in, Lee became hot property and exploited the opportunity to embark on a career in production in the early 2000s.

Amidst his catalogue of successes, Lee’s work on U2’s album How to Dismantle an Atom Bomb earned him a Producer of The Year Award alongside two Grammy’s for the monolithic rockers. However, the Dubliner admits to not having a specific production style. Whether bands feel at ease just having his experience to hand or he plays a more active role when it comes to recording, co-writing and production, Lee’s worth is measured by his ability to identify how a band or individual artist can truly evolve, often leaning more towards sonic diversification than refinement.

How did you find your way to becoming a sound engineer back in Dublin?

I used to sell jewelry and bootleg t-shirts. After that, there was a really cool club in Dublin called The Underground and I wanted to work there. Actually, I just wanted to go there, so when a sound engineer job became available I said I could do it even though I’d never done it before. I thought, “How difficult can this be?” So I bluffed my way in, which is pretty much how I’ve done everything.

Was being a sound engineer more challenging than you had imagined?

No, because I just learned that room – everything was set up and there wasn’t much outboard gear. If you know your equipment and the room then you’re fine, but that was the end of my career in engineering. I started producing other bands just because I said I had an idea, not because I had any authority, skill or track record. People believed that I thought I could do something.

You must have had some technical expertise?

When I went into studios, I never went up to the mixing board or looked at compressors or mics, it was only when I started making my own music that I had to learn what things actually did. I’m unable to retain the information because I’ve got a terrible memory for that stuff, and I had no understanding of the mechanics or physics of sound, and still try to maintain ignorance in that area. When I look at a compressor, I still can’t figure out the attack and release, and I don’t know which mic is which. It used to bother me, but now I’ve stopped caring. I prefer to maintain a musician’s approach to sound rather than a technical one.

In terms of being a producer, is having a technical understanding inferior to having ideas and being able to implement a vision?

If you’re interested in all that technical stuff then it’s amazing. In my studio I’m surrounded by weird instruments that somebody’s had to work a lifetime to figure out. My Buchla Easel is a masterpiece – one of the great instruments of the 20th century, but I don’t know how it works!

I just got an ARP Odyssey, but something happened a few weeks ago that disappointed me – I'd figured it out. When I had an EMS Synthi, I couldn’t make the fucking thing work, it was just burbling – then I’d happen upon something amazing – but when you feel like you know the signal path, you automatically go to certain things. It’s the same for Logic; I don’t have any shortcuts or save any settings. I like things where you can’t save any settings, like the Arturia MiniBrute or the Minimoog.

Does the vintage gear give you the immediacy you’re after?

Yes, but I’ve got so much old equipment that it spends more time getting repaired than not. My Oberheim OB-8 keeps breaking and I don’t want to sell it, but my ARP Omni never works. I have an E-mu Emulator II, which I’m in love with, and if that goes wrong I’m screwed. A guy I work with told me to get an old Odyssey because it’s completely different, but it’s nearly as old as me, so I got the new one; it’s got a ring mod on it and extra features that I quite like.

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How did some of the negative industry experiences you suffered in your early years shape you as producer?

With Thee Colossal Men we signed for a major label and they thought they were getting one thing, got something else and we didn’t play ball. After everything that happened, I spent a lot of time blaming other people. Everyone else was at fault, yet I played a major role in why it went wrong and didn’t accept it at the time. With TV work, I soon realised I’m working for somebody else. You can put your foot down and say something has to be this way, but it’s their project and if they don’t like it, they’re not going to use it. About 12 years ago, I signed to Universal to do my own record but refused to do any promotion; then I wondered why the record wasn’t out there or selling. I was responsible for all these situations, so while it wasn’t nice at the time, you learn a lot from that.

Do you see that attitude in operation with other bands you work with?

Being in a band is really difficult. I encourage everybody to do it, but you’re in a room for a long time, relying on each other and people get resentful. Some people in bands are the energy source, but it’s not always the person with the biggest amount of drive and energy who’s the most important person in the band. You’ve just got to look around and read what’s going on. It’s easy for me to encourage a band to try something else on a track, but I’m not the one that has to stand up there and open a show with it, and over time you become more aware of what that means.

As a producer, it must be nice having that sense of accomplishment without all the hassle of having to be in the front line?

There are amazing rewards in being creative every day, but it’s got to be weird going on stage and having all those people applaud. I can see the attraction, but it’s just not for me and it wouldn’t help me do what I do, whether it’s gardening, listening to records or making music. I’m just not made for sitting on a bus for two years to tour and sell something. I don’t like doing interviews at all, and rarely do them. I don’t think it’s that interesting for anybody else and we live in such a weird world where people take things the wrong way and the pressure on public people is too great.

In your case, remixing came before production. Did you learn a lot about production by analyzing stems to see how songs were created?

I love remixing and think it’s amazing, but it wasn’t about the analysis of the tracks, it was looking at a song and seeing that it doesn’t have to be a certain way that led me to approach production in a similar way to remixing. There was one track I was given by Aqualung that was in 3/4, and they wanted a remix. I couldn’t do anything in 3/4, so I cut all the audio up and changed the time signature and tempo to make it 4/4 so it was the same song, but completely different. Often I’d say “Yes” to something having only listened to certain parts of the multi, or without even listening to a track if I thought the artist was interesting. It’s about seeing that things don’t have to be how they’re presented and there are limitless possibilities. Following the rabbit is what’s most exciting.

What’s your approach to working with bands in order to get the best out of them?

I find a lot of times that the way a band sounds is not necessarily how they want to sound. Sometimes they get to the second or third record and realize they’ve been working with the same producer or engineer from day one and might not know there are other possibilities. Generally, when I’m working with an artist, we’ll talk about the music they like and listen to records. One of the most successful things I’ve done is where the artist has said, “This is the kind of music we do play, but we’d actually prefer to listen to this.” So I’ll say, “Well if that’s the music you’re most excited about, why don’t we explore it to see how you can make it your own?” I think you’ve got to be honest. If you’re pretending to be something that you’re not, people read it and don’t trust you. It’s not about manipulating people into trusting you, it’s about being trustworthy.

It sounds like making safe decisions is the worst thing you can do?

When I’ve made decisions on what I thought was the sensible thing to do, it usually comes out kind of shit, but when you go off somewhere, people initially say, “It doesn’t sound like them," but it very quickly becomes them. I’d just encourage artists to expand their arsenal or repertoire rather than close things off. Like David Bowie from 1972 to 1980 was always David Bowie, but he did acoustic folk, soul music, electronic music, proto punk and disco. I don’t think anybody really questioned, “Hmmm, should he be doing that?” He just followed whatever he got really excited about.

Is it difficult to persuade a band that has strived for success all their lives to change direction once they’ve found it?

I’m not sure if the artist is driving the conversation, that’s generally the manager or label saying, “This works, so be this and let’s keep it going.” Most artists who are in it for the music, as opposed to the whole fame thing ­–which is also fine if it drives you – want to expand a little. When Jay Z was CEO at Island, he gave The Killers an amazing piece of advice, which I live by: Have a hit on every record and make sure it’s not like you’re last hit. It’s so obvious that’s the way to be. To survive touring, lots of artists go on auto-pilot and part of you turns off. How do you prevent that from happening? By challenging yourself, and you get a chance to do that on records. The audience also gets bored very quickly. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see any evidence of artists staying the same ever working.

Is there a case for saying they can perfect whatever they originally did?

I think you end up competing with a better, younger version of yourself and open yourself up to being judged against a perfect moment. It’s like people who drink too much. The first two drinks are awesome, but the rest of the evening you’re trying to chase the moment you had with the first two drinks. You can’t, so you just get sloppy.

When you work with a huge legacy band like U2, for example, do you feel a sense of responsibility?

When you work with certain people, you look across a room and go, “Oh fuck there’s your man from that band.” It’s kind of exciting because you’re dealing with songs, parts and personalities, but with someone like U2, I’ve learned so much from them it’s kind of ridiculous. I’m aware that they are incredible at what they do – masters at it, but I’m also aware that they’ve asked me to come in and help them, and I’d better not fuck it up. I’m not there because we’re mates; I’m there to bring my best game. They’re paying good money, so I’ve got to be useful, make them feel good and make the records sound better. Most of the time I’m concerned with whether I’m contributing anything and not just hanging around.

You must have preconceived ideas that shape your opinion of them?

I don’t. When I was working with REM, on the train to the first meeting I decided to listen to the records I hadn’t listened to, to find out why I hadn’t sought them out. I’m very much approaching it from an instinctive point of view. For example, I try not see bands live before I work with them because it would give me a sense of them in a completely different medium that doesn’t help when I’m in the studio. I remember seeing a band live and they sounded huge, so I attempted to make a record that sounded as big as their performance, which wasn’t the correct approach.

How do you handle egocentricity?

Ego’s vital, and if you’re in a band you need a pretty good relationship with it. Ideas are the currency of the studio, and that prompts ego. There’s always an element of ego, narcissism and self-hatred, but it’s about ideas. If somebody is hell bent on something you’ve kind of got to go with it, but most of the time it’s about whether an idea works, and you’d hope that conversation would dominate rather than something else. I haven’t really had a problem with it, especially with people who have been around a while, because they’re aware that this process is actually difficult.

They draw on their experience to manage it?

Well when you’re young, you have a certain spirit and all you have is potential, so you get a free pass, but as you get further into your career you’ve got less potential. It’s about functionality – does this work? Then you realize how fucking difficult it all is. I stumbled on a Prince song the other day I hadn’t heard before that was completely amazing and it was from his 40th album – how difficult is that? You can be accidentally good once or twice, but not for 40 records, or even three or four. If you look at bands like The Beatles or The Clash, their career is condensed into eight years – if that – now people are doing records every three years, so why do we need another record from those bands when someone over there is cooler? You get to respect people who have been around a long time – it’s very difficult to do.

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Do artists travel to your studio to work?

I like to work in my own place, just because I have so many esoteric bits and pieces, but I do work in other places too. I’m not a big fan of studios in general because of the architecture of the rooms. My studio is the most fun and efficient room I know.

How do you typically like to work?

I like things that work quickly. I don’t use Pro Tools; I use Logic and bring a record player with me so I can listen to records, although those are not demands. A lot of studios have the same stuff, which gets a bit boring. In the old days, the studios used to make their own equipment, so they’d have a unique sound and you’d go there to get that sound. Now, it’s like going to Starbucks, so I prefer using quirky and unusual things. The only problem with technology is that it allows people to defer judgment. Having too much choice can create paralysis; there’s no forward momentum. You can get excited about something and then some kind of doubt sets in, and if you take years to do a record, your initial intention is now old, so working quickly is very useful.

We understand you’re keen on using Universal Audio gear – particularly their plugins…

Aside from the internal Logic stuff, the Universal plugins are my go-to. They’ve supplanted my internal plugins because I didn’t have enough processing power. I’m using Apollo converters and feel it’s completely altered my sound. There are only a few plugins I do use, but the Universal stuff is so damned useful – the Time Cube is great and the EMT 140 Plate Reverb is just ridiculous.

Are you replacing your outboard hardware with UAD plugins?

I’ve actually bought hardware versions of UAD software. I found myself using the Echoplex plugin on everything, all of the time, so I bought the hardware. So I do have the hardware and use it, but can’t tell the difference a lot of the time