THE LOST ART OF KEEPING SECRETS

Like some kind of Fritz Lang-like shadow skulker Joe Barresi fulfills the entire essence of the great-unwritten production canon for greater guitar-based rock, quietly and in one fell swoop: make no records that suck.
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Let’s assume, just for a second, that you’re in a band. A really good band — with a particularly unique guitar sound — that happens to sell a few records here and there. And you don’t necessarily want every gear fetishist and home-studio commando to know, exactly, how you got “that sound.” If you’re looking for a producer with tight lips and the skills to handle your very, uh, specific needs, Joe Barresi is your man. From the Melvins and Jesus Lizard to Weezer and Anthrax; from Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age to Tomahawk and Monster Magnet, Barresi has engineered, mixed, and/or produced them all. Sometimes he multitasks and does all three jobs at once. He’s good like that. Barresi’s latest and most confidential contribution to the rock n’ roll universe is Queens of the Stone Age’s Lullabies To Paralyze, an album he engineered, mixed, and co-produced with Queens mastermind/guitarist/vocalist Josh Homme.

Back in 2002-03, while teenage girls were wetting themselves over million-dollar faux-punks like Good Charlotte, and 35-year old alt-rock holdouts were getting a little too excited about the underwhelming Jane’s Addiction reunion, the Queens’ third album, Songs for the Deaf, went platinum (quietly, confidently, and with Dave Grohl on drums) on the strength of three hot singles (“No One Knows,” “Go With The Flow,” “First It Giveth”) and a globetrotting tour schedule that included a six-week stint on the main stage of Lollapalooza, where they exposed the headliners (Incubus, Audioslave, Jane’s Addiction) as the preening corporate show-ponies that almost everyone with a modicum of taste suspected they were anyway. When Queens went home to peel off a follow-up — after the well-publicized firing of Homme’s longtime co-conspirator/drinking buddy/bassist Nick Oliveri — Homme called in Barresi to record the aftermath. They’d worked together before, so that was a bonus, plus . . . well . . . Barresi knows how to keep his mouth shut.

Hence, the precise recording methods used for Lullabies to Paralyze are shrouded in secrecy, as are those of the first Queens of the Stone Age album (self-titled), which Barresi also engineered and co-produced. The information blackout even extends back to Homme’s days with riff-rock druggernauts Kyuss, who recorded four thick, dizzying albums (Barresi worked on the last three) before going ass-up in 1996. Disinformation is occasionally the name of the game (most interviews Homme does with gear/tech publications are riddled with highly entertaining lies — see sidebar), but Barresi has apparently sworn some kind of blood oath. He won’t make stuff up, but if the question cuts a little to close to the bone, you (we) just won’t get an answer. “The system has been in place since Josh has been playing music,” Barresi explains. “He came out of the [Palm] Desert, and he had his own sound going on. He played through a certain kind of amp, and he was — and is — a very unique guitar player.”

“Ever since [the first Lullabies single] ‘Little Sister’ came out, people have been asking me, ‘What’s with the guitar lead, dude—what is that?’” says Homme. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s a none-of-your-business plugged into go-screw-yourself.’ But that’s part of what of makes it cool — we have secrets, and we guard ’em. That’s what makes it sound different. And it’s fun to have a dirty little guild in the studio with someone you trust. Joe and I revel in the fact that we both speak the same language, and no one else does. It might be Pig Latin, but it’s still Latin, you know?” Homme’s elite sonic entourage extends to Queens’ live performances — he’s had the same sound man, Patrick “Hutch” Hutchinson, since the Kyuss days. “I haven’t played a show without Hutch since I was 19,” the now 31-year old Homme explains. “And, I mean, why would I? It’s as intimate as it can get without being a gay bar.”

HIGH ALCHEMY, WEIRD SCIENCE

Despite what little he can give by way of specifics, Barresi will speak in general terms about the Queens’ formula —or lack thereof — and even the decidedly vague nature of his comments occasionally yields a fragment of insight into the studio philosophies of both Kyuss and Queens. “Besides up-front mics, we always had something to capture the ambience or the bigness of the sound,” Barresi offers. “That’s always been consistent. We never use conventional microphones, either — that’s another big thing. It’s always been about maintaining the uniqueness of the band by capturing them with unconventional mics. We’d never put a 57 in front of a cabinet — it was always, ‘Let’s try this mic — what does that sound like?’ Even when it came down to tube mics, it was always the oddball tube mic that no one else liked that we ended up using.” (Homme concurs: “Use the crappiest crap incorrectly,” he suggests, “and you’ll get the best sounds you’ve ever heard.”)

Barresi does describe a session in which Kyuss actually did use a 57, if not in its traditional capacity. “On Kyuss’ Blues For the Red Sun, I had the guy assisting me lay on the ground and swing a 57 in the air in front of Josh’s rig to get a flanging guitar tone,” he says. “I think it was on the song ‘Thumb,’ actually. I read about it in some old ‘modern recording’ book from 1960 or something—they have all kinds of stuff like that.”

Other unconventional recording methods Barresi employed in early Kyuss sessions have since become much more widespread. “[With Kyuss], we started using an Ns10 in front of the kick drum, which everybody does now,” Barresi points out. “But Queens use it live as well. They also use a Blue Ball on the snare — we actually used quite a few of those on Lullabies. It’s just a different sound, plus it looks weird. I actually just bought a red one, and I’m bringing it to them tonight, because [Queens drummer] Joey [Castillo, ex-Danzig] is using a red kit.”

Tonight, Queens will bring both the rock and the roll to a packed house at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, giving some of the songs from Lullabies their Hollywood debut. They’ll even haul out ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons for a guest shot on “Burn the Witch” (Gibbons busts a solo — and a “beard harmonic” on the studio version) and a cover of ZZ Top’s “Precious and Grace” sung by ex-Screaming Trees vocalist/longtime Queens collaborator Mark Lanegan.

According to Barresi, live is how Queens work best, even in the studio. At work in Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, CA (“near the In-N-Out Burger”), Barresi spent more time methodically dialing in the sounds than he did recording the music. “There were so many songs, so the only challenge was to make each song unique. We wanted to track it live, so we’d spend whatever it took to get the song right, and then we’d just cut it a couple of times and it’d be done. And then punch in on a guitar or a bass if there was a mistake or a change in plans or whatever.” Barresi also spent a lot of time switching mics and amps around. “We used a lot of different mics, even for vocals,” he confirms. “From weird, old mics to Leslie cabinets. We used a lot of different places for vocals, too —from the corner of a room or a bathroom to an actual proper vocal booth. At one point, we even had Josh singing in the control room about three feet away from me.”

On at least one occasion, Barresi employed the old jazz technique of one mic, one room. “On the beginning of ‘The Blood is Love,’ there wasn’t very much close-mic stuff at all,” he explains. “It was a mic in the middle of a circle of guys playing, so it was more about turning up each individual amp to balance it in the microphone. I’ve got a friend who works with Keith Richards and does a lot of blues records, and he’s always telling me how they all play together without headphones in a circle, and if you don’t hear enough bass, you just turn the bass player up a little, or move him closer to the microphone. I adopted a lot of that technique for this.”

For Lullabies, Barresi and Homme also employed a peculiar method in which the drums and cymbals are recorded separately. “I’ve been recording drums without cymbals for a bunch of records now,” Homme explains. “It sounds really scientific and super-anal, but it isn’t. It’s just part of a whole cache of doing things that aren’t normally done, and it allows you to continue down that road. If there are no cymbals bleeding into all the drum mics, you can do things with the drum mics that would be impossible otherwise.” (According to Barresi, they’d tape contact mics to the kick and snare, and add that to the drum sound.)

GUITARS THAT RULE THE WORLD

While details on Lullabies remain intentionally vague, Barresi is free and easy with the wisdom when it comes to other bands he’s worked with. There have been plenty of them, mostly because it seems he’s become the de facto producer for guitar bands. “It’s all word of mouth,” Barresi says. “I’m a guitar player, so I have a lot of gear. I think I end up working with a lot of guitar bands because I have a lot of guitar crap, and I spend a little more time on that stuff. Take a band like the Melvin’s — even though there’s only one guitar player, they’re a very experimental band, guitar-wise, so you’re able to do more weird stuff and it comes across as cool and unique, so they tell their friends and they tell two friends, and so on and so on and. . . .”

Barresi worked on three Melvins albums in the nineties — engineering and mixing 1994’s Stoner Witch and engineering, mixing, and co-producing 1996’s Stag and 1997’s Honky. The “weird stuff” he did on Stoner Witch includes holding a 57 to a dog’s mouth while rubbing his belly (and putting it through a harmonizer) and recording guitars in the bathroom — with the mic in the toilet. “We’d be doing guitars, and if there was a snare drum in the room with no head on it, we’d stick a mic in there and record it so it’d pick up the resonance from the drum,” Barresi says. “I remember taping a crystal microphone to the pick-guard of a guitar and using that as the guitar tone as opposed to miking up the amp itself. We’d stick one in front of the fretboard occasionally, too, so it’d pick up the string noise — and then we’d run that through an amp, instead of the actual jack of the guitar with the pickup output.”

Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne liked Joe’s anything-goes style so much, he recommended Barresi for an upcoming Tool gig. “Working with Joe is great, because he’s not afraid,” Osborne says. “There was nothing that we wanted him to do that he wouldn’t do. He never advised us not to do something. And we always come up with a lot of wacky ideas, and he had no problem letting all that happen. Honky is a testament to how good he really is, because he did that record in six days, top to bottom.”

Working quickly is one of Barresi’s specialties. In addition to finishing Lullabies three weeks ahead of schedule, he produced, engineered, and mixed Fu Manchu’s King of the Road in 11 days at Monkey Studios in Palm Springs. “Guitar-wise, it was Scott [Hill] on the left and Bob [Balch] on the right,” Barresi says. “Scott had this crazy old Univox fuzz pedal that broke, but I had a Supafuzz, which is what he ended up using on that whole record. He loved it so much, he went out and bought a couple for the road. Bob was using a Fuzzface. We put the guitar cabinets back-to-back in the kitchen, with a couple mics in front of each one, and they played in the same room together.”

Barresi’s work with space cowboys Powerman 5000 (he produced and engineered the band’s 2003 album, Transform), was the ultimate in guitar excess. “I’ve got this guitar splitter than has one input and six outputs,” Barresi explains. “I remember lining up six 4x12s with like three or four mics on each one, but each amp would be different. We’d have a Hiwatt half-stack, a Sound City half-stack, a Marshall half-stack, so you’d get a great sound on each one and then combine them to get the rhythm tone. I always keep the splitter around, because it’s a convenient box to have — you can run a tuner or DI from it as well — I use it all the time.”

Barresi’s splitter got a workout during his recent sessions with The Special Goodness, a band fronted by Weezer drummer Pat Wilson. “They didn’t want to use big amps at all, so we’d just use combos,” Barresi says. “I’d break out my splitter, and send it out to three or four small amps. In this case, I just had them all going at the same time, because they weren’t pushing too much air. I’d just mic them up all in the same room and tailor the sound to whatever worked for each song. We used some Silvertones (Twin 12) and Pat had a little Buddha amp and a Tone King. I even brought out this old National lap steel made out of aluminum or something. It basically looks like a baseball bat with a frying pan on the end. We did a lot of harmonics and slide stuff on that — the pickup on it is really high-gain. We’d run it through a Roland Space Echo and mic it up.”

The Special Goodness gig wasn’t a result of word of mouth so much as direct experience: Barresi also tracked most of Weezer’s Pinkerton. “The cool thing about that record was the fact that they didn’t wanna use headphones,” Barresi says. “They had already done the blue record, and they felt it was a little too controlled, so I ended up bringing in a PA and a little monitor system, and each guy had a little headphone mixer that was hooked up to a monitor, so they could dial in their own monitor mix. They didn’t want iso-booths, either, so we set up at Electric Lady in New York and cut everybody live in the same room with just some baffles. Rivers [Cuomo] was using a JCM 30th anniversary — the blue head — and Brian [Bell] ended up using a 50-watt Plexi, I believe it was, with a pedal in front of it, and Matt [Sharp] had a Matamp Orange bass amp that sounded phenomenal.”

Of course, Barresi has his own ideas about the secret to the proverbial killer guitar sound. “I think the first secret is to establish that the guy has a sound,” he deadpans. “You don’t really screw with it, you just augment it. Even as an assistant on sessions, I’ve seen too many instances where somebody says, ‘Okay, that’s great, put your guitar over there and plug in with my ’59 Les Paul through my stack of shit. And then for the chorus, we’re gonna plug in with this guitar and this amp . . .’ I don’t believe in any of that. You can’t approach recording with that kind of mentality. If the guitar player’s good enough, it’s not gonna matter. I mean, Van Halen playing through a Peavey 5150 or a Marshall still sounds like Van Halen. It doesn’t really matter as far as that stuff goes. You wouldn’t take a guy who’s been playing a Strat his whole life and jam a Les Paul in his hand when he’s making a record. It seems much more important to focus on techniques (or lack thereof) and their execution.”

When it comes to recording methods, however, Barresi is obviously a firm believer in taking risks. “I think a lot of people don’t like to experiment,” he says, “and I think that mentality should be put to pasture. People are afraid to put the shittiest mic or the weirdest mic in the room in front of something, or they’re afraid to EQ something differently so it’ll stick out. I mean, somebody might give me crap about using a $7000 tube mic on a vocal and then running it through a $50 compressor, but if it sounds good, what’s the difference?”

When J. Bennett isn’t writing bad copy or taking crappy photos for magazines like Alternative Press, Decibel, and Rock Sound UK, he can be found sitting in his underwear on his front porch, drinking heavily and yelling at traffic.