Chairmen of the Board
Producers are the oft-overlooked wizards behind the curtain, pulling strings and pushing buttons, molding the shape and texture of an album. They are mad scientists and magicians, experimenting with techniques to record and manipulate moments in time, while remaining mere ghosts in the machine, a presence not seen but felt.
George Martin captured the Beatles. Phil Spector built the "Wall of Sound." King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry revolutionized Jamaican dub. In Texas, there's John Congleton and Erik Wofford, two of the brightest young producers in modern music, both of whom have carved in wax the cosmic beauty of Explosions in the Sky's cinematic and cataclysmic crescendos—"The Birth and Death of the Day"—whose grandiose movements and bursts of color appear like religious revelations.
Best known as the tortured soul responsible for Dallas' the Paper Chase, Congleton is a self-described "shape-shifter" that has worked with everyone from Bono to Erykah Badu and produced, engineered and mixed records by local favorites such as Baboon and Black Tie Dynasty. "He has an amazing ability to balance very raw elements and emotions with something that's a little more polished and clear," posits Explosions' percussive catalyst Chris Hrasky.
"My job can vary from documenting a performance to helping make creative decisions as if I was a member of the band," explains Congleton, who produced Explosions' latest spacious suite, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, as well as their 2003 magnum opus, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, and the band's journey to and from West Texas for the Friday Night Lights original soundtrack. Also, under the Paper Chase moniker, he remixed the bell-curved beauty of "It's Natural to Be Afraid."
"Explosions in the Sky doesn't need a lot of help," Congleton contends. "Those four guys are really on the same page. Everyone must be in on every decision. Normally, I'm trying to convince them that a certain take sounded great, which is nearly always the case."
Meanwhile, 200 miles south on Interstate 35, past the South San Gabriel River, Erik Wofford is slowly becoming the Steve Albini of Austin, a legacy that traces back to the first-ever explosion in the sky. As the producer of KVRX's Local Live weekly program during his tenure at University of Texas, Wofford witnessed the group's transformation from Breaker Morant into their current namesake on July 4, 1999, along with recording more than 100 other bands including the Walkmen, T-Model Ford, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Austin essentials such as the Octopus Project, American Analog Set and Friends of Dean Martinez. "He was probably the first person in the entire world who liked us, who heard something interesting," Hrasky says. "He's been there from the beginning."
Now, Wofford's studio, Cacophony Recorders, nestled alongside the Colorado River in East Austin, is booked solid. The soft-spoken producer recently finished the long-awaited full-length debut by Voxtrot and is currently working with Low Line Caller, Ghost of the Russian Empire, AM Syndicate and 'Til Blue or Destroy.
In fact, Wofford is connected to nearly every piece of groundbreaking indie rock from Austin in fewer than six degrees. He's at the center of the Tonewheel Collective, a local coalition of composers that includes members of Sound Team, Voxtrot, Tacks, the Boy Disaster, and the Early Tapes, as well as Martin Crane and Red Hunter from Peter and the Wolf, and he's a partial owner of Christmas Mountains Records, which released the Theater Fire's debut and an EP by For Those Who Know. Need further proof? Check out Golden Bear's self-titled and buzzworthy breakthrough, which, due to Wofford's production, features guest appearances from Pink Nasty, Jason Morales of Tia Carrera and pedal steel legend Lloyd Maines, among countless others.
"It really comes down to the artist trusting you," says Wofford, who builds a portion of his studio equipment by hand. "There are a thousand knobs out there, and I know them all. That allows the musicians to feel comfortable and enables them to make pure music from the heart. People are recording records wrong these days. You don't feel the band anymore."
Undoubtedly, Wofford's productions possess a certain natural energy—a bleak and fuzzy tonal haze that connects the Black Angels to Smog, Shearwater to Okkervil River—that's due partially to the wind and wires of Cacophony Recorders. The Brian Eno- and Daniel Lanois-inspired studio consists of one large, atmospheric room, allowing the textures to bleed together across the vintage analog reels.
"My biggest challenge to date remains trying to record the Polyphonic Spree, all 28 of them at the time, at KVRX," Wofford says as rambunctious rockers Those Peabodys amp up for another late-night session. "We were using anything and everything that would transmit audio for that recording, but it actually turned out incredible."
Interestingly, Congleton, who is currently writing new material for the next Paper Chase album and mixing Black Mountain's sophomore effort, was instrumental in the creation of the Spree's A Fragile Army, which finally marches into stores in June courtesy of TVT Records. "I don't know if it's as good, or better, than anything we've done in the past; it's just different, and I'm really excited about it," Polyphonic General Tim DeLaughter declares. "John helped harness the sense of urgency that this band has in a live setting."
"With the Spree, I was the psychologist, assistant songwriter and producer," Congleton admits. "My opinion was constantly beckoned. It was a wonderful and challenging experience. It's hard sometimes to put your music under a microscope and examine your art. Tim's very sensitive to it, and I respect that and only want to work with people that take it that seriously. I'm OK with the baggage that comes along with it."
"What it breaks down to is that both of those producers bring out what makes a band unique," Hrasky concludes. "It may sound easy to put microphones up and press 'record,' but it's not. It's extremely difficult to actually capture the full extent of a band's sound. No one does it better than those two."