Meet John Congleton, the Man Behind Your Favorite Albums of 2014
By Shannon Carlin
John Congleton has a mantra that sounds like something muttered at Alcoholics Anonymous: “Do the work, stay out of the way of the results.”
The Dallas-based renaissance music man has been staying out of the way of the results for nearly 15 years, and though he might not be a household name, his detached approach has made him a go-to ally for those artists looking for someone who is willing to work hard on their behalf.
At 37, Congleton has racked up an impressive list of credits that range from producing to mixing to engineering to drum programming for artists like David Byrne, Swans, Amanda Palmer, The Walkmen, The War on Drugs, Bill Callahan, fellow Texans Explosions in the Sky and his own band The Paper Chase. This year alone, he’s worked on eight albums, producing three of the most well-received indie records of 2014, so far: Cloud Nothings‘ Here and Nowhere Else, Angel Olsen‘s Burn Your Fire For No Witness and St. Vincent‘s self-titled release, which is his fifth collaboration with the singer.
“A lot of producers have a X, Y and Z way of doing a record. That’s not the way I work,” Congleton told Radio.com over the phone. “Mainly because I think that’s unfair to the artist, but also boring to me. I might as well go work at a bank if I’m going to do the same thing all the time.”
Unlike other producers, Congleton doesn’t think it’s interesting to have an overt style. “Just picking over everything and making it exactly how I want it, that’s so boring. I’m just gonna have a bunch of records that sound the same,” he said. “It’s also not particularly playing its part in the nexus of music that you’re just sort of destroying a style that an artist has cultivated throughout the years.” Instead Congleton says his goal as a producer is to capture that feeling he had when he was 13 years old, back when he felt like his favorite music just fell out of the sky. “It just felt like it just happened as opposed to created,” he explained.
Congleton considers himself to be a “spectrum producer,” meaning he will take on whatever role the band needs him to just as long as the record sounds good. Sometimes a band comes into the studio and has tortured themselves over every note so Congleton’s job is to record as much as possible and use his ear to decide which takes are best. Other times, Congleton is like an additional band member, co-writing music or acting as a session player, something he prefers not to do. “The moment I play something, I become one of the musicians and I sort of have some weird preciousness about it,” he explained. “It f–ks with your brain too much.”
Congleton mixed the latest Strand of Oaks record, HEAL at his Dallas studio, Elmwood Recording with singer Timothy Showalter asking him to take “broad strokes,” knowing if there was something he didn’t like, he could send it back. Congleton sent what would become the final product to Showalter in just five days.
“I’m not a technically minded person so I have no idea how he made [HEAL] sound that good,” Showalter said, before offering up a well-thought explanation, “You could tell there was compassion in his mixing. It wasn’t a job. It wasn’t, ‘Oh this band is paying me, I’ll just go through the motions.’ It was actively being involved and actively making artistic choices, not just technical choices.”
Saying Congleton keeps himself busy is an understatement. Sean Bonnette of the Phoenix, AZ band Andrew Jackson Jihad even said the man behind their latest album, Christmas Island, which dropped in May, admitted to taking a total of only three days off in 2012. While Congleton couldn’t remember if this was in fact true, he did say that he used to say yes to working with anyone who wanted to work with him, leading him to be booked eight months in advance. “That’s not too good for your psychology,” Congleton said. “I did sort of slow down in terms of obligating myself, but I still kind of work the same amount when you really get down to it.”
That being said, Congleton makes it clear that no matter how busy he keeps his schedule, whenever he’s in the studio, he’s there by his own free will. “As I tell everybody, one thing you should know about me is I really don’t have to do anybody’s record,” he explained sounding sincere instead of pompous. “If I’m there, I’m there one hundred percent because I want to be there.”
Congleton is sure to not take away an artist’s true grit, something Angel Olsen was especially worried about. “I think she thought that I was going to walk in with like a hairy chest and gold chains and boss everyone around,” he said laughing. “After she saw that I wasn’t a creepazoid, we did a record.”
Olsen’s latest is a departure from her previous acoustic albums, which was exactly what her label, Jagjaguwar wanted. They actually told Congleton they couldn’t let her make another record like her last one. “I agreed with them for the most part,” he said, throwing out words like “folksy” and “humble” to describe Olsen’s 2012 album, Half Way Home. “If she made another record like that, she’d get lost in the shuffle of all the girls with the acoustic guitar.”
Instead, Congleton helped Olsen stand out by focusing on her wonderfully untrained voice and adding a bit of electric guitar. “What I love about Angel’s voice so much is it’s just wild,” he said. “It’s not so much dangerous, but that you don’t know where it’s going.” Olsen and Congleton finished Burn Your Fire For No Witness in under week with the directive being go in there and just pound it out. Often, she hadn’t even rehearsed the songs, which in Congleton’s opinion gave it a “Neil Young-feel.” “We didn’t have enough time to over think anything,” he said, noting that’s how he prefers to do things. “I always think it’s better to have not enough time than too much time. Everybody’s mind is completely blown when I tell them that.”
According to Congleton there should be no agonizing during playback. If you like what you hear, move on and if you don’t, then try again. “Some people are like squinting while they listen back in the studio. They’re all tight and they’re listening for a mistake. I’ve never put on a record and listened to it for a mistake, never done it. People who listen to music for that are f–king a–holes,” he said. “Not the people I want to make music for. That’s like music school dorks or something.”
Congleton lists Cloud Nothings’ latest record, Here and Nowhere Else as one of the least over-thought records he’s ever done. The band’s leader, Dylan Baldi came in knowing what he wanted to do, which wasn’t that much different from what he had done on his previous Steve Albini-produced album, 2012’s Attack on Memory. “They just wanted it to be noisier, uglier and more aggressive,” he said. “If you listen to the Albini record, it sounds great, but it is not a very aggressive sounding record…it doesn’t have a lot of attitude.”
Congleton is a staunch Albini supporter, who got a chance to work with the legend at his Chicago studio, Electric Audio after writing him a letter. “This was pre-internet,” Congleton jokes, before noting that the Albini-produced Breeders album, Pod is still one of his favorite records of all time. “Albini is still one, if not the best, living engineer alive. I’m completely humbled when people would compare our records, frankly. He’s the man.”
Most of the vocal parts were done in one take, not unlike Albini’s album with Cloud Nothings. But unlike his predecessor, Congleton would ask them to do it again if he thought they could do better. “I think the only thing they thought was weird about me was that I was more interested in them doing takes, better takes,” he said. “Albini never said anything, just let them do their thing. For me, I was like, ‘Do that again man, you don’t sound pissed off enough.'”
Baldi is only 22 years old, but Congleton feels a kinship with the young rocker’s taste in music and wants to make sure it’s presented in all its rawness. “Dylan is into records now that I listened to when I was in high school and I love his songwriting and I love hearing those resonances of what I loved,” he said. “To hear somebody so much younger put his twist on it, I really enjoy it.”
Congleton clearly really enjoys working with Annie Clark, a fellow Dallas native who most of us know as St. Vincent.
The two met and became fast friends while Clark was working with The Polyphonic Spree in the early in the early-2000s and Congleton was behind the board. He has now worked with her on all four of her solo albums—2007’s Marry Me, 2009’s Actor, 2011’s Strange Mercy, 2014’s St. Vincent—and her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, Love This Giant. After spending so much time trapped in a small room with Clark, he considers her to be more of a sister than a collaborator. “We’ve seen each other’s very best and very worst,” he said. “You know, you spend two months in the studio with somebody, literally just you two, you get to know them really f–king well.”
Clark’s latest had her growing up and going weirder, but throughout most of the recording neither of them quite knew what this album was. Even now when asked specific questions about the 11-track album Congleton is inclined to answer with a resounding shoulder shrug. More than a year before working on the album, the two decided that Clark needed to do more writing by herself before she got in the studio so she wouldn’t fall into the same pattern and end up doing Strange Mercy: Part 2. The two worked long distance sending songs back and forth so by the time they got into the studio they knew what they needed to record.
“But one of the reasons the record took awhile was because we did a lot of songs,” Congleton explained. “And we did, you know, three versions of each song. We would do a ballad version, an up-tempo version. Then we’d do a Reggaeton version and a Krautrock version. Needless to say by the time the record was done our heads were completely spinning, ‘Holy f–k, what is this? Is this any good?'”
It has since helped Clark nab a slot on Saturday Night Live,and a headlining gig at Diane Von Furstenberg’s 40th anniversary show at this year’s Fall Fashion Week in New York. “All I can say is I’m thrilled that people like it and more specifically, Annie’s happy with it,” he said. “She’s where she wants to be with her career. We together have worked very hard, but she’s worked her ass off. When your friend’s doing well, but also when you’re part of that success, it’s really fulfilling.”
Congleton is happy people like the albums he’s worked on this year — he’s already racked up five “Best New Album” honors from Pitchfork — but he’s not one to start giving himself a pat on the back for a few positive reviews. “It’s great that people like what I’m doing, but at the same time, the same amount of people are saying what I do sucks,” he explained. “Ultimately I just do what I believe in and if people agree that’s f–king awesome, but I’m not going to get used to anyone thinking I’m hip, because I’m not. I’m just doing what I think is good.”