A Tragic animal
An interview with john congleton
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
John Congleton is a Grammy Award-winning music producer and occasional musician, having most recently released Until the Horror Goes with his new project, John Congleton and the Nighty Nite. Albums he's produced include St. Vincent's Grammy-winning St. Vincent, Explosions in the Sky's The Wilderness, Wild Beasts' Boy King, and more. You can find John on Twitter at @congletonjohn and Facebook at @johncongletonandthenightynite. The website for Elmwood Recording, Congleton's studio, can be found at www.elmwoodrecording.com.
TMR: In your Sound on Sound interview, you talked about Curvejob, one of the bands you were in when you were a teenager. The band recorded with Sam McCall, and you said about two years after that, you were already recording bands as a producer. Can you tell us how you went from wanting to be a producer/engineer to actually being one?
JC: When I got to record with a band, going through that experience was automatically something that clicked with me. It felt like a place that I wanted to be, as opposed to more of a straight job, or playing music that I didn’t like for a living, or trying to somehow shoehorn my artistic sentiment into something that would appeal to enough people that I could eek out a living. Those sorts of things weren’t appealing to me.
You have to remember, this is the early 90s, so not every Tom, Dick, and Harry had ProTools in their dorm room. Nowadays the magic of recording yourself and playing it back to you is definitely taken for granted because it’s so easy to do that. Back in those days, to find a studio, pay for it, get your band in there, and get a multitrack recording of your band - that was pretty intense, and it was kind of a privilege. Not a lot of bands got to record in that capacity.
I was just immediately captivated by the process. Basically from that point on I immediately started devouring books and periodicals about recording, trying to learn everything I possibly could. I was so fascinated by it. I started listening to records in different ways. That put me on the path, and I never really derailed from that path from that point on.
TMR: So essentially, you started out self-taught, but did you go to school for something related to that?
JC: I did go to school for music, but I only went for two years, and then I dropped out.
I dropped out for, essentially, two reasons: one, my grades weren’t any good because I was recording people on my own, and two, going to school for music kind of robbed me of my childlike wonderment of it all, the mystery. It took that away for me. My career and my life in music, I’ve constantly tried to hold on to that sort of mystery. That’s pretty hard when you do it every day.
I think on a cerebral, intellectual level, you can enjoy music in a different way, but to me that’s like enjoying physics. It is fascinating, and it is interesting to watch the rules work, but at the end of the day, the way something moves us, there’s no good or bad reason it moves us. That’s where the mystery lies. That’s when I get interested in music: the thing that you can’t quite quantify.
TMR: You spend most of your time doing production work. The Dallas Observer intimates that, until this year, you hadn’t released new music for four years. With this in mind, would you say that you always want your songs to become something tangible, after you write them?
JC: Until you play a song for other people, it is kind of a phantom. It is almost a dream, almost like it doesn’t exist - to me. The actual experience of writing something and putting it together is one thing. But then the experience of playing that for somebody else is completely different.
I’ve always found that, even with something I’m producing, if I need to get a new perspective on something I’ve been working on, all I have to do is play it for somebody else -- and I don’t even need to hear their opinion. It’s just the experience of being in the room and feeling that energy of somebody else, listening to the work, that always shows me what’s wrong with it, or what’s bullshit about it, or what’s false. Sometimes what’s good about it. But normally, what’s cowardly about it is revealed when I’m listening to it with somebody else.
I wish I could sound like a brave artist who doesn’t care if no one ever hears anything I do -- that’s not quite how I feel. I do want it out there, because it feels real, then, to me. I think that one of the things that compels us all to make art is the fact that we’re going to die. There is an hourglass that is sitting there all the time, and there is a finite amount of time you have to get something across, as an artist, when you’re alive. What motivates us is the grim reaper, sometimes, so you want to get it out there.
one of the things that compels us all to make art is the fact that we're going to die.
For example, if I died, there’s a good twenty songs that nobody’s ever heard that I have sitting there, that I just haven’t completed in some sort of a formation to play for somebody else. It’s almost like that stuff doesn’t exist, if it doesn’t get into somebody else’s brain. And that’s a spooky thought.
TMR: You said you can tell what’s cowardly about a song -- what did you mean by that?
JC: I have this belief that you pretty much always know, deep down, how something should be, artistically. You have all of these weird filters and compromises and devices in your brain that convince you that the work is “okay,” or worse; sometimes you have more external factors, like what you think your audience would think of it.
The artist asks, “How will this be interpreted?” and other sorts of things. Those are all very cowardly things when you’re just trying to make something honest. When I say cowardly I don’t necessarily mean dishonest, but if you’re taking the easy way out artistically, or if you’re doing something pandering, or if you’re doing something that’s not bold because you don’t want to offend anybody -- that’s cowardly to me.
When you live in the real world of making music for a living, that shit comes up a lot. You make a record and it goes through a process of deliberation with people who aren’t even artistic, who maybe financed the record or manage the band. You get a lot of people who want to put their opinions in, and if you’re not sure about the material, that can really shake you. Or once the record’s out, maybe it gets bad reviews, or maybe the audience doesn’t like it as much. If you’re not sure about the material, that shit will bug you. But if you’re sure about the material, if it’s an honest expression of who you are artistically, that shit won’t get to you. It might frustrate you, because it’s not getting across, but if you’re sure of the material and you know that you did your best, you’re immune.
JC: There’s an interview I did a zillion years ago, where the guy who interviewed me had some sort of panic disorder - we were slightly kindred spirits in that way - so the whole article was sort of hinging on that. We basically just talked about that, and in that interview I said that it was therapy for me, to make this very ugly music that expressed my id, the things that I don’t want to necessarily show to the people I love -- my ruminations, my dark impulses. It’s like I’m just trying to filter that through art, rather than hurt the people I love and care about.
I basically said that it was a therapy for my panic attacks. That’s a real oversimplification, and I certainly didn’t form the band just for that. I started the band because I wanted to be in a band. The music I wrote was informed by me as a human, and at that point in my life - which was quite some time ago - I was a pretty panic-stricken asshole.
TMR: You said you wanted to protect the people you love and care about - what did you mean by that?
JC: I think that more than anything else, music has been a positive thing in my life. It is therapy. Being somebody who believes a lot in the therapeutic process, the whole reason why you go to therapy, the whole reason why you try to become a better person - other than the fact that it just makes you feel better - is that you want to try to not hurt the people that you love. And when you suck at being a person, you hurt yourself, but you really hurt the people that care about you. The causes are horrible things -- depression, anxiety. They make you an asshole. They make you not a nice person, right? It’s just that simple.
I think that more than anything else, music has been a positive thing in my life. It is therapy.
I think that when we talk about depression or we talk about mental illness, everybody thinks about the internal struggle. And of course, that’s it, but what it really is is you spraying the world with your perfume of toxic behavior. Me being depressed, for example, and wanting to sleep all day, coming home and immediately getting into bed, feeling like fucking shit, is one thing; but what about the havoc I’m wreaking on other people? That’s another thing altogether. It’s one thing to fuck up your life, it’s another thing to fuck up people’s lives around you.
I think at some point you have to stop making it about yourself and start being a member of society.
TMR: Your album, Until the Horror Goes, came out this April. When you make your own album, how do you know when it’s done? How do you know that the production work is finished and that it’s a complete thing?
JC: Somebody once said to me, “You don’t finish records, you just run out of time.” I don’t really know if I agree with that -- although I think that’s funny, and I understand what they were trying to say. It’s hard to put into words, but you know when you know. You just know that the work is the codified expression of this. Now, there are times whenever you feel that the work is done, and it’s not any good, or that it’s done, and it just doesn’t work, or that it’s done, and you just don’t like it. Sometimes at that point it’s just better to start over. I’m a big believer in starting over, instead of trying to fix things a lot of times.
You know when you know, and part of knowing is being an artist. I think that it gets easier to know when it’s done, the older you get, the more that you do it. I think when I was younger I had much more completion anxiety about things. Now I have almost no completion anxiety ever. I feel really confident whenever I know something’s done. You just know when you know.
JC: No dreams of winning a Grammy, no. It never really occurred to me. It was certainly probably something I joked about, not because I harbored a desire; it just didn’t seem like my world. It was never on the radar, something to do, or to aspire to.
That being said, me and Annie [Clark] were obviously very honored to win. I’m very happy that of all the records that I’ve worked on, that would be one of them that would be recognized. Annie and I are like brother and sister at this point -- we’re so close, we’ve spent so much time together. We really believe in the work we did. We feel like we did what was in our hearts. I feel like we did her vision, and we can stand behind that record. The fact that it has gotten some mainstream appeal is all the more better.
We were shocked. We did not think that would happen.
TMR: Has that changed your perception of yourself, the fact that you won a “really, really big award”?
JC: No. I still feel just as inadequate, just as much an impostor as I did before that.
I’m just a scared, confused, tragic animal trying to do something that means something, just like any other artist out there. ... I would say that as your success grows, your insecurities grow exponentially.
There’s never going to be a point where I sort of brush my hands and say “Well, I’ve completely done it.” I’m not an alpha male, I don’t feel like I have the answers to anything, and I don’t trust anybody’s claims that they do. I’m just a scared, confused, tragic animal trying to do something that means something, just like any other artist out there. I’m just as insecure, and I would say that as your success grows, your insecurities grow exponentially. Success doesn’t really solve those problems -- those are deeper spiritual problems, when you don’t feel like you’re good enough. There’s never one finite moment that happens where you think, “Oh, okay, well I’m good now.”
TMR: In Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, she talks about the "fraud police." It seems like it’s almost good to be doubtful and scared of the future for your art, because it shows that you’re willing to improve.
JC: I just think that at the end of the day you’re not objective about your art, and you never really ever know what it’s going to mean to anybody until you throw it out there.
It’s interesting that you bring up Amanda, because her and I are very close. She’s, to me, a very good example of a brave artist. She’s got a lot of people telling her very negative things all the time, she’s got a lot of people that are telling her very positive things. People really love her or really dislike her. And she’s an incredibly brave artist - she’s able to tune that shit out in a way that I haven’t seen anybody else do. She is just so motivated about creating all the time, incredibly brave -- she’s a really inspiring person. There’s nobody like her.
TMR: In your AMA, you said that you often write when you feel “happy and safe.” Why? Is that something that you had to reach through years of practice?
JC: It’s after years of being somebody who writes music, both some stuff that was okay and some stuff that was bad. I started to notice that I was most prolific when I was secure and safe-feeling. And I think that it’s because when I am happy, I can find it all a little funny. It’s a real hilarious thing that we are able to contemplate our own consciousness and be sentient. It’s a comedy to me, this existence. So when I’m in a good mood, I’m able to delight in it and go to these really horrific places. I can have fun with it. Whereas when I’m depressed, or sad, or maybe just normal, that stuff is a little too bare to the bone. It’s all just there already, and I’m not finding it quite as funny anymore.
It's a real hilarious thing that we are able to contemplate our own consciousness and be sentient. It's a comedy to me, this existence.
One of the reasons why I think I haven’t written much lately is because I’ve been, essentially, pretty happy. Whenever I’m more on the dark side of things, I gather up a bunch of ideas and they sit there and gestate. And whenever I’m in a better mood, they bubble up to the surface, but the problem is for a good long while now I’ve been pretty okay. And I’m happy about that.
Being somebody that’s been making art for a really long time and has already said a bunch of things that I feel okay about, I don’t necessarily feel compelled to have to write all the time. I’ve let go of that. It’ll come when it comes.
TMR: When you do have those low points, do those affect your work at all?
JC: Being a producer, being a creative person for a living -- that’s the good stuff. The people I love and the art that I get to be so lucky to make and help make, that’s good shit. So no, I don’t have any trouble getting up and doing that every day. That’s exciting.
It’s a cheesy thing to say, but it’s something that continuously gets shown to me, over and over again: love really makes the world go around. It really isn’t worth it without that. The connections you feel with people, that’s what makes it all worth it.
TMR: Do you maybe have advice for writers who are struggling to pull their best work from themselves? What are some methods that you use when writing, in order to obtain the best message?
JC: Discipline is important. I think that restrictions and time limits, for me, have always been helpful. I think it’s important not to walk around feeling like you’re an artiste all the time. The best thing to do is remember that you’re a human who breathes and eats and feels and just watches TV and hangs out with their boyfriend or girlfriend or family, or plays with their cats and dogs; that’s who you are most of the time.
One thing that helped me and made me far more productive was, if I’m in a stage where I feel like writing, I like to make rules and restrictions. For example, if I feel like writing, then I set up thirty minutes a day, perhaps, where I go into a room, don’t have my phone, don’t have my computer - unless I need my computer - and I sit there with an instrument - if I want an instrument - and I do nothing for thirty minutes but think about my work. I work on my work, and I pick up right where I left off, and I just fiddle with things and I try to complete ideas. That doesn’t sound insightful at all, but this is the secret: right when the thirty minutes, or however much time you’ve decided, are up, you must stop.
Even if you’re onto the most brilliant idea you’ve ever had, you must stop, because you have to have those restrictions. Otherwise, you’re back into the world of being an artist all the time and everything is all fuzzy, and you don’t get anything done because you feel like you’re a slave to it, rather than controlling it. I just found that I could be far more productive if I decided that for a finite amount of time every day, that’s when I was an artist. The rest of the time I was a producer, I was a partner, I was a cat owner, I was a person who eats food, a person who goes to the movies - just a human.
TMR: Surely there are fears of losing good ideas. How do you keep yourself from losing the best thing?
JC: If it’s a good enough idea, it’ll be there later on. If I get an idea during the day, I just acknowledge it, I name it, I write it down, and then I move on with my day, and then I revisit it later. I certainly know the feeling of “Oh my God, that’s a good idea,” but the difference is that I don’t shut down my life, I don’t cancel plans, to just sit and be a gentle genius.
When I was younger, I could be a downright asshole. If I felt that my art, my muse, was being threatened, I could be pretty mean to people, and was mean to people -- people I shouldn’t have been mean to.
TMR: How did you get over that kind of behavior?
JC: Therapy. Not to give the old answer, but therapy and making a conscious decision to be a healthy person and not be a shithead. I didn’t like myself when I was younger. I wasn’t a good person. There was a time in my life when I thought that as long as I could make art, nothing else mattered. And that got me through a lot of pain, a lot of damage from my life that I was trying to run away from, because I thought that I could be a lone wolf and be an artist. And you know what? It wasn’t enough. You can win the Grammys, you can win all the accolades, you can have people tell you how much they like what you do, and it doesn’t matter. You still go to bed with yourself each night, and none of that stuff will hold you when you’re dying of cancer, or tell you that everything’s gonna be okay. At the end of the day, you can’t eat it, you can’t fuck it, and it won’t get you into Heaven.
TMR: Do you have any advice for people who may be in very dark places right now and aren’t sure how to come out of them?
I really think that at the end of the day, it's about connecting with people. That's all I'm trying to do with art, is connect with people.
JC: I feel silly giving advice because I know that there’s no one thing, but for me, it’s asking for help. Admitting that you’re vulnerable and that you need help, and just trying to connect with somebody. It’s harder when you’re alone, there’s no doubt about it. If you don’t have a partner, if you don’t have friends around, that makes it a lot harder, and I know what it’s like with all those iterations -- the darkness, and feeling like I didn’t have anyone. But there usually is someone that you can reach out to. You have to just get over the hump of keeping yourself from talking to them. I really think that at the end of the day, it’s about connecting with people. That’s all I’m trying to do with art, is connect with people.
TMR: Is there anything about your life that, if you could, you would go back and change?
JC: Well, regret is kind of a wasted emotion, so it’s better not to ruminate on those sorts of things. You’re basically setting up the framework for deep unhappiness if you just sit around and think about how you could have done things differently. The answer is: fuck yes, absolutely, there are a lot of things I wish I had done differently, but I can’t. I wish I had told my stepfather that I loved him before he died. I wish I had behaved better in romantic relationships. There’s a lot of things that I really wish I had done differently. I can’t change any of it, though.
TMR: What advice might you have for budding producers?
JC: If you’re trying to do what I do, if you’re trying to be an engineer perhaps, or an aspiring producer, just don’t give up. That’s the only thing I can say. Because you’re going to have a mountain of shit rain on top of you all the time that’s going to try to discourage you.
I think that if I had the psyche that I have now, when I was really fledgling at all this, there’s no way I would have continued. I would have given up. My priorities are different now as to what’s important to me, whereas then I was a fucking psychopath, I was a monster -- I was completely motivated by just being an artist. I’m not that person anymore. I’m sort of glad that I was that way, because I built a really cool life for myself, but it wouldn’t have worked out that way now if I was starting with this psyche.
TMR: What advice might you have for budding artists?
JC: I’m going to say something that’s probably controversial, but there is no advice to be given. If you are determined to do it, you’re going to do it, and if you’re not, you’re going to give up. There’s nothing wrong with giving up. There’s nothing wrong with being a quitter. You should quit everything until you find something you don’t wanna quit. Just keep quitting until you find the thing you don’t want to leave. If art is worth it to you, you’re going to do it. There’s going to be no stopping you if it’s worth it to you.