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Talkback: Randall Dunn

Talkback: New York‑based producer Randall Dunn.New York‑based producer Randall Dunn.Photo: Ebru Yildiz

New York‑based producer Randall Dunn has a multitude of strings to his bow. After moving to Seattle during the early 1990s with a view to working on sound for film, he soon became enamoured with the city’s music scene, benefitting from the guidance of Rich Hinklin and Jack Endino of the venerable Reciprocal Recording studio (perhaps best known for hosting Nirvana) as well as from lauded engineer Mell Dettmer. He would soon begin a period of extensive work with iconic experimental metal outfit Sunn O))); Dunn not only worked with them in the studio but also on tour, helping to realise the sound of a band whose shows are commonly considered among the most visceral and powerful sonic experiences anywhere. “I always thought of them as, sort of, an over‑amped Tangerine Dream!” he laughs. “It’s a masterclass in phase. I learned a ton about frequencies. Maybe the most formidable stuff that I learned about recording was during that time.”

Dunn has continued to traverse the worlds of studio albums and film scores, working with a diverse array of artists from Danny Elfman to Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, with whom he also shares a studio complex. Most recently he has concluded work on the much anticipated new album Arkhon by Zola Jesus. “I’ve been a fan of hers for a while,” he says. “We’d always wanted to do something together, but it never quite seemed the right time. I’m really excited about this record.” Here Dunn relates his value for community in the studio and his fascination with Miles Davis, also making his public pitch should Alan Parsons be looking for a new producer...

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

The Shackleton record Like The Stars Forever And Ever. I think that record is beautiful. And genius. Like, totally genius. I really want to work with him, do some music together or something. I saw them perform some of the pieces in Poland and I was floored. Completely blown away. It’s really deep and incredible, very heartbreaking sometimes and just really deep — I just haven’t heard anything like it. It’s just in a very specific space, and that’s hard to say these days! It doesn’t sound like it was made in a computer fully, yet it sounds futuristic. So much of the sound of people’s music these days is so ubiquitous, you know? Because everyone’s using the same sample libraries and plug‑ins and stuff. So, you know, so when I hear something like this, it just really pulls me in. It’s been on my brain.

A big thing for me as a producer is eliminating doubt. If I have no doubt and I know exactly how it’s sounding, that it feels good in the room, that the musicians are connected to it, that I’m not getting weird digital pops or that something is buzzing, I can work fast.

The project I’m most proud of

Oh, that’s complicated! This wouldn’t be a record, I don’t think. It would be our studio. That we somehow made it through Covid. I feel like there’s a community that’s really strong around it, and through Covid everything got stronger: relationships, and just feeling creative. I feel like it’s been a real outlet for all of the people who’ve been in there. I just mixed the new Kelly Malone [album] there. I’m just really excited about the conduit that it’s becoming, some of the film stuff that is coming out with it. I feel very proud of, you know, physically building things and making it work and somehow surviving Covid with a very small community of people. Making it through that into what — hopefully — is going to be an easier couple of years.

I had a studio a long time ago that I did a lot of Sunn O))) stuff and [influential US drone‑rock band] Earth stuff at, and that was a really happy time for me. And this one feels very similar. But because it’s in New York it feels even more like a magnet in a lot of ways. And I feel really connected to the records I’ve been doing there in a way that I didn’t feel when I was more freelance and moving around. I always felt like I was getting a sound, but that it wasn’t quite what I wanted. This time, when I’m there, I just feel like I’ve really harnessed a particular methodology. It feels like an era.

The first thing I look for in a studio

Oh, boy. That’s also complicated! I know what I can do with certain things, like microphones or a cool board. But what I want to know is that there’s no doubt; a big thing for me as a producer is eliminating doubt. If I have no doubt and I know exactly how it’s sounding, that it feels good in the room, that the musicians are connected to it, that I’m not getting weird digital pops or that something is buzzing, I can work fast. That is more important to me. Because it allows you to eliminate this whole ambiguous paranoia that can occur when things start breaking, or maybe you’re in the middle of tracking vocals and the mic breaks and you’re like, ‘That was the vocal sound! Nooo!’ [laughs]. It just eliminates any sort of like weird disappointment or external thought that takes away from the music or the relationship you have with the artist. I’ll never say no to a nice mic locker, though, that’s for sure.

The person I would consider my mentor

I would have to say it’s Jack [Endino] and Mell [Dettner] for sure. The two of them together. On a wider timeframe [American drummer and producer] Matt Chamberlain has probably been the person through all of my music and all of my learning who continues to feed me with knowledge — and vice versa. He’s so creative, just endlessly creative. Matt’s a Texas guy, and then was in LA and then New York, and then Seattle, where I met him. I was lucky. I really met him at the right time. I worked with his band, Critters Buggin, they were all such incredible musicians. That cluster of people, and in particular Matt, who just started buying recording gear and would come back from sessions and be like, “Hey, I just worked with Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom, look what I learned.” And I’d be like, “Oh, man, that’s fucking killer.” So I would learn a lot of stuff. It was where I got my hands on stuff. He really taught me: if you want that drum sound, start with the drums. Start with the source, and then you can mess with it and synthesize it and process it from there. But start with the thing that you want.

I’m obsessed with one song. And I’ll always be obsessed with it. And it’s ‘What Goes Up’ by the Alan Parsons Project.

My go‑to reference track or album

I’ll just I’ll say this: I’m obsessed with one song. And I’ll always be obsessed with it. And it’s ‘What Goes Up’ by the Alan Parsons Project. I’m obsessed with the sound of that song. It’s a fascination. Sometimes there are songs where I just have to check them out and I get a little obsessed for a minute. That song is a consistent obsession that has never gone away. Since I first heard it I’m still like, “What’s going on!? What is this!?” To the point where l feel like there needs to be a new Alan Parsons Project record. And I would like for him to allow me to produce it. I would like to ‘Rick Rubin’ Alan Parsons.

My top tip for a successful session

Good relations. Good relations, and planning as well. But most of all, really understanding the artist, where they’re coming from, having good communication and respect for each other and an understanding of why you’re even sitting in a room together. And gratitude for that.

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

I would have liked to have been at the sessions for [Miles Davis’] ’Bitches Brew’. Just to hear how they were recording, to hear Miles’ relationship with Teo Macero, to hear how they were cutting tapes... because that was a birth of a sound. I get really obsessed with the records that I would consider the birth of a sound. The production and the musicianship and everything, it was one concept. That’s a really important one for me. I feel like the sound of that record is just so wild. If you really get in there, into the playing and everything, if you’re able to contextualise it with what was happening before it, it’s totally out there and incredible. So that would have been really cool. And I also really love that there was this very normal white guy in a suit, doing electro‑acoustic tape loops and all this stuff with with Miles Davis. The two of them are such an odd couple, but the creative energy that they must have had together, even if it was cantankerous, must have been really palpable and cool. It’s amazing. I also really love the image of a very noble Teo Macero: some of the funkiest, weirdest music but made by the stuffiest looking white guy.

The producer I’d most like to work with

I’ve already said Alan Parsons would be great. But I have a long list of people. I’m really into Tchad Blake, I love Tchad. I love what he does. I would love to do some project with him, or record something and then have him mix it, which would be really fun. But as you know, I would also like to make the new Alan Parsons Project record. That would be great! [laughs] There are so many. Daniel Lanois too, he is another big one for me. His musicality. I really relate to him and how he interacts musically with sound. I just think it’s really poetic and amazing.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

That’s tough, because it can be two ways, there’s like a material and a metaphysical answer to that. I’m probably going to choose the metaphysical one, as I always do. For me, the time spent with people making something is so much more important than the making of the thing. They’re so intertwined, but the community that you make and the friendships that you make, that lasts a long time. The things you learn. So for me it’s the communal aspect, discovering that it’s not so much about, “Look at this record we made.” It’s the process of the whole thing, kind of hermetically, that I find appealing. And I find that the effect that you can have on people’s lives when you make a great record, or a great recording, can be really medicinal and awesome in someone’s career. And that those are the moments I really feel understood or that I’m doing what I think a producer should do.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

My advice to my younger self would just be to think long‑term. Think longer... like, don’t get so wrapped up in what’s happening in front of you. Chasing things or being in competition, these are just not crucial or important things, you know. And we all struggle with that. Just do good work. Have good relations, and pay attention to enjoying what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Instead of just thinking about the next thing and the next thing. Just be really present when making a record, and those things will translate to what you ultimately want in a larger capacity.