An Interview with Producer Mike Butler at Lost Ark Studios

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Mike Butler just wants to make good records. He wants to make them with real instruments, and he wants to work only with artists more into their craft than into their look. Last year he produced some of the finest music from San Diego’s local talent. Three records, Blackout Party’s Closed Mouth Don’t Get Fed, Low Volts Twist, Shake, Grind, Break, and Nena Anderson’s Beyond The Lights made our list of San Diego’s Top 5 albums of 2011.

His dedication to the music was evident when I spent the afternoon with him at Lost Ark Studios in Pacific Beach, discussing the three records and his philosophy on working as a producer.

What is the theme, or goal, of Lost Ark Studios?

A studio used to be an entity within itself, it wasn’t just a place you rent by the hour to do your demo. Places like Stax, Royal in Memphis, Sun, or Muscle Shoals had their own legacy beyond the music that came out of there. And people would go to places to be a part of that thing. So we asked ourselves, how would you do that now? We wanted to create a place that’s not like every other studio, not where you go cut a jingle, or a commercial. Or a place where your girlfriend wants to record a pop song and you’re going to pay for it. We won’t ever do that kind of stuff. We wanted to be able to pick and choose what we do so the reputation of what comes out of here is really quality, amazing records. A place that’s more than the sum of it’s parts. Being into opening up to bands that really deserve it, to allow them to make a major label sounding record. We want to see, in five years, a wall full of incredible records. That’s the goal.

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What is your interpretation of what a producer’s role should be?

Every artist has a vision in their head of what they want their music to sound like. To be able to coax the best performance out of them, and see that through so that it represents that original idea, is what I shoot for. Or even take it a step further to something that they can’t even imagine.

How much discussion goes on before you start a project?

A lot, as much as I can; I am a big fan of pre-production–even just sitting down listening to a bunch of records and discussing sounds. I will go to rehearsals, go to see shows–just talking about how do you go from what the song is now to translating it on tape.

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What type of atmosphere do you like to create? Is it different for each project you do?

Yes, it is. For the Blackout Party record, the most important thing, and this came from many discussions over beers, is to capture what they do best. Those five guys playing together make sort of a magical thing that Blackout Party is. It’s not always perfect, it’s ruff around the edges, but it’s them together and the way they interact together that’s the most important thing. Capturing that, creating an atmosphere in the studio where they are comfortable to just do what they do, like they are playing the Riviera or The Casbah.

The Low Volts record was start to finish in four days. It’s the fastest record I’ve ever made. We tracked for two days and then mixed for two days. He played these songs live for so long that basically, he just played his set a few times. Then, we just picked the best takes.

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How was your roll as producer different with the three records?

For Low Volts it was pretty straight forward; it’s a one man band so just capturing what he does best. Just making it sound as big and dirty as possible, and getting that great energy he creates at a live show.

With Nena, I have been playing guitar in her band for a while, so we knew the songs. So then it became interpreting them for the record. That was a little more difficult because I was playing them for so long that it was hard for me to step back, put on my producer hat, and say, “This should really go here.” We would realize sometimes that what we played live in a song isn’t the best part for the recording.

Is there a theme that you feel runs between these three records?

Really good songwriting, and a strong appreciation for a great song, which is, oddly enough, rare. I seek out bands with great songs. I seek out projects that have great songs. I set out to make real, honest records. Honesty is sort of the key ingredient in any record I make. I don’t like records that are edited and assembled piece by piece, real cleaned up. I want to hear fingers on strings. I want to hear stick clicks.

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Are there things you can tell me about the 3 artists that don’t come through on the records but really stand out to you?

They are really dedicated to creating art, as opposed to playing for the sake of playing. Every single one of them care about the songs; they care about what they are saying. That’s what attracted me to each one of the projects in the first place–they mean what they are singing about, they mean what they are writing about, what they are playing. None of it is phoned in. Ever. Initially, before there even is a record, that is what I see, that’s the spark where I go, “Man, I really want to make a record with these guys.” Those are the records I want to be a part of. Those are my favorite records I enjoy listening to.

One Response to An Interview with Producer Mike Butler at Lost Ark Studios
  1. [...] 2. Mike Butler of Lost Ark Studios on producing Nena Anderson’s Beyond The Lights, Low Volts Twis… [...]

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