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Brian McTear is the go-to producer and engineer for indie bands in Philly and beyond. But that’s not all: He is also an accomplished musician in his own right. He proved as much on his 2003 solo debut, released under the name Bitter Bitter Weeks, and on its much-anticipated followup. Released last month, Revenge is at once smart and melancholy, angry and beautiful.
We pulled Mr. McTear out of the studio long enough to discuss songwriting and recording, his personal highs and lows and just what it took to exact Revenge.
SUPER-OFFICIAL SHINYGUN INTERVIEW QUESTION LIST
Subject: Brian McTear, 31, Capricorn
Interviewed by: Bryson Meunier
1.) What was the first album you really loved? And do you still?
The first B-52s record. And yes, most definitely.
2.) When you were 10, you wanted to be:
3.) You’re a producer, a songwriter, a musician, an engineer: Why is any one of them not enough?
To me they are all pretty much the same thing. I am a musician first and foremost. I learn a great deal about writing music by helping people with theirs. Engineering made me realize the difference between ideas and the art of attempting to make them physical. It also made me realize that it is just that: an attempt.
%(qst)4.) I looked up your credits on All Music Guide and it seems you’ve accomplished more in three decades than many people in their forties and fifties. How did you catch Robert Pollard Syndrome, and how can the rest of us be as prolific? %
Although there are a lot of them, the people I have recorded are hardly household names (even among the indie rock crowd). It may seem like a great list of achievements to a small segment of society, but to most people, I just run a recording studio. But I guess my success is as simple as this: I have figured out how to live on NO MONEY AT ALL. I just happen to love making music enough to spend all my time doing it.
But I can think of three things off hand that helped:
1. When I started, lo-fi recording was all the rage. Translated simply, that means people liked shitty recordings. Well, that’s not that hard. If that weren’t happening when I got out of college I might be doing something different today.
2. A few years back my friend Matt Pond landed the two of us the chance to make music for the Oxygen Network (my family still asks me if I have done any music for Oprah lately). It was short-lived, but it helped me upgrade my studio, as people were now craving good-sounding recordings. Luck. Sheer luck.
3. Amy Morrissey. “We all need somebody to love,” as they say, and therefore I am lucky that the love of my life is an artist and music lover as well. We have about the same endurance for long days and a very similar curiosity for the details of engineering and producing music. If you are going to work all the time and sleep rarely, it is very nice to be able to be with your partner while doing it.
%(qst)5.) Ever feel like sitting on the couch, eating Cheetos and watching the Springer? What keeps you moving? %
I really can’t say. I have put myself in the position of being very responsible to the people I work with in the studio. There is no one to call in sick to, if you know what I mean. And the studio is usually booked many months in advance, so it is tough to plan around the TV schedule. I only recently began to place blocks of a few days between sessions for rest. I don’t know how I never thought of that. But there is a lot at stake, namely that if I don’t get my job done for a band I risk having to schedule make-up time several months later. That is a serious pisser, especially if they have deadlines, which many of them do.
6.) You’ve worked with a lot of great indie bands, including the Capitol Years, Matt Pond PA, Washington Social Club, The Trouble With Sweeney, etc. Without playing favorites, can you tell us about a time or two in the studio when you said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Motherfucker, this is what it’s all about!”?
That happens a lot, actually. I remember recording Joey Sweeney the first time — the song was called So Tough — and at the emotional high point of the song when he reiterates “I wish I never had the guts to let you inside!”, we had the idea of smashing glass to drive the point home. So Joey is downstairs in the live room with two empty Yuengling Lager bottles. At the right moment he throws them to the ground, only it actually took him a few throws to break it. Nonetheless, listening back we all looked at each other and, practically in unison we all shouted, “Motherfucker, this is what it’s all about!” Really.
It also happened when I recorded this kid Brian Christinzio, who now goes under the name BC Camplight. He plays a lot of piano … and on certain songs my piano didn’t cut it, but we have a neighbor with a boggling collection of antique pianos. So we stretched cables for mikes and headphones out the front door of the studio and down the street to his house where Brian played and Amy monitored the mike placement. At one point in between takes I heard Amy, in her quietly amused voice, say to Brian, “Motherfucker, this is what it’s all about!” It was so true.
7.) Let’s talk about songwriting. What comes first, the lyrics or the music? Do you have a process?
I rarely write all the music without singing the words. I guess words are the most crucial part, because if they stop coming, the song stops. And it is linear: If I get caught on the second verse, then all I have is everything up to there. I can’t skip ahead. I wish I had a process, but, I mean, I don’t want to fuck with it. It would be great to be more prolific. But what comes out really does speak for me very well, sometimes in ways that take me years to understand. I am SLOW. I walk around with lots of works in progress in my head. It’s like air traffic control. Something out there decides which ones have clearance to land, and that’s when they get finished. Nonetheless, I find it is better not to force things to be finished.
8.) As a lyricist you do single lines really well. Not to say that the songs aren’t cohesive, but lines like “Sometimes the saddest happenings choose the sunniest days and the warmest Springs” make it seem like you aim to devastate in a single bound. Also, your lyrics have a poetic, imagistic quality. Oftentimes more Mark Strand than Mark E. Smith. Have poets or writers affected your songwriting? Which ones?
That line came in a song that started out completely a mystery to me. I had the first two lines for about a year. I had some idea what I thought it would be about, but it didn’t come together at all. So I backed up again to the first two lines. I asked Amy what she thought a song that began with “Sometimes your copper turns green and a jet shining lights from its wings turns in for landing” would mean, and she said, “Dying?”
Wow, that never occurred to me. I know people are starting to say that I am depressing and morbid, but it is really not the case (I mean, would any band in the world want to record with a guy who is depressing and morbid?). And strangely, even with my best friend Sara Weaver (of Swisher) dying just a few months before, I never thought it could be about that. I was kinda bummed, actually: I thought I had written everything I needed to write about her, and yet, out came possibly the saddest song I have ever written. I really hope that that’s it. I am not exactly looking to break my own record.
No actual poet has affected my writing, because I have read very little poetry (besides ancient Latin and Greeks works), but a workshop I took in college certainly did. The teacher was kind of a prick. He told me from the outset that there was no place for song lyrics in poetry and that there was certainly no poetry in song lyrics. It was a yearlong workshop. In that time he never did anything to help me find my voice poetically. His only comments on my work were “Okay” (as opposed to “Good”). So I said, Fuck it. The only thing that I took with me was that I wanted every line to be important. Some of the students in that class really brought that to light by pointing out lines that needed clarification. I didn’t want to leave filler in there.
9.) Three things you’re most proud of accomplishing:
In terms of album projects, these will stick with me forever:
— Matt Pond PA’s The Nature of Maps. We spent six weeks straight making that record. In that time Sara Weaver finally gave up the ghost. Eve, Matt and Mike were great through all of that. I was not allowed to visit Sara in the hospital because I have a lung condition and she had no immunity to whatever is going on in me. When her friends had a get-together in the hospital with candles and lights, Eve went out to the store and bought me candles, which we lit at the studio. We recorded A Well of Tires, my favorite song on the record. Matt, the bass player, drove me to the hospital when she died. It was June 2002. It was a very heavy time, although by that point her death was a relief. It was a lot of work to make that record, but I still feel it is perhaps the most cohesive work I have been a part of.
— Mazarin’s third album (which was finished about a year ago, but there’s still no release scheduled). This is Quentin [Stoltzfus]‘s best record, in my opinion. I hope to god it finds its way to the public soon. When we did our first record together, Quentin, Sean and I barely knew one another, and we were pretty innocent to the music world. Nonetheless, it was the first record from Philadelphia that I can remember making an impact outside the city. ... The newest one was an excellent return to the old days. It was back to the original threesome, plus bassist Mike Walker. I think we felt a lot older and wiser (only four years later) and made it with very little care for what would come of it. It also has appearances by Kurt from the Lilys, Don from Icarus Line and Walt from the Walkmen. Now I just want people to hear what we did.
— The first Bitter Bitter Weeks album: It was the first record I ever made that really spoke for me, and I can still listen to it straight through. I made it at a very pivotal point in my life when Sara was dying, when I met Amy, when I actually realized that my own music didn’t need to be a showpiece for my work as a producer. It was the first time people who I didn’t know personally reacted to my songs.
10.) Why were the weeks, once upon a time, doubly bitter? And are they getting better?
Hmmm. Well. I hate to sound defensive, but I am really not that bitter at all. I am an optimist by nature, even annoyingly energetic at times. Like anyone else, I have been through my share of tough times, but I am definitely not seeking sympathy.
All my life I have been very fortunate. I am one of seven kids. Each of us is unique, and uniquely happy. I have figured out how to make my life all about music. I don’t live like a king, but I am often the envy of friends with much more money and more stable jobs.
11.) You do a lot to promote your favorite artists — covering a song on your new record, including a list of “recommended listening” and a painting from your Novenas bandmate/girlfriend in the liner notes. Makes it seem like there’s some kind of renaissance in the City of Brotherly Love. So tell me, is Philly the new Omaha/Seattle/Detroit?
Philadelphia has been bursting with potential since at least the time I moved here in 1996. There have always been artists that I knew could be very successful if only there were a few very crucial support systems in place. When I came here I was in a band called Marinernine. I had the studio gear so I could do our records, but quickly found that I could help friends in bands we played with. I could even make a little money on the side. So I unintentionally began to fulfill one of those necessary support systems. Still missing, of course, were radio support, and support from crucial press beyond the weekly entertainment publications — and therefore, Philadelphia seems to lack, well…. music fans. The only venue that has survived the ages in the city is the Khyber, which is very small and has been through many stages of neglect at different times. My frustration has grown every year as I have watched countless potentially important artists get overlooked, or hang it up.
But if Philadelphia were the new hip music city, I wouldn’t know it. The city is cheap to live in, and very well placed on the map as far as easy trips up and down the east coast go. So bands should move here. But one thing I have lost touch with is whether there is young blood in this city. Amy and I work in the studio probably 70 to 90 hours a week. When I was younger I went to shows at the Khyber Pass as much to see bands like the Archers of Loaf, Polvo, Sebadoh, etc, as I did to see my friends’ bands open, or even (and this sounds corny) to imagine myself on the stage as the opener. From what I can tell now, the new, and very popular, all-ages venue here rarely offers performance opportunities to the kids in the audience who have bands. They’re not cultivating artists the way they could. That bums me out big time.
12.) How attached are you to your soul? Would you give up what you have to be an international pop sensation? Would you give up what you have for international celebrity (I’m talking David Hasselhoffian superstardom)... with creative control?
I am very attached to my soul, but having said that, I don’t think I can be sure David Hasselhoff is any less attached to his. As I have gotten older I have realized that international pop stardom can’t simply be attained when I decide to do away with my artistic integrity. If it could, I would have fallen to the temptation a thousand times by now. Anyone wants success. I wish I were successful. I really do. I wish everyone wanted to buy my records. EVERYONE. It would be great if Bitter Bitter Weeks records were “required listening” in high school curricula: Not only would the world be a better place, but I’d also be able to afford a fancy hybrid car, or a washer and dryer. Amy and I could afford a new roof on our house… or a new house.
13.) Who are some producers or engineers you’ve looked up to and why?
Recently I have really liked the sound of Bryce Goggin mixes. I like Tchad Blake recordings a lot. I think Steve Albini is really cool. I also like lots of productions where the artists themselves are producers. When it works, it works very well: Led Zeppelin, Wilco, a Philadelphia band called One-Star Hotel.
I look up to Thom Monahan, who is in the Pernice Brothers and produces all their records. He has done great work with Beachwood Sparks, New Radiant Storm King, J. Mascis and others. We have worked together in the past and right away I felt like I had another big brother. He is a dear friend and perpetually interested in ideas. I can call him while he is walking down into the subway and he’ll stop and talk on the steps for 15 minutes rather than lose signal. He is a generous and brilliant mind that can figure out anything. I think in the years to come he will become like another Dave Friedman. He will devise his own process so well that it will create a sound that people love and artists flock to.
14.) Besides your new record and cheesesteak maybe, what are the five greatest things happening right now? In Philly or anywhere.
I am not usually that on top of what is the newest greatest thing. I like to absorb things out of sequence with the rest of the world when I can, so that I can avoid hype and absorb things purely: music, books, movies. Nonetheless, here’s an attempt to say what I am excited about in music lately (I hate describing bands, just check their websites):
The Buried Beds
Scott Carney (This kid from Pittsburgh. Crazy unique voice. Really cool songs. I don’t think he has a website, I just hope everyone gets to hear him eventually).
15.) What do you dream about?
Ghosts. All my life I have had a recurring theme in my dreams where I sense there is a ghost in the room and, rather than show fear, I command it to do something, like open the door or move something. I do this just to show that I am not afraid of it. I then try to nonchalantly walk away, like “Yeah, whatever!” but of course I am really anxious and am trying to actually get away.
I’ve also had dreams of past and future lives. In one I was a black soldier fighting in the Civil War and decided to desert my company. I thought it was just a strange dream but at the last moment when I turned to look back at the camp, I was outside of me, and it wasn’t me. Instead I saw this pudgy, scared kid walking through a dewy wet field at daybreak. Weird, huh?
I used to write down my dreams. But what always happens is that the more I write, the more dreams I have. I think that dream reality is something that exists separate from our waking reality. It is there all the time, we just make the trip to see it when we sleep. So when I meticulously write down every dream experience, I keep myself attached to that reality (and don’t get any rest). There is probably a way to transcend the border between dream life and waking life, but I think it might yield something very close to insanity.
bryson meunier lives and works in chicago as a search marketing manager/seo guru for resolution media. which means he knows what you’re searching for even before you ask.