Indie-rock producer John Agnello talks shop and explains his favorite records

Even the buzziest band doesn’t make it big alone. There’s nearly always help behind the scenes in the studio, from producers, engineers, mixers and general advisors.

John Agnello does all four. During a 25-year career, he has helped to shepherd some of the most impressive albums by some of the best bands: The Hold Steady (that’s Agnello, bottom right, with the band), Sonic Youth, Son Volt, Dinosaur Jr., the Drive-By Truckers, the Kills, Turbonegro and many more.

During a break from readying records by the likes of Jemina Pearl, formerly of Be Your Own Pet, Agnello talks about how he got his start, his favorite records and the intricacies of the John Agnello sound:

1. What was the first record you worked on, and how did you get the gig?

My first engineering was on the first Hooters record, called “Nervous Nights.” I had worked with same producer and engineer on the Cyndi Lauper record “She’s So Unusual.” During the making of the Hooters record, the engineer left halfway through to produce a record in London. So I got bumped up to the engineering spot. One of the first things I had to do was record big roomy drums in the middle of a song that had a bunch of percussion and stuff on it already. So when the bridge of the song happens, these big Bonham-style drums come in and really kick ass. The only problem was I had no open tracks. So I found four tracks that had other instruments on it, but not in that section. So I had to punch in and then make sure I punched out in time without erasing anything. And back then, the analogue tape machines were not so quick to punch out. It really was a great way to get my feet wet.

2. Some producers — Phil Spector, say — have sounds that are instantly recognizable. What is the trademark John Agnello sound?

My sound is pretty subtle. I do get a certain snare sound and my guitars have a way of jumping out of the mix, but overall, my records sound more like the artist than  anything else. The Hold Steady, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Jemina Pearl and Jennifer O’Connor all sound like themselves. If you listen hard enough, you can find a common thread.

3. How much of a hands-on approach do you take with bands and their material?

The ongoing joke during the Sonic Youth record was that I was going to teach those guys a thing or two about feedback. In fact, I think that comment even made the Twitterverse.

The truth is, with the old guard, you pretty much try to get them comfortable and help them get the magical takes. On the Sonic record, I got more involved with vocals with them, which I think was good.

But with The Hold Steady and Jemina Pearl, we did some real pre-production: working on song structure and making sure songs had bridges if they needed them. Making sure the songs were in the right key. I really enjoy doing that. With Jemina Pearl and John Eatherly, we stripped down some of the songs and built them back up again. They were wonderful about it. If I said to them, “This song needs a bridge,” they would come back a few days later with a bridge!  Jemina was really great about taking melodic and other singing direction.

4. What’s your schedule like during an average day (assuming there is such a thing) in the studio?

Umm, left to my own devices, I get up with the wife and baby at 8 a.m. We get her to school and then I hit the gym. I get to the studio between 11 a.m. and noon. Pretty much get to the studio and sit down and work. I don’t often go out for dinner so we usually eat in and I get back to work. Although, when cabin fever sets in, it’s better to get out of the studio every now and then. I try to get done between 10-11 p.m. But a lot of that is determined by the artist. If I’ve got all the Hold Steady guys out there cutting tracks, we’re going to work later. And when I’m out of town working, all bets are off. I can sleep later and work later.

5. What’s your favorite record?

There are too many to mention. So here I go:

Van Morrison, “Moondance.” A beautifully recorded record. Great vocal sound.
Pink Floyd, “Dark Side Of The Moon.” Love the way that record sounds.
Queen, “Queen II.”  Amazing production and many great tricks. Great in headphones.
• The Beatles, “Revolver.” The beginning of psychedelia!
Oasis, “What’s The Story Morning Glory?” Great songs, interesting sounding.
My Bloody Valentine, “Loveless.”  That record blows minds consistently.
Queens Of The Stone Age, “Songs For The Deaf.”  A rocking good time.

Current favorite record:  Grizzly Bear’s new one, “Veckatimest.”

6. Do you have a favorite record you’ve worked on?

Ugh, that’s tough. It’s like having a bunch of kids: They’re all special in one way or another.  The last Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. records have been two of my favorite. I absolutely love this Jemina Pearl record. In fact, my 3-year-old won’t stop listening to it. She’s wearing out the CD. Actually, she has one cd in her room and another in the car. But I haven’t burnt out on it. It still energizes me! Older record that I like are Dino’s “Where You Been.” Screaming Trees, “Sweet Oblivion.” The Hold Steady’s “Boys and Girls In America” was a really good time,  as was “Stay Positive.”

It’d actually be easier to list the records I hate.  There are only a few of those.

(Photo courtesy of John Agnello)

  1 comment for “Indie-rock producer John Agnello talks shop and explains his favorite records

  1. March 26, 2010 at 10:30 am

    This was a great interview with Agnello. We also interviewed John on http://www.freqcontrol.com at Headgear Recording in Brooklyn.

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