If you've ever loved Portland music, producer Larry Crane has probably made a few of your favorite albums. One of the city's busiest creatives, Crane is also a mixing engineer, the editor of bimonthly recording bible Tape Op, a recording guru for education site Lynda, the Elliott Smith catalog's archivist, and the owner of Jackpot! Recording Studio, which will celebrate 20 years of music-making with a concert and storytelling night at Secret Society on Friday night. The former Vomit Launch musician still straps on a bass for a session now and again, too.
Crane has never kept a list of credits--"I wish I had," he says--but between producing and mixing duties, he might work on some 40 projects a year, with a catalog ranging from Elliott Smith's Oscar-nominated "Miss Misery" to Portland newcomers such as Summer Cannibals. The studio's been home to a number of other producers and engineers, including Kendra Lynn and Adam Lee, and over the years, Built to Spill, R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, the Decemberists and more have all made their way through Jackpot!'s doors.
We sat down with Crane on a rainy morning in the Southeast Portland studio to catch up on 20 years well spent. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
David Greenwald: You started as a bass player in Northern California. How did you come to own a studio in Portland?
Larry Crane: I really liked the process. I was the person in the band that was like, "Hey, let's get ready, let's do demos... Let's figure out what overdubs we're going to do." All those kind of things. So I was always kind of co-producing on the band side but not taking credit, necessarily. When I moved up here in 1993, I set up a home studio at my house. A friend of mine dropped off a couple reel-to-reel tape decks, like four-track ones, and that turned into an eight-track, and then that turned into recording people that were paying me. And pretty soon it was too busy, and I was moving into a commercial space.
DG: But it wasn't necessarily the ambition for moving up here.
LC: I thought I was done with music, that I would just do it as a hobby. I think Portland was just the right place. I knew some of the people from playing shows with them, like (the band) Calamity Jane, Gilly Ann Hanner, I actually ran into her in Astoria yesterday afternoon. And (Decemberists drummer) John Moen, who was the drummer for the Dharma Bums, I briefly met, and then when I moved up here, he was working with my roommate. I randomly got a roommate through the paper and he's like, "I think you might know my employee, John." He was leading a band called the Maroons at that point, and that became one of the first projects I recorded at my house, actually, on Quasi's borrowed equipment (laughs) because I knew I knew Sam (Coomes) from Quasi from California when he was in Donner Party.
DG: You're best known for working on rock projects. What are some of the more unusual recordings you've done?
LC: The one recently in the last couple of years was Johnny Boyd, which is like a mid-century crooner record, like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett-style. With a fantastic local band, really a jazz band backing him, grand piano, brushes on the drums. Oz Fritz produced that, who has worked with Tom Waits and Bill Laswell and the sessions were just really fun.
I love so much music, I love all these different genres. My record collection is just out of hand. And so to me, whenever I get a chance to do something that's stylistically diverging from indie rock or alt-country or whatever I might be known for, it's kind of cool. I was mixing a Jerry Joseph record recently and they said "Can you do a dub reggae breakdown in the center of the song?" and I was like, "Oh, yeah." I started doing things and they were just like, "Holy (expletive)! You know how to do that." Well, yeah, I studied it. I bought tons of the records, then I read stories and articles and tried to figure out what gear they were using. It's fun to learn stuff.
DG: Doing the interviews you do for Tape Op, that has to be a huge resource. Have there been conversations that made you rethink your approach?
LC: Almost always to some degree. It will be something intellectual like Brian Eno or something almost like attitude and technique, like Glyn Johns, or the vibe of a person like T Bone Burnett. Like, a solid center where you're like, "Oh I see, if he's on a session, he probably calms everything down and he keeps it moving forward very gently." Whereas other people are more aggressive. their personalities are more upfront and they might be leading the pack. I always think about that stuff, I'll even think sometimes--I wouldn't tell a band, but I'll think, "Oh, I'm going to try to act like Glyn Johns on this project," or "I'm going to try to act more like Brian Eno, more conceptual." Or I'm going to be more like T Bone and think more about picking the musicians and the setting and getting the right vibe... You just learn a lot from different people. So many have stayed friends, I can email them. It's just crazy, it's a luxury.
DG: People would describe a producer like Rick Rubin as a zen master. How do you think artists you've worked with would describe your style?
LC: (Laughs) My beard's not as big as Rick's. It's always hard to get outside of yourself, isn't it? I would say that one thing I hope that people take away is that I'm really paying attention. I feel like I'm pretty versatile, like I've mentioned before, I have a wide breadth of interest in music. And so I can hear something, like, "God, that reminds me of this such-and-such record on Stax, remember that weird little keyboard part?" And someone will go, "I know what you're talking about." In the next second, I can say, "That sounds like a Luna song." So I think they feel that I have a deep background. I want to always know more about music and the history of music than the people I'm working with, if that's possible. And of course you can't always.
I also hope people get from me a little bit of a sense of humor or my seeming casual. I mean, I'm deadly serious about making records. But I don't want to come in here and just be like a dictator or everything's uptight. Because I think that the more pressure you put on musicians and music, the less rewards you get. Things go haywire. I joke with people right away, I try to suss out their sense of humor.
DG: You've seen a lot of change in Portland music in the last 20 years. What are some of the things that have stayed the same as far as the kind of bands who come in or how they like to work?
LC: There's less bands that sound like like fake Pavement (laughs). Nobody's doing second-rate grunge anymore, thank God. The guys going (does an Eddie Vedder voice) "yeah-uh." Those are some terrible moments.
Portland's funny, there's always good music here for sure. I think people are really good at focusing on songs. The artists that have been around a while, they seem to be thinking about the songs, the songwriting, a little more than maybe some scenes that I've been around. That's really cool and important. And the other thing, we're not quite completely backwater provincial, but we're not on the bleeding edge of everything in the world. Sometimes that allows people to gestate on their own and create something a little more unique, too.
DG: Being in the studio, hearing so much music day after day, have there been moments where someone played a song and you've had to really step back and go, "Wow, this is a great piece of work"?
LC: Oh, certainly (Elliott Smith's) "Miss Misery." That was probably the first time that I just went, "You know... that was too easy." I didn't think about it too much at first, but I played it for John Moen and and a few other friends and they were just like--I give up. How did he do that? And it didn't take much time at all, it was really quick. So that tells you something. There's been a lot of little moments like that, like Summer Cannibals, their second record just felt so good and solid. Sometimes you're not surprised, I knew that Martyn Leaper wrote good songs, I knew the Minders would be fun to work with over the years. I think the Decemberists kind of surprised me (on "Her Majesty"), I don't think I'd even heard them... until we sat down and started recording. One of the first things I said to Colin (Meloy) was, "Journalists will have an easy time writing about you."
DG: People probably know Elliott Smith and the Decemberists, but what are some of the albums you've worked on that should have more attention?
DG: You left for Arizona for a minute about 10 years ago and then moved the studio over to this Division St. location. How did that happen?
LC: A good handful of years into the original space, Kendra Lynn became the studio manager and she was also a fantastic producer and engineer. And I decided around 2007 to move down to Arizona and I was able to do so because she was able to run the studio. So as soon as I left, I think there were sessions like Sonic Youth and R.E.M. and Eddie Vedder, and all these wonderful things happened that I never saw (laughs). I would come back all the time and do System and Station records or I did a Richmond Fontaine record, all kinds of stuff, to the point where I just rented an apartment and then I moved into the apartment and left Arizona. There's, you know, life changes. It was fun to be back, finally. I really wanted to be here.
DG: This neighborhood's been in transition, there are new buildings, the food carts across the street are gone. Do you think you'll stick around?
LC: Well, I have a great situation with my friends that own the building and they really keep my rate affordable for rent. They have a long-term lease set up. So yeah, I love the area, I love the neighborhood, and it's close to where I live now. I bought a house down the street. I think it'll be O.K. I just hope parking doesn't get worse.
Jackpot! Recording Studio 20th anniversary celebration ft. the Minders, Secret Sea (and special guests Joanna Bolme, Janet Weiss, Douglas Jenkins, Martyn Leaper, Kendra Lynn)
Friday, Feb. 24, Secret Society, 9 p.m. show, 21 and over. Tickets: $25 at the door.
-- David Greenwald
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