Underground sound: An Interview with Jason Hutto

Jason Hutto is a details man. He notices, and appreciates, the tiniest things. Whether it’s an ornate button on a shirt, the quiet plinking of a music box, or just a friend’s new haircut, Hutto always notices.

It’s because of this personality trait that he’s one of the most coveted underground recording engineers in St. Louis. And I mean “underground” quite literally; Hutto records a range of bands in an analog studio he has built in his low-ceilinged South City basement. He is notoriously bad at self-promotion; this small business thrives on reputation and word of mouth only. Still, he seems to have no problem getting gigs, with scores of bands lined up to do business in his home studio.

Part of this reputation has been earned from his years as a singer, guitarist and songwriter. From Sexicolor to the Phonocaptors to Walkie Talkie USA, Hutto has fronted some of the best rock bands in town. In addition to his current band, Warm Jets USA, Hutto also lends his talents to local acts like Bunnygrunt, the Incurables and I’d’ven’t with Eric Hall.

Despite these many projects, Hutto always finds time to devote to the studio. His analog style of tracking hasn’t translated into a lack of clients or a compromise in quality. In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. It’s almost weird how he can capture such clean sounds in that dusty little basement of his, and many musicians seek him out for this special feature alone.

He recently wrapped a session with Sleepy Kitty, a local art and pop music duo. With Hutto’s help, drummer Evan Sult and guitarist/keyboardist Paige Brubeck’s layered Spector-esque tracks sound nothing short of magical.

I asked Brubeck to describe their time with him and she gave this glowing review:

“We really wanted to work with someone who could bring out a wide range of sounds, and who was interested in working with analog instruments. After talking with Jason about what we were going for, hearing his bands, and long conversations about other recordings we all liked, it seemed like a good match for us to work together. I feel like the limitation of not having a screen quickly became a freedom, in that it let Jason and us take a lot more chances and get more creative. Because of working in the linear format, a lot of the added sounds had to be done in real time, and we had to find ways to pull it off. Sleepy Kitty’s other gig is screenprinting, so there was a lot of talk about how similar recording sound analog and screenprinting layers of colors are. Jason is so open-minded and easy to work with in the recording process. He doesn’t have any of that ‘over it’ vibe that happens to a lot of people who have recorded music for a while.”

I met with Hutto a while back in his studio, where he played some recent recordings and we talked for hours about his process, views and assets. He was relaxed and quick to smile or laugh; it was immediately clear how he puts his clients at ease. Here is part of our conversation:

Jaime Lees: Will you tell me about your studio and recording methods?

Jason Hutto: It’s literally wires, string and duct tape. And I just keep piecing it back together. It’s really bizarre. Sometimes I’ll look at it and think, “Wow. This is ridiculous. Most people do this on a laptop.” What I do– it’s funny– but all the things that you need are still here. When Paige and Evan first came down here, Paige said, “It’s so nice to go into a studio and not see a computer screen.” And that was nice to hear. Because I’m not against all of that, I just don’t have it. But I still know how to make sounds.

And what’s been interesting– especially about working with them– is because everything is linear, we had to focus on things in a different way. We couldn’t just snip and cut things out and paste and edit things in, so we listened to stuff and by literally listening through and getting into that song so much that you create other solutions for solving problems that you wouldn’t have made it to if you hadn’t focused so hard. A lot of times they go in to studios these days and you’ll have a chorus and it’s like, “OK, you couldn’t hit that second chorus as well as the first one. We’ll just cut it in.” But this is something where everybody has to, like, do their work. We have to do it again and I have to work harder to solve things. If people can’t necessarily sing a part that well or if they can’t play it what well, you notice it in the studio. Whereas live you don’t have to worry about that part because it passes by in 2 to 3 seconds, and here you have to remember those 2 or 3 seconds every time you listen through. So it’s just a different way of approaching how music is made. And it’s by no means organic. A lot of people are like, “That’s so cool. There are no computers, it’s so organic.” But it’s not because it’s still a bunch of trickery, it’s just a different approach to doing it.

But it’s a lot more work, isn’t it?

It is! [Laughs] It’s a lot more work. That’s why I do it this way. And again, it’s not because I have a certain allegiance to it, it’s just that for the bands that I work with, what happens is something kind of cooler than if we were to just go in and chop and edit everything together. And I’m not against that. I mean, it’s all tools to me. But instead of being a computer user, I’m more focused on being an engineer and a producer– if they want it. So I’m kind of content. And when I do convert to that other side, you don’t ever want to lose focus of what is is to go though this process of thinking in, like, a linear way.

Because you play music, too, do you think it’s easier for you as an engineer because you know what they are going through and can suggest solutions?

Yeah, I think because of that familiarity I get it when people are hung up on a certain thing that they’re maybe not able to perform all the time, or a part that they want to do right. I get that so much. You know, I’ve been sitting in these holes for the last 15 to 20 years… Wow! [sarcastically] “I started when I was six years old.” No, I’ve done it so many times, you know, and I’ve struggled with those same moments of trying to nail that part and having to do it over and over. Like, I get the frustration and the fact that you know you can do it, because you’ve done it, you do it all the time. But maybe that one day you can’t do it.

But, like, everyone’s job — including mine — is to get to that place and figure out how to approach it. There’s all sorts of things you have to do to get people to calm it down and get back to their original idea. A lot of people [producers] choose to be really driving, but I don’t find that effective. I don’t necessarily respect that approach because I just feel like there’s too many variables that the musicians are already dealing with that you can’t go in and impose “This is how we do it here” because you don’t know if they’re having a bad day, tired form loading shit around, or if they’re frustrated because their guitar sucks or they’re a crappy drummer or any of those things. So every time a new group comes in– it’s like any relationship– you can’t just go judging them right out of the gate – you won’t have any friends or family! [Laughs] I approach it like that. I wouldn’t go judging anybody or how they act. Sometimes it’s hard for people in the beginning- they have to warm up. And it’s not because they are being rude, it’s just their nature. And then the next thing you know, they’re like, “This is the best time I’ve ever had! It’s so great!” You hear those things from people and you realize, however I’m doing these things, I’m doing it right.

How does it work when you’re recording your own music? And do you have to hit a button out here [near the mixing console] and then run into the recording room?

Well, that’s when I’m a dick. [Laughs] “Do it again. You suck. How long does it take you to play a part? The song is only three minutes, you idiot.” But yeah, I do that. I run back and forth a lot. But it all depends. Sometimes I’ll track in here and then get everybody else in there and have them do their parts. And once they get their part done if I can keep my tracks, I’ll keep them. It all depends.

I know there’s a lot of psychology involved in these situations. How do you keep everything flowing?

With the bands I record… It’s funny because when you’re in studios, you forget what the true… It’s still just music and I try to get that point across to people. It’s still music. That’s all it is, in its most basic form. There are too many people that have made it out to be this magical, mystical thing that doesn’t really exist. Anyone can do it. Anyone can do this. [Gestures around room] What you’ve got do is just continue to practice and do whatever it is that makes you feel confident in what you have created. And you can create some really fun moments out of it because it’s just music. And I love production, I love embellishment, I love making something that represents what you perceive when you’re watching a band and you kind of perceive this thing that’s larger than life on a stage. I love that idea of taking it down here and doing something that is larger than what the band thinks they can do.

By the same token, it’s just music. There’s nothing to me that’s, I guess, incredible about it. It always cracks me up when people are like, “Oh, I can’t do that.” Yeah. Yeah you can. I do it every night. The thing is: anyone can do it. Granted, you might not make any money at it [Laughs] and I think, hopefully we’re all over that idea of making money at this thing because it’s not going to happen. You don’t do it for that, you do it because of what it is. And to me, it’s, even when I go see a band, is your folks playing music to to folks like you. And I love that. You know, I’m absolutely nothing in a basement. And I love that when I play, I’m this person that these people have allowed me to be on stage, and none of us exist without each other. And hopefully you create– as a performer– a really fun moment for those people who are watching. But you know, at the end of it, it’s just music.

I think, fortunately, people that are down here actually kind of invite me into their world, which is cool. Because to throw in an extra variable– meaning me– you know, sometimes they clam up or they get all nervous. You know, just basic insecurities about what they’re doing. Studios are already unnerving already for people that the less I can be in their way, yet be totally in their band, I’m kind of like their extra member for that time. And as long as they can have that trust with me– it seems like most people do– they realize that I’m not here to make them into anything that they don’t want to be. And again, that’s why I go back to that idea: why it’s not organic, it’s all a bunch of trickery and, you know, bullshit at the end of it. Because you’re just trying to make something really cool come out of two speakers, as opposed to when you see that band live. That cool thing that happens when you see a band live? It’s made with all kinds of variables: the crowd, their performance, the room, all the stuff swirling around the room, the things that come out because of the room, or don’t come out because of the room and that… that… thing

The booze?

Booze! The Booze! [Laughs] Yeah! Not every CD comes with a 12 pack…

You can catch Jason Hutto and his band Warm Jets USA, along with the Livers and the Breaks, at the Firebird on January 22, 2011.