On the contrary, Katis prefers to add his contribution via the actual mixing, piecing together tracks, layering effects, and focusing on the quality of the recorded elements. “I prefer obsessing with the sonic aspects of the records. There are certain musical decisions that are made that really define a record. One of things I always think is, ‘Am I bored right now?’ If I’m bored, then I usually suggest we try something different. So, I definitely fall on the side of someone who focuses on the sound of a record.”
To get a good sense for Peter’s more sonic approach, the song Not Miserable from Frightened Rabbit’s brand new release, The Winter of Mixed Drinks, serves as a perfect introduction. While the song at its very core can really be reduced to just a simple three-note bass line, listen to how the multitude of vocal tracks, guitars and sweeping effects weave in and out to form a real orchestra, all of which culminate when the drums kick in at the end.
Frightened Rabbit – Not Miserable
Tracks of the Trade
Entering into some weighty gear-head material in the old debate over analog versus digital, Peter has a bit of a reputation as an analog guy. However, he describes that it’s more about the analog aesthetic these days than anything else. It’s a debate that in circles of folks that really understand the gear can bring about some serious snobbery, but not so much in this case.
“In a way I’m happy to say that I’m thought of as an analog guy even though most records are made without tracking to tape nowadays. The whole analog question is a tricky one. The analog philosophy is more about appreciating and knowing how to achieve a certain aesthetic.” He adds, “In many cases, bands are just happy to see the giant tape machine in the corner and if you can make it sound ‘groovy,’ then it sounds analog. I do sometimes use analog for drums and bass, and I always mix on half inch analog even if it ends up bounced back to digital. I think the whole analog sound is more just an aesthetic, using preamps and compressors that drive things to add a lot of color. To answer the question, the analog thing is more producing certain sounds than simply just using analog equipment.”
Speaking of drums, some of Katis’ highest praises often come in regard to his ability to bring out a uniquely punchy, bright drum sound. “When I started recording, I always thought that the drum sounds were the most important thing. While I may not think that anymore, I also take a slightly macho approach toward the drum sounds. I used to think the stronger, more powerful drum sound, the better. Of course now, I’ve learned that you can take that too far, but I also think that’s what people enjoy. I’ve definitely always been really into powerful drums.”
If you think about the bands in the Katis catalog like the National, Interpol, and Frightened Rabbit in particular, these bands have drummers who focus on a lot of snare-driven beats with almost a de-emphasis on fills and crashes, so it’s perhaps ironic that the drums garner such wide praise.
“The thing is, if there is a good strong foundation and a good drum kit, you can hang anything on top of it and it sounds good. It’s probably a little cliché, but a really good drummer makes it easy. People talk about the Interpol drum sound; you know, part of that sound is what I do, but such a big part of it is also Sam (Forgarino) the drummer. The way he hits the drums; you could take that same drum kit and mic it up with another drummer and it wouldn’t sound the same way. It wouldn’t have that same snap.” He continues, “I almost never use reverb on drums and I almost always use room sounds. I’m not a fan of compression on close mics on drums, but I’m certainly a fan of compression on room mics. If you can make something sound more exciting than it is in real life, then that’s a pretty cool thing.”
The Musician’s Instinct
Like many music engineers and producers (and writers), the recording career came as an offshoot of Peter’s own projects. “I played for years with my brother in a band called The Philistines Jr.,” Peter begins. “It’s sad to think of it now as a 90s band [laughs]. We never planned on stopping being a band and I never planned on being a producer. I just got so busy with recording it just sort of stopped happening without ever realizing.”
Well, that’s not completely true; the band hasn’t been completely stagnant since the 1990s. “Over the past ten years, I’ve been working hard for about three days a year on a record and that record is finally done and comes out later this year. Everyone likes their own band, but I’m pretty excited about it.” As a special treat, Peter was kind enough to share an advance listen and stream a sample track, so see for yourself. The album sounds really solid. It has the quirkiness of They Might Be Giants and No Kids combined with meticulous attention to detail and really captivating material.
The Philistines Jr. – Tarquin’s Half-Assed Mission Statement
Doubling as a successful indie musician, with brother Tarquin Katis and Adam Pierce (who also runs FatCat Records USA), Peter undoubtedly faces the undeniable instinct present in virtually every musician under the sun; the desire to play on everything. “It’s a good instinct, because if I hear something that I really want on the record, I’ll just try to show the bands those ideas.”
Clearly with the added pastiche from a nice string of successes comes more comfort, flexibility, and credibility to influence the records and add more of his own ideas, but Peter prefers to let it happen naturally. “Well, it’s easier now that bands are a lot more open to my input and I actually have been playing on most of the records I produce, but it’s more just communicating ideas to the guys in the band.” He adds, “It’s more just people who totally get what you’re talking about. I just did a record with Fanfarlo where we really clicked and agreed on everything.”
One Nation under a Groove
Undoubtedly, one of the most highly anticipated releases of Katis’s relatively young production career would be that of the National’s forthcoming follow-up to the massively successful, Boxer. The new album, High Violet, comes as a bit of a departure from a lot of the projects Katis works on in that he generally focuses on the cutting edge, cusp of indie rock (read: bands that don’t have any money). In this case, the National spent over a year tracking the record and then they spent a substantial additional period of time mixing at Peter’s studio.
“They are actually some of my best friends, because we’ve done so many records together, but they are a handful. They make me crazy, [laughs]” Peter jokes. “For this record, they built their own studio and spent the last year recording it on their own. They came in and stayed for two and a half months, and we ripped the record apart, and put it back together, and ripped it apart, and put it back together again. You could say it’s democratic, but really it’s more like a big brawl. That’s the way it’s always been with them. That’s their process. It was a brutal mixing sessions, but I think the record is really good and I think people are really happy with it.”
Surely Boxer was hardly a Cinderella story, but the National comes in this time as a “big” band and folks will be buzzing with opinions. If the band and the mixer’s views count for anything, then it looks like a strong follow-up to what was widely regarded as one of 2007’s best albums.
“It’s a different record than Boxer musically and sonically. It’s hard to say [what folks will think], and we had our disagreements from time to time, but I think they are very happy with how it sounds. It’s quite scrappy sounding. Their biggest concern was that it wasn’t too slick, and it’s definitely not that. If I was the absolute boss, and there’s no boss with the National, I probably would have recorded more, and they know that. But I think it’s a pretty intense record and I’m curious to see what people think.”
As a funny aside, early in the conversation, just as we begin to discuss how Peter got his start as a recording engineer, he cracked up about his newest addition to the family, their new cat “the Wolfman.” “He just farted in my face. I’ve never met a cat who farted. Bryce from the National actually offered me ten thousand dollars for the Wolfman. I didn’t give him up, but my wife said ‘Sold!’[laughs]”
Correction, Many Nations under a Groove
Despite recording in a relatively remote locale by music business terms with a home studio in Connecticut, Peter Katis’ client roster contains a strikingly high proportion of international bands. A good part of this surely comes from the longstanding friendship with Adam Pierce from FatCat Records, who as mentioned previously, also plays drums in Peter’s band the Philistines Jr., but for the most part Katis does not seek out nor focus particularly on the international segment of indie rock. It’s just the way the network unfolded.
“Not at all!” he explains, asked if he specifically seeks out this client base. “I thought about this the other day. In the past few years, it’s been Fanfarlo (UK), Frightened Rabbit, the Twilight Sad, and We Were Promised Jetpacks (Scotland), The Kissaway Trail (Denmark), Jonsi (Iceland), The Swell Season (Ireland), Voicst (Holland), Tiger Lou (Sweden), Tokyo Police Club (Canada), The Grates (Australia). It’s weird, but it’s not something I seek out at all. It’s definitely not on purpose.”
One would expect the geographical distance between the bands and the studio to pose countless issues with travel, time zones, and of course, money, but it seems to work fairly fluidly. In part, the dawn of computer technology certainly makes this much easier logistically, but also in many cases – as mentioned with the National – bands will track the music themselves in studios of their own choosing and then come work with Peter to do more of the mixing and fine tuning.
Take Frightened Rabbit for example, “Midnight Organ Fight was done really quickly, because they had such a small budget and so little time. That is really fast for a record nowadays. The newest record they actually recorded without me in Scotland. They took their time over there in Glasgow. They came over here to do the overdubs, mix the record, and do the little key things that really define a record. The two albums are very different. That was very intentional on Scott’s [Hutchinson] part. He didn’t want to make that same record.”
Hits, Misses, and Critical Darlings
Another secondary role for a producer or mixer is that of tastemaker. Surely, a great producer must possess a keen ear for what works, what’s marketable, and frankly, what they like. So naturally, when asked, Peter offers up plenty of suggestions about some of his favorite underrated projects, the “critical darlings” if you will, that did not achieve quite the widespread notoriety of an Interpol or a National release.
“That used to be every record I worked on [laughs]. All of the sudden people started caring, which was weird. Interpol was the first, and then from there on out people started paying attention.”
He continues, “I did a record with a band called Longwave a couple years ago, which I think of them as an indie band, but it was super ‘rock.’ It did OK, but I thought ‘wow’ this should be a breakout. And the Grates; the Grates should be a giant band. They are amazing, so likeable. They have beautiful young ladies in the band, very charismatic, and very energetic. It’s emotional, it sounds amazing, and the production is amazing. It’s just super likeable. Also, that last Mates of State, Re-Arrange Us, I thought that would do way more for them. I’m working on mixing a covers album for them, so that should be cool. It’s a lot of fun, a really fun record.”
Finally, Peter touches on one his absolute favorites, the very recent release from Jonsi Birgisson of Sigur Ros. “I can’t believe how the new Jonsi record came out. I knew it would be good, but wow. When I started, it was supposed to be sort of a modest record, an acoustic record, and it ended up being a powerhouse. Although it sounds like a largely acoustic record, it’s distorted to hell, and not just the acoustic guitar, but the percussion is super distorted and the orchestral overdubs are really over-driven. It’s gone past the point of a hot preamp or compression; it’s actually over-driven. It just sounds kind of exciting. That sort of ran away on itself. It certainly became a rock record, but it’s sonically really intense, and really cool. I’m really excited about it.”
He said it before, but it bears repeating, “If you can make something sound more exciting than it is in real life, then that’s a pretty cool thing.” That’s the studio. Just as there exists an energy in the live performance that you can’t emulate in the studio, there’s magic in the studio that cannot be matched onstage. And a great producer gets that; the idea you can add so many more layers and sounds and musicians and samples to build not just a collection of songs, but ultimately something the lasts – a cohesive project that people will hold on to and remember, in some cases forever.
For reference, we included a list below of some of the albums mentioned in the conversation and throughout this article.
Frightened Rabbit – The Winter Of Mixed Drinks (Fat Cat)
The Kissaway Trail – Sleep Mountain (Bella Union)
Jonsi – Go (XL)
The National – High Violet (4AD)
Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us (Barsuk)
We Were Promised Jet Packs – These Four Walls (Fat Cat)
Julian Plenti – Julian Plenti is … Skyscraper (Matador)
Fanfarlo – Reservoir (Canvas Back)
The Swell Season – Strict Joy (Anti)
Longwave – Secrets Are Sinister (Original Signal)
The Grates – Teeth Lost, Hearts Won (Dew Process)