The super nice and super cool guys from the Chilean webzine The Holy Filament have interviewed me on the occasion of the John Zorn Masada Marathon in Bogota, Colombia, an epic 4 hour long concert event where I mixed 12 of John Zorn’s best bands playing his music, from classical, to jazz, to experimental avantgarde to metal. People from all over South America (Peru, Chile, San Salvador etc) flew in to Colombia to see John Zorn’s first ever Masada Marathon in South America. The whole staff of The Holy Filament flew in as well!
Here is the interview: http://www.theholyfilament.cl/destacados/entrevista-a-marc-urselli/
And since the interview is in Spanish, here is the English version of it:
How did your love and career in sound engineering begin? Where did that happen?
I started in Italy where I grew up. I had a band at the time and I wanted to record the rehearsals so I started to buy some recording equipment. First a 4 track cassette recorder, then a mixer, then some microphones etc etc. I started making demo tapes. Eventually a friend of mine who had a studio decided to upgrade his studio console and that is when the light when off in my head and I decided to become a sound engineer. I bought his used console and opened a recording studio in Italy, where I lived, and I was recording lots of punk/hard core bands. Then after a few years of doing that I decided I wanted to extend my horizons and experience and that is when I moved to NYC.
What was your vocational training in the art of capturing sounds? Formally and informally.
I didn’t really have any formal training. I was considering going to an audio school before moving to NYC but then I decided to do some internships and learn by watching other people. I practiced a lot in my spare time and got better and better at it. It took a lot of experimenting and a lot of work but I kept getting better at it and was really loving it.
How would you describe the art of mix and capturing sound?
They are different arts, but both intrinsically connected as they closely depend on each other. Both are a mixture of science and art. Experience and knowledge are key parts but experimentation is also very important. To me both are incredibly interesting and I take great enjoyment out of both. Mixing is especially creative for me so I love mixing records because in a mix everything is just as important as everything else and you have to make sure everything is heard in the mix and that the mix carries you. It’s an art form that I have been practicing to get better at every day.
Tell me about Eastside Studio. How did you begin in the studio? I presume that your professional career there was a long time investment.
Yes, very long. I started there as an intern under the owner and founder Lou Holtzman who gave me a chance. I was supposed to only stay for 3 months but kept staying longer and longer. I was cleaning toilets, vacuuming the floors and making coffee… That’s before I even got to wrap up cables! It took a long time until I could prove my worth in the control room. It took over two years of commitment to get to where I was allowed to do a session, I went from being a runner/cleaner/intern to an assistant. Then I became an engineer and now I am the chief engineer and manager. I am very grateful for the chance I got to make coffee and cleaning toilets!
Were there other jobs before you became a sound engineer? Tell me about your beginnings.
I never really did much else actually. I had and still have an interest in web design and before engineering completely took over my life I was trying my hand at making a living with web design. It’s a skill that came in handy and that I still use and enjoy today. I designed my own website (www.marcurselli.com), the one for the studio (www.eastsidesound.com), the one for my record label (www.stridulationrecords.com) and other websites like my music magazine Chain D.L.K. (www.chaindlk.com).
How do you do it with the equipment to mix and record an album? I imagine that depends on what the musicians want. Do you have to purchase or upgrade equipment/material for that?
I have some equipment my own but luckily I am not a studio owner anymore and so I am not responsible for buying equipment. EastSide Sound is one of the best studios in the world and they have an amazing collection of vintage analog and modern digital equipment so I get to use a mixture of both to make records and I choose the different pieces of equipment according to the sound I want to achieve. I am very fortunate to be able to work in such an amazing studio!
In terms of the “needs” and requirements of the different musicians, how do you adapt to the requirements of the musicians, especially to capture the essence of an album as a rough diamond?
Every musician is different so I try to cater to the needs of all the musicians on a session and make sure they are comfortable and get what they want and what they need and that they are relaxed so that they can focus uniquely on the music and give their best performance. The more relaxed, happy and focused they are the better will be the performance and so it is in everyone’s best interest that the musicians are happy in the studio!
This question will be a little long… Lately you’ve been mixing albums of John Zorn, Dave Lombardo, recently mixed up a live album of Steven O’Malley and so on… The thing is, I imagine that you have a huge responsibility to not “screw up” the music that you tape. How do you deal professionally with the responsibility of that?
I don’t think about the responsibility so much, I just think about how to do it best without making mistakes. Of course it’s a great responsibility to track a take that will never be played the same way again and it is my job to make a mix sound as good as it can be, but the people I work with trust me with their sound and I have never let anyone down! I am a reliable person and a consumate professional. I cross the t’s and dot the i’s, I double check everything and I am very organized. I never lost a file for example, but this means that I have to be methodical about file organization, naming, dating and backing up. For example I back up every single thing I do to two hard drives while I am working, so even if one hard drive dies I always have a mirror backup copy of everything I am doing. And I save multiple times every minute. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I am half swiss, so I am very organized ;-)
So far, including your awards and nominations, what has been your favorite /job on a record?
Too many to remember! Just this week I did one record with John Zorn, one with Jack DeJohnette, Esperanza Spalding and Leo Genovese, one with Don Friedman and one with Ben Allison. That is 4 records this week alone! I am very busy and I never stop working. I love working with John Zorn and I have great memories of working with Lou Reed, Les Paul, Mike Patton and many many others.
Now you will be in Colombia with the Zorn Marathon. There are many aspects to ask about in your job, for example how do you make a theater “sounds good”. How do you adapt the acoustic when you enter in a theater and tailor the sound live?
Live sound is a whole other animal and I love it dividing my time between studio and concerts. Every venue you go to is different and has different acoustics and you have to tune the PA to make sure it reacts as you’d expect it to when you mix. Obviously there is only so much you can do with a good PA or with certain venues which might be too reflective or too boomy. When I walk into a new venue the first thing I do is play some music I know well (music I recorded usually) over the PA to hear what it sounds like in different places of the theater. Then I EQ the PA so that it sounds the way I know that music should sound like. Once I have done that I am more comfortable mixing because I know how my actions will translate.
Can it become stressful to be in charge of the sound in theaters or venues with bad acoustics?
Absolutely! It is not only stressful but it’s also depressing from my point of view. I want every concert to sound perfect and if I am working in a room with bad acoustics or a terrible PA there is only so much I can do to make that happen.
What has been your biggest challenge in terms of being in charge of sound live?
Well the challenge is always making it sound good everywhere you go with limited amount of time and sometimes limited resources. I’ve done sound in 100 people clubs and at festivals with 40’000 people in the audience. I’ve mixed everything from classical music to loud rock shows. I toured with Lou Reed for 7 years and he was one of the most demanding people I’ve worked for, but it was great working for him! I’ve toured with the Black Crowes and the Beach Boys and Mike Patton… Some of the most challenging shows where those where you have a loud band with a string orchestra. The Mike Patton Mondo Cane project has 25 players on stage, 12 of which are strings, and the band can get loud, but those shows are amazing. I did a show where the Beach Boys played together with a Symphony Orchestra: you have a rock band with a loud drummer and a quiet singer standing in front of the PA and on orchestra behind all of that, now that’s a challenge! All of those are challenges and you do what you can do make it all work out!
I know, at least I have the feeling that you’re a very enthusiastic person and you like challenges. JOHN ZORN, especially in a Marathon or in the tour for his 60… How is the challenge of making a Zorn show sound good?
Well every John Zorn show is certainly a huge challenge. I don’t mind challenges as long as I am put in the right conditions to work. With Zorn I am alone doing everything and Zorn likes to do these Marathon shows with 10 of his bands in a row, playing 15-20 minutes each. The stage has to change over quickly between these bands and you can go from a metal trio to a string quartet to a jazz ensemble to an a cappella vocal group to an experimental noise project, all within the same night, on the same stage. There are almost 100 channels of audio and they all have to work. Beyond that the challenge is not only to make it all sound good but also to make it flow effortlessly and quickly.
And how has it been in the studio mixing for Zorn in different formats and projects?
That’s always great, but even there, especially with Zorn, you have to move super fast to keep up with his expectations. I have recorded and mixed more than 50 albums by John Zorn and have been working with him for years. He’s an unstoppable force of nature, he knows exactly what he wants and he’s good at getting it out of people. I always look forward to the sessions with Zorn because he writes such great unique music and he always picks the best musicians in the world and it is a true pleasure and honor to be a witness of how the music is created in the studio by Zorn and those cats.
In recent years you’ve been to South America with projects of Mike Patton and John Zorn, in Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil… How was your experience in this continent? Now in Colombia, what do you expect from this new experience with the Marathon?
One never knows what to expect in South America, that’s why I come a day before Zorn to make sure it all is right and to have time to setup everything for the day of the show! Unfortunately the South Americans are not the most organized people you will meet when it comes to concert production and you never quite know what to expect when you get there, but the people are great and the places are great. I’ve been to Colombia 3 times and I love coming to South America. As long as I don’t get robbed (which has happened!) and I have a safe stay I always enjoy coming back.
I have many more questions in mind because ultimately you get to hear all kinds of new music and definitely YOU HAVE all the new music… when you mix, and you have an album or a song done, in your point of view of a fan, not only as an engineer, how does it feel to have and listen to a new golden record in your hands before anyone else can? (Can you tell me an experience that excited you?)
You are right, I get to hear a lot of amazing music before anyone else does. It’s a blessing and a privilege and it’s an honor for me to be in this position. However, people will get to hear it eventually so I don’t really pride myself or get excited about the fact that I can hear it a few months before anyone else. What is much more exciting is being there when it is created in front of your eyes and seeing and being part of this process of creation. That is the true privilege that I enjoy as a fan of music in general. What also happens is that some time some amazing great music is made in the studio and then for whatever reason it does not get released… That is when it really becomes special to have been part of something because not only you hear it first but you might be the only one to hear it… I just did a record with Miles Davis’ drummer Jack DeJohnette playing the piano. The record is going to be on vinyl only (on Newvelle records) and Jack recorded more songs than can fit on one vinyl so nobody will get to hear all the other songs he recorded, at least not for a long time. The same has happened many other times. The Les Paul tribute album I did in 2005 (which won 2 Grammy Awards) had a lot of cuts that did not make it to the final album track list so I have some unreleased gems in my files that nobody else has heard! That’s a true special privilege.
Finally. a brief brief question about Stridulation Records. Why the decision to start a label? How are you doing with that? What comes in the future of Stridulation? Is it difficult to enter the labels market? That’s a major challenge, isn’t it?
Actually nowadays everyone can start a label because the tools are out there for everyone. The hardest thing is getting people to buy the records. I’ve always wanted to start a record label honestly. It stems from my desire to support the music that I love. I would love to release 50 records a year like Zorn does on his label Tzadik but unfortunately I am too busy and the economic reality is a big factor of course. Stridulation records (www.stridulationrecords.com) is an attempt to make a small contribution to the world of music that I want to support. The first two releases were my experimental noise project Craesher and my label mate’s electronic-black-metal band Aborym. However I would like to release other music as well, when I find some that me and my label mates all like and believe in. In the future we might possibly release a very interesting release by an established musician I have worked with who has a very cool side project, but I won’t say anything more until it is confirmed.
Another final question… New projects and records for this 2015/2016?
I have a ton of ideas and projects but very little time for my own music. I am working on a doom metal record with members of Japanese taiko super group Kodo and members of Khanate and Blind Idiot God and I have ideas for a whole other doom metal solo record and an electronic/dark record and other things. All of my own personal projects always get put on the backseat because I spend my time making records for other people. This year, besides doing many records with John Zorn, I started working with this new vinyl only record label called Newvelle records who is putting out some really cool jazz records. I’ve been mixing a bunch of jazz and blues records as well and some records for the Japanese market and even the new Curupira record, this great Colombian world music band that came to New York to record with me. On top of that I am constantly mixing other records by artists from all over the world so check out my website to see what other releases that I am involved with are coming out: www.marcurselli.com
Thanks for all your patience and care Marc!
Thank you for the interview! Your magazine rocks!