“Yeah, it’s great. I can’t even book time in my own studio!”
Larry Crane’s apparent frustration is really more of a humble brag—and he’s entitled to it. He’s happily complaining about the fact that Jackpot! Recording Studio, the Portland recording operation he began with the late Elliott Smith in 1997 and setting for this interview, is often too busy for some of the bands and projects he wants to work with personally. No problem, though. He just takes his business to another local studio, like Type Foundry or Flora.
“We help each other out all the time. We’re not really competitive about jobs,” Crane says about the abundance of viable recording studios in Portland. “There are a lot of great studios here and I know a lot of people who make a living recording music in this town. And it’s great that we’re all pretty busy.”
For the last three decades or so, the amiable studio boss, magazine editor, archivist, producer and bassist—with Chico, Calif., rock legends Vomit Launch, among others—has earned renown and respect for a substantial body of work, mostly derived from being the go-to host and recording engineer for the likes of Smith, The Decemberists, Richmond Fontaine, The Go-Betweens, Sleater-Kinney, She & Him and oodles of other influential icons of the indie rock variety hailing from near and far.
Crane’s high-profile connections are mighty and vast. During a typical conversation he manages, in his cheerful, oh-by-the-way manner, to reveal that he recently returned from a product launch. In London. At the studio of Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler. Or that he went out for Belgian beers with Jolie Holland. Or that he was just emailing with David Bowie producer Tony Visconti.
No doubt about it, the man has clout. Crane’s 18-year-old magazine Tape Op, which began its life as a Xeroxed, spray painted, hand-stapled zine, is now the most widely read periodical in the recording industry with a circulation of 45,000 print and 75,000 digital.
“It’s possible I have every issue of Tape Op ever published,” notes Sean Flora, a Portland musician and the owner of Sauvie Island recording studio The Rock ‘n’ Roll B&B. “I started reading it when I worked at White Horse Studio and it showed up in its photocopied, stapled form. I loved it.”
But even with a Rolodex of famous friends, industry reverence and a ridiculous number of job titles attached to his name, Crane describes himself, first and foremost, as a music fan. “I didn’t start out to be a musician as a musician. And I didn’t start out to be a recording engineer as a recording engineer,” he insists. “This all started because I’m a massive fan of music.”
Crane first made radar contact with the Northwest in the latter part of the 1980s and early ’90s as the bassist for Vomit Launch, a colorful indie band that everyone assumed—thanks to the outrageous name—was a scary punk outfit that drank copious amounts of alcohol. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. Instead, the band produced several albums of sprightly college radio, art-school pop that are well worth your time to track down and spin.
“Well, we had a terrible name,” Crane laughs, something he does heartily and often. “We knew no label would sign us, so we just put out our own albums. Some bands make demo tapes—we just made records.”
Always prepared for a teachable moment, he advises young bands to do the same thing. “Why make demo tapes?” Crane wonders. “Demo tapes for who? All you need to do now is throw up a YouTube video of your band and the booking guy at the club can see you know how to play.”
Indeed, this offhand tip illustrates one of the key reasons Crane is sought after by musicians of every stripe. The man is an overflowing vessel of wisdom and experience, which he brings to each recording project. He’s seen his share of sweet and sour in a business that he’s largely built with his own two hands—and ears.
Just a few hours before this interview took place, Crane wrapped a session with Portland up-and-comers Summer Cannibals, a band he describes in glowing terms. “Their songs are super short and really catchy,” he enthuses. “Fun band—really good.”
And true to form, Crane also took the opportunity to school the young musicians on influential bands that they may want to investigate for their own edification. “Jessica [Boudreaux, singer and guitarist] writes really garage-y songs, so I started talking to her about The Who, The Creation and The Action, and she has no idea what I’m talking about. It’s fun to be able to turn people on to music, and then they might trust you more because they realize you’re nuts about music, and not just a knob-twiddler dweeb.”
One gets the impression when speaking to Crane, at any length, that shooting the shit with other musicians about bands and juicy tidbits of rock history is one of the prominent perks of his job. “Oh yeah,” he agrees. “I learn a lot from my clients too.”
As the subject turns to his illustrious clientele, we embark on a lengthy discussion of some of Crane’s favorite artists that he’s worked with—in no particular order.
Portland alt-country band—1995 to present—fronted by novelist Willy Vlautin and inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2013
“I miss those boys. I’ve worked with them off and on since their second record—and I did that record for basically nothing because I love that band so much. I feel like they’re my brothers. And now Willy [singer and guitarist] is a successful author! It brings tears to my eyes because he deserves it. He’s really worked hard.
“Making records with them is cool ’cause the songs are so great, such incredible, visual stories. And Willy has backstories about all the characters in the songs that go much deeper. Some artists write songs that are open to interpretation, but Willy’s songs are snapshots. They’re very specific.
“During the recording [of Post To Wire in 2003—below], they came to my house and did all the stripping, wallpaper and floor refinishing in exchange for their studio bill. Sean Oldham, the drummer, is an amazing house renovator. And of course, Willy and [James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of several restaurants] Andy Ricker were house painters back in the day. And I’m the shitty bass player who records bands.” Another humble brag.
Portland band led by history buff and Montana transplant Colin Meloy that has achieved worldwide fame and a No. 1 album
“The first time I heard The Decemberists was in the studio for their second album [Her Majesty The Decemberists in 2003]. I looked at Colin and said, ‘Journalists are going to find this really easy to write about. You have one major hurdle accomplished. There’s interesting material, and you can peg it in a certain way without having to resort to post-grunge—blah, blah, blah.’
“Colin is a huge Robyn Hitchcock fan—and so am I. And Colin isn’t mimicking Robyn Hitchcock by any means. But that sense of individuality? And that kind of nasal delivery? I said, ‘Of course!’ And it was good that we had that commonality.
“That record was such a treat—we didn’t have a lot of time because of budgets, but I really felt like I was hitting a personal stride as an engineer. That song ‘The Bachelor and the Bride’ on there, I really went crazy with a compressor on the drums—I distorted and smashed the drum mics to tape. If you listen to it, it gets crazy and explosive. To my mind, it really made the track happen. There were bits and pieces on there where I really felt like I was finding my feet as a producer. I’m really proud of that record. I think it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on.”
Portland avant-rock band formed in 1993 by then husband and wife Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss who play pretty much all the instruments between themselves
“The reality of recording rock bands, a lot of times, it’s very conservative. Sometimes it’s fun to make everything sound trashy and crazy, like a Jon Spencer record. I can totally appreciate that. There was one Quasi song where we ran all the instruments through guitar amps and re-mic’d them up again after recording them cleanly—and made it sound terrible. And I kept going, ‘No, no, we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t.’ And Sam and Janet kept going, ‘Yes, yes! You must!’ We ended up distorting everything! The drums were going through my bass amp… and it sounded awesome! They’re certainly sonically adventurous, in a completely awesome way.
“When someone’s doing something good, people recognize it. Back in the ’90s when we’d go see Quasi, every single person in the room was a musician. There was nobody there that wasn’t involved in local music. Everyone knew. ‘This is amazing. You’ve got to check this out!’ I remember opening for Quasi at the Crystal Ballroom one time—and it was a sold-out show. Of course it’s sold out… entertaining, great songs, showmanship, it’s fascinating. And Sam humps his organ every night!”
Originally from Olympia, Wash., the punk-inspired, all-woman trio became champions of the Riot Grrrl movement and relocated to Portland in 2000
“I worked on All Hands on the Bad One (2000) and One Beat (2002—listen to the title track below). Those sessions were so cool. That’s a band with three different personalities. It’s not a band that’s formed around one artist and a singular vision. You can tell, like on those songs with two different lyric lines. And Carrie [Brownstein] plays these cool fucking guitar parts. We were mixing One Beat and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam was hanging out with us, ’cause he’s a friend of John Goodmanson, the producer... and Mike is a dude’s dude. He’s like the guy you knew in high school who was maybe going to be on the football team—or play music.
“And Mike’s like, ‘Man! Shit! Listen to Carrie’s guitar! How does she write this stuff?’ It’s so funny! I mean, here’s this guy who’s in a massively successful band—and he’s in awe. Lead guitar playing is such a male-dominated field, and here’s a guy that’s in that camp, and he’s listening to this woman knocking out these fantastic parts. That’s one of my favorite things about music: sex and race and stuff just goes right out the fucking window. Whatever you get on tape—that’s all anyone’s going to care about.”
Highly influential Australian pop band led by singer-songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, 1977-2006
“Oh man, their comeback album, The Friends of Rachel Worth (2000), that album came about because I was doing a Tape Op article about the history of The Go-Betweens recording sessions. This was at the Crocodile in Seattle, and Robert [Forster, one of the band’s two singer-songwriters along with the late Grant McLennan] asks me, ‘What else do you do?’ And I told him I record bands and that I was just finishing up the new Sleater-Kinney record. And he says, ‘I love Sleater-Kinney!’ A couple nights later they’re playing San Francisco, and Sleater-Kinney was at the show and they all meet and Janet [Weiss, SK’s drummer] is like, ‘I’ll play drums for you guys! Let’s record at Larry’s!’ And it just came together really fast.
“That was such an amazing experience. The Go-Betweens are one of my favorite bands in the world, and to be in the studio with them was beautiful. One of the best things was going out to Chopsticks and doing karaoke with them. One night we brought Elliott Smith along, and Grant got up and sang “Daydream Believer” while sitting on a stool at Chopsticks. Beautifully. Without looking at the prompter at all. So good!”
Hugely popular Portland singer-songwriter and member of the band Heatmiser who died of reportedly self-inflicted stab wounds in 2003
“He recorded ‘Miss Misery’ [nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1997] at Jackpot! I never met Gus Van Sant until last year, when we did the [Elliott Smith] tribute show at the Doug Fir. He’s a super nice guy, I’ll tell you that.
“But anyway, I formed a little combo with [drummer] Paulie Pulvirenti and [pedal steel guitarist] Paul Brainard and we backed Jolie Holland on a couple of tunes at the tribute show, and then I got up with Gus and we told the story of ‘Miss Misery.’ The thing is, an Oscar-nominated song has to be written specifically for the movie it appears in. And there was no way that this was the case with ‘Miss Misery.’ It was written and recorded before anyone had even heard of the movie [Good Will Hunting]. Elliott was playing it one day, and I recorded it, just as an instrumental. It was going to be a demo for XO, I think. Then he went off on tour or something—he was always really busy—and when he came back he said, ‘Put that one thing on.’ And he sang over it. A few days later, I came into the studio and he said, ‘Oh, Gus Van Sant was here. You just missed him.’”
Popular indie rock band from New Mexico that relocated to Portland in 2003; the only consistent member is singer-songwriter James Mercer
“This is another movie tie-in. I don’t know if anyone has seen it, but there’s a SpongeBob SquarePants movie. And there’s a Shins song [‘They’ll Soon Discover’—below] in the The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. James Mercer recorded it and I mixed it for him at the old Jackpot! studio one day—really fast. That is the sum total of my involvement with The Shins, other than being a huge fan.”
Though our conversation is ostensibly about the world-famous musicians he’s worked with, the talk never strays far from Portland, the city that Crane moved to in 1993, moved away from in 2007, and came back to in 2011. It was the last move, he says, that helped him “reset” his attitude about music and recording after more than a decade of being in it up to his eyebrows.
“In the recording business, the first 10 years are really tough,” Crane explains. “It’s possible to become really negative about the business, the quality of musicians... for me, in the end, I reset and came back to Portland with a different attitude. I wanted to be positive and creative in the studio and really focused on listening hard to what the musicians are trying to do. I taught myself how to do that.
“I’ve heard horror stories about younger engineers who are texting or doing other stuff during sessions,” he continues. “I’ve taught myself to never give a hint of being disengaged in the studio. I might write down the structure of the song as they go through it. If they see that you’re really paying attention, they’re going to be way more responsive to listening to you. And you’ll have a more interesting job because you’ll be involved.
“I think I used to be more negative,” Crane laughs. “I was crabbier. Now I just want it to be a fun, awesome thing. And I have a lot of repeat clients, so it must be working.”