SLSY January 21, 2020

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Hell Folk amongst Friends: An interview with John Agnello

Interview by Moshe Levy for

Throughout The last few years, producer John Agnello was busy manning the board for some great albums by artists such as Son Volt, The Hold Steady, The Kills, Drive-By Truckers, Witch, Andrew W.K. and of course Sonic Youth's Rather Ripped. Last spring Agnello was invited by Thurston Moore to co-produce Trees Outside The Academy. We caught John in Jersey City to talk about the amazing results of his work with Thurston.

John Agnello

Meeting the Youth

Q: How did you come to meet Sonic Youth?

A: I met them years ago. I was working on a Screaming Trees record with their friend, Don Fleming. They were working on "Dirty" with Butch Vig. They were working down the street from us and they visited. Years later, J from Dinosaur recommended me to work on Rather Ripped. He felt like I would be a good fit with them. I'm glad he felt that way.

Q: From the long list of albums you worked on what were those who made Sonic Youth choose you to produce Rather Ripped?

A: I think they knew me from the 90's and from the Dino records. Also, Thurston and Kim said they really like the "Witch" record I did. That's a J side project that we recorded and mixed at J's house. Bisquiteen Studios. My favorite studio in the world. And in my favorite studio in the world is my favorite studio manager, J's wife Luisa!!!!!!!!!!!

Q: Is it terrifying to work with such icons? Did you approach your work with them in a different way than your work with younger bands?

A: The first days were a little stressful. These guys are my heroes. I know J for 15 years and I'm totally comfortable around him. I can totally act like an idiot or bust his chops and not worry about it. After a few days, the Sonics and I started feeling really comfortable around each other. Actually, it's more like they were totally engaging and made me feel part of the team really quick. I love them. They have been nothing but super nice since I've known them.

Q: Did you feel that the band needed your technical skills to replace Jim O'Rourke input?

A: Never felt anything about Jim. Jim is Jim. I'm not gonna be a band member. He's a pretty awesome and talented dude. I love those records he did with them. I figured, instead of worrying about him, I would just be me. I just wanted to get in there and make the record sound really good and throw input in when needed and be the missing ingredient.

Q: Due to the band experience did you feel at any point that it hard to convince them to take different decisions than they used to?

A: Actually just the opposite. I did some crazy mixes of songs and they had to rein them in. They wanted the record really pure. They wanted the record to sound live and they wanted to be able to do shows and have the shows sound like the record. Isn't that awesome? That's why they are Sonic Youth. Vision. I loved it. I would just say, "Okay, let me print my mix and we can use it as a b side!" and then we'd do the mix for the record.

Q: Rather Ripped was very song structured oriented. What was your role in that choice?

A: They came to me with the great songs. I was really happy that this was the body of work we were dealing with.

Trees Outside The Academy

Q: Thurston voice sounds very warm and intimate on TOTA. Did you plan to convey that feeling to the listeners?

A: I wanted Thurston's voice front and center. The instrumentation lent itself to that premise. I have an old vintage tube microphone from the 50's that I knew would be perfect for him. Actually, it's a microphone that my brother owns. It's on loan and he loves me using it, especially with Thurston! Anyway, laying that vocal sound over the music was the right thing to do. I love his vocal style, the sound of his voice and his performances. I definitely wanted that on top of the record.

Q: What was your role in the decision to use a violin in the recording? Did you consider using another guitar instead?

A: From the beginning, Thurston, Samara and Steve were the power trio. The question was what would be added after. We addressed it song by song. But we always wanted the foundation to be the power trio of "hell folk."

Q: It ended sounding great but weren't you afraid the strings might sound too corny?

A: During the mix, we took some elements out when we needed to. If you would have seen the live shows, you would know what the essence of the record was. That's why seeing him play at SXSW was really fun for me. I really knew how cool it would be going into the record.

Q: The album incorporates small sections of noise. Were they added to balance the folky and harmonious nature of the album?

A: Same thing. We added touches of different elements when we needed them. It was very natural. When we had a moment to put the noise stuff in, it was apparent that they should be there! I repeat, all that stuff was very naturally placed. The songs asked us to do it.

Q: The promotional video for this release shows you and Thurston on a very relaxed and friendly home environment. Did that affect the way the record sounds?

A: Imagine working in a very good friends house with people you really like. We had awesome dinners where it was like 1989 all over again. Thurston told great early Dino stories and we all laughed a lot. I was staying at J's house, in the "Agnello room." It was a great experience. The reason it looks so relaxed is because it was. Thurston would get J to come and lay guitar tracks when he wanted a break. J would literally come up the stairs playing a guitar and not even listen to the song before recording. It was an amazing time.

Q: Do you thing it would sound any different if it was recorded in a hi-tech studio?

A: Buisquiteen is fairly hi tech. It's just in his house. He's got better gear than a lot of studios I work in. And the 10:00 curfew is perfect for keeping it fresh. Although I did keep him up one night really late. My bad. I've worked there a bunch and I'm coming back up there soon. And if it was in a hi tech commercial studio, it wouldn't have that vibe.

Future Plans

Q: You just recorded with Sonic Youth a cover to a Dylan song. What can you tell us about it?

A: It was pretty wild. All I can really say is that they took a half finished Dylan song and made it magical. Granted, it was magical to begin with, but they made it a complete song. We worked for 16 hours and at the end I was blown away. I wish people could have seen how they worked the song up. A perfect scenario for a "Making Of".

Q: Are there any plans to work again with Sonic Youth any time soon?

A: Not that I know of, but when they call, I will be there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Trees Outside The Academy will be released by Ecstatic Peace on September 18th.

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