Interview with Howard Bilerman

For over 10 years now, Howard Bilerman, has carved out niche for himself as the uber-recordist of choice for Montreal’s burgeoning punk, indie, and avante-experimental scene’s. Although he has been referred to as Montreal’s “Steve Albini,” he is far from the often cantankerous and outspoken producer/engineer, and he is known more for his humility, charm, and reliability. Like, Albini, Bilerman’s steadfast approach in generating warmth and purity in the studio – as well as a reverence and respect for creating art, not product, in the studio – is unparalleled in Montreal.

Aside from his talents for making bands sound their best, Bilerman is also a drummer – having played on the new Arcade Fire album due out this September on Merge. He is also a working actor, having appeared in many local commercials as well as small parts in major Hollywood films shot in and around Montreal. I caught up with Bilerman as he prepared to record the second Black Ox Orkestar record for the Constellation label.

Delusions of Adequacy: Who exactly is involved with the Hotel2Tango, and how did you all come together?

Howard Bilerman: The Hotel2Tango (www.hotel2tango.com) is Efrim (Godspeed, A Silver Mt.Zion), Thierry (Godspeed, A Silver Mt.Zion, Black Ox Orkestar), and myself. I ran a studio called Mom and Pop Sounds in old Montreal between 1996 and 2000. Around the time I was looking to move, Efrim and Thierry were thinking about buying some more gear for their 8-track studio up at the hotel, so we came up with the idea of putting all our equipment together, buying a 24 track, and building some walls.

DOA: The bands you first started recording tended to be in a more indie guitar or punk-rock vein. Recently, however, you’ve been working with bands with a much wider range of subtlety and dynamic stretch. What are some of the things you had to learn, re-orient yourself to or approach differently?

HB: I think that around seven years ago I started looking at the room – the sound of the room – as an equally important instrument in the equation. When I started recording in 1993, most everyone around Montreal wanted to sound like the Smashing Pumpkins or Rocket from the Crypt. The music was very drum and guitar heavy … very loud and in your face. When I started working with bands like Molasses, Sackville, and Quinimine, the music was less dense; the arrangements lent themselves to using more room sound. I was also listening to a lot of country and bluegrass around that time. So, I don’t know that I had to learn anything new per se when Sackville walked in the door, as much as I learnt stuff from those sessions that I’m still using today.

DOA: One of biggest projects you’ve worked on recently was mixing Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s last opus Yanqui U.X.O., which must have been a formidable task. How do you approach mixing seemingly epic-length songs (some that are 20 minutes), and what were the biggest challenges involved?

HB: All of the songs on Yanqui U.X.O. were broken down into two or three parts based on their dynamic content and mixed in little six- or seven-minute chunks. Then we spliced together the tape to make “the song.” I think this was the only way we could have done the mixes. It also allowed us to really focus on the parts at hand and not feel intimidated by mixing a 22-minute song from top to bottom. If you listen closely in headphones, you can hear at least one of the tape splices. As far as the challenges involved…well, you can imagine the challenge in doing a mix that satisfies nine people. I think secretly every mixing engineer hopes to play a mix for the band, and have them go “great, let’s print it!”…this is rarely the case. As far as the GYBE mixing went, there was the usual amount of discussion about what should be louder…only the mixes were already pretty dense, so making anything louder was a bit more difficult than your standard four-piece.

DOA: How did working with Thalia Zedek come about?

HB: Thalia came up to record some parts on the Molasses Slow Messe album. That’s when we met. She felt really comfortable in the studio, and David Michael Curry (her viola player) planted the seed that she should record her next record up here. Two years later, she e-mailed me and asked me how I felt about that idea. Of course I was thrilled. Normally I record people’s first or second record. It was such an honor to work with someone with that much experience in the studio. It made me work that much harder. I’m a firm believer that a record only sounds as good as the players on it, and all of those guys are so easy to record on that level. It’s funny though, because they recorded their last few records with the help of a computer, and I think while everyone was really happy with the sound of the records I had done, they were all a little freaked out by the lack of editing at their disposal, given the short amount of time we had to make the record. I think this ended up being quite a good thing… It made everyone really present and focused during tracking. I think people get lazy tracking into a computer.

DOA: One of the most striking things about Thalia Zedek’s new record was the absence of bass. Upon first listen, it reminded me of what the Dirty Three might sound like if they played stripped-down blues, with a female singer. Whose idea was it to forego bass guitar, and what was the thinking process or idea behind this move?

HB: You know, I never questioned that. Thalia had been playing around as a trio (guitar, drums, and viola), and that’s what she came in to document. On my end, I thought it was great because nothing was masking or competing with her guitar.

DOA: Recording Black Ox Orkestar’s neo-klezmer sound must’ve been unlike anything you’ve recorded before. Given the band’s obvious respect, care, and reverence for keeping this music intact, I was wondering how you prepared for the recording, and if you did any research?

HB: You know, most klezmer recordings sound like crap because the people recording them don’t realize that it’s essentially punk rock…they treat it all precious like. But really, it’s music with a very rebellious spirit. It’s music that is made with the same instruments as classical music, and it’s very tempting as an engineer to make it pretty, which I think, is a mistake.

DOA: With the rise of computer home recording gear, it’s become much easier to bring a certain quality of recording to the DIY ethic, which has, up until recently, been lacking. What are your thoughts on the advent of computer recording…hindrance or help?

HB: Every once in a while someone brings in something that was recorded on computer somewhere else just to run through the board to tape, and without fail it sounds flat – two dimensional. Once we get rid of all the plug-ins and replace them with real boxes, it starts to sound like music again. This has never been a problem recording to tape, so I have yet to feel any urge to buy a computer to record music with. I see the benefits of editing and all, but they have a huge downside. Computers make people non-committal in the tracking stage, and it makes mixing hell. It doesn’t actually save time in the end; in fact, it creates more work. You end up with an ungodly amount of tracks with the intention of weeding through them to extract the half of the stuff you are going to use. I like having 24-tracks, that’s more than enough to make a record with and it makes a musician focus on the end result right from the beginning. I don’t buy into this whole “the sky’s the limit” mentality of computer recording.

DOA: Your role is traditionally that of engineer, but I was wondering if and when you’ve had more of an active “producer-like” role. Who was that with and what were the circumstances?

HB: I read some interview with someone where they said, ‘I’ll charge you $50 an hour to record your record, or $100 an hour to record your record and tell you what I think,’ and I thought it was such bullshit. I’m uncomfortable with the term producer because of the connotations the word has amassed over the years. Basically, he’s the guy who makes sure the record company is getting what they are paying for. I capture bands on tape and help them achieve what they hear in their heads. I have often considered myself a musical mid-wife. I’m there to help deliver the baby and make the process as comfortable and healthy as possible. I’ll always offer my two cents if I hear someone struggling with something, or if I strongly feel that something could be “improved” upon. Most of the time these are small adjustments. It’s different for every session…sometimes I’m just a button-pusher because that’s all the session needs. Other times I’ll help with arrangements. Once in a while I’ll play band therapist, and on occasion, baby-sitter. Those days are less fun.

DOA: What one project stands out for you as a real learning experience that you were able to apply to subsequent recordings?

HB: I’m trying to take this approach that I should be learning something from every session I’m doing no matter how similar it is to others that I have done. It makes the work more fun. I love to learn – this kinda stuff at least. I have worked on over 150 sessions, and the tendency is to become automatic after a while…another day at the office kinda thing….put these mics on the drums, this mic on the bass, these on the guitars. So it’s been really important for me to break those patterns. Again, I don’t like to experiment, when someone has come to me because they like what I have done in the past, but I do like to keep things fresh and interesting. Usually that means playing with mic selection and placement. I have a strict rule for myself: I like for a band to start hearing stuff back no later than an hour from when they walk in the door. This means if drums are being set up at 6 pm, I want to be playing back the tape by 7 pm. If set-up is too long, I feel it ruins the momentum of the session, and people start getting too comfortable on the couch. This schedule does not permit much deviation from a standard way of tracking. I think that it’s taken over a decade of recording bands to get to this place of having everyone be pretty happy with the way things are sounding pretty quickly. Still, for my own growth, I’ll generally try something “different” within those confines.

DOA: On a final, fun note; can you think of an album – not recorded by you – that you would love to go back and re-record. If so which album and why?

HB: I’d love to have recorded any of the Leonard Cohen albums after Death af a Ladies Man, just to get rid of the digital reverb and all that midi stuff. It’s a dream to record him actually. In fact, I sent a few letters to his “people” ‘cause I think that having him come back to Montreal to record with some of the A Silver Mt. Zion and Molasses folks at the hotel would be stunning. Can you imagine? It bums me out that somewhere in a box in Leonard’s office in Los Angeles there are a bunch of Constellation records (Montreal-based label home to Godspeed, A Silver Mt.Zion, Hanged Up, etc…) that he probably will never listen to, but I still feel strongly like it would be a beautiful, interesting and inspiring match.