As a Producer, Engineer, and Mixer, Brian Moncarz has worked with numerous rock acts as well as established producers, such as Bob Ezrin (Kiss, Jane’s Addiction, Pink Floyd) and David Bottrill (Grammy award winning Producer). Brian and I have had many discussions about music and where we can get our latest rock music fix. For this particular chat, I wanted to get Brian’s take on the business side of going into the studio. And what bands need to know when approaching him.
Kim: For 15 years, you’ve been working with a lot of artists and producers. You’ve owned your own studio, Rattlebox North. You’ve worked with mostly rock acts, such as Circa Survive, Jimmy Bowskill, Neverending White Lights, Stone Iris, Moneen, Sumo Cyco, Poor Young Things, Ian Moore, TimeGiant, The Junction, Yukon Blonde, and Bleeker Ridge, Last Bullet, and Our Lady Peace to name a few. You started producing with David Bottrill when you partnered with him Rattlebox Studios, correct? How did that collaboration come about?
Brian: When I was working with The Junction in 2004, they were being courted by Universal and EMI. I was at the Juno Awards in Winnipeg at a party, talking to the head of A+R at EMI and he introduced me to Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Jane’s Addiction, and Kiss). Bob and I got to talking, met up for coffee the next time we were both in Toronto and became friends. Eventually he became my mentor. When he moved to Miami, he introduced me to David Bottrill. I think Bob felt David could help me expand my skill set. And he was totally right. Dave and I got along really well; he’s a super nice guy. Our personalities mesh perfectly. We had a good stretch of projects together.
Kim: Any interesting projects that stood out while working with Dave you’d like to share?
Brian: Not to single anyone out, but, there 2 big projects that stand out:
Moneen; it was the first big project we did in the studio that we had just opened. Dave was out in L.A. working so he wore more the Executive Producer hat, while the band and I worked away in the studio for a couple of months. Dave returned to help track vocals and mix. It was the first time either of us had co-produced, and it really worked out great.
That led to Circa Survive, which I engineered, and Dave Produced. We had them in our studio for almost 3 months. They were incredible to work with and extremely talented. They were signed to Atlantic Records at the time, which afforded them the opportunity to spend three months in the studio. We really had the ability to shape sounds and focus on perfecting tones without rushing. It was a highly creative time and I feel it shows when you listen to Blue Sky Noise. More than 5 years have passed and I still get calls from people about that one, saying “I love that album. Would you work with us?”
Kim: Let’s talk about the recording process. Let’s clarify for those that aren’t as studio savvy as yourself, what the main steps are and what people can expect from you as the Producer.
Brian: I Produce, Engineer, and Mix. If I get hired as a Producer, we start out with Pre-Production.
I like to leave a fair amount of time for this. We do a 4-6 hours session per song. I’ll work with the artist in a rehearsal space or my studio. Essentially we craft the songs and demo them as well. It’s really where the songs take shape.
Bands will come to me with great songs, but, I like to dissect them, pull them apart and make them better. Sometimes its arrangement ideas and other times its re-writing sections. I love being incredibly prepared before I take a band into the studio. If the arrangements are locked before the studio, once we start recording it allows far more time to get sounds and great performances. Once I’m hired as a producer on a project, I like to leave a fair amount of time for preproduction. Normally, I ask bands to send me songs ahead of time so I know what I’m dealing with prior to walking into the first session. I’ll make notes, tell the band what I like, and don’t like. And what I think could make the song great.
The band and I will meet, preferably in my studio. Mostly because I built it and it really has a great overall vibe. (Rattlebox North in Vaughan, Ontario)
I like to allow 2 days per song for recording and production give or take. I don’t like for bands to feel pressured at all. I find the best work happens when bands are free of stress. My sessions are fun and highly creative. Having my own studio allows me the ability to work on a project until its finished without the band having to watch the clock. Bands really benefit from this. I also like to work consecutive days on a project. Momentum is key! I ask that bands take time off from work and/or other commitments to focus 100% of their energy in the studio. We usually work 12 hour days 5-6 days per week.
Kim: With bands coming into the studio, recording their material for the first time, what have you found initial reactions to be, do they need to be directed?
Brian: I find with most bands, Indie or otherwise, an artist is an artist. They’re vulnerable so to speak, they definitely put themselves out there. If you have a positive, trusting relationship, I find that I can really connect with the artist and push them to bring the best out of their time in the studio. It almost doesn’t’ matter if they haven’t been in the studio before. I’m still going to push them really hard. That’s why they hire me; I want to capture the best possible performance at all times.
The mixing process is going to enhance what we’ve accomplished in the production stage. I’m not going to derail from my original goal for the song. I usually spend one day per song and artists rarely attend the mixing session these days. I like to screw things up a little bit and get very creative with the sounds that we captured during the production. By the time we get to the mix, the bands fully trust what I’m going to do.
I don’t master, I never really have. When I’m hired to work with a band as a producer, mixer..that’s a lot of me. Mastering is like quality control. Whoever does this part, they’ll help bring out the best of what I’ve done. This usually takes about an hour a song.
Kim: Do you find Mastering is one of the most important parts, to have someone totally different do it?
Brian: My belief is that Mastering is a highly technical job. I think as far as any of the positions in the audio world they have to have highly trained ears, take a listen to the mix, enhance something that sounds really good already, or not quite up to par and they need to really go to work on it. And the best mastering engineers that are out there, that’s all they do is master day in and day out. I enjoy the producing, engineering, and mixing part and happy to send the final mix to a great mastering engineer.
Kim: Do you feel you’re missing out by not doing mastering part, would you like to do more of it?
Brian: Not at all. I like sending it out and I love hearing what’s been done when it comes back. And of course, I’m there every step of the way. It doesn’t get the green light until I’ve heard it. I’ll chat with the mastering engineer if we need to make changes.
Kim: Can you hear a song without a producer’s ear?
Brian: Not really. It’s really hard. Sometimes I can. But, I hear the layers of what’s going into it. It’s really hard after 15 years. It’s a little sad.
Kim: What is it about a band that initially draws you to them; the overall vibe, packaging of their website, or do you look past all that and just hear their music?
Brian: I like to work with bands that have great songs. I need to feel connected to the songs, right off the bat. I want great musicianship, that’s very important to me; bands that can really play their instruments. I’ve been fortunate to work with the bands that you mentioned earlier, they are all great musicians. Great vocals, not necessarily technically great, but, passionate, they push themselves. They don’t play it safe. As Canadians, we’re pretty polite. When I worked with Bob, he would say “You’re too polite. Make this sound crazy. Don’t play it safe.” A song doesn’t have to be completed before a band comes to me, they can have parts of a great song and I can help them finish it.
Kim: Having your own studio, you have the luxury of being able to make it available to other producers if they need it, correct?
Brian: I don’t really promote it much. I spent so much time putting it together, collecting gear. It’s a personal space. I’ve never really felt comfortable renting it out. It’s a neat space, I enjoy working there. There are a few people that I’ve worked with over the years that I trust and I like and we have a good relationship and I would say, here’s the key, use the space. It happens from time to time.
Kim: You recently posted about a working with Our Lady Peace. Can you tell us about that project?
Brian: Duncan, the bassist of OLP, I’ve known for a couple years. I did some work with Frankie White a few years ago. Duncan is working with her, developing her. He asked me to mix a single ahead of their tour. I don’t know how it happened, but he recommended me to the band. He asked me to send me some of my recent mixes to play for the band. I did, and the next day they said, “we’re a go”. I have to say it was one of the most interesting mixing projects of my career because the song is fantastic. I mean growing up as a fan of Our Lady Peace, it was exciting for me but, I was excited for them, because the song is good, very high energy. Raine sounds fantastic on it. The vocals are killing it on the track. Raine asked that the mix sound unique and ‘jump off the speakers’. I thought, wow, he really wants me to take a chance with this. As a mixer, it’s the best thing, and the worst thing. If I impose my will on it, but they don’t like my will, then I fail. I spent a long ass day at it. Duncan came to the studio at the end of the day. I think he was a little surprised by what he heard because it was so different from the tracks they’d sent as I really took Raine’s instructions to heart. I think it took him a few listens before he got it, and loved it. That was exciting to me because I’d really taken some chances sonically with this song and did things that were both unlike OLP, but, a lot like OLP. There were very few changes, they were happy with it. It was a great experience, because while I was in university, their music got me through some hard times, so it was cool to work with them all these years later.
Kim: Somewhat of a full circle moment by the sounds of it.
Brian: Yeah, I honestly can’t say enough great things about them. They were very nice to work with. It’s a cool song, it’s called “The Fix”.
Kim: Let’s get back to what bands are attempting to do to get to OLP status; being consistent with their social media pages. Do you pay attention to that? If they post an event, does that encourage you to go?
Brian: I think if you focus on only those things, you would limit yourself. If you find a band early on, they could have great songs that need to be recorded. After recording could get the word out about themselves, then possibly be ready to play shows and start promoting through social media.
Kim: How do you normally find out about bands?
Brian: Usually management companies recommend acts to me. It’s usually the Managers that are developing bands. For me, it’s very much a word of mouth kind of business. Hopefully the recordings will speak for themselves and bands say, “I need THAT guy because he’ll get what I need.” Plus I try to get out as much as possible to see bands. My manager is usually pushing me to go out. I go to different festivals like Indie Week. I happen to really like that festival because it’s smaller; they bring in really great, quality acts, usually rock, which I really like. I also go to CMW, SXSW in the U.S., which I’ve attended 5 years in a row now.
Kim: Are there any that have really caught your eye in the last 6 months?
Brian: Stone Iris was really great to work with.
Kim: They won Indie Week in 2014. Were you already designated to work with them?
Brian: No, not at all. I’d been talking to a manager/booking agent in Alberta, a woman named, Leanne, about working with her client Matt Blais, who I’ve done a couple of sessions with. I wasn’t able to make Stone Iris’ final performance, but, I heard they did great so I asked Leanne to put me in touch with them. Since they had won the competition, they gained industry attention. So we had a Skype meeting. I told them the next music you put out will be important because it’ll be first out to the gate since the Indie Week win. So the tracks will really have to kick ass. They’re awesome individuals, so you want to see the nice guys finish first. But they also work insanely hard.
The way the music industry is these days, bands not only have to develop themselves, musically, but they also have to develop their business sense, as well; develop the band as a business entity. I find bands spend a lot of time on social media. When I was growing up playing music, we didn’t have that. I’d come home from school and play my guitar all day. That‘s all I cared about doing. But, these days, bands have too many things they have to focus on. I think a lot of the musicianship gets lost. So Stone Iris, I found, worked really hard at their craft. The amount of growth they’ve achieved from the time I met them in January to now is insane.
Another artist that’s caught my attention is James Andrews. He wrote a rock opera, like “Tommy”. Two albums of songs, that runs into each other that break when you have to flip sides. He plays most of the instruments. It’s been and really interesting project.
Kim: Are there any acts that completely blew your mind, that stick with you to this day?
Brian: Moneen. Having come up in the scene about the same time they did. They came in to the studio with their beat to fuck road cases; guitars had chips out of them, amplifiers in the worst condition. They plugged in; it was the most magical thing. They’re so good. I get to make music for a living. I go to work every day doing what I love. There are some projects that are super magical, that was one of them. It was a good time. They were very creative and open. The CD release was at the Horseshoe, it was crazy. There were kids hanging off the rafters, it was crazy.
Another one was Bleeker Ridge. We had a lot of fun making that record “Four”. They had a set of circumstances that allowed them to make that record. They were on Road Runner. RR had shut down, closed their offices. Unfortunately, they were one of the acts that got dropped. They came in, had a great vibe. We chatted, hung out for few hours. They said all they wanted to do was make a record they could listen to. That to me was really neat. We brought in my buddy Jimmy Bowskills. He played slide guitar. We brought in the Riley sisters who are amazing backup singers. Taylor has one of the best voices in rock, good songwriter, and great vibe.
Kim: That album pushed them to that next level.
Brian: Yes. There were a couple of solid singles. They keep in touch, I’m happy seeing them doing well.
Kim: Who’s a dream artist you’d like to work with?
Brian: Anybody who knows me, it would be The Black Crowes. That band has great songwriting, great vocals, and great live act. I would like to work with TBC circa 1993, 1994. I just thought they were amazing.
Also, there was an artist I grew up loving, his name’s Ian Moore. He’s probably bigger in the U.S. than he ever was here. Being a blues guy, from Austin, Texas, he came up in the 90s. When I was playing in bands, I opened for Ian at the Horseshoe. So, we met briefly there. I met him again at SXSW and we started to chat. He’d been away from the blues guitar thing for a while, and he wanted to get back to it a little bit more so we started talking about doing a project together. I mean that was like a dream come true. I had been such a fan. It was amazing to work with him in the studio. He opened for Rolling Stones, on their Voodoo Lounge tour. He’s toured Dylan and ZZ Top. What amazed me about working with him in the studio were his vocals usually he would nail it in the first couple of takes.
Kim: I’ve known you for a few years now; you have a great vibe, every band’s buddy, really sociable, easy to get along with. There’s the other side, that once in the studio, it’s game on. I’ve heard that when you really feel strongly about how a band’s material can be optimized, you will push it, and hard. I think it surprises people sometimes.
Brian: I’m very goal oriented. When I set out to work with a band, I have certain goals in mind. When I worked with Last Bullet, my goal was that I wanted Bryan to sound better than he’s ever sounded on a recording. Even his vocal range, maybe it’s something they’ve shied away from on previous recordings, but I really, really felt that they needed to step up their game, vocally, on this new project. We did things like change the key of the song. He was really reaching, but to me, that’s what’s exciting. The vulnerability in trying to shoot for these big notes, maybe you don’t quite get there, maybe you do get there. But, the passion behind it, that’s what’s exciting. That’s exactly what a listener really enjoys, so I wanted that for Bryan. I wanted him to really go for it. And he stepped up and was able to do it. He did everything that I asked and more. I think he loved it and I really loved working with them for those reasons. Because I pushed them hard, and they pushed back, we ended up with some great songs.
Kim: What’s the best way for artists to get your attention?
Brian: Send me a link to the music through Soundcloud or even iphone demos. If it’s not great, I’m a producer, I can see through all that stuff. Also, I find sometimes that the song they think is their best sometimes isn’t. So I tell them to send me everything. Oddly enough, the song they thought I wouldn’t want to hear ends up being the best hey have.
Kim: In talking to some bands, I get the impression that they don’t really see producers as social or approachable. Some have even said they found producers to be intimidating. I know some have said they don’t feel right contacting a producer until they are ready to hit the studio.
Brian: I find unless you meet with me, you won’t really know. I’m a sociable person. Plus, I find that bands are several months away from recording when they do contact me.
Kim: If it doesn’t work out to work with you, whether it’s about a band’s budget or scheduling, do you have associates you feel confident referring them to?
Brian: That doesn’t happen often, but, I would recommend my assistant Mike Monson. He helps me in the studio and does a lot of my editing. I’ve trained him and I know he does a great job. He helped me put the studio together; he was there every day when I built it. He started as my intern nearly 5 years ago.
Kim: If there were up and coming producers that wanted to be mentored by you, are you open to that?
Brian: Yeah, I’ve done that. My studio is not large so to have someone come in as a fly on the wall is a little much. But, I’ve done things like critique people’s mixes, give notes, or they’ll pick my brain from time to time. I’d love to do more of it, I love teaching. I actually teach a bit at Ryerson, audio workshops, music production and mixing. I’ve been so fortunate in my career having been taught by Bob and Dave that it’s my duty to give back. It’s difficult to take on interns because I travel, too.
Sometimes projects dictate what I need to have help in place. Acres of Lions had only 3 weeks to get their project done, right before Christmas. I knew I was going to have to work around the clock to get it done. So I brought in some students to help out, had them working in shifts. If I can bring people in, I will. I’ve had some amazing interns over the years.
Kim: Artists don’t have the same objectivity about their music as a producer does. From a music perspective, do you find you sometimes have to pry them away from the process as a whole, to get it out there, promoting?
Brian: It’s called “demo-itis”. They’ve worked on these songs for a long time. They are married to the song and resistant to change.
Kim: In your opinion, what makes the difference between the processes of being in the studio vs. performing at a live show?
Brian: The live show could be one step away from being a train wreck, but, the band holds it together. Every great band… Guns ‘n ‘Roses, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Hendrix. When they’re in the zone, they are a step away from the train wreck, but somehow they unite the ship back together and kill it. Rock lives in those moments. That mess some bands have all comes together. When you hear early recordings of Guns ‘n’ Roses during live at The Ritz, definitely living on the edge and the excitement is there. Because you know the artist is leaving everything on the stage.
Kim: What’s next for you?
Brian: More songs with Stone Iris, as well as writing some songs with Taylor and Cole from Bleeker Ridge.
Kim: You’re writing these songs? Is this a new project for you?
Brian: I turned 40 this year. I started the studio 15 years ago. It was a big milestone for me. I’ve written and recorded various riffs and song ideas over the years, but never finished them. I figured there was no better time than the present! I have a great respect for Taylor and Cole from Bleeker Ridge, I absolutely love Taylor’s voice and I figured I’d bounce my riffs and ideas off of them. We started writing batches of songs, we’ve been chipping away, when our schedules allow, over the past 9 months. After demoing a couple of the songs, I sent them to Duncan Coutts (OLP Bassist) and he had some cool arrangement ideas and wanted to get involved. Last week I brought in my friend, and favorite drummer Sekou Lumumba (Thornley, Serena Ryder) and we started bringing the tracks to life. I’m hoping to finish the two tracks in the near future. For all of us involved it’s really a great opportunity to be extremely creative in the studio, really experiment with sounds and textures. I’m having a blast making music with friends, and we’re taking an ‘everything and anything goes approach’ to the music. It sounds like a healthy mix of The Black Keys and Awolnation.
Kim: I look forward to doing a follow up with you on that! Thank you so much for chatting with me!
Brian: No problem!