Record engineer John Siket has been a part of the NYC music scene for over 30 years. Growing up, he lamented his inability to play music, stressing over trying to play Pink Floyd riffs. He discovered his talent for recording sounds in 1983 when his pizza-boy salary earned him enough money to buy a $250 Moog synthesizer at RadioShack and instantly fell in love with sound manipulation.
Siket is a quintessential NYC underground producer, having worked with some of the city’s most infamous bands like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Blonde Redhead. He’s also worked with mainstream bands and doesn’t see one style of music being better than the other. He is just as excited about his work with big-selling bands like Phish or Fountains of Wayne as he is with the likes of the Replacements and Helmet.
His work with radio-ready bands may alienate people whose lives were changed the first time they heard Yo la Tengo, but Siket has always used his good fortunes to help out the little guys.
His most recent work for the little guys is with Ex-Cops, whose “True Hallucinations” he engineered. I recently spoke with him in his midtown studio (where he seems to work, eat, and sleep) about his career, what he sees as a “renaissance” in Brooklyn’s music scene, why he wants in on it, and why it is sometimes imperative to make a Pokemon album to help out the little guy.
VICE: How did you come into contact with Butch Vig, and how did he help and change your career?
John Siket: I was working in a studio in Hoboken for a few years called Water Music. Back then, Hoboken was like a dark cartoon. It was just some place in New Jersey. A lot of producers would come from New York, and they knew stuff that would just blow our minds.
At that point, I knew I had to go to Manhattan, I got a job on 45th Street at a studio called Sound on Sound. It was an elite studio. I didn’t have seniority, but I had more recording experience than most guys there because I worked with Yo la Tengo and a lot of indie bands in Hoboken. The manager of the studio had a sense that I knew what I was doing.
One day in 1992, I saw on the calendar that Butch Vig and Andy Wallace with Sonic Youth were booked for this studio.
Were you a fan of Sonic Youth?
Yes, more than that, I just knew that these were the hottest producers in the country. Nirvana had just come out, and Butch had been working with the Smashing Pumpkins.
Meanwhile, I was working with a band called Cell. Their drummer played the rough mixes for Butch and Sonic Youth, and Thurston [of Sonic Youth] and Butch were impressed. I couldn’t believe that I had done something Butch was into.
Andy Wallace also had some buzz for the first Helmet record.
I loved Helmet as a kid.
Of course! That sound “DU NUH DU NUH!” That shit was insane to me!
Was that when it clicked that you could make a decent living out of this?
Not only that, there was an excitement in the music industry. Pearl Jam came by the studio, the Beasties Boys, Soundgarden, and all of these bands started to come merely because Sonic Youth was at our studio.
It was like the old metal gods had died, and grunge was coming. It was hip and it was good-looking and the chicks liked it and the bands had something to say. It was a brief period when the underground had become the mainstream. That Cell record, which was done on a modest budget, got signed to Geffen. It was like bang, I was an indie producer turned mainstream.
So the Cell record lead to you working directly with Sonic Youth?
And the Freedy Johnston album, Butch Vig really liked that as well. He asked me to work with him on Sonic Youth’s Dirty.
I love that record.
Great record, isn’t it? But that was my in. I just was recording the right records at the right studio. All these things happened and transitioned me from a guy doing small indie stuff, to hitting big time.
You’ve produced major label and indie records, but do you adhere to one more than the other?
No, I mean I just get into peoples’ songs too much. I hone in on lyrics and try to decipher what the songwriter is trying to say. I use the lyrics as a vehicle to make the song as I hear it in my head.
So you’re saying you use the lyrics and try and create a soundtrack?
Right. Like with Ex-Cops. They had a lot of the trappings that Sonic Youth had back in the day. Those droney guitars.
Lots of feedback…
I saw where their influences were coming from, and it felt familiar. I conjure an image. The fancy word is called “the virtual soundstage." You have to create an atmosphere. But I always start with the lyrics and the tone of the voice that’s singing them. When I’m mixing something, I’m thinking of some crazy shit and trying to project it onto the speakers.
Steve Albini willingly does records by bands he doesn’t like to have money for the bands he does like. Does this hold true for you at all?
I’m so into music that I probably hurt myself in some respects by charging less than I should. I don’t consider it a job, it’s more of a paid hobby. I look at guys with brief cases and thank stars it’s not me. I feel like, as was said in American Pimp, “I have to be good to the game because the game has been good to me.” Sometimes, I’ll take a band that can’t really afford me and find a way to make it work.
You wouldn’t charge the same fee for Ex-Cops that you would a major-label band though, correct?
No. But Ex-Cops’ male-female vocal thing really connected with me, and Brian can really write some fucking hooks. I made it work.
Have you ever done an album specifically for the payday?
Man, you are really trying to get me here.
Well, there is some disparity in the critical acclaim of the albums you’ve worked on.
Well, maybe one that comes to mind. I did the Pokémon soundtrack because the guy who managed me managed the girls singing on the Pokémon OST. And you know what, to work with a couple of Norwegian prodigies, it expanded my horizons. Sometimes I have to do a flagship gig in order to help the little guy.
That’s what I mean, at some point there has to be a division between the fact that, yes, this is a labor of love, but also this is a business.
Well, that’s it, even bearing in mind I don’t think there’s anything too egregious on my discography.
Well there’s no Limp Bizkit in there, at least.
[laughs] Right, exactly!
So how did Ex-Cops approach you?
Well, a friend of mine, Benny, manages them. We’ve been friends for a decade or so. Brian told him he liked my records. I went to their rehearsal. They had a good sound, and I liked Amelie’s [Braun, vocalist of Ex-Cops] voice, she was like a modern Nico.
I like that.
She’s amazing, man. She would try anything and worked really hard. Her dad is a record producer in Denmark, and she has it in her blood.
You’ve been a part of the underground NYC music scene for some 30 years. Where do you see your legacy in this region and in this type of music? Will you be happy with your work when you’re an old man?
Yes, but I’m not done. I feel like there’s a renaissance coming on in Brooklyn. I was on the Internet and I found this band Fort Lean, who I’d really like to work with. I might even take a chance and open a new studio in Brooklyn. I bet there are a few bands out there that no one has heard of and that I might be able to help out.
Gentrification has hurt Manhattan’s rock club scene. It used to be that I would drive in, and there were so many places to see bands. Manhattan has unfortunately become an island of investment bankers and Starbucks.
Well, we still have the East Village and the Lower East Side.
Yeah, little pockets of resistance. But in the 80s and early 90s, for $50 you could see so much live music you’d be sick of it, and get drinks with the same amount of money.
Favorite records you’ve worked on?
Dave Matthews' Crash is one. I know that’s going to alienate the shit out of my indie fans. But I worked on that with Steve Lilywhite [record producer], who left an indelible mark on me. As great as Butch is, Steve really put me in a better perspective with the artist. He’s been doing it longer. He produced U2 when he was 22, that’s fucking sick, right?
Steve taught me to record everything live. There used to be this strict edict, do the drums first, that sort of thing. He created a magical feeling in the studio.
He once said to me, “What’s the Steve Lilywhite sound? The sound of any artist at their best.”
That’s a great quote.
So, that and also Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine.
Sonic Youth taught me to stop dressing the music up and just record the band how they sound. I learned a lot from Sonic Youth, to not make it too slick.
Thurston has always bridged avant-garde to rock 'n' roll.
And I was resistant to that at first. I like things to sound clean, but one time Thurston told me the recording sounded “too perfect,” and that’s not what he wanted, he wanted it to sound like a band rocking out in the studio. And that’s the approach I’ve taken ever since.