I first met Chester Gwazda when we were placed into the same on-campus suite (or, more accurately, when he was placed into the suite I was squatting) at a state school in Westchester County, New York, in 2003. At 18, he was an excitable, creative force of nature, prone to talking a mile a minute about antique stereopticons, Jonathan Richman, Lord of the Rings, and his Roland synthesizer with its various “problemos” (which, he was quick to add, were really “no problemo”).
Now, at 27, he’s mostly the same, except his hair’s a little longer, he prefers a Nord synth, and he’s recorded, produced, or mixed an impressive list of underground records — Dan Deacon’s Bromst, Future Islands’ In Evening Air, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat’s Jazz Mind among them — not just buzzworthy records, but real breakthrough moments for the artists. (Our own band Nuclear Power Pants’ Wicked Eats the Warrior excluded. View Raymond Cummings’s characteristically libelous review of that effort at City Paper‘s music blog.)
Last month, Chester finally released a name-your-price digital album of his own songs. It’s called Shroud, and it’s an album that benefits from his years spent on a recording sabbatical, full of the kind of tightly crafted pop you’re likely to get when the songwriter is also the arranger-producer — each song a vision fully realized.
The following are Chester’s answers to some of my questions about his production work as well as his new album.
Who are your production heroes?
Lately, I’ve been really psyched on pop music! There are so many tricks! Mostly in the arrangements. Things are so calculated and precise, and I actually love that. I’m talking about Beyoncé, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey sorta pop. But also Prince and even Motown stuff. I love hearing about the weird quality control meetings that Berry Gordy would hold weekly to ensure that all the Motown releases fit into the formula. Although I don’t make music like Beyoncé, I think the techniques that are used to create those special moments in her songs can be applied to most music.
What’s it like being a producer in the indie/underground scene? I’m assuming that you “co-produce” with the bands, but is it always like that?
I still have a day job. I think that’s a little peek into what it’s like, for me at least. Much of my work is as an engineer, but I also have a hand in arrangement, and I do the mixing for everything I work on. With Future Islands or Dan Deacon, they come to me with the electronic elements all laid out and ready to go (which is a big part of the sound, as a whole). Most bands want to be involved in the production and they know the sound they’re going for. I’m there to help them get that sound and fill in the gaps, when necessary.
What is your recording process?
I like to mix while I track. I don’t want to record an instrument, then find out later that it doesn’t jibe when everything’s put together. I try to get the tracking done fast, then spend a lot of time mixing and editing. I do that alone, without the band around, then we make revisions together. I experiment with the sounds and arrangement while I’m mixing, and it helps to not have someone looking over your shoulder while you’re trying something ridiculous!
On the recent Dan Deacon and Future Islands records, say, can you hear yourself on them? What of your own musical personality comes through?
I love hearing the rooms where things are recorded. I’m super attached to these cheap omnidirectional mics which pick up a ton of room sound, and I use them on all sorts or stuff. With Future Islands, you can hear it in Sam’s vocals or William’s bass. I spend a lot of time working on drum sounds, and I think that’s something that comes through.
What made you take a break from promoting your own music and start recording in the first place? What brought you back?
I was always a pretty slow songwriter, so if I only worked on my own music I wouldn’t be keeping very busy! The recording process is my favorite part of making music anyway (more than writing or performing), so I started working on other people’s songs because my own compositions were in such short supply.
I’m spending more time on my own music now because I just started writing more! I relaxed my quality control a little bit and started having fun. I was always afraid of making music that was simplistic or cheesy, but I realized how much I actually love those things!
When did you start writing the songs for Shroud?
For a long time I was just writing when it was convenient, between projects with other people. Two of the songs (“Skewed” and “Debbie Drowner”) were written like that. The other ones were written in the past year or so when I started devoting more time to my solo stuff and embracing my inner-cheese!
Anything coming up?
Going on tour in July! All south of the Mason-Dixon line! I love the south in the summer! More details on that soon. I’ll be joined by Bamboo, a new-ish Baltimore duo. Possibly a seven-inch or something in the fall with a new label in the UK.
Also, I borrowed my parents’ canoe so I’m hoping to have some fun this summer on Prettyboy. Lemme know if you wanna paddle around!