Kurt Ballou / Converge interview

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By Alex. Published on 11/14/2005.

In early-September, Andrew Borthwick called up Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou to discuss his recording engineering career, Converge, etc.

Is it true that Converge became a full-time band when you had to leave your job?

Yeah. I was a biomedical engineer for about 6 years and then the project I was working on got cancelled and I had the choice of finding another job within the company or taking a pretty nice severance package that paid me to not work for eight months. So we decided to do some touring and actually ended up doing quite a bit of touring in that period of time. But we've never really been a full time band; we just got a little bit busier than we were usually. And that's basically how I funded my studio. I got a well-paid day job and then used that money to bankroll the studio.

Do you feel that you still have to push yourself as a guitarist or does it come naturally now?

I guess it comes naturally. I've never really practiced that much on guitar. I just wanted to write songs and the guitar was a vehicle for that. A lot of times I'll write material in my head and then go to a guitar later on and try and figure out how to play it. Guitar itself isn't really a pursuit of mine. I don't really play very much actually.

And in regards to something like the strange tapping sound at the start of "Concubine," does something like that emerge from simply messing around in the rehearsal room or from a specific intention to create unique sounds?

Yeah sure, I mean, I've never been a complacent songwriter, so I've always wanted to come up with new sounds and ideas and a lot of that is developing new techniques which I haven't seen people do before and that's what the harmonic-tapping thing on "Concubine" is. I came up with the idea years before, but it only came into fruition on that song.

Is it tapping the fret board or tapping over the pick-ups?

I can't give away my secrets! (Laughs)

In regards to the sound behind Converge, it's moved into a very live and raw sound which I actually think makes it sound more abrasive and caustic than some of the more "produced" bands, like Killswitch Engage or Shadows Fall.

As we've grown older, I think we've become more interested in what it was about the music that we grew up with that originally attracted us to it. So I think we've gone back to the roots of our original influences, by creating much more raw, less-polished punk records. All my favourite records aren't littered with overdubs and don't have drum triggers and they sound noisy and gross. You know Black Flag would have sounded worse as a produced band because it would have exposed all their flaws. And it feels more human and less contrived for a band like Converge - which is inherently a loose, sloppy, live experience – to do it that way. It just works better on record for us to have that type of recording.

Plus, another way of setting ourselves apart from the pack is to make a different sounding recording and a lot of it stems from the production work that I've been doing over the years. The things I've started to like in a recording is the hum of an amp in-between songs, or hearing someone dropping their drumsticks or talking in between takes; the things where the process reveals itself in the final result. You mentioned Killswitch Engage earlier and when you listen to those records, you don't really hear the recording process, it doesn't sound like a band playing in a room; it doesn't sound like human beings interacting so much.

And that's not to spite them at all. I think they're great at what they do and some bands sound much better with a really produced sound but I don't think that's right for us, both in terms of the way Converge actually sounds and the members' tastes in music.

Do the records take a while to sink in with people?

Well, "Jane Doe" plays very different to "You Fail Me," it's paced like a live set; so immediately it hits you very aggressively and then it ends very epic, whereas "You Fail Me" is designed to ease you into it and then ease you out of it, so I would think that "You Fail Me" might take longer to sink in for people. But I also think that for someone who is new to this type of music, Converge would take a long time to sink in. You can't go from the Top 40 to listening to chaotic, metallic hardcore. Your ear has to become trained to understand what it is you like or don't like.

That's actually happened to me right now. I've been doing a bunch of hip-hop recordings lately and I'm going through that whole process again where I don't really know what I like or don't like, or what's good and what's bad in hip-hop.

I've been recording this project with a guy whose group I've recorded before but on this occasion, the beat-maker fell through, so I've been thrust into that role. It's pretty interesting and I don't know that much about it but he's steering my education, which is cool.

As a band Converge has built it's career on a series of albums that are a chaotic assault and then "You Fail Me" was very stripped down and sparse in places. Was there any worry that it might be too drastic a change for your listeners?

Yeah, I mean a little bit but then we've never written an album thinking about whether or not it's going to meet with the approval of our fans. I'm just happy if we sell enough records so that we can continue to make records.

And also we didn't want to repeat ourselves with "You Fail Me" and nor do I think we could if we wanted too. We're three years older and different people now and just needed to write a different album.

And what is the material that you're currently writing like?

I would say it's even less metal than and more punk than "You Fail Me." Could I describe it as "more jangley"? Imagine that if "You Fail Me" was a Gibson, then this new album is a Fender. And "Jane Doe" is a B.C. Rich. (Laughs)

How is the Virgin [collaborative project between the members of Converge and Cave In] material coming along?

Yeah, we've got a big collaborative. Well it was going to be an eight-man band but now I guess it's going to be a seven-man band. We've recorded about five songs so far, but they're not really finished and we're going to try and write about five or six more songs and then try and figure out what's going to go on with the vocals. But we're not really in a big rush to get that done.

It sounds pretty interesting.

Yeah, it's really cool. It's a little like Converge, a little like Cave In, but not really totally like either band.

I'd like to talk about your engineering work. When did your interest in engineering and recording start?

Well, I've always been kind of a geek and a friend in high school had a four track and I thought it was cool, so I used to borrow his that and just mess around with it.

Recording for me has always been about documenting my own music and so I would borrow four tracks and record myself, or the band or friend's bands. And then when Converge started to go into more, "legitimate" recording studios that piqued my interest even more. So when I first started working at the biomedical job I saved up money as quickly as I could and bought a half-inch eight track, a small mixing comp and a couple of microphones.

My parents were kind enough to let me take over the basement for a summer and record some bands; I used to be in this band called the Hugonaughts and I recorded that, and I recorded Nate [Newton, Converge bassist]'s old band Jesuit; I recorded a seven-inch for them. It was just recording friend's bands and they all started as free recordings. Eventually I started to make about ten bucks an hour doing it, and as I got better more people wanted to come to me and I made more money, bought more equipment and it snowballed.

But it's always been about recording my own music. Recording for other people has always been a way to supplement my income to buy more recording equipment and a way to get better at recording my own music.

I know that me personally, and us as a band are pretty controlling over the creative process and I don't think we are that willing to let go of any of that creative side of the band. So the more involved we can be over that process, I think the better we feel, and recording my own band is a way to ensure that.

And when you're in the engineer/producer role, what criteria is it that draws you to recording a band?

It can really be anything. I take on about a third of the records that get offered to me and in some cases it's friends and I like the people so regardless of what they're doing I want to help them out. Sometimes, it's a band that I don't know as people but I really like the music and I think I can do a good job in recording them and sometimes I might not know the people or care about the music, but if their heart is in the right place then I'll do it. Pretty much any band that comes out of a D.I.Y. background I'm going to be into recording them, because that's the stuff that needs my support and it's where I come from, so I like to give back to that scene. And once in a while a recording is just a good business opportunity. That doesn't happen all that often though.

Do you use digital or analog recording equipment?

I grew up recording live stuff on tape but I also have Pro-Tools HD. So these days, more often than not, I record bass and drums to tape and then transfer to Pro-Tools and do the overdubs and mixing out of Pro-Tools, through an analogue console and then onto either a half-inch or quarter inch two track. But almost all my mixes end up on tape. Once every while I'll do a project that is completely analogue or completely digital but one thing I don't ever do is mix inside the computer, I'm not very good at that.

So are you at the point where you make a living from recording bands?

(Pauses) Um, not really. My apartment is in the same building as my studio and so the studio takes care of the rent there. I very rarely take any money from the studio, any money made generally gets reinvested in the studio. Then whatever I make from Converge tours I use for myself. But I don't really have any car payments, all I have is mortgage and insurance and the studio takes care of that, so all I really need personal money for is for food, clothes, the occasional bill and hanging out with friends.

Is recording something you see yourself moving into long-term, when Converge ends?

Yeah, I certainly think of that often. Converge is of course my number one form of advertising for my studio, I don't advertise it any other way and as someone who is in a somewhat-known hardcore band, most of the bands I record are hardcore bands. I think that I've set up the studio in a way that even if I wasn't here, other engineers could come in and rent the studio but I'd really like to diversify my business if I could.

The thing about Converge is, that while it's a great selling feature for some people, it's a turn-off for others. For example, no alt-country band is going to want to come and record with a metal producer. Even though I get more excited about recording an alt-country record than a metallic hardcore record, in some ways I've pigeonholed myself. It's just a matter of recording a few non-hardcore records that get out there and get well known.

I've got a record coming up that could do really well. It's a band called the Casual Lean from Massachusetts; they're fantastic and if their record does what I think it will do then it could really change my clientele.

And what do they sound like?

It's tough to say but when you hear it, it won't sound unfamiliar but you won't compare it to anyone else. It's indie-rock but it's timeless.

Who would you like to work with?

Well, I have a thing that I think is going to happen but it's not totally confirmed yet. It's with a guy called William Whitmore who we toured with in the UK, and I think he and I are going to do a record together.

He's a difficult guy to pin down, but what I'd like to do is record him live doing the vocals and banjo and then take all those recordings and put together a full band around that and pick whichever versions of the songs we like best.

So it's cool to be getting involved in the creative side of music that is a lot more subjective than hardcore. Hardcore stuff is fun to record but there's not much room for creativity, it's just a case of getting everything loud and aggressive. There's not much space, you know? You can't achieve much of a sense of realism or indulge with ambience and overdubs.

The intricacies can get lost, can't they?

Yeah, anything subtle with guitars that dense just gets lost. So I'm really interested in doing just about anything with a little bit more subjectivity in it.

I'd really like to hear you produce Radiohead.

Yeah, that'd be a whole lot of fun. I don't think it would be very possible but I'd like to do it because they're a band I really like and respect. If I were to do it, I'd love to keep the sound they have but channel that through the pop sensibilities that they've lost. Keep the instrumentation the same and the experimental sounds but bring that back into a pop song format because I feel almost like they've been two bands; the experimental and the pop group, and when they chose to get more experimental they abandoned those pop sensibilities.

Do you see yourself as an engineer rather than a producer?

Yeah, I'm not really a producer. I get that label a lot more than I think it's deserved. It actually kind of bugs me when I see some sticker on the front cover of some band's record that says "Produced by Kurt Ballou of Converge!!!" and it's actually only a demo I recorded in two days. In a lot of ways it feels like riding on coattails.

I was talking to Ed from Beecher about this actually.

Yeah, I know the record that he is talking about. I remember we had the same discussion and I showed it to him and on that particular record all I did was mix, I think, four songs out of thirteen on the album yet, it has my name and the name of my band on the cover and it's more legible than their band name. It's ridiculous.

Yeah, that's exactly what he said.

For me to really produce an album, anything less than two weeks and you're not going to get a production out of me. Of course it depends on the band but in less than two weeks, I'm not going to have the time to help with song structure or vocal ideas or lyrics. So I really work more in an engineer role, I'm basically documenting the band at that time.

I should tell you that I think your work on the new Beecher album is excellent.

Thank you. Yeah, I'm pretty happy with it and they all seem to be really excited about it, which is great.

There's a band called Swarm of the Lotus that I've recorded and that's one of the best sounding records I've ever done and there's also a band called Bleeding Kansas that I've just finished recording. The record isn't even mastered yet and I think it'll be out early next year but that's definitely something worth checking out. It's probably the best sounding record I've done yet.

Why do you think you're so in demand at the moment?

I think different bands will be excited about different records that I've done. So after I did the second American Nightmare EP, I got a lot of youth-crew sounding bands and Cro-Mag sounding bands looking for something similar. And then there was a tough-guy sounding band called Ramallah that led to similar work after that and then every time a new Converge record comes out, there's a wave of bands that approach me after a similar sound.

But usually the landmark albums end up being better than the bands that come to me because of those records. But I think what it comes down to is that; a good band with good songs is going to make a good album no matter where they record. A band can do the same things, with the same producer, in the same studio, with the same equipment but if they can't play their instruments properly or don't have good songs then it's not going to make a good album.



Comments
whitelambpowergoat_   posted 11/14/2005 2:49:22 PM
first
Fenton_D_Daxter_the_IV_   posted 11/14/2005 3:13:11 PM
I thought Drewcifer was gonna be conducting an interview with Nate Newton...or was that for another site?
anonymous   posted 11/14/2005 3:44:27 PM
I should tell you that I think [you're] work on the new Beecher album is excellent.
agent_friday_   posted 11/14/2005 3:51:02 PM
no read just converge.
xTomWaitsx_   posted 11/14/2005 4:13:09 PM
musical genius. 'nuff said.
fk_   posted 11/14/2005 4:26:40 PM
i appreciate ballou's descriptive, upfront explanations. good read
chamber_   posted 11/14/2005 5:15:25 PM
good interview, good man, needs more more more
simonbrody_   posted 11/14/2005 8:33:11 PM
Had the priviledge of "jamming" with Kurt once in Boston circa 95 and worked with him in the studio several times since. He is one of the most amazing musicians I've ever met. Hands f*cking down.
Coldchain_   posted 11/14/2005 8:40:24 PM
Kurt is definitely one of the better producers/engineers out there. Suprised to hear that he doesn't play guitar outside of Converge much, but I guess that's keeping it punk rock.
stevebarnett_   posted 11/14/2005 11:33:21 PM
much respekt
anonymous   posted 11/15/2005 12:08:42 AM
Everything this guy has recorded sounds like pure shit. Stop sucking this guys dck.
TheReapersSon_   posted 11/15/2005 5:47:36 AM
I give him props for branching out and doing other things, esp. being interested in other genres as well. Most people end up being stuck in a rut, only doing a few things with their spare time.
50voltphantom_   posted 11/15/2005 9:12:02 AM
Sounds like rad dude. Smarter than a mofo.
elliot_   posted 11/15/2005 12:28:24 PM
i sure as hell hope kurt does record william whitmore, because that guy is f*cking amazing. everybody needs to check whitmore out.
jay_   posted 11/15/2005 1:42:36 PM
too scene for me
bro_punch_   posted 11/15/2005 3:39:19 PM
kurt ballou is a musical genius and musical in general needs more people like him.
drewcifer_   posted 11/15/2005 3:54:55 PM
i'm still interviewing nate newton, not about converge though. more old man gloom/doomriders, probably.
fuckingfight_   posted 11/15/2005 4:13:43 PM
this was actually interesting
j_fckn_w_   posted 11/15/2005 6:12:37 PM
if only he could've done the starkweather record.
chris_   posted 11/16/2005 1:12:41 AM
kurt ballou sounds like a really chill dude. thank god his band rules.
aggnate_   posted 11/16/2005 8:14:43 PM
some of my favorite cd's right now have been done by kurt, he's awesome
sharkxpunch_   posted 11/17/2005 9:01:43 AM
Damn good interview.
theyuppiegrinder_   posted 11/19/2005 7:01:36 AM
good read.
cryptic_slaughter_   posted 11/19/2005 11:42:01 AM
I worked on that project. Ballou was a mainstay within our engineering team and a master of the local lexicon. I am glad to see that his music inspires the youth of today (pun) to spin kick my daughter. I am verclempt
Nick_   posted 12/5/2005 9:50:58 AM
You mentioned Killswitch Engage earlier and when you listen to those records, you don't really hear the recording process, it doesn't sound like a band playing in a room; it doesn't sound like human beings interacting so much.


thats a pretty f*ckin arrogant thing to say. It doesn't sound like human beings interacting? Seriously, your in converge, not KISS, don't be so pompus. And i'd rather hear a well-produced record than a scrappy stripped down one.
Reno_   posted 12/15/2005 2:15:26 PM
Lol, you suck Nick!
nick is a douche_   posted 10/25/2006 3:50:19 PM
nick you are a f*cking retard.
burnt flower_   posted 12/11/2006 4:08:53 AM
lick my nuts nick... you don't know good music... you just like bands for their image... not music... stop talking out your ass
Nay_   posted 2/14/2009 6:05:59 PM
I'm researching Kurt for an interview with a band (BATS) who jet off to record with him next week and for a newcomer that was the most interesting, informative article I coulda read. He's so laid back but very intelligent. Good to see equal Converge/studio questions. Cheers!