Brian Paulson – Been there, done that
If you’re reading this magazine, you almost certainly own at least one album Brian Paulson has produced. He’s been pretty hard to avoid in ’90s alternative country circles, and the genre is unimaginable without such Paulson-produced landmarks as Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne, Son Volt’s Trace or Wilco’s A.M., not to mention Joe Henry’s Short Man’s Room and Kindness of the World (both of which he engineered). As a result, Paulson has been typecast as “the alternative country/twang-rock guy” and even lives in the indie-country hotbed of Chapel Hill, N.C. (where he moved last year from Minneapolis to be with his girlfriend, Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance). All of which is kind of funny, considering his background.
Paulson, 34, got his start in the early ’80s mixing sound for loud Minneapolis bands such as the Replacements and Husker Du. His earliest production projects were indie-label punk bands — “people who were impressed I knew Bob Mould,” he says. To a certain extent, that’s still where his sympathies lie. When asked to name his personal favorite from his producer’s resume, Paulson cites Spiderland, the off-kilter 1991 punk album by Slint. All of which is to say he has some mixed feelings about country rock, the way it’s treated in the industry and his role in it.
“I kinda hate that there’s this whole ‘category’ for it now,” Paulson says. “It’s like Nirvana was a few years ago, every label’s gotta have their own Son Volt or their own Jayhawks now. It’s definitely a niche, and I tend to become disinterested when something gets categorized like that.”
Still, Paulson hasn’t sworn off the genre. Among his works in progress are Son Volt’s second album, as well as the debut by (The Band Formerly Known As) the Jayhawks. But he has also found time to do a wide range of other projects this year, from college radio superstars Archers of Loaf to jazz traditionalists Squirrel Nut Zippers. He even co-produced a track on Beck’s Odelay album.
Paulson gets a lot of diverse work not just because he’s good (and a genuinely nice guy), but also because he can make records fast and cheap. Bands come to him to get “the live sound” — which he’s pretty bored with by now, ironically.
“It came from necessity because for years it was the only way I was allowed to make records, in four days for these indie bands with no money,” he says. “I got pretty well-known for that, so I’ve spent years and years doing something I dislike, basically. But it’s a useful foundation to have.
“Producing takes technical know-how, a lot of psychology and most of all patience. Some producers are very hands-on. Others are there just to calm everybody down and feed them beers, or read the paper. I tend not to treat it like I’m some sort of svengali dictating a vision. Basically, I’m a friendly medium between musicians and technology. I’d rather find and present the unique strengths of the band than force some kind of grandiose ‘vision’ of my own.”
In a way, producing is not unlike therapy, in that if you do it well enough, you may put yourself out of business. For example, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco produced their sophomore followup to A.M. themselves — in part because Paulson taught him well enough that Tweedy had the confidence to do it on his own.
“I just felt like it was an important time to take responsibility for it,” Tweedy says of his decision to do Being There without Paulson. “Because I felt like a lot of times, when there’s a producer there, you end up deferring things to them, even without knowing you’re doing it….And I felt like it would be really important to try and confront all of those things head-on this time.”
Since Paulson produced Uncle Tupelo’s 1993 swan song Anodyne as well as both spinoff groups’ debuts, he was in an ideal position to watch the split between Tweedy and Jay Farrar develop. He may have been one of the few people outside the band (or even within) who wasn’t surprised when Uncle Tupelo broke up in 1994.
“Jeff wanted to try more new things, while Jay wanted to go back and strip things down again,” Paulson says. “The positive thing about it is that it has created two situations that both seem better than the original one. Son Volt is basically a refinement of what Uncle Tupelo was doing, and Jeff is continuing to experiment more with Wilco. I do sort of miss the dynamic of them both writing on the same record, but I think I’ll care less about that over time.
“Jay has gained a lot of confidence and faith in himself since then, because Trace has done so well. We understand each other’s space, partly because I’m not a lot more verbose than he is. The long silences used to make me nervous, but now I bask in and understand them. When we were making Trace, there were a lot of those moments. That was a record steeped in silence and introspection.
“With Wilco, most of the songs [on A.M.] were written during the last Uncle Tupelo tour, and there’s a real freedom and sense of release about them. The best Wilco show I ever saw was their first one in Minneapolis, and it was downright joyous — ‘We’re free, we can do whatever we want now.’ They’d been touring with Uncle Tupelo for six months straight knowing it was over, which was not easy for anyone involved. It’s like when you give two weeks notice on a job, you’re ready to be gone then, not two weeks later.”
For his part, Paulson admits there are times when it’s difficult to maintain his enthusiasm for the producing profession. But he also says he hopes he’s still doing more or less the same thing in 10 years.
“Producing is a thankless job in a lot of ways,” he says. “Management and A&R gets real involved, and their response to everything is to round up the usual suspects — ‘Who did the last Tom Petty record?’ — Andy Wallace, David Bianco, Scott Litt, they get called in to remix things all the time. Nothing against any of them, but they don’t need to make every record on the planet. There are a lot of very talented producers and engineers out there who never get a chance. My goal over the next 10 years is to get some of them more work, because a lot of them are better than I am.
“I’ve been ridiculously fortunate in both the amount and quality of the work I’ve been handed. I don’t know how much is me and how much is just circumstances — as much luck as talent, I’m sure. If I believed it was all me, it would probably be all over.”