Besides having a really awesome name, Wharton Tiers has an awesome repertoire of musical conquests and collaborations. The renowned audio engineer and musician has worked with music heavyweights like David Bowie, Sonic Youth, White Zombie and even William Shatner! His old school approach to producing and engineering music, results in noticeably unadulterated sounds and experimentation. His latest project is the Wharton Tiers Ensemble, a wholly instrumental triumph of experimentation and exploration.
OCR: You have recorded a number of experimental music with bands like Sonic Youth and White Zombie. What are some challenges when recording alternative music styles compared to more “traditional” and straightforward sounds? Does the genre give you more freedom to engineer experimental approaches?
WT: The real challenge with experimental music is: how far can you take it before you start turning people off? There still has to be something for people to hold onto. You have to avoid that experimental Jazz “Too Many Notes” syndrome and you have to come up with a compelling form once you blow up the verse, chorus-bridge structure. On the plus side, as far as engineering goes, it’s really wide open. A bit of crudeness or distortion that might be offensive in a pure pop song feels right at home when you are experimenting. Effects can be as out there as possible and all kinds of stray sounds may end up being “cool enhancement.”
OCR: Some bands have a very distinct sound. Even if there is a new song on the radio you’ve heard for the first time, there is an innate vibe that tips you off it is that specific band. Do you have a signature way of manipulating sound or putting the “Wharton Tiers” spin in the music you produce for other bands or personally record with your own band?
WT: I’ve always been a fan of a “Big Fat” sound spectrum, and I always endeavor to record that way. Perhaps it’s my analog background, but it seems a lot harder to capture this in the digital age where a lot of conversion has a very tinny quality and even when bass is there, you have a hard time “feeling” it. I’m not really the kind of producer who’s looking to create “My sound,” I like relying on a group to let me know what they are about, so I can bring that out and enhance it. I try bringing all this into my own music, for the “Wharton Tiers Ensemble.” Music almost always starts with some basic guitar part and roadmap for the song and I encourage the players to filter it through their own style and help the piece grow into something larger.
I guess I’m also a fan of simplicity when it comes to arrangements and track counts. 40 tracks of vocals, 30 tracks of guitars, is not only too much to process, but it definitely doesn’t make a song good. It’s like being stuck in a crowd when you only want to talk to one “special” person.
OCR: You’ve been apart of the music scene since the early 80’s. How has recording technology changed since then? A lot of bands are sticking to older technologies during the recording process because they create different dimensions to their music. Do you still just older equipment or are you leaning towards the digital era?
WT: In the early eighties when you wanted to record music, you went to a studio and played it to tape until you got it right. Of course you might edit the tape a bit, add the better ending or stronger chorus, but the onus was largely on the musician to make the music special.
Today, everyone’s using samples, sampled sounds and computer manipulation which leads to a couple of problems. Musicians used to being able to “Fix” everything don’t become disciplined performers and when you can Fix everything, where do you stop? I have definitely seen songs that have had the life and soul drained from them by over manipulation. Of course, computers and digital editing are going to be involved in the process at some point, so one has to figure the best way to utilize it.
To be honest, the digital format has improved in sound quality, but to me the best way to use it is to barely use it. That is, no mixing in the box. I still like using an analog mixing desk and real effects, as opposed to plug ins, and where budget allows, using tape to record basic tracks before moving into the digital realm.
One thing I can’t forget is that all the great music I grew up with was recorded to tape and you’re not going to get “that” sound without it.
OCR: What is one of your most memorable in-studio moments?
WT: This is a hard question because so much of my memory is in-studio moments and it’s hard to pick and choose with so many memorable ones. The thrill of getting the “take” never gets old. So many great songs and stories, I’m writing a book to make some kind of sense of it. But as a rock kid, I would have to say that the best moment was being in my studio with David Bowie. He was working on a project with Glenn Branca and Tony Osler that was to play at an exhibition in Germany and the filming and recording took place at Fun City. I didn’t know what to expect, but he showed up dressed pretty relaxed and seemed to enjoy himself with the work. He liked looking at some of the art work on the walls at Fun City, liked talking about the art world. He really knew a lot about it.
OCR: The word is you did some original music scores for priceline.com. Did you have the opportunity to meet William Shatner?
WT: Actually, I mixed the music for the first two series of Priceline commercials, you know, the classics. But strangely, I ran into Bill Shatner years before that, right after I first moved to New York City in 1975. He was the first celebrity I ran into walking down the street, “Captain Kirk” I exclaimed, “Bill Shatner” he replied, extending me his hand. What a nice guy!
OCR: You are currently working on the Wharton Tiers Ensemble. The ensemble is a wholly instrumental project. How does working with instruments, void of lyrics, force you to explore methods of evoking emotions and stories through sound alone?
WT: My first three releases on Fun City this year are instrumental. The Wharton Tiers Ensemble’s “Freedom Now” is five guitars, sax, bass, and drums and draws mainly on Rock and Jazz references, so there is all that history to draw from, which naturally evokes certain times and feelings even without vocals.
I play drums with the group and with all the guitars it becomes a very physical and visceral entity. The stories build from the transitions, the tempos and harmonious nature or lack of it. “Mayan Nocturnes” is my solo piano release and it’s more moody and romantic, which is dictated by the sound of the piano and my skill with it. I record hours of these and the challenge is sifting through them and finding the beautiful gems. “Superdooperlooper” is pure soundscape, as there really isn’t any music here, but rather the manipulation of tonal loops and New York City street sound.
OCR What’s next for Wharton Tiers?
WT: More releases coming. Next an ensemble of synth players I call Aurora.23, a new WTE collection, and even a vocal record. I’m trying to get WTE out more to play. The usual bevy of recordings for other folks, which I love, I mean if you get to spend time writing and recording music…how great is that?! I’d love to get one of the Symphonies I’ve written recorded by a real Orchestra… that would be pretty ultimate.