Kurt Ballou (Converge) English interview, november 2017
Kurt Ballou has showcased a remarkable career in the hardcore / metal underground scene. Not only is he a founding member of Converge, one of the leading bands of the aforementioned scenes, but he is also a recording engineer with a respected résumé. The Massachusetts combo just released their ninth album The Dusk in Us, so we decided to discuss the journey of Converge with Kurt.
We interviewed Nate in 2007 before a concert in Paris for the No Heroes tour. At that time, he said that he always wanted to make albums that he could listen to. Albums that are timeless like Led Zeppelin II or My War. Do you still work that way ten years later ? Do you listen to your own music ?
Kurt Ballou : We absolutely still feel this way. We want Converge to be that band we would want it to be if we weren’t in it. As far as listening to my music goes, after an album is mastered, I only listen if I need to relearn a song. I find listening back to my own music too emotional, not in a lyrical sense, but because, as a recording engineer, I can’t help but be analytical about it. And every time I listen to it, I’m face to face with my shortcomings as a song writer, guitarist, and engineer.
In that same interview, he said us that the video clip for “No Heroes” costed more that the actual recording for the album. Was it the same for The Dusk in Us ?
No. Video production has become much easier to do cheaply in the past 10 years.
Have you ever wished to mix Jacob’s art and the music of Converge in a short movie ?
That could be cool, but it’s not anything we’ve ever considered or pursued.
To this day, what are your three most successful albums for Converge, in terms of sales ?
I have no idea. You’ll need to talk to someone with a Soundscan password.
In 2011, you worked with the French duo Pneu for their album Highway to Health. We were surprised that this happened back then, since Pneu isn’t quite famous in the USA. How did you get in touch ? Is this linked to Eugene S. Robinson from Oxbow (featured on a track) ?
They emailed me and I asked If I would record them. I checked out their music and thought it was great, so I agreed to record them.
What was your writing method for the Dusk in Us ?
Like all of our records, each member shows up to practice with ideas for songs or riffs, we jam on the ideas, see if we like them, and if we do, try to figure out how to turn the ideas into the best songs we can make. At some point, when we’re getting close to having enough songs we like to record, we’ll block off some time to record them.
You once said that you wanted your guitar sound to be a mix between Shellac and Slayer. On the new album, “Trigger” sounds a bit like that mix and also the Jesus Lizard. Were you influenced a lot by the Chicago scene ?
Of course. Jesus Lizard, along with a lot of their midwest contemporaries in the noise rock and post punk scenes, are awesome and have been hugely inspirational to us.
On "Broken By Light": Did you want to teach Slayer a lesson?
We just wanted to write a great song.
Talking about Shellac and Steve Albini, would you have liked to work with him ?
Yeah. As a recording engineer, there’s a lot I could learn by watching him work. Sometimes I wish I had taken a more traditional path as an engineer and worked under and learned from someone else. Teaching myself was a slower path to proficiency than most engineers take, but I think it caused me to develop an individual style.
We really liked « Eve », which is probably one of your best songs post-2010. Why didn’t you put it on the album ? Have you got any songs left on your shelves ?
We recorded 18 songs and couldn’t put them all on the album. We just wanted to make the album the best it could be. Some of my favorite songs are not on the album and some of my least favorite are. That’s just how it worked out. I’m sure we’ll release the others at some point, but we have no plans as to how yet.
Can you tell us a bit about your guitar “brand” God City Instruments. Are you planning to design models to be sold in stores ?
I’ve always tinkered with building stuff. Around 2010 I started building guitars and drums. More recently I’ve been building pedals. Unfortunately, manufacturing requires a lot of investment and energy, and I already have a studio and play in a band, so I haven’t been able to crank out a lot of gear. I’m working towards setting things up so I can delegate some of those responsibilities to others. For now, I’m just prototyping pedals, working on making my designs really great, and selling small quantities on my Reverb.com store and at shows.
How did you come up with this idea of a business card / pedal effect? Are you surprised by the success of this one? (sold out on Deathwish!)
Yeah, it’s been crazy. Deathwish can’t keep them in stock! We’ve sold thousands of them! I got the idea a few years ago when I went to NAMM and people were handing out crazy business cards to get attention. Electrical Guitar Company, for example, had a card made from laser cut stainless steel. It just hit me that a PCB business card would be really cool. I didn’t pursue it for a couple years later. Nick from Dunwich Amps and I had been working on the yet to be released GCI Brutalist, which will eventually be my flagship pedal once I get it perfect. I mentioned my business card idea and he thought he could make a simplified version of the Brutalist that would sound great and be easy to build. I initially ordered 100 of them. I thought I’d just give them out for free to friends, tech people I met along the way, or pedal nerds at shows, but the thing went viral and people all over the world wanted one and were pissed they couldn’t get it. So it seemed like selling it cheaply was the way to go. Deathwish offered to distribute, which has been hugely helpful.
How do you choose the bands that you work with at your studio God City ?
Bands email me with links to their music. I check it out. If I like it, it can fit in the schedule, think it would be fun, and feel that I can contribute positively to the project, then I do it.
Do you see yourself rather as an engineer or as a producer ?
I do both, but I’m mostly an engineer. It all depends on the project. I feel as thought I (and many other engineers) get credit for producing too often. I usually ask that I be listed as a co-producer along with the band in the liner notes.
Who were the artist(s) who collaborated with you who astonished you the most and why ?
I’m very thankful to have worked along side many many talented and unique musicians. I don’t have any particular favorites I’d like to mention. I’m just happy to have had a diverse and exciting roster of artists come through my studio.
Technical question : which pieces of hardware and softwares became mandatory for you when it comes to studio working ?
I’ve certainly become comfortable with the gear that I have, but nothing is mandatory. As long as I have a comfortable place to work, and sufficient quantity and quality of gear to capture and mix the performances, I’ll be happy.
You explained in an interview that “ giving the impression that you play loud is more important that actually playing loud live”. Do you remember saying something like this and would you like to tell us a bit about it ? Do you use this moto in the studio as well ?
Yes, I said that. I like the sound of cranked amps, but in a live setting, its important for the whole band to sound balanced to the audience, regardless of where in the room they’re standing. That often means playing my amp quieter than I’d like so that all the instruments can be in the PA. Unfortunately, a lot of the venues we play, which are usually in the 250-600 capacity range, don’t have PA systems loud enough for the vocals and drums to be heard over a cranked 100w guitar amp, so I have to find way to play quieter than I’d like, but still sound good. A lot of bands have guitar players who play too loud, which causes their drummers to buy really loud, bad sounding cymbals to compete with them. In the studio, I can turn amps up until they sound their best, but it can be hard to convince drummers to use better sounding, quieter cymbals. When mixing, making things sound loud is different than mixing the fader loud. It has a lot to do with setting a sound stage with low-mid EQ, reverb, delay, and compression.
Jane Doe question. We think you have a sticker that says “Distort everything”. It sounds like vocals and even drums were distorted on this album. Can you tell us a bit about the recording of Jane Doe ?
Basic tracks were recorded at Q Division by Matt Ellard, overdubs were done by me at Godcity, mixing was done by Matt at Fort Apache, and it was mastered by Alan Douches at West West Side Music. It was tracked and mixed to tape, there was distortion added to the vocals, and everything was pushed pretty hard in mixing and mastering, so there is definitely some saturation.
You recently opened a youtube channel with Nate to do some music gear reviews. Do you think you would have needed this kind of information when you started ?
I would have loved to have had all the information that’s online today when I started playing guitar almost 30 years ago and started recording over 20 years ago. But there were books, and there were newsgroups. I used to read rec.audio.proreligiously. Access to information is so much better today.
As a sound engineer: what kind of format would you recommend to listen to The Dusk In Us at home? (Vinyl / CD / MP3 / etc…) and some good audio gear to listen to it ?
Vinyl or MFiT is the least compressed way to listen to the record. I would suggest that on some good Hi-Fi speakers which are EQ’ed fairly neutral. At home, I have a mid-level Yamaha receiver, a Rega turntable with Graham tone arm and Grado cartridge. That feeds some Traynor 4x10 PA columns I converted into Hi-Fi speakers. But honestly, I listen to most music on my Sonos system. Its convenient and sounds awesome.
With The Dusk In Us you have achieved your best start (in terms of sales) in the USA (and even # 1 in the Hard Rock ranking). How do you explain this success when the record market is in decline?
Yeah, it’s been really amazing and surprising. I don’t really have an explanation. We just keep doing what we feel passionately about, and I’m very thankful that so many people appreciate it!
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