Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois
Laura Gibson's epic "Shadows on Parade"; Laura Veirs'
It's hard not to trip walking into the entrance of Tucker Martine's Northeast Portland home. Instead of a chair on the living room rug, there's a drum set. Cords and mic stands clutter the space where some might put a lamp. As the light filters through the curtains onto wires and a lonesome guitar, it becomes obvious this isn't a normal living situation. "I thought we might try doing something in the living room," Martine says about an ongoing recording session with his girlfriend, singer-songwriter Laura Veirs. "The acoustics are actually really good in here."
Two-and-a-half years ago, Martine moved to Portland with Veirs from Seattle, purchasing a house just south of Alberta Street and beginning the arduous process of converting a dusty old basement into a modern recording studio, complete with an enormous mixing board and a wall lined with amps, reel-to-reel tape and a bevy of odd instruments. In a short time, Martine's gone from a respectable sound engineer to one of Portland's—if not the country's—most respected producers, working with everyone from Northwest grunge legends Mudhoney to banjo-picker Sufjan Stevens. He recently manned the boards on both Laura Gibson's Beasts of Seasons and the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love.
"My job is about bringing out what's unique about each artist and making sure they're comfortable," Martine, 37, says in a low, measured voice, just a hint of a Southern accent peeking through at the end of each sentence. "It's often a very subtle thing that makes a song—a different note is accented, it's played a hair slower, or you're elongating words at the end of the phrase or singing softer or harder. It's not just about, 'Oh, I sang the right words at the right time' or, 'I played the right chords in tune at the right moment'—it's figuring out what moves you. And that's different for every project and every person."
Martine's eclectic resume comes in part from growing up in a musical household. He was born in Nashville, Tenn., where his father, Layng Martine Jr., wrote songs for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley. Though his family never pushed him toward music, Martine says he was pretty invested from an early age; when he learned in the fifth grade that two friends were starting a band, he practiced drumming for days on upside-down ice cream containers his mother picked up from Baskin-Robbins. Needless to say, he made the cut.
Though he's been in bands since grade school and releases his own sound collages under the moniker Mount Analog, Martine sees himself as a musician and arranger, not a traditional songwriter like his father. Yet, listening to the records he's produced, you can hear traces of a signature sound, one warm and rich with a mixture of clean, ringing acoustic instruments and a bed of distortion hidden just beneath the surface. Martine emphasizes texture, making instruments (both acoustic and electric) sound bigger than they do in person but still never forgetting what makes a great record: the songs.
"I want people to forget they're recording, basically," he says, tinkering with a knob on his mixing board. "When you hear an artist's demos, those usually have it. Then I see someone come in and say, 'Now I'm going to do it really good!' and it's lost that spark. A lot of the best stuff happens by surprise."
On the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love, keeping things surprising meant absorbing the studio as another instrument. Even though Colin Meloy came in with a fully formed concept album on his hands, the execution—everything from what instruments to feature to the best way to fade from one track to the next—was an experiment. At the start of each week, Martine would assemble the tracks "with segues as crude as they had to be," and play back the entire record for the band. After those kinds of intensive sessions, Martine admits, he often can't really listen to a project he's worked on after its completion.
"I reach a point when a record is done when I sign off on it that I'm happy with it and happy with the job I did," Martine says. "Now it's out there for people to either connect with or not. It's like sending your kids off to college—you can't decide if they become drug addicts or if they become the president of the United States. You've done your best and just have to be content with it."