The first things you notice after walking into Jeff Stuart Saltzman's house are musical: the piano in the living room and stack of retro amplifiers in the hallway. Then you see comic-book-related relics: A Galactus toy and an old signed drawing from Elfquest artist Wendy Pini.
"I wanted to be a comic-book artist as a kid," the 43-year-old producer says from the small studio in his Southeast Portland home. "So I used to go to comic-book conventions, and I'd see all these guys in Rush T-shirts—all these comic-book artists that I was, like, worshipping—and I started thinking, 'Well, I guess kinda need to be into rock music if I'm going to be a comic-book artist.' So I kind of painfully forced myself to start listening to FM rock radio."
The painful part didn't last long—bands like Devo and the Clash served as a gateway into loving rock 'n' roll. Music—both listening to and making it—became Saltzman's passion. He bought an electric guitar and, at 16, discovered a four-track at a Guitar Center near his San Jose home. It was a revelation. He panned tracks back and forth and adjusted volume levels, amazed at the control he had over the music. "They actually asked me to leave," he says. "I was standing there for, like, three hours."
Through recording his own music, Saltzman gained a rep for being a studio whiz. "Which I wasn't. I didn't have any formal training," he says. Still, he became a fill-in at studios in the Bay Area and got plenty of on-the-job experience. Saltzman recorded jazz, rock, classical music and everything in between. "I just got thrown into the deep end. But I watched the owners of the studios work, and watched guest engineers work. I kind of educated myself."
When Saltzman began visiting a friend in Portland in the mid-'90s, it was a town with an active music community but fewer studios and engineers than one finds today. He found himself flying up from California to record bands, and eventually became enamored enough with the city to make it his home.
Since that move, Saltzman has engineered some seminal Portland records: Stephen Malkmus' first solo album, the Joggers' Solid Guild and Dolorean's debut, Not Exotic, among them. He's worked with Death Cab for Cutie, Richmond Fontaine and Menomena, as well as his own band, Sunset Valley, which played its last show in January.
"I don't really consider myself a producer," Saltzman says as his cat Franz (Katka) stretches to claw at his chair. "I tell people that I help people make music." For Saltzman, that can mean an end-to-end work where he does everything from placing mics on the drums to mixing a record, and sometimes it just means mixing or mastering. The new music economy has forced many bands to self-record or hire cheap engineers, which means Saltzman increasingly finds himself behind the mixing board—his favorite spot. "I know a lot of tricks at this point," he says, and artists often come away impressed by how much a good mixing job can improve the sound of their work.
Still, there's something to be said for being able to help direct a project from the beginning. "I've been doing this so long, if someone says, 'We're trying to do this early-'70s Spanish horror movie soundtrack kinda thing on this song,' immediately I know what that is, how to treat things and what microphones to use. I've amassed this little library in my brain," Saltzman says. As he describes the recording process, it's clear that the kid inside him, the one that grew up drawing comics, never really went away. "That's my favorite thing about recording," he explains. "You can create these fantastic worlds that come out of your speakers, but it could have all been done right here in my house."