Twenty Years of Jackpot! Recording Studio, In 20 Albums

To honor the platinum anniversary of Portland's most important recording studio, WW asked owner Larry Crane for liner notes on 20 albums recorded at the indie mecca.

Jackpot Studio owner Larry Crane. IMAGE: Jason Quigley,

From the moment Larry Crane and Elliott Smith finished building their ramshackle audio production space along a then-deserted inner-Southeast byway, Jackpot Recording Studio has played an invaluable role in shepherding the growth of the Portland music scene.

In the past two decades, Jackpot would welcome just about every notable local artist—Sleater-Kinney, the Gossip, Stephen Malkmus, She & Him, Death Cab for Cutie, the Decemberists—while serving as the home studio away from home for a murderer's row of touring acts, from R.E.M. to Eddie Vedder. To honor the indie mecca's 20th anniversary, WW asked Crane for rough liner notes on 20 records plucked from throughout the studio's storied history.

The original Jackpot Studio, at SE Morrison and 20th, built by Larry Crane and Elliott Smith. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

1. XO, Elliott Smith (1998)

Larry Crane: Right as we opened Jackpot, together, we began recording songs of Elliott's. Some basic tracks ["Baby Britain," "Amity"] ended up being overdubbed on his next album, XO. "Bled White," "Waltz #2 (XO)" and "Waltz #1" were simply tracked as demos. I think one of the first things we tried was "Division Day." That was going to be Elliott's Suicide Squeeze single, which is still floating around out there. We were trying to record, and I was doing something technically wrong that made it sound really bad. We couldn't get a good mix because I had the return feeding back into the console so it got all phase-y. He just kept going, "This is weird," and ended up using some older version, which was kinda disappointing.

Willamette Week: How did the idea originally come about?

I knew Elliott a little bit. I'd been friends with Joanna Bolme for a long time—those two were dating back then—and I'd recorded the "Pictures of Me" vocals on Either/Or. Somebody said we had to talk since we were about to build the same basic studio. The same kind of equipment, y'know? The basic gist. And, it seemed kind of silly for Elliott to have his own space since he'd be touring part of the year. In this music business, you do not want partners. So, I said, "If you want to come down and help me build the place up, bring your gear down, and we'll figure out a tiny little rate you can work out of here—a cover-the-bills kind of rate—because you'll be part of the infrastructure." We did that, found a place at 20th and Morrison, built the studio, and right away started recording.

You did the construction yourselves?

Elliott was really good at drywall. He used to go around mudding and taping with Pete Krebs, and he had all the gear. He pulled out, like, spatulas and all the shit you're supposed to use to do a real clean job. I'm the worst mudder and taper. I mean, I can build a wall. I can nail up the drywall, but then I'm stuck, y'know? I try to do the taping, and it's just like a big, mushy mess. I know this.

It wasn't cheap. I borrowed about $25,000 to start the studio—had to buy a tape deck from somebody in Greensboro. There was a control room, live room and we built a wall between, this larger rectangular room with a door and a window. You know, the typical studio thing, right?

The rent was $500 a month. That's the story, man. We had this awesome landlord who owns Event Rental Communications and used to own Rose City Sound. He totally knew what we were up to, no worries, and the guys next door [REX Recording] were really supportive and let us make way too much noise and interrupt their voiceover sessions. It was crazy. Really great. I mean, $250 a month to split a recording space with someone? Although, then again, that was still more than I was paying for somewhere to live.

Elliott Smith (left) and Larry Crane at Jackpot in 1997. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

The place was terrible acoustically—and all kinds of ways. Heating was terrible. Air-conditioning was terrible. Everything was terrible, but, y'know, you make it work. When you're young and hungry and charging people really low rates, you make it work, and you get to work on a lot of really cool stuff because you are affordable.

Now, Jackpot's a fancy place. It's got really nice heating and cooling and really nice equipment and iso booths and special little rooms. But, you know, my rent's way more so we have to charge more for all that.

2. Sweet Ona Rose, Pete Krebs (1999)

I think "Sweet On a Rose" is one of my favorite records—beautiful, warm, some great songs. Ben Shepherd from Soundgarden played bass. [Future Decemberists drummer] John Moen was on drums; Billy Kennedy, Laurelthirst regular, on guitar. You've always got to appreciate guys like that. So nice to work with them, and we just had a blast. Elliott had produced Brigadier for Pete years before, and he'd been in a band called Thrillhammer that opened for my band in Chico one time. Actually, when I first moved to town, my roommates were really good friends with Jody Bleyle. I remember sitting around the living room listening to the first Hazel test pressing. Goddamn, that's good.

Pete Krebs recording at Jackpot. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

Related: "The Legend of Hazel: A story of bearded cupids, Christmas lights and Portland's favorite songwriter."

So, years later, Pete needs somewhere to record, and he's, like, "Oh, hey, Larry." It's always really tiny, you know? We all keep bumping into each other. You think all these things are random occurrences, but in the end, they've all been randomly predestined, right?

3. Old Man Motel, Fernando (1999)

I remember watching Fernando making that record. That's another Luther Russell production, and there was a preliminary session where the drummer got fired so Luther was playing drums. As a recording engineer, you're so lucky to have a hotshot band like that. Luther on drums, Joe Chiusano on bass; Dan Eccles on lead guitar. And, Fernando—emotionally resonant, so frickin' good. On "Jesus," there's a guitar solo that comes in, and the most insane thing, I'd actually plugged in the wrong vocal mic. I thought it was the guitar mic, and we're just doing an overdub when Dan hits the solo. And it sounds like the fucking heavens ripped open.

Fernando (seated) and Larry Crane in 1999. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

The wrong mic across the room is distorting everything because it's set up for a singer, not a loud guitar amp. It's this piercing, nasty noise like those weird Beatles' "Revolution" guitars. I'm, like, "Holy shit! Holy shit! Holy shit!" Luther's always so intuitive. He immediately wanted that kept, and I did, too. It was freaky. It felt like my hair was sticking up on the back of my neck. I love that kind of feeling. Of course, Fernando can deliver that through his vocals, too. He doesn't hold back, and that's like pure recording gold.

The history of this studio is about records where someone was delivering the goods. Those are the great records. Most things involve preparation—coming in, having stuff ready to play and sing, and kicking ass. When they kick ass, then my job's easy, and I look really good.

4. Field Studies, Quasi (1999)

I like Field Studies a lot. It's more experimental sonically. We were just doing more really weird things. I think we spent almost a month recording that—probably the most amount of time I spent on an album—because back then I was cheap. We just kinda kept trying these weird versions of songs. On "Nothing From Nothing," we run everything through guitar amps and bass amps. It's all recorded clean and then all fucked up and recorded again through the amps, so it just has this horrible sound. I kept going, "No! No! Janet [Weiss], that's a terrible idea!" And, then, finally, I was, like, 'Oh, God, you were right.'" And, from that, you learn.

Quasi’s Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes at Jackpot. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

Thank God that Sam [Coomes] and Janet are so stubborn—and had patience with me—because I learned so much from them back then. And, then, the same with Elliott and everyone else that really had a vision. That's when I learn things, you know? When someone takes you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to do a better job, it's awesome because you can apply that to your next one.

5. Mister Groove, Mel Brown (2000)

Luther Russell did so many records at Jackpot. In fact, I'm writing liner notes right now for a career comp. I helped set this up and stuff, but John Fischbach was the engineer. He recorded Songs In The Key Of Life so…really, really good engineer. It's a little bit of an anomaly for Jackpot to do an awesome jazz record, but, man, it was so great to see all these top players in town in your own studio. Luther, Renato Caranto on sax, Freddy Trujillo—he felt like the young out-of-place guy, even though he's a monster bass player. You build a space just to record Elliott Smith and the Maroons. Next thing you know, you've got this guy who toured with Diana Ross and played on all the Motown hits, and was asked to be in Kiss. He would've been a better drummer. Sorry, Peter Criss. When they did Kiss Unmasked, that would've been so awesome. "What? No way! It's a brother?!"

6. One Beat, Sleater-Kinney (2002)

Fuck, man. One of my favorites. I just adore those three. To hear them play a song, just the three of them banging something out—it feels really good, obviously. I'm so honored to get to work on shit like that. There were times when Corin would sing something so intense it would almost make me cry. We'd do, maybe, two takes, and, how could it go any better? She'd walk in all sweet, like, "Doo doo doo," turn a switch and just do it. You only see that with a handful of singers, honestly.

Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein (background) and Corin Tucker at Jackpot in 1999. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

And, Carrie, man—those guitar parts. We were mixing One Beat at Avast in Seattle, and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam was hanging out because he was friends with the producer John Goodmanson. He came by for like an afternoon, and every time he'd hear a new song, he'd be like, "Why does she write those parts?" Here's a top-notch guitar player with this big huge band, and he's freaking out over Carrie's parts. They're not, maybe, typical dude-rock guitar, but they're such cool fucking melodies. They're angular. They're expressive. They're fucking great, man.

7. Pig Lib, Stephen Malkmus (2003)

Jeff Stuart Saltzman mixed the self-titled Malkmus solo record at Jackpot after an unsuccessful attempt at a studio in California. The only thing I really worked on was Pig Lib, which I think was his second. I did a few things—some of them ended up on the record, some on the demo floor. Like, "1% Of One" has a Jackpot version, but the album version is from a later recording. It was one of those things where you're kind of lucky. Sometimes, when you do those sessions that are a little more experimental, you get some gems that just can't be replicated. Then, they go and pay more money to work somewhere else, but they keep going, "Man, you know that one we did with Larry? With the trashcan for the kick drum? That was really special" We did some weird shit on that record. I just love, I mean love his guitar playing so much, and he's just a funny, witty, smart dude. And, basically, everyone that's been in his band was a friend of mine, which is always good. Mike Clark, man—sing the praises of Mike Clark, because he's the most talented musician in town!

Stephen Malkmus (center) and the Jicks recording “Pig Lib” at Jackpot in 2002. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

You knew Malkmus before he came to town?

Yeah, because he was a fan of my band. I helped do sound for pavement on their first big nationwide tour. And, I knew the bass player Mark [Ibold] from way back, when his old band, the Dustdevils were touring and staying at my house. But when Stephen moved to town…

Which was a big deal.

It's so weird to think of it that way. He's a low-key dude. I think he was over visiting Rebecca Gates from the Spinanes who lived across the street from me at Yamhill and 33nd. I had, swear to God, just finished recording Cat Power in my basement—just two songs for this weird Undercover Records seven-inch, really simple, nothing—and I heard people on [Rebecca's] porch so I stopped over. Steven's there, I say hey, and he goes, "You have a studio in your basement? I'll book some time."

Pavement at Jackpot in 1999. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.Pavement at Jackpot in 1999. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

So, he came over and did demos for Brighten The Corners, the Pavement album. Later, we did demos for the Terror Twilight record. Sort of demos, sort of just them getting together. They all lived in different states, you know, so they had to fly in and learn everything because they were really sloppy. It was more like renting the studio to do rehearsals.

When I first opened Jackpot!, I don't know how many times I recorded bands that sounded like fake Pavement. I was certainly known as an indie rock studio—for better or worse, some days. Sometimes, they would copy Elliott, too. I didn't know what to think of it. I've never been in a band 1,000 percent derivative. It was always a hodgepodge of the people involved, you know?

8. Her Majesty The Decemberists, the Decemberists (2003)

Sometimes you just know. When The Decemberists were doing Her Majesty, I sat Colin [Meloy] down and said, "This is easy to write about like most bands are not. Journalists are searching for some core of a story, and you've got the story in spades. My God, what vernacular! Where are these settings? You're really a writer!" I produced and recorded most of Her Majesty. Adam Selzer recorded three of the songs at Type Foundry, and I did the rest at Jackpot. Colin's vision is so strong that it makes putting out a record so easy. That was one of my favorite sessions ever.

Oh, dear. There was a problem with parents waiting. The string section was from the Youth Philharmonic, and, basically, Mike Johnson wrote these charts. Really adventurous charts. Maybe a little too adventurous. He probably knows that now. So, the charts were crazy, we didn't book a whole lot of time. Behind us, the parents were standing around, muttering, "When's this going to be done?" and getting mad. The kids are playing on "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" and these weird songs. "I can see your undies, baby"—I believe that's the line. Parents can be really good or really bad during a session, I'll tell you that.

How often are parents around?

Not totally often, but occasionally. A while back, I had to basically cancel a session because the parent was so strange, but other times they're wonderful. When you see a supportive parent bringing the high school kids in to record their rock band—buying pizzas, telling them it all sounds great—you wish your own mom was that cool. [Laughs] At that age, I wasn't a good musician, either.

9. "They'll Soon Discover," The Spongebob Squarepants Movie OST, The Shins (2004)

Actually, we may have done some B-side stuff later with Joe Chiccarelli, but the only Shins record that I ever worked on was for the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie soundtrack. So awesome. It was a quick little mixing job. Just the simplest thing. James [Mercer] had recorded it on his 8-track reel-to-reel, brought it down to the studio. I just did a few things to sweeten it up. It's a fun song—really upbeat and kinda goofy.

Did you work on the rest of the album?

No, just the one song for the Shins. I think I bought a copy at Music Millennium and, y'know, felt like an idiot. How do you explain to the guy at the counter? "It's for my kid?" I don't have a kid.

It's kind of funny. Sometimes you work on something so completely random that your bio can't really encapsulate later on. I mean, people see that I worked with the Shins, but, God, for three hours? It's one of those things. You're in the studio with someone, and you're, like, "I wish we could do more stuff together." And then you never do.

10. PDX Pop Compilation (2004)

PDX Pop is such a cool scene. I know they really help some people reach a new audience. It's free, it's all-ages, and it's local bands for three days. I worked on some of these tracks here. On all of the compilations, there's been something I recorded. The reality is I'm their longest-running sponsor. Or Jackpot Recording Studio is the festival's longest running continual sponsor. When the economy gets bad, people drop out, and [laughs] I wasn't smart enough. It all started when these nerds wanted to put together this little festival of local music. My old intern had me come to one of meetings, and I was, like, "Do you wanna get the Minders?" So, I went around the corner, called Martyn [Leaper], came back and said they had the Minders. And, then, I asked if they wanted the Jicks. And, OK, here's the Jicks. It was like they didn't believe you could actually just reach out and get bands like that. Obviously, knowing everybody for so long, it was a little easier.

Related: "The Minders' First Album in 10 Years Is a Triumph Over Cynicism—Specifically, Their Own."

11. "Miss Misery (Early Version)," New Moon, Elliott Smith (recorded at Jackpot in 1997; released 2007)

The song that changes people's careers. It's kinda crazy to think about. Working with Elliott was always very easy, because he knew what he wanted, and he could play all the instruments. He'd just say, "Gimme a click," find the tempo, and boom, start laying down parts. I remember, during "Miss Misery," he asks for a cassette, walks away, comes back and has me put up the rough instrumental. Then, he just sings a few tracks over it. Done. I made a rough mix and kept listening to it. I played it once for [Decemberists drummer] John Moen, and he was like, "That sounds so good that it's depressing. How does he do that?" It had such meticulous writing and arrangement. It just feels right, you know? And, one day, when I was out running errands, he plays it for Gus [Van Sant].

He just stopped by?

Well, I think there was a specific reason. They'd been using some of the songs from Either/Or and Roman Candle as temp score tracks for Good Will Hunting. Temp scores are used to set the mood during editing before they have the rights to any music, and, when you put songs in, sometimes you can't let go. Eventually, you start to feel like there's nothing else that's going to be as good, and you have to go to the source.

So, then, it ends up in the movie. And, a song written specifically for a movie can get an Oscar. That's why every movie over a certain budget has its own song, whether or not it's a complete lie. A few times, when I was doing press about Elliott, his manager would look it over and want me to change anything about when Gus had first heard the song. Obviously, "Miss Misery" wasn't written for a movie, but since it wasn't on any previous release…

We were hanging out when it was nominated. I went down to L.A. for a week while Elliott was recording XO at Sunset Sound, and we were listening in the car. Like, we went out to the parking lot, got into his car, and listened to the song on the radio. And, like, we knew, "Oh, shit. It's going to happen."

12. Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, the Baseball Project (2008)

Oh, Adam Selzer recorded that. I'm not a big baseball fan, but the Baseball Project is good. I've adored Scott McCaughey since the moment we poached him from Seattle. For someone who's obviously a millionaire from playing music, Peter Buck is still such a music nerd. I love that. It's so sweet. In my head, honestly, having Steve Wynn in my studio was probably the highest point. Growing up in Northern California at the same time that The Days of Wine and Roses was coming out, I've always been such a huge Dream Syndicate fan. Over the years, I've gotten to know Steve as well as his wonderful partner in crime and drummer, Linda. It's always an honor. You meet all these wonderful people, and they keep coming back into your life. For me, the studio has always been a continuation of, like, nearly a decade spent in a band—meeting all these people, talking to labels like Matador and TeenBeat and Sub Pop. Then, the studio starts, and it's like, 'Well, Larry's cool. He was in that band, y'know?" There's all these old connections. It's all intertwined with friendships and relationships and living situations and who works where. That's how all this stuff happens.

13. Portland Cello Project, Portland Cello Project (2008)

Oh, man. Doug Jenkins used to be in a band called Bright Red Paper, I think it was. They came to me to do some mixing of their home recordings and played a few tracks. And, well, I could like hear the sound of their basement. If you have a low ceiling over the drums, the sound of the cymbals reflects off the ceiling—real close, choked, you can totally hear it doesn't sound open. Records recorded in tiny spaces sound tiny. It's just the physics of the, the amount of air in the room. So, I gave them a bunch of little suggestions about the best ways to mic the instruments, and Doug mentioned this other project called the Portland Cello Project will all these crazy arrangements and different artists. They were doing covers, new songs, all these different things, like Britney Spears' "Toxic." I told him as soon as I heard what he was doing, "Dude, that's easier to write about than 1,000 bands out there." All along the way, there's been stuff that I knew had a market. I would be the worst guy to run a label, but there are times where it's so obvious that a band has something that people are going to be able to define and write and talk about and promote.

I'd advise them on recording equipment and different things. One time, Doug did a whole song, I explained why it was flawed, and he just went and re-recorded it himself based on my techniques. For me, it's more about collaboration than getting money for studio time. I help him learn more, and he brings me more work like Jolie Holland's Wine Dark Sea record. And, now, I have a friend and co-conspirator.

14. We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River, Richmond Fontaine (2009)

So, they're one of the reasons that Jackpot maybe exists. I was in a band called Red Box of Ants [that] played a La Luna balcony show with a band which turned into Richmond Fontaine, and I was just, like,"'Oh my God, I love this." I love alt country—Uncle Tupelo, Nashville Skyline, Lee Hazlewood. That's always been in my wheelhouse. They did their first album at a home studio in town, and it sounded pretty rough, pretty bad. I'd see them out, they were friends of my little sister, and I kept asking them to give me a chance. Then, all of a sudden, I've got a studio. So, Cavity Search was putting out their second record, and I said I'd do it for $1,000. I was probably working for less than minimum wage at that point, but it felt so good to really get in there and help your friends make something that sounds better. For all the records ever since, we've just always been…that's part of my family, you know?

I knew Willy [Vlautin] was writing. He'd send me things to read here and there, and I actually tried to hook him up with a publisher a long time before any of this happened. And, I did tell Richmond Fontaine that they had to play Europe. My friends, the Walkabouts, from Seattle, had made it there early on and became the biggest selling Sub Pop Europe band besides Nirvana. I knew Europe would freak out over Richmond Fontaine because their shit was literary and emotional and they rocked. "You got to get to Europe! You got to get to Europe!" And, once they did, things really took off.

15. "Star Power (Acoustic '09 Version)," Sonic Youth (2009)

People always misconstrue that I do all the sessions myself. All these different engineers and producers have worked out of there when I wasn't involved. It's not a thing that makes a shitload of money, but Jackpot has always been a public resource for musicians in the city of Portland, you know what I mean? There's a funny history of so many sessions where I had no idea what was happening. I didn't realize that Sonic Youth had recorded at the studio for Gossip Girl until I bought the song on iTunes. A lot of what happens is based on friendships. I think Aaron Mullen, who actually just moved to town, was the engineer on that. He used to run the Sonic Youth studio in New York. People place that music. With Sonic Youth, somebody must have specifically said this would be a perfect band to physically appear in the episode, and they're in a wedding scene during Season 3.

16. Personal Life,  the Thermals (2010)

Chris Walla, the Death Cab producer, recorded them at Jackpot I love Hutch [Harris] so much. It's really funny. He might be the only person to record at Jackpot and also do stand-up there. We occasionally host these Keep It Like A Secret comedy shows. It's like a secret comedy event. We're not doing them recently, but they're really fun. We bought a bunch of folding chairs, set up the PA, and we have comedians come in for shows.

Related: "How the Thermals' frontman went from shouting down injustice to joking about man boobs."

17. Collapse Into Now, REM (2011)

That's another record where I had no involvement. Tucker Martine—a great engineer, producer, and really good friend of mine—did the demos for them. I wasn't even there, but I thought it was a real honor. The way they were working, Mike Mills and Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey would come in, lay down instrumental demos, and send them to Michael Stipe. And, then, he picks what's going to be on the record. One of the things that's amazing about that band, they credit the studio. Even though I don't think any of the music Jackpot recorded ended up on their record because these were just demos, they still credited us. It's nice to work with people that are honorable, let's put it that way. They don't have to do that. It was really sweet of them.

REM recording at Jackpot in 2011. IMAGE: Courtesy of Larry Crane.

18. Dept. of Disappearance, Jason Lytle (2012)

He's an amazing songwriter. Granddaddy's great, too—can't wait to see them coming through town this tour. Mixing his second solo album was super fun. Usually, when I'm mixing, people are trying to jam as many songs in a day as they can—like, the whole Summer Cannibals record took maybe a day and a half—but Jason Lytle was just one song per day. He has his stuff really well recorded and really well arranged. All the parts already fit together perfectly. Your goal—can you improve on this rough mix in his computer? So, you split out the drums, you work on them, and you compare with the old mix. And, well, OK, it's almost the same, but it is better. You just want to improve by little percentages, which is a really cool challenge, honestly.

19. Untethered Moon, Built To Spill (2015)

Oh, that was fun. Sam Coomes from Quasi was producing, and I got to kind of help with the sounds. Untethered Moon was supposed to be an all-tape session. They were using 16-track tape, which is really retro. We knew it was going to go haywire—and it did—but they got pretty far. Doug [Martsch] just had to keep adding more tracks and do more guitar parts and, finally, put it in Pro Tools. Honestly, it's just an awesome Built To Spill record.

20. "I Figured You Out," Either/Or: Expanded Edition, Elliott Smith (recorded 1995; mixed at Jackpot 2010; scheduled release 3/10/2017)

You know what [Elliott] told me once? "I want to write songs, and I want to record them. I'll do the interviews, I'll do the tours, yadda yadda yadda, but all I want to do is write and record." Over time, he did work with other artists. On the new Either/Or double album, there's this demo for a song called "I Figured You Out" that he had let Mary Lou Lord put out on her Kill Rock Stars EP. He recorded and produced her version—playing all the instruments while she sang. So, that's one case where he did something for a friend. Apparently, he didn't much care for the song he'd written. He felt it wasn't that strong. I would beg to differ. People are often the worst judges of their own art, and it's part of my job to know that. They think of things in different terms, whatever those may be. They can't separate their emotions on the day they wrote a song from the way other people really feel, and they make bad mistakes. Many times, you'll have to protect them from themselves.

SEE IT: Jackpot Recording Studio's 20th anniversary celebration is at Secret Society, 116 NE Russell St., with the Minders and the Secret Sea, on Friday, Feb. 24. 9 pm. $20 advance, $25 day of show. 21+.

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