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Making Guitars Matter

by Stephen Smith
illustration by Max Estes

The scattered, lovely mess of guitars through the indie-rock ’80s became, with Sonic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot” in 1988, contained and focused. Grunge was the first Teen Age Riot rock movement, emphasizing straightforward power chords—a rock fundamental ’80s indie rock had forsaken in its pursuit of pose-punk non-linear ideals. The story of indie and punk rock since has been the tension between returning to rock’s 1-4-5 roots (since perfected by bands like The White Stripes and The Hives), and maintaining an oppositional (though by now institutionalized) dissonance. Through the course of this unresolved rock dialectic, pro­ducer/engineer John Agnello has been a contin­ual presence. Agnello cue his teeth on old leather like The Fixx and The Outfield, but since the early ’90s, he has been persistently associated with the bands I have found most interesting: those unwilling to abandon the indie pretension to newness, but also unable to leave behind the guitar bombast they loved in junior high.

I first started seeing Agnella’s name in the early ’90s. He worked regularly with Dinosaur Jr. (precursor to grunge and influence on every college radio listener with a guitar in the late ’80s and early ’90s) on its best-sounding, if not best, records, including Where You Been? and Hand it Over. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of pre-Agnello Dinosaur Jr. records as a prime mover towards the late linearity in indie rock. While J. Mascis’ guitar work in Dinosaur Jr. fit squarely in mid-’80s guitar sprawl, “Teen Age Riot” was, as much as anything, a capitula­tion by Sonic Youth to his polylithic guitars. As well, though Mascis’ playing was not as riff­-based as what followed, it was easy to think that loud comprehensible guitar figures (the essence of grunge) could approximate the majesty of his accomplishments. “Big” was only a part of what he presented, but it was also the simplest part to imitate. Agnello has always known that there’s more going on. He pays attention to guitar subtleties along with the easy drama of the riff.

Guitar, Anyone?

In the midst of his work realizing the Dinosaur sound as an engineer, Agnello produced Cell’s Living Room (1994). Cell was one of the sign­ings of major label DGC, during the brief takeover of the label by Thurston Moore and Kurt Cobain, when I became convinced, briefly, that majors could be OK after all. The record had the riffs and big drums of the new underground, but also subtle guitar meander­ings more familiar to fans of Sonic Youth than of Thin Lizzy. It featured guitars interweaving, calling and responding in a way rarely heard since Television’s late ’70s heyday, and the strained, decidedly non cock-rock vocals of Jerry DiRienzo. It did everything I wanted a record to do. My demographic, however, does­n’t keep David Geffen in the style to which he is accustomed—Cell was soon dropped.

Soon after, in 1995, Agnello produced Truly’s Fast Stories . . . from Kid Coma, another set­ piece of guitar invention and another unlikely major-label product (now out of print). It’s awash in distorted, detuned guitars, in a con­stant state of threatening flow—no ebb in sight. Robert Roth’s slide guitar work creates an organic quality, a wooziness that makes it hard to determine the bounds of the guitar, and whether they will hold. While Agnello did not produce the entire record, and can thus take only some of the credit, songs like “Blue Flame Ford” and “So Strange” finally make good on the guitar-centrality promised by the Seattle sound that preceded it.

Chavez’s 1996 album, Ride the Fader, fol­lowed. It, too, features guitars doing things I didn’t expect. There is a simultaneous tautness in the upper registers, and elasticity in the bass notes, with constant bend and vibrato in them. Every note is invested with some kind of spin—they are never just played. In all three of these records, guitars are the star, rather than the supporting characters, and Agnello carefully keeps the cameras on them.

Agnello’s persistence creates a chicken-egg problem. Did he invent the music I like, or has he been a fortunate bystander—a witness to all the best musical accidents of the past 10 years? The truth is probably closer to the latter.

Tones on Tape

Production can be a drastic, structural job, and in the case of certain R&B producers—Babyface, Timbaland—it probably is. Production can involve songwriting and song choice, arrange­ment, even vocal training. The world of a rock producer, however, is typically much more circumscribed. By the time a signed rock band gets in the hands of a name producer, everyone in the band has already spent years writing, vetting and perfecting songs. The rock produc­er tends to perform a more cosmetic function, emphasizing sounds rather than underlying structures.

Rock bands pick producers based on sounds. For instance, if you want precision and sheen (with some hint of new-wave era synth) on your record, you can’t do better than Mark Trombino, producer of Jimmy Eat World and Finch. However, for a raw, loose sound, with bigger guitars and drums, John Agnello should be on your speed dial.

So it’s not mere chance that brings Agnello around. As a producer and engineer, he makes records that emphasize and capitalize on the best elements of guitar rock. Rather than bring­ing his own sounds to the table, he is unusually able to make every guitar player’s guitar sound like itself. The guitars on Living Room, Fast Stories, Ride the Fader, or Favez’s more recent From Lausanne Switzerland (2002) are all differ­ent. The bands have not gone looking for the Agnello guitar sound; there’s no such thing. Instead, they’ve found someone who can bring out, and capture, their particular sound. Sound simple? It’s not. A producer’s ears can grow accustomed to particular tones, and become averse to unexpected ones, resulting in a genericity. This has never happened to John Agnello.

He tells me his work as a producer embodies an “egoless aesthetic.” It’s not about imprinting his sound, but the pleasure of “being involved with really good records.” That does­n’t mean he is solely an engineer, placing microphones, fiddling with processors. Nor is he solely a “traffic cop,” as he describes some of his duties. He does have occasion to get into the nuts-and-bolts of song structure. He describes the Favez song “Someday All This Will Be Mine” as originally a careening rock number, and in large part, it still is. However, for variety (in a record that has its share of grinding guitars), he suggested a quieter part. There is now a verse with little more than a lonely guitar and vocal, a soft color supporting a part of the song’s story, and contrasting with the spinning noise of its surrounds.

Hand It Over

Given his place in the guitar rock firmament, it’s no surprise that Agnello is becoming prominent in the world of emo (see sidebar). He has recently produced coming emo-phenoms Favez and errortype: 11. The oft-maligned, frequently misunderstood genre is today’s playground for musi­cians facing the linear/dissonant dialectic handed down from bands like Cell and Truly. Agnello is uniquely situated, by inclination and experience, to work with these upstarts. The best emo bands do just what his earlier projects did—make guitars matter through a synthesis of old and new ideas about what they’re good for.

Agnello keeps appearing in the limit cases of different guitar rock moments. He did not produce Nirvana, but Cell. Not Soundgarden, Truly. And not The Get-Up Kids or Saves the Day, but Favez. His presence indicates that a band is at the margins of a movement, margins that often embrace layered, dissonant and otherwise non-standard guitars. This is true in the emo bands with which he works, as well as the quasi-alt and meta-grunge he produced in the ’90s.

There is a feedback loop at work between the bands’ choice of Agnello, and his choice to work with a band. The selection process provides mutually reinforcing genre parameters in an imper­fect, fluid, Venn diagram. I know that the odds of my liking a record he has produced are good: His participation is an indicator of the band’s interests, and also serves as his seal of approval. If he has worked on it, the record probably doesn’t evidence a choice between catchy and surprising, but likes them both, and makes us pay attention to its complications on the way to the candy cen­ter of its songs.

Stephen Smith is a Bay Area writer and musician. He plays, sings and strikes poses in the band My Fellow Astronauts.

Posted in Louder Than Words

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