Often times, we don’t fully appreciate what goes into the music we listen to; it’s not easy creating an album’s worth of music. Records are released all the time, but making one takes time and energy. Making a record that reaches out to the listeners, that takes heart.
Mark Trombino is a producer, mixer, and engineer of albums. He puts all he believes into his work, and the results can be seen in the vast amount of work he has done. From Jimmy Eat World to Mineral, to recent fan favorites the Starting Line, Mark Trombino is constantly working. He took time out of his very busy schedule to talk to me; it showed me just what kind of person he is and being a fan of the albums Mark has worked on, growing up on the sounds that he has helped create, it was an incredible experience.
David: Mark, you produce and mix albums. Can you explain to the readers, what this actually consists of?
Mark: Well, I’ll tackle the easy one first. A mixer is the person who, after everything has been recorded, takes all that material and adjusts the balances between them and basically finishes the recording process. They may get a tape with 24 tracks on it, with the bass drum on one track, a bass on another, guitars and vocals on others as well, and they then squeeze all that information down to 2 tracks which represent the left and right signals in a stereo image. How they do it involves proper equalization of the source material, compression, panning, etc. and is really an art form in and of itself.
Producers are a lot harder to explain. I guess it’s fair to say that producers are hired by bands to be the objective party in the studio, the person that isn’t partial to any particular instrument or component of the band, and someone who can, with relative certainty, give guidance and focus to a process that can be very overwhelming. I see myself in that way. What I try and do is first make sure that I feel the band is ready to even set foot in the studio, and I do this by listening to the songs, and seeing if we have an album’s worth of material there. Then we’ll go into a rehearsal room, and we’ll tweak the arrangements if necessary, and we’ll figure out tempos, and we’ll work on drum parts, etc. We’ll do as much as we can in pre-production to avoid doing it later on in the studio. When that’s done, we move into the studio and my role as a producer I’d say is really about making sure that the band is performing to their fullest potential. Is this take good enough? Can it be better? Producers are often called on to be cheerleaders, to be ego strokers, to prop the musicians up when they need it, but I find that I suck really badly at that.
I also engineer my own records, and that’s another job description entirely. I won’t get into it now, but that involves setting up microphones, choosing the signal path used to record something, being the guy that gets the physical sound from the musician onto tape. I guess that would be as opposed to the producer who gets the “vibe” or “energy” or whatever of the performance onto tape.
David: How did you get involved with producing, mixing, and engineering albums?
Mark: I really just sort of fell into it. I never really planned on doing this as a career, but because I was always interested in the process, and because my experience of recording with other people never really was satisfying to me, I just sort of started doing it. When I was in college, I started recording my bands and some friends’ bands in the electronic music studios at UCSD. The Jehu Merge 7” (Drive Like Jehu) was done there. When Jehu was looking for a place to mix YankCrime, we found this studio in North San Diego county that wasn’t being used much, and I was able to convince the owner to let me start bringing bands there. That turned into Big Fish, and that’s where I really started learning how to make records.
David: Many of the albums that you work on are with many bands of the punk rock or indie genre. Why is that?
Mark: It’s not by design I promise! I find it strange, and a little unsettling because honestly it’s not my favorite kind of music on a personal level, and also I don’t like the idea that I would be associated with only one genre of music. I’ve always been very afraid of being pigeon-holed as a “punk guy”. I would rather be in the same category as a Tchad Blake, who can make an amazingly cool record in any genre he chooses. I appreciate a good pop song, and it really doesn’t matter to me what genre it comes from. It’s all about the song itself. I’d be happy to do just about any kind of music really, and in fact I wish I was working in a greater variety of genres.
David: You have built quite a reputation in the punk music world. When people close to the scene hear, “Mark Trombino will be producing this upcoming album”, they get excited. How does that feel for you being that it’s kind of rare in the music industry today to even know who the producers are.
Mark: That’s awesome. I didn’t know that. I’m too detached from it, really. I just make records and I have little knowledge of how they’re received afterwards. But it’s good to know that people associate my name with a certain sound or quality or production value… Or based on some of the reviews that I have read, my “over production” value!
David: With doing many punk albums, many of those bands are on Drive Thru Records. Talk a little bit about your relationship with the people at Drive Thru?
Mark: I think that I have a great relationship with Richard and Stephanie. They’re good people who put out records by bands they they absolutely love. They have an amazing amount of passion for every single band on their label – and I totally respect that.
David: How long does your actual production time on an album take?
Mark: It depends. I’ll spend as long as I can making a record. I’ve done records in four days and I’ve spent as much as three months. I’ll use whatever I have. In general, though, I’d say it takes one to two weeks of pre-production, about five weeks of tracking, and a couple of weeks for mixing. That’s a pretty ideal scenario.
David: When you add programming into the music, how do you and the band work out the added sounds that you will incorporate into the specific song?
Mark: For me it’s pretty simple. I just use whatever sounds I have at my disposal within the song itself. So if I need some loopy drum sounds, I’ll take the drums that I’ve already recorded for the song and process them a bit to make them sound different and use that. If I need a pad of some sort, I’ll take another sound and time stretch it a bunch of times until I get a nice harmonic texture to lay over the music. Occasionally I’ll pull a sound from outside the song, but since my sample library is pretty much non-existent, I don’t have much to choose from. I have to make it myself. It’s probably bullshit, but I feel that if I use pre-existing sounds and process them, then it’s more organic or more appropriate for some reason.
David: When adding programming sounds, what type of equipment do you use for those sounds?
Mark: I use Pro Tools for just about everything. I don’t use that much gear. I like to work “in the box”.
David: Your work on the Jimmy Eat World albums, especially ‘Clarity’, in my opinion is like nothing out there. Talk about the relationship between you and the boys from Jimmy Eat World?
Mark: We’ve done three records together and by now we are really close. The experience of making ‘Bleed American’, where we made a record on our own and completely without any label support or input, working guerilla style was something that I always look back on as my favorite recording experience ever. I point to that as THE way to make an album. Artist and producer without any label or outside input whatsoever. We made the record we wanted to make, on our own schedule, and on our own terms. The fact that it did so well is just icing on the cake. The process of making the album was more rewarding than anything else I’ve ever been a part of.
David: Is there an album you have produced that you are most proud of?
Mark: Every album I make I love. You can not spend such an enormous amount of time and energy on something and not become attached to it in some way. And every album has given me the opportunity to learn something new or try out something new, or has forced me to think about things in a different way.
David: Mark, what is your personal opinion of the music out there today?
Mark: I can’t make any sort of blanket statement about current music. I think that, as there has always been, there is an over abundance of shitty music out there, but that there is enough amazing and brilliant music currently to keep me from jumping off of a bridge. Personally, I like music that sounds fresh, that’s forward thinking, that isn’t too derivative. My favorite new record right now is ‘The Ugly Organ’ by Cursive. Brilliant.
David: Any upcoming projects that you are currently working on or will be working on that you can share with Sound The Sirens?
Mark: I’m currently working on The Living End. We’re about done tracking and then we move to mixing. After that I’ll be doing another Jimmy Eat World record, then another Finch record, and then another Starting Line record.
Dreams and Devotion: An interview with Strung Out’s Jason Cruz
For Strung Out’s Jason Cruz, art is more than just the music he’s known for. It’s the dreams and emotions he writes and paints as well.
For almost 30 years, Jason Cruz has been synonymous with the art he’s been crafting. That art of course, is his work as songwriter and vocalist for Simi Valley melodic punk rock outfit Strung Out, who since 1990, have been writing hard-hitting, emotionally-charged music that became part of the wave that brought punk’s into the mainstream consciousness in the mid-1990s. Strung Out’s three albums of that decade, 1994’s Another Day in Paradise, 1996’s Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues, and 1998’s Twisted By Design, proved to be the perfect answer to those who sought out the deeper underground of punk that bellowed below the surface of Green Day’s Dookie and Offspring’s Smash.
For many listeners like myself, Strung Out and many of their Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph brethren meant a world of new music wrapped in the subcultures of skateboarding, surfing, punk attitudes, and a vibrant urgency that echoed sounds of rebellion and independence. While pop culture acceptance for just about any form of art and music seems fleeting, Strung Out have never wavered from what they do; now three decades into their history and nine albums deep into an ever-impressive catalog. Songs of Armor and Devotion is perhaps the band’s finest work since they first burst onto the scene. Composed, yet still breathing fire, its tracks still exhibits that “debut album energy” but comes with the benefit of the wisdom of touring, writing, and experiencing the world three decades over.
However, for Jason Cruz, art is more than just Strung Out. He has quietly and not so quietly been honing his craft as an artist and a painter, coming to light on a musical front by painting the cover art to his band’s 2011 “Best Of” album Top Contenders: The Best of Strung Out, and NOFX’s 2013 EP Stoke Extinguisher. But one look at the wide spectrum of art he’s painted and you can see that it’s more than just album covers. His painted work, like his music, seems to come from the same passion and emotion that drives his lyrics and songwriting. Now he embarks on a new chapter as a children’s book writer, taking inspiration from his daughter to write There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams, a bedtime story born in dreams.
We spoke to Cruz not long after the release of the band’s new album to talk about the long-lasting influence of Strung Out and to discuss his art and how they share the same creative head space. We also spoke about his upcoming art exhibit and his new book and the toll and triumphs of the tour cycle.
Congrats on Songs of Armor and Devotion. It’s stellar work; how do you all feel about the release and response to the record?
Cruz: I’m glad people are digging the tunes. I’m anxious to get em out on the road and see what they turn into. See if I can keep up with RJ. It feels like another new level to explore.
But you’ve been busy with a lot of projects- tell us a little bit about the children’s book you have written? It was inspired by your daughter?
Cruz: The book is called There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams and it’s basically a bedtime story. My daughter just spoke the title one day as we hangin’ out having one of our talks and it stuck. I thought it was the most beautiful thing she ever said.
What’s the story of the book?
Cruz: It is basically a bedtime story trying to explain to a kid what the hell dreams are and how cool they can be. How the adventures you dream at night can only pale to the ones that await you when you wake kinda thing.
How long did it take to write and create the book?
Cruz: I worked on the story, which is more like a poem, and all the illustrations for just over two years. Anywhere I could set up and draw. In between shows, on planes, at the desk at home, wherever. Once I told the kid I was gonna do this book she made sure to ride me pretty hard about getting it done so she could take it to school and read it to the class.
What’s the approach like writing the book in comparison to writing songs for a new Strung Out record?
Cruz: Pretty similar process I guess since they both involve rhythm, flow and the use of imagery and imagination. With a song, it’s a collaborative process. Each member adds an element to construct this thing. With the book, it was all me. Inventing as I went along until I had enough elements to unify the idea as a whole. It’s a lot harder flying blind like that. I guess I kept this first attempt as simple as possible for that reason.
Where can we buy the new book?
Cruz: All the usual modern day outlets like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Baby. It will also be available on my site as well.
I’m looking at some of your art and I like how different the pieces are. For instance, the difference in emotion, style with pieces like “Choke”, “Rise & Fall”, and “Church Fix”. What are some of the things that inspire your art and what were some of the inspirations behind these pieces?
Cruz: Oh I guess just the love of doing is what really inspires me. To be an artist. To challenge myself. To learn my craft and grow. I could never stick to a certain style or look very long because I’m just too moody I guess. I need the freedom to move around and explore. Always trying ‘get it right’ whatever that means.
Is creating art a completely private and solo process for you?
Cruz: Completely. I guess that’s why it can be so maddening at times and so fulfilling at the same time. Like what nerve do I have to even attempt this?!?! What is this whole art thing?!?! Is this good?!?! And somewhere in between all that doubt, there is joy and fun. Problem solving and improvisation.
What are some of the things when looking back at this 20+ year career with Strung Out do you hold as the most important to you? Is it the records? The consistency with the work or the influence you’ve had for listeners around the globe?
Cruz: To be able to keep living my life in a such a way is all I can ever hope for. Making true connections. As long as I am a good person, as long as I am good to my muse and never take anything for granted and always be awake and alive I am grateful.
Is there one album you look back as particularly important to the band and yourself? Say one that you felt like thing were heading in the right direction?
Cruz: For me, I’d have to say it was the pseudo acoustic record we did called Black Out the Sky. That record was super important in our development as a band and as human beings. It kinda loosened any restraints we thought we had and really showed our fans and ourselves the possibilities of our union as a whole.
I’ve always loved Suburban Teenage and Twisted By Design because I think both records hit at the right time for me (I grew up in Indonesia and discovering your music was a big part in who I was and am); plus I learned that bands could hit hard just as much as they sang with emotion- but I think Songs of Armor and Devotion is very much in the same vein. What was the songwriting process like for Songs of Armor… and when did you guys start writing the record?
Cruz: It all happened really quick. Once we set aside the time to write and record we wasted no time and the ideas all came very fast and effortlessly – for the most part. We had a lot of ‘pent up‘ energy and angst I guess you say.
I love the song “Crows”- did you feel like it was a great stand-alone song- were there reasons why you didn’t want to put it on a record?
Cruz: Who knows? Looking back I don’t even remember. It seemed like it didn’t really fit anywhere but it was too good to just let go, so yeah, that song is kinda like a sad pretty little island.
You’ve got an exhibit coming up in October that will showcase your art and your new children’s book. Is the process of creating a new exhibit the same for you as say, planning an upcoming tour? What can we look forward to at the exhibit?
Cruz: Luckily I have help from some really great people. I’ll be painting up until the last minute so any and all help is greatly needed and appreciated. Along with the illustrations from the book I will also have on display a series of new oil paintings.
Steve Caballero is also part of the exhibit, was it a natural process working together with Steve on this? How did this come together?
Cruz: Steve is a blossoming artist and a great human being. I guess I just got extremely lucky on this one.
Strung Out have a North American tour coming up with The Casualties. How’s life on the road these days, are you guys all still enjoying being on the road?
Cruz: Ask me that on the last week of the tour and you’ll get a different answer than now.
I got to see you guys twice the last couple of times you were down in Australia; will we see you here sometime next year?
Cruz: Yes, I believe something big is in the works for Spring.
Do you have a road map for the next few years or are you happy with playing things as they come?
Cruz: It’s more a map of the ocean and I am chained to the wheel.
Jason Cruz’s Fine Art Exhibition and children’s book launch takes place Friday, October 25th, 2019 at the Copro Nason Gallery in Los Angeles. Tickets can be booked here. More information can be found on Jason Cruz’s official website. Strung Out’s new album, Songs of Armor and Devotion, is out now on Fat Wreck Chords.
All Work and All Play: An interview with The Drowns
The Drowns prove that having the right work ethic goes a long way
It’s been a busy year for Seattle punks The Drowns. The band, whose individual histories stretch back some 20 years, are a rough and tumble blend of street punk bravado and positive attitude that found its footing with their 2018 debut album View From the Bottom. With tours, festivals, and new music already checked off in 2019, The Drowns put the “work” in working class rock n’ roll with no rest in sight. Fresh off the release of a new 7″ titled The Sound, the band are prepping for their first ever Japanese tour in October and are working on their new full-length album due in the near future.
On top of the globe trotting, the band will take part in this year’s Rock The Ship Festival, their label’s annual punk rock escapade on the high seas, anchoring a lineup that includes noted bands like Cock Sparrer, CJ Ramone, and Subhumans. We spoke to vocalist Aaron Rev about the new 7″, the terrific street punk anthem “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier”, and what they’re looking forward to next to cap off an already packed 2019.
I really enjoyed the new 7”- how has the reception been, and how are you guys feeling about these new songs?
Rev: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. So far, so good. The reception has been incredible. And we love the new songs. We just got back from a month and a half tour, and the new jams went over great.
It sounds like the band is very in tune right now and that things have continued to go strong since the debut album?
Rev: Totally. We also have a pretty intense work ethic, so right when we are finished with something we are already working on what’s next. Just keeping the ball rolling.
The songs on the new 7” SOUND amazing- where did you guys record and produce the record?
Rev: We working with our brother Jesse O’Donnell from the band Noi!se at his studio the Autopsy Room in beautiful Tacoma WA. Working with Jesse was great. He’s a great guy, and a great engineer. He’s really got an ear for this type of music, and he pours his heart in to it.
What’s the story behind “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier”?
Rev: I live in the south end of Seattle. Years ago I moved to a neighborhood called Georgetown. It was incredible. Tons of artists living in a kind of shitty area, just for cheap rent so they could keep creating. When I’d first moved there, it really was one of the greatest points in my life. I was surrounded by incredible people who inspired me to create. But, we all started to see the gentrification coming, because nothing that great could last forever. The Georgetown neighborhood has a huge building in the middle of it called Rainier Cold Storage, where they used to make and store Rainier Beer. They ended up tearing part of the building down, and for me that symbolized the beginning of the end of what we had. When they were tearing it down, I broke in at night and stole some bricks for the old building, and when I have them around, they serve as reminders to carry the spirit of what we once had along with me wherever I go.
You’ve been playing a bunch of shows over the last few months- how have they been? How are these new songs translating to the live setting?
Rev: The shows have been CRAZY! We’ve gotten tons of support and a great reception to all of the new material. It was a killer tour.
For those who may not be familiar yet, share with us a little history of the Drowns.
Rev: We were all friends in different bands, and we’ve all been in the game for 15-20 years a piece. Our respective bands started to slow down, so we all decided to start a project together. Also, not many bands we knew of were playing the style we wanted to play. So we got together, started writing, and just haven’t stopped.
Are you guys splitting time between Seattle and LA?
Rev: Our drummer Jake lives in LA so we just fly him back and fourth to accommodate, and we head down there. With the internet, it’s surprisingly easy to keep a long distance band going these days.
Speaking of Seattle, I saw on your Twitter that some of you were at a Sounders game- is soccer the sport of choice for The Drowns?
Rev: Totally. Huge soccer fans. MLS and Premier League. Some of us are big hockey fans too.
It’s funny because I felt that “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier” has that stadium anthem feel to it (at least in my head), that its a great song for thousands of people to sing together.
Rev: Hell ya. I’ve worked with the Sounders in the past with my old band. I’d live to have The Downs work with them. It’d be a perfect fit.
Pirates Press has been releasing some great music this year; you guys are in great company. What were some of the reasons for choosing Pirates Press as the new home for your music?
Rev: First and foremost, they are incredible people over there. You be hard pressed to find any other label active right now that gives a shit as much as they do. They are hands on, they are passionate, and they care about the bands, and the music, and the fans. They are truly a great example of how a label should be run.
You were at Punk Rock Bowling this year- how was it? It’s such a massive looking festival from the outside- Did you guys have fun?
Rev: It was KILLER! The lineup this year was insane. The setup of the festival this year was perfect. And, we were crazy surprised when we started playing at 3:30pm and right after we hit that opening chord and turned around, there was a sea of people! We felt so humbled by how many people cane to see us. It was insane.
Are there already plans for a new full-length to follow View From the Bottom? What are the plans for the rest of the year?
Rev: We are definitely always working. So you can bet that you’ll hear about new material soon. But for now, we are going to hit Europe and Japan later this year. And keep on moving.