John Siket with the band Phish at Bearsville Studios in October of 1997. Photo by Sofi Dillof / Courtesy of Phish
Can you talk about working with Steve Lillywhite and the Dave Matthews Band on 1996’s Crash?
We had just finished the Soul Asylum record I did with Butch [Let Your Dim Light Shine, 1995]. I got a call from RCA, they wanted me to work with this band called the Dave Matthews Band. I hadn’t really heard them. But I asked, “Who’s producing?” They said, “Steve Lillywhite.” And I was in. His name was on so many records that I owned. I just said, “Oh man, I’ve got to work with this guy.” That’s where I learned a lot more about coaxing a good performance out of the band, making them feel at ease in the studio, and mixing as you go.
What does “mixing as you go” mean?
Don’t put off decisions until the mix. Make as many decisions in the moment as you can. We would print effects. Anything we could do that would shape the track toward [Lillywhite’s] final vision, we would do right there on the spot. Every time we did an overdub, we did a mix. By the time we were done overdubbing we had rough-mixed the song so much that it wasn’t a problem. We did our last mix because there was nothing left to record. I used to view recording and mixing as two separate processes. He taught me to view them as the same process.
So he did everything in the moment?
Yeah. It’s a very English way of doing things. I think English engineers are a lot less conservative than American engineers. They’re very apt to print effects. They probably use a lot more compression and EQ going to tape than American engineers do.
At first I was resistant. He said, “You should be able to mix three or four songs a day by the time we are done with this project.” To me, it took a day to mix a song—that was just so ingrained in my head. I said, “Name me a song that you’ve mixed in a short amount of time.” He said, “‘New Year’s Day.’ Do you know that song? I’ll tell you how it goes: I was doing vocals with Bono and he said, ‘I’m not really happy with these lyrics.’ I said, ‘Take 30 minutes and sort out your lyrics.’ We sat around for 15 minutes and did nothing. And then I said, ‘Let’s mix ‘New Year’s Day.’’” They had 30 minutes, they didn’t do anything for the first 15 minutes, and then it occurred to him, “Let’s just mix ‘New Year’s Day.’ Why not?” And they did it in two passes.
Every rough mix that we did, we took it very seriously—we acted like it was a big deal. So think of it: If you mix a song 10 times that way, you’re going to remember a lot of what happened. It takes the fear out of mixing. Steve’s sitting there, you’re sitting there, you’ve seen each other do the same thing 10 times before, you’re just going to try to do it a little bit better—but you try to do that every time—and you’ve got everything recorded. So it’s just another exercise. It’s very smart and it’s kind of obvious when I look at it in retrospect. It’s really just a good way to work.
He would also play rough mixes for Dave Matthews’ friends when they came by the studio. He would pay close attention to what they responded to. One day I asked him, “How come you’re always playing rough mixes for everybody?” And he said, “How am I going to know if they’re any good?” That stunned me. He was completely serious.
How did he get the band to relax and give a good performance?
He played a lot of ping-pong with them. He set up a ping-pong table in the live room. The band would get wound up and play ping-pong. There was a ragged, old yellow shirt that the leading ping-pong player wore. It was called, “the Yellow Jersey.” “Who’s going to get the Yellow Jersey?” [Laughs.] He did that a lot. He distracted them.
You’ve done a lot of work with Phish—Billy Breathes, The Story of the Ghost, Farmhouse, Slip Stitch and Pass, The Siket Disc—how did they distinguish between live and in the studio?
When I met those guys, they were basically tired of a producer telling them what to do. They wanted an engineer who could make producer decisions, but remain an engineer unless asked to do so. That was me. We were in the studio for nine weeks.
I learned a lot from those guys. One thing they asked me to do was, “Take a blank reel of tape, roll halfway in, and then one of us is going to play one note, another person is going to play one note, and then another one.” But that didn’t last too long, it soon turned into one person would play something—a short phrase—and he could play any instrument. For example, Trey [Anastasio] played drums at 4:37, Mike [Gordon] played violin at 2:07. You had all these little patches. Then someone would say, “I liked what you did on drums. I’m going to add a bass part to that.” Then they changed the rules a little bit. Instead of recording something, you could erase something, and you could erase somebody else’s part. You had this constant, “I am going to record or I am going to erase.” A couple of songs started to come out of these little things. There’s a segue called “Steep” on Billy Breathes that’s part of that.
Those guys rehearse like crazy, too. To this day they take rehearsals very seriously—you can’t call in sick to rehearsal, you’ve got to be there—but each one of those guys loves music so much that it’s okay. I saw them two years ago at Madison Square Garden and they sounded better than ever to me and they just looked like they were having a great time. Simultaneously being really serious about it but enjoying themselves, too.