Rock and Roll Book Club: Interview with 'Mirror Sound' creators

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A four-way conversation. (MPR)

Mirror Sound (buy now) is a new book from writer Spencer Tweedy, designer Lawrence Azerrad, and photographer Daniel Topete. The book, subtitled A Look Into the People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music, features the personal studio spaces of artists including Sharon Van Etten, Sadie Dupuis, Mike Eagle, Melina Duterte (Jay Som), Emitt Rhodes, Suzanne Ciani, Laetitia Tamko (Vagabon), Ty Segall, and tUnE-yArDs.

All three of the book's co-creators hopped on Zoom with The Current's Jay Gabler to share their insights, their favorite moments making the book — and their wish list of recording spaces to visit next. Watch the interview above, and read a transcript below.


JAY GABLER: Jay Gabler, with The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club, here with the three co-creators of this new book Mirror Sound, all about self-recorded music. We've got writer Spencer Tweedy, who's also a musician, has been at The Current with his band Tweedy with his dad Jeff Tweedy, designer Lawrence Azerrad, and photographer Daniel Topete. Thank you, all three, for being here with us today.

SPENCER TWEEDY: Thank you.

LAWRENCE AZERRAD: Great to be here.

GABLER: Yeah. So, for starters let's talk about the title of the book. How'd you land on the title, Mirror Sound?

TWEEDY: Well, it's pretty simple. In fact, it's so simple I'm worried, it's self-conscious that it might be too straightforward, but the idea is that self-recording is like reflecting yourself back to yourself. It's like an audio mirror for your personality and your creativity in...yeah, like kind of building a musical mirror for yourself.

AZERRAD: Spencer and I kind of agonized last summer, just kind of going through word lists trying to beat that title, and it just ended up...sometimes it's best to just go with the straight.

GABLER: Cool. So let's talk about how this collaboration came together. So you write in the book that Spencer and Lawrence, you two have known each other for a long time through Lawrence's work on Jeff Tweedy's albums. How did that friendship evolve into a partnership on this book project, and then how did Daniel come into the mix?

TWEEDY: The idea started brewing within me many years ago. By now we've been working on this a pretty long time, because it was inspired by my own experiences self-recording and just the super-empowering experience of realizing that it was possible to make records on my own at home and that...you know, in high school that I didn't have to wait to be in a traditional studio or to, you know, have all of these other pieces in place, that it was just possible to realize sounds that I wanted to make then, with whatever was available. So I approached Lawrence about maybe making something, an artifact based on this community that surrounds self-recording, because it seemed that there was kind of a tight-knit, special little niche of people that do this thing. It's, you know, similar to traditional studio recording but it's also this kind of uniquely solitary thing and it felt like it had its own culture surrounding it, so Lawrence and I developed the idea from there and figured out what shape it might take and how we might go about telling those stories, and I had been lucky to know Daniel through a couple mutual friends for a few years before that and knew that his photography, or felt like his photography would be a great fit because he's photographed tons of bands and had been in every type of musical environment imaginable, I think, already at that point, so...and I knew that, or I was hoping and it turned out to be correct that he would be up for the challenge of trying to make a book that required a bunch of traveling and being in a lot of people's cramped personal spaces. So we all came together through that and ended up creating what "Mirror Sound" became.

DANIEL TOPETE: It was actually perfect for me because every time I do a shoot I try to start at someone's home. It's always been my favorite way of...just, I don't know, there's like a trust that you have right away, right off the bat. Yeah, so this was like the perfect opportunity for that.

AZERRAD: The word "trust" that Daniel uses, trust is kind of a perfect fulcrum for where the relationship with Spencer and I started, because doing artwork for, and working in the kind of just general Wilco ecosystem, working with Spencer's dad for so long, that's where I really first got to meet Spencer and started having a dialogue on making art and learning to trust each other and that's what kind of...a collegial bond formed where it was just like, hey, we really do like talking about ideas of making and creative spirit and so we just...it just kind of unraveled naturally from there. Unraveled in a good way from there, and then Spencer introduced me to Daniel.

GABLER: Now, Spencer, you used the word "artifact." How did you decide that this would be a book — as opposed to, you know, a video series, a podcast, any number of other forms this kind of investigation, this celebration of this community, could have taken?

TWEEDY: I wish that there was a high-minded answer to that, but I think the simple answer is just that we love books, and Lawrence is the author of another book called Supersonic, about the Concorde jet and everything that that entailed - its relation to design and technology and things like that - so I think books are just a really...they're still really valuable. They're still really...I think they still have a lot of power to embody something and embody...they're a great medium for photographs, and Daniel's photos look so unbelievably great in this book! I will gush about them a million years, or as much as I can, but books are...they're just super cool, is what it boils down to, and for a first-time author like myself, the experience of getting to make a physical book and see these things in print is really cool.

AZERRAD: It provides a level of tangency that you really can't get on a blog, certainly not on a podcast. You're lucky to be speaking to us on the week that we actually got our physical books. Daniel, was it yesterday that we met up for it? And just to see for the first time...holding it in your hand is completely a different experience than...especially when we're so used to watching everything on our iPhone, you appreciate it and connect to it and come back to it in a different way. Maybe you want to add, Daniel, what that was like to kind of...the difference.

TOPETE: It was a complete shock to me, honestly. There were some photos that I took that I didn't even realize that I liked until I saw them in print. Like, there are some that Lawrence chose that it wasn't my favorite photo, and then once I saw it in print, I saw the grandness of it. I don't know. So he did a great job on that.

AZERRAD: I mean, you have a different relationship to something in the physical, same as with music, you know: you're listening to a record on a streaming service, it's so easy to hit "next" or hop around from record to record, track to track. When you put on an album, on an LP, that's much more...kind of, like, singular, almost like a kind of...to use the word meditative experience. So when we were laying out the book, I actually had to print out every single photo from every single part of every session. You know, eight hundred...thousands, really, little pieces of paper, just to be able to kind of have, like, a physical relationship to all of these things. So when you hold it, you read it, it's not...it's different than glancing at an interview with, say, Ty Segall on the subway. It's a different kind of listening and learning and understanding.

GABLER: So to bring people up to speed if anyone is watching and is not familiar with the book: so you visited a wide range of artists from the legendary Suzanne Ciani to bands like tUnE-yArDs to, there's Vagabon on the cover, Jay Som. You know, all these artists, and these are artists who are known for...are part of this community where they record in their homes. And you used the word "trust" a little bit earlier. Are these artists...are a lot of these artists maybe letting another observer — a photographer, a writer, designer — into their space for the first time, or is it rare for them?

TWEEDY: Definitely. I don't know what portion of the artists, for whom it was the first time they let somebody into their personal spaces, but I can say that with every artist that we talked to and that we photographed, every single time it felt like, whoa, this is really a privilege that they're allowing us to be in here. It felt in a lot of cases like even more generous and more giving than I would be willing to be with my personal space and with my bedroom creative workspace. So we really appreciated it. Daniel, did you have anything to add on that?

TOPETE: Emitt Rhodes was...we were the first people in his studio in 20 years. Even himself, I believe, hadn't been in there. But every place felt very special and privileged, like Spencer said, to be there.

AZERRAD: I'm going to embarrass Daniel, though, 'cause good photography is more than just lighting and composition, but Daniel has this kind of supernatural ability to capture these moments where people really seemed kind of honest and pure. It's almost like that trust is manifest in the photos, open and honest.

GABLER: Yeah. And certainly the timing of this publication is poignant, now that we are at a few months into lockdown due to the public health crisis and we're seeing a lot of people's personal spaces in ways that we hadn't been before. I'm here in my kitchen, you know? You're all in your homes and personal spaces, but I gather the work on the book happened entirely, or almost entirely, before we went into lockdown. So how are you...what's it like to be bringing this work out, now, before the public in the current environment?

TWEEDY: It's true. We did finish producing the book before any of this happened, so it's a coincidence, and not one that we feel very comfortable celebrating, obviously, because nothing about the way things are going right now is worth celebrating, but it does seem to relate to the idea that your creativity is more resilient when you don't have rely on a whole bunch of other apparatus and a whole other place to go or too many collaborators or tools you need. Like, when you can make the records you want to make at home or with whatever is available to you, you can kind of keep on going and that can be a really healthy way to cope, I think, for a lot of people through everything that's going on.

AZERRAD: Yeah, the idea that you can spark creativity in yourself wherever you are and sometimes impose your own challenges to make creativity flourish. That also supports being creative under the challenges of quarantine. You just have to face challenges in whichever way they come about, and a lot of the book is about being creative.

GABLER: I suppose everyone's forced to be creative in that way now, but this is celebrating artists who have largely chose to inhabit their own spaces and work independently. You wrote, Spencer, about setting up your own setup underneath the basement stairs, and I'm curious to know: what do you see as the connective tissue across all of these different artists from different generations, different genres? What is it that these artists have in common that has caused them all to look inward into their own spaces, create their own creative areas to make their art in?

TWEEDY: I think the number one most common thread between them is a desire to have the comfort of recording in their own space. Even if you love a particular traditional studio and you have a great relationship with the engineers there, there can still be a feeling that you're on the clock and paying for every minute of time, and for some people that can be a big impediment to feeling willing to explore. Because sometimes it can take just a ton of time and a ton of raw effort to arrive at a sound that is the sound that unlocks a particular song or a particular arrangement. And so it can be really important to not have any worry whatsoever that you have to make the most of the hour, or that there's somebody looking through the control room glass and waiting for you to do the real take, or whatever it is. So I think the common thread is that people, the artists in this book enjoy having none of that concern at all and being allowed to waste time. It's not really wasted time, obviously, but being allowed to record four hundred hours before they get the three minutes that feel right, or whatever workflow works for them.

GABLER: And I suppose it may be a cliche to say that a studio is an instrument or that artists use the studio as an instrument, but all the artists here and to some extent probably every recording artist, for every recording artist the studio, whatever studio environment you're in whether it's professional studios, your own studio setup, what have you, it's really part of what gets created is the space you're in and the equipment you're using, and the book seems to be arguing that whatever limitations there may be, technically, to working in your own space, for these artists at least, what they're able to accomplish in terms of controlling their environment, controlling their sound, controlling their space more than makes up for any technical limitations they might face.

TWEEDY: I think that's definitely true, and that's one of the things that Lawrence brought to the project early on was an awareness that not only the environment within the studio but the environment around somebody's workspace can have super profound effects on what they end up creating, even if it's really hard for them to articulate how that really happened or what the influence of the environment is. It's subliminal, but it ends up playing out in, I think it absolutely ends up having an influence on their finished products.

AZERRAD: Yeah, it primes an intention. So even though you are, perhaps, recording in your bedroom, you know, there is this kind of goal from within. Just, I'm...I don't care if I'm doing this on my iPhone or my laptop. I'm still going to make it excellent. Or perhaps, you know, some of the artists that Spencer and Daniel visited were in upstate New York and kind of beautiful woods...or some, in some super urban environments. You know, the environments that we create and through some form of osmosis definitely inform, pervade, influence, leave a thumbprint of how we create and why we create.

GABLER: Well, and clearly visuals are very important to that as well. You know, music is...music, by definition, it's audio, but, you know, for these artists the visual space they inhabit is important. You write in the book about why it was important to bring that element...to show these artists' spaces to you, because this is what they're looking at when they're creating. And obviously this is something you've long reflected on, Lawrence, in your work, working on albums and thinking, what...you know, what visuals are going to accompany this music?

AZERRAD: Yeah. It's...the things that you surround yourself with are, definitely kind of form your creative spirit and how you kind of dress or how you walk into the place where you make your stuff...you know, affects your attention and intention to your process. You know, I think of, like, Bobb Bruno, who is in Best Coast amongst a bunch of other projects. You know, he has a lot of these, like, super awesome but niche Japanese, like, wrestling posters...like, lots of just super cool elements of his kind of creative DNA that may not have a sonic signature in his music but somehow informs who he is as a person, and that is a formative element in creating the music. And I think that's true with all of these artists. Like Suzanne Ciani is up way on these cliffs above the ocean, and it's not just the proximity to the ocean, but, you know, the type of town that she's in and her proximity to nature...all of these aspects affect, you know, who we are as an artist in a more holistic kind of three-sixty kind of degree way. And Daniel did a super job of capturing all of those ingredients.

GABLER: So Daniel and Spencer, what were some of your favorite moments that you had going in to visit all these artists and spending time in their spaces?

TWEEDY: I think we're still reeling from getting to meet Emitt Rhodes, getting to see his studio in his garage in California, because Emitt has created some of the most important records to me and most important records to a lot of people with his solo records from the late '60s and early '70s, and the fact that he was willing to let us into that space was shocking and just really, really cool, and his studio he had built to his dream specs in the early '70s when he moved across the street from his parents' house, where his first garage studio was, right before that. So there's shag carpet on the floor and the walls and I think even on the ceiling in some parts. He just talked to us about hanging the monitors from the ceiling himself and how he built it all, and...yeah, there's just, getting to meet the person behind the music you love is just always a really exciting experience. Do you have anything to add, Daniel?

TOPETE: I was just thinking of Sam Evian. His space was really a reflection of himself and the music that he makes there. It was, like, this beautiful home in upstate New York, and I think he invited us to stay there. It just made perfect sense that he made music there.

TWEEDY: Yeah.

TOPETE: Everyone...yeah, everyone was so lovely there.

GABLER: There must have been some significant that you faced, Daniel, as a photographer, because these are intimate, sort of low-light spaces. These aren't photography studios, and you aren't going to be bringing in a lot of artificial light or anything either.

TOPETE: No, not too much. Sadie from Speedy Ortiz was in a basement and it was lit with Christmas lights, basically. Like, blue Christmas lights. And it was so beautiful. Like, it was really cool, but it was very hard to photograph, but I didn't want to bring in my own lighting or anything, so I just, like...I had to shoot digital for that whole thing and I just had to capture her space instead of bringing in my own artificial light.

AZERRAD: That session ends up being one of my favorite from the whole book because there's kind of this, like, blue glow to everything and you're almost in this kind of aquarium kind of vibe. Like, underwater feeling.

TOPETE: Yeah. I didn't want to take away from that at all. And then there were some spaces where there was just so much stuff...like, a hard flash to show the craziness of it. Like Jonathan Rado's space, I think, was one that comes to mind. Just had a billion wires running up every single wall you could possibly think of.

GABLER: I wonder, are there any songs that any of you hear differently now that you've seen, experienced, talked to the artists about the spaces where the songs were recorded?

TWEEDY: I feel like I have a little more insight now into the way Ty Segall composes some of his stuff, because he talked about using improvisation to compose, and picking an instrument to start with and then building things based on two- or three-minute improvisation that he did on that instrument. So that was enlightening. But as far as a specific song, I think "Superbike" by Jay Som I hear in a little bit of a different way because Melina of Jay Som talked to us about needing to escape her home in L.A. because the roommates and neighbors were just too distracting and encroaching on her microphones in her bedroom, so she rented an Airbnb in Joshua Tree and moved all of her equipment there for a weekend or a week or something and recorded the album that "Superbike" came from. So I think when I listen to that song now, I think about what she described as that trip there and, ironically, then inviting her friends out to that Airbnb studio, too, because I think she ended up missing them and she enjoys them even if they're too loud for recording sometimes.

AZERRAD: I think seeing the relationship between Merrill and Nate in tUnE-yArDs is really nice. There's some great pictures that...I didn't necessarily know that they're a couple, married, and that they work together, but you also see in some of the photos expressions where they're looking at each other and...you know, collaboration manifests not just in music, too, and you can see it in their eyes and hear it in the music.

GABLER: So obviously there are infinite different spaces that one could visit for a project like this, and it makes me think of what my bucket list is of spaces or studios to visit. I think of, boy, if you could get into the room where Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska, you know...do you have any spaces on your bucket list of places you'd still love to see or visit sometime in terms of places where music is made and recorded?

TWEEDY: Definitely. I really admire...as far as contemporary artists, I really admire Kevin Parker. I think that, you know, he's reached this stratosphere of pop music which is really cool, and indie musicians, indie rock world musicians, ought not to reject him just because he's had this crossover success, in my opinion at least. But I really admire him for his production of records like Melody's Echo Chamber and his own records as Tame Impala, so I think it would be amazing to get to talk to him someday or get to see the...I think he's had a couple of different studios by now in different rented houses and things like that, but to see where he makes records would be really exciting. But the Holy Grail for me would have to be going back in time and being in the room where Paul McCartney was recording his first solo records, McCartney one and II, and while I'm in the time machine I might as well also go to where he was recording Ram. I don't think that record, Ram, was necessarily self-engineered, but all of it, all of those records are some of the most inspiring to me and definitely inspired me to start engineering as well, so those would be my picks.

AZERRAD: You said bucket list, Jay, but Bruce Springsteen Nebraska was literally on our list for this record, we just...so if there's any chance that the Boss might be listening to this show, you know, I'm sure we could arrange Mirror Sound two or Mirror Sound: Nebraska. We could just do that book and make that happen, and that would be a really great book, Bruce, so there's that.

TWEEDY: Daniel, I'm sure you have some wish list items, too.

TOPETE: Bruce Springsteen Nebraska would be...is definitely on the list. There's a Blaze Foley album I really love, and he recorded on a four-track, eight-track? I forget what. I think just a tape deck on a kitchen table...would be my time travel wish list.

TWEEDY: Oh, I've got one more to add. It would be Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices, who has recorded approximately four thousand albums on his own or with various incarnations of Guided By Voices, and we did reach out to him for Mirror Sound, but I think he was too busy making more music, so we weren't able to do that, but maybe some day we could.

GABLER: Yeah. I think it would be impossible to have Guided By Voices' career if you've got to book the Hit Factory every time.

TWEEDY: Yeah. Exactly.

GABLER: Well, thanks all three of you for coming together and talking about this extraordinary new book. It was so great to take a look at it, glad it is out there in the world and available for people to order or pick up at their local bookstore now.

TWEEDY: Thank you so much, Jay. Thank you.

GABLER: Yeah.

AZERRAD: Thanks, Jay.

TOPETE: Thank you, Jay.

GABLER: Thanks.

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October 29: 666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die: A Guide to the Monsters of Rock and Metal by Bruno MacDonald (buy now)

November 5: Violet Bent Backward Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey (buy now)

November 12: She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (Revised and Updated 25th Anniversary Edition) by Lucy O'Brien (buy now)

November 19: The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America by Marcus J. Moore (buy now)


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