Curation, Pt. 2: An Interview with Dan Horne
Today we’re continuing our exploration of music industry roles through the lens of bass players and Pacific Range’s latest album, High Upon The Mountain, out now on Curation Records. A big part of the album’s delectable sonic palette is thanks to the engineering and producing skills of Dan Horne.
A native to the San Francisco Bay Area, Horne counts his early influences as bands like Primus, Metallica, Public Enemy, Johnny Cash, and Bob Marley. He became a touring bassist just after attending college and hit the road with Ben Kweller. That blossomed into a career performing with acts like Jonathan Wilson, Cass McCombs, The Skiffle Players, Circles Around the Sun, and Grateful Shred.
All along his path, Horne’s proclivity for understanding and tackling all aspects of music creation has led to a mastery of engineering and producing. At his Lone Palm Studio, he’s mixed, engineered, or produced for Cass McCombs, Vulfpeck, Mapache, Hot Hot Heat, Graham Nimmons, and more. On top of it all, the bassist just released his solo recording debut, The Motorcycle Song EP. The four-song collection “synthesizes his talents into a single, playful statement of sound and magic.”
We caught up with Horne to get his take on engineering, producing, and the secret weapon in his studio.
How did you get into producing?
Well, I was the guy in high school that had a four-track, and also my basement was where everyone jammed. I guess that started it. I took it more seriously after I moved to LA and I was playing in some bands, but I also had to have a job. I had different jobs driving and I actually worked at Line 6. It was a product testing job where you would use their stuff with all these different other programs.
That sounds like a dream job.
Yes, it was cool but then that’s actually what drove me to decide that I could maybe not have a job. [laughs] I guess a lot of it had to do with commuting to work and all that stuff and in town. I was like, “You know what? I can do this.” Me and a couple of friends started a studio and recording bands and our own projects and all that stuff.
Was there a jump from engineering to producing? Or it melded together and then you started getting hired for one or the other?
Yes. It starts definitely as both. I just like doing everything. It started with me getting up my engineering skills and taking over and doing everything.
[Pacific Range bassist] Cameron was telling me about your studio space. He said he thought your secret weapon was a big plate reverb you got in there. What do you have?
It’s an EMT 140. It’s like the classic one that has the sound. I just scored it randomly. There was this guy and I’m out here in LA and he had this big cool studio in a giant house out in the Hills. He said, “I’m going all digital. I’m getting rid of all this stuff.” He had two of them in his storage, so my friend called me up and we bought both of them. I took one and he took the other.
Do you see your bass playing style and your producing style connected? Do you see bass players as producers coming at it a certain way?
Well, I guess so. I try to keep a spontaneous and loose vibe with everything, I guess you could say that would be a parallel. Also, a lot of bass players end up being producers. I don’t know why. That’s a good question because a lot of times we end up being the guy that does that – that has the four-track or whatever. Something about the way that you think makes you want to, or maybe it’s just once the bass is done, you’re like, “Oh, well, now what am I going to do?” But, no, I don’t know. I think it’s a common thread among a lot of bass players who want to also be the engineer.
It seems a lot of bass players actually pick up the bass because somebody needs a bass player, and then so it’s the same thing, like, “Well, somebody needs to record us.” It’s like the “get after it” kind of person.
Yeah, I also fixed a lot of gear. Somebody has to do that. I’m that guy. I set up the PA and do all that stuff, and help people get their tones dialed in and everything.
What do you look for in a project when you’re looking to work with somebody?
Obviously, I’ve got to like the music because we have to sit there and listen to the songs over and over again. I like a lot of music. You’ve got to get along with the guys, you notice, “Oh, these are cool guys that I would probably want to hang with.” It has a lot to do with that. It’s usually pretty obvious when I meet people. I don’t work too far outside of our scene, so it all comes to me, but I’d like to do more. It’s usually like, “Oh, obviously you and Dan should work together,” something like that. It’s like everything seems to come together.
How did you approach working on High Upon The Mountain?
It sounds kind of cliché, but I saw them live and I was like, “This is cool.” I just don’t really want to mess it up, so I wanted to try to keep the vibe that they brought live. We basically set up the whole band and even had the vocal mic in the room with everyone for a while and they just played. Then a lot of the vocals we even kept. Then if there was anything like, “Oh, we should maybe fix that,” then we would fix it, but we tried to keep it live.
We ended up using – I think it was a 58 or something – for a lot of the vocals. The overdubs too, like, “Oh, wait now,” because we used the 58 for the vocals to track live. When we went to go do overdubs, we’re like, “Oh, let’s try a fancy mic.” We tried it and then said, “Hey, you know what? It sounds better to use the mic that you use on stage.” That was pretty cool.
I love that. I had a shootout in a studio one time between a U87 and then a $250 mic and everyone agreed on the $250 mic. It’s funny when that happens.
It is funny. I think a 58 and an 87 sound similar when you’re singing into them. I’ve done some stuff where I comped together takes from both those mics and you couldn’t tell. The 87 probably has other uses and on some people’s voice, you probably can tell but for some people, you just can’t tell.
What did you do for working on Cameron’s bass tone?
First we DI it. Then when we’re done tracking, we put it through a stack real loud and mic it up. Everyone gets far away from it so we can turn it up super loud. I think we also had an amp going, which was actually cool, like a little practice amp thing that sounded cool. It was a combination of that.
Do you remember which big amp you used?
I have an old Orange head – the classic tube one. I also have a new Mesa Subway. They sound really good. Whatever I use, I run through, usually the fifteens with the aluminum cap on, either, I have a bunch of them, D140s or I got Weber. Weber’s making some really cool ones now that sound similar to the D140s. It was in a bunch of different cabinets, so I think that Cam’s tone was with my Sunn cabinet with D140s in it. That’s I think where a lot of the sound comes from, just turning those speakers up really loud.
What kind of direction did you give him during your sessions?
He’s pretty solid and they have a lot of it. They play so many shows around town. You’ll see them twice a week in different venues. They’re playing all the time, so they have a lot of it worked out already. Sometimes we’d work on little things like, “Oh, maybe you should do a fill here or maybe you should play a different note over that chord.” That’s where I sometimes get a little bit of a stickler about that kind of stuff. “You can’t play C sharp over that,” and stuff like that.
Those are important details that people, especially players, if you’re in the heat of the moment, you don’t think about too hard, but then from an outside perspective, someone listening to it will make the hair stand on the back of your neck.
Exactly. I get weirded about that stuff sometimes. If you’re playing in E, the difference between a C sharp passing note and a D passing note over an E major can drive me crazy. They’re both cool but they both have a different feel. I’m like, “No, don’t. No.” Stuff like that, I tend to… I want to keep my mouth shut but then I can’t. [laughter]
That seems like that would be part of the difficult part of producing – what really needs to change and what you can just let go.
Yeah, totally. I think that’s the thing. That’s my thing. Like I was saying before about picking the right band to play with, you’ve got to know going into it. Is this going to be a band where I’m going to be cool with just letting them do their thing or am I going to have to go in and really hash it out and fix stuff? If that’s the case, you’ve got to make sure that they’re cool with it doing that. You know what I mean?
They expect to come in and record everything and do it all themselves and then you’re like, “Oh actually, I’m going to play guitar on this.” They gotta know that that’s the plan going into it. If that’s the plan. Sometimes I will do those projects where I play everything or at least like get my crew of session guys to play everything. That’s fun, too. Like I said, it has to be kind of the plan going into that.
What other advice do you have for maybe some of our readers that are thinking about wanting to get into producing?
Well, just do a lot of work and try to stay busy as much as you can. Part of that is getting friends to trust you. Obviously, when you’re starting out, you’re going to do a lot of jobs for your friends where you have to convince them to come over. One thing I did that was cool was me and a couple of friends got a job working on commercials and stuff like that, where you could make jingles for commercial music, which is really good practice because every day it’s like, “Oh, you’ve got to make a song that sounds like this.” They give you direction. A lot of times, they’ll give you a temp song or something.
Then you do it and one day is all you get, you turn it in. They usually use very little because it’s a demo. That was a good way to get started. It’s just working as much as you can even if it’s not like a big job.
The other thing I think a lot of people get hung up on is their gear. I get hung up on gear all the time. It can be cool because for instance right now, I’m trying to record this song. I need a different ride cymbal and none of my friends are in town. I’m like, “I got a nice ride cymbal for the song,” and it’s preventing me from finishing the song. There are pitfalls there like don’t get it hung up on your gear. Make do with what you have. Like we were talking about 58, we can make great sounds with anything. Just keep rolling.
You get in there and learn how to set your instrument up. Get the screwdrivers and wrenches out and dial it in and a way to do it. Make it happen.