Justin Perkins gets the perfect take
There's a good chance your favorite Milwaukee band has worked with the engineer-producer
A ubiquitous name in the liner notes of Wisconsin music releases, Milwaukee’s Justin Perkins is an in-demand engineer-producer who has recorded recent albums by Cory Chisel, The Candeliers, Goodnight Loving, Blueheels, and Hayward Williams, among others. Perkins, 28, got his start in the studio recording his own bands, including Yesterday’s Kids, a pop-punk outfit that was signed to Ben Weasel’s label, Panic Button, in the early '00s. While Perkins eventually moved on to The Obsoletes, he maintained a relationship with Weasel, who recently asked him to join the touring versions of Screeching Weasel and The Riverdales. (Perkins also recorded The Riverdales' forthcoming record due in July.) When he’s not playing with Weasel, Perkins focuses on his studio work for other bands, which garnered him a 2009 Producer Of The Year award from the Wisconsin Area Music Industry in April. Decider met up with Perkins to talk about record-making and jamming with a punk legend.
Decider: Do you consider yourself a producer or an engineer?
Justin Perkins: I guess somewhere in the middle. I hope I don’t come off as too controlling or pushy in the studio. Usually I try to take what the band is doing and make it a little better.
D: Do your records have a signature sound?
JP: It just really depends on the kind of music. I don’t think there is one way to do it. Sometimes I look at recording as audio make-up. How much make-up do you want to put on a band? Do you want it to sound like they just woke up in the morning or like they're going to the prom? It can go to either extreme.
D: Is it important for you to like the band in order to work with them?
JP: Yeah, I think it is, whether I realize it or not. I’m not doing any Slipknot kind of bands, and there’s probably a good reason for that.
D: What’s the most common problem you encounter when working with bands?
JP: A lot of people underestimate the amount of time that it takes. You can make a record in a weekend, and for some bands it can turn out how they want it. But I did this one band—I don’t want to name any names—that wanted to do it all live, and it was a larger band, and I think they would have been better off doing it at a live show. Not that the studio is uncomfortable, but it’s hard to cram a lot of people in a small space. I usually tell bands to do less songs in more time—do an EP rather than a full album.
D: How do you feel about the changes made in recording technology over the years. Do you embrace it, or are you a traditionalist?
JP: I definitely like the new technology. If it wasn’t for Pro Tools, there’s no way I could be making records for as cheap as I’m making them now. If you do it on reel-to-reel tape, you have to find a studio that has that kind of machine, which really narrows it down. And tape itself has become a really big expense. I record some bands whose entire budgets would only cover a couple reels of tape. If you’re going to do a full-length album on tape, you’re easily spending $500 to a grand just on tape.
D: Are there any albums or record producers that have been an influence on you, as far as how you want a record to sound?
JP: One long-time favorite of mine is that Bash & Pop album [Friday Night Is Killing Me]. I love how the drums sound on that record, and when I’m doing anything that resembles that kind of music, I try to go for that kind of drum sound. I like Ethan Johns' stuff for singer-songwriters. It’s very natural sounds. I think pretty much everything Ethan Johns has done is pretty great. He did a Jayhawks record I really like, Rainy Day Music.
D: What’s it like playing with Ben Weasel?
JP: It’s pretty good. He’s very business-like in a way. When we practice, we practice the songs for the shows and leave. We’re not going to drink beer and fart around. It’s like, in and out. Which is cool. It’s cool playing shows that are usually sold out and people are really excited to be there. He never played a lot of shows with Screeching Weasel, which turned out to be a smart move on his part because he can go to L.A. and sell out to two shows because he never played there.