Interview: Billy Anderson
I’ve said it before, and I still feel this way after 30+ years. The music has to give me chills. That’s seriously a main requirement.
Billy Anderson is a producer and engineer who has worked on some of the best ever albums that fall into the extreme music spectrum and beyond. From Neurosis and Sleep to Swans and Melvins, he has worked on some truly seminal records and continues to work on different music projects constantly. Gavin Brown had the privilege to talk with Billy about his storied career in music, including tales of working on some iconic albums, his own bands and what he is working on at the moment in an insightful and fascinating chat with one of the finest music producers out there.
E&D: Are you working on anything at the moment?
Billy: Yeah, a lot of stuff. I’ve been writing and recording music of my own as well as collaborating with a number of people on “Quarantine Projects”— cover songs, music that needed to get finished but for whatever reason, hadn’t gotten attention until people had time due to quarantine. I’ll be putting all of the projects that get done up on Bandcamp at some point soon. One of my favourite things I’ve been doing is a collaboration between myself and Uta Plotkin. She was the singer in Witch Mountain, we’ve known each other for 12+ years. She was also in Aranya and she’s currently in Lividus. She’s one of my favourite vocalists ever and a close friend. We’ve been doing a few covers, and it’s been a lot of fun. So we decided to make a band out of it and we’ve started doing original material. I do all the music and she shreds the vocals. It’s very rewarding musically.
E&D: How this worldwide pandemic affected your studio work?
Billy: I was scheduled to do quite a few albums in the spring, namely the new Eight Bells album and the next Bell Witch album. Both were scheduled for the time between March through the end of May. Both have had to be postponed due to either recording or rehearsal studios closing temporarily. In addition to these two, there have been a couple of others, and I have no way of telling how many bands would have wanted to record but now can’t due to the pandemic. So, it will all get done when things are open and safe to record again, and I’m hoping that recording picks up again soon.
E&D: What was your introduction to music and how did you get into the heavier side of it?
Billy: I have always been very attached to music, some of my first memories in life are based around playing. I’ve played music since the age of 4. My grandmother gave my older sister and I piano lessons. I learned with a colour-coded system, so I knew how to read music before I know how to read. When I got over the whole piano thing, I wanted to play drums when I was about 10. That was too much for my family. When I was 14, I got a guitar and found metal and punk.
E&D: How did you get into producing and engineering in the first place?
Billy: I started recording my own music in high school when I bought a cassette 4-track. I’m from a very small town, so I didn’t get a lot of experience recording anything but my own ideas until I left for college. I started recording in actual studios when I was in college. I had a band that wanted to record a demo and we went into a small studio that was associated with the school. The engineer absolutely hated us and our punk music. He basically showed me how to hit the record buttons and I sort of took the ball and ran with it from there.
E&D: What do you look for in a band before you work with them?
Billy: I’ve said it before, and I still feel this way after 30+ years. The music has to give me chills. That’s seriously a main requirement. I always try to see the band live before recording, though it’s not always possible with bands from far away, but seeing or not seeing them live doesn’t always matter. If I feel motivated or moved by the music, whether seeing it live or hearing it recorded then there’s a good chance I will pursue recording them.
E&D: Do you have a set way of working or do you work closely with the band to see what works best?
Billy: I really have no rules or a set way of recording. Each band is different and has different needs. I’ve always recorded in many studios all around the world, and each studio has its own setup and workflow. I’d hate to get in a rut of same-sounding albums, and the fact that I get to record in a wide variety of studios has always kind of prevented that. There are however, common things when I record, things like trying to get good inspired live takes, creating an inspiring atmosphere for musicians to play in, things like that.
E&D: You have have worked on so many seminal albums, if I name an album could you tell me your memories and insights about working on the album?
Billy: Sure, if I can remember!
E&D: Neurosis – Enemy Of The Sun and Through Silver in Blood.
Billy: Heavy album, heavy times. That album was done at a time when the band and myself were going through all types of craziness both musically and personally. I can’t go into too much detail but let’s just say that those were some of the darkest and heaviest sessions I’ve ever been involved with and therefore some of the proudest to have lived through.
E&D: Sleep – Holy Mountain and Dopesmoker.
Billy: Again too many to elaborate on. Let’s just say that we all went through a lot of changes from the first album I did with them to the eventual release of Dopesmoker. Musically, professionally, with labels, managers, etc— even beyond the band breaking up and with the lore surrounding the band and my recordings with them. The true story of Sleep’s Holy Mountain and Dopesmoker are widely written about. Some of it is true and some is not. But this interview would be three times as long if I went into details about these two albums.
E&D: Sick Of It All – Scratch The Surface.
Billy: The band had recorded and mixed the album with another engineer. They were happy with their performances, but not happy with the mix. They brought me up to their label at the time as someone they’d like to have mix the album. I got a call from the label and went to Rhode Island to mix it at the studio where New Kids On The Block had recorded and mixed. Haha. One of my favourite mixes ever, it’s way more raw and representative of the band than the original mix is. After that I ended up going on tour with them as the live sound guy, that was fun too.
E&D: Melvins – Houdini.
Billy: Lots of stories from this one too. We recorded this album in a few different sessions. The first one was when Cobain was “producing”. He and Buzz showed up hours late only to have the power in the entire neighbourhood get shut off, so we had to scrap the session and started the next day. The next sessions were done on the road, I was doing sound at the time. We stopped in Olympia, WA and recorded a couple of songs there. After that, the next sessions were done after a hiatus of a few months. There was some crazy shit that happened on the tour we had been on. I can’t really go into detail, but at the end of it, Buzz and Lori had broken up and there was a need to get a new bass player—namely myself. I knew the songs and it was kind of a no brainer. I ended up on two of the songs on bass. Then we finished the whole thing by mixing it all with a final group of days. Pretty epic.
E&D: Eyehategod – Dopesick.
Billy: Again, lots of stories. The main thing was that I offered to go to New Orleans and record them after hearing they were in some random place with someone they didn’t know. They told me they had no budget and the label wouldn’t give any more money but I had really wanted to work with them for a long time so I basically told them I’d do it for per diems if they could get me to New Orleans and back and feed me while I was down there. Total punk style. So they made it happen. They had already booked a studio, and it wasn’t very good. None of us had even been there before. Stuff broke, I had a hard time trying to navigate the technical end of that place. The owner was bummed at us, and it ended up fairly rushed and uncomfortable. But we made it happen. I remember blowing up the main speakers there. We didn’t have time to mix the album with theme we had booked, so a few months later, Joey and Brian came out to San Francisco and we did like 4 graveyard sessions at Hyde St. Studios. The band had no money, the label wasn’t helping either. But it had to get done, so we’d start mixing at 11pm and we’d have to be out no later than 8am. Looking back, it feels like that was a pretty punk way to have to do the album, though at the time, I don’t remember even thinking about that.
E&D: Swans – Soundtrack For The Blind.
Billy: I had been a fan of these guys since high school. It happened that Rave Booking in San Francisco (they booked and/or managed a few bands I knew well—Neurosis, Year Bitch, and a few others) was booking the Swans tour that was soon to come through San Francisco. Kevin at Rave called me and asked if I was into the Swans. Of course I say yes and why. He said that they were coming through town soon and had wanted to take a week off before resuming the tour and wanted to record some stuff for new releases. Kevin asked if I’d be interested, to which I fan-boyed out and basically said (or screamed) hell yeah!! So, we did like 5 days at Coast Recorders in San Francisco. I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous recording anyone, ever. But, though I had no idea what it was going to be used for, the songs from those sessions ended up on at least 2 albums they released.
E&D: Mr Bungle – Disco Volante.
Billy: Oh man. As with most of the albums you’re asking about, there are too many things to choose from. We were in the studio for 9 months, almost every day and it was at the time (and still in the top 3) the most difficult and challenging album I had ever been involved with. We had debilitating technical issues. We were in like 6 different studios in California over 9 months, longer if you count the demos which we recorded a couple of months prior to starting. It was all done on tape, no Pro Tools or anything like that. We used at least two 2” tape machines that were synced together for every song. There were a few that we also used an ADAT machine or two for additional tracks that wouldn’t fit on 48 tracks of tape. That was a whole set of things. Also-scheduling the lives of 6 or 7 band members who were all busy plus myself, assistant engineers and juggling studios, all proved to be very challenging. At that time, Faith No More was still touring and Patton was in and out with that. And there were quite a few guest musicians that played various instruments that the band didn’t want to try to play. Most of them were from far away. For example, we spent a day recording a bandoneon player who had come from Argentina. So yeah, logistically it was challenging as well. If any of this sounds like I’m complaining, I’m really not. Sure, it was difficult and long and challenging. But also a lot of fun. It was an extremely rewarding experience. I personally learned invaluable amounts of things about music and recording it. I had to improv and invent ways to record things I had never recorded before, all while hanging and making great music with people I am friends with. I’d say it was all worth any difficulties. Trey and I have discussed co-writing a book or a documentary of some kind about the making of Disco Volante and California. I’d do it if he still wanted to…
E&D: You have worked with so many other bands from Brutal Truth and Cathedral to Buzzoven and Om. Who were some of the most memorable bands you have worked with?
Billy: Well, to me they’re all memorable. Some bands I’ve spent more time with than others. I am friends with most bands I’ve ever worked with, but some bands I’ve ended up spending more time together with. Bands like Melvins, Red House Painters, Sleep, Agalloch, 7 Year Bitch, High On Fire, Buzzov’en, Bottom, Eyehategod, many others. I’ve not only toured with most of those bands, but spent countless hours with in personal life. Lifelong friends.
E&D: What album that you have worked on has had the biggest effect on you and opened the most doors in terms of working with other bands?
Billy: When I was working at Razor’s Edge Studios in San Francisco, I was managing the place and basically had to do all the bands that came through the door. I was lucky enough that bands like Melvins, Sleep, Red House Painters, Neurosis, Jawbreaker were among the bands that came through the doors. These bands were huge in the area at the time and went on to be much bigger, that sort of catapulted me and my name to a larger audience and many other bands who were influenced by them. From there it sort of snowballed and I soon was able quit being exclusive to that studio and went independent so I could work in any studio.
E&D: Who would you love to work with in the future?
Billy: I have some “bucket list” projects that I could name, they’ll most likely remain wishes rather than reality. I’ve always fantasised about recording Diamanda Galás, I think that would be an amazing life experience. I’d also really love to do another project with the Melvins. Especially now, after I have 25+ years of experience and ideas under my belt since the last one, haha! Aside from all that, I have always loved working with cutting edge independent bands, both as they are getting started and after they are established. I’ve also always done albums with people and bands that are my friends and peers, and I do more than one album for a lot of bands I work with. I hope to always do these things.
E&D: Your band High Tone Son Of A Bitch recently released a new EP Wicked Threads, how has it been releasing new material with the band and how has it been received so far?
Billy: It’s been great working with High Tone Son Of A Bitch. I’ve known those guys since before the band became a band, so they’re good friends to start. I’ve also been involved with making all but one of the band’s recordings. In addition to playing bass on and producing/engineering the latest EP, I mixed the 2nd EP and produced/engineered the 3rd EP. as well. So we already have a long history going back to 2002 or so. The band is based in Oakland, CA. and I’m in Portland, Oregon. So we don’t get to rehearse or play together as much as would be optimal, but we manage to do pretty well regardless. Well, that is before the pandemic came around. As with all bands on the planet, we’ve been kind of in a holding pattern because of Covid-19. But we haven’t been dormant by any means. We’re currently doing lot of writing, recording demos and planning for the future.
E&D: With all your musical endeavours, how do you find time to fit in everything you want to do?
Billy: Sometimes I don’t! It sadly results often in my personal life sort of taking a back seat, or me being tired a lot. Workahol is a hell of a drug. Haha!
E&D: You have played in many other bands too, could you tell us about some of them and which ones are still active at the moment?
Billy: I played in various bands in high school and college, but the first band I felt serious about was my band in San Francisco, Spilth*!%. We were a band for like 7 or 8 years. We did a lot of local shows and a couple of U.S. tours and a LOT of recording. It was from 1990 to 1998 or so. We did a reunion in 2012 for a few shows and a recording. I’d really like to eventually get some of the many recordings we did out to the masses. I also played bass in the Melvins for a bit, great time for me, joining my favourite band at the time. I was the sound guy at the time, and still did sound for a while after playing bass. I also played bass in Men Of Porn. We had a few drummers while I was in the band, one of which Jason Michaud from Spilth*!% and another was Dale Crover from Melvins. With that line-up, we wrote and recorded an album together and did some U.S. touring. From 2000 to 2006 I played guitar and vocals in Blessing the Hogs. Very fun and challenging metal stuff. We did quite a bit of touring and made 3 awesome albums. I’ve also guested or played a main instrument on a number albums/projects over the years. A few that come to mind are the band Trilobite (bass and recording/mixing), Asva (recording, live guitar for first tour) More recently I have been a vocalist for the noise band Deathstench alongside Alan Dubin (Khanate, Gnaw, many others). We had collaborated on a couple of recordings when they had booked a show here in Portland and asked me to do live vocals. So we did that and then I recorded and mixed that set in releasable form. The project is ongoing, though I don’t know when the next adventure will be.
Also recently here in Portland I started a solo noise/industrial project called HZ. Lots of pedals, loopers and tape loops as well as some psycho-acoustic frequency manipulation stuff-all with me riffing guitar and vocals with it. It’s about 60-70% improv when I play live. It’s a lot of work but also a lot of fun. I have done a number of live shows and an album and video project are in the works right now. Also of note recently, I started a band with Rob Wrong (Witch Mountain, The Skull) on guitar and Steve Hanford (Poison Idea, Fetish, countless others) -who unfortunately and tragically passed away last month- on drums and myself on bass. The band was called IT. The story behind that project: Steve had been in prison for 8 or 9 years. When he got out, we started the band to headline a benefit show so that Steve could get a drum kit. We wrote 6 or 7 songs in 2 weeks time. Right after the show we went in the studio and recorded the set. It’s been sitting around unfinished for over 3 years. We’ve all wanted to finish it, but it always seemed to take a back seat to all of our many other projects. Now with Steve gone, it feels really important to finish it, not just because it’s good and we think people will dig it, but for Steve’s memory and legacy as well. Rob and I have prioritised finishing up guitars and finding a vocalist for it and getting it out there for people to hear, for better or worse. Most recently I am involved with the aforementioned various quarantine projects, and last but not least, I just finished 5 days in studio doing basics for a new project with Matt Pike that I’ll be putting bass on. That’s all I can say about that one for now.
E&D: What music are you listening to at the moment?
Billy: Of note at the moment, I’m currently working with an amazing band from Portland called Hungers. Super heavy grinding blackened crust stuff. Worth checking out for sure. I’m also in the midst of an indescribably epic new album for Leviathan. These are in addition to the usual number of other things going on (as always) that I’m mixing or mastering. The truth is that I rarely have time to listen to much music that I’m not working on. When I do have the rare occasion to listen to music that I’m not working on, I listen to a lot of hip hop honestly. It keeps me from getting burnt on metal and heavy stuff, and I’ve always been a huge fan of good hip hop lyricists and production.
E&D: What was the first album you ever bought and what effect did it have on you?
Billy: I think the first album I bought was a Kiss album, Kiss Alive II. I was probably 7 or 8 years old and I bought it not having a clue how it sounded. I bought it based on the pictures on the album and how they looked. It was fascinating to me at that age. I think Kiss didn’t influence me very much musically, not directly anyway, although I was definitely really into Ace Frehley’s riffing and soloing style. But I mostly liked how they were kinda like monsters and not really “human” to me at the time.
E&D: What have been some of the proudest memories of your career so far?
Billy: There are so many memories and countless things I’m proud of. Too many to even consider narrowing down to answer that question specifically. I will say that I’m proud of the fact that I have been working and playing with some of the world’s most amazing bands and many of my favourite musicians for over 30 years now. The fact that I’ve been able to and am still able do that—is one of the things in life that I’m most proud of.