"It's like a small, mid-'60s room," says Randall Dunn as he shows off Aleph, the basement recording studio he co-owns with his partner, local sound engineer Mell Dettmer. The room smells of incense, and is barely lit. "Your eyes will adjust," he says, flipping on a light switch that does almost nothing to illuminate the place. There is Dunn's control room, the tracking room, and a storage room with a big vintage organ and several kick drums stacked about. Though Dunn flinches at the notion, the bands he works with have dubbed this basement "the doom Motown."
Here, on this West Seattle street where yards are shaggy and hemmed in by chain-link fences, Dunn has put himself on the map by producing high-concept metal bands like Sunn O))), Earth, and Boris. Despite the fact that he's also twiddled knobs for local singer-songwriter Jesse Sykes, avant rockers Kinski, and indie pop band the Stares, the recent acclaim the doom metal genre has been garnering has made Dunn a pivotal figure in the scene. But no matter what type of band he works with, each record he makes is guaranteed to be drenched in atmosphere.
Dunn moved to Seattle from Michigan in 1993 to attend the Art Institute of Seattle. His original goal was to study sound design for film, but a series of connections led him toward producing records, the most important of which was meeting Dettmer, who was then assisting Jack Endino at Hanzsek Audio on Leary Way.
"I don't know what [Endino] thought of me just hanging around the studio," he says. "But I was watching him, man. I was taking notes. I'm deeply indebted to him because he was making analog rock records. That's somebody who knows how to build a record from the ground up."
That nostalgia for classic rock production, combined with his intended college major, form the basis of Dunn's production approach. When local drone metal pioneers Earth holed up in Aleph to record Hex: Or Printing In the Infernal Method, frontman Dylan Carlson told Dunn he wanted the record to feel like Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian. Even though it was recorded in this dark basement, Dunn made it sound like it was recorded in a barn in the middle of a high desert. And when Kinski approached him about recording their Alpine Static album, band member Chris Martin stressed that they wanted a big '70s rock sound.
"I like to think I still approach making records like sound design," Dunn says. "There are some producers out there who are great documenters. Someone like Steve Albini, he's great at giving you meat and potatoes. But I like a lot of atmosphere. Too many Cure records as a kid, I guess."
"When you look at the bands he's known for working with," says Sykes, "they are all extremely committed to executing their vision. Randall is at the helm of what I consider to be a very exciting musical convergence when it comes to these bands in particular."
"Working with tape and creating records organically seems to be a lost art," says SunnO))) member Greg Anderson. "[Dunn] respects and appreciates this 'art' and in turn creates an aesthetic within his work that is unique and important."
Among musicians, Dunn's laid-back demeanor is just as highly valued as his production skills.
"It was almost as though he acted as a creative and spiritual advisor," Sykes says. "He was able to lead us down a very productive path, mostly just adding some subtle nuances. But really, he just allowed us to explore."
He's even been known to give them a few extra days in the studio, if that's what it takes to capture exactly what the bands want.
"He's given us many extra days," says Anderson. "I think he understands the overall picture of the process of making a recording. If you're constantly stressing people out and holding the clock over their heads, it's not going to end up making a good album, or being a good experience."
For the next few weeks, we'll be using this space to profile some of the best producers the city has to offer.