John Congleton Was Sir Chloe’s “Beacon of Evenness”

Dana Foote and Teddy O’Mara catch up with their producer about the creation of their major label debut.

Dana Foote and Teddy O’Mara are members of the Vermont-based rock band Sir Chloe; John Congleton is a Grammy-winning producer, engineer, and musician who’s worked with St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, and many more. John produced Sir Chloe’s debut record I Am the Dog — which is out now on Atlantic Records — so to celebrate, the three got on a Zoom call to catch up about its creation. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Dana Foote: So, our first question—

John Congleton: They sent us questions?

Teddy O’Mara: This is hilarious this isn’t moderated. 

Dana: Alright, how did we meet?

John: I don’t know. How did we meet?

Dana: I believe we requested your company.

John: Right.

Dana: We asked if we could chat with you, and [our label] reached out to you. And then we had a coffee.

John: Right. I don’t remember any specifics other than, it just came from Atlantic through my management, which is a completely normal scenario. I heard the first record, and I was like, “This is cool.” So we had coffee. And I wouldn’t remember that coffee at all except for the fact that that was the day I was going to get my vaccine. I was a little earlier than some people — I was one of the first people of my friend group to get a vaccine. So that’s how I do remember that; I was fucking fired up to go get my vaccine. That kind of tells you how long ago that was, actually. I was just about to start a slew of in-person sessions and I was like, “Oh, fuck, I’ve gotta get a vaccine.”

Dana: During COVID, did you take time off or were you working with people remotely?

John: I didn’t take time off. I had a light March, that was about it. And I mean, everything canceled. I was supposed to fly to New York second half of March to do a record with Regina Spektor, and that got canceled. So I had a couple weeks in March where I just sat around and hung out like everyone else. Then starting early April, I just started to say yes to random things, like a lot of mixing things that I normally probably would have passed on. So I did some mixing and I wrote a bunch of my own music. A lot of that music ended up on other people’s records.

And then I said yes to some remote production, which is one of my least favorite things ever to do. Regina called me late April-ish and she said, “I want to figure out a way to make the record.” So then I dug in on her record — which was time consuming, because she’s very slow and needs to think about things, [which was] exacerbated by the fact that it was remote, which was awkward. We were trying to figure out how to do that. So I got busy on her record, and then by that point, people were just like, “We’re going to start making records remotely!” Which proceeded to make a lot of terrible records, in my opinion. Then deep summer-ish, there started to be some sessions where it was super masked up and weird. I fucking hated that. So I did a few of those, but really avoided them for the most part. I was sort of like, I’m going to just wait until people start getting vaccinated. Then March 2021, it started to be like, some sessions were masked, some sessions weren’t, but it was back to fucking working every day.

Teddy: Yeah. I remember that time because we were writing then, and we had some remote writing sessions which were definitely some of the most awkward… I feel like writing sessions can always be a little bit awkward, but particularly trying to do that remote, it’s just a really weird time. 

John: So weird. Not for me, personally. I’ll do the remote writing where we just trade tracks — that I can get into. It’s more of the sitting there on Zoom with guitars in your hands. 

Teddy: Even before COVID, Dana and I had done a lot of that, just sitting in our houses and sending tracks back and forth. 

Dana: But we weren’t on Zoom. I think that makes it a lot easier to not have to be on camera, personally. You get your own time.

John: Agreed. And there’s also something fun that can happen with somebody sending you something without you being involved, and filtering it through your prism. You get surprised by it, like, Oh, I maybe would have shut one of these ideas down because I’m an idiot. Whereas this idea was able to flourish and become something that actually is really cool.

Teddy: Yeah. It’s not a bad way to write by any means. I think it’s good to mix it with in-person, but it’s fun. 

John: It’s a nice way to get an idea going.

Dana: So this next question is: “Would love to hear about the references each of them brought to the record.” My impression when we first started was that you were kind of just absorbing how we were working and what our approach was. Teddy and I had talked a lot about what sounds we wanted to make, but there was some miscommunication there with our with what we had both been listening to and what we wanted to make out of that based on what we were inspired by. At the time, I was personally listening to a lot of shoegaze, and I was also listening to quite a bit of vocal music at the time, like folk songs from the Balkans specifically. I was listening to that quite a lot during Party Favors

Just expanding on textures was really the main idea that we had gone into. Then when we first got into the studio, we took out all the guitars and it made the music a little bit more demure, in my opinion. And then we took it to the label and played it and immediately it was like, “No, we hate this.” [Laughs.] So we had to come back.

I think that first session — because the way that we had made music was so insular beforehand, because it was really just me and Teddy — it was so much of finding where all of us stood. Like, how is this even going to work with more people? Because the collaboration felt intimidating to me, at least at first. And then once we were working together for longer, and especially after those initial songs got rejected, you really snapped into action and you were like, “OK, sweet, I know how to go forward from here.” I felt like things really took shape and got a got a clear direction from there.

John: Teddy? 

Teddy: Yeah, I think that’s all pretty much right. For me, actually, I feel like that first session was a lot of me learning how to communicate with, with you, John. It was a really interesting situation, because obviously Dana and I both already had so much love for so many of the records that you made. So I was a little bit like starstruck just being in a recording studio getting produced by John Congleton. [Laughs.]  So I was definitely kind of awkward and nervous.

Dana and I had a lot of ideas, and we really wanted to push the sound and change things up. I think we got probably a little bit caught up in experimentation in that first session — which, to be fair, was really cool. It’s very cool to go into a session and just be like, “Let’s do some weirder shit than what we’ve done before.” So that first session was a really big learning process. It had the added stress of, “Oh, we’re supposed to get some really good songs out of this.” And I think some of the songs that came out of it are really good. But, yeah, in retrospect it feels much more like a testing ground.

There were so many conversations that we got to have with you and the label in that interim time between those first two sessions, and I think that helped crystallize what we did going forward. And even though, like I was saying, in that first session we felt like we were experimenting more, the other sessions felt looser and more comfortable and a little bit more more free, even though we were making things in a slightly more straightforward way.

John: Yeah, I would agree with all those assessments. I would illustrate them slightly differently because of my perspective not being in the band. I would actually say that the sessions after the first session were more experimental for you guys in a lot of ways, because that was actually changing up a process for you guys. The first session we did, you guys had strong ideas and that’s great, and I wanted those ideas to be expressed for a multitude of reasons. Number one, because you had a strong point of view, so who am I to say we shouldn’t do that? And two — I don’t mean this in any sort of craven sense, but I had to get your trust. I had to at least let those ideas be expressed. And also, they weren’t cowardly ideas, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like you guys were like, “We want to do the safest possible.” Quite the contrary. You were coming in with pretty high falutin ideas. 

I had had almost no discussions with the label at that point of what they wanted out of the sessions, or what they wanted out of you guys. I assumed they signed you guys because they trusted you and liked what you were doing. When I heard the first record, it wasn’t like “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” kind of shit. It was pretty honest, straightforward, indie rock. And so I have to be sort of credulous that this is what the band is about and they’ll show me the rest of the way. 

You guys had a lot of big ideas and definitely talked about shoegaze, and we were definitely experimenting with lots of layers and harmonically very interesting stuff. Lots of stuff that made me chuckle for sure, that I thought was really cool. There was a side of me at that experience where I was surprised that Atlantic wants to put this band out. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? I was like, This is cool. It’s cool that the label signed off on these songs. And they, maybe begrudgingly, allowed you to work with me, who’s not known as a hitmaker. So maybe at the time they were giving us just enough rope to hang ourselves. Who knows? But obviously they were the label was like, “No, this is not what we want,” which didn’t surprise me at all. But once they said that and I had some conversations with you guys, I was like, “OK, I know what to do now.” That first session was super fucking valuable for me to go, Oh, this is where the band ultimately wants to get, and this is what the label wants, and let’s figure out where that Venn diagram is. Process-wise, I think almost always how I do everything is I push it; I push it too far; find out that I pushed it too far; and then I dial it back. That’s how I do a lot of things. That’s how I mix. “Oh, is that too weird? OK.” Because ultimately my tastes skew to the more perverse and odd — and that instinct is what’s given me a career, but it also occasionally needs to be tempered. And I think that Teddy, you specifically are a little like that, too. So you and I share that share that bond. I am just a crystal ball of you 20 years in the future, probably.

Teddy: [Laughs.] I can only hope.

John: And Dana — I mean, at the end of the day, I kind of never know what you’re thinking. You keep your cards so close to your chest that I assume if you are not saying, “That sucks,” I’m OK. [Laughs.] And usually your ideas without anybody’s involvement are so unique and beguiling that there’s not much that needs to happen. Your melodies are always just enough left of center to where I don’t feel the need to get in the way. I’m sure Teddy agrees.

Teddy: Yeah, 100%. 

John: When you bring an idea melodically, it’s like, Well, I ain’t gotta fuck with that melody. As frustrating as it was for you guys, I think it was really good to go and just keep recording, because it really loosens you up. You guys got limber with me and you realized that I wasn’t trying to fuck you up — because there are producers that are going to try to fuck you up. Ultimately, if you guys want to make the biggest record in the world, I want that as well, but I don’t give a fuck if it’s the biggest record in the world. I only care that you guys feel like you were treated honestly and respectfully, and knew that whatever the integrity that you wanted to carry artistically was, that I was honest vehicle for that.

Dana: I certainly think it felt it felt that way. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in this process was working with a label, because I don’t think anything could have really prepared us for the dance that was doing that. It really is like you’re answering their riddles three to be able to put a record out. So we felt very lucky to be able to have insane meetings or conversations and then talk about it with you. It felt like everyone was saying crazy stuff and you were the only person being like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a crazy thing that they said.” It felt like you were a real beacon of evenness, someone who was like, “Oh, don’t worry,” which was very comforting.

John: When you say “crazy things that the label says,” I think that it’s crazy because you guys hadn’t been through that process yet. I think what makes the label sound crazy to bands that haven’t been through it yet is, the labels are run by humans who are full of insecurities and fallible, too. They want the record to be huge, but they don’t have the answers either. Not really. They have experience of going through this process — but at the end of the day, nobody knows totally how lightning is going to strike. So everyone’s guessing a little bit, myself included. So I think the problem that you can have with labels with multiple A&R people is that everybody’s going to kind of be vague, because number one, they don’t want to offend you. And number two, they don’t really know, so they’re going to keep sending you back to the well and say, “Well, just keep writing, just keep this, just keep that.” They’re going to just keep suggesting things. The hardest thing with labels sometimes is trying to get them to be specific, because they don’t want to be specific. Because, well, they don’t want to say the uncool thing, you know? They don’t want to say, “You gotta get back in there and make a hit.” Because they know how that sounds. 

I mean, you guys remember with “Daddy’s Car and “I Am the Dog,” which we did multiple versions of — I never understood exactly what they wanted out of those songs, because I felt like the songs themselves were beguiling and obtuse, and that was the potency of those songs. And if you try to deflate that, then you’re left with something that doesn’t have as much bite. But they kept sending us back like, “Make those songs better cuts, you know, better records,” and they wouldn’t be specific with us. So we just kind of kept throwing darts at the board. I don’t ever know if we got it to where they were happy, but I think they turned out cool. And I don’t even remember which iteration we went with, honestly. You guys do, I’m sure. But we just kind of kept trying things. I know that we went back to an earlier version of one of them, right?

Teddy: Yeah, “Daddy’s Car,” Dana preferred the earlier one. I was such an interesting, strange, and definitely singular process… There were a lot of things that I was not surprised by, making a record with a major label. I definitely wasn’t particularly shocked when they would specifically be like, “Ah, there just isn’t a hit here. We need a hit song.” It’s very intense to hear as an artist. It’s not an easy thing to do. [Laughs.]

John: But also, if you like something and you believe in it, and you turn it in to people and they kind of go, “Meh” — that fucking sucks, man. I deal with it almost every day of my life. It doesn’t really get easier to watch people go through that.

Teddy: The thing that was great about going through the process — and sort of to give the label some credit — is if you’re going to try to make a major label record, developing that skin is really important. You have to be able to hear that and just sort of be like,” Alright, well, cool. Let’s try to make a hit.” I think the biggest thing for me making this record was learning to let go of things a little bit more, just become a little bit more Zen. Because otherwise you get stuck on things, especially when it’s more and more people added to the process. With everybody having various opinions on things, if you get too… not to say that I’m not stubborn about certain things, because I definitely am—

John: I don’t think you’re actually that stubborn, Teddy. I think on the scale of stubbornness, you’re not that stubborn. Mainly because you will listen to reason. 

Teddy: Well, that’s good then, I suppose. But, yeah, just learning how to take in things from different people and be like, “Alright, yeah, we’ll try this.” I feel like we got better at that as the record went on. 

John: Yeah. I mean, the one thing that’s actually great about doing major label records sometimes — and I actually encourage this on all records, but major labels kind of you get to do it more — is I am all about doing multiple versions of songs. I think it’s great. Record, record, record, do a lot of songs, do multiple versions of songs. Stretch your arms out, try It out. What I don’t like doing is working one version of something to death. That’s where I think you get bad results, beating the fuck out of one version. It feels like an embarrassment of riches when you have three good versions of a song, then you just have to pick the one that clicks with everyone. And that process with you guys — I mean, here’s the thing: I like my job. I like recording songs, I like producing songs. I like that process a lot. What I don’t like is being neurotic about that process. I like the thrill of discovery. I like seeing something come together. And then, as the old saying goes, you do the work and stay out of the way of the results. You just make this fucking thing and there it is. Everyone can think it’s brilliant or they can think it’s horse shit, but it doesn’t matter because the process was the whole piece of art for me. Like, “We did it. Cool. Next.”

(Photo Credit: left, Grant Spanier; right, Jeaneen Lund)

Sir Chloe is a rock band based in Vermont. Their latest record, I Am the Dog, is out now on Atlantic Records. 

(Photo Credit: Grant Spanier)