Greg Obis is an audio engineer and the frontman of the Chicago post-punk band Stuck, whose latest EP, Content That Makes You Feel Good, is out now via Exploding in Sound.
Greg Obis is a mastering engineer, co-owner of Born Yesterday Records, and the frontman of the Chicago post-punk band Stuck; Brian Case is the frontman of fellow Chicago-based rock band FACS. To celebrate the release of Stuck’s EP Content That Makes You Feel Good — out now via Exploding in Sound — the two hopped on the phone to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Greg Obis: Thank you for talking to me. I was genuinely curious to pick your brain about certain things. I just I love your band — you’re so great and you make really great records, and I feel very lucky to work at Chicago Mastering Service and get to hear the sneak preview of the albums, the two records that you’ve done with my co-worker, Matthew Barnhart. I feel like I don’t really sit down and listen to music actively a lot — I should say actively, for pleasure — I’m constantly listening to music in a professional environment, and it’s really nice when something comes through the studio that I’m genuinely excited about, and I have to genuinely interface with it and sit down with it. Especially because we have nice gear there and stuff down there.
Brian Case: Yeah, I was wondering about that because your job is mastering and you’re so attuned to attentively listening to things for mistakes, is it hard for you to listen to things without noticing those mistakes? Like when you when you listen for pleasure, are you constantly just hearing what’s wrong with it? I talked to John Congleton, who makes our records, about this same thing, where it’s like, how can you listen to demos or records where the songs are great but the recording is terrible? How do you turn that part of your brain off so that you can just focus on the actual musical things happening, not the technical things happening?
Greg: Yeah, I have a really hard time with that. There’s there’s actually a Stuck song sort of about that — it’s the first track on the EP.
Definitely because, by design, I need to be extremely critical all the time about everything, it’s really hard not to take that into personal life, where I’m really critical about what I make for breakfast, or if I’m not playing well in a video game or something. So much of my job, especially when I’m doing kind of the more assistant engineer stuff where I’m just combing over the records that Bob [Weston] and Matthew do, there’s a lot of it where I’m just listening for clicks and pops and small things. And yeah, pretty much every time I’m listening to a record — especially on headphones where it’s really easy to hear those kind of nuances — I’m always being like, Yep, I would have written a note about this and emailed Matthew or Bob about this, like if I heard something like a weird click-y mouse sound, or something super mild.
I can’t imagine what that would be like for somebody like John Congleton, who I’m assuming probably is listening to demos before he takes on projects. At least with mastering, we’re really hearing basically the almost finished product.
Brian: It’s intended to be its best when it’s being sent to you. So you’re sort of at a different point in the process.
Greg: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I’m always curious to hear people’s demos. I’m very fascinated by that process, because it’s not something I really ever did until a few years ago — which was kind of the impetus for Stuck, to kind of just demo stuff out and bring it to people and see how it went. Do you guys demo stuff?
Brian: Well, we record every practice or parts of practice, but it’s just with our phones. Before we go make a record, we never send anything to anyone we’re going to record with. We just tell them basically what we’re planning on, which is almost always between 30 and 40 minutes of music. We always try to take three days to track. That’s all we need. We just try to be quick and efficient and go in with like 80% of the idea there, so that we can kind of get into the studio and let some things take shape as part of the environment we’re in, instead of going in having everything completely ironed out and nailed down. It’s like, let’s go in with some things to get rolling that we know how they’re going to go, and then let’s let some things just sort of develop naturally and see what the vibe is. Demos for us don’t really mean anything other than like, “Let’s make sure we remember this cool thing.”
Greg: All the records sound so wild and have such fascinating production, and just really interesting ideas. Maybe it’s because I’m listening with an audio engineer ear, where I feel like if I hear — like something on Void Moments that always sticks out to me is the extreme dating on the toms on some of those songs, which creates a really cool effect. That’s part of what I like that song for. Things like that, are you thinking about them before the studio or in the studio, or working with John? I’m always trying to make Stuck sound like more than just a rock band, and I think that the studio offers infinite possibilities for what you can do with sound and how you can make things sound different. And I think for me, FACS is definitively more than a rock band, and takes the genre to really interesting places.
Brian: I mean, the whole idea for us is to just be open to change and collaboration, and just sort of actually let things happen, whether that’s in the writing process or in the studio or in mixing. We just try not to be precious about anything. It’s like, let’s go in and do what we think sounds good and then very openly hand it off to someone and be like, “Do whatever you want.” And then come back to it and just be like, “How do we feel about this?” Some songs are perfect from the get-go. Others take a little bit more conversation and massaging.
But something that is really important to us is that the live thing is different from the recorded thing — the record should be its own world and experience, and live should be different from that. We did an Audiotree thing at Lincoln Hall, and we released the vinyl because — well, the songs turned out really cool and we were just excited about it, but also, those songs live in a really different space live. When they’re in contact with other things, you react differently to how you play them, or the sequence changes the mood or the performance. And we just try to be conscious of that. We’re really just reacting to whatever the environment is. The conversation is always around, what’s going to make this best for this moment? Then we can scale it however we need to from there.
Greg: Our band is just the opposite. [Laughs.] I’m so close minded and so not open to anything.
Brian: [Laughs.] I don’t hear that when I listen to your band. There are things happening that are unexpected, and that to me is what is always interesting about listening to a band. It’s like, Oh, I wouldn’t have done that. Why’d they do that, where are they taking this? And I totally hear that with you guys.
Greg: Thanks. I have a problem with being hyperbolic all the time, but I think just the way the band has always worked — again, the impetus for the project was Clearance and then Yeesh broke up, and I was just kind of messing around and demoing what I wanted to be hearing. It sort of bred this thing into the band where for the majority of the songs on our last record, I was just demoing stuff and bringing it into practice and then Tim [Green, drums], Donny [Walsh, guitar], and David [Algrim, bass] would help me rework stuff, and then we’d go back and forth on it together. But it’s always been a thing where I usually have a very clear vision of what I want.
I think I’m a nightmare to be in a band — I micromanage the way that people play certain things. But I definitely want to be more open to possibilities, though. I mean, Tim and David and Donny all have really great ideas. The song on the last record, “Invisible Wall,” that I think people largely resonate the most with was a totally ground up collaboration between the four of us. So it does happen. But I’m always interested to have it happen more often, I guess.
Brian: Yeah. I mean, when I have an idea and I bring it to the band, I definitely hear how it should be in my head, but I won’t really translate that to anyone outside of the basic like, “Oh, this might sound slow, but let’s play it upbeat.” But a lot of times, we’ll work through an idea, and I won’t really like what’s happening, but I have learned to just keep my mouth shut and record it. And then I give it a day or two and listen to it, and I always notice that it’s definitely improved somewhat. It’s definitely more interesting and it’s way easier to have a conversation about where to go than if I was sitting there sort of micromanaging the collaboration before it even has a chance to be a collaboration.
I just learned over time, it’s so much better to just not talk about it until everyone has had a chance to put their mood or idea on it, and then come back to it later and refine or expand. It took me a long time to get to that. I was like, “Here’s my demo, here’s what I’m thinking, here’s a song that I listen to that I was trying to reference.” Eliminating all those things from the conversation has been super helpful and actually making music that is a hundred times more unique or original or whatever.
Greg: Yeah. I definitely feel like that’s something that I’ve been struggling, around this EP in particular. These were all quarantine demos that I wrote and then probably listened to for up to a year. And so by the time it makes it into the room, they’re very cemented in my brain already. It’s been more difficult to be open to change. I’ve been trying to be better about keeping my mouth shut and hearing what people are doing with the ideas, and just kind of letting it sit and wait until I can kind of get out of my own head, I guess — hear what my bandmates are trying to impart upon it.
Brian: Yeah, I did the same thing where, at the beginning of quarantine — as everyone else was probably doing — I was like, I’m going to make a bunch of songs and I’m going to be productive, so when we can get back together, we can be productive and have a jump on all this stuff. Every song I recorded and put drum machine on and wrote vocals for. We didn’t use any of those songs — like, none of those songs made it to Present Tense.
Brian: We put out Void Moments a week after everything shut down, and then we didn’t practice for, like, three months, and we had to cancel all these tours. So I was like, Well, I gotta be productive, I got to I got to use this time. And I made five or six songs that were all completely worked out, completely different from anything we’d done. And when we started practicing again, I brought those songs in and none of them worked. Not one of those songs turned into anything. Obviously coming back after not playing that long, being in that headspace, it was super confusing. But also, it was the exact wrong thing to do, to go in with a plan.
The best thing to do in that situation was like, “OK, let’s play the songs that we wrote and recorded that we thought we would have toured a bunch at this point, and then let’s figure out what those songs even are.” There’s perspective on how to even move past that at this point, so why even try to introduce this idea. We have nothing to work towards in terms of shows or anything, so we don’t even have to really relearn this record or play these songs for any other reason than enjoying it and having fun. And then anything we do beyond this is just like, “Let’s just see what happens.” It was just a reminder to me like, Oh, the collaboration is what makes this voice unique in this band. The voice of the band is unique because it is different perspectives. It’s not because I’m doing something that people can react to, it’s because we’re all reacting to each other.
Greg: Yeah. I listened to the records back to back and the other day, and that checks out with what I hear.
When you send stuff out for mixing and you’re being open to whatever John comes up with, is that was there ever a moment where you were like, “This doesn’t feel right and [we need to] try again.” I mean, I really admire John Congleton a lot and I’m just interested to hear how working with him is.
Brian: It’s great. I never feel like that — I’m up for whatever. I like getting something back and being surprised by it. or getting a couple of songs and being like, Oh, this record is different than I thought it was, what did we make? I love that part. Like, I know what the song is, I’ve played it a hundred times. I want it to be different for me, because I want to listen to the record and not know exactly what’s going to happen.
I mean, there are times where it’s like, “Hey, can we dial this back, can we do a little bit less of this?” But for me, I always want the surprise. There are times in every band I’ve been in who’s worked with John where somebody is like, “I’m not sure if this is how I’m hearing this, or this is the direction I want it to go.” And then there’s a conversation. and a compromise that doesn’t compromise anyone’s vision, but takes into account everyone’s expectations. But I’m always like, “Fuck this up, make it weird. Surprise me.”
Greg: Yeah. I feel like it’s been pretty easy going for Stuck in that way, making sure everybody’s voice is heard. And I don’t want to make myself sound like I’m too much of a tyrant — I want it to be a democratic thing, and everybody in the band has their own voice and equal stakes in it as a project. I think at some point it just wound up being easier for me to kind of conceptualize songs a little bit before practice. It’s just helps move things along quicker.
Brian: It’s the same with us to a certain to a certain degree.
Greg: My my last band Yeesh was was hyper democratic — we were trying to be like Fugazi about it, just everybody has to be 100% on board with a decision. I loved working that way, and I love the records that we made, but it just took a long time to make those records. You get really invested, and it can cause some tension at times. Sometimes it’s just easier to have somebody kind of steering stuff along the way.
Brian: My favorite Fugazi record is Steady Diet of Nothing, which is the one that they made the most themselves, and they talk about how it was an extremely democratic process mixing, and how they hate that record. They don’t like it. Mixing the record democratically, to me, is not a good idea. It doesn’t work. I’ve done that, and it’s like, “OK, now we’re listening to the high hat for five minutes to make sure—” it’s like, this doesn’t make sense. That’s why I love handing records off to someone, like, “You do this, I don’t want to listen to the kick drum for eight minutes while you EQ it and be totally fatigued and burnt out.” Like, mix this shit and then we’ll have a discussion. To me, that is like a band saver.
Greg: Before I say anything else, I have to say that my favorite Fugazi record is The Argument.
Brian: [Laughs.] Part of every interview I do, I want to know what is the other person’s favorite Fugazi record.
Greg: I mixed this new Stuck EP, and mixing has always been really daunting to me as an engineer, because I get, like, option paralysis. I’m already a very high-strung, anxiety-fueled person, and that’s kind of why I love mastering, because so much has already been decided by the time it comes to me — I’m not really changing the character or the nature of the record that much at that point.
But with mixing, you have everything open. You can kind of do anything, and it’s really easy to get lost in the weeds. I always found that intimidating. I feel like with like this year, and with this EP in particular, I was able to kind of embrace that a little bit more. I think I was able to be a little bit more open to stuff.
Mixing only took I think around four to six weeks — which for five songs is pretty good for me. Especially on something that, we wrote all these songs together and I recorded them as well, so I have no critical distance from the material. I don’t think I want to do that again. I feel like I got really lucky in that I’m happy with the way it sounds, and that it didn’t take a year. Because the last time I mixed a Yeesh record, it took me like the better part of a year to mix, like, 10 songs. So I feel lucky that it came out sounding good and didn’t take forever.
Brian: When you would play it for your bandmates and they would be critical of something, were you offended, or did you feel like you had to justify your thinking? Or were you open to it?
Greg: Yeah, I’m very open to any criticism from my bandmates. Usually they don’t have a lot. I feel like we like we have a good working relationship with the mixing stuff, because [Tim’s] always looking out for things that I’m not. He’s very good at thinking about the album as a whole and how songs work together, and how they should be sequenced and feel together. He’s like a sniper with the drums. If a kick is, like, five milliseconds out of time, then he is going to point it out and and we will sit together and work on it.
It was all pretty smooth sailing. I just like sat down with [the songs] for probably a month, and then we had one day where they came to my apartment and we did a final listen through and kind of signed off on everything.
I definitely would be interested to send out a mix to someone who I don’t know. I would be curious to hear somebody kind of reinterpret the tracks.
Brian: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I like. I don’t like remixes, per se, but I love when somebody reinterprets a song. Maybe it’s just that the word [remix] has become something different to me, but I love giving a song to people like, “What would you change about this?”
Greg: Yeah. It’s good to hear stuff with fresh ears. Going back to mastering and being critical all the time, I do wonder what it would be like to listen to Stuck as a whole and as a piece of art, and not for its component pieces, like what kind of compressor I use on the snare. I feel like I’ll never be able to do that. It’s always charged with knowing everything that’s behind it.
(Photo Credit: left, Vanessa Valadez; right, A.F. Cortés)