An interview with
Walter Fischbacher
(Lofish Productions)

By Beppe Colli
Dec. 5, 2006

One of the aspects I was more curious to know about Pretty Little Head, Nellie McKay's new album two years after the release of her much-lauded debut album Get Away From Me, concerned its production and engineering side: what kind of approach would it be, after the involvement of the world-famous Geoff Emerick on that album?

By now we know the answer: a self-production by McKay herself, simpler and leaner. But while I had managed to find some material about her first album (also a long and quite detailed interview with Emerick on Mixonline), when it came to the new album I had not managed to read a thing about this side of Pretty Little Head. So the only think left for me to do was to try myself...

The usual Web search, and I easily found the website of the recording studio Lofish Productions, where McKay's new album was recorded and mixed. I sent an e-mail message and I waited, a bit skeptical about the outcome.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a quick reply by Walter Fischbacher, who - at least, judging from the liner notes which appear on the album cover - appears as the main technical force behind the album, together with Kurt Uenela. What about an interview? OK.

I'd like to know about the way you got in touch with Nellie McKay, and also the way she chose Lofish Productions to record the follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut album.

Nellie did her very first demo songs at our studio, that was in 2001 or so, I can't remember precisely. Back then we were a basement studio in New York's Lower East Side, very down to earth, so to speak. I think she just picked us because of our ad in the Village Voice, she didn't really know me or anyone of our staff. Anyway, the demo we recorded back then got her signed to Sony Music.

Why did she come back to us, why did she choose Lofish Studios (a not so well know, small recording studio in Midtown New York, run by two Austrian jazz musicians) over Clinton Recording? You would have to ask Nellie herself, but my guess is:

1) In the production process of this album Nellie wanted to have full control over every little detail. So the less big name producers and engineers involved, the better.

2) Since this was a more or less self-produced album, the hourly rate of the recording studio is a critical factor. So I guess in that regard Lofish Studios is far more attractive than Clinton Recording...

3) And she probably just felt comfortable at our place...

By the way, were you already familiar with Get Away From me? And what was your opinion about it?

Yes, I know the album, and yes, I also knew the songs already when I heard it the first time, since many of those songs were also on the demo we recorded at Lofish Studios. Even some of the arrangements were the ones that Nellie created in the first place, just this time played with real instruments (talking of strings etc.). And yes, I think it's great. It's produced very musically, and of course the sound is clean, balanced and transparent. And I am not ashamed to admit that I did use it as reference while mixing Pretty Little Head.

I'd really like to know whether the sessions for Pretty Little Head were all done in a short period of time - or if the opposite is, in fact, true. I'm asking you this because there are some tracks (Old Enough, say, or Lali Est Paresseux) that to me sound quite different from the rest of the album.

It was done on and off for at least a year and something, using pretty much each single engineer on staff at one point or another for a writing, tracking or overdubbing session. To achieve a cohesive sound, they decided to have me mix the whole thing, but we ended up using some ruff mixes that were done at some point after a tracking session at 4 in the morning. Nellie just got so used to the ruff sound, that she preferred it over my "slick" sounding mixes... so, yes, there is a good chance that some songs sound different than others, also from the engineer's point of view.

If I'm not mistaken, Lofish Productions can accommodate a live group; in fact, many songs on the CD sound as if the basic tracks have been recorded live. Could you elaborate on this?

On some of the songs the rhythm section was the first thing to be recorded, on others we started out with a programmed drum  beat and a synth bass (pretty much everything was played or programmed by Nellie herself), to be replaced later on by live instruments.

The background vocals - and in some cases (for in., Columbia Is Bleeding) the various lead vocal lines - are quite intricate. Was it difficult to have them all come out clearly?

I tried my best... Since you mentioned Columbia Is Bleeding, that track was actually the one where I had most difficulties bringing out the vocals in a way that you actually can understand the lyrics, since the arrangement is very dense, but the lead vocals are sung very delicately...

I imagine Nellie McKay to have a pretty hands-on approach to producing. Wrong?

I have been engineering many writing sessions, and usually Nellie came in the studio with a somewhat clear idea of the basic structure and arrangement of the song. And she usually played every single part herself, one after the other, starting with a drum beat, bass, keys, strings, whatever weird patch she could find on the synth, she would try it out and see if it fits the song. So sometimes those parts would stay till the final mix (maybe after some hours of cleaning up by the engineer...), sometimes they would be replaced by real instruments.

I seem to understand that you did the mastering for Pretty Little Head. I think there is a little joke on the cover about it ("mastering" being called "mistressing"), but I don't really believe the CD was mastered "at KGB Headquarters, East Berlin, Germany".

Well, the mastering...There is a whole story to that which will not be mentioned... Just that much: Yes, it actually was originally mastered in Berlin, Germany (not at the KGB headquarters, obviously...), all I did was adjusting some levels and spacing afterwards.

Beppe Colli 2006 | Dec. 5, 2006