They’re rock’s shadowy figures, largely eschewing the spotlight even though their role will in part dictate an artist’s success. We’re talking about the producer, who in the course of his duties wears many hats–from coach to cosmetologist–wringing that great performance out of the players, while fitting them with a sonic ‘look’ that they’re comfortable in and that enhances their attractiveness.
“You summed it up–it’s important to not try to make somebody fit a style that’s not them. I try very hard to find the songs and performances that fit the artist,” says local producer John Plymale. “I can come in with all these ideas, but unless I’m going to sing and play these parts myself, you can throw all that out the window.”
Plymale has lived in Chapel Hill most of his life, entering the scene towards the end of his high school years when he played in The Pressure Boys. The band toured a lot, released a handful albums and persisted through the late ’80s. When The Pressure Boys broke up, Plymale helped form the Sex Police. Around the same time, he also began producing other local acts.
“I had done a lot of recording in studios with the bands I was in, and I guess because of that, a handful of local other bands asked me to come in and help them produce their records. In the beginning I didn’t necessarily have any more experience than anyone else, but I had been through the process a few times with my own band, so I was able to help bands get a little bit more for their time then they would have gotten,” Plymale says.
Since Sex Police broke up in 1994, producing has been Plymale’s main gig and while it’s “the absolute opposite of a nine-to-five job,” it’s kept him busy enough to make a living. Over the years he’s produced, engineered and/or mixed albums by artists such as The Meat Puppets, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Superchunk and Eyes Adrift. As you might expect ,he does a lot of work with local artists, recently working with Michael Rank on his forthcoming Snatches of Pink album and International Orange, for whom he took a novel approach.
“We actually took a studio’s worth of equipment to an old beach house and spent a week in the winter at the beach,” Plymale recalls. “The band was trying to save some money by not having to hire a studio at the normal price, and the other thing is there’s a lot of solidarity when you do a project like that… It forces everyone to focus and concentrate. You wake up in the morning, eat breakfast and start playing.
“The reason I really do still love it,” Plymale says, “is that it is kind of the one job where the whole point of every day is to create some magic, to make a magic moment happen.”