Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by Kendra Lynn
As the owner of Portland's Jackpot! Recording Studio and founder/editor of Tape Op Magazine, Larry Crane has left his fingerprints across the indie music landscape. His studio has hosted the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus, Dismemberment Plan and Jenny Lewis, while Tape Op is the sort of magazine that fellow musicians geek out about.
Crane also serves as the archivist for the Estate of Elliott Smith; in that capacity, he hit the tape archives to assemble New Moon, a collection of largely unreleased tunes from a very fruitful period [1994-97] in Smith's career. He spoke to The Red Alert about the process behind the compilation, the risks of posthumously watering down an iconic catalog, and his memories from working alongside Smith in the studio.
When you started working with Elliott, before “Miss Misery” and the Oscars and all that stuff, were you thinking “This is something that’s going to connect with a lot of people if we can just get it out there”?
You know, I don’t remember recording the music for “Miss Misery” - I do remember recording the vocals. I know I did [the music], but we recorded it as an instrumental and he took a mix with him on cassette and then came back at some later point and recorded the rest. There was never much talking about “I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.” There were never big discussions. Something like “Miss Misery,” I maybe just slightly, vaguely remember working on the music. I remember asking him to fix a part where he didn’t get the double quite right, and he was like “No, it’s good enough.” We made a rough mix and then it was done. I thought it sounded pretty damn good. (laughs) I’d seen this steady growth of his writing and his arrangement skills. The period that New Moon encompasses is very much eight-track recordings that he’d done, and Either/Or and the self-titled records are culled from that era.
The very beginning of our time was when we put Jackpot! together - that’s reflected on three of the songs. Right after that, I bought a 16-track, two-inch tape deck. That’s what he wanted all along: more tracks. He wanted to be able to put more stuff down, more harmonies and overdubs. There was an evolution with that, in exploring more arrangement ideas, and the purpose of building the studio was for both of us to have access to exploring stuff like that.
Were these songs pretty well-organized in the archive? Was there the sense that “Okay, these were the ones that almost made it; these were the ones that never went anywhere”?
There were no notes like that, so that required going through them and going “Wait, is this on a proper record?” I was a friend more than a fan. Not that I wasn’t a fan of his music, but it’s not like I sat around listening to his records all the time, obsessing over them - like some people do. He was Elliott, he was a buddy. I always thought “Man, this guy is very, very good.” When it comes to something like listening to all these tapes, I had to sit down with the proper albums, too. I put everything on iTunes, I found bootlegs of unreleased stuff, and then I’d listen against that.
Someone even gave me a list of first lyrics of his songs and titles of songs in a spreadsheet so I could hear a couple words and type it in and find what song it was supposed to be. I kind of had to do a lot of research - it wasn’t like “Here’s the extra tracks sitting on a reel.” They were interspersed with things that had already been released, or there were things like, oh, this was a DreamWorks promotional B-side, so I had to figure out what had been released, and I didn’t know if we went back and tried to use [the tracks] from his major label years if we’d have been in trouble. It got kind of confusing, and I actually had to study some of the contracts to see what was usable. A lot of time was devoted to research and going over stuff with my lawyer. It’s interesting. I dig the work. Number one, I think his music is so special and as a tribute to my friend, I enjoyed working on it for the legacy.
And there’s a timeless quality to it - it could have just as well have been made this year.
Yeah, I think so. I think that quality of songwriting, especially in that era, was really strong. One of the things that people don’t know is that this was someone who was recording on four-track cassettes when he was like 14, and probably writing since he was 10 - just constantly, constantly improving his craft. I think there are people who hear music like this and think “Oh, a guy playing an acoustic guitar - that’s simple.” But this is someone who had been in all sorts of rock bands and was really pushing himself for years to hone his craft. When you think about it, when you listen to the music, the intricacy of some of the guitar playing, the arrangement of how he’s playing his guitar, is miles beyond someone who’s trying to imitate it. It’s very well thought out and arranged, and there are lots of melodic parts and dissonant chords - it’s not just slapped together.
He’s very much a musician’s musician.
Very much. If you go through his lyrics - I found tapes from really early on, like high school lyrics, and they’re bad. There are a couple glimpses of certain themes he used later, but in general they’re just not very good. (laughs) But you get into the early years of his solo career and they’re really good. He’d done a lot of reading of classic philosophy books and all kinds of crazy stuff. There’s a misimpression of him that he was pulling stuff from his diary, and the songs are certainly invested with his life and personality, but there was a lot of investigation of other people’s work that went into them.
Jumping back to high school - fans of Elliott’s are going to digest anything they can get their hands on. If you came across a tape from that high school era, where maybe he’s got lyrics that aren’t quite up to par or whatever, how do you walk the line between giving the adoring fans what they want and avoiding the 2Pac effect of posthumously watering down the artist’s catalog?
I think there are a couple levels of that. I should clarify that as the archivist, it’s not my decision to release or not release anything. But it is my job to inform the estate - his surviving family - of what they have. A little part of me understands the hardcore fan. I’m a major fan of, say, Velvet Underground or Pink Floyd, and I would buy anything that had one new song that had been dug up. I’d be in the store the day it came out. So I understand that mentality. But on the other hand, if you do have all the outtakes of the Velvet Underground, it’s still White Light, White Heat that’s really fucking good and revolutionary. You don’t want to dilute that album by making a version with 400 bonus tracks so it’s an unlistenable experience.
There’s some trepidation to put everything out. I worry about New Moon, even. Say somebody buys this as their first Elliott Smith record; it’s really good, the songs are very good, but it’s not a record that Elliott crafted in his lifetime, and I think those records are stronger. Now say there are 20 different CDs of his high school band and mumblings into a cassette when he’s 14 and… I don’t know. It starts to dilute things to a certain degree, and people might also start to say “Oh, is the family looking for money?” And that’s so far from the way things are proceeding with the estate. They would be horrified to be thought of that way. Nobody wants the money from this - that’s why portions go to charities and things like that. It’s not the reason anyone would ever do it.
There were some rumblings about the Jeff Buckley estate, for instance, since he’d really only had the one album in his lifetime.
Yeah, I remember hearing that. A friend of mine who has a daughter once told me that the hardest thing in the world would be to outlive your child. I can’t speak for anyone in Jeff Buckley’s family, but I can’t imagine that his mother would be doing it for money.
Well, and there’s a parental impulse, too, that everything your child does is brilliant.
Right. Elliott’s father is fairly involved and had gone to see him play live quite a bit. But his father and his mother and half-sisters, they’re not involved in the music industry, and there are certain traps; I feel like a little bit of my job is that they understand scenarios better and can make informed decisions. They have a really great lawyer, too, who helps with decisions.
What did Nick Drake’s music mean to Elliott? Was he an important figure, or is that a connection that has been made more by the press?
I think there are similarities in their life but, from what I can gather, they were very, very different people. Nick Drake famously hated to perform - he basically did one major show after he’d recorded. I just interviewed Joe Boyd the other day for Tape Op. Performing live terrified Nick, and the audiences would talk over him; he went on a little tour and quit after a few days. When I would go to see Elliott play, the shows that I saw after the self-titled record and on, people would just sit there quiet and focus on him. I did sound for his record release show for Either/Or and I remember everyone sitting on the floor, dead quiet, like “Oh my god.” Around town, people just knew that this guy was good.
I think he was lucky that audiences had progressed to the point where he could find the right audience. You feel bad for Nick Drake because his music was beautiful and he was a flawless performer, according to Joe Boyd, but he had no stage patter, he wouldn’t talk to the audience. Elliott told me once, “I want to write songs and record. Everything else - I do it because it’s part of the process.” Doing interviews, doing tours, that wasn’t what interested him, but he was willing to sacrifice that time for his career. He was a really hard worker - that’s something that gets overlooked quite a bit. He would work 12-hour days helping me put the studio together so he could come in and record.
The first time I heard Roman Candle, I said, “Wow, that sounds like Nick Drake.” I remember mentioning Nick Drake to him once and getting kind of a “Huh, oh yeah, he’s okay” response. I don’t think if you looked at his record collection - well, he really didn’t have one. He was really transitory. I wound up with a bunch of his vinyl because he left it at the studio. The things he had were like Dylan and The Band and some flamenco guitar stuff. I remember hanging out with him in Los Angeles and he had Left Bank and the Zombies box set - orchestral pop stuff that he was curious about. He didn’t so much listen to music for the whole of the song; he was really focused on certain little parts of the song. He didn’t actually like the song as much as he liked one crazy little transition or fill or line somewhere. There were little moments that he’d hold out for. He liked Chicago and The Scorpions.
He wasn’t the kind of guy to obsessively analyze other people’s work. I don’t know that he even owned a Nick Drake record. He wasn’t an obsessive record collector; he seemed to just leave a trail of records with his friends. (laughs)
And I’m sure people were always passing stuff on to him and trying to turn him on to their own bands.
(laughs) I remember him coming off a tour - he toured with The Softies after Either/Or came out - and he came off tour with some rental car and just stuffed all the stuff that had been in the car under some work benches under our back room. Years and years go by, and I was like, “Damn, Elliott left all his junk here.” I pull all his stuff out, and it’s like a ten dollar bill, guitar picks, a road map, a Hank Williams, Jr. cassette, and then letters from fans and their albums. He must have picked up a batch of fan mail somewhere. It wasn’t ever going to register.
Even as his friend, my band at the time was Elephant Factory, and I remember pressing our CD and handing it to him. He’d come to our shows and be supportive, but I remember giving him the CD and going “He’s never gonna listen to this.” (laughs) I would have other people I knew telling me “Can you give Elliott a copy of my record?” And I’d say “You don’t even want me to do that.” (laughs)
Elliott Smith - New Moon
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Shearwater - Interview
The Besnard Lakes - The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse
Phosphorescent - Aw Come Aw Wry
Sparklehorse - Dreamt for Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain