Spencer Chrislu Interview
"The motto around here is 'Anything, Any Place, Any Time, For No Reason At All," laughs Spencer Chrislu, Zappa's in-house engineer. "Whatever keeps things fun and loose and interesting, and it can change instantly. I love the variety. Frank is outrageously creative. All day long, 24 hours a day, thoughts flow in and out of his mind, and it's my job to try and flesh them out. He'll go up and take a nap and come back down to tell me of one of the things that came to him in a dream. That's how he came up with the Hoop – it came to him while he was asleep."
Born in Minneapolis, Chrislu followed a path that meandered to Laurel Canyon through Nashville (where he engineered religious records). Struck by the clarity of Steely Dan albums, Spence says that from childhood he simply wanted to be "the guy who made things sound good." Two years ago, following the departure of Zappa's long-time engineer Bob Stone, Spence was recruited, on the recommendation of Todd Yvega, to man Zappa's Neve console, where he now sits ten hours a day, five days a week (he also does free lance scoring and mixing for such television programs as Sisters). "There was no big learning curve here," Chrislu says. "Just about a week. My first test with Frank was to see if I could build the sound in the digital domain of his piano room with a wood floor and plaster walls that go up about 20 feet a lot of hard sound. Then we spent some time remixing Ensemble stuff to see if I had an ear for avant-garde classical music. Then we did some rock and roll for You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. I did a remix while he was gone, and he liked what he heard. So he was very happy, and I was very happy, and we've been rolling along ever since."
Though sometimes Frank is at his side from the first fader move, he generally leaves him alone on initial mixes. "Frank and I both listen to things very much the same way," Spence states. "Neither of us likes drums coming off the top of a mountain. We like a drum to sound like a drum, a band to sound like a band. I go to the symphony just to keep my memory refreshed on what live acoustical music, in a real air space, sounds like, so that when I get back in the studio, I can try to recreate that. I love imaging in a sound field. I love placing images in specific areas, areas not only left to right but also back to front. This new six-channel material in and of itself is an imaging system you can only dream of."
Having sat at SSL boards before, facing Frank's digital Neve with "flying fader" technology was not that disorienting for Chrislu. "I just had to learn the layout," he explains. "On the SSL, you have 'Float Function,' which is called 'Changeover' on the Neve. But basically, all consoles work the same." In particular, he likes the Neve's ability to memorize settings for EQ, routing, panning, whatever. "We have been able to standardize settings for where reverbs come up, where tape comes up, and on which faders," he explains. "That's made it possible to have good linear alignment between the years. The '88 band all tends to sound one way, because it was recorded the same. The same with the '82 band or any of the others. So I can take anything from one of those groupings with a set EQ, just dial it up in less than an hour, and it'll be close to right. All we have to do is tweak for a particular song or venue. The track layouts are the same. Ike Willis' vocal is here, Frank's guitar is there. It comes up the same, with the same echo settings, everything. So I save that much time, and we can get right into mixing and balancing."
The hardest part of the job is what everyone who works with Zappa indicates: "He works harder than anyone else I've ever worked with," Chrislu smiles. "Don't get me wrong we have a blast and take plenty of breaks, but he works harder, listens harder, and concentrates harder than anyone else I've ever known. It's a challenge for me to keep up with him. The volume of things to do around here is just huge, ungodly, immense, unbelievable!"
And not all that work is focused on CD mastering. Zappa is a video fanatic who spends significant amounts of time recording, reviewing, and editing events of the day as seen on television as well as from his own life. His three "vaults" are filled with audio and video documentation of his entire career, as well as row upon row of such recent events as the Los Angeles riots (recorded on seven different channels) and the entire war with Iraq as broadcast on CNN. "It's like we're archiving the end of the world," Chrislu says.
Not having been that familiar with Zappa's work before he was hired, Spence considers his lack of familiarity an asset. "I think that's one of the things Frank likes about me," he explains. "I don't come in with any preconceived notions of how things are supposed to sound. Frank says it's interesting for him to see someone entirely new take all this on. And now I'm finding all these wonderful gems that I get to hear for the first time on the mixing console and put back together myself."
Chrislu has worked on the classical CD reissues of The Perfect Stranger and the London Symphony Orchestra albums, Frank's work with the Ensemble Modern, as well as rock and roll material for You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, The Man From Utopia, and the forthcoming Lumpy Gravy, Phaze III. He says he notices a distinct growth in Frank as a composer. "Just listen to 'Envelopes' and 'Theme to Lumpy Gravy' – interesting and accessible polyrhythmic themes. The new material has evolved way beyond even that. He is always stretching."
Chrislu plainly loves what he's doing. "This is my image of a utopian situation. I go to a place where I work on something different every day, that's challenging musically and creatively but also offers me the ability to put in my two cents and to have that input understood and considered and discussed. My relationship with my boss goes beyond just a working relationship. Frank never raises his voice. He's never critical or abusive in any way. Every day, while we're working, we talk about what's happening in the news, what's going on politically, what we see and what we hear, and it's just great – almost a second home."
In a way, it's spoiled Chrislu for his other jobs. "Working in stereo, just plain two channels, is becoming boring," he sighs. "Now that Frank has the six channel, surround-sound environment he's always wanted, he's loving it to death, and his recent recordings of a guy playing spoons spinning around the room is really stellar stuff, really quite exciting. Got to get it around you!"