Analogue Music | Chris Schlarb

Chris Schlarb

By Scott Elingburg

Chris Schlarb is always working.

And if he's not then he's probably thinking about working. Whether he's making collaborative music as the head guru of Psychic Temple, behind the boards producing music in his Long Beach studio, or putting out records on his newly created Big Ego Records, Schlarb is a busy guy. But his quantity never degrades into a lack of quality—just the opposite, in fact. And that's intentional. Schlarb's work ethic is built upon a solid and deep foundation of passion for the way records get made. It's a delicate balance, one that Schlarb is still learning. But keeping that balance forms a complete, constructive whole—and some incredible music.    

Analogue: You're always working on a lot but what are you working on now? 

Schlarb: Off and on since February I’ve been working on an EP for a group called Shiro, an interesting four-piece from Southern California. It’s got a Joy Division-vibe to it which is interesting because it’s not really my wheelhouse. But I’ve always been a big [Joy Division producer] Martin Hannett fan so I relished this opportunity.

I’m also in production on a full-length for a group called Starmob. That’s a lot of fun, too. Some synth-dance disco, no-wave music. It is a U-turn from the stuff I normally work on, too. I mean, I’m making country, folk, bluegrass, and jazz records now and I love doing that. You always want to be challenging yourself to try something a little different. 

Analogue: It sounds like you're really relishing the challenge. 

Schlarb: Totally. Having the studio is this thing that I’ve wanted my entire life. And now that I have it I’ve furnished it with all the equipment and instruments that I’ve wanted and needed to get certain sounds. And now I just go, “What’s good? What can I do with it?” 

My main joy comes from working with people in a corporate way—like people coming together to collaborate. The more personalities and human beings and instruments I can fit into a room at the same time, the more excited I get. 

Protecting the Muse is this delicate balance of having enough money in the bank and sticking to your guns.

Analogue: Let’s backtrack to Psychic Temple IV, if you don’t mind. It seems like it was a huge undertaking but it’s also a very cohesive record.  

Schlarb:  I appreciate that. We basically did the lion’s share of that record in four recording sessions. The first one we cut four tunes, then three, then three, then two. A few overdub sessions here and there but we had four days with a bunch of people in the room together. On my own records I get to make them exactly how I want, you know? I wanted a room full of the best musicians and the most complimentary folks I could gather at a time. I mean, that’s just how you get shit done. [Laughs] 

Whenever I’m working with artists, they may ask, “When do we do this? When do we do that?” And I say, “We do it now.” You know? I don’t understand why everything is like kicking the can down the road. We’re here; the music’s here; the equipment’s here. So we do it now. 

Analogue: You’ve got this workman-like ethic in your studio then.  

Schlarb: Big time, yes. When I hear music, I can tell how it was created, and a lot of the music I hear is synthetic. Even if there are people behind it, things are nipped and tucked, tweezed and time-stretched. There’s no roomsound; you don’t know the place where it was recorded. Everything is disembodied. A lot of my favorite records, I know where they were recorded; I know the place. And that element is just as important to me. 

And over the last 30 years, maybe, there has been this shift from performance to perfection. And I’m not interested in perfection. I can’t think of any music I listen to that is technically perfect.

Analogue: Right. When you make music sound like a technical exercise it sterilizes it to a degree. 

Schlarb: And I would always want to have a little sloppiness, to a degree. When I hear fussiness in music, I kind of get turned off. I want to hear people. Music should be about emotion and if it can’t do that then what is the point of it? 

The way that a lot of records and recordings are now they are a bit like an approximation of what someone liked in something else. You know? Like, I’m in the middle of a gospel choir record that I’m recording—and I’ve been waiting to produce a gospel record forever [Laughs]—but I made sure to tell [collaborators] up front, "If you want a 'modern' gospel record, I’m not the guy to do it. I can’t do it and my heart wouldn’t be in it. If you want to make a record that other people will want to sound like, then I’m your guy. But if you want to make a record that sounds like someone else’s record, I’m not your guy. I’m just not." [Laughs]

Years ago I had this opportunity to write the music for this show, The United States of Tara on Showtime. But in the offer to write the theme song, they said, “We want it to sound like Sufjan [Stevens].” And so I got as far as recording the drums for the song—which, to me, Sufjan drums are like Stereolab drums, maybe something in 7/8 time, you know?—and that was it. That was all I did. I couldn’t go through with it. I could analyze what they wanted but there’s no beauty or magic in making music that way. 

And honestly, if you do that enough, the muse will leave you. Protecting the muse is this delicate balance of having enough money in the bank and sticking to your guns. There are no “rules," per se, but the main rule is it’s just got to feel right. For each type of style and album there’s got to be a different feeling in making things…honest. And also sincere. 

Psychic Temple IV
Psychic Temple IV

Analogue: Was that in the forefront of your mind when you decided to jump back in to the record label side of things with Big Ego Records?

Schlarb: Yeah. I kind of feel like my hand was forced. I never anticipated getting back into a record label. For me, making and producing music, running the studio, those things are all intertwined. And I got to the point where I had four or five records that I thought were really special and the artists kind of came to me and said, “Well, what should I do with this?” And I said, “Don’t just throw it up on Spotify and go about your life.” That would be a disservice to both of us and the project. I think I speak for a lot of people in the music business when I say, making music can’t just be about money. And it’s certainly not for me. 

So when you have these records that are special and they need a home—and I produced all of them—you start thinking, “Maybe there’s something we can do here.” A lot of music for me is community and about support and encouragement. And if I can help a couple artists who I care about personally and put a little wind to their backs, then let’s try to figure that out. And I am; I’m still figuring it out. 

With Big Ego Records, the plan is we put out 4 records a year; two in January, two in July. But my hope is that we can get up to around 250 subscribers a year, then the whole thing becomes its own entity and it can keep itself afloat. We’re only putting out things that I produce. And it may sound risky to subscribe to this label that could put anything out but, you know, I loved when you could check out a regional label and you could say, “Wow, that was the sound of that region.”

Analogue: Like Sun Studios in Memphis or Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals...

Schlarb: Right, exactly. I mean, that’s how Motown got started. And I loved you could hear those players and their music. You know, everybody knows Glen Campbell but nobody really knows that he played on Pet Sounds. But I’m just trying to make interesting amazing stuff happen with the label. 

Analogue: What a privilege and a joy to get to follow your muse in that way.

Schlarb: Totally. The tradeoff is I don’t get to make as much money but I feel like the return is being able to work on a gospel record on Saturday and Joy Division-type record on Sunday. And that’s exactly what I did last weekend and I had a great time. That’s where I’ve been trying to get to forever and it’s been a slow road to get there. I mean, what’s that Mitch Hedberg joke? ‘I’m working on a ‘get rich slow scheme.’ [Laughs] And that’s kind of where I’m at right now.