Adam Stilson has the sound and vision everybody wants
By: Pat Moran
It turns out I used to frequent Adam Stilson's neighborhood two full decades before the Michigan born engineer, mixer and producer moved to Chicago. At the time Lincoln Park was home to the old Wax Trax Records store, where an often surly clerk named Al Jourgensen would lambaste patrons for purchasing deeply uncool records. Just up the street, I saw The Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler dancing on tables and kicking over drinks at an early Furs gig at the Park West. Today, Stilson lives right around the corner from the record store that spawned Chicago's 1990s industrial scene, and he's just a stone’s throw away from the site of the old 950 Club on West Wrightwood Avenue, where Jourgensen's band Ministry would show up unannounced to try out new material on unsuspecting club goers.
Though the neighborhood has grown more gentrified since then, it's a fitting locale for Stilson, the 37 year old producer who draws on iconic Chicago genres including hard hitting industrial and the hypnotic grooves of house to put a sonic sheen on a growing roster of releases by predominantly local artists. As the owner of Decade Music Studios since 2013, Stilson has given extra polish and push to singles and albums by over 50 clients, a lineup that includes the ominously twanging new wave of Dream Version, the icy electro stomp of Ritual Howls, the airy pop punk of Lightfoils and more. Concurrently, Stilson is also working on his own music, solo electronic tone poems in the vein of M83 or Front 242, and the pending release from his long running indie rock duo New Canyons.
What first drew you to music?
I’ve had my hands on guitars and keyboards my entire life. I just shared a picture of me on Face Book playing a guitar at the age of two or three. My grandmother also posted a picture of me playing piano at one or two years old. I got a lot of rap and alternative rock from my mom.
When I was eleven or twelve I brought my CDs on a camping trip, but I wasn’t into very good music just yet. This guy thought my collection was lame, and he handed me a stack of CDs that included Skinny Puppy, Sisters of Mercy, Sex Pistols, and Radiohead. The Bends really stuck with me but also I fell in love with Sisters of Mercy and Skinny Puppy. It’s weird because I’m not quite the goth industrial dude even though I dress like that sometimes. I love the Cure, Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins – alternative rock singer-songwriter kind of stuff. I think that experience at a young age is why I like so many different types of music.
Why did you move from Michigan to Chicago in 2007?
I wanted to push forward and do the things that I loved, to be able to play and produce music, and be able to make money and survive. When I came to Chicago I did lighting and sound. Before that I only recorded bands and did live sound. Moving to Chicago though, I found that I could make a lot more money doing lighting than any other gig.
How did this lead to being a producer and a studio owner?
It was an accident. Initially I was into recording. I turned my mom’s garage into my first studio, and recorded local punk rock bands. But when I moved to Chicago I didn’t have any plans to be engineer or a producer. I moved here to make music and some money. There wasn’t any job you could do in Lansing, Michigan that paid enough.
I started thinking of owning a studio and producing bands in 2012 or 2013. William Faith (Faith and the Muse, Christian Death, Bellwether Syndicate) moved to Chicago from California. Bellwether Syndicate asked me and my guitarist Andrew Marrah [in New Canyons] to mix their record. Then someone else asked me to mix their record, and over the course of the next couple of years it just grew naturally. It was all based on people hearing my band’s record, liking the way it sounded, and wanting me to work on their albums to make them sound better.
You work in all genres. Do you have a favorite?
I really like the dark electronic stuff that I do, but mostly I just like making an emotional grabbing album within any genre. I like any artist that conveys a sense of emotion and feeling, and not just do the same old guitar, bass and drum thing. [I like] them to have a lot of variations in their music. In all the genres that I’ve worked in I tend to work with those artists that do that kind of thing. So it works out.
As a Chicago artist you seem mindful of iconic Chicago genres, Chicago house from the late 80s, and early 90s and industrial like Wax Trax.
Somehow I missed techno and house growing up. I didn’t quite grasp its effect on the world until I moved to Chicago. I got a job doing lighting to make more money than being a sound guy. Those first lighting jobs were all house and electronic music shows. I learned a lot and I grew to have a huge appreciation for Chicago house. [My love of] the Wax Trax thing is just an evolution from that day I discovered Skinny Puppy and Sister of Mercy.
In addition to being a producer and mixer, you're also an engineer. Can you think of an example of great engineering making a song?
A great song is a great song. A really good example of that is Car Seat Headrest. He demoed very crudely and those first demos sound amazing. Or even Depeche Mode where you have Martin Gore demoing at home on a primitive tape recorder in the early 1980s with acoustic guitar and piano. Those demos are really amazing. Engineering skills and producing can make a great song better or more accessible, but it starts with the song.
How do you go from engineer to producer?
I never thought I was the producer type. I was just the recording engineer, but as I dug deeper into electronic music and started producing bands, the more it became apparent that these people relied on my input to push a song in the right direction. I started looking into what producers do. That’s what led me here. Technically I’m still an engineer. I’m a jack of all trades. When I get on a project I usually end up doing the recording, mixing and mastering.
Tell us about your role in a recent project with Chicago electronic dance pop trio Pixel Grip.
We became friends and hung out, but I never thought about producing them. Then they asked me if I would polish what they had worked on; maybe record the vocals and do some mixing. We did a couple singles together and they saw the merit in pushing things a little further, replacing some of the sounds to see where [the music] could go. We worked for a week in the studio, and then we did another week's worth of mixing. As we went on, we realized we could take it further and make it sound bigger and better. We just kept replacing and adding and trying different drum machines and synths that I have in the studio. Some of their demo stuff did make it in [the final mix], anything that was really groovy or had sounds that we couldn’t recreate. Then we added new things like sampling Rita Lukea’s vocals and playing them back, or sampling drummer Tyler Ommen’s rhythms and sequencing those into the sampler instead of having him play them traditionally.
What is next for you?
Varaha is a band that has a full length coming out that I produced, mixed and mastered.. Then I have a bunch of small projects I’m working on with a lot of local and underground artists. As far as major artists, there is Odonis Odonis. They’re from Toronto, and they had a high Pitchfork rating on their last record. While they were here playing a show here they [approached] me do their next full length record. The other thing is my band New Canyons. We haven’t put a record out in seven years but we just finished a full length album. We working on the artwork and we’re going to shop it around and see if we can get a bigger label than last time.