The Man Behind the Boards: Aaron Sprinkle on His Career as a Record Producer

AaronSprinkle

Aaron Sprinkle’s entire life changed in 1994 when he produced MxPx’s debut record Pokinatcha. He was 19 years old with little real producing experience or knowledge, but pitched himself to the label and the band, who at the time were unknowns and still in high school, and landed the gig. It would set Sprinkle on a new career course as a music producer and 24 years later he has one of the strongest discographies in indie pop-rock.

After Pokinatcha, Sprinkle focused on a lot of “really, really weird” local Seattle music, as he puts it, before returning to Tooth & Nail Records in 2003 for Anberlin’s first album, Blueprints for the Black Market. It would mark both the start of his close relationship with the band, essentially becoming their sixth member and working on five of their seven records, and a decade where he would record nearly everyone on Tooth & Nail’s roster at the time when the label was in its prime. The records would collectively sell millions of copies worldwide and included the Almost, Copeland, Dead Poetic, Demon Hunter, Emery, Hawk Nelson, Thousand Foot Krutch, and in 2007 another MxPx outing.

Meanwhile, 2017 represents a banner year for Sprinkle. The year has already seen the release of Real Life, a new solo album that sees him further embracing his pop roots, and Acceptance’s comeback album Colliding by Design. He also found time to work with New Found Glory on their latest, Makes Me Sick out April 28, and is currently in the studio with Story of the Year. All four present different stylistic opportunities and perfectly encapsulate why Sprinkle finds his job so exciting.

Behind the Setlist talked with Sprinkle about his career path and the many records he’s worked on, the time he forced his way into working at Tooth & Nail, why he works best when he’s let into a band’s inner circle, and the challenge of not overthinking when in the studio. Part one, where he discusses his latest album Real Life and making solo music as a hobby, can be found here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The first album I can remember you producing was Pokinatcha for MxPx back in 1994. What do you remember about doing that? How did that opportunity come about?

That was no question the most important record I ever did. That changed my entire life. In a really quick nutshell, I knew who Magnified Plaid [MxPx’s original name] was. They gave me a tape that was called Orange Station Wagon or something. It had an orange station wagon drawing on the front of it. I remember really not liking it.

My old band, Poor Old Lu, was playing a show in Bremerton. One of the bands couldn’t make it, so MxPx asked if they could play. My jaw was on the floor when they were playing. I had just started working at this studio. I was just starting to record on real equipment and not jerry-rigged cassette stuff that I had at home.

I told them my friend Brandon is starting a label called Tooth & Nail and I will record three songs for you for free if I can give them to him before you do anything else with them. Then they got signed and Brandon was like, “Can you do the record?” I was like, “Yes,” and he was like, “Have you even used all the gear that’s in the studio?” I said yeah, but I totally lied because I was like 19 or something.

I had no idea what I was doing when I make that record from a technical standpoint. None. The only experience I had was I had been in a band that had some other people record me, so I had been through the process once at that point. That was the first step in me realizing that being in a band is actually the hobby and being a producer is actually what I am as a job.

I was in a band at the time that wasn’t making any money, and then I started making money recording other bands. I was like, “Oh, dang it! I guess I’m not a rock star. I’m a record producer [laughs].” That was awesome and amazing. I love those guys and am good friends with them still till this day. We actually did another record together in 2007 that I think is really good.

Later on there was a 10-year period where it seemed like you were producing almost every Tooth & Nail artist that was on their roster. The only ones I remember you not working with were the Classic Crime, who always worked with Michael “Elvis” Baskette, and mewithoutYou.

I never worked with Underoath, either.

But they were technically on Solid State, right? I remember you working with almost everyone else besides that.

Just about, yeah.

Was the connection of doing Pokinatcha how your tenure at Tooth & Nail came about?

Kind of. That is also a long story that I will tell really quickly, because I do think it’s interesting. The first record I ever did for Brandon was Blenderhead’s first record, and then I did Pokinatcha, and then I did this band called Sometimes Sunday and this band called Don’t Know. They were all local bands that signed to Tooth & Nail.

I didn’t do anything for Tooth & Nail for years after that. Like, a long time. Almost 10 years. But I kept working. I worked and worked and did hundreds of projects, mostly local. I did a Squad Five-0 record and some other stuff that wasn’t local. Eventually I got a job doing graphic design at a software publisher called Sierra Online. They made video games. I had basically decided I wasn’t going to do music anymore. I was going to have a normal job.

Then I heard Brandon built a studio at Tooth & Nail. I quit my job and showed up and said I work here now. He was apprehensive about it. I actually asked him first if I could work there and he said no. I still quit my job anyway and basically forced myself in there. And then I had this insane decade where literally the records I produced for Tooth & Nail sold millions of copies over that 10-year period.

I did not see that coming at all. I really stepped off a ledge, even stylistically. All those records that I’m now known for were all new ground for me at the time. Even Acceptance coming to me, asking me to do the EP. Anberlin. All that stuff was huge.

Brandon and I were close. We were friends before he even started Tooth & Nail, so that definitely had something to do with it. He had always been a fan of what I was doing and a big supporter. But we just had this awesome run where he was signing great bands, I was making great records with them and he was doing a good job selling them. It was awesome.

Was the Acceptance EP the first record that kicked that off or was there something before then?

Yeah, I would say so.

Anberlin is one of my favorite bands of all time. I think I’ve interviewed them more than any other band, and it seems you’ve had probably the closest relationship with those guys than with any other band you’ve worked with. You did five of their seven records and were basically the sixth member in that band. What made that relationship so special and that music resonate the way that it did?

It’s really similar to Acceptance, and even the Story of the Year record that I’m making right now, where there is this unfiltered mutual respect and admiration across the aisles through the window. We all are totally stoked to be working with each other and have crazy shared interests. The egos are low. It’s about making the best record we can make, making the most exciting thing we can make.

In those situations I’m basically asked to enter into the inner circle of the band during the recording process. That’s when I always do my best work. It’s not because I can be in control and I’m a control freak, which I am. It’s because I’m not filtering my ideas. I’m not questioning every idea I have and thinking, “Well, will they like this? Will this offend them?” If people can puke out their creativity in a room full of people that are likeminded, a lot of really cool stuff can happen.

And then it also doesn’t hurt that they are basically family. I officiated Joey’s wedding. I sang at Jason’s wedding. Nate is one of my best friends of all time, and Jason is one of my best friends of all time and Christian is one of my best friends of all time. Honestly, some of the closest friends in my life are in those two bands right there [Anberlin and Acceptance].

The Story of the Year guys, it’s the same thing. We had kind of met over the years but became really close over a short period of time because we had so many mutual thoughts and interests going into it.

They were really close friends with Anberlin back when they were starting out.

Yeah, that’s how this happened. They were such huge fans that they wanted to work with me because they liked those records. So I owe that to them.

In the studio with Story of the Year. Photo by Ryan Phillips.

None of that Story of the Year music has come out yet, so I don’t know how much you can talk about it, but what does it sound like? They’ve always mixed really heavy stuff with some pop stuff, which is what you like to do.

Yeah, it’s that times a hundred in my opinion. It’s what they were doing but even more extreme. One of the cool things about working with bands that have been around a little bit, and have had some success like them or Acceptance, is they are willing to make whatever record they want to make, whatever is actually in their hearts. They’re not trying too hard to make something that’s going to blow up, because it’s not, right? They’re not selling out, but they’re also not just trying to cater to this caricature of what their fanbase is.

They keep saying they’re doing stuff they’ve never done before. I’m a fan. I know their past stuff. But to me, it’s just a natural evolution of what they did. Just like the Acceptance record to me sounds like the record Acceptance would have put out in 2017 if they would have never stopped making records. I feel like this Story of the Year record is the same.

We’re making a really awesome record that pays a huge tribute to their roots and why they are where they are, but also their influences and what is currently happening in music, at least in their lives and to their ears. It’s been a blast. They’re the coolest dudes. They’re the most incredibly talented people. It’s been zero ego, 100 percent creativity and fun. Everybody’s on the same page and it couldn’t be a better experience.

I wanted to ask a little more about Acceptance. I’ve talked to both Jason and Christian about the new album, so what was it like for you? You were obviously a huge fan of the band and had always worked with them before. What was it like to see them come back and be a part of that?

I wasn’t surprised that I was a part of it but I was surprised that it happened. I really was. Even a year into it, when we had a good chunk of it laid out, I was still pinching myself, like is this really happening? I am such a huge fan and they are one of the bands that I can actually listen to Phantoms and can’t believe I was part of it, you know what I mean? That kind of feeling. I was totally stoked.

It was a massive amount of work because of the logistical issues of where everybody lives and their jobs and their lives, budget and time and all that. But it was worth it. We’re so proud of the record. That record I was again invited in from the beginning to be a member of the band for the record. That is a place where I thrive. It’s exciting for me because I can just let loose creatively. I love them. I love the band, I love the record. I still can’t believe that we got to do that. I love how it turned out and I think people are really digging it, too. It seems like everybody loves it.

Aaron Sprinkle and Jason Vena from Acceptance.

“If people can puke out their creativity in a room full of people that are likeminded, a lot of really cool stuff can happen.”

What was it like working with New Found Glory on their new record? Like Story of the Year, they’re another band you have never worked with before.

Yeah, that was so cool. I met Chad years ago. He lives here [in Nashville] and we became closer since I moved out here. He just kind of brought up, hey, what would you think about doing a record? I was like, oh my gosh. I’ve always loved them and have some close friends that know Jordan really well. I’ve always heard what an awesome group of guys they are.

They were out here doing production rehearsal or something for a tour. We met up for coffee and just hit it off really easily. That record was so fun and I’m so pumped about it. Freaking Tom Lord-Alge mixed it and it sounds like we spent a million dollars on it. Everybody involved did a really good job and the songs were so well written. It has that classic feel that you want from a record like that, but I think it breaks a little bit of new ground for them, too. It’s not going to throw anybody, but it’s got a really cool vibe to it.

For a band like that, who has been around as long as they have and released so much music, how do you approach trying to push them out of their comfort zones or trying to get them to do something that maybe they haven’t done before?

That’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about this until you asked me that, but I definitely try not to take their history too much into consideration. Now when I say that I don’t mean to disrespect it. I can’t not take it into consideration, but I try to be in the present if that makes sense. I try to just thing about today. We’re all here. These are the songs we have. This is what’s happening. How can these kick the most ass possible?

The answer to most questions like that when I dig down and deep, and try to see what it is for me anyway, is almost always related to not overthinking things. I have to not overthink. I have to not worry about if something we’re doing sounds exactly like something they did in the past or nothing like something they did in the past. I only think about if it’s awesome. That’s it.

I know that just the fact that we haven’t worked together but we are now, we’ll make something new happen. I also try and make sure I’m listening to their vision and trying to help them get it across at the same time.

You worked on early MxPx, which was right at the first wave of pop-punk, and now working with New Found Glory all these years later pop-punk has become much more of a niche genre than it was. How do you view where that music has gone over the years and where do you think it is now?

I’m not necessarily the best person to ask that question to because I’m not a pop-punk expert by any means. I have really loved a lot of bands that would definitely be put into that category over the years, but I’ve never been part of that scene in any way. And I don’t mean literally part of it, but even from an observing point of view.

It’s obvious that there was a time when these bands had gold and platinum records, and now that doesn’t exist anymore. It was part of pop culture, like you said. But what I love about the era we’re in right now, people like to blame streaming or illegal downloading or whatever for all the woes of the industry. Really, to me it’s just oversaturated. There’s so much out there.

I love seeing these genres and these scenes that stay the course and live on. They still get to be people’s identity and the thing that they’re part of. They can put it on their sleeve and claim it as their own. That’s one of the most important things about music. I remember being a kid and I was a Cure kid. That was part of my identity, that I was that Cure kid. It was important for me to have that as a friend to get through parts of life.

So I thought we’d close it out here with something of a speed round looking back at your career. Is there a record that you’re most proud of that you’ve worked on?

That’s a really hard question. There’s a lot of them but I’m going to answer with the one most people haven’t heard, which is Jonezetta’s Cruel to be Young. That’s in my top five favorite albums I’ve ever done.

I remember liking that band a lot and they were really good live. I was always a little bummed they didn’t get bigger than they did.

Yeah.

What would say was the biggest record you’ve worked on, in terms of production schedule and budget?

Cities is actually one of the biggest budget records I’ve ever done. I remember feeling like we didn’t really have any limits when we made that record. I was so used to making smaller budget records that having anything more than nothing was a big deal. The guy who mixed it was expensive. So that was big, and then Acceptance ended up being a big budget for sure. It was a small budget for the major label industry, it was way low for that, but for me it was big.

I still haven’t really done a big budget record [laughs], to be honest. I think Vital was pretty big, too. We spent a lot of time on Vital. We spent eight weeks of tracking on that record, which is a lot.

That’s one of my favorite sounding records that you’ve done.

Oh, cool. Thank you.

Recording ‘Vital’ with Anberlin in 2012. Photo by Bliss Katherine.

Is there a record you were disappointed didn’t catch on more than it did or you felt was maybe misunderstood?

I think that’s the same answer, Jonezetta’s Cruel to be Young. It was their second record. They completely changed their style for it. They had a buzz going. Their first record did really well, but they did a 180 on their fans. The industry was weird. They probably should have changed their name. Dave Bazan sings on a song on that record, which is unprecedented. It’s really cool. The songs are amazing. It’s kind of stonery, ‘90s psychedelic cool.

There’s another record I did for this solo artist named Corey Crowder for Tooth & Nail. It was called Gold and the Sand. It was kind of an Americana, almost country record. It was a weird record for Tooth & Nail to put out, but that one I also think is really good. Then there’s a band called Capital Lights that was awesome. We did a record that was super good, but they broke up before it had a chance to do anything.

Is there a record you listen back to now and wish you had done better with it?

Ooh, that’s a good question. All of my solo records up to Water & Guns. I feel like Water & Guns was the first solo record I made that I really loved. Both Fair records I thought were great, too. I don’t have any regrets on those.

I don’t think I have regrets on any bands I’ve worked with. One of the things I somehow am able to manage is to give everybody my all and not say anything is good enough.

Speaking of Fair, do you think you’ll ever put out another Fair record?

I don’t know, maybe. We didn’t break-up, but we don’t have any plans to do anything else. I have a lot of projects I want to do right now. I’m doing a band/project/record with my brother on drums called Blank Books. We’re going to be putting that out probably early next year.

I love Fair and what we did. I listened to Disappearing World for the first time the other day in probably two or three years, our second record. I was like, man, this is good. This is cool. It’s funny when you have that much distance from something and can listen to it more as a fan than someone that made it. I don’t even really remember writing most of those songs, let alone recording them [laughs].

What would say is the most random collaboration you’ve been able to work on?

There’s a couple. Random as far as complete accident, and a lot of people aren’t even going to know who this is, but I got to record Emmylou Harris for a Beth Orton record in 2001, which was literally from Buddy Miller calling us in the yellow pages. That was totally crazy. It didn’t have anything to do with me at all. He didn’t even know who he was calling. For anyone who knows who Emmylou Harris is, it’s a really dope story. I was a huge fan of a record she made with Daniel Lanois called Wrecking Ball. That’s one of the most important records of my life.

I did some really weird, pay the bills stuff in Seattle in the late ‘90s. Some really, really weird rap stuff. The OneRepublic thing was cool. I wasn’t expecting that. It’s not really random to me, because I’m a huge fan of them and I felt right in my place doing it, but it wasn’t something I pursued. I just got a call from them one day that they wanted me to work on a song.


That’s pretty cool they were familiar with your stuff.

Yeah, well we were friends. I had two good friends that knew them really well and had hung out with them a few times. Brent Kutzle, the bass player and cellist guy, knew of my solo stuff, and Fair even. So we became friends, and then Ryan actually booked my studio once to write in when he was on tour. Every time they’d come through town, either here or Seattle when I lived there, we would always hang out and do stuff.

I don’t try and look at my friends, or people that I meet that are really successful, and go, “Maybe I can work with them. Maybe somehow I can benefit from this relationship.” I really try to overly steer clear of any language like that. I literally got a call one day and they’re like, “We think this song would be perfect for you.” I was like, “Sick! Let’s do this.” I ended up mixing it even. It was crazy. The whole story was crazy.

Is there a wish list of people you’d still like to work with but haven’t yet?

I want to work with them again. Especially for how much I’ve grown since then, we could do something really sick. I really love what they do. I think they’re awesome. Ryan is awesome and Brent is awesome. They’re all great.

My list is probably mostly fantasy. I don’t even know if I would want to work with Paul McCartney or the Cure. I probably would just freak out and run away if I tried to do that. Honestly, Acceptance and Story of the Year and New Found Glory would have been on that list if you asked me that a year ago. And I’m doing that right now, so that’s exciting to get to work with bands like that. At this point in my career and doing this as long as I have, that’s awesome.

So Real Life is out now. Acceptance is out now. New Found Glory is out April 28. I think Story of the Year will be out sometime later this year. Is there anything else you’re involved in that is going to be coming out this year?

Not right now. I’m probably going to be taking a little bit of a break on producing full-lengths for a minute here because I just did a bunch in a row. But yeah, I’m so pumped. This is the best string of releases I’ve had in a long time. I’m so excited about all of them.

And they’re all different from each other, which is very cool, too.

It’s so cool, right? I love that about my job, that I get to express all these different facets of music with people. It’s just awesome.

Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist

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