October 8, 2016
interview by Madeleine Campbell
above photos from Instragram (@missythangs)
“I just want to make sounds that are memorable. That’s the goal. Everything else is secondary.”
I saw you play with The Love Language at Cat’s Cradle when I was a teenager I remember thinking, “Woah! This is how pop music is supposed to sound.” I know you’ve played in a lot of bands though. How did you start?
Wow! Thank you! I always wanted to be in bands. I still have strong memories of playing guitar in front of the mirror trying to figure out chords. I grew up in the 90s in Atlanta. I would start bands and guys would invite me to join theirs. I didn’t really know girls played music until I discovered riot grrl. I read a book on how to make a label and started my own riot grrl label. I wanted to be like Kill Rock Stars.
What was it called?
It was called So Tiny, but I didn’t have many bands for it. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I knew I wanted to be part of something. I was really just floating out in space exploring lots of different music from classical to classic rock to riot grrl. Everything. I started playing music under the name Missy Thangs.
How did you arrive at that name?
I was given the name by some blues musicians I was working with at Music Maker Foundation out of Hillsboro. Are you familiar?
I’ve heard the name but I’m not familiar with their work.
It’s amazing. They work with aging musicians who are often overlooked to make sure poverty won’t silence their voices. They help them copyright and protect their music, help them make sustainable plans for themselves. They get monthly stipends so they can pay their rent. I love blues, gospel, traditional music. We would go around with them and record and document it. They started calling me Missy Thangs and it stuck. From that, I started the band Soft Company. I started writing and demoing songs. I put a band together and posted the songs online. It led me to Stu McLamb from The Love Language. He had been posting some early Love Language songs on Myspace and we connected. I was into his songs and he was into mine. He asked me if I would play with them and they hadn’t even played a show yet! I was blown away by them. His songs are beautiful. It was originally a seven-piece band. Did you see us as a seven-piece?
Yeah, that’s how I remember it.
You know what? We actually met, now thinking back, at Greg Elkins’ studio, then called Desolation Row, now called Pershing Hill Sound. If you don’t know him, Greg is an absolutely amazing person. He’s really involved in the more progressive politics around here. He was trying to record some of my songs and some of Stu’s. We crossed paths there. He handed me his demo CD. I remember they were working on the song “Lalita” and it didn’t stand out. It didn’t sound like the recording he did at home which he did on a digital 8-track recorder. Stu and these guys are from Cary. They’re all totally insane. It was like being in an awesome gang. It was what music was all about for me. The early days had so much promise. It was a wild time. We had a booking agent and a publicist and a label that wanted us tour across the country.
And what a great label to be on. I love Merge. Since moving away in 2010, I’ve realized Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill is such an important independent musical hub that’s produced many great bands over the last few decades. What are you excited about these days?
I’m really focused on and excited about the bands I’m working with. I’ve been lucky. I’m in love with them! A lot of the people I’ve worked with and gotten to know, I’m their biggest fan! It almost makes it harder for me sometimes. Pie Face Girls are amazing. They’re so authentic and positive and angry. I want to record all of their records. They’re daring.
I love them too!
I don’t see a lot of bands with messages that are so political and strong and courageous. Messages that might make you blush. They give me a voice. When I’m in the studio, I guess as someone who’s been a musician and worked my ass off for the last 15 years, I know how hard you have to work to make a record. I know how hard it is to pay for. You’re looking at the engineer to make your dream come true. Maybe that sounds naive but that’s how I see it. I love falling into these people and hearing what they want and trying to make it come true. I believe in them.
Isn’t that so powerful? You’re often capturing and facilitating someone’s most personal experiences, ideas, emotions, traumas. What a position to be in.
Yes. You get to know them. Making records together is such a personal experience. It’s kinda like summer camp. At the end of it you’re like, “You’re my best fucking friend! I fucking believe in you! I love you!” I’d like to work with more bands with active messages. I see more and more musicians realizing how important it is to use their microphone as a platform. There’s a lot of terrible shit going on right now. I’m fed up. It feels like North Carolina is moving backwards in time. On the one hand, it’s really polarizing but on the other, it’s bringing a lot of people together. With HB2, there is so much negative strategy to build hate and divide people on both sides. For those who are courageous enough to pull people together and pull resources together and pull brains together, it’s something that’s on everyone’s mind. There are so many anti-HB2 shows going on now. Grayson Currin at Indy Weekly started the Air Horn Orchestra protest. It’s to say “Look! Hear us!” So yeah, I guess you could say that positive side is that it’s bringing a lot of people together and getting them in touch with their identity.
How did you end up at Fidelitorium?
It’s kind of a cool story. I started playing with a band called Toddlers. It was a thrill. I put all my eggs in that basket. We were working our asses off trying to make it. Then the lead singer quit really suddenly. He had some issues and in the end it was probably for the best but it kind of left me stunned. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was thinking about quitting music entirely. This whole talented crazy frontman thing wasn’t working for me. I needed to find a new thing. I met with a friend who was the studio manager at Fidelitorium. Toddlers had recorded there and the studio owner Mitch [Easter] had seen our band and loved it. We spent three weeks there and I got to know him well. I told her about what had happened and how completely unsure I was about everything. A week later I get an email from Mitch. It was super long. He said, “You’re the person I need to work at my studio!” I was like, “What? Me?” He felt like I had the right vibe. He didn’t even know that I had gone to school for recording. I was a little stunned. I wrote him back and was like, “That’s so nice of you” but I guess I didn’t believe in myself. I felt pretty battered down. I didn’t believe he was calling on the right person. He said, “No you’re the right person. Come out!” I said I’d think about it. Playing in so many bands with all boys, I put myself on the back burner. I lost a lot of self-confidence in my talent and abilities. To have someone write to me like that seemed out of my reach. It seemed like I wasn’t good enough for it. He has a way with words. I listened. Seagulls was my first session. It felt pretty natural. I was super nervous but it clicked. Having studied recording in school but not applying it for 15 years, all the technology had changed. I graduated from UNC-Asheville in 2003. I was using ProTools 1 and an ADAT. I was such an insecure girl in my bedroom. I’m glad that person is gone. I try to remember her though because that’s a lot of people, especially women. Suddenly I had the opportunity to take control of the studio and the sound in a collaborative way. Using the control room and the hardware and the software as my palette and my paint. It’s been such a process and it definitely doesn’t come overnight. You have to play around. You have the build confidence in yourself and your vision and your art. It’s thrilling to be confident in who I am and what I bring to my community and to be open minded. It’s really cool to have a mentor at my fingertips. I just want to make sounds that are memorable. That’s the goal. Everything else is secondary.
How long have you been working there?
Three years. I started as an assistant and then got my own projects. It’s a magical getaway. It’s a destination studio. This building was designed with the golden mean and prime numbers in mind. It’s been blessed with good juju and great mojo. I’s really kitschy and super fun. I take sage with me to all my sessions. It’s a 90 mile drive so I commute for all my projects and stay out there with my bands. A room in the studio is the producer’s lounge. That’s where I stay. We have a kitchen and the main room and a guest house for the band. It’s like record-making camp. We dive in together and we’re all in. It’s great because you aren’t distracted.
Do you record mostly analog or digitally?
I work mostly digitally and recently have worked a lot with my 4-track, running mixes to it as I track. As always, you have a really tight budget and not enough time but you want to be able to add in production and creativity so I grabbed my 4-track and some tapes. I listened to the band a lot before hand. I’d pump it in the 4-track and at the same time track and import it into ProTools and break a lot of material up into the songs. We fucked it up in a good way.
What band was that?
The Tills. They’re out of Asheville. That record will be out at the end of the summer. The intro to the record is out of phase. It makes me you feel upside down. We had a blast. Anyone getting into the field that wants to learn about analog should pick up a 4-track.
Which machine do you have?
I was using a Tascam 424MK3. It’s a really affordable way to dig into tape and have a fucking blast. The stakes are lower. You learn about manipulation and saturation and get the ideas of how bigger tape machines work. Teaching the band what phase means was fun.
I really enjoy those teachable moments in sessions.
I love sharing information. You have to be open! If I hadn’t read Tony Visconti talking about Bowie’s vocals, I wouldn’t know shit about gates. From them I can learn and expand my own sounds. Inclusiveness is so important. Accessibility and inclusiveness. Our industry needs more of both of those things.
Fidelitorium is quite an arsenal of beautiful equipment. What do you consider some of your meat and potatoes gear?
We have an old broadcasting console and I swear it’s the secret to the sound at the studio. It’s from 1978. It’s called an ABE. It’s German so a lot of the text on it is in German. While I was learning the board, I was having to learn German as well. It’s 28 channels. Pretty standard. I’ve found I really like working out of the box.
Yeah. I’m getting over my fear of mixing out of the box.
So many plugins are phenomenal! Sound Toys sound great. A lot of successful engineers use a lot of these plugins. It’s a little more fun and scary to use the hardware, in my opinion. Sometimes it’s a nightmare though. Old transistors and old tube limiters and random noises. I’m like “Where the fuck is that noise coming from?” so I have to say “Fuck it, let’s just do it in the box to save time.” We have a [Lexicon] Prime Time digital delay unit and it’s one of the originals. I had really been customizing it as my delay sound. I was working it on a song and I started using the Primal Tap and was laughing because everyone has my sound. Have you used it?
It’s so dope. It can be soft or incredibly abrasive.
What mics do you use the most?
We have a lot of outsider mics. I really love the [Sennheiser] 421 and 441. We have a lot of Electrovoice mics. Any mic that’s called the 666 is automatically badass. Those are my favorites. We have a Coles 4038. I use those as overheads or for saxophone. I use our Altec 175 a lot. The Lomo 19A19. A Lustraphone stereo ribbon mic. I use it a lot on piano. I love using Geffels for overheads. [Electrovoice] RE20 on bass. It’s as much what you’re recording as the mic you’re using but that being said, I always love to look up what the masters are doing in terms of mic choice and placement.
What’s coming up for you?
I’ve been refocusing back into performance over the last few months. The members of Toddlers who were left behind were really upset and angry. We wrote a record about how we felt betrayed. It took us two years to make it and name the project.
What’s it called?
No One Mind. I recorded it and mixed it. We’re on Third Uncle records. Lately we’ve been trying to book tours and we’ll play Hopscotch this fall. We’re not angry anymore but we do have this record. I have some projects coming out this summer that I’m excited about. I’ve been working with Birds of Avalon. Oh! And the band Las Rosas! Theirs is one of the first records I recorded. They’re finally coming out with it! Flash Car from Carrboro, too. They’re such a great band. Wow, now that I’m talking through this list of all these current and upcoming projects, I’m getting even more excited.
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Since this interview was published, Missy gave birth to her first child. No One Mind’s debut album can be purchased here. Read a recent piece from Raleigh, North Carolina’s Independent Weekly here.
- Women in Sound 2019 -