Interview with Chris Hanzsek of Hanzsek A/V
Some say the grunge era started in the mid-‘80s when the Deep Six compilation was released by C/Z Records. This seminal release featured early works from future heavyweights like Soundgarden and The Melvins, as well as planting the seeds for Pearl Jam [via Green River] and Mother Love Bone [via Malfunkshun]. The man behind the board on this compilation was Chris Hanzsek who founded Reciprocal Recordings, C/Z Records and now Hanzsek A/V.
One Louder Magazine: What are some of your earliest musical memories? What turned you onto the music world?
Chris Hanzsek: My earliest musical memories would have to be the piano and trumpet lessons I had as a kid. When I turned 12, I pleaded for (and got) an electric guitar and small practice amp. I eventually dropped out of middle school band due to increasing pressure to actually learn to play the material and march around in synchronized fashion. I had a music teacher that drove up to my house once a week named “Mr. Paul”. By age 13 all my friends had learned the basic riff to Smoke on the Water. A few went on to study Stairway to Heaven.
My first few encounters with tape recorders were magical. I loved that you could punch in, play the tape backwards, make echoes and such. I was a DJ during my college years at Penn State running a “New Wave” show. That’s where I learned how to use a mixing board and I began making funny promos for my own show. When I finally started recording bands on a 4-track it was just too much fun.
OLM: With skills on piano, trumpet and guitar, did you ever play in a band? What memories do you have from those years (good and bad)?
CH: There was one band in college; we called ourselves The Flakes. We considered ourselves punk rock and played six cover tunes – songs by The Ramones, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, and more. We just screamed and played a lot of distorted chords and made feedback intros and endings. Six weeks after forming we all left college to find lives outside the town that had been home for four years or so. Later on I moved to Boston where I played a few shows doing a bit of improvised guitar music.
OLM: What was some of your earliest gear?
CH: Initially I had a Tascam setup I bought from semi-famous flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert; I played two shows at his loft in Boston’s Thayer Street area. He sold me his Model 2A mixer and A3440 deck. Later on I bought a Model 3 mixer and started recording bands. I was also the sound man for a jazz fusion band named The David Sharpe sextet or something like that; D# (as he was known) was a great guy. He played for Carla Bley and The Modern Lovers in the ‘70s. His best friend in the music biz was this guy from New Jersey named Bill Frisell who played guitar in his band. I was awestruck recording these guys back in ‘82 – once at D#’s place and once in my bedroom in Somerville, MA.
OLM: In 1984, you and your then-girlfriend, Tina Casale, opened Reciprocal Recording in Seattle, WA, charging only $10 per hour. Do any bands stick out in your mind from those sessions? Who and why? What other memories do you have from that period?
CH: The Accüsed, Green River, Bam Bam and Cannibal to name a few. The studio was quite homely – we sort of just put in this little window between rooms in this office suite in a warehouse building next to a rail switching yard and called it good. No one told me that trains make low frequency noises from time to time so we had to live with that little nuisance. When a band was mic’d up while a train was passing, all the meters would peg at once and we’d have to take a “train break”. This era was all about working very hard to make it happen. I recall I had a lot of energy back then but I sure was sleepy in the morning trudging off to my day job at the print shop.
OLM: So you were still working a day job at this point. When did you know that music was no longer a hobby, but how you earned a living?
CH: Once the second version of Reciprocal got up and rolling in May of ‘86 it became quickly apparent to me that I was getting pretty busy and the gear was buying itself. Before long, the food, the house and the kids were getting paid for, too.
OLM: In 1985, you and Tina switched locations, moving to another part of Seattle, and launched C/Z Records. What does C/Z stand for?
CH: C=Casale, Z=HanZsek. It was Tina’s idea.
OLM: C/Z released the now-celebrated Deep Six compilation album in 1986. What were those sessions like?
CH: We were young, it was fun and exciting. The sessions were very rushed because we were trying to do too much on too little budget. Still, it was fun to face that challenge and I think to some degree, there was a bit of community building going on in the process.
OLM: Soon after that release, you decided that you didn’t like running a record label, so you gave it to Daniel House, bass player for Skin Yard. Why did you not like running a record label?
CH: I gave the label to DH, not really thinking it was worth anything. After the compilation was released there wasn’t any money to promote the record. I followed up with a 7″ for The Melvins. My day job had gone Chapter 13 and Tina and I split up. Bands were grumbling that Deep Six wasn’t being advertised enough, so when Daniel approached me, I thought I should let him adopt my puppy rather than watch it starve.
OLM: After leaving C/Z you re-opened Reciprocal. Tina left, but Jack Endino and Rich Hinklin were now working with you. An influential album, Nirvana’s Bleach, was recorded at Reciprocal Recording in 1988. Jack Endino is noted as the producer, but what was your role with that release? Did you work with the band at all?
CH: My role was to pick up trash and sort the recycling. I said “hi” to Kurt once or twice. Sub Pop bands were always sent to work with Endino.
OLM: At this point, you were now earning a living by working in the music industry full-time. How did your parents react to this news?
CH: There was a bit of disappointment, I think, way back when I applied to college and was turned down for architecture. So then I chose Theater Arts and ruined my parents’ hopes completely. So then there wasn’t much new when I asked my mom for a loan to buy a used 8-track in 1983. She gave me two grand and said “good luck.”
OLM: In 1988 Reciprocal Recording won NAMA’s ‘Best Recording Studio in the Northwest’ award. What was that experience like?
CH: That was great. Standing up while a packed house at The Moore applauded was cool. Jack’s alignment with Sub Pop was a big part of our visibility. Rich Hinklin and I were both pretty busy working with all varieties and styles – jazz, folk, experimental, blues, metal, hardcore punk. Eventually the studio reputation did harden into a “grunge factory” and that gave me reason enough to shut down to escape being swallowed up by the success of Sub Pop.
OLM: Ah yes, the grunge scene. What do you most remember from that time? What were the early 90s like in the Seattle-area?
CH: Business was good. For a year after closing Reciprocal I ran the biz out of my home and played producer – using other studios to record basic tracks then bringing the project home for overdubs and mix. I mulled over the idea of getting back into the studio game, especially after Pearl Jam went big. I was thinking “Hmm, this could be a dumb time to not own a recording studio in Seattle.”
OLM: In 1992 you closed Reciprocal Recording to open your own place, Hanzsek Audio. You were venturing on your own for the first time ever and you added video production as another feature. What was this time like…at least the early years? Was it stressful venturing on your own or was it a new adventure that you looked forward to?
CH: When I started up Hanzsek Audio at the end of ’92, I put much thought into the design, function, ergonomics, noise floor, etc as I was very interested in doing it right and building a place that could serve the needs of many on a round the clock basis. I needed to get to a bigger space and I was worn out on the whole grunge thing. People who were not “grunge” were actually inclined to not want to associate with the epicenter of that phenomena. I had the entire interior built inside of a gutted concrete shell. I spent some money on the build but got 13 years of business out of it before I closed the place in August ‘05 after a merger attempt and lease re-negotiation went sour.
OLM: Hundreds of bands from all over the world recorded albums at Hanzsek Audio and films and videos were recorded there, as well. What sticks out in your mind the most from these years (good and bad)?
CH: Oh, it’s mostly all good. One week in ‘93 Courtney Love and Hole were there doing pre-production on their debut album. I was back East visiting my family when I started getting calls from a young lady I hired to be second engineer to assist Hole. She was scared, thinking that someone was going to get hurt, so she called me up for advice. I called Gold Mountain [Nirvana and Hole Management] and told them they had a problem child who was taking too many drugs and threatening physical harm to band members and such. Then they blew me off while I did my best to blow them off first. Actual quote:
Them – “Hey buddy, do you know who we are? Huh? Do ya?”
Me – “Yeah, I know who you are. So what? Do you know who I am? Huh? Do ya?”
OLM: You closed Ballard’s Hanzsek Audio in 2005, but have been running Hanzsek A/V out of Snohomish since then. Your focus remains the same as always with engineering, audio and video production, mastering and DVD Authoring. What do you prefer to do out of those things? Why?
CH: Ah, variety, the spice of life! I just like to get in and see for myself, smell the roses, hear the sounds, experience the joy, the pain, the senseless and the sensible, the amused and the tortured. Channeling expression and helping shape it into an exchangeable form is instrumental to our culture. Immersion, baby! Seriously, though, I like to do a few things well instead of just one. It’s challenging to stay on top of several technical arts but I really enjoy them all. I love to master records, but it’s good to have a break now and then and shoot a little HD video. And vice-versa.
OLM: You have been a professional in the music industry for nearly 30 years now. What do you like best about working in the music industry? What do you least like about it?
CH: Mostly I like the people. The arts community offers an opportunity to meet some truly vivid humans. Music is a magical mode of communication that is appreciated by many, but few dare to fully comprehend it. It’s fun to be around those who dabble in this crazy art form. On the other hand, the business side of music can be quite nauseating to deal with at times. It would be great if everyone had talent and no one was broke but sometimes it’s just the opposite. Sometimes this job can be “just a job” and not a whole lot of fun.
OLM: From what I understand, you were interviewed by VH1 at some point. What’s the story there?
CH: That was for a Canadian production company shooting an upcoming series called Metal Evolution that traces the metal family tree in eight separate one hour episodes or something. I’ll be one of those interviewed in episode 6 when they feature grunge.
OLM: Is there any gear from your Reciprocal Recording (or even earlier) days that you still use today? What and why?
CH: I still have many microphones and some outboard gear from the early days. They still work, so why not?
OLM: Long after they’re released, are there any albums that you still listen to that have your stamp on them? Which ones and why? Are there any you can’t listen to? Which ones and why?
CH: I don’t often pull out too many old recordings. If I do it’s usually to play it for someone else. I haven’t heard the Deep Six compilation in a long time, but I don’t want to. The mixes were spotty, the mastering was absent, the delivery was late, my reputation took a hit and the girlfriend left me for some dude that worked with her at Check Mart.
OLM: Are there any bands that you would like to work with? What bands, why and in what capacity?
CH: I’d like to work with any band that has great ideas, cooperates and works well with others, is fun to hang with and can organize a small budget so I can pay my bills. I’m not targeting any specific bands; I like surprises. I guess I see a few now and then and I think “wow, I would love to work for those folks”. But I’m shy so I usually don’t send out invites.
OLM: Who are some of your engineering/production idols?
CH: Brian Eno has always been someone I’ve looked to and admired for his philosophy, his insights into art and culture and his general approach to collaboration.
OLM: What bands are turning your ear these days?
CH: My ear goes in many directions now. I hear things I like in some very odd places. I just mastered a hip hop record by an outfit called Klub Monsta from Birmingham, AL. I think it’s very creative and really blows my old stereotype about hip hop being shallow and full of senseless sonic novelty. There is so much variety in the texture and song construction. Plus, it’s really well arranged and has lyrics that are clever and even witty at times.
There are a lot of local artists that I see and hear that I also enjoy. I wish I could mention them all, but I can’t – I have the memory of a 53 year old! But I’ll name two. Paundy is an eclectic electro-acoustic ensemble that I’ve known for eight years or so. They did a European tour last Winter. They are delightful. Another project I worked on struck me by its awesome intricacy and poetic quality. The band is called Led to Sea fronted by a woman named Alex Guy.
OLM: Having engineered and/or produced thousands of bands over the years, you must have some pretty amazing stories. Can you recount one of your favorites?
CH: Yes, I had many favorite moments, but I was tickled pink when I came to work one morning and met Helios Creed, a fellow that played in a SF band that I loved dearly called Chrome. I thought someone was playing a joke on me when a tape appeared on our studio tape shelf back in ‘87 marked “Helios Creed”. Apparently Daniel House met him and offered to put out a record and set him up to work with Jack. I walked in and there he was. I was flabbergasted that one of my idols was in my studio having a blast and talking my ear off. Sweet!
OLM: When you’re not working on music projects, what can we find you doing? What are some of your hobbies/interests?
CH: I’ve been climbing, hiking and backpacking for many years. It’s the perfect way to balance too much time in the studio. Back in the late ‘90s I raced really, really fast go-karts on the regional circuit throughout WA and OR. Ten years ago I quit racing, so now I just pretend. Rumor has it that there might be a Lotus in my garage. I’m getting back into bicycling these days, too. Staying in shape!
OLM: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Chris…last question! If someone wants to hire you, how can they contact you?
OLM: The desert island question: if you could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?
CH: Hmm…well it would have to be happy music unless the island is pre-stocked with food, water, beer, wine, tequila and other relaxing ingredients. I’ll take Pere Ubu, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Brian Eno and Fred Frith.
OLM: Who is your guilty listening pleasure?
CH: I suppose I should hang my head in shame for liking The Moody Blues and AC/DC.
OLM: Are there any questions you would have liked to been asked? If so, what are the questions and what are the answers?
CH: I’m flattered that you asked this many questions and would be greedy if I wanted more. I guess I like being asked to do quality work for quality people. When that happens, I really like to say “yes!”