“I got a rock.” When Charlie Brown first uttered those words one fateful Halloween, he sounded crushed. But for Seattle producer and engineer Tucker Martine, the exact same discovery — albeit many years later — triggered an epiphany.
As a student at Naropa University, a Buddhist higher learning facility in Boulder, Colorado, Martine took a recording technology course. “We had an assignment where the instructors handed each of us a little packet of items, and said, ‘Bring us a 30-second sound collage using these,’” Martine remembers. “I had a couple pieces of wire, a paper clip, a rock…That got me thinking about how organized sound can be absolutely anything.”
These days Martine, 34, organizes sounds made (primarily) by animate objects. His production credits include multiple albums with Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter and Laura Viers, plus Jim White, Mudhoney and the Long Winters. Martine also enjoys close ties to the Seattle jazz community, working with guitarist Bill Frisell and keyboard maverick Wayne Horvitz.
Although he cites Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as primary inspirations, atmospheric use of space and a fondness for experimentation are only half of Martine’s aesthetic. “I love good, classic songwriting,” he says. “You can’t make a great record if you don’t have great songs to work with.”
The latter passion may be genetic. Tucker’s father is Layng Martine Jr., a Nashville tunesmith who penned hits for Billy “Crash” Craddock (“Rub It In”), Elvis Presley (“Way Down”), Pam Tillis (“I Was Blown Away”), and Reba McEntire (“The Greatest Man I Never Knew”). “While I was laying in bed at night, I would listen to him pounding his foot and writing songs, working on the same section over and over,” he recalls. “I’d hear the little tweaks happen, and that moment when it all makes sense. And sometimes, a year later, I’d get to hear that same song on the radio all the time.”
Those paternal late-night efforts weren’t the only sounds he monitored closely. “I’ve spent countless hours with old Beatles recordings, writing down what instrument comes in on which side of the headphones at what moment,” he says. “I loved old Blue Note records.” He played drums, too, and by adolescence was fooling around with tape loops and using boom boxes to sync up primitive multi-tracking.
As the years rolled by, Martine knew he wanted to pursue music professionally. But in what capacity? “My interests didn’t seem to be pulling me in one specific direction, and it was kind of driving me crazy,” he concedes. Eventually, he realized there was one gig that encompassed them all: “It was that production credit that you see on record sleeves.”
He didn’t stick around Music City to pursue his plans. “The day after I graduated high school, I moved to Boulder for a couple years,” he recounts. “My older brother was in school there. We had always played in bands together, and decided we were going to take over the world.” But global domination eluded them, so in 1992 Martine set out on a Kerouac-inspired cross-country trek in his pickup truck.
“Seattle was just a stop along the way,” he says. “I knew nobody there.” Within a day, he befriended the proprietors of an experimental music boutique; by the end of a week’s visit, he had taken in performances by Frisell, Horvitz, avant garde composer Amy Denio, and “some kind of art-rock thing that [Soundgarden drummer] Matt Cameron was in.”
“There were all these different kinds of music happening, and people from different genres playing with other people. And they all seemed so excited. It felt like a healthy community. And I thought, ‘That’s a place where I could come into my own.’” Upon completion of his road trip, he relocated to the Emerald City.
Today, Martine does much of his work at his own Flora Studios, just off the I-5 highway and behind an industrial park in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. On an early January afternoon, watching him oversee a new record by local ensemble the Transmissionary Six (featuring former members of the Walkabouts and Willard Grant Conspiracy), his in-studio manner seems as subtle yet spontaneous as his best productions. If he feels a performance isn’t yet up-to-snuff, his observations are succinct, his comments made casually.
“I just try not to speak unless I really have something to say,” he explains later. “It’s an impressionable time for people, that moment when a track is coming together — or not. It’s important not to give them too many things to think about. I just want to steer them, not make them feel like they need to reinvent what they’re doing. Often, you’re just trying to get people to do what they’re naturally going to do in their bedroom if they sit down and pick up their instrument.”
At the same time, Martine takes care not to allow longtime clients, such as Viers and Sykes, to fall into familiar patterns. “I always encourage people to challenge themselves,” he says. “There has to be some element that makes it a little bit scary, and new. If we’re not surprising ourselves, it’s not going to sound compelling to somebody else.” And if he comes up with an idea that isn’t quite right for the project at hand, no worry; he has other outlets, including Mylab (a collaboration with Horvitz) and the experimental collective Mount Analog. He also drums in Viers’ touring band.
Martine already has a full docket for much of 2006 — including a new Sykes album, work with the Decemberists, and possibly sessions for Jim White. Meanwhile, he continues to dream of more and varied projects down the line, including, perhaps, one in Nashville.
“My dream is to work with George Jones…if Rick Rubin doesn’t get to him first,” he concludes. “He still sounds great, and his voice has worn in a really true way. And, in my opinion, he’s not making interesting records. That’s the kind of challenge that I get excited about it.”