Who’s Flying This Thing?

The Djinn Behind Flying Blanket Recording

All good reporting starts at the same place: a solid research question. What do you want to know? After a year now of going to see live music, interviewing bands, and writing about the indie music scene here in Arizona, I kept hearing a name. It was circulated in sometimes hushed, but always reverent, tones among musicians, disc jockeys, promoters, and music geeks: the Superman, Bob Hoag.

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This year has seen my musical knowledge of the local beat here in Arizona explode, and my CD/ vinyl library has grown exponentially. And as I go back through those records, a not so subtle patterns starts to emerge:

Charles Ellsworth: Caesera (2017)

New Chums: See it For Myself (2017)

Decker. : Into the Red (2017)

Fairy Bones: 0% Fun (2018)

Wyves: Bitch Has Got Problems Vinyl and Upcoming Untitled Release (2018)

All recorded or engineered and mastered by Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Studios, Mesa, Arizona.

And it is not like Flying Blanket Recording is the only solid recording studio in town. The folks over at 80/20 and STEM also have quite a solid jam going. To say nothing of the world renowned rock engineer over at Phoenix based Premier Studios, where Jeremy Parker has worked with everyone from Evanescance to Godsmack to Slipnot and Disturbed. That is a huge wealth of recording talent packed into a city on the verge of musical explosion!

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So… back to the aforementioned research question: Who is Bob Hoag, and for that matter, Why leave Phoenix? And again, as my time exploring Indie Art in Arizona has shown, if you want to know just ask. So I did, reaching out and hosting a dialog with local artists familiar with Bob Hoag’s work of the last eighteen years here in the Valley of the Sun.

When I asked Charles Ellsworth, “Why Flying Blanket?” He answered in a word: “Quality.”

Dani Cutler, over at KWSS Radio said:

“Bob has a different way of listening… it’s quite unique. I wish I could describe it actually, but albums he creates just have this different flavor to them. I can’t put my finger on it, but I can usually tell it came from Bob.”

“My favorite thing coming from a drummer standpoint,” Evan Knisley of Wyves chimed in, “is that he doesn’t blend a ton of sample drums in and they still compete with most samples. He has a signature drum sound that I think is instantly recognizable.”

“Drums are a big deal with a Bob; he’s a drummer,” Fairy Bones front woman Chelsea Lousie added. “But his equipment and his ear are both unique.”

Evan continued, “I think if you want to capture a more over-produced sound, then you can go elsewhere. Bob’s sound is real, and is almost completely recorded in analog. The music breathes and sounds real because it’s you playing on it, it’s not being chopped up and over-sampled.”

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Seth Boyack, singer and guitars for New Chums, also talked about the breathing and filling of space in the music. “Bob brings an element of space and breath to the music that you can’t find anywhere else around here. He’s great at knowing when to add more to the song and when to let the music breathe. I also love the reverb on the drums and guitars that he is able to capture. The sound is unique to Bob, but it also doesn’t make every band that he records sound the same.”

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One of my favorite guitar players in town is Matt Lloyd, and his addition to the New Chums had already seen them grow in leaps and bounds as a Phoenix band to watch. His own additions to the phrasing of Chums songs was instantly apparent in their live performances. I was very curious as to his reaction to working at Flying Blanket.

“Bob is the man! I am very happy with my own guitar experience and the way the guitar tracks turned out. I never felt rushed dialing in sounds and tones, and he would make countless trips into the amp room to make subtle adjustments for me while I was playing. You could tell that he really cared about achieving that great sound, and that he wasn’t just going through the motions. Additionally, when you listen to See it for Myself, there is never a dip in production quality across tracks from start to finish, and that is not often achieved from indie bands at the local level.”

I had met the legendary Bob Hoag once before, at The Lost Leaf where I had gone to see Charles Ellsworth play, and was doubly excited to see the elusive El Sonida de Reposa: the David Lynch infused, Nick Cave inspired, trippy blend of damn good coffee music, cherry pie music, and beat poetry. It was not hard to imagine Ginsberg and Kerouac having a drink and rapping with Gerald’s haunting voice in the background. Hoag not only records, but also plays drums in the band, along with his long time friend, Ed Masely on guitar, who also happens to the be the music writer for the Arizona Republic. Talk about super groups!

Everything from mod pop-rock, to American folk, to psychedelic blues/rock, to powerfully written pop/punk, to pull out the stops modern rock n’ roll, to experimental goodness that one can only imagine being on the soundtrack to Lynch’s next masterpiece: all of these upcoming talents saw something magical in the skill set of the quiet, reserved, old school hep cat: Bob Hoag.

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Who is Bob Hoag?

Armed with some great insight from my talented friends, I arrived at the unassuming old house, in the Historic District of Old Mesa. I got off the bike, knocked, and was instantly transported into a Wonka Wonderworld when the wizard opened the door! He ushered me through the studio, glowing as I took everything in with childlike, huge eyes, and obvious adoration. It was amazing to see this fantastic den of musical creativity hidden away in the heart of old Mesa. Finally, we settled into the front sitting room, and I activated my voice recorder.

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Ghost Writer: When I think of production people in music, I think of the great Brian Eno, Flood, Muscle Shoals’ Rick Hall, the great Flemming Rasmussen, or Chicago’s Steve Albini. These are guys whose landmark sound and contributions to music have made them legendary. Artists from around the world have sought these folks out just for the opportunity to work with them on their projects. In that context, a huge part of why I am here is to figure out…. who is Bob Hoag. What inspires you. What is your skill set that you bring to a project?

Bob Hoag: I don’t know much about many modern music producers. Obviously I have heard of a few of those guys, and it may be kinda dumb, I guess, but I don’t listen to much new music. I listen to music for eight to twelve to fifteen hours a day. I just want to listen to the sounds of my engines when I’m driving home: make sure nothing is falling off the car. When I go on trips, I do though. I usually listen to film scores, symphonies, orchestral kind of stuff, because I don’t record that stuff, and I don’t know how it works so I can’t pick it apart. I feel like that it is so far out of my wheelhouse of what I do everyday that the music hits me a lot more emotionally because I cant even think about the technical process of them making it.

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Ghost Writer: You are not dissecting it.

Bob: Exactly, but the best records I completely forget about the technical part of recording; where you hear the record and you think I don’t know what’s going on here, I just know that it’s great!”

Ghost Writer: It is fairly common knowledge that a large part of your signature Flying Blanket sound is from recording in analog. I have heard you are quite the vintage guru, when it comes to vinyl, and the sound of music.

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Bob: For the longest time, I didn’t even have a stereo to listen to music on at home. All of my music listening was done at the office. So over the summer I bought this turn table and this stereo, and at first I only wanted to buy orchestral stuff. And then I was like, I would like to listen to a few Beatles records, so I bought a few Beatles records. And then, I thought these don’t sound as magical as I thought they would on vinyl, so I got into it and realized that the American mastering sounds totally different than the British mastering because they did it from a second generation tape. So, I’m not going to get crazy, I told my wife, I will just buy a first press, British mono, Sg. Peppers. That way I know it is what I would have gotten if I had walked into a record store and bought it when it was first released. I put it on, and the difference was so massive in sound, it sounded so much cooler, that I sold my American Beatles records and I went down the rabbit hole of reading etchings, pressings, and stampers. It was that impressive. Well, once that started, I kept trying to convince my wife, look, I’m not going to get crazy with the records here honey. Look, I’ll get my soundtracks, Beatles and Kinks. Then I’m done. Kinks is the same thing; there are guitar parts that seem like they are missing on those American versions.

Ghost Writer: You and Ed {Masely} in the same room has gotta be a trip.

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Bob: {laughing} Well, I’m nerdier than he is. {Spoken like a true drummer.} On Ed however, now that you mention it, we both go way back to the old Pittsburgh days. When Ed was the music critic for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the whole city paid attention to every review and interview that he wrote. {Arizona Indie Folks, this is why…. In Ed we Trust.}

Ghost Writer: So why has vinyl gotten so expensive. If we look at history, and labels, Sun Records for example, they are pumping out their 45s to the radio, LPs themselves couldn’t have cost that much. The digital revolution simply took over because it was easier and cheaper even, but is vinyl that expensive of a process?

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Bob: Well some of that has gotta be inflation right? {He pulls up an inflation calculator on his smart phone.} Let’s say you bought a 10 dollar record in 1985… that is 23.60 today. However, additionally, there used to be dozens more vinyl pressing plants than you have today, so that has also slowed the process. I don’t think you had as many indie records, I mean you had major labels putting out records, even recording keep in mind, there weren’t as many tiny studios. It was mid-level or huge. A lot of times the record label owned the pressing plant; it was just part of the investment of owning a record label. So cost was more materials than anything else.  So, today it is a lot easier for bands to make their own music and put it out without a record label, but the process is slower.

Ghost Writer: In trying to determine your particular skill set, your uniqueness, what you bring to an album as a producer and recording engineer, I am curious, if you have a John Bonham or a Neil Peart – that kind of renowned drummer – is that intimidating to you at that point?

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Bob: No, I’m thrilled! It means I don’t have to do anything. The thing that intimidates me is when I see a drummer with terrible technique. I mean guys like Bonham, self-mix. I’m never going to have to worry about blending anything in. The snare is the loudest thing in the room because that is the way that they played it. Nobody uses room mics to be able to say, listen to how great the cymbals sound in the room mic; you want to hear how the snare sounds, (imitates a crash sound) as it fills the room. When it comes to drums, I have a tendency to use the room mics to hit the cymbals lightly and hit the snares hard, so that sound really reverberates and fills the space.

Ghost Writer: On that line, when you were converting this recording space, did you do anything material wise to enhance the sound for recording?

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Bob: No. It’s an old house, with brick and wood, and solid construction. I let the designers know what I wanted for each room, in terms of the sound density and quality, but no, there are no secrets or mysteries in the construction. The guy who worked on these rooms worked with us to keep the rooms very live. The smaller room is more controlled, where as the large room has that huge space for the drums and we even have the ability to open up the hallways and mic them to get that full resounding booming as it fills the space.

Ghost Writer: So nothing like Albini’s place in Chicago, with the cuts in the floor that go to the basement?

Bob: No, definitely not. No, anything recorded in Albini’s place has the signature of that actual space. I’m certainly not that mathematical of a genius when it comes to that kind of thing.

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Ghost Writer: Dani Culter of KWSS radio says you have a unique way of listening. She says that is obvious from your recordings.

Bob: Wow, that’s great. Cool.

Ghost Writer: Can you try to put into words that quality that she is trying to describe?

Bob: Every band is unique, and I don’t think I put my kind of personal stamp on any of the bands that I record. I assume there is already a shared ascetic, kind of in place if they come to me. I don’t advertise. Everything is word of mouth. The biggest thing in the job really, is to listen to the music, and try to figure out what it is really trying to say. What emotion it is trying to give in the listener, and then, this whole job is really just problem solving. You hear music, and if it is not doing what it supposed to, emotionally, why not? And then figure out how to make it do what you want it to do.

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In terms of how I listen. I used to like to have a lyric sheet, now I try not to. The vocal is number one, because that is the story. That is the whole message that you are trying to tell people. I like not having the sheet, so I can really try to listen to the vocal and listen to the message. But, the singer is the part I direct the least.

I feel that trying to tell somebody how to sing is like trying to tell someone how to kiss their wife. For better or worse, they gotta do it their own way. {Laughter ensues}.

Additionally, there are kind of two basic kinds of records that I make. Like, with Charles Ellsworth, he comes in and sits down and plays me the songs on acoustic guitar. I try to get ideas about what I would do with song, and I try to come up with ideas that make the person or band that I am working for excited.

Ghost Writer: I had your whole job, in my head, pegged like you were a movie director. If I wrote a story, and they were going to make a film of it, the movie that Christopher Nolan would make would be very different say that one make by Steven Spielberg – even though they were both based on the same material. But, then I was talking with Seth Boyack of New Chums, who says they miss your smiling face by the way, and he said something very interesting. That you have this ability of knowing when a song needs to punch and when a song needs to breathe. That got me thinking that maybe you are more of an editor, dealing spacing and fluency and flow into the songs.

Bob: It’s both, and it changes from band to band. Here’s the example. Sometimes you give a director a whole bunch of props and say, look, it was all there on the page. The script was the thing, and you are just trying to do the script justice. Some bands come in with more of a script and more of an idea of production. Other bands come in with just a script. So I have a tendency to test the waters. I’ll say I have an idea of what we could do with this and look for what excites them. My job is to make their record: their name is on the front of it. Sometimes I can get strong willed on certain ideas, but most of those are about trying to keep the song for shooting itself in the foot. For example, if there are already too many place when they bring it down, so it doesn’t punch here where they want it to. Those times I guess blend more to direction.

Ghost Writer: Now, we have some great production people here in town. And as I have met bands and recording artists around town, you seem to have two groups. The groups that are looking at taking advantage of the recording options here in town and the groups that are going outside of the state to record with a certain person or record at a certain location.

The bottom line: is does this choice have a real, measurable effect on the sales of the record, in terms to justify its cost?

Bob: You have to be at least a little bit of a music nerd to know that Dave Freedman produces all of The Flaming Lips records. Now, there are certain bands, where you are like, yes, you definitely have this sound, you must get recorded by Dave Freedman. Now… you get Jack White to produce your record, sure, he is an artist in his own right, that is going to get you some press.

Ghost Writer: But for me, even if you did. You are still going to sell the CD for ten bucks when you come home.

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Bob: To me. Are you the band that has an opportunity to do something like work with the guy that made one of the most legendary records to you personally, then that experience in and of itself justifies itself. It doesn’t necessarily matter if it directly effects album sales.

Trying to return… how do I listen…..

You figure out what parts are interesting and make sure those parts pop to everyone. That may make my records less subtle than others, but I kind of think…. if you are going to be weird… well, be weird. Try to enhance the emotion of each part of the song, and then mix the album to weave with those emotions.

Ghost Writer: So, go big or go home?

Bob: I am always trying to serve the purpose of the song. It is really about the song in the end, and creating the best possible version, and authentic sound of that song as possible.

In terms of the upcoming Wyves album…. Bob is very excited about a new song coming called Mar-a-Lago.

“I think they have been playing it live, we did a lot of arrangement shifts to that one. It was really run. I like that one a lot.”

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And Juliana Hatfield… should you be reading this. The fabled sound board from Fort Apache Recording in Boston is now at Flying Blanket Recording. You have made an absolutely profound affect on Bob Hoag, and you should look him up. As Bob was discussing his respect for the authenticity of Hatfield, he said:

“She doesn’t know how to do anything but just be who she is. Everything about her just drips with sincerity and they are just real. For better or worse, they are deeply connected to whatever thing she is going through. There is an emotional intensity and sincerity there, that you just don’t hear much anymore.”

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Ghost Writer: I think that you can hear that on 0% Fun.

Bob: Oh, great. I am really glad to hear you say that.

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Ghost Writer: You can. It is an amazing juxtaposition. It is a very authentic voice. It is this awesome fun, poppy, zippy, album but it is layered over this intense pain and rawness. It is super authentic and real. I love it.

Bob: You know, I need to revisit that record. That is a great comparison.

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So, Indie Music fans, artist entrepreneurs, future recording artists:

Did we answer the question? Did we convince you to stay in Phoenix to record, or at least give you new tools to weigh your options? I hope so.

In the end, at Flying Blanket Recording you have a man in Bob Hoag that has a sonic love affair with the emotional language of music. He holds it as his utmost standard to be the best interpreter for that language as he can… and help you deliver that raw, analog, emotional reality to your listeners.

Look him up, tell him the Ghost Writer sent ya!

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Keep the Greasy Side Down my Friends….. !!!

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