John Croslin: Outta the Garage and Into the Tool Shed

By Ken Lieck, Austin Chronicle, Vol. 15, Issue 10 Nov. 1995.

Looking at John Croslin, the last mantle you would likely assign this quiet, gangly, curly-haired man is that of Record Producer. In fact, the first Mantle called to mind looking at Croslin would be the late Mickey; you picture John comfortably sitting around his house watching a ballgame, or maybe spending some quality time with his wife and kids. Well, he does a lot of both, and that, partially, is the secret of his success as a Record Producer.

To hear Hunter Darby of the Wannabes, a band for whom Croslin has produced the bulk of their work, tell it, recording an album with Croslin is less a job than an afternoon out with the boys. “The atmosphere [in Croslin’s backyard studio where their latest album Popsucker, was recorded] is great. We’d do some songs, drink some beers, watch a playoff game for the NBA, do some more songs, and then play kickball with his kids.” Croslin, he says, is simply unflappable in the often tense situation of recording an album. “Some days a band member will come in and have a bad day. Well, he was in a band and knows what a bad day is. I’ve seen him repeatedly have to stop between takes to go out and help someone restart a lawn mower. No matter what, he always keeps the attitude that `It’s gonna be alright.'”

But just being a nice guy with a sixer and a bag of chips handy doth not a successful producer make, needless to say. There’s also a little matter of experience and a good ear for what a band should sound like. Croslin says that he doesn’t see himself as the type of producer who can create something that isn’t already there in a band. He feels his job is to capture what is and present it in as exciting a way as possible. His simple reasoning behind what makes for a good recording is a band that is together, with a clear understanding of what all the members want, and that is prepared to listen to someone who is trying to help them realize the above. Britt Daniel of Spoon, whose just-completed Croslin-produced album is getting lots of major-label attention while in the “shopping” stage, calls Croslin the “greatest arbitrator — he makes the band members get along with each other.”

Croslin’s pet peeve is bands with no spirit of experimentation. “It really bugs me when a band says `that’s not how we play it live!'” He cites that attitude as the reason that so many great live bands have come and gone without ever having made a truly good record. “They’ll insist on doing the same thing they do live, and [on tape] it just doesn’t come off that way.” The disasters he’s encountered in producing, however, are few, and mostly involve band members simply not showing up for a session (though there was that time during a Cotton Mather recording session when the power completely went out at Music Lane, and it took a couple of hours before someone realized that some wise-ass kid biking through the alley had decided to flip a power switch outside that no one had ever thought to lock up). He adds, though, that he tries “to stay away from computers.”

Croslin is still best known to most locals as the co-vocalist/main songwriter for the legendary Austin band the Reivers (originally known as Zeitgeist before another band claimed legal copyright to that name). Croslin produced or co-produced most of the band’s albums on the dB and Capitol labels and, as Darby puts it, “got a rap through that for being a troublemaker.” Rather than being a control freak who insisted on helming his band’s albums, however, it was largely by default that Croslin began producing Reivers’ records as the various producers assigned to the band by their labels repeatedly didn’t work out. “I had to do it,” he says today, “or it just wasn’t going to get done.” The record business troubles that plagued Zeitgeist/the Reivers from day one are legend in themselves and would make for another long story altogether; in the context of this story, what is mostly important is that such circumstances led the group to an early breakup and Croslin far from the urge to start another band.

“I’ve known for a long time that the studio was where I always had my fun,” he says of his decision to jump with both feet into the producing field (although in fine Austin tradition, he still also holds the all-important Day Job). And though it’s partially the fact that he produced those major label albums for his band that put him in demand as a producer, he says that “to be honest, it’s been more of a hindrance than anything — I’m still in the ongoing process of telling people that I’m not in a band. I couldn’t have learned without [producing] the Reivers, but it’s not my best work.”

True enough, the sound quality of those early efforts, some recorded in big Hollywood studios, falls flat compared to the work he’s been doing more recently with bands like Sixteen Deluxe, Gomez, Sincola, and the Setters in smaller Austin studios — including the small shack in his backyard that more closely resembles a tool shed. Able to stand back and listen to what makes a band tick, he continues to hone his skills, and has “30-40” production credits under his belt at this date, key among them three albums from the Wannabes, who Croslin calls “the great American band.”

Listening through the three projects is like following Croslin’s education as a producer — though he personally credits the band’s own increasing skills as the primary force behind the steadily increasing sense of power in the sound of each album. The first, the cassette-only Lucky Pierre, failed to showcase the group’s wilder side, while the second, Mod Flower Cake, following a forebodingly long mixing time, was a blast. And with the third, the new Popsucker, Croslin and the band decided to go the whirlwind live-in-the-studio route, with even more spectacular results. The three together practically form a textbook case of Croslin’s ability to realize a band’s potential. “With the first one,” says Darby, “he showed us a picture of a tiger. With the second, he let us see the cage, and with the third, he sent us in to feed it.”

And what Croslin is currently looking forward to, aside from a couple of possible dream production jobs he’d rather not jinx with premature discussion? “I’m hoping that the Spoon record [is picked up by a big company]. Having a hit record on a major label that was done in my garage would be a big thrill.”