When Chicago's once mighty WaxTrax Records began to fall apart in the '90s, suffering the loss of its pioneering bands like Thrill Kill Kult, Front 242 and even the Revolting Cocks, the burning question remained: who will pick up the slack? Or, more importantly, who would be capable of producing the next hard-edged electro-powered groove that would be directly associated with Chicago, as WaxTrax was? Some people have spent so much time lamenting the losses of WaxTrax that they have failed to acknowledge seething levels of musical output right under their noses.
Warzone Recorders, which lies in the midst of Chicago's Cabrini Green housing projects, may not be the type of place where Euro-kids in knee high Doc Martens wait for their heroes to finish rehearsing, but it is a breath of fresh air in Chicago. While the city is populated with trite popsters with no taste for future music, Warzone's roster of artists is both diverse and innovative. The now-defunct Swans spent some time there, as did various incarnations of Pigface. The triumphant return of the Final Cut came with Warzone stamped all over it. Sheep on Drugs even had their newest techno trash epic, "One for the Money" given the Warzone treatment.
Unlike many records which were put out by WaxTrax, Warzone has upped the ante by recording music that goes beyond the standard electronic dance fare. A prime example of this is Minneapolis' Savage Aural Hotbed, whose newest album features awesome amounts of tribal and found percussion reminiscent of Test Dept. or Einsturzende Neubaten. The Warzone crew has also just embarked on producing their first record by a European outfit, Germany's Sabotage-Q.C.Q.C.?.
Warzone is more than just a place for records to be treated, mixed and produced. By combining an ear for the urban groove, a strong collection of modern and vintage equipment, and relentless dedication (many people stay in the Warzone compound for days at a time with an absolute minimum of sleep or downtime) Warzone is essential to keeping Chicago a stronghold for razor-sharp new music.
Throughout its brief history Warzone has done the seemingly impossible by creating a recognizable sound to its finished product without becoming cliched or formulaic. But don't take my word for it. Jason McNinch (who you may have seen wringing ear-burning tones from his guitar and being obscured by waves of fog with his band LICK), is one of the key engineers at Warzone. His taste for untapped audio areas and distorted vibes has become crucial to the Warzone work ethic. I ran into Jason a few weeks after the last Lick gig in Chicago and conducted the following interview.
Tom: Tell us a little bit of Warzone history. Who was it founded by and why?
Jason: Warzone recorders Inc. was started in about 1993 by Van Christie and Jim Marcus with the goals of creating their own music with Die Warzau as well as promoting a recording environment for friends and clients. The studio space is located in a multiracial community in Chicago and has had clients from all over the world.
Tom: Is there any specific Warzone "sound" that you strive for, or do you ty to make each record a work In itself?
Jason: In the three years I've recorded at Warzone I've been involved with styles ranging from dance to rock , instrumental to vocal, singles to albums. Each record demands distinctability. There is a recognizable sound to our beat heavy remixes that could be described as groovy, distorted and acidic.
Tom: Explain how the alliance between Warzone and Invisible records came about.
Jason: There is more of a fate involved here, like coincidential situations involving a studio and record company. Warzone helped me personally by allowing me to record with Lick for a year in exchange for engineering duties. Invisible helped me personally by investing into Lick's CD rleases and existance. Meanwhile I've made engineering, mixing, and artist appearances on about 10 CDs released by invisible: Evil Mothers, Pigface, Lab Report, Pounder, Lick, Sheep on Drugs.
Tom: Can you tell us about warzone's analog synth collection?
Jason: I've tripped while tweaking the Arp Odyssey, sequenced the Roland TB 303 and 202, and created new sounds with the Korg Prophecy, Jupiter 6, Electroharmonix guitar synthesizer, Moog source and E-Mu vintage keys.
Tom: What other types of equipment have been crucial to making Warzone Recorders work?
Jason: The API mixing board- it was built over 20 years ago with discrete modern components. It gives music of all kinds a distinctly warm and sometimes unpredictable sound. Analog tape with 16 track 2" decks is also crucial, as are Akai S1000, Akai S300 and Kurzweil K2000 samplers for music production, sequenced with Opode Vision.
Tom: What, if any, is the Warzone "state of mind"?
Jason: There is a vibe at Warzone recorders which is positive and productive. We also have a sense of humor. The making of records can get ridiculously complicated if mistakes are made at any stage of the process- this can drive you nuts if you're working on the same song for days at a time. We are able to focus in on what needs to be done in problematic situations. This comes from having experiences both good and bad. For example, at the final mix of Final Cut's "Shake" we tripped and the next thing I notice is the vocal track is erased, which turned one day into six plus a nervous breakdown.
Tom: How do you integrate your own personal beliefs and emotions into a mix or edit of a song or album?
Jason: I have dreams, ideas and a style. I like to challenge other artists, I fancy competition. I don't believe in, for instance, using a 909 kick drum just because we're working on a techno track. I believe in creating each instrument's frequency and dynamic according to feeling and instinct. You can affect people with music and you can also control how this happens with mixing tactics.
Tom: You're currently involved in Lick, Pigface, Final Cut and engineer concurrently for several others- how do you balance all these respective projects?
Jason: Scheduling is an omen. Doug Woodbury is the manager of Warzone and I work with him to conjugate energy vs. time.
Tom: When it comes to sampling, what types of sources do you find relevant or fun to sample?
Jason: Creating your own samples is the only way to be sure you're not going to put on someone else's record and hear something you've used. I will get live drummers in remote areas or the cavernous Warzone live room to jam for sampling. I will also run live casettes here in our rehearsal room to get random atmosphere or musical samples. Vinyl is gold.
Tom: Do you think Warzone gets overlooked as a studio, what with the popularity of Chicago Trax?
Jason: Warzone studios and Warzone engineers have agreed to do certain spec deals for aspiring artists who have not achieved anything beyond independent labels. So the cost of existance starts to combat the willingness to work for free. Still, the main objective is to create the most enjoyable sounds possible. It is depressing when an artist gives up or has boundaries placed upon them by record label deadlines and budget limits. I usually achieve better in a situation where we're trading production for something and there are no time limits because it's not paid for anyway.
Tom: What influences do you draw upon as a musician and engineer?
Jason: I look up to the production standards of Ministry and the Beatles. I am inspired musically by Billie Holiday, Sonic Youth, Black Sabbath, Beastie Boys and AC/DC.
Tom: What are your motives in forging music for yourself and Warzone's clients, i.e. what's the message behind the noise?
Jason: I enjoy affecting people in a positive way. Distortion, acid bass lines, and intense samples can add a kind of ear candy that is invaluable.
Tom: What are some of your personal favorites as far as records you've been involved in?
Jason: "Divebomber" by Pigface- although I didn't get to jam with Flea, I chilled with Andrew Weiss for a couple days. Pink Noise Test, "Plasticized"- a great band with a distinct sound for layering psychedelia. Nice rocking album and I really enjoyed working with Eddie Ashworth, Kirk Hellic and Van Christie. Matt Warren's "Tribal Acid" EP- there is a crazy trcak on this record that will definitely take you for a ride: the edit goes through numerous frequency changes.
Tom: Who do you haver plans to work with in the future, and who would you like to work with?
Jason: I would jizz to work with Monster Magnet, Cop Shoot Cop, Liquid Soul or F.S.O.L. (ps- Lick EXISTS- we are working on a new record.)
Here is a brief listing of some of the best discs to come out of Warzone to date: