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Mark Bingham of Piety Street Recording: No Shit

Mark Bingham is good at multitasking. The enigmatic, wisecracking denizen of Piety Street Recording is a jack of all trades on his home turf. Behind the mixing board in his capacity as producer or engineer, he’s the Bukowski of sonic memory, capturing raw or beautiful noise with the same stingy Germanic precision while spinning aesthetic theories, moral philosophy or scabby anecdotes.

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Photo by Elsa Hahne

“There’s a cartoon somewhere,” Bingham muses, brown eyes winking sardonically, “where the producer’s pressing the talkback button and saying, ‘That really sucks. Come back in four hours and it will be great’.”

Bingham chuckles at his joke and ambles out to the kitchen where he’s performing another of his favorite duties at the studio, cooking.

“I’m improvising today because there’s nothing left in the refrigerator,” he says. “I think I’ll make pasta with some periwinkle meat in it. Mix that with squid and anchovies.”

Bingham also plays a variety of instruments on various sessions, most often guitar or banjo. He’s just recorded an ambient music concert at the studio consisting of “me on banjo and two laptops. Two of the pieces already have deals.” Bingham also has nine albums that he produced, composed or played on over the last 40 years due out by the time you read this, as well as a brand new record, Psalms of Vengeance, recorded at Piety Street. The record is as complex a piece of art as Bingham is a person; dense, beautiful and foreboding, the nihilistic imagination of a man whose father was tortured for four years in World War II and ended up shooting himself. There’s a song about his father on Psalm of Vengeance called “It Never Goes Away.”

This hotter-than-July afternoon is a relatively easy day for Bingham. Delfeayo Marsalis is in Studio A with house engineer Wesley Fontenot recording a quartet and ten children on vocals. Bingham is in Studio B swapping stories. “Mark’s a good guy,” says Marsalis, “and Piety Street still has the analog equipment which I prefer. Mark grew up in the analog era and he has a great deal of respect for analog recording. That’s very important to me.”

Bingham does not look like a man who runs the most in-demand recording studio in New Orleans; more like an affable local shopkeeper, a middle aged man of average height and build with thinning hair cropped closely to his scalp and a mostly expressionless demeanor that sets up his often-startling wit. Sociable without being particularly outgoing, Bingham has the kind of evenhanded personality that allows him to deal easily with some of the most eccentric figures on the New Orleans music scene. At the same time, Bingham is notoriously flinty with music business hustlers and has been known to walk out of lucrative deals that rubbed him the wrong way.

Bingham basically lives in the studio although he has a home around the corner that he shares with his partner Shawn Hall and their dog Oliver. The studio building is an old, white stucco structure with vaulted ceilings and a warren of rooms for recording, rehearsal, production, mastering and sleeping. The couches may be pooched and torn, but they’re certainly comfortable. The recording equipment ranges from primitive to post-modern, two-track analog tape to Pro Tools, and it all serves a purpose. The walls are covered with Hall’s vivid, spiritual paintings—she’s a well-regarded local artist whose work is part of the Ogden Museum’s permanent collection—along with various photographs and posters. The copy of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life awarded to Bingham’s production partner and mastering engineer John Fischbach is unobtrusively placed on a side wall, the kind of credential that doesn’t have to be overplayed to impress. The overall impression inside Piety Street is that you’re in the home of an eccentric artist whose collection of artifacts has slightly outgrown the space. It’s a little mysterious, and a lot to take in; you’re aware of being in a special place.

A number of important New Orleans records were recorded here over the years, but since Katrina, Piety Street has been a production line turning out memorable sessions, a creative run that hasn’t been seen in this city since Allen Toussaint’s heyday at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary recording space on North Rampart Street. Immediately after the flood, Toussaint himself finished recording The River in Reverse at Piety with Elvis Costello.

“We were back in operation by Halloween,” says Bingham. “Then on the 10th to the 18th of December, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello were in here. I’d just been in New York doing the Katrina benefit album with Hal Willner and Joe Henry, so they knew we were open.

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Photo by Elsa Hahne

“Allen is the Godfather,” says Bingham, who dismissed any thoughts of professional rivalry between producers by saying, “that would be like Don Corleone feeling competitive towards Fredo.”

Since The River in Reverse, Piety Street has turned out a series of definitive New Orleans recordings as well as some outstanding records by national acts. The list includes John Mooney’s Big Ol’ Fiya, Morning 40 Federation’s Ticonderoga, the Radiators’ Dreaming Out Loud, Dr. John’s Mercernary, James Blood Ulmer’s Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions, Ed Sanders of the Fugs’ Poems for New Orleans, trumpeter Nicholas Peyton’s Into the Blue and The Blind Boys of Alabama’s session with the Hot 8 Brass Band, the Grammy-nominated Down in New Orleans. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars recently completed a session there, and earlier this year the Dave Matthews Band cut Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King during Mardi Gras. Guitarist John Scofield named the album he recorded there as well as his touring band after the studio. Alex McMurray, Paul Sanchez, John Boutte, Brother Tyrone, the Zydepunks and Leroy Jones all made recent albums there.

Tony DeMeur of British pre-new wave band the Fabulous Poodles recorded there and gives a clue to the studio’s appeal.

“Mark Bingham had seen me perform at the Circle Bar and generously gave me two hours to record eight songs completely live with no overdubs,” he says. “Mark conscientiously labored over the selection and positioning of microphones, which we used alongside a direct input feed. He has a natural empathy with musicians, being one himself, and imbues a session with an atmosphere of genuine creativity.”

Sometimes Bingham finds that his guests provide him with private amusements.

“We had a Swiss version of the Imagination Movers in here earlier this year,” he says with a shake of his head. “The music was kind of cheesy, but they were singing in Swiss German. They wanted the Dixie Cups to sing with them because in Swiss German the word ‘Hiko’ sort of means ‘get it together,’ like, ‘Go clean your room—Hiko!’ So they got the Dixie Cups in there singing phonetically in German Swiss.”

Bingham enjoys telling such shaggy dog tales, but there’s an offhanded genius to his method that draws people to work with him.

“I’ve watched him work with John Boutte,” says Paul Sanchez, who cut this year’s A Stew Called New Orleans with Boutte at Piety Street. “John Boutte is a really sensitive fellow and Mark has a casual, sort of sarcastic way of dealing with him which seems to work. When it came time to make Stew, John just didn’t want to spend any time in the studio, he didn’t want to do the record. Boutte came in, Mark told him a dirty joke, everybody laughed, we played the material. John never had to think about the fact that Mark had spent a day and a half miking the room in different corners, with live mics near John’s face but not in his face. We sat down and played the thing like it was live music. That’s just not possible without a guy like Mark who’s first of all that good at what he does, but also sensitive enough to deal with a guy like John Boutte’s aesthetic. Mark was invisible other than to make John comfortable and make jokes and disappear. He did all the mixing. I went home, then came back to listen to the mix and it was perfect. I didn’t have to say anything.”

Which is how Bingham likes it.

“I don’t understand the idea of the producer micromanaging the mixer,” Bingham says. “When I’m the producer I don’t interfere. I try to keep the delineation of jobs clear. You have sessions where everyone involved has produced records, but there’s only one producer. What I’ve noticed is that most people in that position don’t know how to shut up and do their job, so if I shut up and do my job, at least there’s one less producer in the room. What I like to do is, for example, have Nicholas Payton and Bob Belden go out on the porch and talk while I do the mixdown, then I ask them, ‘What do you need now?’ They come in and listen, make comments, they go back to porch and I fix it to their liking.”

Bingham has been on the fringes of the big time throughout the rock era, but he never found himself comfortable with it until he moved to New Orleans in 1982. Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1949 and spent his youth moving from place to place with his family. He began playing guitar and writing songs at 15 and became interested in recording when he began experimenting with a friend’s reel-to-reel two-track machine. While in high school, his group won a battle of the bands judged by Ed McMahon and Cousin Brucie, and that landed him a job at Elektra Records.

Photo by Elsa Hahne

Photo by Elsa Hahne

“They thought I’d be reporting to them from high school on New York bands, but I got into trouble with the draft board and hitch-hiked to L.A.,” Bingham says. “They gave me a gig as a junior monkey boy apprentice producer, which meant I listened to all the unsolicited tapes and went out and heard bands all the time and reported back to the honchos.”

It was a heady time on the L.A. scene. The first Doors album was out, Elektra had released In My Life by Judy Collins, Bingham watched Tim Buckley record the Happy Sad sessions, and he shepherded Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber around town as they were recording The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders.

But Bingham hated L.A. He was seriously injured in a car accident and found himself at odds with the locals. “I was not a hip kid,” he says. “David Crosby drove me to this party where [a celebrated L.A. club owner] tried to rape me. He got me in a headlock and stuck his thumb up my ass. But after that I got into [his club] for free.”

Bingham went back to Bloomington, taking courses at the University of Indiana while playing with and producing local musicians. He studied with the radical Greek avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis. “I learned a lot of things through him,” Bingham says. “The school was wide open, and there was a lot of jazz. Michael Brecker was there and had a wild band.”

In 1976, Bingham moved to New York, where he had a significant impact on the new music in lower Manhattan that coalesced into the punk, loft jazz and no wave scenes. “My attitude was ‘anything goes’,” he says. He played guitar in Glenn Branca’s bands, produced Branca’s Lesson No. 1 and formed a trio, the Social Climbers, as well as collaborating with the like-minded producer Hal Willner.

“I met Hal in 1979,” says Bingham. “We were both interested in crazy music. Hal got his Nino Rota album done and after that he put me on the Thelonious Monk record when nobody else would give me the time of day.”

“New York in the ’70s, I don’t know what I got out of that,” he says thoughtfully. “The downtown scene was really hostile to anyone who really knew how to play music. It was like you were a square if you knew how to play music. I couldn’t take the whole vibe of trust fund kids in black clothes getting smacked out and pretending to be punks.

“New Orleans was a place where I could play music and enjoy doing it and musicians had friends other than musicians and artists, people who actually worked for a living as plumbers or carpenters. It was real. I ended up moving into a house next to Aaron Neville and teaching a bunch of kids in the 13th Ward to play some of the pieces I was writing, stuff with treated guitars and all the guitars tuned to one string, the kind of stuff I had been doing in New York. Nobody in New Orleans was playing anything like that back then.”

Bingham first major New Orleans project was a remote recording of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians which is widely considered one of the most important documents of that culture in history.

“I went to the H&R bar in 1987. Steve Pierce at WWOZ had some equipment and I had some equipment so we pooled it and I set up in the back of a van with an early digital recording system. It was pretty much like an Indian practice except they were onstage because this had to be a little more focused. It still sounds cool but it was made in the most minimal conditions.”

In 1993, he opened his first studio, the Boiler Room, and began making a series of great recordings including Cubanismo! and records by Astral Project, Mem Shannon and Leroy Jones among others.

Bingham moved his operation into Piety Street in 2001 and has become the chief partisan for New Orleans music, turning the place into a kind of shrine. “It’s one of the last of the great studios,” says Shannon McNally, who has been on numerous sessions at Piety. “It’s as much of a church as any place I’ve ever been to. New Orleans is still there to me because Piety is still there, and because Mark and Shawn are still there—people with the intelligence and compassion for enabling other people to express themselves.”

Bingham takes an almost bitter pride in surviving as the rest of the music industry around him is going into the tank. He views its current woes with the barely suppressed glee of someone who’s been at war with its greed, hypocrisy and style-over-content aesthetic for a lifetime.

“The New York Times declared the recording industry was dead 10 years ago,” he says with a wry smile. “Who needs studios when you can make a record on your home computer? And it’s true—if you know what you’re doing, you can make a good recording anywhere. The catch is you have to know what you’re doing.

“I always say you can fix the recording but you can’t fix the people. That was why in my limited time of being in the big time music business, I immediately wanted to get out. The higher up the money food chain you get, the crazier it gets. That’s why I’m sort of hiding out in New Orleans and working with people instead of waiting around for three producer gigs a year where you get 50 grand for each one, which is what some of my friends from the old days are still doing—living in the shitty apartment in New York waiting for the next call.”

The secret to Bingham’s success?

“To come in and do the work every day,” he says flatly. “There are a lot of studios that have hot tubs and luxury accommodations. People go in there and they have a great time and nothing gets done. When it comes time to record again, they have to ask the question: ‘Do we want to go into the super tricked-out studio with the hot tubs and the blow jobs, or do we want to go to the place where we had fun and still got all the work done?’

“How do we stay above water in the current economic climate? That’s a really good question. This week we had a jazz record on Monday, something else on Tuesday, something completely different on Wednesday, Green Day on Thursday, the ambient concert and recordings on Saturday. I had a homeless rapper in here the other day cutting to looped samples from a second line.

“Much of it has to do with pricing. This studio runs like a street market in Sierra Leone; it’s all negotiable. There is a book rate, but only Dave Matthews and the Dixie Chicks pay it, because they can. Green Day paid the book rate. Shawn basically takes care of the day-to-day business, making sure people are happy and have what they need. We do a lot of the work around here ourselves. She taught me how to sew and I sewed all the curtains. So now I’m simpatico with the Indians. Sewing’s a cool thing because it really calms your brain.

“I’ve always thought if you do something well, something’s going to work out. If you do it all right, and then you fail, that’s cool. That hasn’t happened here yet.”