“I follow the song,” says producer/mixer/engineer Pat Dillett. “I don’t have a Pat Dillett machine that says, this is the way I do it, let’s see how your song sounds in it. It’s more like, what does your song sound like, and how can we deliver the most successful version of what you’re trying to do?”
The owner of three Grammys and a bunch of gold and platinum records, Dillett really is about the song, and the proof is in the great work he’s done with an incredibly diverse, successful and just plain interesting list of artists. He’s produced albums by David Byrne, They Might Be Giants, Soul Coughing, Mike Doughty, and the Lounge Lizards, mixed albums by David Byrne & Brian Eno, as well as Bebel Gilberto, mixed tracks for Mary J. Blige, the Gipsy Kings, B-52’s, Aaliyah, Notorious B.I.G., Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and countless others, not to mention engineering sessions for many of the biggest names in the music business.
What unites all those artists? “There’s no musical thread “ it’s just that I get along with all of them and we have a lot of fun working together,” says Dillett. “It’s definitely personal. Getting along and understanding what makes the artist comfortable makes everything work better. It helps with trust and sharing criticism.” Because so much of his work comes through referrals, even new people have a certain level of comfort with Dillett. “You can establish a good vibe just by being yourself,” he says, “and that’s how I work.”
According to regular client David Byrne, Dillett’s particular gift is “Musicality. The stuff makes musical sense—it develops, engages and evolves in ways that aren’t cliched but are familiar at the same time,” he says. “Of course, I’ve liked what he’s done on my projects but more than that I’ve grown to trust him—there have been mixes, for example—not all, but some” where I’ve heard his mix and felt ‘that’s it, it’s done.’”
Stuff like that helps explain why Dillett’s collaborators are so incredibly loyal. Dillett has worked with avant legend Arto Lindsay for 18 years. He recorded Mary J. Blige over the course of seven records. He’s been an integral part of They Might Be Giants’ production process for 20 years. So yeah, he’s a keeper. And that’s why most of his work comes through word of mouth —because people just like working with the guy. Through Arto Lindsay, he began working with Ryuichi Sakamoto as well as an amazing string of top-flight Brazilian musicians including: Tom Zé, Milton Nascimento, Bebel Gilberto, Toninho Horta, Marisa Monte, Vinicius Cantuaria and Nana Vasconcelos. Through David Byrne, he worked with Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno. Through his work with Queen Latifah, he came to work with Puff Daddy and Mary J. Blige.
That dedication to the song means a very flexible and creative approach to recording. “A lot of my contemporaries have some entrenched ideas about how to work,” says Dillett. “And I don’t feel that way, ever. I want to try new things. We can try cutting it into pieces or playing it backwards or putting it through a ring modulator—or two ring modulators. Or we can make a recording so it sounds just like people playing in a room, I love that too.” Listen to “Au Fond du Temple Saint” from David Byrne’s album Grown Backwards — the backing sounds orchestral, but listen closely: the bass parts are actually played with a Theremin, and Stephen Barber’s piano has silverware in it.
Dillett is equally at home with producing or mixing, but very often, a project winds up being both. “At some stage in my career, I might have wanted to do production only, because that seemed like a good job— hey, just stand around and tell people what to do while somebody else does the engineering,” he says. “But the reality of it is, they don’t make that kind of producer anymore because people can’t afford that kind of producer anymore. I end up doing both, and I’m very comfortable with that.”
Dillett got his start in the late ’80s, at the legendary Skyline Studios in New York, where he assisted and eventually engineered for super-producer Nile Rodgers. “I’m part of the last generation who got a solid foundation in tape and analog recording,” Dillett says. “When I started my career, digital recording was just beginning to grow, and the possibilities of MIDI and sampling were really exploding.” To be at Skyline in that era was to be witness to a rare mix of styles. “One day we would have Grandmaster Flash in doing mixes, and the next might be Dizzy Gillespie tracking a record,” Dillett recalls. “It definitely made me appreciate the skill of some artists whose work I might never have heard otherwise.”
What’s the key to a successful project? “Listening to the artist,” Dillett reveals. “Find out what they want before you start working. That always works for me. I don’t generally get into telling them what to do — I get into telling them what I think will help them get done what they want to get done.”
Dillett is renowned as a vocal specialist. In 2009, as part of Here Lies Love, David Byrne’s opera about Imelda Marcos, he recorded a constellation of outstanding voices: Martha Wainwright, Nellie McKay, Cyndi Lauper, Sia, Kate Pierson, Santigold, Sharon Jones, Natalie Merchant, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), and Annie Clark (St. Vincent). Also that year, he recorded vocal sessions for Billy Joel, Aaron Neville, Yoko Ono and Placido Domingo. “Recording vocals one-on-one, with just the singer and you, can be pretty amazing,” says Dillett. “I appreciate every aspect of making music, but no matter what the genre, I still gravitate toward the more personal aspects of a song, the part of the music that’s trying most to connect with an audience. To me, that’s the lyrics and melody.”
Those vocalists definitely know what they’re doing, but sometimes, they’ll ask Dillett for a little advice. “Sure, I’ll sing a vocal idea to someone like Mariah or Mary and all these amazing people,” Dillett says, “and they’ll laugh— because, guess what, I don’t sing like them— but sometimes you have to be willing to look silly if it’s useful for getting something done.” Dillett also happens to be good at background shouting on tracks. But, he’s quick to add, “let’s just say that’s not what you want to hire me for.”