Behind the Boards is a series where we spotlight some of the biggest producers in the industry and dig into some of their favorite projects. Here, we sit down with John Congleton to discuss his production work with St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Tegan and Sara, and more.
When an indie band wants to level up, they work with John Congleton. The Texas-based songwriter and producer has been instrumental in helming records for some of the biggest indie artists of the last decade, from St. Vincent and Angel Olsen to The War on Drugs and David Byrne.
He’s been particularly busy in 2022, with his hands on some significant releases: Tegan and Sara’s new album Crybaby, Death Cab for Cutie’s Asphalt Meadows, and Whitney’s Spark. But one thing that Congleton’s productions all have in common is his ability to create expansive, atmospheric soundscapes out of moments of intimacy, a universe of emotions out of a few simple notes.
When artists work with Congleton, they seem to tap into a deeper space than their usual fare, without losing any of the experimental impulses that they may have. This is certainly the case for newer records like Death Cab’s Asphalt Meadows and Tegan and Sara’s Crybaby, but also for some of Congleton’s older productions, like The Walkmen’s sublime 2010 album Lisbon.
Though his resume is getting deeper by the week, Congleton is particularly excited to continue his work with Blondie. “I remember at one point, I had said to them, ‘It’s really weird to make a record with you guys, because if it wasn’t for what you and like 20 of your friends did in the mid-‘70s, there’s no way I would even be making records,’” he tells Consequence over Zoom. “Because punk rock, regardless of individual bands, the idea of punk rock was… well, it’s sort of a cliche to say this, but it saved my life.”
Congleton is certainly candid in our conversation about the many significant artists he’s worked with, but it’s fearlessness that he encourages above all. That, and a sense of community. “Just fucking be expressive, do your thing, because nobody cares,” says Congleton about the late ‘70s punk scene in New York, which is a fitting simile for his versatile work. “We’re just going to entertain our friends, they said… and they ended up entertaining the world.”
Read below for a deep dive into five standout John Congleton productions, including Tegan and Sara’s Crybaby, Bombay Bicycle Club’s Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, and Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness.
Tegan and Sara – Crybaby
I’ll talk about those ladies as much as you want. I fucking adore them. Okay, so my relationship with that band was one of admiration from a long time ago. And I really, really respected that band when it was sort of not “hip” to respect that band. I could not fucking believe the amount of sexism that was exhibited towards that band in their early days in the reviews. I thought it was immensely brave of them in indie rock in the late-‘90s, early aughts to be very out as two queer twin sisters, write songs about being queer, write songs about their experience in general. I thought it was immensely brave and it was very often framed as like, either, “Isn’t this funny and cute?” Or sort of fetishization of the fact that they were gay. I thought that was fucking repellent. They wrote amazing songs, and they had a really amazing sound when they sang together.
And I really respected the fact that 10 years ago they decided, “We’re going to try to be a mainstream pop band, but we’re not going to lose any of what makes us people, we’re going to continue to sing about being queer. We’re going to continue to talk about being gay. We’re not going to water any of that down but we’re going to swing for the fences, popwise.” Now, look at what pop music is. It’s exactly that. And it even sounds like those records now, right? Like, I mean, Tegan and Sara is always 10 years ahead of every fucking thing. Right?
Anyways, so I’ve had some run-ins with them here and there on a couple projects that they sing backgrounds on, and Sara lived in LA, and we would get coffee sometimes. We always talked about working together. How it happened was, Sara sent me some demos, and I thought they were great. I expressed enthusiasm, not because I wanted to work on it, just because I thought that it sounded [like] what I liked about Tegan and Sara, but it sounded very energetic and kind of punk and very youthful. I gave her an assessment of what I thought of a couple of the songs in a really casual kind of way. And then she got with her sister and said, “Why don’t we try some songs with John or do some songs with John?”
So we did. This was kind of early pandemic, around the time of when the vaccines came out, but it was still pretty tight. I couldn’t go to Canada, so they met me in Seattle. We did a couple of songs together and it was just going so well that we just finished a record. I loved every minute of it. It’s pretty, wildly creative and bizarre at times. Definitely artistic and fun and got some real party-type elements to it. I don’t know how people will feel about it. I don’t know how their fanbase will feel about it. I don’t care. It was a lot of fun to make.
Bombay Bicycle Club – Everything Else Has Gone Wrong
There were several heartbreakers, with the pandemic, of records that I thought were so great that I was involved with [that] really got cut off at the knees. All those artists survived it, ultimately. Yeah, Bombay Bicycle Club, a lot of people were interested in them doing another record and it felt like the setup of that record was going great and it seemed like things were going to be awesome and the pandemic, obviously, shut that down, but they’re out there now touring and doing great.
With Bombay, again, I had no relationship with them. I was familiar with them; I thought what they did was interesting. If I remember correctly, somebody in the band really liked a Bill Callahan record I had done — which is funny, because that’s so not remotely anything like Bombay Bicycle Club. So we had a Zoom call or a Skype. It was casual — they’re very reserved British folk. Not like me, [who can] be a loud Texan sometimes. I think there was always an intention to make a record, but the way it started was we did a few songs together, like half a record, in London, at the Conch Studio, which is Ray Davies from The Kinks’ studio. Everything went great and then they came out to LA and we did the second half of the record together. The second half was a little more limber and experimental.