When it comes to his music, Jim Lang is something of a purist. It’s not that he’s strictly acoustic or a snob about style. His latest album, Jazz Criminal, a collaboration with Patrick Gleeson (the synthesist who did the soundtrack for Apocalypse Now and toured with Herbie Hancock) is wildly experimental, what Lang describes as “dense jazz–inflected electro acoustic collage.” Perhaps because he sought out jazz on his own, listening to his dad’s records as a kid, and taught himself to arrange music while playing horn parts on a Hammond organ in an R&B band, what’s important to Lang is that the sound is his own. “I’d rather write than bite,” he says.
With the rise of sampling, borrowing and recycling music, when Joni Mitchell’s 1970 “Big Yellow Taxi” resurfaces in a Janet Jackson jam and A Tribe Called Quest borrows a lick from Lou Reed (and just about everyone else), organic compositions are surprisingly rare. Lang would like to put creation back in creativity. “Right now, most music is 50 percent postconsumer content, which means eventually there’s nothing new. Do the original thinking as well. Make the content you’re chopping up.”
At Knobworld, Lang’s Echo Park studio, you can’t sit around for long without wishing for a tambourine in your palm or the piano keys under your fingers. You might find yourself practicing solfège in the spiral staircase up to the second floor, or tapping your foot to the rhythm of a clock on the wall. Designed by Gleeson, Lang’s friend and mentor, the studio is a dream space out of a musicians’ version of Dwell magazine, where the asthetics are in the acoustics and an inviting collection of chairs. At Knobworld, the difference between play and work is almost invisible; great albums are made here because great musicians feel at home. The building itself is mysterious from the outside, with a slightly industrial feel, and enclosed by a sliding gate. The staircase leads up to Lang’s office and lounge, a funky studio apartment and a kitchen (complete with espresso machine) that always seems to be filled with sunlight. In between recording sessions, band members hang out upstairs, occasionally pulling out their instruments for impromptu jams.
As a self-taught musician, composer and arranger, Lang simply enjoys making music. In addition to his recording work at Knobworld, Lang wrote and scored the music for Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! and was hired to score John Carpenter’s Showtime project Body Bags, which lumped him into two industries: “slasher movies and kid shows.”
This year, Lang has worked with Madlib (with drum tracks by Toni Allen of Fela Kuti’s band), Azimuth, The Jack Fris Radio Choir, Build an Ark and Harold Budd, to name a few. But because of the changing nature of producing and recording, Lang’s work is not always so social.
“By the time I’d finished the music for Hey Arnold!, I’d spent six years sitting in a dark room by myself. It felt like when you’re a kid and you hold your breath to get dizzy. It’s fun, you get high, but it’s not real exciting.”
In the time since he began arranging and producing, the process of making a record has changed, and Lang’s role has changed with it. “On an old record you would have an A&R guy who chooses material, a producer who oversees it, an engineer who cuts tracks, a mixer who mixes everything. In the postmodern version of a record, all roles are blended,” Lang explains.
For Lang, his role and relationship to the bands recording at Knobworld depend on what they need. Sometimes he is the recording guy, other times he is asked to play on the record. “Some people just want a studio space, some want a player, some want more.”
Either way is fine by him; if the process is good, the result will likely follow suit.