Paul Languedoc Mixes it Up (From The Archives: August 1999)
Today we look back 15 years (!) to the early days of Jambands.com and this interview with Phish soundman Paul Languedoc, who has since retired to focus on crafting guitars. The interview was conducted by the illustrious Jefferson Waful who has since retired from Jambands.com to focus on lighting Umphrey’s McGee.
Paul Languedoc has been Phish’s soundman since 1986. In addition to mixing all of their live shows, he is also responsible for building Trey’s guitars and a few of Mike’s basses. I caught up with him before the 7-13-99 show at the Tweeter Center.
JW: You first met Trey in 1984 when you were working at Time Guitars in Burlington. What was your background leading up to that point?
PL: Well, I moved to Burlington in 1982 when I was just a year out of college. I went to Bates College and I was a philosophy major, believe it or not (laughs). I had always done lots of woodworking and stuff as a hobby up to that point, but before building guitars, I was rebuilding pianos. I did that off and on for four or five years while I was in school. It was like a part time summer job thing. For some reason or other, ever since I’ve been about eighteen, I seem to have been involved with musicians in some way or other.
JW: So your background was more woodworking and carpentry than sound engineering?
PL: I was always kind of a technical person. You know, I studied philosophy because I wanted to and I sort of felt like “I don’t really need to study engineering. I get that already.” You know? At least I feel like I have a pretty good mentality that way. A lot of times, I do wish I had studied electrical engineering or something like that.
JW: So were you mixing for other bands? Were you doing any work with other musicians at that time?
PL: No, not at all. I really started with Phish and as a matter of fact, the first time I mixed them, it was also the first time I ever heard them.
PL: As far as I can remember.
JW: This was 1986?
PL: Yeah, something like that.
JW: So one day, Trey just walked into Time Guitars to have his guitar fixed? Is that how it went down?
PL: Well, he had been coming in and out for a few years and I actually was staying with him, because I was looking for an apartment and we had become friends. So, I was looking for an apartment and I was staying with him. He had a house with some other people and also another friend of mine was living with him. So, I happened to walk in on band practice one day and I think they were in the middle of this discussion about getting a soundman or a person to do sound for them exclusively because they were starting to play out at that time. So, I just kind of walked in on this conversation and they looked at me like, “Oh, let’s get Paul to do it”. It was just sort of a coincidental thing.
JW: I’m very curious about how the whole collaboration happened when you built Trey’s guitar. Did you guys listen to a lot of music together? Did he give you examples on tape of other guitarists that he wanted to kind of emulate?
PL: No, nothing like that. We were just talking about it. He was playing a Time guitar at that time, and then that company had closed down. This was like 1987 and I was working for the band at that point, but I also had a job as a cabinet-maker. So, he came to me and was interested in getting something different. I made some drawings and we looked at the drawings. He had some ideas and I had some ideas, but I can’t remember exactly who contributed what. It was his idea, I think, to make it a hollow body. He was interested in something different.
JW: It’s definitely a pretty unique sound and he rarely tunes on stage. He’s got this outrageous sustain. He only plays the one guitar, yet he can get many different tones. I was just curious if he came to you and said, “I’m gonna be bending a lot of notes, I don’t want to have to re-tune.” So many players at the club level re-tune between most of the songs. Was that a special design you came up with?
PL: I don’t know if I was thinking about that in particular, but I had built some jazz guitars and hollow body guitars with tail pieces on them. I think that’s the major contributing factor that it stays in tune, you know? It’s the type of bridge it has and the type of tailpiece. So I just sort of preferred that. And, it was a hollow body guitar, so it seemed to make sense to do it that way. A typical electric guitar bridge I think puts the strings under a lot more tension, like a Fender style bridge where the strings come through the back and then over the bridge saddle. There are very high stress points on the strings at certain points with that type of design and that contributes to the thing going out of tune and strings breaking, especially when someone is really bending a lot of notes, you know? Where as in this case, with a tailpiece and a separate bridge, there’s no point where the string is really under that incredibly high tension like that.
JW: How was your first gig with Phish? Were there a lot of problems? Do you have any memories of that night?
PL: The band played at Hunt’s in Burlington and I had a friend there who was the house sound engineer. So, when this idea came that I might be interested in learning how to do this, I just kind of asked him if it was OK if I came down and helped him out. So, I did that for a few nights and helped him out with a few shows. The real first time I ran sound, he really sat over my shoulder. So, it was smooth in that sense I guess.
JW: The legendary road trip to Telluride in 1988. Were you travelling with a PA (public address system) at that point?
PL: Yeah, we were. We had a small PA system at that point. It was like a small club type PA system. That was very educational to me, because it was always breaking down, you know? Actually, some of my major training with PA at first came through Mike (Gordon). He had had high school bands and he actually owned a small PA system, like a Peavey or something like that. So, he knew more than I did for the first little while.
JW: I find that very interesting because at the level that Phish is at now, you’re really renown in the business as having a pretty amazing crew and both you and Chris Kuroda are self-taught…
PL: Yeah, it’s not that unusual in the business for bands to have their own sound engineer. I consider myself to be very interested in the PA system. There’s lots and lots of stuff out there that I’m not up on, the latest, greatest stuff, but I really try to understand PA systems even if it’s some kind of a festival gig or a one-off gig, I want to understand what’s going on with it. So to me, that’s very important. I think a lot of sound engineers are much more fixated on their mixing board and their console and they don’t really care about the PA system, you know?
JW: As time went on and Phish started moving into theatres, you were travelling with your own larger-scale PA, which was kind of rare for bands at that level at the time. That must have given you quite an advantage, to play through the same system every night.
PL: Yeah, it was like old, used stuff that we bought, but it was good quality. It was breaking down a lot and it taught me how to figure out what pieces we needed and stuff, you know? So we just added things gradually, bit by bit. Yeah, it’s always preferable to have something that’s consistent.