"I have as many opinions as Steve Albini," says Brad Wood. "I just don't get asked." Wood, proprietor of the Wicker Park production company Idful Music, is slowly getting some attention after his wowser work with Liz Phair and Red Red Meat, but comparisons between acerbic, hardline underground producer Albini and the genial and pop-steeped Wood seem a bit strained. Wood likes and respects Albini, and he does have some strong opinions, but they tend to be delivered graciously, and it's almost impossible to get him to say anything remotely controversial. Try as he might to claim otherwise, Wood's only similarity to Albini is that both have a devoted following of bands grateful for the care and attention given them.
"Brad was totally cool," reports Red Red Meat's Glenn Girard. "If he really likes your music and really likes what you're doing he'll go all out for you. If he hears a certain something, or if you have an idea and don't know how to get at it, he can totally bring it out." The band, which first began working with Wood in its Friends of Betty days, is now using him on their debut work for Seattle's Sub Pop.
Idful's origins were at Northeastern Illinois University, where Wood and pal Brian Deck went to school. The name came from psychology-class jargon. "We'd say things like, 'What a totally idful solo!'" The pair opened the studio in 1989 with another friend, Dan Sonis. Studios don't come cheap, and the trio didn't have much money, so they used what they had constructing Idful's sound rooms. "You can always finagle some good gear," Wood notes, "but the architecture is permanent." In the years since, Sonis has gone to LA and Deck has gone back to playing drums (he's with Red Red Meat and Every Good Boy). Now Wood and engineer Casey Rice run the place, tucked in the corner of a tiny strip mail on Damen just south of North.
Can you make a living running a recording studio? "We're getting by," Wood says. "I made about five grand last year, about that much this year. With only one control room you're not talking about a profit-making venture." He works at keeping the place inviting. "Idful is very comfortable," he says. "Bands like it: it's blocks from where they live, we've got AC, they can do their laundry next door, and while they're doing it they can make a record." Friendliness seems to be a high priority of Wood's. "You have to get along," he notes. "This is not Mariah Carey and I'm no Svengali. You're holed up in a small room with no sun for a couple of weeks; no one wants to work with someone they don't like." He laughs. "Though people do have to listen to me talk about what's right and what's wrong with music these days. Every New Year's I make a resolution not to talk so much, but I never do, and I generally end up having to take some time off the bill." (Standard idful rates are $50 an hour and $300 a day, though "I can get talked into almost anything if I like the band enough.")
Like Albini, Wood doesn't like his profession's terminology. "When we talked to Brad about producing our record," Girard recalls, "he was uncomfortable with that word. 'You're producing your record,' he said. 'I'm recording it.'"
"I prefer the words, 'recorded and mixed by.' I don't like to be credited as producer or engineer," Wood says firmly. "I don't have an engineering degree. You might have a lot of home remedies, but you shouldn't be called 'doctor.' In the past the producer would say, 'Change the key, bring in some horns,' but that's becoming a lost art. Now it's 'Put new heads on the drums, get some new strings, see if the amp works, and make sure that the sound on the record is the way the band sounds.'" His one exception, he admits, was Phair's luminous Exile in Guyville, on which he's credited as coproducer and engineer. "That was definitely a concession to the industry," he notes. "I knew a lot of people were going to hear it, and I wanted people to listen to it and say, 'Who did that?'" Wood's now working with Phair on her second album, and he, Rice, and Uptighty drummer Leroy Bach will be backing her in a New Music Seminar show this weekend and in a small tour this fall.
Like a lot of people who inhabit the once-fringe "alternative" side of the industry, Wood's benefiting from the changing times. "Ugly young men with horribly disfigured facial hair and silly pants are moving units like you wouldn't believe," he reflects. "The record companies have just given up: 'Sure, go out and record with Steve Albini.'" More evidence can be found no farther away than the new Rolling Stone, whose cover features Soul Asylum--newly platinum after more than ten years of ceaseless playing in bars--looking a bit shell-shocked. "I was playing in a band that opened a couple of shows with Soul Asylum back in 1985," Wood says. "As soon as I saw it I thought how cool it was that a band that I once played with was on the cover of Rolling Stone. And I realized that there must be thousands of people across the country saying, 'Hey, I opened for these guys!'"
Like Soul Asylum's, Idful's way hasn't been without its bumps: "Last summer," Wood recalls, "I was really depressed about it, my lease was up....But Steve gave me a lot of encouragement. He said, 'Are you getting a lot of repeat business? Because that's where it's at. That's the real gauge to know whether you're doing the right thing.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.