Elliott Smith engineer says Elliott did not get his wishes

Engineer David McConnell, who worked for three years on Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, says the album in stores isn’t what Smith would’ve wanted.

“Half of the album, as far as I can tell, was made with David McConnell in this sort of druggy phase, and half of it was made afterwards in Elliott’s own studio [New Monkey in Van Nuys] after he moved in with Jennifer, and there’s these two very distinct moods, and the songs sound very different,” Nugent explains over the phone from New York City, adding that Smith’s preferred opening track, “Shooting Star,” was moved to twelfth on the album, and other potentially close-to-the-bone songs such as “Abused” and “Suicide Machines” were left off entirely. “Rob Schnapf is a really brilliant guy, and he did a great job with the album, but Elliott Smith pretty explicitly did not want Rob Schnapf being the producer on the album. So in a lot of ways, it’s kind of astonishing,” Nugent says.

McConnell believes that if Smith had completed the album, it would have floored listeners.

“I think people’s jaws would have dropped…. They’d think he was even more profound than they realized,” McConnell says, “because artistically, the direction that he was going in, he would have definitely had the next White Album, and it would have been the most talked-about thing this year, musically. It would have just been this combination of this insane experimentation with beautiful song structure, everything that’s beautiful about him, mixed with this insane kind of drug-induced, emotionally charged …”

He searches for the right words: “There was something else coming out of him on that record, coming from deep inside, something that I don’t witness when I work with most artists. It was definitely magical; it was scary – it was all those emotions in one.”

Describing Smith as an “equipment junkie,” McConnell says the songwriter was searching for a new sonic approach, inspired by the warm tones of ’60s and ’70s albums, and experimented with degrading the sound to make the songs “more human, less robotic.” The pair would regularly record through devices like baby monitor microphones and detune the guitars. He says one drunken experiment of sampling a toy ostrich wound up on the final album. “We forgot about it, and then it ended up on the record!” he says with a laugh. “We just meant it as a joke.”

Nonetheless, the easygoing, quick-to-chuckle McConnell is far from bitter, lightly repeating a recent quip on the final mix delivered by his girlfriend, ’80s new wave vocalist Josie Cotton: “She said, ‘It’s kind of like taking a van Gogh painting and touching up sky because it looks a little off.’ ”

2 thoughts on “Elliott Smith engineer says Elliott did not get his wishes”

  1. Interesting article, and probably close to correct. I think it’s safe to assume that those who finalized the cd took some artistic liberties that ES might not have considered. Makes me wonder if there will be alternative mixes in the future. I find it all especially interesting in light of hearing a lot of the album’s songs in live shows, such as the 1/31/03 Henry Fonda Theatre concert(must get), where the songs are stripped bare, compared to the overly layered texture on the album itself, where the songs are transformed and (in my opinion) less transparent. Honestly, I was surprised when I heard the streamed album, because judging from the songs I’d heard on the bootleg, I expected something a lot different, a lot more raw, more like his self titled album.

  2. Well, now that I’ve listened to the official release a few times, I must say that it’s melancholy and sometimes uplifting, and wonderful. I’d like to hear the songs they cut from the final version, but I see no need for remixes or demixes or controversy here. It’s a masterpiece, and I think it would remain a masterpiece regardless of whether the guitars were slightly louder, or if some effects were muted. So sad this even has to be an issue. Rest in peace, my friend.

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