Growing up in a musical family from Rockford, Illinois, Matt Allison began his path to becoming a producer while playing guitar and bass in various high school bands. He later moved to Champaign, Illinois to pursue an English degree, yet his passion for music remained. Allison continued playing in bands, but also took interest in recording demo tapes for his and his friends’ bands alike. “I kind of realized you could really exercise a lot of whatever creative urges you had via recording music, while at the same time making a much better living than you possibly would as a musician,” he said. “In some ways it was like hedging a bet, career-wise, but on the other hand I never have been interested in being a touring musician. Working in a studio is something I really enjoy doing.” Allison and a friend eventually constructed a small studio in the attic of the home where they were living, though it soon became apparent that Champaign was simply overcrowded with studios and under-populated by bands. This revelation is what ultimately led Allison to migrate to Chicago.
Upon arriving in the windy city, Allison found work as a house soundman at Lounge Axe. After a year or so, he took a position at a now-defunct recording studio in Wicker Park. Allison worked there from 1990 to 1995, at which point he obtained a small loan and founded the initial incarnation of Atlas Studios in the city’s Andersonville neighborhood. Some of the first bands to record at Atlas were Chicago punk acts like The Bollweevils, The Feds and Houseboy. “You know how things spread in the punk community. People started hearing about this studio that was extremely cheap. It’s cheap now, but it was sort of hilariously cheap back then. They heard about it and they said, ‘you can go there, get a halfway decent recording and this guy is a smartass, but he’s fairly cool.’ It just kind of spread from there really,” Allison said. He would soon collaborate with The Broadways, who later splintered into The Lawrence Arms, as well as The Traitors, a band that featured a young Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio fame on drums. Allison is best known for his recordings of Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms respectively, and he’s enjoyed a productive working relationship with each group for the better part of the last decade. His earliest decisive recording took place during the summer of 1998. It was the celebrated debut album from one of Chicago’s all-time biggest punk bands, Alkaline Trio, entitled Goddamnit.
Goddamnit differed from a majority of the punk rock output of the late ‘90s in that it was much rawer and almost improvisation-like compared to the tightly wound and rigid pop punk that was commonplace at the time. Its lyrics were vulnerable and candid, and its music was heavily influenced by Jawbreaker, yet still retained a strong flavor of classic Chicago punk. Goddamnit was recorded in a mere five days on a shoestring budget, yet has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide and remains the favorite Alk3 disc of many fans. “The best way I can describe it is that I think the longer a person works in this industry the more jaded they can become,” he said. “When the situation arises where you’re all of a sudden taken back to the way you felt about music when you were a kid, that’s one of the first inklings you’re having that what you’re working on is really, really good and really special.” When asked what his favorite memory of working with Alkaline Trio was, Allison responded, “The common theme when I work with those guys is simply the fact that we get along as people really well. We’re friends and we’re able to communicate really well on a musical level, which I think is a cool thing. It’s something that I really value, the fact that I have that relationship with them.”
While never achieving the mainstream success of Alkaline Trio, The Lawrence Arms are undoubtedly one of the most popular bands in independent punk rock and boast an exceedingly rabid cult following. Often described as “Midwestern Beer Belly Despair Rock,” TLA write hangover anthems that search for clarity and insight after all-night benders. In total, they’ve released three full-lengths for indie stalwart Fat Wreck Chords, all of which were produced by Allison. He described a typical recording session with the band as, “extremely efficient, a lot of very specific and articulate expressing of ideas and concepts, and also an immense amount of laughter.” Allison added, “We all have great senses of humor, but there’s no question that Brendan Kelly, (singer/bassist) is one of the funniest people on the planet. Doing a session with them epitomizes why I love doing what I do. It makes it the greatest job in the world, it really does.”
In 2005, Atlas Studios relocated to a new site in west Lakeview. Encompassing 2,000 square feet, it’s over twice the size of the previous location. The edifice was also specifically constructed as a recording studio prior to Allison acquiring it. “It’s extremely comfortable and has a chill vibe to it in the sense that it’s a very low pressure atmosphere,” he said. “It’s in a great neighborhood where people have access to just about anything you can think of. We have much, much better gear now. Our gear is as good as any other studio’s, other than the absolute, super-insanely expensive places. We have one of the best live drum rooms in the city of Chicago and many people have said that also. It’s a vast improvement compared to what we were working with before.”
March of 2008 would mark Allison tackling arguably his biggest project yet in the revamped studio. During that time, he produced Less Than Jake’s GNV FLA, which was a true comeback album of sorts. LTJ had split with Warner Bros. and founded their own label called Sleep It Off Records. They self-financed and self-released the record in an effort to reconnect with listeners after cutting ties from a major label for the second time. Many fans hailed it a return to form, vowing that the band had come full circle and returned to its roots. “It was probably as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life. It was very rewarding, because I was happy to be given the chance I was given by an extremely well-known band that didn’t know me at all, they had never met me really,” Allison said. “I showed that I was able to make a record that wasn’t necessarily completely within my usual boundaries, because I don’t do ska records. I learned a tremendous amount about all sorts of things doing that record and I’m extremely grateful for having done it. I’m extremely grateful for also meeting them as people, because they’re wonderful guys. I think more credit should be given to Roger Lima, (bassist/singer) who helped me tremendously throughout the entire making of that record. As far as teaching me things about Pro Tools that I had never known before, he also helped me with the gear and editing and things like that. He was immensely helpful. As much as it looks like I did that record by myself, there’s no way I could have done it without him.”
According to Allison, a good recording is one in which the listener isn’t hearing the studio at work. The goal is to achieve as little filter as possible between band and listener, thus establishing a direct communication. “My role is to channel what they’re trying to convey without making it sound like it has my handprint all over it. Stuff that’s been recorded well with good microphones is absolutely always a plus, but truthfully the listener is looking for emotion and a connection with the artist. That’s really the paramount issue,” he said. In terms of advice for budding producers, Allison recommends going to school for Pro Tools, however he stressed that nothing is better than hands-on experience. “I usually suggest that a beginner should try to record their friends’ bands and learn about recording firsthand. Learn about how microphones work and learn how to make the instruments you’re recording sound good. Learn all the basic things like how drums work and how they should be tuned, how guitars should be tuned and learn about tones. Try doing live sound sometime, so you can understand how to mix something extremely quickly, by the seat of your pants. Be prepared for a lot of incredibly hard work and know that you have to love it to stay in it,” he said.
Allison again joined forces with his two longtime friends, Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms, during the summer of 2009. Alkaline Trio spent the month of August at Atlas Studios, recording their seventh full-length album, This Addiction. The Lawrence Arms convened with Allison in June to record their first-ever seven-inch, entitled Buttsweat and Tears. “I think some of the records I’ve made with Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms are records of that genre that will be enjoyed for quite a long time, so I’m pretty proud of that, the fact that those will be around probably a lot longer than I will be,” he said. When looking down the road and speaking in regards to the future of Atlas, Allison stated, “I think the primary thing is that we continue to put out what I like to consider no bullshit recordings of music. I’m focused on records that are really good and that will hopefully still be loved five years after their release, not just five months afterwards. We’re going to keep up the standards that we currently have.”