That man was Chris Carmouche.
In his first national interview, this engineer-extraordinaire explains how he’s come from stumbling upon a Grammy as an intern at Stankonia Studios for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—the 2003 “Album Of The Year” that has gone on to sell over 15 million copies —to becoming the A&R for Purple Ribbon Entertainment and associate producer of one of the year’s most critically-acclaimed albums alongside one of his idols.
Whether you dig the ATLiens or just music in general, you’ll enjoy hearing how the man known to most as simply “Mouche” can take turn songs into hits and goals into reality, while barely saying a word.
TSS: Mouche, whenever I do an interview, I make sure to do my homework. But, when researching you, I couldn’t turn up too much information. Yet, somehow you’ve managed to align yourself next to one of the most successful artists of our generation in Big Boi. I’m curious as to what steps you’ve taken to earn accolades like A&R of Purple Ribbon Entertainment and associate producer of one of the most well-reviewed albums of the year in Sir Lucious Left Foot?
Chris Carmouche: Well, really it took…shit it took a lot of hard work, perseverance and a damn good ear. Just knowing when to listen, when to step forward and when to take advantage of an opportunity when presented. My background has always been in music, since my early years in junior high and high school, back in the Louisiana. I went from classical piano to playing drums in the band. I was a drum major. I went to college at Georgia State and entered the school of music, playing classical piano. So in doing so, I took their music program and it encompassed all aspects of the game. I got my degree in recording.
After going through that program, I just got this internship at Stankonia Records and worked hard; studied. I’ve always been an artist and producer at heart and being around all the artists—you know it leads into producing. So, I peeped out a lot of game. I stayed in the studio nonstop. If they needed something, I was there to get it for them. Whenever a session was ready to go, I was ready to do it. Lil’ Jon. David Banner. At that time…Akon. All them folks was coming in.
Lil’ Jon was a huge influence in how I learned to arrange records and just learn the business and be more time efficient. Because Jon works around the clock himself. There was a lot of pressure put on me to record him and the musicians that he worked with and when he would leave, I would be stuck with the musicians. So when he came in the following day, I would already have it arranged in song mode, with all of the musicianship that had went on edited up.
TSS: That’s a task.
Chris Carmouche: Yeah it is, and it helped me become quick on my toes and how to get a song in a format—quickly. I worked with him for a good amount of years, his whole BME camp and when he was really jumping off during his prime. Like around the [Crunk Juice] album. I worked on a lot of records with him, recording and producing records and we had a factory. John Fry would mix them, and I moved onto projects with Jon.
I soaked up game working on their projects, especially Outkast’s. I honed in a lot my skills following in their steps and studying how they made music. I became a sponge and, slowly, I gained their trust. Next thing you know, I’m in sessions with the lead engineer at Stankonia [Studios], doing a lot work, and eventually find myself working with Big [Boi] over the years. We’ve built a good relationship over the eight years I’ve been here at Stankonia. Especially within that time during Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, I worked on the latter half of that.
As an intern, I actually simultaneously made my own album at Stankonia. I had a partner and we called it Mouche and Drough. It was our last names. They still kind of clown me about it today, but it was a good album. I went from an intern to an assistant engineer during Speakerboxxx, asking favors. Can you play guitars or do vocals on my album? My whole development…Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was being used as the blueprint. Now, it’s one of the ways of how I was able to know how to make an album.
TSS: And how to craft song concepts and such?
Chris Carmouche: Exactly. I don’t think I could’ve gotten a better learning experience where an album of the year was being made. I got a Grammy for that album, as an engineer. I slid in on as a rookie on a NBA championship team. John Fry was my coach, my mentor…and I asked him everything.
Am I giving too long an answer? Too much of a long answer?
TSS: No! Not at all, man. The question I had in itself was long and wide-open-ended, and that was exactly the type of answer I was looking for. To see how someone I believe to be in a high-profile position went from point A to point B – while maintaining such a low profile is very interesting to us, especially seeing you took a route not everyone would take with your music studies in college. It sounds like the musical route you took facilitated you towards the business end of the industry, giving you an all-around perspective. Would you say that’s a fair assumption?
Chris Carmouche: I would say that’s a fair assumption. But to add to that, let me give brief synopsis of my studies. It was a music degree, but the main focus was in engineering. But I had to enter the school of music for playing piano, so the course kind of took me full circle, especially when I learned a little bit about the business. I was able to grab the musical part and study the technical part. So, when I took the internship during Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, I didn’t – you know – my role was to shut the fuck up…and keep listening.
Because, a lot of people would talk themselves out of a position. So, I let my actions speak and not my words. And a lot of people know that about me, that I don’t talk that much. But, Big was a guy that could always pick characters out, and I think he felt comfortable working with me, because I’ve worked at Stankonia since ’02 as a studio engineer.
We really started hitting it off when we did the Idlewild project. I worked a good deal on that one and we built a good relationship. Then, when it came time for his album…I was kind of like…well, “let’s just see what happens.” I wasn’t expecting anything. Although I know most aspects of making a record, I just approach it however the artist wants to approach it.
We went into it by recording.
“Back Up Plan” was the first song we recorded, but ironically it’s the last song on his album. We started doing that record with just me recording, then mixing…and he started trusting my mixing judgment. Then, I started suggesting instruments and people to bring in on records. It got to the point where we developed a…type of…telepathy type of relationship, where we didn’t even have to talk too much and we already knew what needed to be done. We discussed it, and he gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted on the record. “We’ll try it out, see how they work.”
We paired off and started suggesting people to get the records like B.o.B., or my homeboy Bosko, who did the talkbox. I brought them to Big, and “Night Night” was formed. We had done that record like two years ago, before he had even turned his name to Bobby Ray. I knew at the time that he was a great artist and that was when people were comparing him to Outkast. I really thought it was more of a compliment, almost a fresh start to keep the legacy going. So, I thought it would be cool to get him on the album and reached out to his manager—who I’ve known since the BME days when I was working with Lil Jon—and we into the studio and him and Playboy Tre knocked it out. Again, one of many ways I got Big to realize I was more than just engineering. He saw I could mix, I could A&R and whenever an opportunity presented itself, I took it.
TSS: It sounds like you can really facilitate a quality track into a finished product, because you know all the aspects.
Chris Carmouche: Right. And, on top of that, I also do my studies. I’m a huge fan of Outkast and the music, so [working with them] was easy since I was already familiar with the music. Of course, Outkast is the greatest rap group of all time, so it was a great experience and since I had soaked so much game earlier on—and that Big liked my work, it made it easy because I knew what he wanted.
TSS: Well, the bond certainly shows. Your “telepathy” comment is perfect, because the album sounds like that was the mentality the creators of this project had. It’s very cohesive.
Chris Carmouche: Yeah, man. Big and I have probably collectively, I mean – shit…I’m not lying when I say that in the past 2-3 years since we started this shit, we probably listened to this album about 5,000 times or something. And that was almost an indication that we had a great album, because time and time we will comment to each other, man, I’ve heard this so many times and I’m not tired of this shit. We’ll give honest assessments like that, and that made us feel good about our product, to present to people. No matter what Big was going through at. the time, we knew the product was solid. And that’s what mattered to us most, was that fans and listeners wouldn’t be disappointed. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it.
TSS: I know it. The album has been making the rounds in the media—for years. People have known. People have been anticipating. And for you guys to deliver on such a high note, it speaks highly of your working relationship.
Why don’t you explain a few of the specific songs that stood out from that album, and give some insight on to how they made the rotation.
Chris Carmouche: Well, actually, one of the most fun songs to work on was “You Ain’t No DJ.”
TSS: Wasn’t that one of the last songs you guys recorded? I thought I read that somewhere.
Chris Carmouche: Yeah. In true Outkast form, they never stop working and go ’til the final second. This was no exception. It was a record that Dré (3000) handed Big out of many beats. We listened to that beat CD in a big room together—Big, Dré and I—at his house – and that beat came on, and we were like, “Wow, that’s a record.” So, we came back into the studio and Big…well…he takes his time to write. He says it in his records. He really gives a 100% and you may not even get a verse back from him in a day’s time. It marinates. So, while Big’s working on his verse, Yelawolf comes in and takes the beat. He loves it. He goes off in his own world. We don’t see him for like…a week or two weeks go by, then he comes back with a looooong-ass 32-bar verse. And we like “Okay.”
Chris Carmouche: We ain’t about to put no 32-bar-verse on this song. (laughs) We gon’ have to chop this up. Basically, what we did was make a 16, plus eight. We gave him one verse and then he did the eight bars on the third verse. It was the same verse, just the verse 24 bars of it.
TSS: That’s interesting. At this point, I’ve heard that song at least 20 times and was always impressed by how you capitalized on using him again after the chorus. The “party in poverty” line just kicks off perfect from the hook and doesn’t sound like he cut it at all.
Chris Carmouche: Nope, not at all. He came in and we redid the vocals, but that’s also one of the things I was doing with Big on this album, is suggesting the song structure. Plus, I like hearing Big go back in fourth with somebody. He’s a competitor and I like hearing that part, because it’s really where he shines, when he’s in fightin’ mode. Dré had actually had a part for it. But that was one we knew couldn’t get cleared. Dré’s part, he was kind of experimenting on some things, but we didn’t have a hook. We kept searching for a hook, but Dré didn’t have a hook, he had somewhat of a verse. And we like, ‘damn,’ we not gonna’ get this cleared. Then, it’s damn near midnight and we still don’t have a hook. It’s witching hour. I’m driving back and fourth from Dré’s house to the studio to grab instrumentation files. First, because I had to convert the files at his house, mix the record and then go back to the studio to Dré’s so he could hear it. We still have no hook. It’s now three or four in the morning and I’ve got a flight to catch for mastering.
So, finally, when Dré hears how the song is, he says, ‘Shit, I think I got the hook.’ So, he went in and demo-ed his vocals, we agreed that it was dope and then brought it back to the studio for Big. He dug it…modified it a bit, then we put Big’s vocals on it, added some scratches and shit, put it into the final mix. That’s it.
TSS: So, you got it done that night?
Chris Carmouche: We got it done that damn morning.
TSS: (Laughs) It sounds like the sun was coming up during that final mix down.
Mouche: Oh, man…it was amazing. Amazing. It’s definitely one of Big and I’s favorite records. We get excited every time it comes on. That was a good moment.
TSS: How about, the intro, “Feel Me.” It’s a great musical intro, that really sets the tone for the album. Tell us about that cut.
Chris Carmouche: Well, working on E-40’s album is when I met Bosko, who did Talk-Box that and on “Tell Me When To Go.” I actually recorded that whole album [My Ghetto Report
Card]. So, I was introduced to Bosko, who’s from E-40’s camp and I told Big, who was working on “Feel Me” at the time. I remember we were working this weird little noise for that record, and I told Big I was going to reach out to my boy who did Talk-Box. At that time, Auto-Tune was just poppin’ off and people didn’t know the difference between a Talk-Box and Auto-Tune.
TSS: A lot.
Chris Carmouche: Exactly. And so I told Big: “We’ll try it and if it works, cool. If doesn’t, fuck it.” So, I called Bosko that morning, and I don’t even think Big was in the studio at that particular time and it was something I was just going to try and say like “Bosko, we’re just gonna give it a shot. If it works, it works.” So, on that part on “Feel Me,” the hook was already there and I coached Bosko into how I wanted it to sound, vocally produced it and the results came out great. And we played it for Big, and he knew instantly. Like “Okay, I know what’s up. I’m fucking with this” and that added to Big’s trust in my judgment call.
TSS: He’s on “Shutterbug” too, isn’t he?
Chris Carmouche: Yeah, Bosko’s on “Shutterbug” too, which is another example of when Big and I got into that telepathy mode where our mind-reading skills started enhancing. We both immediately thought of Bosko. So I called him, and I had originally had my own idea for him to repeat what was going on in the hook. But, when he got to the studio, the first thing Big wanted him to do was, (imitates main melody in “Shutterbug”)…”bub-bub bub-bub-bub bub-bub-bub-bum,” and I was like, “Oh shit!” (Laughs) So, that’s kind of an example of how our ideas have formed a marriage. We’ve gotten on the same wavelength and paired off of each other’s energy. We can blend our ideas and take them to another level. We accept our roles and the feedback, and that’s kind of how that song came to life. Bosko was the sprinkles on top of it.
And that’s where we got to the point of embellishment on the album, which brings me to “Fo Yo Sorrows.” The record was done by Organized Noize and when he got the vocal from George Clinton and well, George Clinton is George Clinton. He’s gonna break down the funk and you take it how you take it.
TSS: Of course.
Chris Carmouche: So, I was going over the arrangement with Big and at the time the vocals was…the vocals was…(Laughs!!!) they needed some special attention. He definitely gave us the ideas, but it just needed some editing. I said: “We should just put him in the front, some stuff in the back and hopefully he’ll have a bridge.” That’s originally what we had told George we had wanted…some spoken word and a bridge.
He sent it back to us and I had gotten it to make make sense, and it fell into place by putting it in the front with the bridge, where he sings, “Don’t want no girlfriend.” We put that twice again at the end. At the time it was just nothing, a fade out, but I was telling Ray Murray [from] Organized Noize, “I got an idea for this ending.” Ray Murray was another person that trusted the judgments I was making and he was being supportive with expressing ideas. He knew that’s how Big works, he knows…”hey it works or hey it doesn’t.” So, I tried it. I went into the studio, messed with the vocals and tried to get him to sound like that guy from the 80s, in those Pepsi commercials, where he had the stutters in his vocal…where it sounded like he was in a computer box. I wanted George Clinton to sound like that—stuck in the future and trying to break out. And a lot of folks really liked that part of the song. And, again, that—amongst other things, helped Big solidify my judgment calls.
TSS: Wasn’t that one of the earlier songs recorded for the album?
Chris Carmouche: Yeah, actually it was. It went through a lot stages. It was one of two records that had Sam Chris’ vocals on it. “The Train, Pt. 2 (Sir Lucious Saves the Day)” and “Fo Yo Sorrows.”
TSS: Ok, now let’s talk about that one, “The Train Pt 2.”
When I first heard it, I was kind of caught off guard about the fact Big’s voice was pitched higher. I know it’s been somewhat of a staple to experiment with vocals, but I didn’t expect it. However, the more and more I listen, it’s becoming my favorite song on the album. It goes back to what you said earlier, about Big’s lyrics and how they take him a good amount of time. You can totally tell that’s the case with this song, because it’s like….it’s like decrypting a code, man. But, once you crack it, you can tell that what he’s saying is very thought-provoking and to me, the theme seems to be something along the lines of “be true to yourself and set a proper example with the opportunities you’re given.” Would you say that’s a fair assumption?
Mouche: Yeah, I’d say that’s a great assumption. But, first of all, we definitely go all over the place with the vocals. We don’t have any problems changing the form, based on what the rhythm is. We vocal produced Big. Well, I mean…shit, how you gonna vocal produce someone who’s been in the game for so many years. I just added a second ear and made sure we kept everyone tentative. He took control of it. And this was definitely one of those records where he felt like he had something to say, to let out. It was exactly like you said, for people stay to true to themselves. The whole record was actually like that. Like on “General Patton,” towards the end, where Big Rube come in and say, “People stop lying. You got pretenders to the throne.” It’s kind of like Outkast’s music, in general, keeping that sense of consciousness, recognizing who you are as an individual and taking advantage of your life. Records like that, I always enjoy. “The Train” was a perfect fit towards the end [of the album] because I think that’s when you want to hear a record with a message. But, it’s cool. It’s a real cool record.
TSS: Yeah, I dig how you decided to let the beat ride out for about an extra minute and a half or so, too.
Mouche: Yeah. Yeah. That part…(pauses)…some of these things you automatically know what’s going to happen, and other times you just let the music dictate. More than likely, we just let the song dictate how it goes. Organized Noize put they foot in it, you know?
Chris Carmouche: Ray [Rayond Murray of Organized Noize] bought us in the beat with Sam Chris on the hook, and it was a great guideline for us to follow. Big, of course, put his vocals on it and took it to another level and when it got to the end….we had already started embellishing the song with a lot of instruments and of overdubs. We let the musicians in the studio just do their thing and it felt good, so we kept it that way. We edited it, broke it down a little bit to make it feel right. We added the horns and made it something you can really chill to, lay back and smoke to. It was a good ride out. Because, you know, not many artists give their listeners that ear candy where you can take it in and vibe. This was one of those moments. That’s a record where you sit back and take it to the cosmos.
TSS: It definitely is one of the moments, and a well placed one, too, considering the depth of the song. It gives the listeners’ time to process what they’ve just heard. The next question I’ve got is a kind of tough one. Yesterday I ran across an article online where Big Boi was speaking on a few albums in the works. One is his second album, Daddy Fat Sax, and also a proposed, new Outkast album that’s supposed to drop around 2040.
Chris Carmouche: (Laughs)
TSS: What can you tell me about those albums without losing your job?
Mouche: Ahhh! Well…Big has taken it upon himself to become his own spokesperson, so I’ll let him deal with that one. I’ll follow his lead. I do know that they’re always thinking about music. They’re always coming up with ideas. To give you a little insight onto “Night Night,” that record was part of their arsenal since 2004. It’s one those records that sits around in infant stages and they always have a plethora of music on hand. And, at any moment they can turn it up and say, “OK, we can give the world this.”
TSS: I remember reading in an interview where “Hey Ya” was done three years before it came out.
Chris Carmouche: Right. Right, man. And, truthfully, for this album to sit for so long and still have a time in a still, it’s hard to do. There aren’t too many lyrics or much music that dates it. It gives you a perspective as far as his life and as far as the time. Years ahead, people will go back to this album and it will sound as fresh as any other of their albums. For instance, I can always go back to Aquimini, Stankonia or ATLiens and they’re just as fresh as the first day I listened to it. This is no exception.
But, to get back to your other question, naw…(Laughs)…I can’t give you any information.
TSS: (Laughs) I figured as much. You know I gotta’ ask, though.
Chris Carmouche: They’re always working, man.