John Agnello: Dinosaur Jr. & Sonic Youth Producer On Classic Techniques, New Indie Rock Sounds

JERSEY CITY: In 1979, a Brooklyn teenager and avid record collector named John Agnello landed an internship at one of Manhattan’s most prominent music studios. Thanks to some hard work and genuine affability it wasn’t long before he found himself assisting on major releases from contemporary heavyweights like Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper and Twisted Sister.

John Agnello. Photo by Andrew Kesin.

It’s an unexpected beginning for a Producer most known for his involvement with classic Indie Rock darlings, many of whose records still pepper the favorites lists of young fans. Success on early releases with Dinosaur Jr, Screaming Trees and Buffalo Tom made way for work with The Breeders, Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady and Nada Surf.

We grabbed a quick bite with John near his Jersey City home between sessions with Kurt Vile at Williamsburg’s Headgear Recording Studio.

Looking through your early discography, we see you listed as an assistant on some pretty mainstream releases. It’s interesting to see your credit list take a left turn in the early 90s toward more bold and unique artists, branded back then as “Alternative Rock.” It looks like you’ve never turned back. I’d like you to take us through that journey a little. How did you get your start?

I started assisting at the Record Plant in ‘82, and started engineering in ‘84. I was engineering for a long time, all through the 80s and into the early 90s. It took a while to really get considered to produce records. And with good reason! (laughs) I wasn’t really a “Producer” at first.

What changed? Were there any seminal records that acted as a turning point for you?

The first Dinosaur Jr. record was a really great experience. I was credited as an engineer, and I wouldn’t say I was a “producer” on those records. But I definitely helped J. [Mascis] get to a different sonic level. When we worked on together, Dinosaur Jr. records started to sound like classic records, not just gnarly discs with great songs covered in “Ka-Kssshhhhh” (makes sound effect of gnarly midrangey goodness). Once those records were doing really well and A&R guys noticed what I was starting to contribute to the process, things began to change.

How does your approach as a producer differ from that of your engineering days? Is there a learning curve?

John Agnello at Headgear Recording in Williamsburg. Photo by Scott Norton.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what a producer can do, and pushed the envelope a lot more. When I started producing, it was in the middle of this Indie/Alternative Rock explosion. Things were really open.  What a producer had to do was create a vibe, get the bands to perform, and let them do their thing. You might help with an arrangement here or there, but that was it. Bands were being signed because somebody somewhere liked them.

The attitude was: if a band like Spacehog or Nada Surf or Jawbox hit the charts, great! And if they didn’t… they didn’t. In that way it was a totally different world…

Read more about John Agnello approach to getting sounds with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Nada Surf, as well as favorite studio picks and work on a new release by Kurt Vile, all on SonicScoop.

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