Today, through his contemporary work with bands and artists like Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile, Parker Millsap, Worriers, The Hold Steady, Sonic Youth, Waxahatchee, Hop Along, Jessica Lee Mayfield, and a host of others, John Agnello has become a renowned record producer, helping to craft a modern brand of guitar-based rock that has helped define the last three decades of independent music.
Yet, like many record producers, Agnello’s entrée into the business of making records was humble.
It was through his older brother Tony, an audio-effects engineer, that Agnello got his first gig in the mid-1970s, doing a bit of everything at the Manhattan-based audio effects company Eventide (a company that Tony would go on to run) while he was still a student at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst section. Whether it was soldering units, delivering packages around the city, packing and shipping orders, and even cleaning up dead rats in the storage rooms, Agnello was on call for whatever the company needed. One floor above the Eventide offices was a small recording studio, where Agnello would often sneak after his shifts to watch records being made.
Soon, Agnello landed an interview at New York City’s world-renowned Record Plant, where he was hired to a position the studio called a “general.” “That meant that you generally did everything,” Agnello says from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he and his family recently relocated after a lifetime spent in Brooklyn and Jersey City, New Jersey. From cleaning the studios before and after sessions to logging the tapes that had been cut during the day’s sessions to running to the equipment locker when a producer or artist needed a specific mic (Tom Petty and Jimmy Iovine during the recording of Damn The Torpedoes sprang to John’s mind), the studio generals were the foundation on which The Record Plant stood. It was the sharpening of pencils, however, that Agnello remembers most about this era. “You have no idea how important the sharpening of the pencils was,” Agnello says.
Within months, Agnello was learning how to assist the studio engineers in sessions and by 1981, two years into his tenure at the Record Plant, he became the staff’s junior assistant. By 1983, he was the studio’s top assistant, working alongside producers like Mike Chapman, Jack Douglas, and Rick Chertoff and on landmark albums such as Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual and Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry.
Agnello’s first breakthrough came when his boss, who was engineering The Hooters’ Nervous Night, had to leave for another gig, elevating John to the main engineer’s chair. From there, Agnello became a full-time staff engineer at The Record Plant, soon notching his first major credit with The Outfield’s 1985 album Play Deep, which included the massive hit single “Your Love.” For their follow-up, The Outfield hired John and spirited him to England, where he would spend five months living in the UK and working on 1987’s Bangin’. It was then that Agnello’s tenure at The Record Plant ended, leading to his work as a full-time, independent studio engineer.
Agnello spent the next several years working with artists as wide-ranging as WAR and Sly Stone, Pink Floyd and The Band. In the early-90s, when every major label was in search of their own Nirvana, Columbia Records invited Agnello to a meeting with a punishingly loud Massachusetts-based guitar band they were courting. Dinosaur Jr. ended up not signing with Columbia, instead inking a deal with Sire Records-imprint Blanco y Negro. But they were intrigued by Agnello enough to ask him to engineer their second major-label effort, Where You Been, a few years later. Also at that initial Columbia meeting was Don Fleming, who, after leaving Dinosaur Jr., went on to lead his own successful career as a producer, and soon contacted Agnello to engineer an early Screaming Trees record.
“That Columbia meeting really blew up my whole thing,” Agnello says, marking that night as a watershed moment that took his career in the direction it led over the next three decades. It led to work with artists like Alice Cooper, Mike Watt, and Patti Smith, either engineering their sessions or mixing their albums.
In the late-1990s, Agnello began to produce records, working with artists from song inception to album completion, helping to shape arrangements and album flow, rather than just getting good sounds as an engineer or a mixer. “A lot of it was because a lot of the records I did sounded different from the artists’ previous record,” Agnello says. “Even though I was just engineering.”
Agnello admits that it took him a few records to learn how to truly produce a record, coining himself as more of “an engineer with an opinion” than a proper record producer. It was at an early-2000s iteration of South by Southwest that Agnello first saw the Brooklyn-based rock ‘n roll band The Hold Steady. A few years later, the band asked John to produce what would become their breakthrough, Boys and Girls in America, during whose sessions, Agnello found himself growing as a producer. He worked more closely with the band’s main songwriter (the deadpan and uber-loquacious Craig Finn) than he ever had before, shaping and honing songs on a micro level, while still acting as the record’s engineer.
Soon, Agnello was listening to bands in ways he never had before. After a session with indie rock lifers Redd Kross, Agnello’s ears became more attuned to and interested in vocal harmonies. Outside of the studio, Agnello saw the proliferation of Pro Tools and GarageBand leading to more professional-sounding records being made at home. It steeled his resolve to become the guy who added intrinsic value to the records he makes. “To keep working, I had to make sure I was really bringing something to the equation, that I helped make a better record,” Agnello says.
With new records from Dinosaur Jr., The Courtneys, Parker Millsap, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Roan Yellowthorn coming in 2021, Agnello is as busy as ever, sorting out a life in the studio around the uncertainty that has been presented in the face of a worldwide pandemic. Now in his fifth decade of making records, John Agnello is as excited as ever to do the work that has made his life, looking forward to the new challenges that come with evolving technology, and the age-old equation of being the guy in the room with the band, trying to make the best record possible.