You can thank Bill Moriarty for Dr. Dog and Man Man.
Years of hard work, plenty of perseverance, a strong vision and a little bit of luck ... that’s how Dr. Dog and Man Man rose to the top of Philadelphia’s music scene. The same can be said of Bill Moriarty. At the helm for the last four Dr. Dog albums, two of Man Man’s albums, Drink Up Buttercup’s recently issued debut LP Born and Thrown On a Hook, and dozens more, the 31-year-old Moriarty’s emerged as one of the city’s premier producers and recording/mixing engineers, with a long list of local and national artists angling to work with him.
“I’ve always wanted to make records,” the friendly, laid-back Moriarty says over chips and salsa at Johnny Mañana’s, a restaurant in the same East Falls neighborhood he and his wife call home. “I didn’t know how I was gonna get there, but I’ve sorta ended up where I hoped I would when I was 13.”
Growing up in small-town Connecticut, Moriarty got his first guitar at 13, and his first four-track recorder shortly after. More enthralled with the latter than the former, he spent his high school years recording his pals and, armed with a few audio engineering how-to books, teaching himself the techniques of the trade. After graduation, Moriarty relocated to Philadelphia in the late ’90s—a less intimidating city than New York, he laughs, and one with a fertile music scene.
Upon his arrival, he landed an internship at Indre, an audio recording company in South Philadelphia. During the day he assisted on live-sound broadcasts for WYSP and WXPN’s World Cafe; at night, on his own time, he’d bring friends’ bands to the facility to record them, and experiment with all the gear at his disposal.
“I would say [that] Bill, of all the engineers I’ve ever dealt with, would spend more hours trying stuff out in the studio than anyone,” says Philadelphia producer/engineer Edan Cohen (Songs: Ohia, Denison Witmer, Slo-Mo), Moriarty’s long-time friend who also interned at Indre. “As soon as a session was over I’d be like, ‘I’m so tired, I’m gonna go home,’ and he’d be putting mikes all over this giant staircase or under a piano bench to see what the drums sounded like through them.”
Moriarty was also starting to develop a recording philosophy akin to his biggest influence at the time, the renowned but notoriously hands-off Chicago engineer/musician Steve Albini. “Once I found out about him I was like, ‘Everything he does is right.’ I believed in the idea of realism as the appropriate way to record and mix things—realism being as if the band were performing in front of you and you were 10 feet back. And trying to make recordings as good as Albini was super helpful because it’s really hard. It makes you read a lot and study a lot and practice.”
Soon, Moriarty and Cohen went in together on a studio space in Kensington. Moriarty got a job at a bakery so he could have his nights free, and began recording in earnest; his early efforts included singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s second album, Golden Age of Radio. Still, Moriarty wasn’t landing enough paying work to support the studio costs, so within a year Cohen bought him out of his half of the space. Moriarty got a job doing sound engineering, and later sound design, at the Wilma Theater (where he won a prestigious Barrymore Award in 2005 for his work on the Pig Iron Theatre Company’s production of Hell Meets Henry Halfway), and through word of mouth around Philly continued recording tons of local bands in his Old City apartment for little or no money. It was there that he did Man Man’s 2004 debut, The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face, and first linked up with Dr. Dog to mix their 2005 breakthrough album, Easy Beat. “At the time they were just another band—it was just another record that was paying me like $600,” Moriarty says.
But he developed a tight creative and personal bond with the Dr. Dog guys, helping them build their West Philly basement studio and becoming their go-to engineer just as the band was starting to blow up nationally. “I would say that Bill’s been pretty crucial to what we do,” says Dr. Dog singer/guitarist Scott McMicken. “He’s definitely been a big part of the sounds we’ve been able to come up with.”
After a short stint as an assistant at legendary Philly producer/arranger Larry Gold’s studio (Moriarty initially approached Gold for career advice; by the end of the conversation he’d been offered a job), Moriarty and Dr. Dog decided to go in together on a studio. They ended up taking over the same Kensington space Cohen and Moriarty had shared years earlier, rechristened it “Meth Beach,” and teamed up for 2007’s We All Belong and 2008’s Fate.
Other bands came in to record with Moriarty (Make a Rising, Whales & Cops, the Swimmers, etc.), but he says his Albini-style approach only began to change through working with Dr. Dog. “Until that point I wasn’t really paying attention to anybody’s music at all, just the sonics. But through them I learned a lot of stuff—how to deal with emotions, how to deal with me freaking out or a band member working on something for a long time and being like, ‘I hate it, I hate it…’ It was hard. I was reading a lot of psychology books.”
And then, after Fate, Moriarty had an epiphany. “All of a sudden I wanted to be a producer. I wanted to be a part of making outstanding albums and songs, to be a part of making stories.” And so, two summers ago, he signed on to produce Drink Up Buttercup’s debut album. The sessions were far more than Moriarty bargained for. There was tension galore, the band members battling with each other and with Moriarty, who nearly quit twice. “It was madness happening but I was like, this is your first fucking job as a producer, your job is to produce something. You can’t quit!”
Ultimately, the record was finished, and—perhaps owing at least a bit to that tension—it turned out fantastic. “Bill’s a great guy,” says Drink Up bassist Ben Money. “The stresses we had we mostly brought upon ourselves. And when you’re in the studio for hours and hours a day for months and months, of course everyone’s different opinions are gonna clash. But I think at this point all the bad memories have left my mind and we’ll never not be friends with him.”
Moriarty concurs, chalking it all up as a major learning experience. It didn’t dissuade him from continuing his new pursuit: He went on to produce Hoots & Hellmouth’s Holy Open Secret and the New Motels’ Tilbury Sweat, among other albums, while continuing to engineer and/or mix such LPs as Dr. Dog’s new Shame, Shame and Man Man’s recent Rabbit Habits. More high-profile work looms: At the end of this month, much-buzzed-about Florida indie-rock band Holiday Shores comes to town to have Moriarty oversee their next album. He’s producing Brooklyn songstress Pepi Ginsberg’s next album, Yes City, and in recent weeks he’s been mixing tracks for Philly rapper (and Roots producer) Dice Raw.
Moriarty’s also preparing to leave Meth Beach, with plans to build his own studio in East Falls before the year is out. As for his long-standing partnership with Dr. Dog, he says, “Ever since Easy Beat I’ve never expected to make another record with them, but it always seems to end up happening. We’ll see what happens down the road.” For now, he’s got plenty to keep him busy, with even more bands seeking his production, engineering and mixing expertise. “I’d like to do it all, bring everything I know how to do to every project,” he says. “I’d like to be what Daniel Lanois says about himself: ‘I’m just a record-maker.’”
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4