Chris Zane on Passion Pit, The Walkmen & Awesome Drum Sounds
September 23, 2009 by Janice Brown
TRIBECA: In the middle of sessions with Kill Rock Stars dance-rock duo Shy Child, Chris Zane spent an hour chatting with us from behind a drum kit at Gigantic Studios. Drumsticks-in-hand, Zane gestures musically.
“The drums are my cross to bear,” he says. “I played drums my whole life and now on the records I produce, the drum sound is the most important thing to me. If the drums sound good, it all sounds good. And I always want the drums on my records to sound particularly awesome – in one way or another.”
Earlier this year, Zane produced Passion Pit’s Manners, blowing out the sound of the ‘08 EP, Chunk of Change, with such “particularly awesome”-sounding drums. Track-to-track, the heart-pounding, bombastic drumming anchors the dizzying Passion Pit sound, underscoring both the angst and exuberance of these exhilarating tunes. It’s just one aspect of a mighty dynamic record, but you sure notice it.
Record producers come at the job from different perspectives, bringing with them a particular set of specialties. Zane oozes music, but also seems an extremely pragmatic, high-energy, no-bullshit producer. “From the first day of music school when they asked us ‘why are you here?’ I knew I wanted to produce records,” he says. “I didn’t want to engineer acoustic guitars, I didn’t want to be an assistant. I just wanted to produce records. I knew someone had to be in charge of telling the band what to do, and I like to be in charge.”
Working back-to-back projects this year, Zane’s influence and handiwork can be heard on records by The Harlem Shakes and The Rakes, and upcoming records by The Walkmen, Tokyo Police Club, Shy Child and Holy Ghost.
Back behind the drum kit, in Gigantic’s not-gigantic-but-pretty-big live room, Zane spoke with us about producing The Walkmen and Passion Pit, and mixing records.
Q: How do you find artists you want to work with?
A: Work comes in two ways: 1) People see that I produced some record they like, look me up and contact my manager or 2) People I know in the industry call me and say they’re managing a new band and I should meet them. It’s all about your relationships with artists, labels, managers, etc…when I realized that, I started going to events and actually talking to people, and getting a lot more work. It’s a small industry — you meet everyone in like one minute if you try. And when you have a successful record, they all call you. And when you don’t, they don’t.
What were the records you think first broke you as a producer?
It’s happened in different stages: the first one was this band, Calla, who I did a record with in ‘02 — it was a dark, atmospheric album and every critic and band loved it. Then, I started working with Les Savy Fav (‘04), and that helped a lot. Then, I did a record with The White Rabbits (‘07), who we found in the middle of Missouri and a year later they were on David Letterman. And The Walkmen’s You & Me (‘08) was a big one, because I really feel like I helped reignite a flame in them and put them back on a plane that they hadn’t been on for awhile.
And, prior to working with you and Gigantic, The Walkmen had self-produced their records, right? They had a mostly analog studio up in Harlem?
Yeah, they’d pretty much never used Pro Tools. I really wanted to work with them, and I pitched really hard. And, they were pretty dubious. But about two days in, they were totally into it, and the experience was really great.
What do you think happened in those two days?
Basically, the sound they heard coming out of the speakers was something they’d been trying to achieve all along, and I made it happen without them even saying anything. I just knew that’s how I wanted to hear it. I’ve been a big fan of their records.
Did you engineer You & Me? You say you always wanted to be a record producer, but you’re also an engineer.
Yes, I mixed the record as well.
Does your work as an engineer influence who you are as a producer?
As the producer, I don’t care who engineers it; I just want it to sound awesome. So, if you can make it sound awesome, do it. If you can’t, I’m just going to lean over and turn a knob. It’s really democratic, it’s a team effort. I’m not afraid to get on the board and mix, or to record, or not. But, I’m first here and last to leave, I’m totally in it.
Do you prefer to record to tape or Pro Tools?
Anyone who makes records understands there are no rules. Does it sound good? Done. Does it sound bad? Don’t do it. It’s simple.
When we recently did Tokyo Police Club drums, we spent the entire day getting the drum sound and recording stuff to tape and Pro Tools simultaneously and then listening back and comparing. And in the end, we conceded that the Pro Tools just sounded better. And without a bat of the eye, it was like, cool. Take the tape off, turn the tape machine off, done. I don’t care.
So what do you think The Walkmen actually heard coming through the speakers that they liked so much? Is it the way you recorded? The room? The microphones?
It’s all of that. It was just a better version of what they had been trying to do. It still sounds like them, but it sounds a little bit better. You can actually hear it, you can hear all the parts better. But it doesn’t sound hi-fi or anything. One of the big things was that I just made Hamilton’s voice a lot louder. It just hasn’t been loud in the past and he has a ridiculously good voice.
I think he also dug into his life and became a way better singer and he came into that record, I suspect, almost with something to prove. I’m totally speculating there, but he stepped his game up in a way that was hard to ignore. So that was one of the first things I did was push that up.
So, what about Passion Pit? How did you end up producing that record?
They got signed to French Kiss and Syd Butler from Les Savy Fav runs the label. They got huge in like two months. I was like (to Syd) ‘dude, who is this band you’ve got? I wish I could get involved! At that point, they were already working on their record and he suspected they’d get signed to a major.
A month later, they’d gotten even bigger, and I called and asked: “Can I just get a spec mix? I guarantee I’ll kill it.” Then, it turned out the record Michael [Angelakos, Passion Pit] was making with these other guys wasn’t going well. Syd brought Michael to meet me, and in an hour Michael was ready to erase everything he’d recorded and start over with me.
I went to Berlin for five weeks to record The Rakes, and when I came back, he’d been signed to Columbia Records and we started. That was it. We wrote the whole album in the studio on the spot. He had no songs, he did it all here.
How was that record made? Was it all computer-based with live instruments added later?
A lot of it was built the way you’d make a dance track or a remix. We’d record live stuff but we’d loop it. We literally built it four bars at a time.
But then at the end, it sounded really blocky and cut-and-pasted, so we had to go over the whole cake with icing and tie it all together. I remember there was a point where the label was really concerned that all the transitions — even the verses and choruses — just sounded fucked and I was like ‘don’t worry.’ And by the time it was mixed, everybody was really happy with it. [Mix engineer] Alex Aldi and I mixed it. 90 percent of the records I mix, I’ll mix with Alex.
Do you prefer to mix the records you produce?
Sometimes, even when the budget allows for some top mixer to do it, I feel like it would take me a long time to explain how I want it and I’m very particular about certain things, especially when it comes to drums.
I probably spend a lot more time on drums than even your top-shelf mixer. They can get the drums to sound awesome, but I still manage to solo-out their drum sounds and notice details, like I’ll hear some bottom snare bullshit that bothers me on the fills. And we’ll comb through it and fix it, and even in mastering when I pick on these little details, we’ll fix them, and it’s usually noticeably better.
So, I end up doing a lot of mixing because I don’t want to sit there over some very talented guy’s shoulder and be like ‘this is really, really good. But do you hear that in the floor tom? The ringing?’ Because that’s annoying.
Do you still mix records you’re not producing?
Sure. There’s this girl from London called Ebony Bones. She’s like if M.I.A. came down on a spaceship. I love her music. And she did her whole record but it just didn’t sound very good and I thought I could make it better, so I convinced her publicist/manager to send me a track. I said I’d do it for free, I just want to be involved. So I mixed a track for her and it came out great.
Do you mix on a console?
Yes, on the Neve VR here, which is actually a pretty blown-out mix room for such a studio that’s on the DL. It’s a blown-out VR with a huge Pro Tools rig and a wall of outboard. We totally mix in that analog world — all outboard compressors and EQs — but we use a lot of plug-ins too. I have plug-ins that I am completely dependent on and without them it would be difficult to mix, so I like to use a combination of both. With absolutely no guilt or hesitation.
On the equipment/technology side, what couldn’t you live without?
One of the best-sounding plug-ins that exists for Pro Tools is Waves SSL plug-in. It’s my thing. I didn’t have it in London a few weeks ago and I was bumming.
I also use a lot of Pro Tools effects because you don’t have to recall them. So, we’ll make four channels in Pro Tools with Altiverb and a delay (usually Echo Farm), and whatever else, and we’ll put those tracks in input and then we’ll patch and aux off the desk into that channel. So you turn the aux up like any outboard piece of equipment and they all come out of stereo outputs out of Pro Tools onto the desk and you just have all your reverbs and delays, and you don’t have to recall anything.
Also, the Digidesign EQ is on every single song that I work on. I use EQ III on every single mix.
What’s coming up next for you, after you finish new records with The Walkmen and Tokyo Police Club?
I’m going to work on Holy Ghost, which I’m really excited about because I’m a big fan of DFA and I love dance music. I feel like I’m relegated to the indie rock world a lot so whenever I have the chance I’m really excited to do other stuff. I’m also going to work with Suckers, and a new band called The Hundred in the Hands, that just signed to Warp.