Behind the Release: The Book of Knots “Garden of Fainting Stars”
June 2, 2011 by Justin Colletti
When told you’re about to hear a “Producer’s album,” it’s easy to imagine something like a finely-honed Swiss watch. The last thing to expect might be The Book of Knots’ critically acclaimed 2007 release, Traineater, a crumbling, over-wound, “endlessly clacking cuckoo-clock”- to borrow the words of Joel Hamilton, the Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who is also a core member of the band.
This year, Hamilton [Blakroc, Sparklehorse] has reunited with bassist and fellow Brooklyn producer Tony Maimone [Pere Ubu, Frank Black], violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt and drummer/keyboardist Matthias Bossi [both of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum] to release Garden of Fainting Stars.
It’s the final installment in a trilogy of edgy, esoteric rock records that began with the band’s 2004 self-titled debut.
From the outset, The Book of Knots knew this third record would be their last. First by sea, then by land, and now by space, each album investigates the appeal of frontiers, and ultimately, the perpetual anti-climax that goes along with our never-ending urge to explore.
“What’s actually out there is never as exciting as what mankind imagines,” says Hamilton with some wistful humor. “We wanted to ask, what the hell is in us that keeps us looking over that next hill? What is that drive, what’s the purpose, and what’s kept us from just sitting in southeast Africa as an entire human race?”
If there’s a sonic thread through these releases, it may be that each one has somehow managed to play off as rickety and grandiose at once. These are records that combine raw performances on thrift-store finds with a production sensibility that favors heavy-handed mixing in search of massive sonic impact.
For Traineater, the band decided to err on the dilapidated side of the spectrum, offering a sense of gigantic, rustily-creaking musical machinery that paired well with the iconic bray of prominent special-guest Tom Waits.
Now, Garden of Fainting Stars brings back much of the anthemic heavy-metal bombast of the band’s first release.
“I think some of that [sound] comes from the subject matter itself,” says Hamilton. “The second record is all about these Midwestern doldrums; Towns that had so much promise in them, and are now just decaying into dust. Once you start talking about the high seas and aerospace test pilots, you’re bound to find some more bravado in there. I mean, you’ve seen Top Gun, right?,” he laughs.
But there’s a distinct air of melancholy, uncertainty, even dread, to go along with it. Hamilton, who can hardly go more than a minute without dropping a satisfyingly idiosyncratic visual descriptor, says their goal was to make an album that sounds like “a theater built by the set designer for the City of Lost Children.”
Although the newest album features collaborations with Blixa Bargeld [Nick Cave, Neubauten] and honorary 5th Knot Mike Watt [Minutemen, fiREHOSE] Hamilton tells us the band has “reigned in the outside influences this time around.”
The influences that do remain are alternately strident, operatic, cacophonous, somber. If it reminds you of some of your favorite early-90s out-metal, there’s a good reason for it: Garden of Fainting Stars is slated for a June 14th release on Ipecac Recordings, the personal imprint of metal maverick Mike Patton [Faith No More, Mr. Bungle].
As for the recording process, “It’s absolutely the wrong-est you can get” according to Hamilton. “It’s not even cool-wrong. We’re not going for “lo-fi” as an aesthetic or sticking an sm57 in a PVC pipe. That would be a choice. This should sound like it was recorded by accident.”
The way Hamilton tells it, an important part of making a record for his own band is giving up control during the tracking process. “It’s the pursuit of getting the part down at all costs, and then dealing with the corner we’ve painted ourselves into later on. It’s running, not walking, not stepping, not thinking, absolutely running to the destination.”
This philosophy leads Book of Knots to settle on some pretty unorthodox mic placements: spinning a vocal mic around to roughly face in the direction of a drum kit, and later, angling it down a few inches to capture a guitar overdub on the other side of the room. One distant U87 room-mic stands in for duties normally filled by overheads and tom mics on their latest single, “Microgravity,” much like a single dynamic mic (the low-cost and long discontinued Electro Voice RE-11) captured every sound and overdub on the song “All Is Nothing.”
Click to stream “Microgravity” by The Book of Knots.
The approach leads to some unique sounds, not only thanks to the haphazard capture method, but also due to the ruthless mangling these sounds are subject to on the other side of the process. When it comes to mixing, Hamilton takes back nearly all the control he once relinquished for the sake of the performance: “[this method] forces the use of 7 stacked EQs and four-thousand db of compression to even hear the kick drum. But that’s a tone that you would never have gotten with a more quote-unquote standard mic setup.”
As for that RE-11? He ended up sending it through his Valhalla reverb plug-in, and then sending that effect return into Studio G’s custom-built echo chamber for an effect that makes him think of “a Motown [song] being swallowed into a vortex”.
Does this mean Hamilton is no longer allowed to complain about woefully recorded tracks sent to him to mix by his own clients? “The only time I’d even complain would be out of insecurity,” he laughs. “There are those times where you can’t make the tracks you’re given sound the way you know the band or producer was hoping for. But [for The Book Of Knots] I don’t have anyone else to answer to, so that doesn’t really matter.
“It’s not supposed to sound like a Blink 182 record,” he says with a dose of good-natured contempt. “So [if the production does end up sounding strange at times], the engineer didn’t f*k up. We just weren’t out there chasing after someone else’s aesthetic to begin with.”