Behind the Release: Fleet Walker “Morning Void”
September 11, 2011 by David Weiss
SUNSET PARK, BROOKLYN: Even the most natural talent needs some nurturing. And when an emerging songwriter crosses paths with a label that understands the strength of artist development, very good things happen.
The very latest evidence of this is in with Morning Void, the new album arriving this month from the captivating NJ-bred artist Fleet Walker. A record as explosive as it is fragile in its raw expressiveness, the release holds 12 beautiful tracks for those seeiking the same emotional high they drew from the likes of Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith.
Walker’s label, 825 Records, did more than just upload the record to iTunes and call a couple of radio stations. After captivating the ears of 825 founder Matty Amendola (profiled in-depth by SonicScoop in June, 2010), the producer/drummer/multi-instrumentalist put his heart and soul into advancing Walker’s instinctual songcraft.
A highly accomplished session player and songwriter in his own right, Amendola partnered intensively with Walker in pre-production and in the studio, then brought out a highly organic listening experience with a mix executed 100% in the box. For up-to-the-minute applications of some wonderfully old-skool wisdom, read on about 825’s approach to filling out Morning Void.
Where are you as a producer and label owner today? Let us know where your head is at.
As a label “From the Studio To the Masses” has been our motto since day one and it always will be. We’re a label that wants completely raw, natural, and honest talent to develop, get them in the studio, put out a great record, give them publicity, marketing, promotion, and help them towards the goal of getting an incredible jump-start into the industry that they deserve.
As a producer and session musician I just have to go with the flow. (Outside of 825) I’m very lucky to have the amount of work that I do. I believe in every single project I work on, but the industry is in a fragile state. It’s constantly changing. Since our last interview I’ve developed 7 artists, produced a little over 20 projects and played on approximately 131 recordings. It’s sad that half of these records will never see the light of day just because of the shape of the industry, but it’s all about going with the flow and hoping for the best.
From that, how did you get introduced to Fleet Walker? And why did you both agree that you would be a good match?
Fleet contacted our Head of A&R Matthew Kruszelnicki, and he forwarded me the stuff to check out right away. He had a MySpace page with 3 or 4 “bedroom demos.” The first demo I listened to was a song called “Faro” and I dug it before the vocals even kicked in.
I heard a really simple-sounding, yet complex picking pattern between a couple of 7th chords which was all psychedelic, enigmatic, melancholic, happy, bubbly and unique and interesting at the same time. The vocal melody, lyrics, and tone of his voice when the verse came in matched all of the same emotions. And even though the lyrics were somewhat abstract, they were creating a clear visual and intriguing story.
I was a fan within 40 seconds. It was music I wanted to listen to, it was music I wanted to write, and Fleet’s approach to tone, sound, and his writing direction really seemed to be similar to my own.
Nice when that happens! That makes me interested in your definition of a “song” and how your approach to songwriting clicks with Fleet’s talents/capabilities?
In my opinion it’s an emotion adapted into sounds, words, melody… I’m only a fan of honest music.
It’s a magical thing when an artist can portray a sometimes-indescribable feeling into “sound” organically, naturally, and honestly. That’s when music really connects with the listener. It’s something in my opinion that Fleet does so effortlessly.
You said that this record was an interesting project, starting with the pre-production. What did Fleet bring in to pre pro, and how did the two of you collaborate from there to bring the songs for Morning Void?
I called Fleet to come into the studio to do one song before committing to anything else, and he walked in and started playing me a song called “In a Dungeon at the Bottom Of the Sea.” It was dark, yet catchy in a weird way. He approached simple things uniquely.
The first thing I did was address the “standard producer duties.” All he had was an acoustic guitar part, lead vocal, two verses, and two choruses. I immediately suggested he play the song a half step down for his vocal tone to be warmer, add an intro and a bridge and write new lyrics for the 2nd verse.
In a collaborative effort we completed all of that in about 20 minutes — we worked incredibly well together and thought very much alike. I had him record a scratch guitar track and vocal to the click and sent him home, because I knew the hard part was on its way.
For the next week I sat in the studio listening to that scratch track — it was up to me to develop his overall sound practically from the ground up. I listened to a lot of Radiohead, Elliot Smith, Jon Brion, and Jeff Buckley for production ideas, artists we both love. When I decided to dive into it, I dove into it… In my mind I had three possible drum parts for the entire song i.e three parts that could bring the song in a different direction. I recorded all three of them separately, and then listened to all of them on at the same time. BAM! It took off from there.
Sounds like a good start. What did you do with the drum tracks you recorded?
I love Wave Machine Labs’ Drumagog software – I replaced some drums with different sounds and cut up certain sections between the three drum parts. I had something very, very interesting: I put a very Beatles-esque bass track down, a ton of distorted ambient guitars, feedback, and noise, programmed some subtle Radiohead-type samples and prepared a mix for Fleet to come back in and sing on.
I’ll never forget the look on his face when I played him the track. I didn’t know if he was gonna punch me in the face or hug me. He was speechless. He loved it and after we finished the track, I handed him the label contract on the spot.
Good timing with the paperwork! When it came time to record the rest of the album, you said that this record was done all in the box, yet in your opinion feels “live and raw.” How did you go about achieving these sonic characteristics during tracking?
The whole record was done at the 825 Records’ facility, it’s become such a great space. When we started recording Fleet’s record we were still in the process of construction. We were expanding, building a lounge room, conference room, vocal/iso booth, buying new gear, so I think I was already in an experimental headspace.
I made sure every instrument we used had character, too. His acoustic guitar was all beat up but sounded good under mics. We used a ‘59 Danelectro for a lot of electric guitars and that brought some twang and grit compared to the other cleaner strat and tele sounds. There’s also nothing like a violin bass, which is what I used on the whole record.
Besides some of my favorite Earthworks microphones, I also bought a Telefunken AK47, which I used on a session a few weeks before I met Fleet and I knew it was gonna be the mic for him. We tracked all of the vocals with it, and a lot of his acoustic guitars. I even used the Brendon O’Brien technique and stuck it right in front of the drum kit for that crunchy, live sound. The natural sound of that mic contributed a lot.
We did every single song like we did the first — he’d come in and lay down his lead vocal and guitar to a click, I’d work on the core of the instrumentation for a few days, and then he’d come in to finish it up with me, adding some more guitars, keys, harmony, etc…
One of my favorite drummers of all time, Jim Keltner, gave me some great advice when he explained to me how he approached playing with John Lennon: He told me everyone followed Lennon no matter what. If he slowed down, everyone slowed down, etc… There was so much connection between the feelings and performances and I needed to make sure I captured that same thing when I added my instrumentation on top of Fleet’s.
I tried to keep it as raw as possible. I would give him three takes max for the main acoustic guitar track, and I gave myself no more than two takes with drums, bass, and other core rhythm section parts. No punch-ins, no comps, no fucking copying-and-pasting. I wanted to approach it like recording to tape. Sure enough, it feels live. It feels like it’s Fleet and a band in the room.
Extensive behind the scenes footage of the making of Morning Void is available along with the CD. Check out the trailer here:
There’s some great lessons for songwriting and tracking there. Then how did all this extend to the mix?
We started recording the album in October 2010, and I started finalizing all the mixes in February 2011. It all happened so quickly and as much as I don’t consider myself a mixer, so much of my production happens in the mixing stage and I’d rather have the magical moments come across in the mix that I hear in my head, then give it off to a better mixer with the hopes that it might sound a little better.
Everything was done in the box. Mic placements, instruments, amps, tones, and sounds were something we spent a lot of time on so the tracks felt great right from the start. I did use a lot of long echoes, backwards reverbs, delays, modulators, and stuff like that on the vocals but I kept the instrumentation pretty bare. I used Drumagog 5 and BFD on a lot of the drums, slight compression when it was needed everywhere else, but I wanted to keep all of the dynamics and raw feel.
The record didn’t even go through “real mastering.” I finalized the mixes with an L3 and a broadband EQ for a little bit of volume and translation to other systems and that was it. I wasn’t fighting in the volume war. You know that little thing called a volume knob? Guess what? Every consumer has one.
True, that! We know it’s hard to choose, but what’s a standout track or two on the record, to you?
I really love the final track “It’s Mid December.” It was such a great song when Fleet played it for me and I actually had a song of my own that I took apart to add some of the parts. I can listen to it all day. It’s beautiful and the emotions pour through on the recording.
“Faro” will also always have a special place in my heart, being the first song of Fleet’s that I heard. There’s no official single on the album but “Faro” is kind of the featured track… and check it! I also directed the music video for it that will be released with the album. It was a blast!
On that note, you said that a big part of what drives what you do is your interest in artist development. Why is this so important for a label to offer now?
Being the kind of producer I am, it’s just how I work. I work one-on-one with every artist and I’m usually their partner, their band, and their professional outlet. I think Fleet is now the poster child for what 825 Records wants to do for artists.
He’s an individual with incredible talent, dedication, and so much love for music that reached out and found a team to give him everything that takes most artists years to find and achieve. He deserves all of it in my opinion and he has raised the bar for all future 825 artists.
My team is handling everything from booking, promotion, publicity, marketing, and everything in between. We already have several major publications and blogs that will be reviewing and featuring the album. Just about every college station in the U.S. and indie stations worldwide has copies of the album, and are starting to add songs into their rotation. We’ve essentially had to build a fan base from scratch so it’s something that will take some time, but between gigs, proper social networking, and people hearing the album, I believe he will have a committed and loyal fan base for quite some years to come.
Most importantly my personal goal for Fleet has been completed. He’s out there, he’s got a great record to look back on for the rest of his life, his name is slowly creeping into industry heads worldwide, and it can only go up from here!
That’s a plan! We’ll be interested to see what happens next. Who are you looking up to these days for Intergalactic Guidance?
I mentioned producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion in our last interview, and he’s probably my biggest influence. I don’t think there are many producers out there who can make records like this: from the songwriting, to the instrumentation, the direction, development, sound, etc. I asked myself one question a lot during the making of this record: WWJBD? Ha!
– David Weiss
The CD release of Morning Void is available now, with the digital release on September 27.