Bloggers world-round seemed to marvel at the band’s ability to ignite industry interest without Facebook and Myspace – much like the rest of us wonder how we were ever able to meet at a pre-designated time and place before cellphones existed.
(Hint: Being good at what they do and having ties to the industry didn’t hurt.)
At their best, Cults offer simple, unpretentious, catchy pop tunes with a startlingly-retro production sensibility.
It’s a sound that’s novel and familiar at once, playing on the ear like a cross between The Ronnettes and Peter Bjorn and John.
We talked at length with co-producer and engineer Shane Stoneback who used a combination of vintage and modern tools to help the band craft huge, hazy, reverb-drenched mixes to complement their casually-cultivated air of mystery.
“Are you looking for work? Because I just fired somebody 30 minutes ago.”
The man facing Shane Stoneback was a large one, heavy-set and imposing. He carried a sandwich in one hand and a microphone in the other.
Stoneback, who would go on to work with Cults, Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells, F*d Up, and The Magic Kids, told a fateful lie: He said yes.
“Good. I’m going to sit in the lounge and eat this sandwich.’’ The studio manager passed him a Neumann U87 with his other hand. “By the time I come back, have this up so I can hear it in the headphones.”
The year was 1999. Stoneback was on vacation, visiting New York City from Minneapolis where he already had an entry-level job at recording studio.
In what he would later consider “a naïve move,” Stoneback had thumbed through the alphabetical Recording Industry Source Book; making phone calls, hoping to secure a quick tour at one of New York’s flagship studios.
By the time he got to the letter “B”, someone said yes. He found himself in Battery Studios, the home of Jive records, being asked if he wanted a job.
‘This was in their C-room,” says Stoneback. “They had a digital Euphonix console in there. I never would have been able to figure that thing out in time, but I plugged the mic in, and somehow, I heard the headphones click. Whoever used the room before me hadn’t disconnected anything yet! That was it. I got the job and I never came back from vacation.”
If you ask Shane Stoneback about it, he’ll tell you he’s just a lucky guy.
From that encounter, he ended up working for Jive records during its heyday. The experience afforded him what he considers an “amazing pop training,” assisting on sessions with the biggest selling pop-artists of the day: Britney Spears. Backstreet Boys. ‘N Sync.
When Zomba Corporation (and in turn, Jive) was bought out by Sony, their Battery recording studios closed down. Again, Stoneback says he got lucky: He was unemployed for an afternoon. That once sandwich-toting manager had lined him up with a job at a post-production house called Sound One, where he would help veteran film mixers learn their new Pro Tools systems.
But to say it was all luck would discount the 8-hours Stoneback would put in each night after the studio closed up each evening. After hours, he spent his time recording whatever interesting local bands he could find.
“They had a closet full of LA-2A’s and old Neve components – all this stuff that was just kind of old and irrelevant in their work. I got to put some of this stuff into a series of road cases and wheel it all into the studio at night. And they were cool about it, as long as in the morning, the place looked like a post-production room again.”
He’d meet Vampire Weekend through colleague Jeff Curtin (Those Darlins’, Vampire Weekend, Small Black). Sensing they were set to make waves, he “dropped everything” to help them finish their record at Treefort recording, the new Brooklyn studio he had started to build.
That band would go on to receive rave reviews, immense popularity, wide notoriety, and a healthy dose of media backlash. (More on that later.)
From then on, Stoneback was keyed into a world of novel and emerging NYC artists, and into the rolodexes of label executives.
“If you get one legitimate credit under your belt,” says Stoneback ,”it kind of spirals into all these other projects from there.”
When Stoneback met Cults, they already had a sound. Two songs on an internet web page had been all it took to get the right people talking. They called Stoneback, not to reinvent their sound, but to reinforce it.
“Ultimately, we didn’t change much from the original demos,” Stoneback says of the songs that had already made waves.
“We re-recorded one or two things, maybe even tried some new vocals, but in the end it was pretty clear there was some kind of magic about those tracks already.”
“I did go back into the mixes to beef them up a little bit – Just to make them slightly more modern-sounding.”
“As much as there’s this late-50s/early-60s girl-group aesthetic that’s so obvious, a lot of the songs have these almost Outkast-style hip-hop beats underneath them. So I’d add a little bit of low end to each of the mixes, maybe a little more smack to the snare, so they’d have this sort of strange duality of a 50s girl-group with a secret club-banger element going on underneath.”
When listening, it’s easy to imagine the Cults LP as being faithfully captured with vintage equipment and then amped-up with more modern tools. But much of the time it turns out, the opposite approach was at play.
TOOLS, TWEAKS, AND TONES
“I have this old Silvertone amp [model 1472] that’s just beat to sh*t. People call it the ‘TV amp’ because of the way it looks. It’s just a small combo amp with two channels that you can kind of hot-rod together. It’s got a really simple tube circuit and a slightly torn speaker that adds to that kind of broken magic quality. I’ve used it on almost every record I’ve done.”
“That was a big part of the keyboard sounds. A lot of those sounds were coming off of a really modern sounding keyboard – a software version of an FM-synthesizer really. But with that amp, it all came back sounding really vintage and authentic.”
Similarly, vocals were recorded to a DAW through a modern-sounding microphone, then degraded to become an almost-impressionistic exaggeration of an old-school sound.
The team decided early on that, although the albums should ultimately feel more like a collection of songs recorded on different dates with different setups, they’d stick with the main kick and snare sound songwriter and co-producer Brian Oblivion created for their demos. Even when they recorded live drum tracks, they would reinforce them with the kick and snare sounds that had originally come come from a drum machine on Oblivion’s computer.
To sonically warp the voice, drums and instruments, Stoneback used Roland Space Echo extensively – not as a delay, but as a sound-shaping tool.
[For those who aren't familiar with it, the Space Echo is a vintage effects box that uses a small tape cartridge to deliver delay effects. Some of the later models feature a spring reverb, even chorus. This one did not -Ed.]
Stoneback would set the unit for a quick, single repeat. But instead of combining the output of the Space Echo with the original sound to achieve a traditional slap-back delay, he would record the tape-delayed signal into Pro Tools, and slide it back in time to replace the original sound.
“It’s kind of like a tape plugin but with all the genuine foibles of tape. And there’s really no worse tape machine than a Space Echo!” Stoneback laughs.
“I mean the quality is just asinine. But it was perfect. The first time I tried it out as a test, [the band] just loved it. It probably wouldn’t stack well if you wanted to record 9 tracks of vocals. There could be a lot of buildup in one [frequency range] .. Maybe, 2k[Hz]. But for this it was great.”
The work was tedious he says, but worth it:
“The Space Echo tapes have these little splices on them. So if you play it all the way through you’ll hear a glitch each time the tape comes around. I’d have to do 2 passes, knowing that statistically speaking, the hiccup probably wouldn’t happen in the same place twice. Then we’d have to combine those passes together.”
“You couldn’t combine it with the original take [in parallel]. The tapes move at such an inconsistent speed that the phasing is just unbearable. On some places though, you can hear that effect on a stereo source. On certain things, it was a complication we learned to love and didn’t see it as a flaw. Stereo drums, things like that – what they gained from the character of the machine made up for the phase issues completely – it just gave them a really unique sound.”
And it’s perceptible. There are times that the stereo field of the record has a sound that’s huge, hazy and deliberately “sloppy” in the best sense.
THE BIG WASH
Reverb benefited from a similar approach:
“For the demos, the band had been using a reverb plugin in Logic, and had become pretty attached to it. At first I tried making my own version of it with the rack gear I had or with my own plugins, but they just weren’t really feeling it.”
“I ended up bringing a lot of the vocal tracks into Logic to use that particular plugin, and then export the reverb tracks back into Pro Tools, just because that’s what I use, kind of as a default.”
But Stoneback wanted more out of the sound:
“There’s a whole cinder-block basement [below Treefort]. When we were building it, the wiring guy had run a few tie-lines down there, so one day, just for the hell of it, I set up a JBL Eon [a self-powered PA monitor -Ed.], and put a mic near the top of the stairway.”
“It’s not going to go down in the annals of history as one of New York’s great reverb chambers or something, but running the plugin reverb into that – it just came back sounding so much more legit. Once there’s actual air pressure moving around in the room it just makes everything sound so much better.”
“We also used the Space Echo as kind of a pre-delay going into the chamber, with a repeating slapback to get a little more out of the reflections down there. That’s a pretty classic trick that [60s girl-group producer] Phil Spector would use to milk a little more time out of a reverb chamber.”
Since then, Stoneback has continued to use his basement chamber on almost every record in some capacity, and he now has plans to build it out to make it a more flexible space, using microphones mounted on motorized camera tripods to allow him to change reverb settings in real-time.
He says he’s happy to hear how warmly the reverb sounds on the Cults record have been received. He can remember 3 long days of work spent making sure they were going in the right direction with ambiance alone. But he insists what people are hearing is more than a microphone, a few wire patches, and the turn of a knob.
“Really, a lot of the character of the vocal is just the way [singer] Madeline [Follin] sounds. I’ll give you one example: There’s a vamp in the final chorus of “You Know What I Mean” where she modulates up a key. That’s one of the coolest vocal moments on the record, and there’s nothing being done with switches and knobs; it’s just the way she leans into it, really hard. The gear reacts to that, not the other way around. That part is so special because of the way she sang it.”
Now that he’s worked with so many musicians who’ve convinced others they’re doing something worth hearing (and at such a young age) we asked if there was a common thread that tied them all together.
“No,” he laughs. “Absolutely not. They’re all so different.”
Then he adds: “Brian was [studying film and] taking some music and technology program at NYU. If you’ve ever been to one of those, you get the feeling that a lot of kids will record some stuff for class, you know, to turn in the assignment. They’ve got their social lives going on and all that. But with Brian, I know he would just run home to record – to try things out with Madeline.”
“And I will say that a lot of [the people I've worked with],in their most honest moments, they want to be successful. Not in a sleazy ‘cha-ching’ kind of way. But when they make a record, they want people to hear it. They need that as an artist, to feel that real connection to an audience. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing it?”
We also asked Stoneback if his early training with bubblegum divas and boy bands has ever been a liability with hip Brooklyn bands or edgier artists like Sleigh Bells and F*d Up.
Again, a quick “No.”
“If anything, they’re hoping I’ll bring some of that to the table. I make no secret that it’s my desire to bring some of the most pop elements out of their music. None of them are ashamed of it, they encourage it. Even the work I did with a band like F*d up – I think that’s about as pop as that band can sound. Little things, like the levels of vocal-to-snare, panning choices, that kind of thing. Clients are hoping to reap some benefit from that.”
And he has been instrumental in helping some bands find that wider audience. In moments, Cults have come close to risking the kind of backlash engendered by fellow Stoneback clients, Vampire Weekend.
So far, they seem to have escaped the worst of it. Perhaps because they’ve avoided over-exposure, and maybe because they’ve avoided their predecessor’s mistake of making public comments that would make them appear obnoxiously entitled, and culturally sheltered, to many fans and critics.
But to Stoneback, a little bit of controversy isn’t always a bad thing. It can even help a band find its audience. Of Vampire Weekend, he says:
“Any successful circuit has to have polarity to work – positive and negative – and they had that.”
“There were positive and negative things beaming out of that whole thing from the first moment. Maybe universal acceptance would have created a short-lived kind of success. But that polarity required people to not just write it off as some summertime jam, or some irrelevant crap. Eventually, people kind of realized that this is a band that’s gonna be around for a while.”
“It was funny – there were as many people writing about what kind of clothes [Vampire Weekend] were wearing as there were people writing about their music. I kind of just thought to myself ‘Oh no! Is this what these kids are gonna have to go through?’ But of course [that won't be all]. They’re a great band, especially live. That’s pretty rare, and hard to ignore.”
There are already echoes of that story in Cults, although on a smaller scale. Time will tell how they play out the rest.
Brooklyn correspondent Justin Colletti listens to new releases every day of the week except Sunday. Here, he shares the twelve Spring releases that best broke through the noise and captured his imagination.
1. Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis
From 1962 to 1970, Booker T. served as one of the essential sidemen who helped shape the sound of classic soul and R&B. As part of Stax’s integrated house band he played back-up for Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, and Sam and Dave. As bandleader for the MGs, he brought instrumentals to the top of the charts with the iconic cut “Green Onions.”
Jones’ latest effort, The Road From Memphis is a rootsy hybrid of hip hop, funk, and soul that makes the rock/fusion hybrid of his GRAMMY-winning 2009 release Potato Hole sound gimmicky by comparison.
Even with his name on the cover, Jones maintains the soul of a sideman. His playing is casual, relaxed, almost conversational, as he cooks through a cover of Gnarles’ Barkley’s “Crazy” on the Hammond B3, or supports Sharon Jones on an original tune.
There’s little musical grandstanding on this record, which features an all-star band of ace musicians who stay firmly rooted in-pocket throughout.
The Road From Memphis was produced by ?uestlove of the Roots and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliot Smith). It was recorded by Gabe Roth of Daptone (interviewed here over the winter), and features guest performances from Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Matt Berninger of the National, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
2. Dennis Coffey: Controlled Aggression
Here’s a release that reminds us why we should never look to television or glossy magazines for music recommendations. Although you might not think it by the looks of him, Dennis Coffey will melt your face off with the funk.
When he’s not busy swapping fashion tips with George Costanza or posing to reassure you he’d do a great job adjusting your tax returns, Coffey leads a double life as a former guitarist for Motown, and the man behind the steaming new release Controlled Aggression.
Thanks to the good graces of the internet, this unlikely gem of a record doesn’t have to go undiscovered. Click the link below to hear the track “Space Traveller,” selected as NPR’s song of the day on May 31st.
When listening, don’t be afraid to turn up your speakers. Not only does this cut feature an old-school sensibility when it comes to musicianship, it features a refreshing lack of the aggressive over-mastering that’s had musiophiles up in arms for more than a decade. In a welcome blast from the past, the louder you crank this record, the better it sounds.
3. Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore had a new release last month. This largely acoustic, gracefully orchestrated collection of songs was produced by Beck for Matador Records, and has music geeks across Generations X and Y asking, “Where the hell was this record when I was a teenager?”
In some ways, Demolished Thoughts is Moore’s equivalent to Beck’s Sea Change. Although much of this record is as wizened and reserved as Beck’s navel-gazing opus, the tone of Demolished Thoughts remains notably less melancholy than that easy touchstone.
Arrangements are generally sparse and intimate, with subdued strings that are startlingly pretty and never overwhelming. On the production end, the album’s tone is spacious and milky, unafraid to stay just a little boxy and decidedly natural.
4. Kate Bush: Director’s Cut
If you’re a Kate Bush fan who’s disconcerted by musical revisionism, you may have mixed feelings about Director’s Cut. On this album Bush revisits and revamps songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.
Unlike Brian Wilson’s 2004 revisit of the Smile sessions however, it’s doubtful any of these re-interpretations will be accused of ruining old favorites. Bush’s voice has stayed strong, and some of these cuts improve on the source material, which is largely culled from The Red Shoes, an album generally considered to be one of her weaker efforts.
After years of trying, Bush finally obtained permission to re-appropriate Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from the James Joyce’s novel Ulysses as the lyrics for this album’s opening track. It’s unusual to hear a woman of fifty-three take on some of the overtly sensual themes that drive the opening tracks on this record, but she does so with an effortless, unconcerned grace that belies her age.
So, is it worth listening? For those who are not yet fans, the now-classic 1985 album Hounds of Love is probably still a better place to start. (Like, yesterday.) For the already initiated? It’s definitely something to hear.
5. Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs
Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder has come out with a solo album. It consists exclusively of him playing songs he wrote for the ukulele.
Diehard fans of Vedder’s voice are likely to connect with the album’s intimate and un-ironic delivery. The rest of us could always use good excuse to gawk slack-jawed at our computers for a few minutes, wondering if our eyes are fooling us, so Vedder’s Ukulele Songs occupies slot 5 on our roundup of interesting spring releases.
But, is it good?
For a solo album that almost exclusively consists of Eddie Vedder playing songs he wrote for the ukulele, sure, it’s absolutely the best one I’ve ever heard.
How about compared to the rest of music throughout recorded history?
Well, it’s less weird than you might expect, and features strong, naked performances from a distinctive singer that you probably really love or can’t stand at all.
As for a rating? No matter which camp you fall in, Ukulele Songs is an odd, but well-realized effort that stands somewhere between the transcendent (Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” “Kind of Blue,” the first four Black Sabbath albums) and the laughably mediocre (Bruce Willis’ solo record, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Christmas album, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”).
6. Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
There’s a good chance you heard about it when the Beastie Boys dropped a new album last month. If you missed it, you still have a chance to stream it below.
It’s all too easy to harbor low expectations for any album this far into the band’s career, but once again, the ‘Boys refuse to disappoint: “Hot Sauce Committee” plays out like the Beasties of Check Your Head meeting up with the Beasties of Hello Nasty to compare notes.
Although some disinterest can be expected from early fans whose tastes have changed over the decades, this record is sure to please the ears of anyone still ready for more high-powered and irreverent jams from America’s favorite bratty-New-York-whiteboys-turned-socially-conscious-hip-hop-all-stars.
7. Alfonso Velez: Alfonso Velez
Alfonso Velez is a stunning and rare find: an undiscovered Singer/Songwriter worth watching out for.
Mere moments into “Teddy,” the first cut on Velez’s self-titled LP, I found myself slack-jawed, remarking aloud: “Wow. Dude can sing.” Songs here feel like real performances, unfolding stories that sound refreshingly human and open up over time.
With a production aesthetic that’s informed by The Flaming Lips and Radiohead as much as it is by The Beatles and James Taylor, Marc Alan Goodman’s mixes on Alfonso Velez balance the organic with the epic, the subdued with the sublime.
8. Cults: Cults
Any journalist writing about Brooklyn-based band Cults is obligated to marvel over their “un-googleable name” and (historically) limited presence on social media.
Up until Sony picked up the band in response to the extravagant media buzz that surrounded their debut 7”, the band subsisted with a spare Bandcamp page and a text-only website that listed upcoming shows.
Bloggers marveled over their ability to ignite interest sans Facebook and Myspace, much like the rest of us wonder how we were ever able to meet in public at a pre-designated time before cellphones.
Blog-buzz aside, Cults are easily one of the more compelling new artists to release an album this spring.
Their sound is somewhere between the Ronnettes and Peter Bjorn and John. Co-producer and engineer Shane Stoneback provides giganticlly cloudy, reverb-drenched mixes that complement their casually cultivated air of mystery.
At their best, Cults offer simple, unpretentious, catchy pop tunes with a startlingly retro production aesthetic. After repeated listens there’s some question as to whether there’s a ton of substance behind the style. In the meantime, the style they do have is somewhat substantive in itself and thankfully, it’s of the sonic, rather than visual variety.
9. Sondre Lerche: Sondre Lerche
Vernhes, who’s explored distinctive and sometimes jarring sounds with Dirty Projectors, Black Dice, and Deerhunter, might seem like an unexpected choice for Lerche, an artist best known for his easy charm and earnest pop sensibility.
With Verhnes at the board and Kato Ådland co-producing, Lerche is able to embrace sonic colors in a more raw state than ever before. The new material is mature: both accessible and unusual, friendly to a casual listener, but challenging enough to attract a new kind of audience.
10. Here We Go Magic: The January EP
On this record pillowy textures and contrapuntal rhythms form a blurred bed of sound for Here We Go Magic songwriter Luke Temple’s ephemeral, high-reaching vocals.
From the first plodding bass notes of the opener “Tulip,” Here We Go Magic’s newest release doles out twenty-one minutes of big, fat chamber pop.
It’s dense, atmospheric, ambitious, and invites comparisons to some of the innovative work by Caribou and Grizzly Bear, or the most forward-thinking moments of 60s cult favorites The Zombies.
Like Pigeons before it, The January (covered here in May), stands a far cry from Temple’s sparse solo effort on HWGM’s self-titled debut. The January serves a satisfying soup of sound that asks for repeat listening and suggests an unexpected expanse of space between the speakers.
Listen to “Hands in the Sky” off The January here:HERE
11. Hotels: On The Casino Floor
Since I’ve taken it on to write about the twelve albums this Spring that at least broke through the noise, and at best, captured my imagination, it would be dishonest to leave the Seattle band Hotels off this list, even if I have worked with them on prior releases.
Hotels has a new album On The Casino Floor, and, associations aside, I think you should hear it. They’re easily among my favorite bands playing today.
If band names like Devo, Black Sabbath, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Wipers and New Order randomly strung together in a sentence holds any appeal to you, this is the offbeat, electronic, post-punk, synth-heavy surf-rock band for you.
12. Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Is it just me, or do self-titled releases seem like a growing trend this year? If I had something profound to say about artists declaring their identity in a culture of fleeting interest I would. Until then: Gee. What’s that shiny thing?
Fans of the sleepiest moments of Iron & Wine and TV On The Radio may enjoy Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. This is music that’s sometimes unusual, and perhaps more pleasant than it is engrossing.
Atmospheric, moody, bold-yet-unobtrusive, the laconic Bon Iver is a thoroughly well-realized album, even if it occasionally bores this reviewer to the point where he forgets he’s even listening to it.
Lady Gaga and the Great Race to Cloud Storage
In other news, you may have caught wind that Lady GaGa’s label was so afraid her sophomore album would fail to make waves, they decided to effectively bribe fans into buying it. Hawking the entire record for $0.99 and giving away 40 GB of storage on Amazon’s new cloud server, they managed to sell 1.5 million copies in total, including a reported 750,000 at the $0.99 cheaper-than-free price point.
If you haven’t yet seen the video for the lead single “Born This Way,” don’t worry. You’ll be fine.
GaGa takes post-modern pastiche to a fever pitch of ADD, referencing more often and more directly than Family Guy. The only problem is that it’s rarely funny (at least not on purpose) and she staunchly refuses to admit to her influences, unlike the early post-modern pop-master, Beck.
Fittingly, GaGa’s latest video begins with music that isn’t even hers. The video version of “Born This Way” opens with Bernard Hermann’s classic score to the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo, which she somehow makes sucky by adding some comically pretentious narration and half-baked visual imagery culled from Frank Herbert’s Dune.
To her credit, GaGa has the theater of music down to a certain degree. She’s followed the playbooks of Freddie Mercury, Madonna, and Britney Spears, but forgot the rule about occasionally putting out an inventive song. Even Britney had “Toxic.”
Once the actual music kicks in, the problem is not that it’s awful. Rather, it’s amazingly plain – befuddlingly mediocre. The actual single serves as a remarkably bland backdrop to over-the-top visuals that are generally too racy for children and at times too vapid for self-respecting adults.
Those who maintain that her first record featured a few worthy pop songs obscured by a questionable production aesthetic will be disappointed to find nothing here to approach even that level of “interesting.” When listened to with any seriousness, “Born This Way” makes Cher’s most questionable 80s moments seem hip and current.
For the few who have cast GaGa as a secret champion of counter-culture, this release continues to reframe hers as work that panders to the easily entertained rather than suggesting a shred of the subversive.
At best, GaGa may have been able to achieve a level of insta-kitsch to rival John Waters. Only this time, it’s by accident. – Justin Colletti
On the heels of completing the upcoming Foo Fighter’s album Wasting Light, The Lodge Chief Mastering Engineer Emily Lazar and Mastering Engineer Joe LaPorta have been working with a handful of great artists and bands.
Lazar and LaPorta mastered The Pains of Being Pure at Heart‘s new album (out today), Belong, which was produced/mixed by the UK duo Flood and Alan Moulder and recorded by NYC-based James Brown at Stratosphere Sound.
Other new projects include Raven In The Grave, the fifth studio album by The Raveonettes, as well as a new collaborative single from Serj Tankian (System of a Down) and Shirley Manson (Garbage) entitled ”The Hunger.”
Against Me! also returned with a collection of unreleased demos and rarities Fat Wreck Chords released last week entitled ”Total Clarity,” which Lazar and LaPorta wrapped up just in time to master some new albums by Downtown Records’ White Denim, and Columbia Records’ Cults.
For more on The Lodge, visit www.thelodge.com
Shane Stoneback: Music Production Career Construction with Sleigh Bells, Magic Kids & Vampire Weekend
DUMBO, BROOKLYN/CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: Shane Stoneback would be the first person to tell you that he’s a lucky son-of-a-gun. Sure this fast-emerging producer/engineer has sharp ears, sharper instincts and a marvelously open mind, but he’s also got an undeniable knack for being in the right place at just the right time.
A quick scan of his expanding discography bears that out, with some of the timeliest artists tapping him to bring new sounds, classic styles, and hybrid approaches to their projects. Vampire Weekend, the arresting joy-noise of Sleigh Bells, updated old-skool of Magic Kids, and mystery-soaked Brooklyn duo Cults, are all his latest clients, and that’s just for starters.
To handle the heavy metal, undefinable psychedelia, and everything in between, Stoneback’s dual NYC studios are seeing an enviable level of action. He often gets things started in the raw DUMBO zone he calls Treefort Studios, then crosses the river to finish at SMT Studios in Manhattan, the SSL 4000 G+/Augspurger-endowed mushroom wood dream room he shares with engineer Brian Herman.
Able to make the most out of every opportunity that comes his way, Stoneback has gone a good distance since his formative years as a tech at Battery Studios and in the machine room of audio post HQ Sound One. Settled comfy comfy behind his big board at SMT, Stoneback caught us up on his latest adventures.
You did some recording recently with Magic Kids, we hear.
Right. I went to MemphisW for about a month to a studio owned by Doug Easley. He’s worked with Cat Power, Sonic Youth, and a bunch other great groups. Previously he had a beautiful, old-school studio with three-story-high live rooms, like at Abbey Road. It was famous, but it burned down four years ago.
Now he’s set up shop in an old insurance sales office. It’s a decent studio, but he has a Neotek board that’s like a Salvador Dali painting, because the knobs are kind of melted. We did all the principal tracking there – guitar, bass, drums – and hired this whole cast of local musicians. The talent pool in Memphis is pretty amazing, and Magic Kids is a big band with a lot of members – their network is pretty extensive, and they’re only two calls away from any instrument you can think of.
Magic Kids’ keyboardist/producer Will McElroy has these elaborate, intensive arrangements in his head. In the 1970’s you would have spent six months making this record, and we spent two months. I ended up getting really sick because I spent so much time making it. I didn’t get a lot of sleep in those two months.
They’ve definitely got a style that stands out – how would you describe their sound?
There’s nine people in this band. The Magic Kids have classic songwriting sensibilities, but with modern tools used in their creation, like lots of big 808s.
That new song you produced with them, “Cry with me Baby”, has some old skool elements, but it also doesn’t sound 100% retro…
Sounding retro was a big fear. When I start with a band, if I can I spend time with them a little bit, at a rehearsal or wherever, and talk about music, or I see what’s on their iPod when they’re not looking. These guys were listening to house music when I met them, which I thought was so odd, but it kept it from being a throwback record.
They didn’t want to make a cutesy throwback record – they avoided that at every turn. Some of the songs are super epic, on a level with Electric Light Orchestra songs. Anyway, the record is coming out in August, and you better get your roller skates on for it!
OK! Or can we just hop on our bike? In the meantime back here in NYC, you’re running not one but two facilities. Let’s take it from the top with Treefort Studios in DUMBO.
Treefort is one of those loft locker spaces. I got it three years ago for a writing room and I started to build it out when one of the kids from Vampire Weekend came in. I wasn’t done with construction, but they came out and started doing drum overdubs, and I started a good relationship with those guys.
The room is great, it’s a raw inspiring environment with books, chotchkes…people seem amused out there, but it is roughing it. I don’t have proper air conditioning, and the last few days have been brutal. But then again, Treefort is a much bigger room. There’s a lot of bands in particular I work with that want to lay down core live takes with three or four band members. They’ve been touring and they have it all locked together. You also have much more options for mic placement there. Plus I have tube organs, weird keyboards, and the room is cheaper because there’s a lot lower overhead.
We couldn’t help but notice the SSL 4000 G+ here at SMT Studios in Manhattan. Why keep it separated, instead of having everything together in Treefort?
We could never build this room in that place for a bunch of different reasons. The zoning would be difficult, and I’m not sure how long that building will last because of housing development in the area. The Treefort is awesome, but it’s collapsible. I could tear it down, put it up somewhere else, and it would be the same.
So now the package is we could have a band record at Treefort, do all the overdubs, and then mix it here in a room that’s acoustically tight with a great board. Every record we’ve mixed here has, in my opinion, been my best record. I just keep on thinking it gets better in this room.
Looking around, it certainly seems like you’ve put together what would be considered a dream facility for a lot of producer/engineers today.
This room is awesome. There’s two reasons we selected this configuration. Previously we had a baby Oxford and a pair of Tannoys that are now at Treefort. At the same time, there was a series of studios closing in the city that had an SSL G and Augspurgers, and that was how all the pop hit records were being recorded. Chung King had one, Battery had one, and there’s clearly been a vacuum for that. If they’re all closing down, then clearly there’s not a line around the block for that flavor, but if they all close down, then there’s still room for one.
Brian and I both worked at Battery, and this was the combination of console and speakers that we worked on every day. Plus, I love this board and the EQ on it – you can get rough with it and it sounds really cool. Or you can do nothing, just push the faders up, and it glues everything together better than it would in your workstation. Also, to get a Neve console of the same size would have been an enormous amount of money and this console, aside from cleaning, was in pretty good shape. I think it was in Usher’s house, so it wasn’t getting abused in a commercial facility.
People need studios. Whether they need me or some other engineer, they definitely need these environments where they can come in and have all the tools. Sitting in your bedroom, making a record, you can do that once, and it sounds awesome. But every band I’ve worked with this year – Cults is a good example – love what they’ve done in Garageband. But then they want to make it bigger.
(Take a video tour of SMT Studios hosted by Shane Himself right here)
With the different things that you’re doing, do you consider yourself to be a producer, engineer or a mixer?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I feel like we’ve all become facilitators more than anything. No two things come in the door with the same ratio of requirements – some people come in with great music and no idea of how they want it to sound and they want you to hold their hand through it. Others come in with it all ready to go, and they just want you to hit “record”. In any event, the line in the sand between producer and engineer has become very difficult to distinguish.
On the facilitator tip, I hear Derek E. Miller of Sleigh Bells is like an engineer…
The way that we met, xl recordings booked a couple of weeks at Treefort for M.I.A., so she could have some time to write and experiment. She was going to meet with a variety of people, but I believe she heard about Derek through Spike Jonze, so how awesome for him, to get cold-called from M.I.A. one day to make a song. I didn’t know who he was – he could have been Danger Mouse or this huge producer, and I could have been Steve Lillywhite for all he knew – we were both nervous around each other for a while.
We had some time to kill, and he started talking to me about compressors and the best settings for a female vocalist. Then he started playing me the Sleigh Bells record [which would become Treats, released May 11, 2010], and I immediately loved it. I said, “Put this out right now!” He said he’d be willing to go into the studio and work on it.
Some people would have stopped him from doing what he was willing to do, like going into the red digitally. That’s “wrong”, but what he and I discovered is that initially it sounds like crap, but if you go into the red further it starts to sound better. You can crank the EQ, sweep the frequencies, and make it start screaming like a guitar distortion pedal. I started to listen to Garageband, Logic and Pro Tools overloaded, they all sounded different, and we used those like tools to get the aesthetic for that. Derek has these specific things that I don’t think anyone has brought to the table as benchmarks – I think he really did want to hurt his ears at those frequencies like 4k! Like that French electronic group Justice, the way it’s filtered it hurts when it’s turned up loud, but it still sounds really cool.
Sounds like a good schooling. What were some other surprises that came up working with Derek on the Sleigh Bells record?
He was working with these vintage drum machines from the early ‘90’s, but he hated using the rock kit on the Korg or Alesis drum machines. They didn’t sound good until we rammed the fader all the way up and just knocked every frequency up as loud as every other.
We tried a lot of guitar amps, and we settled on this Korg Toneworks which is like something for a tour bus. It sounds like crap in the best possible way. Because of the circuitry, it shaves off all these frequencies so it sits in the mix right away – you could triple or quadruple the track and it doesn’t sound muddy. It sounds like the synthesizer you wish you had!
With that record, you couldn’t really do wrong. It was like going off the deep end into some uncharted territory. I liken it to the first time someone cranked a guitar amp and someone said, “You can’t do that!” and you say, “Just give me five minutes and you’ll see what I can do.” Hopefully I won’t get asked to make a record like that again, because I wouldn’t want to repeat it. But I do pull elements from it.
On a parallel tip to all this experimentation, you told us that you’re seeing a return to a more pro studio approach in recording – what do you mean by that?
There’s definitely a slew of records coming out where people are making rock albums that don’t sound bedroomy to me. Yes, there’s a good vocal sound you can get in your bedroom because you’re recording while your roommate’s sleeping, and it’s very intimate. But there’s something about a really well-recorded vocal where people scream, go off, and get the emotion out. You don’t hear the recording, you just hear the artist, you know? I feel like that will come back.
It doesn’t have to be slick with long reverbs and all that. The Raconteurs record (Consolers of the Lonely), that sounds great. The Them Crooked Vultures record, that sounds huge: it’s really thick and sounds good quiet, but it also sounds good in here cranked up loud.
You’re getting more and more credits on projects that producers would want to get the call on – Vampire Weekend, Magic Kids, the Sleigh Bells record — why is your stock going up right now?
Part of it is luck. So I’ve been in the right place at the right time a lot. That said I can still tell I get better at this each day. It was serendipitous that I met Vampire Weekend, and the initial job that I did for them was not exclusive knowledge – anybody could have done it. But I worked up a good working relationship. I was an assistant engineer in studios for years, so I got good at the boring parts: taking notes and backing stuff up. I’m a great Pro Tools editor, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with that. People will keep you around for that.
On the second Vampire Weekend record (Contra), I hammered home the facilitator thing. Rostam (Batmanglij) is a great keyboard player, a great arranger, and picked up the basics of engineering pretty quickly, but he still needed a facilitator to handle things on a day-to-day basis. We rented a marimba that was bigger than this table! We set it up, mic’d it and recorded it. Even if I had never done it before, I’d pretend I’d done it ten times.
– Interview by Janice Brown and David Weiss