SOHO, MANHATTAN: NYC rock band A Million Years is huddled around a pedal board at Serious Business Studios. It’s winter and the band is recording guitars for their debut album, Mischief Maker, available July 6.
As lead guitarist Nick Werber runs through sounds, A Million Years’ guitar-playing front-man Keith Madden and producer/engineer Shannon Ferguson — also the guitarist for NYC indie rock stalwarts Longwave — consider the options. Drummer Andrew Vanette and bassist Andrew Samaha chime in as well. This is a total group effort.
Vanette fills us in: “After we finished tracking basics, all the additional tracking has been done right here in the control room, with all of us sitting around together. The intimate feel of the studio really helps us a lot — no matter what’s going on, there’s always that group element to making this record together.” Madden interjects, “Yeah, nobody’s slinking away to go play Grand Theft Auto.”
Serious Business is a “musicians collective” recording studio and record label headquarters located on Spring Street in Soho. Ferguson, who’s been recording bands in NYC since before joining Longwave in 1999, moved his gear into Serious Business about a year and a half ago and splits time there with producer/engineer and Serious Business founder Travis Harrison (Apache Beat, The Rosewood Thieves). The studio is based around a Pro Tools HD2 system, Soundcraft mixing console, a ton of outboard equipment, instruments, amps, full-band-sized tracking room and iso booth.
“Shannon is a wealth of crazy vintage equipment and pedals,” says Madden, as Ferguson pulls out another guitar flavor.
“Our songs have an undercurrent of pop and going into the studio to make this record, I really didn’t want it to come out sounding too slick, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to work with Shannon. He’s coming from a place of making records with Dave Fridmann, which is like the least slick you can get! We all really like fucking sounds up intentionally, and Shannon fully understands that, and is really good about reigning us in if we go too far.”
A Million Years tapped Ferguson to produce their 3-song EP, Incandescent, last year. They met under unique circumstances when Madden took a job as touring guitar player in Longwave, replacing Ferguson whose wife was expecting a baby.
“It could have been an awkward situation, handing the reigns over to another guitar player,” notes Ferguson, “but from the get-go, it was like we were great friends. Also, almost immediately, Keith was inquiring about recording. After he’d toured with Longwave for a year, he told me that — having to learn all my guitar parts — he’d felt like he was sort of in my head and wanted to continue that relationship with me recording his band.”
And Ferguson felt drawn to A Million Years as well. “I really felt like I could help them,” he shares. “I felt like I could add a lot to what they were doing without stepping on it.”
MISCHIEF MAKING: BREAKTHROUGHS, BIG SOUNDS & SONIC SURPRISES
With Werber in the hot spot, switching between wiry, spaced-out and wailing guitar parts for “Poster Girl,” which — playing back in the studio — recalls early Radiohead, Vanette, Madden and bass player Andrew Samaha fill me in on the making of Mischief Maker.
“When we made the EP, we booked two weekends and did a song per day,” says Madden. “Working that way, you really immerse yourself in the song and by the end of the day have a good idea of what it’s going to sound like. The upside of that way of working is you make choices really fast and the downside is that you make choices really fast.”
The Incandescent sessions jump-started a great collaboration between the band and producer/engineer that flourished in the Mischief-making process. “While we were mixing the Incandescent EP, Keith started bringing in demos of these new songs and that’s when I started to really get excited about doing a whole record with them,” says Ferguson. “I think he had a breakthrough. He came back with a handful of really good songs; sort of all at once he had all these new ideas, new melodies. The songs, in a lot of ways, became much simpler too, which allowed them to breathe more. The sounds can be bigger if there are less parts.”
When the band went back into the studio to record basics for Mischief, they modified their approach. “This time around, we did all the basic tracking live and now we’re building on top of that,” Madden describes. “The songs are already sounding pretty different from the basic tracks, but you can really tell that it’s us playing this time. I’ve been surprised by the way every song has come out, in a really good way. It’s been great.”
Layers of guitars and effects, drum machines and synths build out the sonic space around these live rock performances, some sparse and acoustic, some big and bold.
In tracking sessions, Shannon cranked the AC30, miked with a Shure SM57 and a Royer R-121 going into a Chandler TG2 summed to one track. Bass went through an Avalon U5 into a Purple Audio MC77. Vocals usually went via SM7 to Great River ME-1NV into an LA-2A, and the standard miking on drums included a Beta 52 on kick, Audix i5 on snare and AEA R88s as overheads. Everything was recorded into Pro Tools HD2 with Aurora converters.
At one point, sitting around Serious Business, everyone’s holding a guitar, showing off their new favorites. “I’ve learned that I really like shitty vintage guitars,” notes Madden, wryly. “So that’s why this Silvertone is all over the record. By no standard is it a good guitar, but it’s like the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” Vanette, holding up another instrument of choice, adds, “We also found this Hagstrom guitar somebody left here; Keith’s played this all over everything too.”
With Ferguson as their guide, A Million Years approached every song with a sense of sonic adventure and considered the options on each and every part as well.
“In addition to getting cool guitar sounds, it’s really important to us throughout the whole record that the way every song sounds reflects the actual character of the song,” says Vanette. “So we treat every song differently, as far as drums, and every bass tone is different. We’re really conscious of not making a static record where you go one song into the next and they all sound the same, in both production and songwriting.
“On a couple songs, we sort of stepped out of ourselves,” Vanette continues. “One song is all programmed drums, and one has no drums at all — just organ and acoustic guitar and vocals. That entire song was done live with no click track, we just hit record and went for it — and it has a really organic feel to it which is exactly what that song needed.”
Some songs on Mischief combine live and electronic percussion. “On ‘Poster Girl,’ we tracked live drums for the entire song, but Keith also did some drum processing on his iPhone using BeatMaker,” says Vanette. “We want that in-between — not completely electronic and not completely live.”
In a recent interview, post Mischief mixing, Shannon describes, “They wanted Andrew to play drums on a song, but then have me make it sound like a drum machine. So we’d record the drums with that kind of sound in mind. I’d played them the David Bowie record, Low, the song ‘Sound and Vision,’ thinking we could base some of their drum sounds off of that.
“It’s a really strange drum sound, sort of distorted but also a little pitch-shifted in the snare drum. So if you listen to A Million Years’ ‘Holy Ghost Town’ or ‘Poster Girl,’ there’s an effect on the snare inspired by that idea of having the snare sound modulate. I feel like that’s not very common but it’s a cool thing to do.”
Listen to A Million Years’ “Poster Girl” here: here
Other effects incorporated throughout Mischief Maker add texture to the band’s sound. “The Eventide H3000 D/SX is all over the record, including on keyboards and acoustic guitars,” Ferguson reveals. “There are a couple presets that I start with and one is called ‘Breathing Canyon’ that John Leckie showed me on Longwave’s There’s a Fire. And then there’s another one in that same box called ‘Low And Behold’ and you can hear it all over the record just sort of mumbling in the background.”
Also, Ferguson shares, “I have this Line 6 M13 pedal board which is one of those all-in-one boards and not something that I would normally use, but it’s got all these backwards delay settings that we just kept going back to. And then I also used a DOD analog delay pedal that I basically use on every record that I do.”
After all the Mischief-making, the Incandescent tracks found a place on the album as well. “I thought I’d want to go back and work on them, but those mixes really held up,” says Ferguson. “The song ‘Incandescent’ really blends well with the sonic direction we took on the newer songs, and the two other songs have a more straight-forward rock sound which actually helps the album to not feel like a sonic experiment the whole time.”
Listen to A Million Years’ “By Yourself” here! here
A MILLION YEARS: LIVE & ON THE AIRWAVES
A few months back, we went to see A Million Years play the Studio at Webster Hall as part of Rich Russo’s (WRXP) “Anything Anything” Concert Series. It was an impressive performance with familiar flashes of early aughts indie rock, a la Modest Mouse, delivered with youthful, punchy rock-and-roll swagger. We were especially psyched to hear “Poster Girl,” Werber’s lead guitar parts forever etched into our memory, culminating with one of the band’s most raucous jams.
Back during recording sessions, we had asked A Million Years about their hopes and dreams for the record. “We don’t want to have to rely on a label or a publishing deal,” says Madden, “But finding someone or some company that wants to support what we’re doing would be great. Or we’ll invent something unique ourselves that works for us.”
Vanette adds, “Our manager is Lanny West, owner of Tipping Point Entertainment, so we have a whole team of people on our side. With their support, there’s also the thought that we’ve already invested all this time and money into the band, and maybe we can keep it going ourselves.”
Meanwhile, some big NYC tastemakers have already gotten behind A Million Years. “We’ve had a couple features on RXP 101.9. We did an in-studio with Matt Pinfield and a live performance on Rich Russo’s show,” says Vanette. “RXP is like the only legitimate radio station in NYC for rock music, so to have them on our side, it’s more than we could ever ask for in this city.”
A Million Years will be back at the Studio at Webster Hall for their record release show June 18, 2010 (Get tix HERE!) and will play McCarren Park in Williamsburg on June 21 with Ferguson’s band, Falcon.