Just as the major labels began their decade-long downward spiral, NYC’s Frenchkiss Records began growing. Today, they’re a sustainable and influential indie rock label, and in an age when seemingly home-brewed labels are often just boutique imprints for giant conglomerates, Frenchkiss Records staunchly remains a true independent.
“Frenchkiss is definitely my baby,” label owner and Les Savy Fav bassist Syd Butler told us in an interview yesterday. “I’ve had people ask to invest in it, and all I can say is ‘well, maybe we can invest in other things, but Frenchkiss – that’s mine’.”
None of this, however, means that the label is against expanding. Last year, Frenchkiss started its own publishing company. Last month, it announced it would leave the RED distribution network completely in favor of its longtime digital distributor, The Orchard. And just yesterday, Butler confirmed that Frenchkiss would start its very own label group in an effort to help “developing labels transform into developed labels.”
How To Grow Your Own Label From Home (Or The Road)
Since Syd Butler’s day job as bass player for the NYC indie rock band Les Savy Fav keeps him on the road much of the time, he conducts a good portion of his official Frenchkiss duties from a Blackberry. He started the label to release his band’s second record back in 1999, and has refused to treat either role as secondary.
“When we first started, expectations were different,” Butler says. “Back then, the bands we signed were happy to sell 500 copies of their records.” Frenchkiss has grown significantly since, and the label places its goal for new bands at about 5,000 copies. “We budget all of our records on that number, so if we can sell more than 5,000, it’s a huge success for all of us. Anything less and we know we have some work to do.”
Of course, some Frenchkiss bands do much more than that, often selling 5,000 copies in vinyl alone. Butler cites Passion Pit, who went from playing shows in front of friends at small clubs to filling 2,000 seat venues and selling more than 20,000 records in 2 weeks.
Other label mates, from straight-ahead rockers like The Hold Steady to no-wave infused experimentalists like Ex Models have become critics’ darlings and major names in their circles after joining the label. Same goes for newer signees like The Antlers, Local Natives, and Freelance Whales.
But then again, the term “signee” may be a little misleading. According to Butler, The Hold Steady’s contract was “a handshake over a burrito.” He says that’s business as usual at Frenchkiss: “We basically give the bands some money, and tell them they can use it to go make a record… or not.”
“Sure, we expect them to deliver an album, but they can pretty much use [the advance] on whatever they want. Some of the bands are pretty good on Pro Tools and end up doing a lot of that at home, and some of them use that money to help pay a producer and a studio.
“Then, there are sometimes bands who’ve completed everything themselves and don’t want us to own the masters, but they’ll license it to us instead. In that case, we’ll basically rent the rights to sell the album for ten years. There are a lot of ways it can work.”
An Artist’s Biggest Threat
Since Frenchkiss grew substantially when the major labels were crying foul on file sharing, Butler can be dismissive about most of the negative side effects of a free and unfettered web. “If you put out a good record, people are going to buy it,” he says. “The days of selling 50 million copies of one album – that’s what’s long gone.
“The weird thing, though, is that the songs you give away, the ones that people share the most – those are the ones they buy the most too. Those are the ones they come out to concerts to hear.”
What Butler does see as potentially dangerous are album leaks. He’s had to deal with them in his own band: “The last Les Savy Fav record leaked about 2 months before its release date. People were downloading it and ripping it before we even had a chance to promote it or to offer it up for sale.”
“It was strange, because when we went on tour, our audience was growing, and people were singing along to the new songs. Yeah, we were getting paid more money to play live, but people stopped buying our merch, and that really effected us.
“If you release a record and then people some people download it or whatever, that’s one thing. But at least you were allowed to do what you needed to do to set it up and sell some copies. A promotional campaign starts 4 or 5 months out. It takes a long time to get all those ducks in a row, and if the album leaks right in the middle of meeting – well, the whole ship falls apart, and that’s when a band has trouble selling its record.”
Keeping It In The Family
Frenchkiss is rare for a small indie in that there appears to be little tying their bands together as far as genre is concerned. Although there are sure to be some crossover fans, it’s often hard to hear a stylistic thread running between the electropop of Passion Pit, the cacophony of Ex Models, the homespun charm of Freelance Whales and the jittery art-punk of Les Savy Fav.
Butler says that Frenchkiss only has two rules for signing new bands: they have to love and believe in the music, and they have to love and believe in the people. One is not sufficient, and there are no rules as to style. (“If the next thing we all love is a hip hop band, we’re going to sign a hip hop band,” Butler says.)
“We only put out about 8 records each year, so we really get behind all of the bands we sign.” The bands have to get behind Frenchkiss, too. “There are some bands who pass on us because they’re offered a ton of money to sign at a major label instead, and that’s fine.”
“I think the bands who sign with us see the advantage of being on an artist-run label. I’ve been in that van, I’ve done that drive, and it means we can all relate when we’re hanging out having beers or getting dinner together. It adds this level of trust and connection that’s not there with a manager and an A&R guy. They know that our survival depends on growing each of the bands we sign. We can’t afford to throw any of them away.
“I know too many bands who’ve signed to a major and then find that their A&R guy gets fired and they have no idea what’s happened. With us, when a band calls they’re going to get me on the phone. At the end of the day, I’m the boss, and no one is going to fire me from under them.”
GREATER NYC AREA: Zooming in on some studios around town…this month, we find New York super-group The Gaddabouts – Edie Brickell, Steve Gadd, Andy Fairweather Low and Pino Palladino – finishing up mixing on their new album at Germano Studios. Gadd is producing the album, with Andy Smith (Paul Simon, David Bowie, A Place To Bury Strangers) recording/mixing.
Meanwhile, will.i.am checked into Germano to record new material in Studio 2, and then to produce/engineer on sessions with Jennifer Lopez; Nas recorded with Vernon Mungo engineering in Studio 1; and Earth Wind & Fire recorded with Philip Bailey and Fulton Yard Unltd (Neil Pogue) producing. Germano also hosted writing and recording sessions with Cheryl Cole and producers Alex Da Kidd, Jim Beanz and Ann Yvette; Rhianna with songwriter-producers Sandy Vee and Cri$tyle; and Javier Colon with Ryan Tedder.
The new album by Passion Pit (Columbia Records) is underway at Gigantic Studios in Tribeca, with Chris Zane (The Walkmen, Asobi Seksu, Friendly Fires) producing and Alex Aldi engineering. Zane also recently mixed an album for synthy indie-pop band Geographer (Modern Art/Warner), and produced/recorded and mixed five new songs for pop singer Ruby Frost (Universal).
And noise-rockers The Big Sleep recorded a long-awaited new album for French Kiss Records at Saltlands Studio in DUMBO with engineer/producer Eli Janney (The Obits, The Soft Pack, Ursula 1000). Janney mixed the album at his own mix room, Blistering Sound, where he’s currently in the midst of mixing an album project for Peter Salett, the singer/songwriter known for his music writing for films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Role Models.
Janney also mixed the new album for Ursula 1000, recently released on Eighteenth Street Lounge Music, featuring vocals by Fred Schneider of the B-52s, French avant-jazz singer Isabelle Antena, Thievery Corporation chanteuse Natalia Clavier, and Big Mike Geier from Atlanta’s premier big band Kingsized.
Next, over at Fluxivity Recording in Williamsburg, HEM brought in a chorus and overdubbed vocals on tracks for a new album. HEM’s Gary Maurer engineered. Maurer also used Fluxivity’s new edit room, featuring a Neve 10-Channel Kelso console and ATC monitors. Engineer Brian Thorn also recently worked on a Japanese release for Blonde Redhead in this new suite.
In Fluxivity’s main studio: Thorn engineered a session for French artist Daran – remixing songs from the 5.1 surround film Monsieur Papa into the stereo format; Randy Wooten recorded vocals for his new album, engineered by David Schoenwetter, assisted by Ed McEntee; Brooklyn-based singer/composer Maria Neckam mixed her forthcoming album; Lily and The Parlour Tricks mixed for their new album – largely recorded at Daptone Records in Bushwick; and Brazillian-born television star Guto Bittencourt recorded vocals for an upcoming release.
Gary Maurer mixed the new HEM album in Sear Sound Studio A, mixing down to (½” RMGI 900) tape on the Studer C37 2-track machine. This machine and 3 more like it at Sear Sound – as well as a Studer J37 1″ 2 track machine – were all acquired from Abbey Road and converted to 2 track machines by Walter Sear.
Sear Sound also recently hosted Bob Dylan remixing sessions, with Steve Berkowitz producing and Tom Schick mixing on the Neve 8038. And Joss Stone recorded tracks for a new album for S-Curve Records, with Steven Greenwell engineering and co-producing with Steve Greenberg.
Over in Greenpoint at the Rare Book Room, Nicolas Vernhes (Dirty Projectors & Bjork, Deerhunter, Animal Collective) is mixing Matthew Dear’s new LP for Ghostly International. He also recently mixed the new Bowerbirds LP for Dead Oceans, and has been working on the new Palms record for his own label, Rare Book Room Records.
Over the summer, Vernhes co-produced/engineered/mixed Atlas Sound’s Parallax for 4AD, and he also recently mixed the new Light Pollution LP for Carpark, and co-produced/mixed Lia Ices’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” for Mojo. Bon Iver and Josh Ritter also recorded at the Rare Book Room, in separate live sessions with Tom Gloady.
Back in Manhattan, a 65-piece children’s choir recorded on the stage in Manhattan Center Studio’s Grand Ballroom in a session shot by Spike Lee for State Farm Insurance, and engineered by Jonathan Duckett.
Manhattan Center also recorded an 85-piece orchestra for the Universal Studios film Tower Heist, starring Eddie Murphy and Matthew Broderick, directed by Brett Ratner. The music was composed by Christophe Beck and engineered by Casey Stone. The facility also hosted a 24-hour shoot in the Grand Ballroom for “24 Hour Climate Change” featuring Al Gore, which was webcast all over the world – with feeds coming in from all over the world. The shoot was produced by Suite Spot.
And TV1 at Manhattan Center is now up and running – with its first show currently in production: “Would You Rather” with Graham Norton, produced by So TV.
Down at The Lodge Mastering…The Lodge’s Emily Lazar and Joe LaPorta have been busy working on several late summer/fall releases including: Neutral Milk Hotel‘s highly anticipated massive vinyl box set, Matt & Kim’s track “I’m A Goner” featuring Soulja Boy & Andrew WK for Converse, Icelandic folk artist Ólöf Arnalds cover album, “Ólöf Sings,” (One little Indian), power-pop songstress Katie Herzig’s new album “The Waking Sleep” (Downtown Records) – mixed by Justin Gerrish and produced by Cason Cooley – Tiësto’s latest Kanye West remix of “Lost in the World”, and The Raveonettes “Bsides & Rarities” album featuring 28 unreleased tracks.
Over on the West Side, at Stratosphere Sound, the Brooklyn-based indie rock band Folding Legs (whose members hail from Stockholm, New York, Vienna & São Paulo) spent two weeks tracking their new album with producers Craig Roseberry and Rudyard Lee Cullers. Cullers engineered, with Adam Tilzer assisting.
French actress/model/singer Emmanuelle Seigner was also at Stratosphere working on her upcoming album with songwriter/producer Adam Schlesinger, and Arjun Agerwala engineering.
In Times Square, the Broadway Cares Foundation checked into Premier Studios for multiple days of tracking with all the top casts from the major Broadway shows, including Jersey Boys, Addams Family, Sister Act, The Lion King, Godspell, Mamma Mia, Billy Elliot and more. For Premier, this means a diverse schedule of sessions, including everything from tracking large string and horn sections, to large choir and ensemble performance recordings.
The upcoming Broadway Cares release is being produced by Lynn Pinto for Rocket Science Records, with tracking and mixing engineered by Andros Rodriguez, and assisted by Sam Giannelli.
Also in-session recently at Premier: boy band Big Time Rush (Columbia) recorded vocals, with producer/engineer Chris Rojas; Trey Songz (Atlantic Records) produced music for his new album, with engineer Anthony Daniel, assisted by Colin Rivers; Bluey Robinson (Sony UK) recorded vocals with Pawel Szarejko engineering; The Roots tracked music for a series of Captain Morgan commercials, with Robert “L.B.” Dorsey engineering; and Estelle (Atlantic) tracked vocals, with engineer Anthony Daniel.
Meanwhile, at KMA Studios in The Brill Building: “rockjazz” pianist/songwriter ELEW (Eric Lewis) was producing and composing music for an upcoming ballet production, as well as an independent film with Harry Lennix called Mr. Sophistication; rapper/producer J. Cole dropped in for a session; rapper Wale rolled through for a listening session for his forthcoming album; and Akai hosted a preview/consultation with the next generation MPC with a pretty killer focus group that included Q-Tip, 88 Keys, Prince Paul, Sean C and LV, Salaam Remi, KG of Naughty by Nature, and DJ Marly Marl.
Across the river, at Big Blue Meenie in Jersey City – “indie rock manifestation” Suit of Lights tracked and mixed the follow-up to their last studio record, Bacteria, with producer Joe Darone (The Fiendz), recording engineer Chris “Noz” Marinaccio and mixers Tim “Rumblefish” Gilles & Matt “Dasher” Messenger.
According to a BBM insider, the new Suit of Lights album has a creepy carnival feel to it with Beatlesque vox and superb guitar playing from Dan McGowan (The Tea Club) and always amazing Roy Van Tassel (Ghost Orgy) on Drums. The album will also feature Trevor Dunn (Mr Bungle, John Zorn, Secret Chiefs III) on bass.
NYC punk band The Dead Tricks also recently recorded and mixed their debut EP at Big Blue Meenie with Mike Gallo (Agnostic Front and Stigma bassist) producing, Marinaccio engineering, and Messenger mixing. The album is currently being mastered at West West Side Music by Alan Douches.
NJ pop-rock band Catch Wild also finished their debut album at Big Blue Meenie.
Andy VanDette recently mastered the new live Rush album – Time Machine 2011 Live in Cleveland – at Masterdisk. The album was mixed by Richard Chycki and recorded by Chycki and Joel Singer (of Music Mix Mobile). Also at Masterdisk, Vlado Meller mastered the new Lou Reed / Metallica collaboration – Lulu. Producers on the project were Reed, Metallica, Hal Wilner and Greg Fidelman, who also mixed the record. As on the recent Red Hot Chili Peppers album Meller recently mastered, there was a unique iTunes-optimized master created for this album.
Meller also recently mastered Susan Boyle’s latest Someone To Watch Over Me for Syco/Sony – produced by Steve Mac, mixed by Ren Swann.
Back in Williamsburg, at Grand Street Recording…Charlene Kaye just started pre-production on her new project, Animal Love, with Tomek Miernowski producing and engineering. Grand Street’s Ken Rich has been mixing a new album for Nancy Magarill, produced by Daniel Mintseris. The album was tracked over the summer at Grand Street with Thad DeBrock on guitars, Yuvall Lion on drums, and Christopher Kuffner on bass, Dave Eggar on cello, and Rachel Gollub on violin.
Eben D’Amico (from Saves The Day) produced a new song for hip-hop artist XV at Grand Street featuring Charlie Z on drums and Jesse Fischer on keyboards. Miernowski played guitar and engineered. Noe Venable is in the process of tracking her new record with Ken Rich,Todd Sickafoose on bass and piano, Mathias Kunzli on percussion. And Ohio rocker JP Olsen is wrapping up tracking his record with fellow Ohio-ans Mark Stepro, and Aaron Lee Tasjan of the Madison Square Gardeners producing / Miernowski engineering.
And finally up North at The Wild Arctic, Dean Baltulonis is producing an EP for the band w/o (without), featuring members of The Hold Steady and Primitive Weapons, and co-writing/producing new songs for UK singer/songwriter Rosie Vanier with James Wells of The Gay Blades. And Tad Kubler, guitarist in The Hold Steady, has also worked out of The Wild Arctic on some original composition for advertising campaigns by The Martin Agency and McGarry Bowen.
And we know there’s so much more going on out there! If you’d like to be featured in “Session Buzz,” please submit your studio news to email@example.com.
MIDTOWN, MANHATTAN: The massive motivation of hip hop artists like Wiz Khalifa is only half the story of how they storm the world’s stages: Behind every live touring success is a booking agent that knows their territory.
Khalifa is about to kick off the Campus Consciousness Green Carpet Tour, running March 31-April 22, followed by the rapper’s first brief European tour from May 16-24. Along the way, he’ll be benefiting from the sage experience of Peter Schwartz, NYC-based VP of international booking specialists The Agency Group: his nearly 20 years of experience have had him plotting out live jaunts for the likes of Jay-Z, Method Man & Redman, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC and Wu Tang Clan, Big Sean and Big Boi.
Khalifa is on a hot streak: his single “Black & Yellow” hit #1 on the Billboard charts, and his new album Rolling Papers drops on March 29th – the same day he’ll grace the Roseland Ballroom stage right here in NYC.
In 2010, 135 of Wiz’ 140 shows sold out: our five questions with Schwartz explains why, and provides sharp touring advice for the next round of hip hop upstarts.
What about being a booking agent gets you out of bed each morning?
I truly enjoy being an agent, so getting going each day is really not that hard. Success is no doubt a driving force, especially when working with clients like Wiz Khalifa with such exciting growth and potential. It really makes the job fun, and I look forward to waking up just to see how well tickets sold overnight or where a client is charting that day.
His upcoming show at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC sold out in 16 minutes – that kind of thing fires me up for sure. Of course, it’s very rewarding to be standing at a sold-out show, watching the crowd go bonkers and seeing all the hard work pay off and come together in the end.
Bonkers is always the objective, we agree. How would you describe Wiz Khalifa’s live show?
Wiz’s live show is amazing: He puts his heart and soul into every performance — usually shirtless and drenched in sweat by the end of the show. His work ethic is unreal. His set is always fun and energetic, with his Taylor Gang team jumping around him to create even more hype. And the fans are always going insane!
We’ve been slowly growing his production with each tour, so his fans should expect to see him develop in that respect as well. They definitely get their money’s worth.
Each tour has a specific objective for the artist: Why is the Campus Consciousness Green Carpet Tour important for Wiz?
The Green Carpet Tour is basically a college tour, which made sense to do for a variety of reasons. It timed well within our plans for the year and the album release, and the college market is one of Wiz’s largest demographics.
The “Campus Consciousness” – environmental — tie-in was really a nice perk. The last “CCT” tour featured Drake and the one prior had Passion Pit headlining, so it seemed like a good brand had been established there.
Our main goal for this tour is pretty much the same as always…sell it all out! Ticket sales look incredible already. We’re going to follow this up with a summer headlining tour to support the new album.
You’ve booked a lot of hip hop tours. What are the differences between booking for hip hop and rock? What makes booking for hip hop and rock the same?
There are some small differences in booking hip hop and rock, but I really approach all my bookings the same way: good old “rock’n’roll style”.
The goal is to build the artist a long-lasting touring career by plotting the right moves and developing them to larger venues and guarantees. Each move should be made for a reason, with the next step already in mind. It is really important to know your fans and be very conscious of picking the right size venue, ticket price and other details like age restriction on the show.
That definitely makes sense – for a lot of business avenues besides just touring! Lastly, What tips do you have for emerging hip hop artists who want to bolster their careers with a live tour?
If an emerging artist has a strong live show, going on tour is a great way to promote themselves and build a fan base.
That’s really the key to success: building a fan base and a faithful following. This can be done through social networking, good press, releasing great music and of course touring is a great vehicle as well. Try and deliver the best performance you can. Keep your set short and sweet in the early stages. Network with any of your fans before or after the show. Connecting with your fans — old or new — is very important. And stay connected too!
Wiz Khalifa plays Roseland Ballroom on Tuesday, March 29th.
– David Weiss
Renegade Media Group, a new sample library company founded by New England-based producers Bobbybass and Josh Harris, offer royalty-free loops and samples for use in Dance, Electronic, Urban, or any music production.
With major label and TV credits to their name, the pair uses many of their own RMG products in their own productions, including the Jay Sean featuring Lil Wayne single, “Down,” as well as recent remixes for Beyonce, Passion Pit and Jordin Sparks.
Josh Harris began his remixing career as a programmer and engineer with New York-based DJ/Producer Mike Rizzo in 2001. He was also a member of The Passengerz. Since then, he’s worked with Seal, The Killers, KoRn, Britney Spears and Alanis Morissette and has worked (or been a part of) over 200 remixes.
Bobbybass is one half of the production duo Orange Factory Music (OFM) which has produced, remixed and or written for Jay Sean, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Seal, Usher, Birdman, Annie Lennox, Fabolous, Janet Jackson, Birdman and Shakira, among others.
RMG products include sample CDs, Drumkits, Instruments, and Patches in popular audio formats such as Acidized Wave, Apple Loops, Rex2, Reason Refill, EXS24, and Kontakt 3.
Renegade Media Group products start at $29.99 MSRP. Product information, audio samples, and ordering information is available at www.renegademediagroup.com.
BROOKLYN, NY: The Antlers’ 2009 release Hospice has been arresting the hearts of not only Brooklynites, but also the rest of the world. Generating positive press reviews in response to their lush tracks, Hospice is a captivating album that follows a tragic arc — the heartbreaking narrative of a man losing a loved one to cancer.
It’s a sad story, but there is beauty in the sorrow, with the minimalist instrumentation of each of these strategically written melodies serving as a transporting experience. Recorded in singer/songwriter/guitarist Peter Silberman’s makeshift Brooklyn home studio, the album was assembled after Silberman ducked into a full two years of isolation to write the tracks.
“That’s what I feel like recording is in general,” Silberman explains of his no-frills philosophy on capturing sonic concepts. “This song or sound you’re hearing in your head and trying to recreate and make sense out of, then seeing if it’s actually possible. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it turns into something you didn’t expect and you actually like that better. The recordings sort of take on a life of their own and you just embrace it.”
The Antlers paid very close attention to their production, working out ideas through trial and error. Tapping a low budget setup that for a while included only two microphones, a computer and very little space, Peter Silberman based Hospice on a framework that “became a matter of where the songs took the sound.”
When he began the blueprints for the album, Silberman recorded myriad experimental textures while operating out of his bedroom studio. “To have the freedom for our recordings to fail or keep on working was amazing” he says. “Not being on anyone’s clock but our own is something very important to us.”
Taking this emotional journey of an album on piece-by-piece, the Antlers had come from a similar musical background. Now a band rather than a solo project for Silberman, Hospice involved a different approach to writing songs. Labeling the record as “enjoyable,” Silberman felt more collaborative with this project because as a trio, the band was functioning together to actively exchange musical thoughts.
“We worked to see what gaps needed to be filled regarding frequency and texture,” noted multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci. Cutting and pasting layers as they saw fit, drummer Michael Lerner added that the production of these tracks was not really a “hang up process.” Working with his bandmates “made sense”, he relates, because they had the same goal.
Satisfied — and then some — with the end result of Hospice, which was picked up by French Kiss Records and makes them labelmates with the likes of Passion Pit and The Hold Steady, the Antlers plan to record their next project at home as well. The band feels that home is the best creative environment for recording music. “Working at home you can make mistakes and fix them,” Cicci says. “It kind of feels liberating versus a studio, where you feel like you’ve wasted time and money.”
With the combination of a recession and the ready availability of affordable high-quality audio technology, the Antlers prove once again that you can go home again, and record a mind-blowing long-player while you’re there. In the end, all you really need is an instrument or two, some gear, a computer, and a creative mind. — Ken Bachor
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.