SoHo, Manhattan: Travis Harrison — record producer, engineer, founder of Serious Business Records & Studio and Guided By Voices super-fan — met late era GBV guitarist Doug Gillard when his band, The Unsacred Hearts, shared a bill with Gillard at Piano’s.
Harrison gushed about GBV, Gillard dug The Unsacred Hearts, and they stayed in touch. Later on, Harrison inquired about future prospects for Lifeguards, the Gillard and Robert Pollard GBV side-project whose one and only release, Mist King Urth, came out in ’02.
“I was a huge fan of the first Lifeguards album,” says Harrison, “I buy everything that Bob [Pollard] puts out. After I met Doug, Bob had been in touch to tell him if he wanted to produce the music and find a label, he’d be into doing another Lifeguards record. That’s when I swooped in and pitched Doug: I have a studio, a label, the [recording] skill-set and I’m a huge fan. Let’s do this! I expected to get no response.”
Of course, Gillard did respond and the new Lifeguards record, due out February 15 on Serious Business / Ernest Jenning Record Co., was engineered by none other than Harrison. Scroll down to stream “Product Head,” the album’s single released on 7″ in advance of the record. And read on for an interview about the recording and production of Lifeguard’s Waving At The Astronauts by this Guided By Voices super-fan…
Awesome that you got to engineer this record at Serious Business! So tell me about how it all came together.
The way they worked on this project is that Doug wrote the instrumentals and recorded them at home in Garage Band and then sent them to Bob who then created the melodies and lyrics on top of these instrumentals. It’s just one of the many ways that Bob works.
Doug’s GarageBand demos were pretty fully fleshed out — he recorded most of the guitars, and bass and other little sonic treatments. Then he brought it to me and at my studio, I salvaged any less than ideally recorded stuff, but we also tracked drums, bass, re-tracked any guitar that I could get him to re-track and then we recorded Bob’s vocals.
What were your first impressions of the material? Were you so psyched?!
First of all, I was just in awe. As far as Doug’s instrumentals go, the shit’s amazing. He’s a great guitar player, and has an amazing musical mind that always goes somewhere you don’t expect. He’s awesome. But I didn’t actually hear these tracks as songs beyond instrumentals until Bob was actually in the studio, at the microphone. He drove in from Dayton in May to do his vocals. And that was just amazing. The guy is a genius! Obviously I’m a huge fan, but just to see him work and see how completely natural and instinctual it is, I was blown away.
Wow, very cool! And I know you’re a drummer — did you by any chance get to play on the record?
Yes, I played on five songs and Doug played on the rest. He’s a great drummer, he basically plays everything, but it was obviously a crazy honor for me to play drums on this record. There were some parts that were really fast, that either exceeded his technical ability or that he thought I’d have a good groove for – that’s the stuff I got a shot at.
And what was your goal in the studio – what aspects were you re-recording or adding, and how did you approach the recording?
It was very important to me to make it sound as un-GarageBand-y as possible. We didn’t want it to sound homemade at all. And Bob’s vision for the record was like “ARENA ROCK.” He’s known for lo-fi, but we were consciously not going for that. Doug was the producer, so he really called all the shots. He called for a lot of really heavy compression on drums.
On one song in particular, “Nobody’s Milk,” Doug had done the original drum track on a drum machine and it was incredible but it wasn’t totally in time and he’d used the GarageBand compressor at 10 to really squash it. It was really clean but insanely compressed and I begged to redo them.
It took a ton of work to match his exact part because it was very intricate, but to achieve the compression, I used the API 2500 bus compressor as the first stage and then after that, the Fatso pretty much demolishing it in parallel. And I really favored the compressed side and went for this ultra squashed sound to simulate his Garage Band demo. That was my goal throughout the whole project, to please Doug and Bob as much as I could. I willingly and gladly checked my ego at the door!
In that process, do you feel like you learned from them? From following their instincts?
Of course, although this way of working — taking a fully fleshed out Garage Band demo and turning that into the record — is incredibly tedious. So it was a matter of enjoying the tedium of that. I spent an insane amount of time on my own editing, beat-by-beat, that ultra compressed drum track because I didn’t want Doug to hear really anything different from his version. I just wanted it to be real drums instead of these samples.
But do you feel you came up with something new and different in the process — something cool you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise?
Yes, but you know Doug was the producer and this is what he wanted to hear. And when he heard it, he (and Bob) loved it. But the way these guys work…and I should separate them, because Doug is more of a meticulous craftsman. But at the same time, he does kind of bang it out. He’s not going to do 30 takes of something. Where Bob does ONE take.
Tell me about that! What was it like recording Bob’s vocals on this?
I had a [Shure] SM7 set up in the studio. The SM7 is my favorite mic, especially for a singer like Bob. I was really excited. My thinking was to record Bob onto two tracks simultaneously. One track was just about capturing him with very little compression — an SM7 to a Great River mic pre to a distressor at 2:1 (but barely touching it) — and then on the other track, I hit him with an 1176 at 4:1 with the super-spitty setting (the fastest release and the slowest attack). And that’s the track I ended up using for most of the final mixes.
Also, for every track, I printed either Space Echo or Echoplex live. Bob would step up to the mic and say “Alright man, this one is arena rock!” or “This one’s Elvis!” or “psychedelic” and between the Echoplex and the Space Echo, I was able to get what I wanted. I would print that live so there were certain freak-outs in sections — wild, completely tasteless effects stuff.
Bob basically sang the record in sequence. He stepped up and sang the first song all the way through, he listened to it played back over headphones and then moved on. Couple tunes, he’d punch in a word here and there. He did Side A, then we took a break, had a couple tall, cold ones, and then move onto Side B. It was incredible. I’d always heard he was first-take-jake, and he really was. And he was in wonderful voice too. As good as I’ve ever heard him sound.
Awesome. And he was digging what he was hearing?
Yeah, I was giving him Space Echo on his headphones. Monitoring off my Soundcraft Ghost, I was recording the output of the Space Echo back into Pro Tools, and I knew he wanted to hear a lot of it, so I gave it to him and made it long, made it do stuff! I tried to provide him with something he was really feeling.
And that was the vocal chain throughout?
Yeah, this was a bang-it-out situation. He did the whole 10-song record in four hours, and two of the hours we were just screwing around. The thing about Bob is he doesn’t like to spend a lot of time in the studio, but he works really hard. He wakes up every morning and writes. He’d worked hard on these tunes and had practiced them a lot at home. He was on point.
And you mixed the record as well? What was the focus there?
Yes, Doug and I mixed the record together. And he’s into hearing stuff pretty bright. He doesn’t want to hear a ton of kick drum. He has a specific way that he hears records, coming from this late 70s, post-punk place, and the end result is awesome.
We worked very quickly. I mix in Pro Tools, but not in the box. I spread it out on the Ghost as much as I can and try to use as much outboard as I can, but I also keep it as recallable as possible. So I would sit at the desk and get the mix up for a few hours and then when it came time to mixdown, Doug sat at the desk and I would hit record, and he would do all kinds of cool shit!
He ended up using the console in very obviously un-Pro Tools-like ways. Like, panning sweeps on Bob’s lead vocal and on the guitar solos. Expressive moves that you wouldn’t do in Pro Tools.
And I really encouraged Doug to do this because there’s a character to all that GBV music that’s the exact opposite of Pro Tools. In the back of my mind through the whole project, I kept in mind the essential character of the GBV recordings that people love so much, and they’re on 4 track or on ADAT made in a garage somewhere.
How would you describe that “un-Pro Tools” quality? Just totally unpolished and lo-fi, or what?
Well the entire GBV and Robert Pollard’s solo oeuvre is about as varied as you can imagine. He’s obviously famous for being the king of lo-fi. You have certain records, like Vampire On Titus, which just sounds like the shittiest possible thing you can imagine. 4-track and whoa…you can barely hear the vocals! It takes like 8 listens to realize how amazing the songs are.
On the other hand, they made records with Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf for TVT, and those are glossy and way more hi-fi. The Rob Schnapf record sounds incredible. It’s a huge guitar record, lots of compression but modern sounding. So they run the gamut.
But the quality I’m talking about is… this thing we all get into when we make records with Pro Tools — even when you’re not trying to make polished sounding music, you polish your mixes because you can do anything you want. You have all these shades of subtlety…all these things you can do in Pro Tools, where when you’re working with this big beast of a board and you’re just trying to get something done, you make mistakes and the mistakes becomes the essential character of the music.
Do you feel you had to hold yourself back from the way you usually engineer records at all to capture that?
Yes, somewhat. But in this case, a lot of times there just wasn’t any time to do things that I should have done. Like getting the drum mics perfectly in phase, or creating musically perfect EQ relationships between all the overdubs — all the things we do as mix engineers. We just did it fast. And that speed is an essential part of the GBV aesthetic. Bob does not ponder the music.
Awesome, well congrats! Now, fill us in on Serious Business — it’s a studio and a record label — how long have you been around?
I started the Serious Business studio in Long Island City with my good buddy, Andy Ross, who’s now the guitar player in OK Go. We had a G4 with Pro Tools and the audacity to put an ad on Craigslist advertising as a studio, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
We moved from there to a big loft in Williamsburg and then partnered up in a collective-type fashion — an engineer friend of mine, Halsey Quemere, brought a tape machine (a Sony MCI, acquired from Jimmy Douglass) into the fold, and then I felt we needed a more proper studio space, so we found the SoHo location. Last year, I hooked up with [producer/engineer] Shannon Ferguson (of Longwave, etc.) and with him came this great influx of cool gear.
And the label? You guys are actually putting out the Lifeguards release, yes?
Yes, I started the label awhile back as an outlet for my own bands, and my friends’ bands, and though it tends to take a back seat to other (paying) gigs, it’s continued as a total labor of love. Artists like Benji Cossa, Higgins, Rocketship Park, etc. it is all music I love. The binding theme of the label is Class A songwriting.
For Lifeguards’ Waving At The Astronauts, Serious Business is partnering with Ernest Jenning to put it out. I did the A&R and recording and production and layout of the artwork, and Ernest Jenning is doing the promotion and distribution, etc.
And you’re also doing a podcast for BreakThru Radio — it’s cool! Tell us about that!
BreakThru Radio produces a ton of original content — including a few in-studio sessions with bands. The main property is a show called “Live Studio,” where the band comes in, plays a set, and talks to the host Maya MacDonald, a college radio-style interview. I started recording the lion’s share of those last year at Serious Business, and after awhile, I convinced them to give me my own show!
My show is the same kind of format, but way less formal — there’s drinking, silly craziness and lots of potty-mouth. My vision for that show is to create an atmosphere of what it’s really like when bands come into the studio to record with me. So far I haven’t gotten fired, which is a miracle!
Tune in every Monday morning for a new installment of Serious Business Music Live on BreakThru Radio Check out Serious Business, the studio, at www.seriousbusinessmusic.com and the label, at www.seriousbusinessrecords.com. And pick up the Lifeguards single “Product Head on iTunes.
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.
SAADI is Boshra al Saadi, the former guitarist/vocalist for NYC female led, pop-punk band, Looker. Her upcoming 12” EP, Bad City, will be released on March 9 through NYC-based Serious Business Records.
The same label where Looker began, Serious Business provided SAADI a familiar recording platform for the newly cultivated, electro-pop sound that can be found on her debut EP. Boshra al Saadi and Travis Harrison, the founder and president of Serious Business, jointly produced the album.
With influences that range from Bob Dylan to Brian Eno and traditional Arabic and Nigerian music, SAADI is a rhythmically intricate and ultramodern hybrid of sounds. Listen to the title track off SAADI’s upcoming EP, “Bad City,” here: HERE
And see SAADI perform live at Pianos on Sunday, January 31, in the final performance of her January residency.