On The Record: The Philistines Jr. On “If A Band Plays In The Woods…”

October 19, 2010 by  

Bridgeport, CT: In the title of their new record, The Philistines Jr. superimpose themselves into that classic metaphysical riddle — If A Band Plays In The Woods…— leaving one to ponder, “Does it make a sound?” “Does a band exist if no one hears it?”

The Philistines Jr.'s latest is out now on Tarquin / Yep Roc Records.

Indeed for the last decade, The Philistines Jr. has been only minimally active as it continued to develop in the mind of creator Peter Katis, testing this paradox of perception. Since the band’s ’01 release, Analog Vs. Digital, Katis’ production career has ramped up and up as he’s produced records to much acclaim with Interpol, The National, Tokyo Police Club, Frightened Rabbit and Jónsi among many others.

Work on The Philistines Jr. — Katis’ side-project with his brother Tarquin, Adam Pierce of Mice Parade and a list of collaborator-friends — was relegated to the rare couple of days between non-stop projects.

“The joke is that if you work on a record for three days a year, it takes ten years to make,” says Katis of The Philistines’ latest LP. But don’t mistake the band’s back-seat status for a lack of inspiration. Life’s a tradeoff — some of Katis’ best ideas have no doubt ended up on other band’s records, but he also owes his development as a producer, engineer, arranger and player to those records. The Philistines Jr. is a band that makes music about such facts of life; the facts and the drama of ordinary lives.

If A Band Plays In The Woods tells epic tales of everyday occurrences like engineering records and writing songs, about bus stops and trash in your yard, about kitties and loved ones and loss. Sonically, Katis creates an exciting, unpredictable style of cinematic indie-pop using a unique palette of indie rock instrumentation and synthetic sounds and building in dense arrangements of strings, glockenspiel, analog and digital keyboards, vocal harmonies, feedback, etc.

It’s a world of haunting theremin leads and sci-fi overtures, of Dewanatrons and Swarmatrons — analog synths invented by Philistines collaborators Leon and Brian Dewan — of cello, chimes, toy pianos and distorted guitars.

We’ve been following The Philistines Jr. for awhile now and were excited to speak with Katis about releasing a record several years in the making…

It’s been almost 20 years since you started The Philistines Jr. What’s been the inspiration for this project over the years?

That’s a huge question. Why do people bother making art? Why do people bother being in bands? Are you trying to blow my mind with the first question?

Well, but this band is an on-and-off project for you all these years as you’ve been producing records. So, what do you think keeps you coming back to it? What keeps you doing this band?

Peter and Tarquin Katis... in the zone!

I think this band is really who we are. When you’re young, you struggle to find your own sound and then once you find it, it can be kind of a curse — that’s your sound! Now, no matter what we do, even when we try to be more one thing or more another thing, it always ends up being what the Philistines Jr. is. This is why the album can be recorded in such a disjointed way — so sporadically over 10 years — yet people feel that it still really holds together.

It took me and my brother Tarquin awhile to see The Philistines Jr. as we do now. We used to think the more side projects we had, the better! Bands like The Zambonis, The Happiest Guys in the World, James Kochalka Superstar, The Pork Guys (Tarquin’s fake punk rock band with Moby) ended up diluting our efforts to the point where I think it hurt this band.

And then the final blow was my getting some success as a producer. It was hard to compete with the success I was having as a producer, which actually earned a living for me where the Philistines Jr., like most indie rock bands, was always just a financial drain. So that’s the reason it was shelved. We never wanted to stop doing the band.

How would you say the sound and songwriting has evolved over time? There are some pretty epic instrumental songs on If A Band Plays In The Woods.

Yes and we’ve been doing that since the first record, though I like to think that I’ve just gotten better at recording music, and certainly the performances have improved.

All the other records — even the last one — were completely pre-Pro Tools era. And a lot of that stuff was self-recorded, so if you didn’t have the chops, it wasn’t there. And a lot of the older stuff sounds quite crude in some ways. But at the same time, I think even the very first EP we put out in’91 demonstrated my obsession with the sonics of making music, of combining real sounds with fake sounds.

The second song on that EP, “Reggie Jackson,” is the song that broke big in England. John Peel invited us over there to do a bunch of Peel Sessions, and played that song to death. And “Reggie Jackson” starts with the cheesiest Casiotone drumbeat that then jumps to a real rock drumbeat. It sounds ridiculous, but it was meant to sound ridiculous. I see that now as my first attempt at production.

In your own band, all the creative production decisions are yours! So what is that like, producing these Philistines Jr. songs when you can use the studio however you want? Is it drastically different than what you would do with another band you’re producing?

Late night in the studio. Tarquin Studio, Bridgeport, CT.

Yes and no. I often complain that I’m left with so much of the work in the band, but on the other hand, I do really enjoy that part of the process. When I’m working on The Philistines Jr, I can do all the things I wished bands would do when I’m working with them. Things that some bands do and some don’t. One of those things being that I always have a plan: both a musical plan and a production plan.

And if that plan doesn’t work, I might keep trying new ways to make it work, but at some point I just roll with what is working. And I think that’s the key to good recordings. If you can’t roll with something that was maybe unintended but comes out really good, you’re going to end up disappointed all the time.

So a lot of things on this new Philistines record are quite different from what I intended, but what’s there came out pretty cool and that’s good enough for me.

So you welcome, even embrace, the accidents…

Yes and there are loads of accidents. I’ve also learned over the years that in any type of art, it’s the accidents that are often the most interesting things. That’s not a new idea, but it’s just so, so true. In fact a lot of time when I look at the end result, I think my goodness, my original idea was so trite compared to what this ended up being.

A lot of my plans with the music is to do something much more austere, much more stripped down, but I just find it difficult sometimes to accomplish that, and so I do just keep piling things on. And not all of the songs are meant to be these giant layered productions — sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re not — but I just need to keep working until I arrive at something that I think makes sense.

Seems like your continual work on the Philistines Jr. records would keep you in a very creative mode in the studio. How do you think your work as an artist affects your work as a producer?

Well, I think having been in a band and trying to make records for so many years puts me in a position to empathize with people struggling in the studio because the fact is… it’s really hard. If you’re just sitting in the studio and watching, it doesn’t seem that hard — you may think come on, just get it right.

But the thing is, it’s not easy, it’s always harder than it looks! So that affects my role as a producer, being able to understand how tough it can be, creatively and technically, to nail something, especially when you’re singing. Singing can be so brutal and embarrassing.

And I try to drive that point home really hard with the bands I work with — never be embarrassed in front of me. I’d rather you make a million horrible mistakes and arrive at something good, than play it safe. Play it safe live, don’t play it safe in the studio.

On the other hand, I’ve had so many production ideas for my own music for so many years that I didn’t get to use because I didn’t have time to work on it. I used these ideas on other bands’ records. So my work as a producer is not always a positive for The Philistines records!

But The Philistines Jr. ideas, thematically, are so strong, which I imagine sets you in a unique headspace when you’re working on this stuff. How would you describe the ideas you’re exploring with the band as far as consistent themes and inspiration?

Almost since the beginning, our band seems to be obsessed with itself. We talk about a lot of minutia, about our daily lives. When I was young, I heard the expression write what you know, and I thought that made sense to me.

And so, we really did that. We wrote songs about trying to be a band, about trying to write songs, because that felt real. The title track off of our ’01 album Analog Vs. Digital is about trying to finish writing the song we’re singing. Someone in the press once referred to it as a “meta song.” And on this record, “The Cable Guy,” is about recording other bands. Someone joked that we’re like hip-hop guys the way we talk about ourselves! (laughs)

What was the production process like on this record? You only got a few days here and there to work on it, so were these songs done quickly in those few days, or did you keep coming back and layering more sounds, overdubs, etc.?

No, I do them really fast! I’ve had so little free time, I’ve just worked myself to death at my job, so when I would get the tiny little window of time off, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was go back up in the studio!! So I must have really wanted this, otherwise it would not have happened.

I think not doing it for a bunch of years made me really eager get back to it. And once it started to materialize, and there was an end in sight, I was motivated to try and finish. I still really love doing it. It’s different than making other people’s records. In ways it’s harder and in ways it’s a lot more fun.

But the records are made really fast. A lot of the songs are semi-improvised in the studio and a lot of the performances on the record are actual improvisations. Sometimes I need to fix a note or two or three, or there are lots of takes, but sometimes these are literally first takes of these crazy weird ideas. And it’s really fun. I try to put my money where my mouth is too — I tell bands to loosen up and go crazy, and so I try to do the same.

What about the other band members — how do they participate?

Instrumentally, Tarquin only plays on this record a little, but he plays a significant creative role in the band. He’ll come in to do his background vocals but end up doing wacky things (i.e. singing the wrong thing) and then I realize his wacky things are better than what was there, and this may lead to us rethinking it. I think the record would sound different if it was just my solo record — if Tarquin’s not part of it, I don’t think of it as a Philistines Jr. song.

And Adam Pierce has been our drummer since 1992 though he’s played a more and more diminished role in the studio. I can put together interesting drum parts and percussion, but I’m no drummer in comparison to him. So he plays a bit on this record as well.

So will you guys play some shows? Tour?

Yes, though we’re all a little too busy to do a full-blown tour, circling the country several times. We’re in the midst of trying to put together a really interesting live set and I really hope we do! But the record is the record. Hopefully the live show will be something different. I don’t see it as a test to see if we can pull the record off live.

But we’ll see who’s available and what we can pull together. I’m hoping Rob Schwimmer will be able to participate at least on occasion because there’s really no one else like him in the world if you want his piano and theremin parts.

And tell us about the covers album some of the artists you’ve produced are contributing to… If A Lot Of Bands Play In The Woods

Yes! It’s really cool — I’m asking a bunch of the bands I’ve worked with to do a cover or a remix of a Philistines song for this record we’re going to put out later this year. So far, Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks have done a song each [streaming on Pitchfork]. And we’ll see about the rest, but it’s looking like The National, Jonsi, Mates of State, Tokyo Police Club, Guster, Mercury Rev, Tapes ‘n Tapes, The Mommyheads (one of the first bands I ever produced), Oneida and possibly a few others are going to contribute! Stay tuned…

The Philistines Jr.’s If A Band Plays In The Woods… is out today on Tarquin Records / Yep Rock. Click to order / download. And for more on Peter Katis and The Philistines Jr, visit http://www.tarquinrecords.com.

Chris Zane on Passion Pit, The Walkmen & Awesome Drum Sounds

September 23, 2009 by  

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.

Chris Zane!

Chris Zane!

“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?

Scoop-WalkmenIt’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.

Passion Pit: Michael Angelakos in center.

Passion Pit: Michael Angelakos in center.

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.

Check out Chris’ home-base studio, owned by Gigantic Records, at www.giganticstudio.com. And get in touch with him via www.chris-zane.com.