Bloggers world-round seemed to marvel at the band’s ability to ignite industry interest without Facebook and Myspace – much like the rest of us wonder how we were ever able to meet at a pre-designated time and place before cellphones existed.
(Hint: Being good at what they do and having ties to the industry didn’t hurt.)
At their best, Cults offer simple, unpretentious, catchy pop tunes with a startlingly-retro production sensibility.
It’s a sound that’s novel and familiar at once, playing on the ear like a cross between The Ronnettes and Peter Bjorn and John.
We talked at length with co-producer and engineer Shane Stoneback who used a combination of vintage and modern tools to help the band craft huge, hazy, reverb-drenched mixes to complement their casually-cultivated air of mystery.
“Are you looking for work? Because I just fired somebody 30 minutes ago.”
The man facing Shane Stoneback was a large one, heavy-set and imposing. He carried a sandwich in one hand and a microphone in the other.
Stoneback, who would go on to work with Cults, Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells, F*d Up, and The Magic Kids, told a fateful lie: He said yes.
“Good. I’m going to sit in the lounge and eat this sandwich.’’ The studio manager passed him a Neumann U87 with his other hand. “By the time I come back, have this up so I can hear it in the headphones.”
The year was 1999. Stoneback was on vacation, visiting New York City from Minneapolis where he already had an entry-level job at recording studio.
In what he would later consider “a naïve move,” Stoneback had thumbed through the alphabetical Recording Industry Source Book; making phone calls, hoping to secure a quick tour at one of New York’s flagship studios.
By the time he got to the letter “B”, someone said yes. He found himself in Battery Studios, the home of Jive records, being asked if he wanted a job.
‘This was in their C-room,” says Stoneback. “They had a digital Euphonix console in there. I never would have been able to figure that thing out in time, but I plugged the mic in, and somehow, I heard the headphones click. Whoever used the room before me hadn’t disconnected anything yet! That was it. I got the job and I never came back from vacation.”
If you ask Shane Stoneback about it, he’ll tell you he’s just a lucky guy.
From that encounter, he ended up working for Jive records during its heyday. The experience afforded him what he considers an “amazing pop training,” assisting on sessions with the biggest selling pop-artists of the day: Britney Spears. Backstreet Boys. ‘N Sync.
When Zomba Corporation (and in turn, Jive) was bought out by Sony, their Battery recording studios closed down. Again, Stoneback says he got lucky: He was unemployed for an afternoon. That once sandwich-toting manager had lined him up with a job at a post-production house called Sound One, where he would help veteran film mixers learn their new Pro Tools systems.
But to say it was all luck would discount the 8-hours Stoneback would put in each night after the studio closed up each evening. After hours, he spent his time recording whatever interesting local bands he could find.
“They had a closet full of LA-2A’s and old Neve components – all this stuff that was just kind of old and irrelevant in their work. I got to put some of this stuff into a series of road cases and wheel it all into the studio at night. And they were cool about it, as long as in the morning, the place looked like a post-production room again.”
He’d meet Vampire Weekend through colleague Jeff Curtin (Those Darlins’, Vampire Weekend, Small Black). Sensing they were set to make waves, he “dropped everything” to help them finish their record at Treefort recording, the new Brooklyn studio he had started to build.
That band would go on to receive rave reviews, immense popularity, wide notoriety, and a healthy dose of media backlash. (More on that later.)
From then on, Stoneback was keyed into a world of novel and emerging NYC artists, and into the rolodexes of label executives.
“If you get one legitimate credit under your belt,” says Stoneback ,”it kind of spirals into all these other projects from there.”
When Stoneback met Cults, they already had a sound. Two songs on an internet web page had been all it took to get the right people talking. They called Stoneback, not to reinvent their sound, but to reinforce it.
“Ultimately, we didn’t change much from the original demos,” Stoneback says of the songs that had already made waves.
“We re-recorded one or two things, maybe even tried some new vocals, but in the end it was pretty clear there was some kind of magic about those tracks already.”
“I did go back into the mixes to beef them up a little bit – Just to make them slightly more modern-sounding.”
“As much as there’s this late-50s/early-60s girl-group aesthetic that’s so obvious, a lot of the songs have these almost Outkast-style hip-hop beats underneath them. So I’d add a little bit of low end to each of the mixes, maybe a little more smack to the snare, so they’d have this sort of strange duality of a 50s girl-group with a secret club-banger element going on underneath.”
When listening, it’s easy to imagine the Cults LP as being faithfully captured with vintage equipment and then amped-up with more modern tools. But much of the time it turns out, the opposite approach was at play.
TOOLS, TWEAKS, AND TONES
“I have this old Silvertone amp [model 1472] that’s just beat to sh*t. People call it the ‘TV amp’ because of the way it looks. It’s just a small combo amp with two channels that you can kind of hot-rod together. It’s got a really simple tube circuit and a slightly torn speaker that adds to that kind of broken magic quality. I’ve used it on almost every record I’ve done.”
“That was a big part of the keyboard sounds. A lot of those sounds were coming off of a really modern sounding keyboard – a software version of an FM-synthesizer really. But with that amp, it all came back sounding really vintage and authentic.”
Similarly, vocals were recorded to a DAW through a modern-sounding microphone, then degraded to become an almost-impressionistic exaggeration of an old-school sound.
The team decided early on that, although the albums should ultimately feel more like a collection of songs recorded on different dates with different setups, they’d stick with the main kick and snare sound songwriter and co-producer Brian Oblivion created for their demos. Even when they recorded live drum tracks, they would reinforce them with the kick and snare sounds that had originally come come from a drum machine on Oblivion’s computer.
To sonically warp the voice, drums and instruments, Stoneback used Roland Space Echo extensively – not as a delay, but as a sound-shaping tool.
[For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Space Echo is a vintage effects box that uses a small tape cartridge to deliver delay effects. Some of the later models feature a spring reverb, even chorus. This one did not -Ed.]