In July of 2010, my band Grandfather recorded its debut album, Why I’d Try, with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, in Chicago. It was a defining experience for us [documented here on SonicScoop.] The album gave us perspective on our music and solidified our ideas about recording and releasing music independently.
After a lineup change and a year of touring, we began writing our second album, In Human Form. This is the story of how it all came together.
THE DEMO TAPE
Inspired by the Albini sessions, I bought an old Otari MX5050 8 track reel-to-reel, and started learning tape. Tyler, our new bass player and I combined our studio gear and built a mobile, all-analog recording rig.
In February 2012, we recorded a demo tape of six new songs and passed them around. The demos caught the ear of producer, Alex Newport, who happened to be the perfect fit for us to accomplish our goals on our second album.
The idea behind our first album was to record the band live with minimal overdubs, and to do it quickly and inexpensively. Albini was the perfect fit for this no-frills approach; we managed to record and mix an album in three days and release it by the end of the week.
On this album, we wanted to craft a more deliberate sonic-space for our songs, while retaining the sound and energy of our live performance. We also wanted to work with a producer who would be more hands-on in our development.
Alex fit the mold. First and foremost, we loved his work. We thought the drum sound on The Locust albums he produced was incredible. We also had a lot of respect for his role in the development of one of our favorite bands, The Mars Volta.
Alex and I spoke on the phone while we were on tour in Nashville. He explained that he was committed to capturing inspired performances, relying primarily on analog recording and mixing methods. His goal as a producer was to get the sound and performance right at the source, rather than edit and manipulate it in post-production.
He also said that he would be there to extract the best version of us, rather than try to alter our vision or turn us into something we’re not. The conversation flowed freely and I instinctively knew he was right for the job.
By April, we settled on a plan and a budget. We scheduled six days of pre-production, seven days of tracking at The Magic Shop in NYC and about two weeks at Alex’s personal mix/overdub room, Future Shock Studio, for December. With eight months ahead of us, we began to think about how to pull it off.
We wanted to completely devote ourselves to the writing process. Sharing a lockout with other bands would have made it impossible to spend the kind of time we felt was necessary to do our best work. We wanted to be able to write whenever we felt inspired, and practice everyday leading up to the sessions.
Determined to make the album a reality on our own terms, we also had to find a way to save money to afford the studio costs. This would have been impossible if we had to pay rent on a private lockout in addition to separate apartments.
LIVING UNDER THE RADAR
We decided to look for a space where we could live together and practice around-the-clock. After viewing a couple of apartments with basements, we realized there was no way we’d get away with practicing in a residential neighborhood; we’re just too loud.
We figured out that the only way to pull it off was to find an industrial-zoned space. Through Craigslist, we found an abandoned office space, on top of an art-shipping warehouse on the outskirts of Greenpoint. There were six “offices”, which provided us with enough space to each have our own room, plus a practice/demo studio. The landlord ensured us that we could practice there 24/7 without any noise complaints. The rent was also dirt-cheap.
The space was perfect, except for one thing…technically, you’re not allowed to live in a commercial space. Regardless, we decided to take it and live there under the radar.
Unfortunately, all of our attempts to make the space livable failed. We built a makeshift shower, though it had to be removed when it began leaking on the tenants below. Our kitchen consisted of a hotplate and a microwave. Beds were exchanged for couches to hide the fact that we were living there. We devised a way to hide our belongings in the event that an authority showed up.
At times, the living situation drove us insane, though it forced us to escape into our music. The daily struggle was a constant source of inspiration.
We wired up our practice space to record every session, and spent the next five months manically writing, gathering hundreds of hours of music. We’d play at night, and sort through the recordings during the day. The easy access to our gear enabled us to work freely. We ended up demoing the entire album twice before pre-production, which allowed us to make sure all of our creative decisions actually worked the way we envisioned them in our heads.
We began pre-production in November. Alex decided to do two days with us at the beginning of the month, and another four days at the end of the month right before entering the studio.
The first two days were spent zooming in to our songs. Alex made suggestions to try out, including some changes to the arrangements and tempos. We asked Alex questions that we were debating amongst ourselves, and he asked us questions about our music that we hadn’t yet considered.
Following those sessions, we had three weeks to solidify our music and run the entire album everyday, before resuming with Alex at the end of the month. While we made some last minute adjustments to our music during the final four days of pre-production, they served more as a way for us all to get on the same wavelength and into the mindset of making a record.
On December 4th, we entered The Magic Shop .We began working immediately, stringing guitars, changing drumheads and setting up our gear while Alex and his assistant set up mics. The amps were placed in isolation rooms and the drums were set up in the middle of the live room.
The majority of the first day was spent dialing in sounds and figuring out how to get the most out of the space. We decided to play live as a band with a focus on capturing the drum tracks, and overdub bass, guitar and vocals later. In actuality, this approach let us capture more of the live energy than trying to track the entire band together with the intention of keeping everyone’s performance. Since Tyler, Josh and I knew we were going to redo most of our parts, we could play with intensity and not worry about making obvious mistakes.
If we played something phenomenally, we’d still have the option to keep it, though Phil was the only one under the microscope during the first 2 days of tracking.
This is when we began to truly understand the nature of Alex’s relentless pursuit of quality and attention to detail. Since he wasn’t going to chop things up, edit or quantize anything in post, he pushed Phil to get metronome like precision take after take. He also brought a couple of different snare drums, swapping them out for each song based on its sound and tempo.