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.