Here Photo: At The Old Western waiting for the rest of the musicians...
Luke Temple wears several masks and many hats. Since 2005 he has released five solo records under his own name, four as Here We Go Magic, and his latest release, Blast Off Through the Wicker, under the moniker "Art Feynman." He is an engineer, songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer – with the exception of working with Nigel Godrich on Here We Go Magic's A Different Ship. Each of his records have a presentation unique unto themselves, but one thing remains a constant: Luke's instantly recognizable voice, engaging lyrics, and always interesting production.
I've been a fan of Here We Go Magic and your solo records. When I was sent your new record, it was by Art Feynman. Why did you decide to go with that moniker for this record?
The name popped into my head. It's a funny play on fine art. Also, I was obsessed with Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist. His whole character was pretty funny. He was a scientist, but also this bongo-playing ladies' man and part-time artist. To me, the music seems like that ‘60s version of sci-fi, or something. Also, it's probably a nod to [producer/musician] Arthur Russell, to some degree. It was a way of reinventing myself, as well as thinking in terms of a character rather than myself. That can be liberating.
Is it freeing to not have to be Luke Temple, or Here We Go Magic?
If you create a little narrative for a character, it gives you more freedom in ways that you wouldn't normally allow yourself. Writing as Luke Temple, there's pressure I put on myself to be as personal as I can in sharing my story. If I think in terms of another character, it frees me from that. In the end, I'm expressing the same thing; but sometimes it's easier if it becomes less subjective and more objective. I had just made a Luke Temple record [A Hand Through the Cellar Door] that was the most deeply personal record I've made. This was a way of cleansing my palate and getting back into more of a humorist thing. I don't really think about this very in-depth. It's a way of sometimes tricking myself into going into new territory. Luke Temple could be anything I want it to be, and Here We Go Magic could be anything as well. I'm pretty mercurial, and creating a new moniker was a way of fitting this other side of myself into a little package that made sense, rather than confusing the situation even more.
Did it start with the concept, or did you write a bunch of music and think, "Oh, this would be fun to package in a certain way?"
Yeah, it started with the music. I did it mostly on 4-track. That's my go to for demoing. I guess I was in a liminal state; demoing ideas before I was going to go into a studio and record it "properly." It had such a vibe on its own that I decided it would probably be better if I decided that was going to be the record. I was doing a lot with pitch-shifting my vocal and it seemed a new character was emerging, so then the name came after.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what gear you used to make the record? You talked about a 4-track. Which machine were you using? A Tascam Portastudio?
Yeah, the 424mkIII. It was the last series of cassette 4-tracks that Tascam made. It's my favorite, because it has four individual outs. I do a loop between the 4-track and Pro Tools; I can record on the 4-track, and then I can dump those individually out into four tracks on Pro Tools and get a mix together. Then I dump it back to 2-tracks, to have the stereo back on the 4-track, and then I have two tracks to do more overdubs. I can keep doing that.
So you were tracking, dubbing it into Pro Tools, doing a submix of those tracks to stereo, spitting that back onto two tracks, and then continuing that process?
Yeah, correct. I would usually start with a groove. Another aspect of what Art Feynman is that I didn't come to it with songs. I would usually start with a bass line or groove. I'd record that for seven minutes, and then I'd put it into Pro Tools and edit it together to get a loose outline of a song. Then I'd go from there and dump it back into the 4-track.
So why not do it in Pro Tools?
It's a sonic thing; the 4-track has a sound. The grain and the presence of it has a different quality than recording into Pro Tools. The pitch wheel is a big thing. I suppose you could do that in the computer. If I had Ableton [Live] I could do more varispeed [processing]. But I don't have that capability in my Pro Tools rig. I was doing a lot with the pitch wheel.
Did you limit the palette of instruments that you used on it? I hear some synths, and some drum machine.
There's actually no drum machine.
Yeah. Those are all played drums. I would do some looping. I would record the drums – usually at slow speed and speed them up. It really tightened them up and gave them that "drum machine" sound, but it's all played. I'm glad people think it's a drum machine.
Did you put some limitations on yourself in terms of track counts, or did you go wild and use the 4-track for the sound?
There are limitations inherently with working on 4-track, even though I do that bouncing. At a certain point, it starts to lose some sonic clarity the more you go back and forth. Especially if you bus on the 4-track. I'm also limited, via the fact that I only have a certain amount of instruments. I have two synths, drums, bass, and guitar. I was pretty conscious of keeping no more than a few voices going on. Originally I was thinking it was only going to be maybe one melodic element, vocal, bass, and drums, and then never anything more. But I ended up adding more in the end. I was definitely conscious of keeping a lot of space. I didn't really compose anything. I would jam with myself; I would find the little bits that seemed to work, and I would edit it together. Then I'd overdub a little bit over it, so it seemed more composed. It was more capturing chaos and making something out of it.
What got you initially interested in the recording aspect of music making?
It's something I've been doing for a long time. I have a pretty simple little rig that I've slowly been adding to over the years. I've always recorded myself, and the first [self-titled] Here We Go Magic record I recorded on that same 4-track. The last Here We Go Magic record, Be Small, I recorded myself also. It wasn't on 4-track; it was into Pro Tools. I feel I've been getting more adept at recording myself; I realize that there's a certain sound I can get when I work with myself that I can't get in a studio. I'm feeling more confident in that. Especially mixing. I felt pretty confident for a while about recording myself, but, in terms of mixing, I felt it was some dark art that I didn't really understand. This record was the first time that I decided mixing is just about my ears. It's about if it sounds good or not. There's no real secret to it. There are so many records that I love that have the craziest sounding mixes. There's no reason why I can't do it myself. It was a way of stepping off the cliff and deciding that if I'm going to create a full world in the way that I want it to sound, then I have to do it myself. I'm moving more in that direction, as time goes on. Even since recording that record, I've been recording a bunch. I'm always recording, and I feel I'm developing my own language with it. That's a really exciting and liberating feeling to me, because it means I actually don't have to be beholden to anybody else. If I'm going to get the sound I want, I need to do it myself.
Are you using basic microphones? Are you a Shure SM57 guy, or do you have more high end mics you're using?
No. I have an [Electro-Voice] RE20 that I use for everything, a 57, and I also have a little Shure condenser that I don't use very much. Basically that whole record was RE20, and a lot was direct.
What are you using for preamps?
I have a Golden Age Project PRE-73, which is a knockoff of the Neve 1073. I use a dbx 160A compressor, a Roland Space Echo, and that's it. I also have some plug-ins in Pro Tools that I use.
The record certainly doesn't sound lo-fi. People have the sense that a 4-track and a $100 mic are inherently going to sound lo-fi or demo-y. Blast Off Through the Wicker is very interesting sonically, but certainly not a lo-fi sounding record.
I'm glad to hear you say that. I have my little moves. I understand how to mix my voice at this point, and I understand how I like to mix drums and bass. [I like] the basic foundations. I don't know that I could necessarily jump into a big studio and be able to make it sing in the same way. I understand my rig, because I've had it for so long. Working on the 4-track as a way to track, and then facilitating it through Pro Tools, really helps to keep that clarity. I don't do a lot of bouncing on the 4-track. That's where it starts to get really muddy and "lo-fi" sounding, because the tape can only take so much sound. As far as the 4-track is concerned, it's only ever getting four clean tracks.
On Here We Go Magic's A Different Ship you worked with producer Nigel Godrich.
Long before we ever met him, we had finished our second LP with Here We Go Magic called Pigeons. We did it ourselves. I was happy with that record, but I was listening to it and thinking there was a certain spaciousness and a sonic quality that we didn't get that I don't think any of us really understood how to achieve. We'd all been in studios in the past, to various degrees. That's partly why we decided to record it ourselves. We wanted that freedom. After listening to it, I thought this music could stand to be really produced. I had worked with producers in the past, and I didn't really enjoy it. I was thinking, "What producers would I want to work with that get that more hi-fi sound, but also have a soulfulness or an idiosyncratic sound?" The two people that I thought of were Brian Eno [Tape Op #85] and Nigel Godrich. But I felt so far removed from those guys. I didn't know how I would ever get in touch with them, or if they would even be interested. It turned out that Jen [Turner], the bassist in our band, had some encounter with Nigel Godrich. I asked her if she could get our recordings to him. It was too uncomfortable for her to do that, for whatever reason, so I dropped it. Six months went by; we were touring that record and playing at the Glastonbury Festival. We got there the day before to pick up our wristbands, and then we decided we were all going to stay there for the night. We didn't even have tents or anything. The drummer, Pete [Hale], and I ended up sleeping on this really steep hill. We woke up with the sun beating down on us, and we had 15 minutes to get to our stage because we were playing early in the morning. We got to the stage right in time for our set. I was feeling hung over, and a little bummed about our slot. Glastonbury's a nighttime thing, and we were playing at 11 in the morning. It was either people still up from the night before wobbling on their feet or families checking us out. I noticed there were two guys in front that were really into [our set]. On closer inspection, I realized it was Thom Yorke and some guy. They came backstage and were talking to us after the set. It turns out the other guy was Nigel Godrich. We talked for a little bit. It was pretty uncanny that I had had that thought about him earlier that year, and then we met him. We ended up playing in London, opening up for Broken Social Scene, and it turned out that Nigel was good friends with Kevin [Drew], the singer. So he showed up again at the next show, and we got to hang out with him more. He really liked the set. Then, when we were playing in Paris, and he turned up again at that concert. It seemed he was really interested. After that show, he said, "I'd love to record you guys." It was totally weird. It felt I had manifested it or something - it was pretty cosmic. We ended up making that record a year later.
How was that for you, as somebody who's held the reins of your music and been in control of recording and production?
I had implicit trust in him. The second he set everything up and we started to record, it sounded amazing. You wonder about these people. Like if their reputation precedes them, or if the story around them is more grandiose than their actual ability. But he is really worth everything that's said about him. He's a total wizard. It sounds as good as it sounds when the record comes out on the first take. The first time you sit in the control room and listen to it, it sounds that good. He basically mixes as he's going. There wasn't much to argue with. The session was a little stilted, only because I had put him on such a pedestal. I was really nervous and felt it was my one shot or something. I had put all this pressure on myself. We had almost a year before we recorded with him, so I was feverishly writing songs with all this pressure in my mind. I don't think it was my best work. The first session we had with him was in L.A., and I realized after listening to that first session - and all those songs - that it really wasn't happening. That was originally our only session. I was like, "Well, that was a failure," but he realized what was going on. He got back in touch with us, and said, "We should book another session at my studio in London now that we've gotten to know each other a little bit better." The bulk of that record was made in London. At that point, we were friends, and we were more equal partners in the process. I basically wrote that record in the studio - I didn't have anything prepared for the second session. We kept only two of the songs from the original session.
What was Nigel bringing to the session that brought out the best in the music?
He works really fast. Part of what I don't like about working in the studio is that it's a lot of waiting. You spend a day getting drum sounds. You go in there really eager and fresh, and you want to start. It's a day to get drum sounds, and then half a day to get a bass sound. By the time you get started recording, you're at half-mast. But with Nigel it's like everything was set up immediately, so the second we had an inspiration for something, it was ready to go. If we wanted to change anything, or he needed to set up a new microphone, he did it so quickly. He's an amazing enabler for an artist to stay inspired. That's his greatest strength. Also, he was constantly recording everything, and we didn't realize that. He had this archive of all these weird, in-between sounds of us talking, noodling on synths, or whatever. At the end, when he mixed, he had that library of all these sounds that he manipulated and would weave in and out of the songs, which was amazing. I didn't realize he was doing that.
That must have given you pretty good confidence, in terms of moving forward.
Well, yeah. One thing I learned from him is not to be too precious. There's not a ton of secrets there. He's got an amazing studio; he has a Fairchild and some gear that not everybody has, but there're no real big secrets. He has a really good ear. If I had an idea to do a vocal part, but I was tracking the guitar, he would move whatever mic was close by for me to sing my idea. It wasn't like we had to break down everything and go, "Okay, now we're going to do vocals. We have to set up a vocal situation properly, get our [Neumann] U 48, and isolate." He's really mutable. He'd use whatever was around and capture takes really quickly. I took that from those sessions; to realize that I know that if the inspiration is there I can record something that sounds good. I don't need to be too precious, or wait for the situation to be perfect before I can do it or get the "right" microphone. That's what I took from it the most.
Yeah, that's important. Preparation, as well as not being precious, is undervalued and underrated.
We come in and have an idealized idea of what we want it to sound like. That's a good springboard, but then we have to be open for it to become what it's going to become. I like to think about how you have to leave the window open to let the world come into it.A lot of times those random things that fly into the window are going to be the best parts of the record. We have to leave that open-ended aspect of it there.
How do you reconcile outside contributions to your music?
My workflow feels more comfortable solo for the last few years, for whatever reason. There's also a part of me that really loves playing with other people, and I'm open to that in the future. There are certain things that I do to trick myself into fresh, surprising ideas. If I know what the key of the song is, and I have a tempo, I'll record a bass line, but I won't listen to any of the other tracks. I'll know what key it is in and what tempo it is in. I'll play completely random with the tempo and knowing what the key is. When I go back, unmute everything, and listen to it, a lot of it won't work but then there will be these crazy ideas; these crazy things that will happen sonically that I wouldn't have been able to come up with if I sat there and thought about it, or tried to arrange it consciously. When you work by yourself, you have to trick yourself into that. I'll do random edits in Pro Tools, for instance, where I'll record a bunch. Then I'll visually start to chop something up, completely randomly. It's on a grid, so it'll be in rhythm. With a 4-track it's a bit more complicated, because it's not to a grid. But I'll randomly chop sounds up and then sit back and listen. Then new ideas will emerge, and I'll take it from there and let that spin off into a new direction. In that way, it sounds like someone else came in and did something that I never would have thought of.
How much of that ends up making the record?
You'd be surprised. A lot of the Art Feynman record is that. But most of those songs are very linear. It's in one key, and they're not very modal. There's one song called "I Rain You Thunder." It's an instrumental track on that record. I don't know if it's good to let all my secrets out of the bag, but it's fun to talk about. I improvised organ over the whole song before any of the other tracks were on there. I then built the song around that. There were these totally improvised organ lines that I re-learned on guitar so that I could double it. I doubled those melodies so it would sound composed. But it started with pure improv; something that would have taken forever for me to sit and write.Some of it was more composed, but a lot of the rhythmic parts were done completely randomly. I would build the song around that. Even if there's one element that's random; that one wild card in there gives it that fresh air.
I look forward to going back and listening to the record with our conversation in mind.
There's another track, "Party Line," which is a ballad. It was the first pass on the bass, and I didn't really understand the song. There were completely different chords underneath it, and I was freestyling on the bass. There was a lot of dissonance, because I was hitting all these wrong notes. It turned out that I enjoyed the bass part I did on its own, so I got rid of the original chords and just used the bass line. I wrote everything around that bass line, and the vocal. The whole song took a complete hard right turn based on a mistake, and a new song emerged from it.
It sounds like the studio definitely influences your writing, as opposed to you writing some songs sitting on your bed and going to the studio to record them.
For this record for sure. But the solo record I put out before this, A Hand Through the Cellar Door, those were songs that were totally written before we went into the studio. They couldn't really have been done any other way. I do both. Now I'm actually getting back to the old way of trying to write good songs and record them. But I want to bring in some of that random arrangement technique into it. I'm trying to marry the two.
Part 2: Plays Well With Others
After Geoff did this interview Luke was in my studio, Panoramic House, a few times, producing and engineering other artists, including Malcolm Perkins, Teeny (TEEN, Nancy Feast), Scotty Fetzer, and Adrianne Lenker (of Big Thief). I recently got a chance to sit down with him in his new home studio space in Inverness, California, and ask him about working with other artists. -JB
What do you feel you bring to a session as a producer or engineer?
I'm more in the producer role than an engineer. For example, Nigel Godrich is really an engineer, and he also has really good suggestions in terms of how to deal with the economics of songs. My strong suit is more of a musical contribution; being able to offer perspective to an artist. If something needs to be shook up and viewed from a completely different angle, or if the artist is stuck on something, that's the standard producer role – to give perspective. I think that's my greatest strength. I'm really good at thinking about things from completely different angles. I'm really good at not being precious. I like to stay fresh in the process. I'm not best suited for someone who comes in with very defined demos and wants to color by numbers, recreate something they've already done, or wants to sound like somebody else. That's not my best role. I like to use the studio as a tool.
When you were working with Adrianne Lenker and you had Gabe Wax engineering, how did that dynamic work between the three of you?
It was really pretty effortless. Before we started, Adrianne and I had some discussions about the sort of sound that we wanted, which was a fully dimensional sound with an acoustic guitar. Gabe intuitively set up some microphones to capture what I was trying to express. He also had his own ideas. I think there's a lot of blurry lines in the studio when there's a producer, an engineer, and an artist. Everyone's trying to wear all the hats, to some degree. With Adrianne, it's pretty clear what's going to convey her music the strongest. It's so clear how strong her work is. If you're somewhat intelligent and sensitive, you'll understand what needs to be done. It's not something you have to communicate with somebody else. Me and Gabe were naturally on the same page about that with her.
Did that record stay pretty stripped-down?
No, we did some subtle overdubs. Some of the coolest were some synth overdubs with her playing. She's not really that familiar with keyboard instruments, let alone a synth. She was playing your [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 600, noodling around, and we were spinning the knobs. She was going on instinct. We did a bunch of different playlists of her noodling; then we'd edit it together to create this ethereal synth track that almost sounds like the overtones that the acoustic guitar was generating. It was cool that she played that and didn't really know what she was doing. Gabe and I were trying as well, but it wasn't really working. It needed that more instinctual touch to happen.
Did you end up with drums or bass on any tracks?
There's bass on one track, and there's some hand drums on a track. We did some muted conga. Then there's an arpeggio that we have on one song.
Did you end up playing on the record at all?
I played some bass, some piano, the hand drums, and I think I played some synth.
Is it typical when you're working as a producer to also end up playing a bit on peoples' records?
Yeah, if they want me to play on it.
You did all the engineering yourself on your sessions with Teeny and Scotty. But with Malcolm Perkins' and Adrienne's sessions, you brought in an engineer. How do you decide if you're going to engineer it yourself or bring in another engineer?
I think if there's a budget to have an engineer, I'd rather have an engineer.
It's really more financial than anything else?
I guess so. I can engineer fine, but having to hold all of that information in my head when I'm engineering is something that I'd rather not have to deal with when producing.
Are you more comfortable letting someone else engineer?
Yeah, if it's someone that I'm comfortable with. I would love to work with Gabe on every project, because I know him so well and he knows me. We have this simpatico with each other. Engineers aren't just engineers; they bring their whole person into a project. They'll have their intuitive, instinctual ideas. It doesn't always work. I would rather do it myself if I'm not sure about an engineer. But if it's recording a band and there are a lot of inputs, it starts to get too much to have to think about both at once.
Do you ever find yourself wanting to push the engineer out of the way and do it yourself?
I don't really typically feel like I need to do that with Gabe. I've had that experience before with other engineers. But also, I try to stay open. I have ideas about how I like everything to sound, but I don't think it's that complicated. I don't think you need to try to troubleshoot forever to get the perfect sound. I like to move quickly. If someone's being too fussy, and the flow is stilted because of that, then I'll butt in. But with Gabe, he works so fast and he's right on that same page, so it's no problem.