The first time I heard Jeremy Enigk's "Return of the Frog Queen" I was absolutely floored. I think it was "Explain" that keyed me into his very idiosyncratic and original vision; the acoustic guitar that opens the song picks an optimistic pattern, a sort of major key Wall-era Pink Floyd riff. But the recording of the guitar is brutal: it's so saturated with tape distortion it sounds like it's eating up the tape. And then the voice, distressed beyond belief (I could almost see the PZM taped to the basement wall), floating along like some spawn of Syd Barret. Enigk's voice follows it's own harmonic logic. He's one of the few singers whose melody lines surprise and puzzle me. And this is before the 41-piece orchestra comes in...
I was so obsessed with this record that I tracked down the engineer, Greg Williamson, and plied him with questions about the recording and production of this art-rock masterpiece. His advice was key in the early gear decisions of my studio, Tiny Telephone. He agreed to record my band (the recently dissolved MK Ultra) and eventually this led to us doing two Sunny Day Real Estate Tours. This record affected my life in so many ways and has influenced many other musicians I know.
Jeremy's approach to recording is refreshing: he places the song over the technical considerations, letting his intuition rule the entire process.
-John Vanderslice (I took the photos too, except the one on this page by Ben Werth.)
Describe your current home set up for recording. Whether it's sketching or for recording ideas or demos or beginnings of songs like a few of the songs that you recorded yourself on Frog Queen.
Frankly, what I have is pretty simple because I don't really like compressors and stuff. I get really confused. I like to get it down as fast as possible and then for the real thing, I'm letting the producer take care of the compression. I have a Fostex DMT8, one of those new hard drive things. It's an 8-track and it's basically what I use and I have my dual cassette and then I have a drum set and a couple of amps laying around. I just try to use that as best that I can. A little bit of the EQ on the actual Fostex.
So that's a console and recorder all in one?
When you were doing sketches for Return of the Frog Queen, what were you using then for your recorder?
I actually have a Tascam 4-track that's totally wasted. It's fallen off the top of an upright piano and it still works. It's a Tascam Porta-5 that I got ten years ago. One song off Frog Queen, "Fallen Heart" is actually recorded directly from that 4-track.
And that sounds really good.
Yeah, it sounds alright and that's the cool thing with an actual tape and analog machine — it records on both sides and you just flip it over and it's backwards.
And what were those sounds that were backwards? We're some of those piano sounds or what?
They were just guitar and vocals. That's all I used. I recorded that song years ago when I first got my 4-track, forwards, obviously. I always would have fun with that song by playing it backwards because it sounds so neat backwards and so that's always how I listened to it. I thought I should try to put forward stuff over this because I knew the Beatles had done that and I should mess around, but that I should be careful because it's an old recording. I didn't really want to destroy.it So I flipped the tape over backwards and figured out what track went to what track. Then I put forward vocals and a new bass line over the backwards guitar and vocals that were there and it ended being pretty cool.
One thing that struck me the first time that I heard Return of the Frog Queen, was "Explain", and it was the saturated, distorted sound of the acoustic guitar that opens it and your vocals when they come in and I had never heard anything that sounded like that. I thought, and I still do, that it was the most original recordings out there. Where did you record "Explain"? Was that one from Bobcat?
No, "Explain" was done at Greg Williamson's [Enigk manager who recorded and engineered Return of the Frog Queen and How it Feels to be Something On So that was done and you guys were just hitting levels really hard, and that's just part of that sound.
So that was done and you guys were just hitting levels really hard, and that's just part of that sound.
I think that's Greg's whole thing. He loves to push it right before it distorts or right when it starts distorting. And that was done on a 4-track because it was originally going to be for single so we thought, we'd do it on a 4-track and save money.. But we really liked it and wanted to make it a serious song.
At that time you were doing a lot of your vocals on the Realistic PZM mic.
Mainly, except for a few songs on Frog Queen that we didn't use that mic on.
But generally that was your mic and even on the new album you have one song on there. Which song on that did you use the PZM or which songs did you use?
On How it Feels to be Something On, we used the PZM. I remember singing up against the wall because Greg would mount the PZM there . I'm not fully sure if we used a PZM on that album, because what, I think, we used mainly, was a Neumann U 47.
What do you like about the PZM?
It's totally smooth.
I think it's a phenomenal microphone. I just modified one myself and it's justifiably a famous mic and it's amazing that they discontinued making it.
The new one is not even comparable to the first one. It's got a really nice smooth high-end to it too, but yet you can get the lows It's really versatile, you can have a lower end if you mount it on a piece of wood. But if you just hold it, it's more of a high-end type of thing. So you can physically change the sound of it without ever touching the EQ in the first place.
Because if you mount it, isn't it picking up the resonation of whatever is touching the wood.
It also picks up everything in a circle, like a dome. What I like to do whenever I do my rough demos at home (I only use a PZM, unless I'm doing drums and multiple things), but first if I'm playing acoustic guitar I always put it on my right knee and then I'm doing vocal and acoustic and just kind of bend my head down and I sing into the mic and it mixes it nicely. There's nothing that's too loud or too quiet. For the drums it's unbelievable. I put it either over and a little bit in front of the tom or the cymbals, like hang it over it or put it right in front of the kick drum and it picks up the whole set. Just one mic on the drums. It sounds fine for demos and in fact I've had really good drum sounds.
Speaking of drums, you played drums on the songs "Return of the Frog Queen" and "Lizard". Did you put down a click? When did you record the drums in the scheme of things?
I always record the drums after the music and rarely did we use a click. I play drums on every song that has drums on it except for "Abigail" which William plays on. I don't know why I asked him to do them on that song. I think it would have been good if he would have come in on some of the other songs but, basically, that kind of made it have that raw sloppiness about it. Because there's no click for the most part, and it's more of take after take because I'm not a drummer and I can't nail it. In one case, on the song "Carnival", we recorded a drum track and it was a great drum track soulfully, but there were a few gnarly misses on the kick drum and various offbeats and stuff. So we recorded another drum track over it so there's two existing drum tracks on that song and it kind of covers up some of the mistakes. They kind of cancel each other out, or help each other out, rather.
The vocal sound that you seem to like in a lot of your recordings is a very close, direct vocal sound and there's very few effects. Is that how you like them? Just to hear the vocals, straight ahead?
Not really. That's just the way that it has happened. The people that have produced the albums, they probably like it that way. But I really want to go more into effects, not too much, but I want to be able to do really big stuff. Like big room sounds, but I think for some reason people like to mic me up close. when I demo stuff, it's a lot different. The music is generally a little bit more up front and the vocals are more spacy when I record it.
The intervals of the harmonies are so surprising and original like on "Lizard" and "Return of the Frog Queen". How did you write these? Did you sketch them out on a 4-track or did you do it in the studio?
It all kind of comes whenever. I usually write a guitar line first, not a whole song, but just something that makes me wanna sing and the melody pretty much comes right away after I have something to sing to. It's always gibberish, I'm never singing lyrics, but the melody is pretty solid and then I move the lyrics into it after I have an established melody line. On Frog Queen, there wasn't a song on there that I made up the melody in the studio. Everything had been written years before, some recently. For How it Feels to be Something On, I think that there were three or four songs that I came up with the melody to in the studio. Because Sunny Day works a little bit faster and I don't really have time that I would have normally with my solo work to come up with the melodies. But as far as harmonies, I'm really poor at harmonizing, and I think that kind of basic, obvious harmony, I don't really have a deep understanding of that. So I don't have that core kind of feeling, so a lot of the harmonies are kind of weird sometimes. Some are appropriate and some are weird.
As far as the layering with the orchestral instruments and the strings, you worked with Mark Nichols. How did you write them? After the fact? At some points I know that you had something like 48 tracks going on and you were slaving ADATs and it was just a wealth of melodic ideas.
Ultimately, I would go to Mark with my basic concept and he didn't understand where I was coming from until I mentioned the Gary Numan sound that I was after. Mark is brilliant and unbelievable. He really made that thing work, but there were many different songs, for example, "Call Me Steam". Where I would actually sing the string idea and the flute idea to him and he would just write it out because I didn't know how to read and write music at the time. He would always write an underlying support to it that way that it would work. He made the magic, I just had a few ideas here and there.
How did you feel about going from project studios in basements into Bob Lang Studio where you recorded your last record. It's 48 track, API console, they've got great mics, a nice live room and I was blown away when I saw his studio.
It's a great sounding main room. For me it's almost like home. It's totally natural because the first time I was in a studio I would say I was uncomfortable, I wasn't singing on key because I wasn't used to the vocals coming out of my ears. But after that first recording with Sunny Day, Diary, which was really the first time, truly being in a studio, I think that going to the studio has always been like going home. It's just a bigger, more option type of place. Lang's had this weird vibe. When I first went there I was creeped out a little bit because I felt there was a kind of ghost type of presence in there and some weird stuff has gone on in there from the past. It creeped me out and it's a dark place, but in a really positive way. Only good things have come out of there.
It seems to be built out of the side of a mountain. It's like a cave just walking in there.
It was like the bat cave or something. But it's a great place as far as the vibe and the creative energy that's floating around. There's a piano in there and anytime there's a piano for me to just be able to jam on that makes me feel better about any other thing I'm doing whether it be singing, guitar or whatever.
I remember the first time you came to Tiny Telephone you sat down on the piano and played "Imagine". That was great.
That was fun. You were showing us your studio and Joe and I didn't get past the keyboard room. It was just like, "Oh, cool studio."
Getting back to your own situation at your house. Do you miss hitting tape or do you prefer the convenience and the quickness of using hard disk recording?
I prefer tape. I like the hard disk, but there's one thing I don't like about it and that's the fact that you have to erase everything that you've recorded on the hard disk and you have to download it to a DAT machine or to Jaz drives, but that takes a little time. I have an hour of time on mine and I have to go through each song's mix and whatever to get it down on there or whatever. I'm not too familiar with it. I'm used to tape and having that tape forever and being able to go back and mix it any time you want just by popping it in.
And it's physical. It exists, it's there.
And it's analog. You have the option of the backwards thing. I don't think it works like that, I don't think you can play it backwards.
No you can't unless you have a ProTools set up.
But I think for an actual technical, if you're gonna be really into punching and then doing that kind of stuff it's amazing. It's better in that way because I think you can do the editing stuff you can chop your song apart and rewrite it kind of like ProTools, but not as good, but you can look at it. You can hear it, and look at it. You can't look at it like on ProTools. But you can hear the frequencies and just slowly move it to the point where you want to punch in and you can set the time on when you want it just to punch in; so you can do it by yourself. It's really good for the technical stuff, but that's nothing I really use. I just like to do it over if I screw up.
What are your plans for the next recording and what direction do you want to go sonically?
We don't really know when we're going to record because we're not on a label. I think the band really wants to do something a lot more polished and produced. We come from punk rock, kind of raw type of thing. Our last album is excellent, but very linear. Every song has the same thing going on with it. The same recording. I definitely want to get out of that and I want to go more into a brilliant, bright recording that's very versatile.
You want to integrate strings again and keyboards and piano?
Definitely! We want to go more into that. Instead of how we've done it in the past, bringing my songs to the band and then everybody doing their instrument and jamming and it's all heavy and whatever, I want to bring the songs to the band the way that I originally recorded them and perform them that way and get the band to mold themselves into that, but obviously do what they need to do and what makes them happy, but try that direction a little bit more. I'm tired of us just doing our parts and we record it and it's done. I don't want to do it that way anymore.
That's true. It does make it linear because you're guaranteed two guitars, bass and drums. That's what everyone does.
This is our first album back so we weren't ready to take a major dive into that, but talking to Dan, he's agreed with me and he's into starting to open it up a little bit and William has actually expressed concern to me how he doesn't know what he's gonna do because the way I write some of my songs the drums aren't really about power and sometimes there's no drums and yet of course, he's gonna be in there. I think it's really gonna open his eyes to a whole new way of doing it.