Around five years ago I went to see Low [Tape Op #31] play in Portland, and their opening act was a guy with a guitar who had a unique singing style. At first, I sort of tuned him out, but within minutes both myself and a friend of mine turned to each other and said, "This is the real thing." We weren't the only ones to notice – the entire audience stood captivated by his performance. It's hard to explain what makes one artist instantly compelling over another. I mean, how many people have we seen get onstage with an acoustic guitar? But when someone has crafted songs as compelling as Andy Shauf's, it is a cut above – the whole club shuts the fuck up and listens.
Andy's new album is The Neon Skyline. He played it all, recorded it, and he did one hell of a fine job.
How were you recording music early on?
Sound Recorder was a little built-in PC app with a record button, and you could go for 30 seconds. In high school, I'd mess around with it and say swear words backwards. I was like, "Oh, I could record my own music with this, because we have a CD burner." I got Cool Edit Pro, a free version that had three tracks. I got my friend to make me an XLR-to-1/8-inch cable so that I could plug straight into the mic input.
So, you could put a real mic into the computer?
Yeah, a [Shure SM]58. It was three tracks, so I would record on the first one and the second one, bounce to the third, and keep moving that way. When I graduated high school, my parents bought me a Yamaha MG06; a little mixing board with four channels. I'd record that straight into my [computer's] sound card. I was figuring things out.
Were you recording drums and different instruments as well?
Yep. I would take my mic and point it roughly at the drum kit or piano. I had no idea what I was doing.
Your parents were musicians, right?
Yeah. When I was a kid, we ran a Radio Shack store and the distributor [carried] music gear too. We had lessons and they sold guitars. I had a drum set, a bass guitar, an electric guitar, and an acoustic guitar.
And the piano was there?
Yeah. It was great.
Had you studied different instruments when you were young?
I figured them out. I played drums when I was young. I took lessons eventually, for drums, in high school. But that was it.
It's all just a bunch of buttons!
Have you gone back and listened to any of those recordings?
No. I have a friend who has a bunch of them on his iPod. There are people with those CDs. The summer before grade 12 I made a record at home that I sold to classmates all year. That was how I had any money to do anything.
Yeah. I sold quite a few. It was great. Somebody's probably out there holding onto one. They're going to blackmail me with it later! [laughter] After that, [I recorded] Love and the Memories of It. That was around 2006; I would have been 19. I had a little setup in my parents' basement for a long time. It's a Yamaha mixer straight into the mic input on the sound card. For Grandpa Songs, I got this old Minerva guitar from my grandma. It was my grandpa's guitar from the Ô30s. It sounded crazy, and it was tuned way down to C because of the neck tension. You could only play at the bottom [of the neck]. I did that one in an apartment, or my parents' basement.
Were these still self-released?
Those I sold. For Love and the Memories of It and Grandpa Songs, I would burn the CD-Rs, fold a piece of paper, and staple it. I would have shows coming up, and I'd have to say, "Mom, I blew it. I have a show tomorrow, and I need to make 50 CDs." She would help me. There was a point where I was also sewing cases for the CDs, and that was a Mom job, for sure.
Do you see those around at all these days?
Someone sent me a picture on Instagram the other day of the paper case ones.
How were the songs evolving?
The Grandpa Songs one; those are the best songs I was writing in that period. I was making a concept record based around my grandpa's life, because I was using his guitar. I just used that guitar and some percussion sounds. It was all harmonies; every track had five voices on it. That was a big step for my writing process. It's a bunch of love songs; I have no idea [now] what I was basing anything off of. That one was like, "Okay, this is a different sound than trying to write emo love songs."
What was next?
Darker Days I did right after high school. The high school that I went to was attached to a bible college; they had a recording studio and a recording program – friends of mine were in that. I recorded with my friend, Mark McLeod. He was fresh out of that recording program. He did a good job and knew a lot more than me.
Did you guys do the mixing?
The guy who was the head of the recording department said, "I will mix and master it." I haven't listened to that record in a long time. I don't know if I ever paid him for that! Darker Days, that record... I can't even listen to that; it's embarrassing. I finished those two – Love and Memories of It and Grandpa Songs – and I took songs from both of those that I liked and redid them on Darker Days. After that record I had to reevaluate what I was doing. I was like, "I think I should maybe focus less on myself." I'd read how songs could be treated like short stories. I thought, "Maybe I'll try to write fiction and see where that goes." I signed to an American label [P Is for Panda] on Darker Days. They re-released it, and the sales of it were so bad that they wouldn't let me put out another record. I was doing EPs and touring. The tours were terrible; really badly promoted. There was a bunch of time between Darker Days and The Bearer of Bad News, where I wrote probably 100 songs. That helped me figure out what I actually wanted to do. Bearer of Bad News turned out to be an album that I actually liked.
When I saw you live with Low, you were touring The Bearer of Bad News. Were tours coming around like that that gave you better exposure?
Yeah. After signing with Tender Loving Empire, I ended up getting a really good booking agent. There were opportunities. I got to open for Low and I got to open for First Aid Kit.
With The Bearer of Bad News, what was the recording scenario?
I was out of money after all the American tours that were not going well. I had to move home, and my parents let me set up a studio in the basement. It was the first time that I had set up a serious space. It included a PreSonus 8-channel FirePod. That was huge for me, because I'd had a [Digidesign] Mbox for a long time, with two channels, and I was trying to record drums. I got that PreSonus and worked on that record for a year straight in my parents' basement. I started to figure out how to record things that sounded a little bit better.
How were you learning?
Trial and error. I was Googling things. YouTube was good. I was figuring out how to mic a piano in stereo on that album. There are probably so many problems with phase on the piano on that. I got someone else to mix. I assume they had a hellish time!
Who did the mixing for that?
Jonathan Anderson. Canada's a pretty small scene, especially in the west. He'd done records for my friends, Jordan Klassen and Aidan Knight. I sent it off with no idea of what to expect. My other records before that, other than Darker Days; I didn't mix anything or master anything – I'd just bounce it. I sent Jonathan the tracks and he'd send them back. I was like, "Oh, it sounds way better."
Did you have any back-and-forth revisions?
I think a few. I didn't even know what to ask for. "Less reverb?" I'd wanted to mix that record. I went through 40 rough mix versions where I was tweaking tiny things. I don't think I quite grasped EQ'ing. I was listening for what sounded bad, and then I'd take it out. Everything just ended up thin. Jonathan was using outboard gear, maintaining the signal, and making it sound more cohesive. I thought, "That's amazing."
You were EQ'ing out frequencies to try to clear out abrasive sounds?
My condensers at that point would have been Apex mics, where there's a harsh [frequency] bump at 7 kHz. I was using bad monitors that had a harsh bump too.
What other mics did you have for your home setup?
I had a [Shure SM]58 and two [Shure SM]57s.
After that, with recording The Party, there's a story of getting a grant and a trip to Germany.
There was a venue in Kelowna, BC, called Streaming Cafe, where they would livestream all their shows. I played there a lot. The owner also bought a studio in Kelowna and a studio in Dresden, Germany, which was in this old castle. They had this grant contest, and I ended up getting it. They asked, "Do you want to record in Kelowna or in Germany?" That was a wild experience! I took my current bass player, keys player, as well as Avery Kissick [drums] from Foxwarren, and we went out. I was not finished writing the album. We wanted to do it as a band. But I wasn't ready to let go of things. Avery would be drumming, and I'd say, "Avery, can I try it?" Brutal.
It's understandable, but it's also a hard thing to go through for the other player.
Yeah. The songs weren't quite finished, and it was a lot of wasted time trying to get ideas. I would be searching for an idea, and everyone in the room would say, "This is a bad idea." I'd say, "I know this is a bad idea, but I have to get through it to get to the next thing." It was painful.
Did it hit you that working on your own songs wasn't going to be a collaborative process?
Yeah. By the end of it, I realized that I work way better by myself. I got Colin Nealis to do the strings on that record. The only thing that made it from the Germany recordings were the string parts on one song.
You came home from that trip to Germany and self-recorded. Where did you work at?
There was an old CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] radio broadcast studio in Regina, Saskatchewan, that wasn't being used by them anymore. Jason Plumb is a musician, and he was renting it and just using it for his work. I got in contact with him, and he let me go in and be alone in there. It was a gigantic tracking room, but totally dead; big thick panels hanging from the ceiling. It's not open anymore. Jason eventually got a big Neve Genesys board, but when I was in there doing The Party there were eight [Neve] 1064s. It was fancy, compared to what I was used to.
Could you hear a difference?
Yeah, I was aware at the time that things were sounding better. I still didn't really know what I was doing.
How much of your work involves writing that's separate from the recording experience?
There's never really been a division. When I started writing songs, I was recording them immediately. That's how I write; by recording it. Sometimes a song won't even be done, and I'll be recording it.
You're hoping it's going to come together?
I'll figure it out. I usually don't figure it out! [laughter]
You said 50 or 100 songs went into The Neon Skyline?
Were these partially recorded?
Generally, if I start recording it, I'll finish recording it. I'll take it all the way through and then decide the next day that no one should ever hear it. For The Neon Skyline it was different, because I was writing [the album] as a story. It was a narrative. That was tricky, because I had songs that filled the same spot and I had to pick one of them. It was hard to figure out what was going to be on it.
Because of maintaining the narrative and the strength of it, the cohesiveness?
Yeah. It's like, "If this one happens, then these songs can't be on it."
Oh, like a flowchart.
Yeah, but I never made a flowchart, so it was all very confusing. Now, if I go through the song list, I think, "Oh, shit; that one should have made it."
Can you envision a different version?
Yeah. A "director's cut."
Your current space is a converted garage in Toronto?
Yeah. They blocked out the door. I moved to Toronto four years ago. I live in an apartment, and I was trying to record in there. But it was clear, "This is not going to work." I was looking on Craigslist for so long, and this little garage popped up. It's five blocks from my house.
You had Rob Schnapf [Tape Op #9] mix The Neon Skyline. How did you pick Rob?
He's a friend of my label guy [Andy Kaulkin]. The day I signed with ANTI- Records, he asked, "Hey, you want to go see Rob's studio?" It was the natural choice for this record.
Did you attend the mixing sessions?
I did, yeah.
Did you distract him or help him?
'I'm pretty quiet, so I sat there and played a video game all day until he said, "What do you think of this?" I did this record on a Tascam 388 [tape deck]. I did all the drums to summed, so he had one mono drum track to work with.
No way. You tracked the basics and dumped it over to digital?
Yeah, using the Tascam EQs. Everything that Rob did was subtle. When I am mixing, I'm doing way too much. He would say, "Oh, we'll just touch this piece of gear." He's EQ'ing on the channel strips. He was like, "It's gotta touch a different transformer, and then it'll sound good." Some of the stuff he was doing, I couldn't even tell what it was. But it sounds way better.
Is it interesting to watch someone like Rob work?
Yeah, like realizing how sensitive his ears must be. He was making slight adjustments with the whole mix open. "Oh, yeah; that's how you do it."
Were you recording everything onto the Tascam 388 initially? What was the process?
This record was a really dumb process. I bought a Fostex R8 [tape deck] and I was demoing on that but not using the noise reduction; everything was hissy. I demoed 30 or 40 songs on that. Then I got an Otari MX-70 8-track, 1-inch that broke the very first day that I used it. Then I got an [Apogee] Symphony [digital interface]. Everything sounded so clean – it was driving me insane. Eventually a 388 popped up [for sale]. I had a list of 12 songs at that point, so I just started recording. Bass, drums, acoustic [guitar], and vocals. This album is just two or three tapes. They're all in a row. I had a click on track eight. Track one died, so I had six tracks. I'd dump it into Pro Tools and do a few overdubs.
Wow, so you were doing all the initial overdubs on the 388?
Were you punching in much?
Nope, just one pass. I had my drums set up right beside my desk, and I had to reach back and hit play/record. It was nice doing whole passes. It messed me up, because now when I'm recording digitally I'll think, "Gotta get the whole pass!" It made me a better player, but it makes me a way slower recorder.
Have you been working on new music since The Neon Skyline?
Yeah. I want to make a disco record. When I say disco...
...no one else will think it's disco?
Exactly. I'm going to do this one on Pro Tools, because tape is way too hard. I want to make something that would make people dance. It probably won't make people dance, but I've gotta try!