In 2010 on St. Patrick’s day, my friend, Patrick Sansone (of Wilco), took me to watch Liam Hayes perform at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. We were introduced after the show. I had no idea at the time how expansive Liam’s career in music had been, or what a prolific songwriter he was. Later, he would hand me a pile of burned CDs with over 100 home demos of unrecorded songs, which started a musical collaboration between us. The albums that Liam has released under the moniker Plush are legendary. Liam has been a good friend to me throughout the years, and I was excited to sit down and talk with him about his approach to record making and songwriting.
How do you write a song?
But you have...
Sure, but I don’t try to write songs. A song starts to percolate. It might start with an impression or a feeling, or I might even hear it playing in my mind in different settings. I often hear music in dreams. At times, I’ve been able to take melodies from dreams and find a way to put them into a song.
You can’t just sit down at an instrument and write a song?
It happens occasionally, but it’s rare. I’m often coming at it from more of a passive place. If I sit down with an instrument and I’m not feeling like I have something that I’m trying to express, then usually nothing happens. I need to start with something, a section or a fragment, and that fragment needs to have something compelling about it.
Do you write your songs in sections?
Most of the time, yes. Songs are like puzzles. I might only have part of the puzzle solved, so I keep coming back to the part that’s working and I try to find another part that fits with that. I might have a good chorus, but no verse. I have to attempt to solve a musical puzzle, and I’m not always successful at that. I probably have more unfinished fragments sitting around than finished ones. It’s important to understand that, while you’re writing, it’s not all going to work. The section that you were initially inspired by has to be followed by a section that feels equally meaningful.
You’re focusing on the emotional aspects of the song more than the structural aspects?
Well, I focus on both, but you can’t just drop anything into a song, because it generally won’t work. That’s one of the hardest parts about songwriting. It’s similar to filmmaking or storytelling. You have to find a beginning, a middle, and an end. It all has to work together on an emotional level. A song might work on a structural level, but if you get hung up on making the parts hang together technically, and there’s no emotional center, then it’s usually not very captivating. That’s where forgettable or bad songs come from. If you look at magic as an analogy, there are different techniques that people use to do illusions, and some are more convincing than others. Songwriting is like a form of magic. It’s an illusion. It’s about using a technique to craft an illusion that makes someone feel something. Sure, it has to work structurally, but it also needs to be more than the sum of its parts. Otherwise, what do you take away from it after you’ve heard it? What’s the point?
When did you first start recording your songs?
As a teenager, I would record onto this stereo cassette deck and then I learned to multitrack with two cassette decks. I would play one deck back while recording onto the second. I didn’t go into a real recording studio until I was 21. I was friends with someone who owned a studio, and they let me come in and do some demos. Going into a real studio was so exciting for me. It started an obsession.
Was Plush’s “Found A Little Baby”
seven-inch your first proper studio recording?
Yeah, I recorded five or six songs, but I only released that single from the sessions. I actually had more songs that I could have recorded to make it all into a full-length album, but the studio was so expensive.
Plush’s first album, More You Becomes You, came out in 1998 but it sounds like it’s from outer space compared to everything that was going on at that time.
I didn’t personally relate to a lot of what was happening with mainstream music in the 1990s, but I also felt that there was something exciting in the air. People were excited. I would listen to this proto-alternative radio station, and I was wondering where all of these bands were coming from. Occasionally one would have something about it that I liked or that I felt I could relate to. For the most part, though, I was not musically in step with how that whole period was defining itself. I don’t think More You Becomes You was reactionary. I was making music the way that I had wanted to make it for a long time; since I was a kid.
More You Becomes You was recorded on a 4-track?
I bought a little gear when it was cheap to buy gear that no one wanted. I bought an Ampex 440 1/2-inch, 4-track [tape deck]. This was in the era of SSL consoles and 24-track Studer A827 machines that could record backwards. I was into the limitations of the machine; but, more than that, it sounded beautiful. Bob Weston [Tape Op #18, #86] and Conrad Strauss were helping me record it all. We would roll the Ampex around to different places and record on location. Somewhere I have this photo of Conrad and me working on More You at CRC [Chicago Recording Company]. We brought the Ampex 4-track in and connected it to the 72 channel SSL. The house engineers were really confused. They started to get agitated with me. The lifters for the tape heads weren’t working, and one engineer had to use a pencil to lift the tape off of the heads while it was shuttling. He was groaning and muttering. The Ampex 440 sounded huge though coming back through the mains in the control room. You could hear so much power in the low end, and so much sparkle on top.
Your second album, Plush’s Fed , had a legendarily long multi-year gestation. There are stories of Fed involving piles of tape reels, songs being reworked for months, and financial ruin. Is it painful for you to talk about that period?
I’m very proud of Fed, but there were so many things about making it that were problematic. I’m not saying that I didn’t get some help, but after a certain point I was climbing uphill. I mortgaged my future to finish it. It was an intense and relentless process. Emotionally, it broke me. With Fed, people always focus on how much money was spent or what went wrong, but I was trying to push against my own limits. I was trying to take the music as far as it could go. A lot of what came out in the press about Fed after it was released were about budgets and [aspects] that have nothing to do with art. I was trying to do something that took a lot, creatively and financially. Part of going further, sometimes, is about going outside of yourself. Fed is unique. It’s not for everybody, and I’m happy about that.
Steve Albini had been a friend to me when I was making More You Becomes You. He lent me a bunch of very high-end microphones casually placed into a cardboard box. I was waiting for Steve to open Electrical Audio; I was bugging him and asking him if it was ready yet. So, when he opened Electrical Audio I was one of the first to book it. Steve was doing a thing back then where if you bought a day, it was a day. Well, towards the end of making Fed, I was needing to turn a day into two days. So instead of working 12 hours a day I would work for 24 hours a day and I would stay up the whole time. I could stay awake, but a lot of the engineers couldn’t. I started doing shifts, bringing in different engineers over a 24-hour period. I was burning people out.
I noticed that Steve now has something on his website defining how many hours a studio “day” is.
That might have something to do with me.
The legend is that you replaced the original drummer on Fed?
On some of the tracks, yes, but not on all of them.
You don’t feel bad about that?
What’s to feel bad about? People replace guitars, people replace vocals, what is sacrosanct about replacing the rhythm section? If it’s not working, it has to be replaced.
But when you replace performances, people get hurt. How do you deal
I’m not out to step on people. I care. But sometimes it has to be done. The more direct you can be, the better, and I haven’t always been on top of it. There were some tracks on Fed where it was the rhythm section being one thing on the 4-track. But we built up these complex arrangements with full string sections, and now what’s happening with the drums is not working with the arrangements that are sitting on top of them. We’ve spent all of this money and time. What do you do? You might have to do some structural adjustments. You’re going down into the foundation and having to pull a part of the building out, readjust it and put it back in there. We weren’t using sync’d reels on Fed. But it was more than a 24 channel record. We were moving between machines. We would cut the band tracks on the Ampex 4-track or an 8-track, 1-inch. We’d mix those down and assemble a compiled version onto a 16-track machine. Some songs went up to 24 tracks. “Whose Blues” started on 4-track and migrated to 24-track.
Most of Fed is at least a couple of generations down?
Yes. We would go yet another generation down and move everything over to the 24-track, because we weren’t using SMPTE [time code]. We were doing tape-to-tape transfers
All of that methodology was specific to working on analog tape?
At the time, Pro Tools wasn’t even that available. People had systems in studios, but they were very expensive and a lot of studios didn’t have them. Barely anyone had them in their homes. The early digital systems sounded really, really bad. It was shocking to hear playbacks after tapes were transferred into the digital realm from the master 2-inch or 1/2-inch tapes. Your stomach would just drop.
Were the strings on Fed cut from smaller sections?
They were cut from seven or eight piece sections that we would stack. The strings were all done with a Decca Tree [mic arrangement] but they were sub-mixed down to a stereo pair. We didn’t keep them separated on the multitrack.
Fed was the start of your collaboration with arranger Tom Tom 84 [Thomas Washington, horn and string arranger]. What led you to work with Tom?
I grew up listening to so many records that he had done. I was intimidated by Tom. I was in awe of Tom and how much ground he had covered in his musical life, but I also felt that he understood what I was trying to do.
You told me that an arranger can often put their own spin on the music in a way that might not necessarily be congruent with what someone who wrote the song is trying to convey.
Sure, and that’s why I valued Tom so much. He wasn’t trying to superimpose his musical approach onto what I was trying to do. You can hear his personality in his work, but he also wanted to keep what I was trying to express and enlarge it. There were arrangements I had written that I was unsure of. I would ask Tom why we should keep them, and he would say, “Because that’s you.” I think that’s what made Fed really unique. It wasn’t just one style or approach; there were a lot of musical ideas happening. When I hear it now, that’s what I like about it. Tom took it to another level, musically. A lot of records that Tom had done were heavily R&B and jazz influenced, and I think that this came as a surprise to a lot of people in the indie world who tended to stay in their own lanes. Some people thought that what I was trying to do on Fed wasn’t a natural progression, that it didn’t reflect where I had come from. I grew up in Chicago. Chicago is very much in my music. I grew up listening to The Rotary Connection. Tom introduced me to Morris Jennings, who played drums on Fed. Morris had played on the Rotary Connection records, the Howlin’ Wolf records, and Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud.
When you go to Memphis or Nashville there are plaques and museums to these musical legends, but not so much in Chicago. Chicago has a very rich history of music, and a lot of it was made by black musicians. We all know about Chess Records and Curtis Mayfield, but there’s so much more. Even later, with house music, like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy.
And that’s a very good question to ask. Why have other cities honored their musical legacies, but Chicago hasn’t? In Chicago there were labels, but they didn’t really have longevity. Some of the bigger labels, I guess the biggest would be Mercury, weren’t really about R&B music. The Mercury division was based in Chicago. Motown was really successful at finding a white audience for their records, but they didn’t really get too political. With Motown, with Memphis, there was a sound. Chicago was an industry center. We had Bill Putnam’s Universal, we had Chess, but you can’t really define the Chicago sound. With Chicago, Tyrone Davis, and other hit makers from that time, Jerry Butler, Magic Sam, any of these people, can you say that’s the “Chicago sound”? There was a lot of innovation happening. A lot of people who were playing on R&B records were jazz musicians who may not have wanted to admit that they were playing on blues, soul, and R&B records. It was taking aspects of jazz and taking it into another realm, trying something new.
Bright Penny, your next record, was recorded with Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins [Tape Op #44] engineering at Key Club. Your friend, Tom Lunt, former head of The Numero Group, was brought in to produce. How do you feel that record turned out?
Bright Penny is a strange one. Tom Lunt had a lot of knowledge about records. He and I had a vision to make a full-fledged pop record similar to pop records that people were making 40 years ago. Somehow, that record got away from us, and I blame myself. The thing to do after Fed would have been to make a more modest type of record, but I didn’t do that. I’m not sure if I knew how to do that. I was walking around with a question inside of myself, “Is this ever going to be good enough?” I thought that the songs were good, but I kept pushing the production. I burnt Tom out. That record lost its center of balance. Fed was able to stop because we were doing tape reductions and we limited each song to 24 tracks. With Bright Penny, all of the tracking was still on tape, but we were using five 16-track sync’d reels per song. Some songs had over 80 analog tracks. Instead of limiting the process, I just kept expanding it. There were more players, more sessions, more tapes, and more of everything. I thought that we were going to mix all of it from tape, which would have involved either locking five tape machines together with SMPTE time code or sub-mixing stereo pairs between machines.
So Bright Penny was the first time that you used Pro Tools?
It was the first time that I used a computer on one of my records. Bill Skibbe took the analog rhythm tracks and locked them to the digitally transferred overdubs at the mix phase. So, the rhythm tracks were analog to analog at the mix, but the overdubs were being played back from Pro Tools simultaneously via SMPTE. Without Bill, that record would have never gotten finished. Bill and I used to joke about there being a side matrix in Pro Tools that removes all of the power from the music.
After Bright Penny, you did shift your approach. Korp Sole Roller was made entirely in Pro Tools?
I don’t think Korp Sole Roller could have been made on tape. It was going to sit unrealized if we didn’t use Pro Tools. It would have been too financially burdensome. It still sounds beautiful, though, because of Patrick Sansone’s production and Joshua Shapera and Chris Gelin’s engineering.
What did Patrick bring to the production?
I had never done a record where I let a producer take full control before. With Korp Sole Roller, I wanted to let go a bit and remove the pressure that I had put on myself on the other two records. I was fried, and I was losing sight of the bigger picture. Patrick could see the bigger picture, which let me relax a little bit and focus more on the performing and singing. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and an incredible singer, but he can also pick up any instrument and play circles around you. He’s a masterful arranger. Watching him work was fascinating. There was a methodology that he had that was unfamiliar to me. I tend to keep things open until the very last minute, but he was forcing me to make decisions. Usually, I will do the vocals last, but Patrick got finished vocal takes very early on in the process. He would start to build up the arrangements around the finished vocal and the backing track, taking parts in and out against the vocal and rhythm track to see if the arrangements were working. Were the arrangements stepping on the vocal or the energy of the song? Is the song still there?
I once saw Patrick ask an engineer to turn the computer screen off before listening to a playback.
He listens deeply to music. There are different parts of the brain that govern sound and vision, and they can get confused. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that music has changed so much after people started looking at computer screens all day. On tape, you’re not looking at waveforms on a screen all of the time. You’re listening, often with your eyes closed. It’s something that I was consciously trying to do when we made Slurrup.
And Slurrup is a pretty big departure from your other records. What headspace were you in when you asked me to help you make that record?
I wanted to get back to what was fun about making music. I was coming off of years of feeling frustrated and weighed down by my maximalist approach. I wanted to make a record that was a bit abrasive and challenging. There were points where I deliberately wanted to make it sound like a cacophonous racket. I was interested in using elements of surrealism, humor, and horror together for the first time on one of my records. The only real edict that I had for Slurrup was that the feeling of the music should override any technical concerns. You and I had a saying between us: “Screw the experts.” We did it all on tape and we erased parts as we went along. Taking that approach allows unexpected things to happen. It makes it dangerous and more exciting. With every take you have to reach for something. Maybe right now you think that you can top that take, but if you’re wrong, we just erased it. It’s gone.
In some cases, we were keeping first takes where Eric [Colin Reidelberger] and John [San Juan] were still trying to learn the song. In other cases, we re-recorded takes for weeks.
Early on you and I came up with the sequence together, so we knew what we had. We knew it was good, but it had to really hit. In some cases, like on “Keys to Heaven” and “Long Day,” the loose first takes felt more compelling. Those takes were the first time that Eric and John had ever heard the songs. We were rehearsing but you were rolling tape. We put overdubs on them, and they were done. About half of the songs on Slurrup were finished really fast like that. In a lot of ways, that was my favorite band. John could come up with a countermelody on the bass within seconds, and Eric was essentially playing jazz with an attitude that channeled psych and punk music. We sounded weird together. It reminded me of the playfulness, wildness, and weirdness of new wave music.
You mentioned that you were interested in making a record that incorporated elements of surrealism, humor, and horror. What aspects of Slurrup have that?
I really enjoy practical jokes and pranks. I love Mad Magazine. I like humor and surrealism. Sometimes it’s fun to be fooled, and sometimes it’s funny to be scared or confused. Those polarities are interesting to me, especially when they are happening simultaneously. Slurrup has a lot of that feeling, where it feels almost juvenile on the surface. But beneath the surface there’s a deeper thing happening that deals with the inner, the outer, the unreal, and the surreal. The Studer A800 was malfunctioning, and it caused the choruses of “Greenfield” to sound slightly slower and deeper in pitch than the rest of the song. The guitars were slightly sharp on “Fokus.” We kept those kinds of technical malfunctions in; you may not notice them, but subconsciously, you can feel them. There are sound collage pieces that we made together that were intended to feel disjointed. It’s a concept record. But the concept is buried in the sequence. If you combine the first and last tracks, there’s a clue to the concept.
As we were finishing Slurrup, you started to work on Roman Coppola’s film, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. You’ve always written arrangements for strings and horns, but this was your first film score. Was it intimidating?
At first, I was approaching it as a songwriter, which made it seem overwhelming. If you have a movie with 40 cues, does that mean you’re going to have to write 40 songs? I talked to my friend, Steve Jones, who writes and produces films. He told me that I needed to shift my emphasis and start thinking about how I was going to step inside the world of the film and find some different motifs that I could use to support what was happening in the scenes. I was amazed by how many things there were to think about, and how many moving parts there were. I really enjoyed working on that film because I enjoyed working with Roman. I’m interested in doing more film scoring work.
After the film I helped you move your tape archive. I was shocked at how many tapes there were. There must have been a few hundred tapes. Are you sitting on a lot of unreleased music?
I have a lot of unfinished studio recordings. There’s at least one full album that was almost complete, but not mixed. Beyond that, I have tons of songs that were worked up pretty far but didn’t make the cut for my various albums. It would be cool to revisit some of that material, if I ever get the opportunity.
You and I are working on a couple new songs, but are you working on anything else?
I’m making a record called Pink Sunglasses, which is about three-quarters of the way done. It sounds very different from my other records. I started my own label, called Weird Vacation, and it has worldwide distribution now.
Oh, and Mirage Garage has came out!
I have a new record that I made with Luther Russell in California called Mirage Garage, which is available now as an LP through Light In The Attic or Rough Trade.