I met John Collins just before the New Pornographers took the stage at Lee's Palace in Toronto. About a week after this interview, the album, Mass Romantic, won a Juno (Canadian Grammy) for Best Alternative Record. It may be the most fun you've had listening to a record in a long spell. This is a pop record through and through. Taking all of the best stuff from New Wave, '70s anthem rock and the best '80s singles will leave you somewhere in the vicinity. The band is made up of John Collins [Evaporators, Destroyer], Dan Bejar [Destroyer] , Neko Case [ex-Maow, Corn Sisters, and herself of course], Carl Newman [Zumpano, Superconductor], Kurt Dahle [Limblifter], and Blaine Thurier. John, along with the help of Darryl Neudorf and studio partner Dave Carswell, engineered Mass Romantic. John and Dave have also recently completed the new Destroyer record, Streethawk: A Seduction, which is slated for release on Misra Records shortly. The success of Mass Romantic is a testament to John, Dave, and Darryl who recorded it, and to Carl and Dan, who penned the tracks. This record continues to enjoy acclaim and unanimous praise wherever it lands. Mr Collins made the best of his gear and circumstances to create a hit record. What's more Tape Op than that?
Where did the recordings for Mass Romantic start?
We did four songs to begin with, thinking that Sub Pop, which was Zumpano's label, were interested... they sort of were I guess. So we did four songs early on. We were actually finished them three years ago, the mixes and everything.
Three years ago?
Yeah. We did the drums at the Miller Block, which is a studio in Vancouver run by Darryl Neudorf. Everything but the drums was done at my studio that I share with Dave [Carswell].
What did you do in terms of the drums? It sounds like there isn't a mic anywhere near that kit. Maybe just a room mic or something...
[laughs] I don't know what I'm doing. The mixing is kind of where the drum sound came from. The four songs that Darryl recorded the drums on, that's Fisher drumming. Fisher has one of those kits that John Bonham had. You know, drums from giant land. He is fully psychotic as a drummer. The only thing that anybody could watch when we played was this guy just destroying his kit. The sound is just his big sound. Of the last eight that we did, seven of them I did in our practice space one Friday night.
You did all those drums in one night?
Yeah. Kurt's a slick drummer. He just sits down and plays them. We'd do them three times and move on. I brought a couple of DA-88s and three mini Mackies and some basic mics. The drums are pretty low tech Well, I guess it's high-tech because of the digital machines and everything, but it was basically the bare minimum. I didn't use any compressors when I recorded it. I didn't bring any speakers. I was just, "We gotta get this on tape."
So you didn't monitor the drums when you were recording them?
No. It was stupid. There was loads of clipping all over the drums. The faders were down. With the mini Mackies, there's no way to bus all the mic preamps, so you just have to take them out of the insert points. The only gain control for that is the trim pots — I had the trim pots down all the way and I was still getting clipping. I had a set of headphones to check out the sound. They sounded alright, so we went for it. I don't know why it sounds big. I was just trying to make everything sound really grandiose. I had one Sony stereo microphone at the other end of the practice space room and I tried to use that a lot just to kind of fill out the sound of the drums. I really had some pretty thin sounds — using no compression, straight to digital tape. We used a click track becauseI knew we were going to be throwing it all on a computer and editing a lot of stuff. I had to buy a G4 Mac to play all the tracks back.
This is going to sound crazy, but to me it sounds a lot like the recordings the Giant Sand guys do. The drums are always big and wide open, the vocals are usually very present. Dave Fridmann [Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev] does that as well. Most folks seem to do one or the other...
I'm glad you think it sounds big and open. It's a total fucking nightmare, those songs sometimes. We have so many ridiculous things and I just can't help myself but double everything we record. Not only do we have all of these different lines that have to get shoehorned together, there's two or four of them. There's some songs that have 16 + vocal tracks. We had absurd amounts of things. I just don't have the brains to give everything its own absolute pristine space. I always have to accept that things aren't sounding really deluxe, so you have to play up the fact that you're going for some really nasty weird sounds. The similarity with the Giant Sand would be that they get some sounds and feature them. They do the big, open, dynamic sounding rock band in a room and then the massive...