Elizabeth Sharp records twisted bits of rhythm and melody under the name Ill Ease. After stints behind the drums in New Radiant Storm King and on bass in Skinner Pilot, Sharp decided to go solo and focus on her own, oddly catchy tunes. Over the course of four full-length releases, Ill Ease has served up themes of urban discontent that are all at once caustic and fun, like a rusting amusement park ride. With The Exorcist, Sharp has developed her wiry, off-kilter tunes into something lethal and infectious. I talked with her about recording, songwriting, and her need to continually challenge her routine.
First of all, I think it's really intriguing that you recorded 2001's Live at the Holiday Sin in a rented motel room in Atlantic City. How did that come about?
I wanted to get away from the city and my friend Thom Monahan, who I recorded with before, had a practice space there. We had a pretty basic mic setup and not much outboard gear, just maybe one or two compressors, and I think a preamp. I'd done a lot of bare bones 4-tracking before, so that was actually a step up. I did some of the recording at home too, with Pro Tools and an analog tape machine, a 1"16-track, Tascam MS-16.
What did you use in addition to the 1" 16-track?
I did some of the mixing in Pro Tools and I used a couple of SM57s and a couple of EV 635a mics — which are really small, trashy mics that make everything sound good — an AKG C3000 and a couple of answering machine microphones — which I threw in there for the ambience.
I've liked your stuff all along, but the latest record, The Exorcist, seems even better. It's really infectious and hypnotic.
Thanks. Those are two things I strive for. I recorded it a while ago, and my favorite thing about it is that it was mastered at Abbey Road. I got a tour of the studio while I was over there and I saw the rooms where The Beatles recorded. They have all these original EMI compressors. They do most things analog, but back it up to hard drive, so there's a huge server room. While I was there they were working on backing up all their different formats to digital. I hung out and drank some pints in the courtyard with the engineers for a while afterwards. They have a lathe cutter, so you can literally cut the album right there. It was cool to see it — it's a 1960s-looking contraption. The album itself was mostly recorded with David Barbe in his studio in Athens, Georgia, called Chase Park [Transduction]. It's a really great studio — I worked there before and I like it a lot. We had a fun time — we started off with drums with just four mics on the kit, and we're both into trying weird things — we got some cool sounds, I think. He has all vintage gear. I was using all his amps — he has all these Ampegs, the old style, pop up ones. So we got great guitar sounds and the bass was really good. He has old tube preamps. Everything was recorded straight through those with a little bit of compression, and the preamps sound really nice. As I said, a lot of his stuff is vintage, so you never really know how much of it is, "Wow, that machine looks really cool!" is what influences you to say, "Wow, it sounds great!"
Yeah, let's be honest, I think the way it looks has something to do with it!
He loves to tell stories about recording with somebody and they'll be like "That sounds like crap. Would you put some stuff on it?" and he'll flip on a bunch of lights and they'll be like, "Oh yeah, it sounds much better!"
The psychology of recording...
Yeah! Pretty much David and Thom are the main people I've worked with, so just having a good working relationship is great — because when I used to record with people where you go in and work with them for a week or two and don't really have any history or references, even if you're coming from the same place, it just takes a while to establish... Being able to describe music is such an abstract thing and just knowing that you have a common language, and you know what you're referring to is very helpful — it just saves a lot of time.
Did you bring your own drums to Chase Park?
No. Actually he has a set. I don't even think they have a name — it's like a mix. The only thing I brought was the cymbals, because I'm really picky about...