So you play in a band and you produce your own stuff. Awesome — me too. And like a 5 foot 6- inch aspiring football player watches Rudy, I listen to Yeasayer. Their 2007 debut album, All Hour Cymbals, tracked partially in a Brooklyn basement and described by the band as, "Middle Eastern- psych-snap-gospel," stands as a testament to the fact that low-budget, self-produced recordings can make a vivid impression on the music world and launch a band into the creative vanguard. Their 2010 follow-up, Odd Blood, may have had a higher budget — free from day jobs, the band rented out a house in Woodstock to record in — but they still opted to produce it themselves, employing an engineer to assist. Odd Blood leans more towards pop and electronic than the tribal-orientated debut, while still wearing the band's passion for experimentation proudly. I sat down with vocalist and guitarist Anand Wilder to discuss self-production and loon samples.
Tell me about making the first album, All Hour Cymbals.
That was the culmination of two years of being a band. We pretty much began as a recording project. We were recording a lot of demos in Logic, and then we'd figure out how to translate into a live setting. So all of the songs on the first album, except "Wait for the Summer" were demoed in Logic in our basement in Brooklyn. Then we scrapped all those demos and started from scratch with J. Robbins [issue #13], but we didn't have much money to do that first record. We had only five days in that studio [The Magpie Cage in Baltimore], which is kind of ridiculous considering how long it takes us to work. We got down pretty much all the bass guitar and some of the guitar, drums, keyboards, MIDI guitar (a [Roland] GR-33), cello, upright bass, tabla and other random percussion. But in five days those songs were not finished at all, so we took it back to New York and got a Pro Tools setup. We were still working day jobs of course, so we'd slave away adding new overdubs and deleting. Some of the stuff that we'd done in the studio sounded too clean, so we'd incorporate some of the tracks from the Logic demos — bouncing them out and bringing them [into Pro Tools]. Then after about four months of tweaking, in the winter of 2006-07 we went to [Dave Sitek's] Stay Gold Studios and mixed the record with Chris Moore, also in five days. So that first album only had ten days of professional studio time. In our basement we didn't have any preamps. We were going directly into the Digi 002. I can't believe we did that now. We should have bought a cheap preamp just to give it a little bit of color. We would record in our basement bathroom — big group vocals — we'd sing into pots and pans using just one mic that I'd bought for $400 — a knockoff Neumann. I think Chris Moore had a big influence on how the sound shaped up. He has a way of layering sounds and creating atmospheres.
Mixing is huge.
Yeah. We all would have liked to have more time, but I think it's nice that that album is something that seems kind of pure and simple.
How was the process for the new album [Odd Blood] different?
Because we had made the switch to Pro Tools, we thought, "Okay, now we can take these demos that we've been working on in the interim since the last album, and we can just use them as templates for the actual release." Pretty much all of the songs were demoed, and it was just a question of saying, "What parts of this demo are good enough for a professional recording?", "What sounds are cool?" or, "What will fit the aesthetic of the new album?" For example, I might have something [on the demo] that was a little more in the vein of the last album with sitar-y, world, eastern flourishes to it, and the band would be like, "We don't want to repeat ourselves. Let's get rid of that and let's get back to something more essential on that particular song." We had a song that was pretty much acoustic and we threw a huge beat over it and made it a completely different kind of feel, more anthemic. When we finally went to the mixing studio in September of 2009 [the file] might have said, "Created in 2007." If it was tape it would have been worn down.
Do you think you'll continue to work without a producer, in the traditional sense of the word "producer"?
I think so. I would be open to the idea of a producer, but it's just a question of whom. The production these days that I'm excited about is hip-hop production — XXXChange, Diplo, Switch and those kinds of guys. Yet I've never seen that kind of production translate to a non-hip-hop record.
I think you've done a good job so far. You mentioned that you compose via recording and then work it out live afterward.
We're not gonna jam and just start singing something. It's always jam, record it and then it becomes something less personal. Then you can go into a studio by yourself and say, "I'm gonna make this a song." As far as I'm concerned it's not a song until you create a melody and lyrics over it, and that I find to be a very personal experience. I couldn't imagine coming up with a full, completed song with a band playing live. Another way that we compose is by letting computer editing accidents happen, like you slide something back a little too far, it cuts off a beat and you're like, "Oh, I never would have thought to do that live, but that's cool." In the composition process the collaboration will generally be that one person — well, either one person writes the whole song, or one person comes up with some music, hits a dead end and then sends it to someone else who will come up with lyrics and structure. A lot of times Ira [Wolf Tuton, bass and vocals] will have a pretty riff and rhythm, and Chris [Keating, synth and vocals] or I will turn it into a song. He'll have something that's a weird length and then I'll cut it down to eight bars for the chorus so it makes more sense in my mind, and he'll come back and say, "No, but I really liked that weird beat. Let's put that in there somewhere." It's a constant compromise. Then once the songs are composed, then the collaboration comes in the production and the mixing — figuring out what is the prominent feeling of the song, what riffs to include or what tones.
What's that sample during "Love Me Girl"?
I was in Maine. There are loons there and I thought, "We've gotta use a loon sound for that one part." When I demoed that I took a sample of some obscure flautist, but I didn't like any of the flute stuff — it sounded a bit too twee. There was this one free jazz- y sound, and I heard the loon doing that same kind of noise. Britt [Myers, who mixed Odd Blood at Great City Productions, New York City] had this amazing database — you could look up anything, a train engine or whatever — all Foley stuff. We got kinda trigger- happy with it, putting [the loon sound] all over the place. Then we were watching this Major Lazer video [a Diplo and Switch collaboration], and the Major Lazer song uses the exact same loon sound.
Do you have any tips for bands that self- produce and experiment in the studio?
Keep an open mind and do whatever you think sounds the craziest. [laughs] Also, remember that no matter how crazy that sound is, if you're trying to be a band with a widespread appeal, there should probably be elements of songwriting and composition behind it, or else no one's gonna give a shit.
Zac Meyer records at home in Brooklyn and plays in the band Red Wire Black Wire