In issue #55 we chatted with Deerhoof, and learned about Greg Saunier's unique and obsessive ways of working on recordings. Their new album, La Isla Bonita, began as demos that soon became the core of the album - surely a unique situation, especially for a band's 13th record in a 20-year career.
The drums sound more like a basement/rehearsal recording on "Last Fad" and tighter and more hi-fi on "Oh Bummer." What was different?
We set up together in a tiny room in Ed [Rodriguez]'s basement in Portland, Oregon, for about a week to write and arrange. The plan was to send demos to Nick Sylvester, who was to be our producer. As we were rehearsing, Ed would secretly start setting up mics for each instrument, as well as four on the drums. At night I started listening back to what we recorded each day, while the rest of the band watched Netflix. Each day I'd make little adjustments; change the angle of the overhead mics, switch the bass to DI, and take some blanket off the wall. By the end of the week we realized we wanted the basement sessions to be the record. Some songs were recorded better than others. For example, "Last Fad" was from the first day and "Oh Bummer" was from the last. One other recording trick that makes the drums sound better on "Oh Bummer" is the drummer. Satomi [Matsuzaki] played drums on that one instead of me; she plays quieter, with no dynamics, so once I got the sound I wanted there was no automation and no tricks.
These began life as demos, but what would have been the process if they remained demos?
We would have met up a month later in New York and Nick would have recorded the same songs again. Since we are so used to producing ourselves, we were really looking forward to letting someone else figure stuff out. "What's that buzz?" "Why is there no signal on channel four?" I wanted to not know Nick's process, and just play the drums. We'll just have to try that next time....
Was a lot of editing involved?
Don't tell anyone, but yes. A lot of editing was involved. We were rehearsing, so we played things over and over. We'd start recording before we'd learned the song. Sometimes the best take of the first 30 seconds of a song was before we'd even written the rest. Editing was easy because it was the same instruments and same setup.
And then Nick Sylvester tracked the vocals?
Before we met in Ed's basement, we'd each made rough song ideas. John [Dieterich]'s sounded quite good. He lives in Albuquerque; he can play drums in his house and keep his mics set up. Mine were GarageBand, using the built-in computer mic, and sounded terrible. Satomi did hers in a dance music app on her phone. Nick went through all of these and was extremely helpful with comments. He pushed us to keep the groovy ones and throw out the proggy ones. Later he forgave us for cancelling the recording sessions we'd originally planned. By the time we met up in New York, the songs were already mixed but had no vocals. So we did the vocals in "Sound City," which was his practice space. He had me, and especially Satomi, doing things we'd never have tried on our own, like bizarre takes, screams, spoken bits, doubling and tripling, doubling at lower octaves, and extreme compression. A few days later he was handing me finished vocal files. There was nothing left for me to do, other than drop it on top of the instruments and turn it up. We were so happy.
What do you record to these days?
At Ed's house we used his [Digidesign] Digi 002 using all eight inputs. After a few days we realized we could also record at the same time on John's [hand held]stereo PCM recorder, which we put outside in the laundry room. Later we'd drag those files into the Pro Tools session and line them up, which gave us room mics. I don't know what Nick used. That was the beauty of it. I closed my eyes and said, "Yeah, that sounds beautiful" or, "The reverb tail is too long" or, "Take three was better."
Did you mix it? If so, where? What kind of monitors/ headphones? In the box?
John mixed the instruments on "Last Fad." Besides that, I mixed everything in Pro Tools 8 on a laptop using an [Digidesign] Mbox 2 Micro that Ed gave me as a gift several years ago. My Digi 002 stopped working; every time I try to fix it I forget to unplug it and have an unpleasant electrical experience. My brother plays in a reggae band; when he let me try his Marley headphones, I was completely shocked at how much I was missing with the Bose headphones that I had been using for years. Maybe they'd just gradually worn out. I had started making custom EQs for all the songs in my iTunes to get them to sound right. In a way, I still think music sounds better through the worn-out Bose, because flaws are not as apparent and transients are all smushed. But it was obvious I had to buy the Marley ones for mixing. I'd check on laptop speakers and my girlfriend's computer speakers. I'd send mixes to John and he'd check them in his car and send me back EQ settings for frequencies that were popping out too much.
You mastered the album too?
For mastering I always A-B with a song called "Wa Muluendu" by Masanka Sankayi and Kasai All-Stars from the Congotronics 2 compilation. That song has always sounded perfect, no matter what headphones or speakers I hear it through. I play it all the time through PA systems around the world, between bands when we have shows. Mixing and mastering are all done in the same Pro Tools session, so it's a continuous process, although my computer's CPU is not always thrilled with the number of plug-ins running at once. Lots of restarting. The first time I heard the album through some real speakers was at the lacquer cutting session at Bonati Mastering in Brooklyn. He didn't change the sound at all and it sounded awesome, so I was relieved that our low budget system came through.