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Cibo Matto: Inside 'Hotel Valentine'

June 30, 2014
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Hotel Valentine is a 38-minute love letter to multidimensional production, masquerading as a series of kind-hearted, giddily ethereal engagements

Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori.
HOTEL VALENTINE
—the first album from the duo of Yuka C. Honda and Miho Hatori since 1999 (and their third album overall)—reverberates with the belief that motion-capture isn’t solely a visual technique, and the joy in puzzles is as much about the unpacking as it is the solution. Combining the shifting personas and self-production of songwriting partners Honda and Hatori with musical collaborators and the hybrid/multibus mix rig of engineers Michael Brauer and Ryan Gilligan, Hotel Valentine transitions through 10 fleshy, phantasmagoric scenes that bring a ghost romance to life.

“We set out to have a sense of mystery in a lot of the songs, starting with chord choices or having suspended melodies and adding more through reverbs and delays,” says Honda. “I’m really into optical illusions—I read Scientific American and stuff like that—and I learned that the brain often fills in the blanks for you. Your brain can only focus on a few instruments at once, so in the mix we would play with what was muted and what wasn’t, what was louder and what wasn’t, how effects could be used on different parts at different time. . . . It’s like a pyramid; every step, every block was very important, and we always looked for the new idea that made the song stronger and gave the mix the right mood.”

“We didn’t come to this album with unused parts from solo albums and loops and melodies and lyrics already stuck in our heads; it was all about collaboration,” says Hatori. “We’re proud parents, because our chemistry made this creation. We tried a lot of stuff and took the time to do what we wanted to do.”

The Return of Crazy Food Hotel Valentine took almost two years to complete, and the sessions were a long time coming. Honda and Hatori, who relocated independently from their homeland of Japan, met in New York City in the early ’90s and first performed together in the punk/noisecore band Leitoh Lychee. They furthered their mutual appreciation for tasty naming conventions when they formed Cibo Matto (Italian for “crazy food”), and in 1996 released the debut album Viva! La Woman, featuring the songs “Birthday Cake,” “Know Your Chicken,” and “Sugar Water.” It took till 1999 for the duo to record a follow-up, Stereo Type A, which saw a deeper integration of live instrumentation and analog saturation alongside a command of synths, samples, and rhythmic non-sequiturs.

In 2001—after extensively touring their funky, brassy, and breezy pan-genre dreamscape Stereo Type A—the two put Cibo Matto on hiatus and went on to pursue a wide variety of solo albums, recording collaborations, and production opportunities. In 2011, Honda and Hatori reunited in New York City for a benefit concert following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and not long thereafter set out to script an “invisible film,” as Hatori describes the loose construct of “old and odd spaces” that became Hotel Valentine.

Much of Hotel Valentine was tracked and arranged in Honda’s home studio (a.k.a. the living room/library) using Pro Tools. “In the ’90s I loved Cubase, because it was so intuitive in terms of MIDI programming, but Pro Tools HD has gotten better at that and it’s easier for exchanging files with engineers,” explains Honda, who by the end of the album’s creation had recorded musicians including guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Yuko Araki, keyboardist/bassist Jared Samuel, trumpeter Michael Leonhart, trombonist Aaron Johnson, and saxophonist Douglas Wieselman.

Remote Control Additional contributors, including drummer Glenn Kotche, percussionist Mauro Refosco and vocalist Reggie Watts, sent in contributions after receiving rough melodies or rhythms that needed more expression, more controlled chaos to help parts escape the tyranny of the grid. While Honda and Hatori generated initial sessions and concepts, acoustic contrasts, and sample components sprouted from a lot of widespread interaction.

These remote collaborations carried over the openness to eclectic design the duo had explored on Stereo Type A. Outside influences also encouraged Cibo Matto to construct their series of interlaced spectral vignettes, including an appreciation for the arrangements of tUnEyArDs, the VST sequencing of Cornelius, the synth work of Sean Lennon, and the mesmeric, take-from-it-what-you-will set pieces of 2012 French film Holy Motors.

“I like to start writing from a beat, then from there either go through my sampler and fiddle with loops or start with a VST,” says Honda, revealing some of the master keys to the album’s architecture. “I have an old sampler, the Roland DJ-70, and I still like to use it to meld samples and play them back on the keyboard. It only has 4MB [memory], so we used to have to create a very short loop and play it back in three different octaves to create a very interesting beat.

“Now I use a lot of plug-in drum machines, especially [Native Instruments] Battery. I got into it when I saw Cornelius in the studio using it. I also like Reason’s Redrum [drum computer]. Another drum sound I really like is from the [Teenage Engineering] OP-1 [portable synthesizer/controller]. Sean [Lennon] used it a lot when I was working on Yoko’s project [2013’s Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band album Take Me to the Land of Hell] and it inspired me to try that. I used it for this great sad bass sound on the song ‘Empty Pools.’ He also reminded me how fun it was to use toy sounds, and I started playing with a lot of iPhone apps like SampleWiz, recording [‘Empty Pools’] vocal parts through the microphone to get a lot of static.

“From Yoko’s sessions I also recorded with tUnE-yArDs, and I realized she goes much further with the ABABC form of writing, which influenced me on songs like ‘Déjà Vu,’ where we have one song sandwiched in another,” continues Honda. “Also, on ‘Check Out,’ the structure is ABCA and B and C never repeat. I didn’t try to mimic anything, but working with all these people reminded me how far I could push my creative muscles, do whatever I wanted. And I like changing the format, because it makes me use my senses more instead of doing something I just know that I can fall back on. I have things I love, like the [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 5 [synth], but it was broken and that was a good thing because it forced more of these experiments.”

Assembling the Puzzle It wasn’t just the unpredictability of vintage gear that could change the entire pitch of a song. The Cibo Matto dynamic is a 50/50 partnership, meaning if Honda composes some music that doesn’t inspire Hatori to sing on it, something’s got to give. For example, the song “Housekeeping” was originally to be a different, far faster BPM, but Hatori didn’t feel a connection to the original construction. The compromise was a really fast hi-hat and shaker with a half-time main beat, allowing for more open territory on which to perform.

Conversely, Hatori might bring a beat or eerie synth melody that doesn’t quite fit with Honda’s vision of a song, and they might work to pull new sounds from Native Instruments Maschine or the Dave Smith Instruments Tempest analog drum machine, scrolling through presets till inspiration strikes. Or, Hatori says, she could use body language to get into a character that better matched a song, and the way she physically approached the session would affect her vocal attitude even if she sang directly in front of the mic. And various methods of wobbly, loosely timed processing assured that a melody could meet the right amount of astral resistance, like swimming through an empty pool full of echoes.

Outboard guitar gear—such as the Z.Vex Seek Wah tremolo-sequenced wah-wah, Electro-Harmonix Ring Thing and Deluxe Memory Man and Ekdahl Moisturizer spring reverb [with an external, playable spring]—came into play as Honda and Hatori would use jamming to develop melodies and play with the way loops would sound outside the vacuum of the box. A fan of “happy accidents,” Honda would sometimes print these effects on instruments, though Hatori prefers her final takes dry to evaluate what she’s singing (“Reverb can make everything too beautiful,” she says).

Once the two compiled their Reason sketches and established Pro Tools guide tracks, final lyrics would be written, vocals would be approached through various microphones (including iPhone Voice Memos, a Shure SM57, and a Neumann U87), organic parts would be incorporated, and heavier in-the-box processing would commence.

When tracking, Cibo Matto’s preamps of choice were a Neve 1073 and Avalon VT-737—the first for warmth and texture, and the second for clarity on lead motifs. These components further reinforce the balance of nostalgic and contemporary tonality, of dreamy and striking consistencies coexisting. However, it was one thing for the parts to get in, and it was another for them to fit together.

To establish the desired effects to accompany the “narrative” —which required long hallways of resonant groove, haunted washes, and flashes of tightened activity—Honda applied a well-stocked signal chain, including Audio Ease Altiverb, Universal Audio 1176LN and LA-2A [classic leveling amplifier] hardware and emulations, Bomb Factory compressors, and more. “I want the vocals to always be the protagonist of the story, so I think about frequency, EQ, panning, and timing to make sure other parts sit behind Miho and loops don’t hit all at once directly on top of hers, so she doesn’t have to sing or rap too loudly to compete,” says Honda.

Making it Strange With their arrangements established, Honda and Hatori turned to New York-based Brauer and Gilligan for the final stage, which Gilligan summarizes as “… taking everything to the strangest place we could.” Honda first met Grammy Award-winning mix engineer Brauer while she was producing singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright’s 2012 album Come Home to Mama.

For Hotel Valentine Brauer acted as mix supervisor with Gilligan doing the hands-on engineering via a combination of Pro Tools automation/effects/Avid Artist Mix control surfaces, and multiple dedicated outboard stacks of specifically partnered and calibrated summing mixers, compressors, EQs, and dynamics shapers set up in a cost-efficient indie room. This parallel-compression approach to analog presence and punch is dubbed “Brauerize.” The setup, based on gear Brauer uses when he works behind commercial-grade consoles, reinforced the sense of depth and movement for Cibo Matto. “They had done a lot to get the rough mix in place—the template was 70 to 80 percent there—we just needed to boost the feel,” says Brauer.

This boost came from four stereo busses, each one optimized for a specific timbral quality. Stereo A (adjusted for keys, synths, horns, vocals) includes a Neve 8816, a Chandler LTD-2 pair, and a Retro 2A3 EQ. Stereo B (for drums, bass) features a Chandler Line Mixer and an Empirical Labs Distressor EL8-X pair. Stereo C (guitars) uses a Tonelux OTB16 (modified) and a Joe Meek Stereo Compressor. Stereo D (horns, strings, background vocals) utilizes the TFPro Edward the Compressor, which also has adjustments for width. A fifth, unprocessed stereo bus is available, as well.

Mono/stereo sends from Pro Tools for stems that end up straight down the middle can hit a Schmidlin Fed+ Compressor, Retro Sta-Level compressor, Altec 436B compressor, Chandler Zener limiter, Cyclosonic FS-1 panner, Akai S612, Neve Portico stereo field editor and Behringer Edison EX1, all summed to a Burl B32. Finally, the four stereo bus outputs and the Burl B32 output go into a Folcrom RMS216 with Telefunken V72 makeup gain, then through a Dramastic Audio Obsidian 500 stereo compressor, Shadow Hills mastering compressor OR Chandler Germanium compressors (pair), Chandler Curve Bender EQ (modified), Kush Audio Clariphonic Parallel EQ, and Cranesong HEDD.

“The idea with all of this is to have freedom in the mix; if you want to jack up the guitars you can without it affecting the piano or drums and bass too much,” says Gilligan. “You can have more dynamics within the mix. And all of these aren’t doing a lot of compression, maybe a dB, and they’re all calibrated. We run tone through them and make sure they are returning the same amount of compression every day.”

The work put into the mix was designed to nail down the feeling of encountering what feels like a wandering ghost. The beginning of the track “Lobby” is treated so a vocal emerges from a bed of reverb to become increasingly dry/immediate. Big delays are thrown on a single word, then hard cut off, panned, or distorted into reverb. Low background vocals are sent into a long plate reverb, squashed to hover persistently, then sidechained to the kick to create an ongoing pump with an indiscriminate origin. Instances of Universal Audio’s ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder, with the wow and flutter jacked up on reverb or delay, also assure things never stay static.

The final component that ensures the vision of each song was rendered through the mix was actually playing it back on a Sony ZS-6 boombox. While the studio monitoring set-up included a Shadow Hills Industries Oculus monitor controller, ProAc Studio 100, Barefoot Sound MM27, and Meridian DSP7200 loudspeakers, the harshest light was shown on the mix through that radio. One set of professional monitors was just right for tweaking brightness, and another for sub bass, but it was imperative to check the balance on a downstream consumer system.

With no more than a day or two on each mix, Gilligan quickly had to translate instructions that left plenty to interpretation, make a rough mix, get comments and directions from Brauer, implement those changes, then send it to Honda and Hatori for more instructions. This process repeated until something abstract like “make this song sound like you’re on the moon driving in a VW Beetle and the sun is setting” would coalesce into a mix signed off on by both Brauer and the band. However, Gilligan enjoyed every round—whether it resulted in trying to sound more like a cave full of shadowy reflecting pools or muting just one drum loop on each 32nd note.

“[Honda and Hatori] were two of the most positive people ever to work with,” says Gilligan. “They’d send us instructions; for example, for ‘Emerald Tuesday’ they said it should ‘sound like a cocktail they serve at the bar in the imaginary hotel’—and then give us leeway to work. And whether it met their vision or not in the first mix, they were always psyched to hear things, which made the whole process that much more fun.”

Sometimes a little bewilderment is a wonderful thing. “I wonder how many people know their life is like this, staying at the hotel, renting times, renting a body,” intones Hatori at the end of the song “Lobby.” Those who do find themselves unraveling the identities in Hotel Valentine will request late checkout.

Washington, D.C.-based writer/editor Tony Ware has never encountered a ghost, but if he ever does he hopes it’s friendly and just wants to order room service and listen to records.

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