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Neon Trees: The 'Pop Psychology' Sessions

June 29, 2014
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What would happen if a modern alt-rock band made a record inspired by Peter Gabriel’s So and Kanye West’s Yeezus?

That would be Neon Trees’ Pop Psychology (Island Def Jam). Documenting singer-songwriter Tyler Glenn’s comeback from a nervous breakdown and the band’s embrace of minimalist demos, ’80s rock, dance, and hip-hop, Pop Psychology is a hook-laden bonanza.

“This is the biggest sounding record we have ever made—on purpose,” Glenn says. “I was heavily into Peter Gabriel’s So; it’s such a meticulous record. I loved that he didn’t feel like pop music was scary or dirty or lacked integrity. That is something we have always stood by, that we are a rock band but we’re really inspired by great pop-rock artists. Peter Gabriel has always given me a lot of confidence as an artist. And this was an opportunity to use the studio as a fifth musician, almost.”

Produced and mixed by Tim Pagnotta at his Rancho Pagzilla studio (Pasadena, California), Pop Psychology was engineered by Ryan Williams, Jarett Holmes, and Scott Wiley, with additional recording at June Audio (Provo, Utah), and mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound in New York City. The sound is slick, streamlined, and powerful, like ’80s dance tracks treated with hip-hop drum sounds, candy-sweet melodies, and Glenn’s passionate vocals. Spandau Ballet’s synths meet Phil Collins’ gated drums, anyone?

Pop Psychology began with the demos.

Lung-Filled Demos “We demoed everything, and a lot of the final record is the demos,” Glenn explains. “We used a lot of simple techniques, really saturating and doctoring the preset sounds in Pro Tools. The drums sound processed but they’re live; we treated and chopped up Elaine [Bradley]’s drums and made loops. It goes back to using what we got on the demos and enhancing that. It really shines on the album.”

Neon Trees’ 2009 Top 20 hit “Animal” (from debut album Habits) was a first vocal take, Glenn living in the moment and conquering his fear-of-the-recording-studio angst.

“We wanted to return to that idea of making a song casually,” Glenn says. “I sell it better when it’s not all about concentrating on vocal takes. So Tim and I wrote batches of songs together in different motels. It was about finding a comfort level, taking those first or second takes and not pushing too hard for a perfect vocal. Nothing beats the first or second take from a demo.”

Glenn and Pagnotta recorded songwriting demos at Niko’s Nido (Big Bear, California), Pueblo Bonita (Cabo San Lucas, Mexico), and Sand Dollar (Montecito, California) before fellow Trees Chris Allen (guitars), Branden Campbell (bass), and Elaine Bradley (drums, vocals) got their hands on it.

“I had a mobile setup using a Shure SM7, [Avid] Mbox, iMac, and a pair of M-Audio DX5 speakers,” Pagnotta recalls. “We wanted to get out of the studio environment. You want to spur creativity. There’s something about working with an artist outside of what they’re used to. It’s good to go back to basics. And sometimes limitations can be a virtue.”

“Tim brought his gear,” Glenn adds, “and we recorded with guitars and synths to create a semblance of tone and mood that was almost like a master so that we were setting up the album’s vibe early on. I like that approach of determining a tone and a vibe first, and not making it up later. It helps the writing.”

Vocals were often tracked within minutes of a song’s completion. Tile bathrooms and large windows created reflections, but that didn’t stop the dynamic duo.

“I created a vocal booth to fight the noise,” Pagnotta says. “We cut 50 percent of the album’s vocals on a SM7 through an Mbox. I have tons of Neves and APIs and a U47, and as much I want to believe that you can buy the bullet-proof vocal chain, it really doesn’t matter. I can deal with bleed and a noisy room if it sounds exciting. So I built a vocal booth. I called housekeeping and they brought down a ton of towels. We took the bedspread and hung it in a walk-in closet and we were both singing at the top of our lungs.”

Yeezus, Black Celebration, and Yaz Pop Psychology’s key songs, “Love in the 21st Century,” “Text Me in the Morning,” and “Sleeping With a Friend” were also inspired, oddly enough, by the classic sounds of Glenn’s parent’s record collection.

“About six years ago I started listening to the greats like Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, and Nat King Cole,” Tyler says. “I was studying what made their songs so successful. It really helped me to simplify the arrangements so I was able to sell the point I was making in a song versus filling it up with too many lyrics and thoughts. Tom Petty has always said, ‘Don’t bore us—get to the chorus.’ There were moments where we had a lot of vocal patterns and glitches that didn’t go on the record. I was listening to Yeezus and Depeche Mode and Yaz, too; it was almost turning into an homage.”

That hip-hop/dance obsession filtered its way into the recording sessions back at Rancho Pagzilla, Pagnotta and engineer Jarett Holmes creating loops and layers taken from Bradley’s massive big beat. “Tyler wanted it to sound big,” Pagnotta says. “Early on, he was referencing [Peter Gabriel’s] ‘Sledgehammer’; that’s when I started programming beats. Some records are about capturing a band’s performance, other records you have a sonic goal. We’ve all made studio records, but not using it as a creative tool. On this record the bigger picture was that there might be rhythms that are impossible to play so we layered sounds by combining two different drum kits to make it sound like one kit as on [the immense-sounding] ‘Sleeping With a Friend.’ There, the tighter-sounding kit is playing a really simple beat with a blasting drum setup on top of that. ‘Love in the 21st Century’ and ‘Unavoidable’ also have layered drum sounds.

“So often, you are programming more urban-derived beats,” Pagnotta adds, “taking samples from all kinds of environments: dry kick samples of different pitches, or room samples that might be a little sliver of a kick drum from a vinyl record. I wanted to do that with a rock band and they were up for it. If you record that way, you have to learn the songs differently. Pre-production was an exercise in learning and nailing the arrangements, then knowing that we’re going to change up parts on the fly if necessary.”

Pagnotta’s Rancho Pagzilla studio doesn’t have a conventional console, but his collection of EQs, pre's, and compressors basically constitutes a standalone desk. Engineer Jarett Holmes details the setup. “A rack of ten BAE 312A mic pre's feed four API 550B EQs and two API 560 EQs. In the rack next to the pres and EQs, there is a bank of compressors, namely the Silverface Universal Audio 1176, Teletronix LA-2A, a stereo pair of Empirical Labs Distressors, an Empirical Labs Fatso, and an Alan Smart C2. We used two Neve 1073s for snare drum, a pair of Dakings for the far-room drum mics, close drum room mics through TubeTech pre's, and for the rest, the BAE 312As, which is the Brett Avril and Avedis redesign of the classic API preamp.” Reverb is mainly the stock Pro Tools D-Verb, and the delay is predominately the stock Pro Tools delay. “Tim likes to work really quickly and super creatively using reverb and delay to develop his sound, and frankly, these plug-ins just sound good,” says Holmes. “We never felt anything was lacking.”

Tracking Pop at Pagzilla Glenn and Pagnotta presented the demos to the band, who set about learning the music and tracking individual parts. Drums went down first, occasionally abetted by vintage drum machines: Roland 707s, 808s, and 909s.

“Tim was directing two main drum sounds—a tight kit and a blown-out, roomy kit—and there is a lot of interplay between the two,” Holmes explains. “We mainly used Tim’s old Ludwig set for the tight kit, and his ’70s Slingerland kit for the bigger, smashier stuff. The size was determined by heavily compressing the room mics in order to get that bombastic feel.” To get a super-tight sound, Pagnotta had Bradley play the cymbals separately; the drums were deadened down and tuned low by drum tech Mauro Rubbi for a real ’70s thud. “As for the bigger room sound, we’d really crush the room mics through a pair of Empirical Labs Distressors and a Fatso,” says Holmes.

Drum processing was “super minimal,” according to Holmes: “If there’s a fill, like on ‘Sleeping With a Friend,’ there, Tim did some sort of classic ’80s trick, reversing the reverb and putting a phaser on it. Generally speaking, we relied heavily on the sound of the drum room at Rancho Pagzilla, which is a small room with high ceilings and can really produce a great explosive quality.”

Pagnotta and Holmes went with a Yamaha Subkick outside the bass drum and Audio- Technica ATM25s on the inside of the kick drum and on rack and floor toms. Engineer Ryan Williams (30 Seconds to Mars, Deftones, Kelly Clarkson) was brought into focus on drum sounds. “The ATM25s are Ryan Williams’ go-to choices for toms because they sound great with the same attack you’d expect from a 421, but a more developed low end,” Holmes explains.

Shure SM57s running into a pair of Neve 1073s covered top and bottom snare drum heads; the snare drum was compressed with a blackface Universal Audio 1176N reissue. A pair of Coles 4038 ribbon mics acting as close room mics were placed in an X/Y configuration, at thigh height, three feet out from the kit. Williams used the Coles for their “warm and rich character, in a configuration that provides a very even and centered image of the kick and snare,” says Holmes. Further out, a spaced pair of AKG 414s were placed about eight feet off the kick drum, at least ten feet apart, acting as far mics.

“Those were the mics Tim crushed to get that really big room sound, and they are significantly brighter than the 4038s,” Homes explains. “To crush the mics, we’d run them into an Empirical Labs Fatso, another go-to, as well as a couple pairs of Distressors—heavy compression was used to bring out the room sound and decay. You can do it through software compressors too, and it’s where a lot of excitement comes from. Tim likes a pair of Shure SM81s as overheads—they are great mics and only run around $250 each. They don’t have the top end bump that you see with the Shure KM 84s or Neumann U87s; you’re not getting as much of that brash, ear-bleeding high-frequency content, which makes the SM81s an excellent choice for overheads. The SM81 was the go-to acoustic guitar mic as well.”

Bass was tracked at June Audio with engineer Scott Wiley. Multiple bass amps and guitars were used, including Fender P-Basses and Mustangs, Lakeland, and Gibson, through a Silvertone guitar head for crunchy bass tone and an Ampeg SVT for the deep, gut-rumbling tones. A Reddi bass DI was used as well, treated through an Avalon U5. “The Avalon has a tone knob that allows you to go through ten different EQ curves,” Holmes says. Bass cabinets were an Ampeg 6x12, Silvertone 4x12, Fender, Aguilar, and a vintage Marshall.

“We used an AKG d112 or a Blue Mouse for the super-low bass end,” says Holmes, “and a Chandler mic pre, Sta-Level Compressor, and a Beyerdynamic M88 (through APIs) for a crunchier sound. We put them right up on the speaker, usually dead center. We tried it on each driver on every cabinet to see if one was superior.”

Along with Bradley’s massive beats, Chris Allen’s brash guitar lines and riveting riffs propel Neon Trees’ songs like a turbocharged tsunami. The bulk of Allen’s Laney guitars went through a 50W Laney Lionheart head/Marshall 4x12 cabinet, miked with a Beyerdynamic M88 placed on-axis on the grill, about one inch off the speaker.

“A lot of the guitars have an audible room sound,” Holmes says. “There, we used an Oktava MK-012 or an AKG 414 placed as far as ten feet off the amp, just outside of the live room in the hallway. The intro riff in ‘Text Me in the Morning’ is a great example of that room sound. Tim also used his Silvertone head for guitars, another favorite. We also used Tim’s Danelectro, which has a unique character.”

In addition to the hotel demos, vocals were cut at Rancho Pagzilla using a Neumann U87 through a Neve 1073 into a UREI 1176 for compression. “For the hotel room vocals,” Holmes adds, “the FAB Filter Pro-Q turned into our desert island EQ, it’s a totally uncluttered graphic user interface. You create the bands as you need them and solo the band as you’re EQing. Traditionally, you’d grab an EQ and boost it 10dB and try to find a problematic area to get out of the way. The FAB Filter lets you solo the band as you’re listening. The presence you hear is a combination of Tyler’s performance, a bit of EQ, and compression. Tim likes to put distortion from [SoundToys] Decapitator on the vocal sometimes. Then Waves H-Delay for slap on every song as well. And Elaine tracked her backing vocals at June Audio through a U67.”

Mixing, Melancholy, Celebration After Neon Trees returned home to Provo, Utah, Pagnotta mixed Pop Psychology into the wee hours back at Rancho Pagzilla. “My only rule is to start with the kit, the vocal and bass early on,” he explains. “I spend two days per song mixing. Tracking this way allowed a lot of flexibility. More traditional approaches wouldn’t have [given us] this flexibility. I wanted to make loops of Elaine’s drum sounds so if I felt the urge to program a part, I wanted to use the elements from our own drums. The challenge in putting a record together is having it all feel consistent. There are drums with a full performance with overheads like ‘Text Me in the Morning’ and ‘Another World.’ Other songs the drums and cymbals were tracked separately, but always a complete take top to bottom.”

While the bulk of Pop Psychology exudes a smack-down power pop-dance vibe with rock attitude, the lone ballad “In the Halls” is altogether different. Melancholic and reflective, riding over purring synth pads and twinkling arpeggios, the song expresses Glenn’s balancing act between flight, fright, and simply feeling alright.

Pop Psychology is about my coming back from the ashes,” Glenn reflects. “I had to take time off to consider what was going on inside and achieve some kind of happiness beyond performing. This record is a celebration of turning 30, and a celebration of feeling confident and being happy.”

Ken Micallef is a New York-based writer covering all things gear, vinyl, tube oriented, jazz, rock, and electronic.

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