Gossip (left to right)—Hannah Blilie, Beth Ditto, and Nathan Howdeshell.
The members of Gossip couldn’t have predicted that they’d evolve from a lo-fi punk/garage band playing basement parties in Olympia, WA, to headlining festivals, selling millions of albums, and making their fifth record—A Joyful Noise [Columbia]—with U.K.-based pop producer Brian Higgins (Kylie Minogue, Pet Shop Boys). But over the course of 13 years together, Gossip has done just that, moving up the ranks with their dynamic punk-rock-and-soul sound while expanding into dancier disco-pop territory.
One thing that has remained tight from the early days is Gossip’s relationship between bass, drums, and Beth’s Ditto’s purr-to-scream vocals. Singer Ditto and multi-instrumentalist Nathan Howdeshell met in Searcy, AR, and then moved to Olympia with then-drummer Kathy Mendonca. In late 2003, after releasing a couple EPs and full-length albums and touring with the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Mendonca departed and drummer Hannah Blilie took her place. Since then, the members of Gossip have had a laser focus on the core foundation of each song they write.
While many bands seek out guitar and synth hooks from the get-go, Gossip won’t move forward with an idea until the rhythm section is locked. “Hanna and Nathan were just made to play with each other,” says Higgins from his Xenomania studio in Kent, England. “Amazing how they found each other. When they’re focused and everything’s fantastic, they can really make things sound awesome with just bass, drums, and vocals.”
The Perfect Foundation Much of A Joyful Noise was produced at Xenomania, but it all began at Gossip’s warehouse space in Portland, OR. Preparing to write new songs, Ditto allegedly spent a year listening to ABBA and avoiding the radio. With Swedish disco-pop on the brain, Ditto, Howdeshell, and Blilie recorded jam sessions in Garageband and then picked the parts they wanted to pursue further. “There was a rawness to a lot of the original demo ideas that was very exciting,” Higgins says. “Nathan has a very good ear for sounds, particularly on synthesizers.”
But before synth parts entered the fray, songs often started with a spontaneous vocal melody or bass line. When this Electronic Musician writer last interviewed Gossip in 2009 for their album Music For Men (EQ magazine, November 2009), Ditto said, “Even as a kid, my sister would be like, ‘Oh my God, if you don’t stop singing, I’m going to kill you!’ There’s always something going on in my head, like, always.”
So when Howdeshell anticipates an oncoming storm of Ditto’s ideas, he reaches for his bass. Such was the case for the epic and catchy “Perfect World.” And if the bass comes first, Ditto is quick to respond. She and Howdeshell wrote “Get a Job”—a song very reminiscent of a recent Gossip collaborator, electro-dance act Simian Mobile Disco—in a hotel room. “It started with the bass line, and she just sang that lyric over it,” Howdeshell says.
Although Howdeshell is most comfortable starting with bass, he realized that approaching a song rhythm-first would also keep things wide open for the vocal. “I think the rhythm of a song can really determine the vibe,” he says. “Whenever we work on something, I try to give Beth an idea of all the space she can have because that’s when a song can really come alive. Some people just keep adding and adding [parts], and it’s like the song’s done, but what about the vocals?”
So rather than boxing in the voice and forcing it to navigate within the limits of guitar and synth layers already set in stone, Howdeshell keeps it simple and maintains restraint. “The voice is the magical instrument,” he says. “You can have all of the players in the world together, but if the vocals are bad, then I’m not going to really be interested. All you need are three solid [bass] notes, and you can build around the vocals after that.”
Changing Keys Higgins agrees wholeheartedly that vocals are the number-one priority, and his first reaction to Gossip’s demos was somewhat surprising to the band. “A number of the songs weren’t in the right key for the vocal,” he reveals. “The one thing you’ve got to get right is a good vocal. And sometimes if the key in a particular performance isn’t particularly sympathetic to that, then it’s worth taking a second just to check if you could get a better performance elsewhere.”
To illustrate his point, Higgins asked Nathan to give him instrumentals of the tracks. Higgins then pitched them down a semitone and got Ditto to sing rough takes of the songs again. “Five or six of those performances were better a semitone lower, and five or six of them I kept them the same,” he says. “I think we got a better performance in a slightly more comfortable key for her a semitone lower. Some of the keys were right on her BREAK, and I could sense that when she went into some of the higher notes, there was a discomfort there for her.”
While some producers or vocal coaches prefer to work with a singer to push from chest voice to head voice, Higgins doesn’t see that as the solution: “Rather than saying, ‘Well, that’s just the way that it is,’ I thought, ‘Well, no, that’s not the way that it is. You’ve got to get the best possible vocal performance if you want to make a great record. That means the vocals must never be compromised.’ If there are 12 keys, there has to be one where the performance is better than all the other 11.”
At KBC Studios in Portland, Higgins pumped Ditto’s a cappella vocal (in the correct key) into headphones and had Blilie and Howdeshell play along in the live room. “The general policy was that we wouldn’t move on until just vocals, bass, and drums sounded amazing,” Higgins says.
Recording vocals first had the technical advantage of saving Higgins time in the mixing process. “As a result of doing vocal tests before I did anything else and having Nathan and Hanna play to that, it meant that if the snare didn’t sound right against the vocal, we could get rid of that snare and use a new one,” he says. “And if the strings on the bass didn’t sound right, we could use new ones. At the end, we were so happy because we had this fantastic performance from Nathan and Hannah as a rhythm unit, against a vocal that we knew was in the best key for the singer, using sounds that already we knew worked with her voice. So we knew that when the records came to be mixed, there wouldn’t be that much need for EQ. Everything was fitting there and then.”
Ditto recorded more vocals later in the production process, but Higgins kept many of the “scratch” takes. “The original takes are always the best in my view because they capture that sort of human quality,” Higgins says. “I find that when a singer sings a song for the first time and then revisits it later, something’s replaced by overconfidence, and the nuance of the vocal often disappears. We were able capture that nuance with Beth in a very excited two-day period in Portland.”
Higgin’s right-hand man, engineer Toby Scott, remembers testing three mics simultaneously in the Portland sessions to see which one suited her best: a vintage AKG C 12, a Shure SM7, and a re-conditioned Neumann U 47. “We settled on the U 47 going into the Neve 1073, then to the Teletronix LA-2A,” Scott says. “In the U.K. we used a mixture of the Blue Kiwi and Manley Gold mics, both going into 1073 preamps. We also used software compression, multi-band compression, EQ, reverb, and filtered stereo delay on her voice. Getting Beth’s voice to gel was easy, as both the instrumentation—bass sound, snare selection, etc.—and playing style were centered around how they sounded against Beth’s vocal.”
Round Bass, Plucky Guitar, Vintage Beats The haunting opener, “Casualties of War,” was partly inspired by a very different kind of love song, “Histoire de Melody Nelson” by Serge Gainsbourg. “I was obsessed with that song, and about 12 years ago, a famous bass player named Herbie Flowers came to visit me. He sits down and he gets this old blue Fender Jazz bass that’s clearly ancient. Turns out he’d had it since 1958. So we plug him in, and it’s got these black nylon strings on it. He hits the bass, and I said, ‘God, doesn’t that sound like the bass sound on “Histoire de Melody Nelson”?’ And he said, ‘Well, I played the bass on that song.’”
Fast forward years later to Howdeshell sitting in the studio with his Fender Precision bass, recording his part for “Casualties of War.” “He was playing with these heavily wound strings, and it just seemed very aggressive against Beth’s vocal,” Higgins says. “He was using a pick, which was the right thing to do, but it just sounded weird. So we just asked Toby to see if there were any other strings around. He held up a pair of nylon ones. I thought about ‘Histoire de Melody Nelson,’ a record about seduction, and how ‘Casualties of War’ is a love song with a vaguely French sort of aspect to it, and I said, ‘That’ll work!’”
To further finesse the song, Scott tapped the Waves RBass plug-in “to add weight to bass and kick sounds” and used the Logic gate on the bass amp—sidechained from the bass DI—to make the amp noise present only where necessary. “On ‘Casualties of War,’ we experimented with the gate’s release times on the bass amp, which, once compressed with the DI signal, produced an interesting pumping amp-noise effect after each bass note,” he says.
In terms of Howdeshell’s guitar style, these days it’s funkier and more in line with disco: “It’s kind of like sprinkling all over the bass.” A fan of Gibson SGs and Firebirds “because they can take a beating on the road,” he says, Howdeshell plays guitar at live shows and gives up bass duties to Chris Dutton and synths to Katie Davidson.
Howdeshell’s guitar pedalboard is simple. “I use an [Ibanez] Tube Screamer, which doesn’t completely distort the guitar—you can still hear the strings,” he says. “I also have a Boss Digital Delay, which I use for a really short slapback delay on pretty much every song. And for reverb, sometimes I’ll turn it up my Holy Grail superloud so that everything turns into a wash.”
Other effects were achieved more organically, such as miking up the guitar strings on his electric to get a plucky attack on “Casualties of War.” “We placed the Neumann U 47 quite close to the electric guitar strings while Nathan jammed some ideas,” Scott explains. “The Neumann went to a Neve 1073 and then to a UA 1176. The amped guitar went through an API 3124. Then we mixed in the compressed mic feed to add some extra fret sound.” Scott also used Waves Renaissance plug-ins, such as the RComp and REQ to augment the guitar sounds. And he bussed guitars together, panned them, and widened the stereo image with the Waves S1 plug-in. He also used the Logic stereo delay to add distance to vocals and guitar.
Ampwise, Howdeshell bounced around from a ’60s Vox AC30, Fender Twin, Fender Blues Junior, and Orange amp. “We always took the dry signal of the guitar so we could send back through another amp if, for instance, Brian wanted to try the same part but with a more driven amp sound,” Scott says. “On occasion we tried sending the amped signal back through an amp a second time if we wanted an especially distorted sound.” And in addition to guitar, Scott also amped up Moog Minimoog and Korg microKORG synths.
Blilie’s main drum kit was a vintage Ludwig with a Ludwig Superphonic snare, but Scott and Portland engineer Jeremy Sherrer occasionally swapped in 1950s Leedy or Noble & Cooley snares. “It was interesting seeing what sound we could get from using only a few microphones on the drum kit,” Scott says. “It encouraged us to make the best of what we had and lent itself to a more vintage drum sound.”
Quick Ears One of the most exciting parts of recording A Joyful Noise was the speed at which Howdeshell and Higgins burned through ideas. “Generally, I do believe that rule: If it takes longer than 10 minutes to figure it out, don’t do it,” Howdeshell says. “We generally know what we want right away.”
Higgins had to be on point to keep up with Howdeshell. “Nathan is a very spontaneous guy in a musician’s sense,” he says. “He’s one of those guys who comes up with a great idea, but if you don’t capture it, he wouldn’t remember to play it again. I love musicians like that because you get something unique, and just the way they hit something is special. But you did need to capture everything, and capturing everything is fine as long as you’re interested in enough to do the editing.”
Understanding that Howdeshell’s creative mind would work well with constant stimulation, Higgins put a new keyboard or instrument in front of him, one after the other, and gave him a minute or two with each one, including Moog Minimoog, Roland Juno-60, Juno-106, and Jupiter-6 keyboards. “Everyday I would get him to play with electronics, guitars, pads, drum machines, loops, and anything just to fire his imagination,” Higgins says.
Higgins and Howdeshell also had a fun time messing around with a Korg KAOSS Pad and stumbled upon some interesting rhythm parts. “Eventually you get that perfect moment where everything collides at the same time,” Higgins says. “Out of absolute nonsense, suddenly something amazing would come.” The guys also brought DJ duo Jbag (Jerry Bouthier and Andrea Gorgerino) into the studio to add some old-school house flavor on a few tracks.
Whittling it Down At 7 every morning, Higgins would get up and listen to Howdeshell’s impromptu ideas and highlight the ones he wanted to work on in the next session that day. “Because we captured every jam and experiment, we could then listen back and Brian would pick out the moment when the collision of riff and effect was perfect,” Scott says.
Working in Apple Logic, Higgins cut up each part of each song into eight-bar sections and had Scott put them into an iTunes playlist so they could listen and decide which ideas worked best for each song. “All the ideas would be coded in such a way that we could instantly retrieve the exact section of the jam idea and slot it into the working mix,” Scott says. “Once the ideas were imported into the session, we could develop and improve upon them with the band. That way, only the best ideas were developed. It turned out to be an incredibly efficient way of whittling the ideas down.”
It had to be efficient because the ideas numbered into the thousands. “My computer’s got 9,975 eight-bar sections on it, which make up the Gossip album,” Higgins says with a laugh. “I looked at that the other day: 9,975 ideas that we edited down. So all you do is you comp and you comp, and you keep hacking it down and comparing things in iTunes, and eventually you’re left with five overdubs that could go in the verse, for example. Once I’ve got a final four or five things that I really love, I then import them back into the session and make final arrangement decisions.”
For some musicians, that process of viciously slashing and burning ideas would be painful. But that’s not the case for Howdeshell. “I personally never get attached to anything I write,” he says nonchalantly. “I’m totally fine with letting everything go that has to. We write things so quickly that there’s always going to be another option.”
Although mixing engineer Rich Costey mixed a handful of the tracks on the album, Higgins is adamant that he wouldn’t hand off a track to an external mixer unless he was completely satisfied with his own mix first. “Rich respected our monitor mixes, so they all came back sounding 15 to 20 percent better, which is what you want,” Higgins says. “But you don’t want to be saying, ‘Where’s the rhythm guitar in the bridge?!’ If you don’t have a monitor mix that you as a producer thinks is amazing, then you’re giving the mixer no map.”
Higgins’ own mixing style is less pristine and more about attaining a level of excitement. “I’m looking for a dynamic punch as opposed to a stereo spread,” he says. “My mixes are quite boxy, quite gritty. They’re trying to be like punk records, really. They’re fairly unsophisticated; the sophistication is in the playing and in the ideas.
“I think when you go to someone externally, what can happen is they can rinse the vibe out of it. They place everything in the stereo spectrum exactly where it needs to be, they clear out noise, and they move the vocals around right-left-and-center to get things minutely in time—all the things that I’ve deliberately left. And then you don’t recognize the record anymore because any essence of a vibe-ness has been taken out of it. Then you have to spend time making them put it back in so you can get a balance between something that would sound great on the radio and something that would retain the original integrity. Sometimes what is “correct” from a sonic perspective is not the way in which the idea was constructed, and therefore you lose something in that.”
Kylee Swenson Gordon is a writer, editor, and musician based in Oakland, CA. Her first book, Electronic Musician Presents the Recording Secrets Behind 50 Great Albums, comes out this month.
Learn about Gossip’s
Music For Men sessions.