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Mission Possible—Tegan And Sara And Half Of Death Cab For Cutie Tackle 50 Songs To Make A Perfectly Live Studio Album

December 1, 2009
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0.0ts3For identical twin sisters who have recorded and toured together over the past ten-plus years, Tegan and Sara live awfully far apart. Tegan resides in Vancouver, and Sara is more than 2,000 miles away in Montreal. But it doesn’t hold them back. Early in their career, Tegan and Sara Quin caught the ear of Neil Young, who brought them on tour with The Pretenders in 2000 and signed them to his label, Vapor. It’s been a whirlwind ever since.

Although collaboration wasn’t always a part of the duo’s process, for 2004’s So Jealous, which spawned the indie hit “Walking With a Ghost,” and 2007’s The Con, featuring the single, “Back in Your Head,” Tegan and Sara exchanged ideas online. For their sixth album, Sainthood [Sire/Vapor/Warner Bros.], the twins came together even more, building on each other’s ideas via their respective Pro Tools rigs and writing together in person. Meanwhile, Tegan worked with AFI’s Hunter Burgan for a few tracks. And in between, the girls collaborated with trance superstar Tiësto on “Feel It in My Bones,” from his latest album, Kaleidoscope.

Tegan and Sara have a knack for writing economical and catchy songs, and there are lots of them on Sainthood. For starters, check out the hooky cadence of vocals and bass in the chorus of “Night Watch,” the jagged rhythms of “Arrow,” and the pulsing arrow-to-the-heart, “On Directing,” which features the line, “Go steady with me./ I know it turns you off when I get talking like a teen.”

0.0ts3bTegan and Sara recorded Sainthood at L.A.’s Sound City and Seattle’s Two Sticks with producer/engineer Howard Redekopp (The New Pornographers, You Say Party! We Say Die!), guitarist Edward “Ted” Gowans, and one half of Death Cab for Cutie: multi-instrumentalist/producer Chris Walla (who played bass on Sainthood) and drummer Jason McGerr. Here, Tegan Quin, Walla, and Redekopp discuss whittling down 50 songs, recording live, doing hours upon hours of takes, and sonic economy.

How did you start working with Hunter Burgan?

Quin: Sara and I watched a documentary about Tom Petty, and it was like four hours of watching him write with other people. So I thought it would be really cool to write with someone else. When Hunter and I started writing together, I didn’t think that anyone would ever hear it or more so that Tegan and Sara would ever do the songs, but it ended up becoming this amazing place for me to flesh out my ideas without feeling insecure or uncomfortable. I had someone there to support me.

When we started submitting songs for this record, Sara was like, “Some of these Tegan-versus-Hunter songs— [“The Cure,” “Hell,” and “Don’t Rush”]—are really amazing. I think if we reconfigured the instrumentation to make sense for Tegan and Sara, they could be really strong songs.” The main difference about me writing with Hunter is that I’m less emotional about the music and more open to suggestion. When we sat down to do “The Cure,” it was literally half the tempo, and it was a piano ballad. Sara was like, “It’s a cool song, the melody is amazing, but I hate the instrumentation.” And then the song completely changed.

0.0ts4aSara and I went on a trip together in November [2008], and we wrote six songs in the same room with each other. None of those songs made it on the record, but it really inspired us. [For example,] “On Directing” was the last song that Sara wrote for this record. It’s structured so well, and I’d like to take credit for that because she had to write with me. [Laughs.] I’m really all about “Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, double chorus.” And Sara never does that! It’s always like: verse, weird part, second weird part, kind of a chorus, extended chorus, weird part, weird part, weird part, chorus. I thought it was really neat to see her growth on this record ’cause she’s starting to write more traditional songs. I still don’t understand “Walking With a Ghost,” and I’ve been playing it for six years. It’s a great song, but I’m like, “Which part is the verse? Which part is the chorus?”

You had a lot of songs to choose from for Sainthood. How did you pick the final 13?

Quin: We submitted 50 songs, and a lot of them I wrote in two hours and never went back to again. There was one I wrote when we were in New Orleans that Chris Walla picked on his list of potential songs, and Sara hated it. We had a huge fight about it. It’s so sad because one, the way other people perceive your music can really affect how you feel about it. And two, sometimes I write so much that I don’t spend the time to complete or rip apart a song and start again. Maybe there is something in that song that if I went back and redid it, it might be the song that changes our band’s course in history. But I would rather not go through the rest of my life playing a song with Sara that she doesn’t like.

0.0TS_Sainthood_Core_Photo[However,] I did rework one song a few times that never made it, and I felt so agitated. I was like, “I did everything that everyone wanted. I wrote a bridge, I sped it up, I rerecorded it, and I don’t understand!” But the right songs always float to the top.

Walla: In a batch of 50 Tegan and Sara demos, there are countless numbers of albums. You can configure those 50 songs in any combination and have 50 completely different listening and emotional experiences. There gets to be real option anxiety at a point. But we set half of them on fire and let them go. And with the [remaining] 23, we just ended up gravitating to whatever worked. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to do because you stop chasing stuff that’s not coming together. If we only had 12 songs, then you’d have to make them all go.

Why did you decide to record the bulk of Sainthood live? What was the process?

Walla: Modern recording can be so modular and piece-by-piece. There are so many awesome records being made that way, but if you have the time and opportunity to set up and cut something live that has a really organic foundation to it, it seems like it would be crazy not to try and do it.

Quin: When we walked into Sound City, Ted, Sara, and I were playing with this rhythm section [Walla and McGerr] that hadn’t played the songs yet. They’re so amazing that magic happened right away, but we spent between 35 and 50 takes honing in on every little detail. Then there would be that magical take where we would all like laugh and be like, “That was it!”

But it was freaking exhausting to spend the first five hours a day getting sounds and setting up microphones, play until 8 o’clock at night, and then have Howard be like, “Okay, this is take 44. What do you think of this one?” We’d be like, “Oh God.” It was just insane when you think of how much we played the songs, and then you’d have to go to bed for six hours and come back and do it all again.

0.0chriswallaRedekopp: The first half of the 40, 50 takes would sound radically different than the second half because people were still changing things. The song structure, melodies, and chords were there, but it’d be like, “You know what? I’m not going to play guitar. I’m going to play keyboard.” And Chris would be trying different basses, and Jason would be like, “I don’t think this part works with this drum.”

The concept was to just keep hitting tape [Studer A827 2-inch with Dolby SR], and once everyone out on the floor came in and agreed that these were the batch of takes that we liked, we would transfer those into digital [Apple Logic]. Invariably at the end of five, six, seven days, we had to start reusing tape, but by then we’d already transferred all the keeper takes. Some songs I kept maybe four takes, and other songs we kept eight just as insurance. But the principal bed track was coming from one or two takes. And I can count on my hands and toes how many notes actually physically got moved in time on a computer. There’s comping involved, but that’s really just choosing between takes that worked and takes that didn’t work as well.

What were the main instruments used?

Quin: Chris has a crazy collection of Rickenbackers, and Sara is a huge Gretsch fan, so there was a smorgasbord of Rickenbackers and Gretsches. Sara has a couple of Malcolm Youngs, and Chris and I have Duo Jets. There are a few Les Paul and SG moments. We didn’t really play acoustic guitar very often on this record. I think the acoustic is the lead instrument on “Arrow,” and you can’t even really tell. But we both have Art & Lutherie acoustics and a good assortment of Gibson Blues Kings.

0.0HRedekoppPhotoWalla: Jesse Quitslund was the Death Cab guitar tech for about three years, and he built amps for Ben [Gibbard], me, and Jason, who owns Two Sticks. We played mostly Jesse’s amps—they’re small and BREAK up at a really reasonable volume—but we also used my ’64 [Fender] Tremolux.

For bass, it was an SVT Classic head and an 8x10 cab with one of the ZVex boost pedals for some of it. For the most part, I played a ’77 [Fender] P Bass that I love. There are a couple songs that are an old ’70 or ’71 Fender Mustang. And then there are two songs that are an Epiphone Jack Casady, which is a disaster, but it sounds really cool. It’s such a bad best friend, but if you put flatwounds on it, it sounds amazing.

Jason’s got so many God damn drum kits, I can’t even keep them straight. But he’s a Ludwig devotee through and through. Snare drum-wise, we bounced around between a Ludwig Black Beauty reissue and a couple old Acrolites. The other one that we leaned on a bunch is a WFL kit, which is a pre- Ludwig company. It’s just huge and warm and matched the room at Sound City so beautifully.

Redekopp: Jason McGerr brought at least 20 snare drums, three or four full kit setups, and a massive array of cymbals. It was all these different textures: “Hi-hats? You want the 16-inch? The stainless steel?” We’d be 20 takes deep, and all of a sudden one of us would go, “That hi-hat is bugging me.” And so he’d change it out. And then I’d be like, “Actually, that really works, but we shouldn’t be using the [Neumann] KM 84 anymore. Let’s put the SM7 back on the hat.”

0.0Sara guitar - close_0097616And there were some tricks, too. One of Chris’ tricks is taking an SM57 with an old barrel connector that goes low impedance to high impedance and plugging that into the SansAmp pedal, then into a guitar amp or into a DI and then into the desk [Sound City has a Neve 8028].

Also, Sound City has this makeshift booth on the floor that the assistants refer to as the “Easy-Bake Oven” because it gets pretty warm in there. Behind it in the corner was this really great low end happening, so we put a U 87 mic there, which we called the Easy-Bake mic. That was always my “glue” mic. But my new one is a Sony C37 as an overhead. Almost every single time you’d turn that one on, and it’d be like, “Oh! There you go.”

You recorded vocals and overdubs at Two Sticks. Lots of takes there, too?

Quin: Howard would just be like, “Let’s do it again, let’s do it again, let’s do it again.” And I was just like, “Am I terrible?! Either you guys are getting more picky or I’m getting more terrible.” And they were just like, “It’s going to be a great vocal record. Just like playing the song 45 times to get the best drum and bass take, you’re going to have to sing it 40 times to get the best vocal take.” And I was like, “F**k yoooou.” It BREAKs down your spirit. There’s no doubt when I finish making records, I never feel elated. I just feel broken.

Walla: There’s this weird arc that happens where the first few takes have tons of energy but not a ton of accuracy or detail, and then [the singer] goes into a slump, and then you get to about 15 takes, and it starts to come back. Then the singer and producer get frustrated with one another, take a BREAK, and eat dinner. Then you come back, and it gets to a point where it totally works.

There are a lot of varying philosophies about first take versus last take versus the right take versus chasing something forever and ever, and all the diminishing returns stuff, but it’s just a matter of getting to the point where you can absolutely verify that it feels better than whatever the first or most recent thing is that you did.

What was the signal chain for vocals?

Redekopp: We had a couple Neumann U 87s and a Neumann U 67. There were a couple shout-y background vocals where I had Tegan four feet off of an [AKG C] 414, with just the brightness of the room and the mic. And there was one song where she’s spitting out a million words a minute with all that consonance stuff happening. Not wanting to beat the snot out of it with a de-esser, I used a Coles ribbon mic, and it worked great. It features a strong double, so one of them is a Coles, and the other is the 67.

We almost always used a Chandler preamp and Manley Variable Mu— [Walla also notes an Empirical Labs Distressor]—and a really small amount of de-essing, just grabbing the really fast sibilant stuff. We were trying to encode that because the vocals went straight into Logic using the Nyquist A/D converters that Chris has. I find particularly when you’re encoding vocals straight to digital, just a little bit of de-essing on the way in to take the edge off of the sibilance goes a long way, but nothing heavy because of course you’re not going to get that back once you’ve destroyed it.

Chris, you mixed “Northshore,” “The Ocean,” and “Arrow.” How’d you approach those?

Walla: I’ve never mixed in or out of Logic before, and I ended up doing it mostly through the [Quad-Eight Electronics] console. I summed a few things together in Logic and sent them out. But virtually all of the gain reduction, compression, or smashing, I did with outboard gear.

I did some pretty dramatic drumbus compression with the Empirical Labs Fatso and dropped snares and toms back on top after the fact. The gain structure’s kind of weird; it’s cool to have it on 1 on the way in. It’s not broken—it’s just kind of strange.

I used the Chandler TG-1 compressor and the Great River EQ-1NV a lot. And then mix-bus-compression-wise, I did a whole bunch of stuff on the backend. I’ve got a passive Pultec filter— not even an EQ, just a bunch of transformers and inductors. I turned it on but left all the filtering out, so it’s basically just running through transformers. From there, it went into a Manley Variable Mu, Smart D2, and GML 8200—where I did a little bit of EQ on the tail end—and then I mixed everything to 1/2-inch at 15 ips.

The album sounds full, but also like you were economical with parts.

Quin: When we started BREAKing drums, bass, guitars, and keyboards into stems, I was shocked at how little there was. I was like, “Really? There’s only two guitars and that one keyboard?” It’s so funny that it feels so rich. And I didn’t do a lot of double vocals, which has been sort of our sound, to always have 900 of our vocals smacking you on the face. There’s something really weird and vulnerable about doing that.

Redekopp: Anybody can keep stacking things up until it sounds cool. But to stay economical puts a huge burden on the performance, and then it sounds more honest in the end. The reason why the record is able to sound that way is because the emphasis was again and again on performance. That goes back to not making a record where the artist is able to look at somebody at the computer and go, “You got what you need, right? Can you tune that? You can fix the timing on that, right? I’m going to go get some food.” It’s a wonderful tool when you get this great performance and there’s one little flaw. But not when it feeds and informs the way people write music. There was none of that on this record.

Walla: Economy was one of the words that we threw around a lot when we were first starting to talk about this record. I think a lot of songwriters just throw stuff in for varying degrees of insecurity about the song. Like, what makes this one tiny little keyboard part any more or less important than any of the other ones?

Sometimes taking something away is the thing that makes the whole song work. When the bridge went down on the floor for “The Cure,” nobody quite knew what to play guitarwise and keyboardwise. So we made a decision on the floor to just leave it as bass and drums. As we got further into the song, it was like, “That’s what goes there! Tons of vocals.” You do miss the guitars, but when they come in, it’s a big breath of fresh air.

How did Sainthood compare to past recording experiences?

Quin: The Con was a weird record because we didn’t do it with a band. Jason flew in and added his drums, and Hunter flew in and did his bass. I didn’t even know how to play half of the songs. I’d written them, and then six months had gone by, and there I was trying to record them.

This record was all about the group. Jason would tell me what he thought about my guitar tone. That’s never happened before. We’ve always had amazing musicians play with us, but they felt like drummers that we hired. Because Jason’s in a band, he was speaking to me as my equal. Meanwhile, Ted would march over to Chris and say, “I think you should try this bass idea.” I’d be sitting there like [whispers], “Oh my God. Ted is talking to Chris about what his bass part should be!” It was fascinating. But we made a band record. We became Death Cab for Tegan and Sara, and it was pretty awesome.

DISORDER TO DESTROYER

Chris Walla on his prized Lexicon Varispeech: “There was a lot of speech pathology research developed at Lexicon that was cross-purposed into pro audio. The Varispeech was originally intended to help stroke victims and people with speech disorders. The idea was that you could slow down a conversation at regular pitch but keep pitch where it was so that people could practice figuring out how to reconnect their mouth and their brain.

“There was this weird period where [Lexicon was] screwing around with it; I got one that had a feedback knob, which as far as I can tell is completely useless for speech pathology, but it makes everything sound like Doctor Who, which is awesome.

“It sounds great under the snare drum, and Tegan’s vocals run through it on ‘The Cure’ when she does the ‘Oh, uh oh, uh oh’ thing. The Varispeech is a really cool chorus-y, flange-y thing if you set it up that way. But it’s a speaker destroyer, too. It’s an old [’70s] effect, and Lexicon wasn’t worried about being sued by guys who were like, ‘You blew up my guitar amp, dude!’”

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