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electronic MUSICIAN

Full Interview with The Philistines Jr.'s Peter Katis

October 25, 2010

 EQ.com Exclusive:

Below, read Jason Scott Alexander’s full interview with super indie producer and mixer Peter Katis on the making of The Philistines Jr. new album If a Band Plays in the Woods... (Tarquin Records, released October 19, 2010). For more, see the Philistines Jr. profile in the December issue of  EQ.

First off, such a great album title. Now, we know the band definitely exists, but I imagine that those “woods” must look a lot different after nearly a decade. Technologically speaking, how was your approach different from your previous records?
We started putting out our first records in 1990 or 1991, and back then we were recording on 1-inch 16-track Otari and mixed to DAT. Then came the modular digital multitrack revolution and I fully acquired ADAT after ADAT, and at the time we thought they were so great ,and then all of a sudden we said, ‘No they’re terrible.’ We did most of our records in the ’90s on ADAT simply because I made it all alone in the basement, and without things like autopunch you can’t make a record all by yourself on analog tape—at least, not as easily. But if you listen to our previous records, there’s absolutely no Pro Tools involved, there’s no trickery, no editing, no tuning. And sometimes that perhaps inspired better performances, but a lot of the times it just left things not as good, and certainly songs a little too long, I wasn’t bold enough to make edits     I couldn’t undo. So, you know, you can work in Pro Tools all day, and I do sometimes, but on the other hand, it does make life so much less stressful and so much easier if you know not to go down the wrong road


Right. So was this record mostly tracked direct to digital in Pro Tools, or did you use a mixture of tape and disk?
You know, when I track records it’s usually a mixture of hitting the 2-inch, but on this record, I couldn’t be bothered. It’s kind of strange; when I record Philistines Jr., in a way, I’m more focused on the sound because I can do whatever I want to my music but, on the other hand, because I’m actually more focused on the music, sometimes I simply don’t care about the sounds and I can’t be bothered. I just want to get the musical idea down and I don’t fret over it. But, that said, because it’s me and I don’t have to answer to anyone, my default is that I start with some pretty strange signal paths and setups just to make it as funky and interesting and not boring as possible. In the real world, sometimes you need a safety net so you can’t go totally crazy.

To refer to another record, when I produced Jónsi Birgisson's (of Sigur Rós) solo record, “Go,” earlier this year, that was almost like doing my own music in that that was an example of someone who didn’t give a damn about a safety net. Like, we recorded all the drums in these just crazy ways, there were no DI’s, and if he wanted something distorted, it was distorted. It’s faster that way, and anytime you can do things faster, it stays fresh and it’s more fun and it’s the good side of making records, as opposed to the painful side.


On the Philistines Jr. record, did you use tape to put iron in the mix?
Well, there’s loads of iron from other things as well, but I don’t think very much of it at all hit the tape. But, when I mix, on the way back into Pro Tools, I do print it to half-inch 15 ips CCIR on a Studer A820. Does it make a big difference? No. Does it make a little difference? Yes. And so, a little difference is worth something.


How about the mixing end—was it mostly in-the-box or did you utilize your large-format console?
Well, the console is a giant 56-input Neotek and is largely used just for monitoring purposes. But I do use analog summing mixers, which, you know, it’s weird, on some records I’d be okay with it being mixed in the box, but on most records I like the idea of it being summed in the analog domain. You know, I have a couple of analog summing mixers that I think are great. I have a Chandler 16-channel and a Thermonic Culture Fat Bustard, which is primarily what I use now; it’s so huge sounding, it’s great. And in a way, the downside is, when you output to an old-school large format console, everything is truly being summed in the analog domain, but when you use the 16-channel boxes, you’re outputting in groups. But, in another way, I think the summing boxes are cooler than most consoles, if you think about it, because the designers can just focus on this 16-channel box and not on this giant console. You know, I would challenge anyone to compare some of these new high-end summing boxes to any console, in my opinion. Again, it comes down to the old thing; to a degree, the equipment doesn’t matter. Once you get to a certain level of equipment, it’s really just about your musical decisions and your skill as an engineer and producer. And so, I do obsess over the technical side, but I try not to obsess too much or ever make it an excuse for bad musical decisions.


You’re in the fortunate position of having an envious amount of lush outboard—both classic and new—but did you make proportionately more use of In-The-Box mixing techniques this time around?
Well, the last record had absolutely no plug-ins; I didn’t have Pro Tools. But I made this record a lot like I make any record, in that I try to generate absolutely as much character through the actual sound of the instrument we have, then through the microphone choice, the preamp, the compressor, and sort of try get it all there in the analog domain. That said, you usually end up with a sound that you think is pretty good, and then you go to the mix and it’s still not interesting enough. So, I’m absolutely unashamed to use as many plug-ins as I see fit and mangle the sound, however. Because, in the end, people don’t know how you got that sound. And I guess, sometimes yes, if your stuff sounds fake, then people will guess it’s made by plug-ins, but there have been so many times where I’ve done something with a plug-in that made it sound so much more analog. Sometimes, it’s just how you treat the top-end and stuff.

The whole volume game can be such a nightmare in music today. Bands love to say, “oh we don’t care, just make it sound good,” but then if it’s not really loud, they get concerned. Almost everyone does care. Mixes are sort of inherently loud or not-loud, so at the end of the line you can always try to make it louder, but I try to treat individual sounds in a way that they can be summed in a reasonable way and still make the mix sound loud. I think that’s really the key to a lot of these records that you hear that are really loud but still sound good. They’re sort of built from the ground up to sound loud. In creating these more exciting sounds individually, you have to push things less in the end in a way that might be detrimental to everything and too exhausting to listen to. And this record is maybe a little warmer and fuller on the bottom than some records I make, just because—again, I didn’t have to answer to anyone—and sort of like a softer, rounder record sometimes.

In the playing and production, there are things that are simple about it, but certainly there are very complex elements, too. I remember when I was 18 years old and I was riding in the car with my parents and they had WNYC on and a Steve Reich piece came on, his 1970 “Drumming” album, you know this sort of incredibly repetitive minimalist thing, and I remember I was like, “wait a minute, you’re allowed to make music like this?” (laughs) It sort of blew me away.

And so there’s a lot of repetition in our music and, you know, in bands that I listen to and I try to dissect what I like, I like things that are extremely repetitive…repetitive elements sort of sitting there in place with chords or things shifting around them. So there’s a lot of elements like that in all of our songs, and although nowadays people do so much looping, and I love the sound of loops in that sense, I try to do as little looping as possible on the record because what’s cool is when you do something over and over and over, and you actually perform it.  You know, your hand may be getting tired, you may just be leaning in a little more towards the end, it creates a quality that you don’t get just from looping. It’s a lot more work, but there’s definitely a lot of that kind of effort in the record.


How about the instrumental approach to this album? Was it much different from the band’s previous? There seems to be a lot more eclectic sonics to it than before; would you agree?
I hope so, I think so, and part of it is you know, it took ten years to make. People say “wow,” but again, my excuse is: If you only work on it for three days a year, it takes ten years! So there is that element. The first song on the record, the Cable Guy song, that song was recorded and the mix you hear was finished in 2001. I remember playing it for the Interpol guys when we were tracking “Turn On The Bright Lights”; that’s hold old that is (laughs). And where you take a song like “20 Miles from New Haven,” I didn’t finish mixing that until the night before mixing in May (of this year). So, I’ve had that advantage of a long sort of span of time for it to change. Most people take more note of how (this album) sort of takes off right from where we left off ten years ago—I hope in a good way—and how it still all ties together even though it’s recorded over this long period of time.

For so many years, the reason I drifted away from the band wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just because I got so busy and caught up in all these great projects with other people, like getting the opportunity to record and work with all these really cool bands. Plus the fact that being in a band, unless you reach a certain level of success, is a complete drain financially. Whereas producing other people’s records, you actually get paid to do that so making a living was definitely preferable to being a complete starving artist. But, you know, I always yearned to get back and make at least one more record…I mean, come on! (laughs) I’m really excited that we actually put in the effort to finish the record and make something that we think makes sense as a complete album.

In terms of the instrumentation, you know, it’s weird. I guess also because the songs were all done not very close together, there’s a danger that they’ll sound the same because you sort of …well, I like to throw in the kitchen sink on songs and try all these different sounds, all these different things…but, if you do these songs not close together, you forget that you’ve used all those tricks before. There was definitely enough, though, to make the songs sound at least different enough, which I think they do.

Some songs were brand new, some songs were written almost 20 years ago, at least 15 or 20 years ago, that could just never make it to tape, or that we could never record them successfully. So I would try new takes on them. I remember one song, “If I Did Nothing But Train For Two Years, I Bet I Could Be In The Olympics,” that what you hear on the record is so different from the way we played it live, that our drummer got really offended by it. He was like, “what, you destroyed the song!” (laughs). It just wasn’t good the way we played it live in a recording. To me, that’s the key of making good records is you just have to roll with it. If something comes up better than you thought it would do in a completely different way, just embrace that new way—I mean, get over it. In the end, that’s all that matters. If you want to play it the old way live, just do it the old way live. That’s kinda what we’re going to do.

You used some pretty strange and complex, even homemade, electronic instruments on this album.
Well, one thing to sort of slightly sidetrack first…even from our record “The Sinking of the S.S. Danehower,” which came out in 1995, that’s the record that people started saying “oh, you’ve sort of abandoned guitar, it’s all keyboard.” But the truth is, on that record and all these records, there’s loads of guitars.

On our records, a large percentage of time I refuse to play chords and basic riffs. I just want to play simple patterns and things. So, the sound isn’t your traditional guitar, but there is loads of weird little muted guitar riffs and different arpeggios and alternate tunings and things like that. And, when I do play those parts, I usually try to find the funkiest, oldest guitars I have, like an old 1964 Gibson ES-330, which is a great guitar, and an old 1957 ES-125 and an old Kay acoustic guitar. I’ll play them through these old amps turned up, certainly a little too loud, and dirty. If you played a chord through it would be like “pwkshksh,” but because I’m playing simple figures it’s just sorta funky, gritty and weird.

But in terms of the stranger instruments, I have a lot of old Farfisa organs that, you know, I did pay a bunch of money to have them repaired lately because I was definitely building a huge combo-organ graveyard. But, one of those organs, which is still in the graveyard, was used in a couple of the key tracks like the first song, “Cable Guy” and the third song, “B.” Those songs are both sort of based around this, I don’t remember the model number, but it’s a very unusual Farfisa organ from the 1970s that I’d never seen before or since, that has this sort of really elaborate sequence that I spent a lot of time with, sort of playing with the sequencer, and then turning off most of the things I think you would have on, normally, with the sequencer. You know, the drum machine part etc. and I would just leave on these weird, quirky elements of it, and that would be the sequencer that I would use in the song. And again, I would build up around it to the point where it gets quite lost, but in “Cable Guy” there are moments where you can really hear the Farfisa sequencer going. It’s in the more melodic major parts at the beginning you can hear the “doo-doo-doo-doo” crazy arpeggio.

And, it’s funny, both those songs I started in the early, early 2000s, and I’d just gotten Pro Tools LE and I didn’t understand how a grid worked or anything. So, even though those sound like sequenced songs, there not to a grid, which is quite hilarious. When I went back and re-opened them to finish a couple years ago, I was like “there’s no grid…what the hell was I thinking?” (laughs) And a lot of that sequencing is sort of fake and played by hand, but then again, that sort of herky-jerky slight sloppiness is part of the charm.

What was that lo-fi rhythm machine that you used in B?
That was that same old Farfisa combo-organ sequencer. But there’s also a lot of Casio…I have a cheap Casio that I sort of borrowed and never gave back to someone in college in the ’80s. That thing just has these cool beautiful sounds that, it started off years ago that I’d just use for scratch ideas cuz it was so pleasing and easy to just plug in and play in your lap. All those lead melodies in the beginning of “Cable Guy” are on a cheap $60 Casio, but they’re so pleasing I was like, why should I replace these with real instruments? There’s nothing wrong with this! It’s funny, over the past 10 years, that sort of thinking has actually come around to sort of be in vogue whereas back then it was considered ridiculous.

There’s one song on the record that’s called “The Mob” that was build around just a basic chord progression that I’d recorded back in the early early days, maybe 1994, that was just lying around and I’d always wanted to do something with it and I brought it back to life. That was played on this crazy old Lowrey console organ. I used that Lowrey a lot on previous records, so I tried to stay away from it, but that’s the one song on this record that I used it on.

At the beginning, there’s a real cello player and then there are dueling Theremins in the middle. There’s actually, at one point, three Theremins in octave and harmony.

Speaking of those real performance parts, like the cello, do you mess about with them once they’re recorded, possibly sampling and chopping them, or do you try and leave them alone?
It’s really a combination. But I definitely try to leave a lot of real performance in there. At the end of “The Mob,” my brother Tarquin makes fun of me for those drums at the end. I just wanted a sort of total left turn there. The only drums in that song in the beginning are from that Lowrey organ, which are very low and distant in the mix. The Lowrey has this very flowery sound, but at the end I just wanted ridiculous over-the-top drums. That was done so quickly. I’d recorded the basic drum part, sort of tightened up, and then just threw random samples, like literally randomly threw samples from a sample library in with it. It comes off as very disjointed to me in a pleasing way. And they’re combined at a lot of points, so it’s going from real to totally fake to real and fake, so sorta randomly back and forth with cheesy over-the-top drum fills. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek on the record. At one point, I wanted to do a cheesy Ringo drum solo where I could hear each tom because, you know, so many drummers you record, they so spazzy with just big crazy fills. I wanted a fill you could hear.


On “Our Brother Tom,” what is that high synth part that’s got a pulsating or almost circular motion in the middle of the song and reappears toward the end?
Oh, that’s a keyboard that makes its way onto every record I make, whether we like it or not. It’s an old ARP PE-IV String Ensemble, one of their first synths. There’s something about it, when it’s called for, that only it does well. The way I’d describe it is, if I play the ARP for somebody they’ll laugh—it sounds like this goofy 80s new-wave synth cuz it has that sort of very shiny top end—but it does this sort of weird thing in a lot of songs where, if you stick it in and you play very few notes, you know, just a single note that can harmonize over the whole chord progression, or just a couple or few notes, it can add this sort of melancholy, if it’s done right, that nothing else that I know of can. If you listen to records I’ve made, it’s always there. People make fun of it, but it’s there because it works.

What I’ll do a lot with the ARP, because it’s so ridiculous-sounding, is I’ll overdrive it, a lot. What that will do is make it a little less cheesy and mangle the top end a little bit so that it doesn’t have such incredible sheen. But what’s great is it cuts through anything. You can place it so low in a mix that it doesn’t get in the way, and it still does something, you still hear it. It would be in no way an exaggeration to say that the ARP PE-IV is a secret weapon around here.

So, how did you come upon incorporating the Dewanatron into this album?
Well, Leon Dewan is one of my lifelong best friends. I credit him as being the guy who taught me to play guitar. He and his cousin Brian, who’s also an amazing musician and crazy inventor—Leon’s more of the scientist and Brian’s more of the artist…do you know anything about Leon Dewan? He’s a crazy character. He dropped out of high school in 10th grade to study physics on his own and then got a physics degree from Yale. He’s a very brainy guy. They started making these homemade synths that just have this really cool tone. Trent Reznor bought one and it’s the main instrument in the soundtrack he made for The Social Network (Sony Pictures). But, this was years ago that Leon played on it, before they had any success, and the idea of a homemade instrument sounded really appealing to me.

The only song where you really hear it is the second-to-last track, “A Trip Down The Rooster River,” which if there’s anything you can call a throwaway track on the record it might be that one, because that’s a song written with lyrics and melodies that I could just never make it work vocally, it was just cursed. But one of the cool things about that song is it’s based around the Dewanatron, the Dual Primate console, which is this crazy monstrosity with actual telephone dials and all these multiple oscillators and sequencer that have to be hand-tuned, and there’s all these sort of weird modulation and things that I think even Leon and Brian find hard to control. It’s putting out one signal, but it’s doing a bunch of totally different things. How they control it, I don’t know. It’s like trying to play a Theremin on a boat at sea! (laughs)

Absolutely. How did you go about recording them? Did you just let the tape fly and pick out the parts later?
No. I knew how unwieldy they were; I’ve seen them (laughs). I didn’t want some sort of crazy noise. I said, look, this is the chord progression I want, so let’s try and get something as in-tune and as sort of not totally insane as possible, and I knew it would be more than insane enough. They actually did two passes and I noticed that one of them was just a little too out-of-tune, but then I noticed, just by accident like you do so many times, that together they sounded great. So there’s one hard left and one hard right, I think.

And the Theremin makes its comeback appearance for your records in the third-to-last track, the title track.
Yes, and that’s actually slightly tongue-in-check. I so enjoy sometimes when I sit down to music when you’re on a train or driving or whatever and I listen to Clara Rockmore’s Greatest Hits, these incredibly low-fidelity recordings of just piano and Theremin and they’re just so enjoyable. And I just thought, I wanna make some music like that. My friend Rob Schwimmer is a Theremin virtuoso, and also a piano virtuoso, so I said come up with an arrangement on piano and Theremin of the first song on the record, “Cable Guy,” so that’s basically his interpretation of it. What will make your stomach turn and make you feel bad about yourself is that the piano is one take, then he walked in and played the Theremin, and the Theremin was one take…and there are no mistakes. It’s hard for me to believe.

Virtuoso is the word. And it also made an appearance in “The Mob.”
Oh yes, very much so. Once the singing stops, the Theremins come in quite prominently. The low Theremin is very hard to hear, even for me, in that song, unfortunately. There’s sort of one to the left, one to the right, and then right before the drums crash in you hear a third Theremin playing in harmony, which is, again, slightly funny.

Sometimes you’ll hear what’s called the Clavioline (Gibson), which is on “Cable Guy” and couple other of the songs, that sounds very similar to the Theremin but it’s different. It’s a very interesting instrument that Rob owns—it was responsible for the bagpipe sound in (The Beatles) “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and the solo in Del Shannon’s “Runaway”—it’s this crazy old little monophonic organ and speaker from the 1950s…very, very haunted house.

What are those drums at the end of “The Mob”? 
Those are just samples taken from a Rhythm Ace or maybe a Linn Drum.

Anything more technical?
I’m not afraid to sort of go crazy with layers, you know. ’Cuz sometimes you try to get a great sound of something and you just never get there. So, to cover the low end of a song, there might be some sort of Hammond organ bass pedal, but then also a synth playing the sub bass, and then there might even be a bass guitar or a low piano, because usually just one of those things will never be quite satisfying enough.

One of my favorite arrangements is for “If I Did Nothing But Train For Two Years, I Bet I Could Be In The Olympics,” because as I told you, I was so unhappy with it as the live arrangement came across in the recording that I just started going crazy and just changing everything. It’s hard, people want to be free when they make art and they want to be expressive and how do you do that? It’s like when you see an artist on TV and they’re making these big gestural brushstrokes—you know, that’s not how you make art; no, art is supposed to be painful, tedious and usually disappointing (he jokes).

But, I try to just really do whatever you want to do and go crazy. And that’s why there’s sort of slightly ridiculous production in that song, in the sense that like, I’ll be mixing the record and I’ll turn off the drums for a second, just to hear something else and I’ll go, “wait, my God, this sounds so much better than the song.”  For example, when you hit the B section of the song, the rock drums just stop and it just becomes a bunch of stabby, random, electronic drums. But, it just sounded so refreshing to do that.  But I wanted those rock drums in the chorus, so they come kicking back in at the chorus. But then I wanted them only for a moment, so they come in and then they immediately fade out, which is sort of ridiculous. It really upset our drummer where he’s like, “you can’t have the drums kick in and then immediately fade out every time!” (laughs). I was like, but it feels right! Anyway, that was a ridiculous decision that I was proud of.

On “The Bust Stop Song,” what’s that tape slowdown effect just before the outro? Or was it, literally, just that?
Should I tell you what it is? I don’t want to tell you what it is, ’cuz the answer is extremely boring. I’ve had a bunch of people comment on, like, “that’s such a crazy guitar sound.” I just took that guitar that you hear in the beginning, track-duplicated and swung left, and I pulled out the good ol’ Line 6 Amp Farm plug-in. Before I had time to change any of the knobs and tweak it, I was like, that sounds completely fucked up; let’s go with that. That’s really exactly what it is. It just sounded more strange than I would have expected, it’s so garbled. It’s a very boring answer.

I wasn’t sure if maybe you had the Space Echo in that chain as well.
Oh yeah, I love my (Roland) Space Echo. I also have a Chorus Echo and an (Maestro) Echoplex. Sometimes for delays, I can’t be bothered and I’ll just use a plug-in, but it’s definitely a different deal when it matters. The Echoplex and the Space Echo are really quite different from one another, in a subtle way, but they have so much character…they’re so dirty. And that’s what makes delays not corny is when they’re dirty and dark and certainly random. If you’re doing something where you can somehow get away with a lot of feedback and regeneration, the old tape delays definitely have a character that’s hard to fake.

That’s a real epiphany in production, I think, when you realize that it’s not a question at all as to whether…let’s say, the delay’s too loud; that doesn’t mean you should turn it down necessarily. You could distort it, kill all the high end, or kill all the high end and low end or whatever, you know? Yeah, that’s an exciting moment.

And just the spirit of the record too, it was one that had to be made in sort of spurts over the course of all these years, and done very quickly. None of these songs are rough mixes, but there are a lot of songs that were meant to be revisited, and I thought the rough mix was pretty good and just said, “it’s done.” Because you have to strike that balance. That was sort of the thought. No, it’s not perfect, but if you keep working on it, you may improve on it, you may make it worse. You can destroy everything and bring it back to life, but some things never return.

The whole volume game can be such a nightmare in music today. Bands love to say, “oh we don’t care, just make it sound good,” but then if it’s not really loud, they get concerned. Almost everyone does care. Mixes are sort of inherently loud or not-loud, so at the end of the line you can always try to make it louder, but I try to treat individual sounds in a way that they can be summed in a reasonable way and still make the mix sound loud. I think that’s really the key to a lot of these records that you hear that are really loud but still sound good. They’re sort of built from the ground up to sound loud. In creating these more exciting sounds individually, you have to push things less in the end in a way that might be detrimental to everything and too exhausting to listen to.
And this record is maybe a little warmer and fuller on the bottom than some records I make, just because—again, I didn’t have to answer to anyone —and sort of like a softer, rounder record sometimes.

In the playing and production, there are things that are simple about it, but certainly there are very complex elements, too. I remember when I was 18 years old and I was riding in the car with my parents and they had WNYC on and a Steve Reich piece came on, his 1970 “Drumming” album, you know this sort of incredibly repetitive minimalist thing, and I remember I was like, “wait a minute, you’re allowed to make music like this?” (laughs) It sort of blew me away.

And so there’s a lot of repetition in our music and, you know, in bands that I listen to and I try to dissect what I like, I like things that are extremely repetitive…repetitive elements sort of sitting there in place with chords or things shifting around them. So there’s a lot of elements like that in all of our songs, and although nowadays people do so much looping, and I love the sound of loops in that sense, I try to do as little looping as possible on the record because what’s cool is when you do something over and over and over, and you actually perform it.  You know, your hand may be getting tired, you may just be leaning in a little more towards the end, it creates a quality that you don’t get just from looping. It’s a lot more work, but there’s definitely a lot of that kind of effort in the record.

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