Los Campesinos! on Recording Romance Is Boring
Hailing from Cardiff, Wales, seven-piece band Los Campesinos! plays a punky, bratty, shouting, sarcastic, and emotionally manic-depressive brand of indie-rock music. Since forming at Cardiff University in 2006, they've been on the fast track, releasing two full-length albums in the course of one year in 2008 (although the second was called an extended EP for contractual reasons). Their third, Romance Is Boring—which features brass and strings for the first time—will come out on Arts + Crafts on January 26.
Here, Tom Campesinos! and producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Wu-Tang Clan) talk about recording Romance Is Boring in Seattle, Washington; Stamford, Connecticut; and Monmouthshire, Wales.
Writing an album with seven band members seems like it would be a lot of “cooks in the kitchen.” What was your process of writing Romance Is Boring, and how did you delegate parts to other band members as you were writing?
Campesinos!: Well, the writing process will generally begin with a musical idea that I’ll structure and record as a demo, then I’ll send that off to the others, where Gareth [all band members go by the last name Campesinos!] will start coming up with vocal ideas and Harriet will come up with extra string arrangements. Then we’ll start playing ideas through as a band, normally just guitars, bass, and drums, where we can start discussing and trying out different things, re-working ideas, drum fills, structures, etc.
So while it’s always at the back of your mind, I think you try more to think of the song and what the song needs, rather than delegating who will be playing what, necessarily. And particularly with this album, we tried to put off worrying about how or if it would even be possible to perform songs live and just try to make the best album we could.
We’d not used brass before, but once we knew it was an option and we’d found some friends that could do it for us, that kind of opened up our thinking, and then you start to listen back to the demos in a different way. There’s always a long period between recording initial demos and recording proper, and lots of time spent on tour buses listening and making notes to whatever ideas you have, so there’s time to rework demos over and over again. And it’s normally quite obvious or just instinctive where different instruments will work with which parts, or you make a choice on where you want to push the character of the song/album.
Goodmanson: With Los Camp, there's never a lack of ideas for parts, that’s for sure. Tom usually has things pretty fleshed out before even showing the songs to the band, and then the other six members pitch in on top of that. For me, it can turn into a challenge just keeping up with everything and trying it all out.
Often, the more whimsical the idea, the better it works, as in, "What if we had the upright bass and baritone sax do that?" And with these guys, there's never a shortage of hands on deck, so you can try parts on different instruments and see what works.
Can you pick a song on the album and tell me the step-by-step process of creating it, from writing to recording to mixing?
Campesinos!: Blimey. Okay, I will try my hardest to remember. “The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future” started out just as a basic triplet-y riff on an acoustic guitar—G# minor to B major—that I’d had as a rough idea for a while. Once we had some time off, I started working on it and trying it out in different ways. I’ve got an old version of it where I tried it out with an Ebow, playing it through a square-wave tremolo effect and a wah pedal that I thought sounded cool but caused the neighbors to come round to complain. But from that initial idea, it was just trying out different melodic ideas and working in a key change for the second half of the verses and a big, melodramatic chorus that came from a glock line initially. It’s a pretty straightforward structure where there’s a verse, another verse with a key change-up, a chorus, back to the original verse, key change-up again and second chorus. I’ve developed a real thing about trying not to repeat choruses too many times, as I hate it when pop songs just inanely hammer their hooks into you through sheer force of will. I kind of hope that a song will have more longevity and will reveal its more interesting characteristics and musical details more slowly and subtly if there’s less mindless repetition, or at least a variation in that repetition. That’s certainly what we tried to do with this record anyway: build something that will reveal itself more slowly. There’s so much going on and so much information to digest, that it maybe requires a bit more effort on the part of the listener to get something out of it, which is probably a risky tactic, but hopefully someone, somewhere will like it!
Anyway, it was one of the first songs we recorded for the album in Stamford because Gareth had all the vocal ideas ready and was really excited about the song. Because it’s built around this triplet-y guitar line, we had to approach it in a different way to usual, so that rather than starting by recording with a live band, we used a scratch guitar line as a guide and built up from there. That was actually really useful I think because it gave us an opportunity to try out loads of different ideas, and we were able to build up and layer a whole variety of different drum sounds. So in the verses there’s the toms, the clean ride, the clean hats, but there’s also some distorted hi-hats and dirtier sounds that I think were put through a [Tech 21] SansAmp. Then it’s the full kit for the chorus, recorded in this great drum room at Carriage House that has a stone wall and worked perfectly for the epic feel of this song.
Then things like Ellen’s bass were put on, Neil did Ebow guitar for the verses and Fuzz Factory’d guitar for the chorus, then came piano, vocals, extra guitars, etc. We were lucky enough to be able to borrow some guitars from Gibson for the duration of recording, but because SXSW was happening, most of the guitars had been borrowed, so in the end we just took a Flying V electric mandolin and a hollowbody 335-style thing with "ban the bomb" stickers on it. It was horrible; I think it was some pseudo hippy’s signature guitar. Anyway, we used that for the main guitar on this, doubled with an acoustic, so if you pick up any faux stoner vibes from the song, blame that guitar. Harriet also added some really cool layers of pizzicato violin to the track that worked really well. She does this vibrato-y pizzicato thing that creates these bendy notes that sound amazing. There’s also a Dan Deacon-style pitch-shifted vocal for the second verse that was recorded with this great little radio mic that was lying around, then pitch-shifted up in Pro Tools. The whistles for the chorus were really fun to do, too, just layers and layers of three of us whistling out of tune, and then distorted again. There’s lots of distortion on this album!
Goodmanson: Wow, Tom can remember a lot more than I can! “The Sea is a Good Place…” was a really exciting track to put together. I think we did it all (instruments anyway) in a day or so, which is a fun way to work. From the recording end, we started building the verse rhythm with two bass drums tuned differently and ride cymbal and then added distorted snare and hats as the verse progressed. As Tom says, the drum room at Carriage house was great for this track in particular. For the kind of drum sounds used in the verse, I usually wind up using whatever is lying around for mics and tweak the sounds more by tuning the instruments (and their parts) and messing with a SansAmp pedal and some EQ to get everything to sit together. A standard drum kit enters for the chorus. It's a four-or five-piece kit miked up with the usual suspects (57s and small condensers for overheads). The real magic is in the river rock wall behind the kit in that room: It's a great, bright live sound, but diffuse, and it doesn't hang around too long.
Mellotron cello is big on this track, as well as Ebow guitar and violin. Then there’s all the female background vocals and whistling—very powerful on this one.
Gareth killed it vocally, half on the Telefunken ELA M 251 (the clean stuff) and half through a fuzzed out 58. Wow, a real Telefunken 251—we were in some fancy studios!
At Carriage House, we also used distant mics that would wind up panned to the opposite side of a given instrument. Sometimes it was the 'ole piano with a brick on the sustain pedal that provided some ambience.
Tom is really good with guitar effects, so the guitars are usually interesting enough without any fancy recording tricks—a 57 combined with something else, maybe a room mic and you're good to go... most of the action was in the playing, pedals, and amps that were used (and there were a multitude of pedals and amps, so don’t ask me to remember what was what!)
There are some interesting moments on the album where you hard-pan instruments, such as on “Straight in at 101,” where the drum machine starts out on one side and a guitar on the other. What is your philosophy about panning?
Campesinos!: I guess for us as a 7-piece in particular, it’s partly about making the most of the sonic space you have and trying to find a place for all the different voices in each song, but it’s also about trying to create an interesting and dynamic listening experience. The example you mentioned was for impact, starting with a tinny, distorted drum machine for the intro panned off to the side, then having the full stereo kit come in with the rest of the band for the big in-your-face moment. I mix demos and tend to listen to quite a lot of music on headphones (Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and Grado SR80), and I guess maybe the effects of panning are emphasized when you listen that way. For "There are Listed Buildings," I was really into the idea of splitting up a simple ascending melody by having different instruments play the individual notes of the sequence in turn, then panning them to different positions to try and create this real dizzying sense of movement.
Goodmanson: With LC it's always a challenge to hear everything that's going on. Panning is one weapon in your arsenal when you're fighting the war for space in a mix. I mean, you've got two ears fer cryin' out loud! One side goes "oohm" the other goes "pah!"
Did you try any recording experiments on the album? If so, what and how’d you do it, and what were the results?
Campesinos!: Normally once the fundamentals of the song are laid down we start to mess about, and that’s always a really fun point to reach! I can remember a couple of tricks we did with the piano that I thought sounded great. We did the thing where you tape down some piano keys to form a chord with a brick on the sustain pedal, then you blast a guitar amp into the room and mic up the piano to catch the tonal resonating of the strings. It added a really cool cloudy, sustain-y effect for guitars.
We also tried strumming the piano strings directly for this really nice, metallic, harpy sound, that we let ring for ages. Then we reversed it, so that you get these slow melodic crescendos. You can hear that in the verses of "Straight in at 101."
Goodmanson: Besides the piano tricks Tom mentioned, there was the discovery of a completely detuned miniature piano at Carriage House. It's the easiest instrument in the world to play because, while it was never in tune, it always seemed to work in the track.
I think that Tom set out to use more electronics on the record (keys and drums in particular). The biggest challenge with that was to keep it organic, to still have it be an LC! record. There was no interest in having anything sound techno-y, necessarily. I think it was more just shaking up the recording method. We wound up bending the electronic and the live sounds by running things through pedals and amps—pushing the envelope on the processing and taking the live and electronic instruments to places that didn't sound typical at all so that everything stayed organic and unique at the same time.
Also, horns... horns!—like there wasn't enough going on already! I love the horns on this record! They happened really quickly in Seattle and kind of got (more or less) sorted out after the fact.
With so much going on in certain songs, how do keep the instruments from stepping on each other in the mix?
Campesinos!: Ha, I let John deal with that problem… but normally it’s a case of careful EQing and lots of automation. There’s always lots of different instruments and melodic lines ducking in and out across the songs, not just for diplomacy’s sake—taking it in turns with melodic lines—but to keep the song interesting. The purpose was to have verses develop and be different each time and to give the songs as a whole a number of dimensions that will reveal themselves slowly through repeated listens.
Goodmanson: With these guys it can get pretty crazy. One thing that we tried to keep a handle on is the foreground vs. background elements—there can be a lot of slight of hand involved. Featuring different elements in turn, for example, as well as making space in the stereo field and pushing elements to the foreground or into the background with EQ, compression, and reverb. There is an awful lot going on, and that's the fun of it.
One of the most important things to do is to process the sounds and parts as you go along, rather than waiting until the mix happens, so that while you're building the thing you've got an idea of where elements are headed in the final mix. You tweak things as you go so that they fit together properly. Print your effects! And thank goodness for console automation.
What are five pieces of gear you couldn’t live with out?
1. The Fender Champ I bought online is my favourite amp for practicing on and recording guitars.
2. We always get loads of use out of the Z-Vex Loop Junkie, in particular for weird ambient tracks or beds for songs. With the high frequencies rolled off, it creates something that will sit in mixes really well and can be really useful for gluing songs together. I’ve become a little bit obsessed with Z-Vex.
3. I use an Alesis SR-16 drum machine for demoing drum ideas. It’s actually really limitative in terms of sounds and what beats you can come up with, but it’s a useful starting point before Ollie or Neil can help develop some better drum parts.
4. When we recorded with David Newfeld, he swore by the Boss SE-70 multi-FX unit, and I ended up buying one myself afterwards. It’s great for combining a ton of effects, and is always useful for adding more random elements to sounds.
5. All my home recording and demoing is done on Pro Tools LE with an M-Box 2 Pro. And regardless of what people think of recording on digital, in terms of being able to manipulate and re-structure rough song ideas, it’s pretty useful.
There’s also the Echoplex tape delay that John owns and we’ve used a bunch on this album and "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed," and I desperately want one of those. If anyone has one lying around, I’d happily give it a home, thanks.
Goodmanson: Monitoring in a new environment is the trickiest part of this endeavor. We tracked and mixed at three very different studios. I think that in the future I’d have to bring along my own monitor controller (Crane Song Avocet). I bought it after recording this record, and it’s really made the biggest difference at my recording space. Two of the studios had SSL 4000 consoles and the monitor sections on those are not the tightest in the world. I used to always ship my KRK E-8 monitors, but they weigh so much that I got tired of hauling them around. As long as the studio has some NS10’s, I’m usually alright, but everyone’s are worn in to varying degrees since they stopped making new ones, so that becomes a challenge, as well.
Besides that, I have an old [ADR] Compex limiter that I bring if I can. An 1176 is indispensable. The SansAmp Classic pedal was very important to this record (for everything except guitar).
If I’m going to use reverb on a record, it really needs to be some kind of analog process. I’ve got a couple of interesting springs, but they’re hard to travel with (AKG BX-20, Master Room 305). If the studio has a Plate, that can be awesome—although most of the time they’re broken or compromised in some way. We mixed at Monnow Valley Studio in Wales, and at some point we realized that there was this amazing live room that was going unused while I was scratching my head trying to get a copy of Altiverb (which is a pretty decent substitute) on the studio’s computer. We set up a speaker and some mics and, “Bob’s your uncle”—instant awesome.