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Ladytron | Layer Cake

6/1/2008

Unknown to the world at large or even his bandmates in Ladytron, Daniel Hunt has a brand new theory about The Beatles.

“They were the Internet of the 1960s,” keyboardist/guitarist/producer Hunt says. “There's so much information available now that music is one of the few forms of communications that is actually pretty direct. You can have one important album that reaches an enormous amount of people, probably more than any news broadcast. Back then, The Beatles could release an album to a wider audience than any other form of media. There were no global news networks, so one of the most globally pervasive forms of media was The Beatles.”

Vocalist/keyboardist Helen Marnie and keyboardist/programmer Reuben Wu seem surprised to hear this revelation — apparently they had no idea that such a concept has been forming in their collaborator's mind. Co-lead vocalist/keyboardist Mira Aroyo is not with them here in the multimirrored basement bar of a Manhattan hotel; instead, she's recovering from a broken leg suffered on a European ski slope. She'll have to learn about Hunt's Fab Four concept at a later date.

Forty years or so later, Ladytron has unassumingly asserted itself as another Liverpool foursome to be reckoned with. Their fourth album, 2008's Velocifero (Nettwerk), fires a fresh salvo into the broodingly energetic atmosphere of electronic music that they alone seem to occupy. The 13-song collection has all the signatures of Ladytron, which start first and foremost with Aroyo and Marnie's unmistakable vocal arrangements — tense, soaring, beautiful, cold and expressive. The simple danceable beats are tough without being overpowering, almost always wrapped around a grain of distortion. On the new disc, art and science combine in the multilayered analog synth lines, a pallet of mechanical organic sounds mixing increasingly with the precision of soft synths.

CODE ON THE ROAD

Life has been a positive blur for Ladytron throughout the current decade. Their 2001 debut, 604, and 2002 follow-up, Light & Magic (both on Emperor Norton), caught the attention of an audience struck by the group's analog-heavy style of storytelling, as well as their unique visual style. In 2005, the album known as Witching Hour (Rykodisc) combined indie-rock bite with the sawtooths of their Korg MS-20s, and propelled them on a road trip that technically never had to end, based on the Ladytron cult that grew around songs like “Destroy Everything You Touch,” “International Dateline” and “High Rise.”

“We toured for ages,” Hunt says. “We started in mid-2005, and if you include when we went to China, it was more like three years. We could have carried on that way forever. We had to finally just say, ‘No.''”

“Once you get into the swing of playing live, you stop being in a musical state of mind about the record that you're playing onstage,” Wu adds. “And it becomes an incubation period for the next record.”

“It's not as if you're on the road writing,” Hunt says.

“Some bands do,” Marnie interjects. “But maybe what they write…”

“…songs about being on tour?” Hunt concludes for her. “I prefer to wait until you get home and get some energy to go and write somewhere else.”

Ladytron took maximum advantage of any breaks in the hectic schedule, with each member putting together demos of their own songs while at home, typically using Steinberg Cubase SX running on laptops, along with Native Instruments soft synths and analog instruments recorded directly into the computer. As in the past, the band remains steadfast in their right to use the DAW that they believe is best for them. “People are always saying, ‘Use Pro Tools, use Logic,''” Hunt says. “Why? Is it better? We've had no problems; we know how to use it. We get results very quickly, and there's no use changing. Pro Tools is a necessity when there's a rig in the studio, but in that case you just get a good engineer.”

As a result of their abundant-yet-homeless existence, it was inevitable that infinitely portable soft synths would play a larger songwriting role for Ladytron. For many electronic bands this would not be particularly noteworthy, but it is for a group that made its mark via its commitment to analog synth legends such as the ARP 2600, Solina String synthesizer, Harmonium (with Leslie amp) and Korg MS-10 and MS-20.

“I just think you have to be realistic about it,” Hunt states. “If you're traveling a lot and using a laptop to make music, you need soft synths. Soft synths would be of little use to us live, but they're indispensable in the recording process. They sound increasingly good now, and we always combine that with live instruments. But it's not just for tradition's sake: There are things you get from an MS-20 that you couldn't get out of anything else.”

“The act of playing an MS-20 in the studio is different from sequencing by putting boxes onto grids,” Wu says. “It's not as perfect, but you can hear the groove.”

“People are building analog-style instability into soft synths now, but it's a different kind,” Hunt adds. “I like the way its converged there. Some people are hardcore about software and say hardware is dead, while other people are ultra-fascistic about the hardware and say that software can't replicate it. I think we're somewhere in between.”

INTO THE FIRE

Armed with a treasure trove of skeletal demos, the foursome of Ladytron officially concluded Witching Hour touring on Sept. 29, 2007. Their breather would last exactly 96 hours, as the group dove into the studio to sift through two albums' worth of material to begin creating Velocifero, a name that quite appropriately translates to mean “Bringer of Speed.”

According to Hunt, the quick return to recording came from an even combination of outside pressure to release a new album and their own eagerness to create. “We toured longer than we expected, and we knew we had to get the record out and keep things moving,” he says. “It would have been easy enough to have a break, but it's now four years ago since we recorded Witching Hour. We made this album, and when we get a chance, we're going to record another one pretty quickly — we've basically got another album in reserve with a different feel.”

While Witching Hour was recorded in a Liverpool studio with producer Jim Abbiss, the seeds of Velocifero would be sown across the Channel in France. Before hard drives could get spinning for real, however, first came a brief misstep in a record company's in-house studio. The lighting was shot, the air conditioning was running hot, and despite the laid-back nature of Ladytron, the facility was graded unacceptable.

“I had to say, ‘I'm sorry, I can't record here,''” Marnie recalls. “It was just like a hole. We spent a day in there and said, ‘Look, this is a bad idea.'' Then we went to The Garage, and it was perfect. The lighting was good.”

A SPACIOUS GARAGE

In Paris, a little studio called The Garage served as the headquarters for tracking a large proportion of the vocals, as well as the creation of additional demo tracks. What followed from there would be a near nonstop amalgam of writing, recording and mixing, with the band continuing to generate new songs in bursts even as final mixes were being put to bed late in the game. The next stop for this amorphous process was the Parisian Studio de la Grande Armée.

“This place is very old-school,” Hunt says. “It was built in 1978. It's modern now with a big SSL room, but the stuff that had been recorded there is pretty funny: Jagger's solo stuff from the '80s, Tina Turner, Murray Head, Duran Duran's Rio, Bryan Adams' Waking up the Neighbors, OMD — loads of stuff. It was nice and expensive, spacious and comfortable with free Internet — it made us feel important!”

But seriously. “It was vibe-y,” Hunt concedes. “This place has got a pedigree, and the plan was to mix there. But when we got there we realized we had loads more to do, and it became a tracking place as well as a mixing place. We planned just to mix what we had, but when we arrived, Helen had gone to Australia and had an operation [on her throat], so we said, ‘Let's keep layering.''”

Velocifero's opener, “Black Cat,” is just one example of the multilayered approach that makes the album stand up to repeated listenings. Extra-crispy bass, perky-dark electric piano pop hooks and Aroyo singing quite seriously in her native Bulgarian set the tone for much of what follows on the disc. “‘Black Cat'' is a mixture of analog synths, soft synths, a real Korg MS-10 doubled up quite a few times and filtered through some of the custom modules that [mixer] Michael Patterson had,” Wu explains. “It also has some xylophone, and the incessant thing is Rhodes.”

The in-your-face beat, programmed in the Native Instruments Battery software drum sampler, propels the track relentlessly forward. Lightly infused with a nasty dose of distortion, a close listen to the Ladytron programmers' work reveals subtly effective tricks such as slightly truncated snare samples on the fills — a touch that adds to the rush without technically affecting the tempo.

“Battery is so tweakable,” Wu notes. “You can load your own samples. But the main thing is that it's easy to use.”

“But it feels like a drum machine as well,” Hunt adds. “It's not literally represented like a drum machine, but in terms of what is represented onscreen, it's very logical. I like that you have easy access to the bit depth to nasty things up. The control over the samples is so clear.”

VOICES CARRY

Of course, not every sound that shows up on a Ladytron album requires electrical juice to run, like those hauntingly unforgettable vocals by Aroyo and Marnie, for instance. On “I'm Not Scared” there are ooos and ahs that flit to the left and the right around Marnie's arrow-sharp lead; on “Runaway,” she pierces through a heavy landscape of growling synth stabs, echoes of her voice peeling away like feathers floating rhythmically out into the air; “Ghosts” confounds as she intones throughout the chorus, “There's a ghost in me who wants to say I'm sorry/Doesn't mean I'm sorry.”

Despite their reputation for studio wizardry, the members of Ladytron go blank when asked about the science of capturing vocals — no dissertations on microphones, mic preamps or the proper compressor ratio settings here. Instead, they're content to let the engineer set things up for the art to follow. “We've got two vocalists in Mira and me, and we play off the differences between us,” Marnie says. “That way we have another level — my vocal doesn't need to be on the track. When I'm recording at home, I'll use a Shure mic, but when we go out to the studio, it's a variety of microphones.

“Champagne helps for recording a good vocal track,” she says, “but you can have a glass too much, and it does go over the edge! [Laughs.] It's important that we're in the right place: The Garage was a good place to record because I felt quite relaxed. It's got the right atmosphere.”

“The vocals are what make it sound like Ladytron, honestly,” Hunt observes. “Just listen to the difference between ‘Versus'' [the album closer which sees Hunt joining Aroyo and Marnie on vocals] and ‘I'm Not Scared,'' musically. The thing that makes it Ladytron is the voice.”

Ladytron also has been known to interact with a real live drum set. The Witching Hour tour saw them traveling with drummer Keith York (as well as bassist Andrew Goldsworthy), and the Velocifero sessions were supplemented by Seba, skinsman for the band Panico. “He came in and laid down a load of tracks,” Hunt says. “We sat him there for three hours and said, ‘Go for it.'' He's a fan of the band, and we got him to do stuff like Stewart Copeland; that was the catch phrase. He improvised at the end of ‘They Gave You a Heart, They Gave You a Name,'' and the hats on ‘Tomorrow,'' which is very subtle.”

NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO PRODUCER

Although their friends Vicarious Bliss (Ed Banger Records) and Alessandro Cortini (Nine Inch Nails) are credited with assisting in the production of the album, the members of Ladytron themselves are the official producers on Velocifero.

“We might have needed a producer on the last album, but we don't need one anymore,” Wu says. “Jim Abbiss taught us a hell of a lot on the last album, but the important thing is to work with a really good engineer and mixer. The kind of band we are is we're producers. We're producers from the beginning, although we collaborated a lot with Alessandro Cortini and Vicarious Bliss, and they got production credits.

“This is obvious these days, but everyone produces themselves anyway,” Wu continues. “That's what we've done all along, but we've hit a level where you think, ‘We'll have to bring a producer in.'' But unless they really understand the band, what are they going to bring to it? They're not going to understand it better than you do.”

Ladytron acknowledges that they learned at least two important things from Abbiss' efforts on Witching Hour. 1) How to drink vodka gimlets, and 2) the fine art of layering. “Whenever you think you've got enough, you need more!” Hunt says. “You have a lot of frequencies, but make sure they're not doing the same thing. An experienced producer told us that he really liked our first album because it sounded minimalist to them; it's only got four sounds on it, but that's because we didn't have any other sounds.”

“I think it's a perception of putting on more layers and giving the impression that there aren't any more layers,” Wu explains. “It's a thick sound and a lot of space. The way that ‘Runaway'' was built up was the product of experience: There's layers of EBow and drones using delays, building vocal textures with delays, recording synth sounds twice and panning them left and right, generally fattening things up like that. Even though we're putting on a lot more layers now, we don't want it to be too much.”

“It depends what the layers are; it has to be good stuff,” Hunt reasons. “With drones, for example, you play a flat line with a mono synth and a lot of modulation on it, then double it with an EBow, then double it with another keyboard, it's going to sound better if those are the ingredients. It's when people apply it without any taste that you have a problem. So it's really not about how many layers; it's about the right layers.”

IN PAIRS

Seven years into a career that hasn't gone the way anybody could have predicted — least of all Ladytron — the band has reached a happy stage where they find they're not just layering tracks, they're layering albums.

“I felt Witching Hour was like a coming-of-age album,” Wu muses. “At that point it was the best album that we'd done so far, and basically lots of different factors came together, and we've now created this work that we're really happy with. I see that as a foundation, a whole new set of opportunities to broaden our range again.”

“I think it might be that this record was easier to make,” Hunt concludes. “It felt like we knew what we were doing a lot. It gets easier each time, but Velocifero also feels like our second album, in a way. The first two albums make a pair, and these two do.”

VELOCIFERO: Built for Speed

Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple MacBook Pro 2.16 GHz running Logic Pro 8 (in Alessandro Cortini's studio)
Digidesign Control|24 console (courtesy of Vicarious Bliss)
Digidesign Pro Tools software
Steinberg Cubase SX software

Synths, soft synths, instruments
Analogue Systems French Connection synth
ARP 2600 modular synth, Solina String Synthesizer
Buchla 200e synth
EBow electronic guitar bow
Farfisa organ
Fender Rhodes
JoMoX SunSyn synth
Korg MS-10, MS-20, Delta synths
Moog Minimoog, Voyager synths
Native Instruments Battery software drum sampler, Guitar Rig software, Komplete software bundle
Ovation Breadwinner guitar (with EBow)
Roland MKS-80, SH-09, SH-2 and Juno-6 synths
Phantom 6-string guitar, bass guitar
Sequential Circuits Pro-One synth
Sequential Circuits Prophet VS (courtesy of Daft Punk)
Live drum kit

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects/plug-ins
API 2500 stereo compressor
Crane Song HEDD signal processor (for synth parts)
Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer effects unit
Neumann TLM 103 mic
Roland RE-201 Space Echo tape echo
Shadow Hills GAMA preamp, The Equinox preamp/summing mixer
Shure SM7 mic (for background vocals)
SoundToys EchoBoy plug-in
Tonelux MP1a preamp, EQ4P EQ and TXC compressor
URS Classic Console Strip Pro plug-in
Various effects pedal combinations

Monitors
Genelec 1031s (courtesy of Vicarious Bliss)
Genelec 8030s

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