Death Cab for Cutie: Recording 'Kintsugi'

Making the band's last album with member/producer Chris Walla
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THE FINAL DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE ALBUM TO INCLUDE ORIGINAL MEMBER, PRODUCER, AND INSTRUMENTALIST CHRIS WALLA, RECORDED ON TAPE AND IN PRO TOOLS, PRODUCED BY RICH COSTEY, AND FEATURING A WEALTH OF ANCIENT ANALOG DRUM MACHINES AND DCFC’S FIRST LIVE PERFORMANCES IN THE STUDIO AS A COMPLETE GROUP, KINTSUGI (ATLANTIC) IS ARGUABLY THE MOST ACCESSIBLE ALBUM THE SEATTLE FOURSOME HAS RECORDED, YET IT'S ALSO THEIR MOST ENIGMATIC.

Ben Gibbard tracking at Eldorado. Walla’s last performance with DCFC was September 13, 2014, at the Rifflandia Festival in Victoria, BC. Walla wrote in Seattle paper The Strangler, “I think I long for the unknown. It might be that simple.” With songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Ben Gibbard; bassist Nick Harmer; and drummer Jason McGerr left to fend for themselves, the group asked producer Rich Costey (Franz Ferdinand, Muse, Interpol, Kimbra) to record the band in his Eldorado Recording Studios in Burbank, California. After phone calls with Walla and Gibbard, the initially wary Costey was onboard.

“We began making this record with Chris at the helm in the summer of 2013,” Gibbard explains from his Seattle studio, Computer World. “But a month into recording Chris called a meeting and said, ‘I don’t think I am the right person to [produce] this record.’ He basically fired himself and we began looking for a new producer. Things weren’t hitting the way they should have been hitting. It was the right call on Chris’ part.” The band made a decision not to tell Costey that Walla was leaving the band until they were finished recording, because they felt it might color the process. “Every band has cliques—that is how bands are,” says Gibbard. “The sound of the record was equal parts the songs I was bringing in and Rich’s desire to make a record that sounded like us but with some new flavors.”

Produced and mixed by Costey; recorded by Costey, engineers Martin Cooke, and Nicolas Fournier at Eldorado Recording Studios; and assisted by Mario Borgatta and mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering, Kintsugi—also the Japanese word for the art of fixing broken pottery—is an ethereal, insular-sounding record, built on the sound of drum machines and the sad mood of a lost friendship.

“I had no idea,” Costey recalls. “For them it’s been coming for a long time but I didn’t get any hint of it. Chris was massively engaged, and I pushed all of them really, really hard. I set Chris up in our secondary control room at Eldorado because he likes to tinker and come up with ideas, from tape splices to programming, which he would incorporate into the music. And he plays ripping guitar on the album.”

Costey’s signature gear used on DCFC included his Studer A 827 tape machine, extremely rare UA-610 console, Neve PSM 12x2 console (1073 pre's, 10 direct outs), 52-channel SSL 4000E.

“We thought of each song as man and machine,” Gibbard says. “We wanted varying percentages of man and machine on every song. There might be an LM-1 Linn Drum or a sequence happening, but we wanted it to sound like a band. I was impressed with Rich in that he brought drum machines into the band setting without having the machine over whelm the band; that’s a tightrope walk when you bring that element into a rock band. It tends to overtake everything. But in the more successful moments on this album the man and machine are playing as one. Rich was very much at the helm of that.”

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Going against the grain of Costey’s fondness for ancient machinery, Gibbard is practically an analog Luddite. While most everyone else is embracing vintage analog technology in all of its crusty glory, Gibbard prefers the world of computers for tracking vocals and everything else.

“I have never been happier than when we were able to record vocals into a computer rather than to tape,” Gibbard says. “Chris is an analog purist; he likes cutting up tape and we did record basics to tape for Kintsugi. Tape has a certain quality that is unmatched in a computer because of the physical nature of the medium. But there is very little difference that the average musical listener can actually hear between a record recorded to tape and one recorded well to a computer. Nobody can tell. I like that recording in computer removes the human element; you don’t need an engineer to be performing the take with you. As long as when you’re recording to the computer you are able to maintain a focus on the musicality and the character of the performance, and keep tight to that focus, computers are great. It’s only when people try to fix everything and get lost in the myriad software effects choices that you lose focus on what is important.”

Still, tape and analog processing fills Kintsugi. From Walla’s spliced, diced, and thrown-around tape loops to Costey’s vintage consoles and insistence on recording drums to tape, Kintsugi is a compromise, in many ways, for Death Cab for Cutie.

“There are definitely processed, long-sounding guitar things on the record,” Costey explains. “A lot of that is Chris’s natural tendency. He likes tape loops. Chris will put down ambient guitar parts across an eight-track deck, then we will bring it up and set up Chris up with eight faders. He will turn up faders as the song goes by to generate a guitar part out of that ambience. We did that on ‘Good Help (Is So Hard to Find).’ Chris and I share an affinity for that kind of sound.”

With Walla working alone in Eldorado’s B control room, free of production duties, he buried himself in his own weird tape, drum machine, guitar, and keyboard world.

“There’s all kinds of keyboards on the album,” explains Fournier. “Chris had his own stuff in the B room, a little Radio Shack keyboard, our Wurly 200A, Steinway Model B piano, Yamaha CP70 grand piano, Roland Juno patches. But we didn’t use any soft synths. Both Rich and Chris are fans of real synths and older analog synths. Rich also has a Modcan modular synth and an ARP 2600 which we use in processing for its filters. One song has a whole bed of literally Chris’ recorded tones in the key of the song on the 8-track machine, which he cut up into inch-long pieces and then put it in a shoebox. Then he tossed the tape around in the box and taped them back together, and ran that into the song. It created this kind of glitchy, tonal, moving, shifting thing in the background of the song. On another song he did the same thing, then we hooked the tape machine up to Rich’s little Neve console and recorded the output of that. Chris was playing the faders bringing different chords in and out throughout the song. We had Mario, our assistant, sitting on the floor spooling the tape making sure that it fed properly. A lot of fun.”

“Fun,” but also an “odd situation,” as Costey tells it. “Clearly if they wanted an outside producer, they were trying to figure something out,” he says. “They liked my records with Muse and Interpol and we talked about a lot of different music. I listen to hip-hop and electronic music, mostly; no rock unless it’s older. I like Andy Stott and Mt. Kimbie. I hate electronic music made on computers. Did you notice on Aphex Twin’s Syro album? He listed some of the gear he used to record the album, but he doesn’t use computers. A lot of artists I like use the computer as a home base but the music is being made elsewhere. People have to make music, not just a bunch of crap going on in Ableton. All these people harness technology to make music but at the core is their musical voice. Sometimes the aesthetic choices trump the musical choices with a lot of contemporary rock music. They get their style together but not their music.

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Team Costey at the UA-610 console in Eldorado Studio A. L-R: engineers Martin Cooke, Nicolas Fournier, and assistant engineer Mario Borgatta. With producer Rich Costey in bottom-left corner.“Anyway,” Costey continues, “we would set up Chris’ vintage drum machines and use that as a jumping-off point. On ‘Good Help,’ for example, we were almost done with the song, but it wasn’t right. So we set up the full band in the live room, and I felt that there was a beat that would work so I programmed it on Chris’ Linn Drum, which has a cool sound, and they played along to it. That inspired the performance, and in 20 minutes it was done.”

While much of Kintsugi has a serene, almost electronic-sounding sheen infusing the music, it’s one of the very rare DCFC instances where the entire band can be heard playing live in the studio.

“Most of the album was tracked with the band playing together live, which hasn’t happened in years,” Costey says. “And sometimes reacting to my drum programming. We recorded all the jams onto a stereo two-track running all the time. They never do that. Ben is a song guy who doesn’t care about jamming. But it’s good for everyone to stretch out. That happened on a quite a few songs. If a band has chemistry, it’s foolish to ignore that.”

Gibbard maintains a small studio in Seattle, where he uses a Beyer M160 to capture everything, including demo vocals. “It takes me a couple takes to warm up, then I do five full passes of the song, no stopping, no comments, then make some notes,” Gibbard says. “My goal is to have most of the lead vocal done in five takes. I like to get larger chunks completed, even in one take if possible, but usually one line isn’t right, then we fix it, or take it from the other four takes. I wrote the song; it’s not like I am figuring out the lyrics in the studio. The delivery is what matters for me.”

“We used the Shure SM7, Neve PSM 10 mic pre's, and EL Labs Distressor on Ben’s vocal,” says Fournier. “We did all the basic scratch vocals with the SM7—it sounds good, and it can be in the drum room and be less prone to pick up everything like a condenser would. We also tried an AKG C12 and Telefunken ELAM 251 and our nice tube mics, but we really liked the way the vocals sat with Ben’s voice on the SM7. ‘Hold No Guns’ is one mic on Ben and his guitar: a Neumann M49; one take. Other than that, we used the SM7 on all of Ben’s vocals.”

Costey’s Universal Audio 610 board, one of only 12 in existence, was also used extensively on Kintsugi. “It’s got that big, warm, classic tube-y sound,” says Fournier. “It’s not overly tube-y like some modern tube gear that over-emphasizes its tube qualities; it’s just big and rich and clear. It’s got these simple high-and low-shelf EQs, simple notches but with a very gentle slope that shapes the tone nicely.”

Drums were tracked both digitally and analog set to time code. “Some songs were entirely digital, some all analog,” says Fournier. “You get more low-end weight with analog, and better clarity with digital, so it depended on what each song called for. We might switch mid-take, depending on the song. But we used tape for drums and some guitars and Chris’ tape loops.”

Eldorado’s gear menu includes a Shadow Hills preamp, Briscasti reverb, Neumann, Blue Bottle, Shure, Sanken, and AKG microphones, and dozens of EQs, delays, plug-ins, and more. Drums were tracked in the 20x12x20 live room, with the band in the same live room, amps located in the four isolation booths.

“There was no pre-production,” says Fournier. “The songs were written but not arranged, which was done in studio—a lot of cutting and re-cutting of parts. We would re-cut guitars over and over to get the right sound, a sound that was unique. DCFC are spectacular players. The goals would change as we recorded songs. Rich wants to make sure everything is right and interesting and unique and that the direction is proper.”

Guitars were recorded using Shure SM57, Royer 121, or Neumann U87 microphones, “usually a few inches from the grille, just off center of the cone,” says Fournier. “We might multi-mic and amp with a 57 and a 87 lined up so they are perfectly in phase, but usually one mic. Most of the guitars were cut with the Neve PCM and the Shadow Hills preamps.”

Bass tracking commenced via an Ampeg SVT, using a microphone combination of 421, a Blue Mouse, and/or Neumann FET 47. Mic placement was similar to guitars: off-center of the cone, not too far away from grille.

Drum recording changed almost per song. Compared to some studios, Eldorado’s drum miking is practically minimal; again, depending on the song. “Sometimes just a kick and snare and a mono overhead, other times 16 mics,” Fournier says. “A lot of the record is a Beyer M88, Jason’s mic, that sounded really good placed on the kick drum, inside the shell, supplemented sometimes with a FET 47 or a NS10 kick-drum mic on the outside. Snare drum was usually a combo of SM57 or a Josephson E22. Mono overhead mic was a Sony C37 that was broken but sounds cool placed three feet over the kit or a pair of AKG C12s as overheads. Room mics were a pair of Blue Bottles, close to the ground, four or five feet from the kit. Our live room is very live so we keep the mics close to the ground so it doesn’t get too washy. For room mics, we liked the spill off of Ben’s SM7 vocal mic into the drums, and we set up another SM7 facing the wall in the back to capture those drum reflections to give the drums that slap. Tom mics were the Josephsons as well, and 451 on the hi-hat all usually running through the Universal Audio 610’s mic preamps.

A cerebral, melancholic pop album laced with shimmers of electronic programming, wistful lyrics, and an unmistakable sense of forward motion, Kintsugi is essentially Death Cab for Cutie’s love letter to itself, a confirmation that all will be well, that personalities and goals change, that nothing stays the same.