Felix Da Housecat is anything but a homebody. The producer and DJ, born Felix Stallings Jr., booked thousands of air miles to assemble his latest album, Narrative of Thee Blast Illusion.
Sessions for Felix’s first full-length since 2011’s Son of Analogue took place in London, New York, Atlanta, Vienna and Ibiza, give or take a hotel room, travel lounge, or car ride to KFC. Distilling Chicago house, synth-pop, and ’80s R&B, Felix put together 11 standalone songs tied together by a command of melody.
Migrating between genres and scenes is nothing new for Felix. Born in Illinois, first embraced in England, made famous for a sound reminiscent of Germany and Detroit, inspired by Italo-disco and Minneapolis pop, Felix has been restless since he emerged from the second wave of Chicago house by collaborating with DJ Pierre to produce the acid-edged 1987 house track “Fantasy Girl” at age 16.
Throughout the ’90s Felix established himself in the U.K. and Europe, signing first to William Orbit’s label Guerilla and producing as Thee Maddkatt Courtship and the more tech-house-oriented Aphrohead, as well as his main alias. Felix culminated his introduction to the Brooklyn-meets- Berlin electroclash scene with the 2002 Eurotrash classic Kittenz and Thee Glitz, an album of pure, uncut new New Wave that sounded simultaneously contemporary and like Prince in Dirty Mind mode. Kittenz and Thee Glitz led to Devin Dazzle & the Neon Fever, an excess-steeped, live musician-fueled embodiment of partying.
In the years since, and across several albums, Felix recaptured a funk-soul swing that was flattened on the more Continental club-informed, highly stylized electronic pop. For Narrative of Thee Blast Illusion Felix opted to ignore productions that might feed the modern industry (one facet of “the illusion”), and instead concentrated on nostalgic, mood-driven vignettes. The key to that aesthetic for Felix is to keep as much of “the distortion, the trickery, the warmth, the magic” out of the box as he can.
KEEPING IT FRESH
Because he believes that the initial pass can often be the best, Felix carries key gear when he travels; a RadioShack microphone, Korg Kaoss Pad, Digi-Tech Vocalist and Apogee Quartet, plus an Access Virus TI Polar that Dallas Austin might still be looking for, are just some of the tools in his road case.
“For me, it’s all about getting it in that moment … just hit Record and let me roll,” he explains. “First, I’m all about getting the music, and then I worry about the sound. For each part I work an hour, walk away, mix on it for an hour, walk away, layer on it an hour, walk away, add or tweak some more, walk away. I’ll do that for beats, vocals, basslines.”
He adds that he rarely uses MIDI, “unless it’s a really complex part and I need to do some sequencing, but then I’ll still overlay stuff live. It’s about keeping it fresh, so I don’t let creativity get drained by engineering. I’ve got great guys that fly the ship, because I’m not that 16-year-old so hyped to do it all anymore. I never want to lose the feel. That’s also why I’ll use the Virus, or the [Roland] Juno-106— the bass you can get out of that is incredible, and the strings. Those just flow, which is what I look for in a keyboard. Sometimes I’ll be in a session and be making songs like when I was younger, getting the arrangement down in 30 minutes.”
Working off a “Felix Master Kit” of vintage drum samples (Acetone Rhythm Ace, Boss DR-Rhythm 110, Casio, E-mu, LinnDrum, Oberheim, Roland TR-707/808/909, you name it), the production crew would establish patterns, but never a strict grid. Don’t think Narrative of Thee Blast Illusion came together in one week of first takes, however. The album still involved three years, four engineers, and copious amounts of serendipity.
Narrative of Thee Blast Illusion began, like most Felix projects, late one night. In 2012 he performed a party in Cleveland for the No Shame label, and the hotel afterparty turned into a conversation about releasing an album. A few weeks later, Felix sat down at the Virus, Stewart fired up Ableton Live, and they started sketching.
Felix in the studio with Lee “Scratch” Perry, who appears on “The Natural.”Narrative of Thee Blast Illusion is a minimal recording at heart, created with a group of mix contributors that included Travis Boyette in Atlanta, Dave Parkinson in London, and Devon James Stewart in New York.
“Whereas a lot of guys are stacking 10 synths to get stuff, these instruments are simple and there aren’t as many tracks, so you need the distortion to get the richness, the width, and dimension back,” says Boyette from his Atlanta studio. “Felix doesn’t want it to be busy. There isn’t a single note on the album that isn’t intentional and justified.
“We’re really careful with gain stage … we start mixing the moment you hit Record for the first time so we won’t get in trouble down the road,��� he explains. “I think a mistake a lot of amateurs make is they start too stinking loud and at the end there’s nowhere to go, so we start soft and later add gain on it. Things that are both right and wrong stick out when you mix soft.”
“There are plenty of noise patterns on the tunes,” says Parkinson, taking a break from a session in London. “But eventually we decided to leave in natural hiss as part of the effect, because the longer you carve them out, the more it sounds a bit strange. I’ve mixed a lot of dance records with frequency conflict, but Felix wasn’t scared to leave lots of room to play with, so we could have dynamics breathe and push the right things to get warmth.”
Felix tends to favor processing on the front end. “I’ll record live through the Kaoss Pad, pan it, and do another take,” he says. “For vocals, I’ll also do a lot of layers singing through this DigiTech box I got in the ’90s, and the TC Helicon VoiceLive, panning and stacking them with female vocals, like Prince would do as [one of his late-’80s studio alter egos] Camille, and then after I go through all my presets I’ll chop ’em up, edit ’em, then lay the straight vocal in the center. You gotta understand how to do it right or you’ll end up sounding like a cheesy robot, and it can be tedious and take days, but I’d always rather do this than use echoes or delays off the computer. I do use Melodyne, but not to tune my voice; just for more positioning effects.”
Stewart—not just one of Felix’s engineers, but also his tour manager—confirms that many ideas were initially drafted with just the Virus, Kaoss Pad, Apogee, and a laptop. Vocals could be tracked with the cheap 1/4-inch jack RadioShack mic, or a Blue Bottle, or Neumann, depending on circumstances. And the constant moving around and patching gear back together resulted in some unforeseen dividends.
“At one point Felix wanted to do some recording on ‘Looking 4 A Reason,’ and because I was in a hurry to get everything plugged back in, I accidentally routed a kick drum to the Kaoss Pad instead of the bassline or vocal or whatever was supposed to go through it at the time, and that caused the ‘bouncy mattress’ effect you can hear that we kept in,” Stewart explains. “And on the track ‘Devon’s Box’ we were using a couple different vocal processors with the Apogee Quartet, which only has four physical inputs. So I would plug stuff in and out depending on what part we were recording, and at some point while I had everything unhooked, Felix was getting impatient.
“We had the beat looping in the background already, so he started singing ‘Devon, hook up the box!’ And I was like, ‘that’s hot, record that.’ We ended up reworking the song a bunch in different cities, finding a way to slow it down without losing the feel, and nudging tracks a few milliseconds behind each other to get more dimensions. Sometimes we worked with a really minimal set-up, but we were always open to whatever we could get out of it.”
Ableton Live, Logic, Pro Tools, and Cubase—as well as Focusrite Red, Black Lion Audio, Allen & Heath, Antelope Audio, API, and Radial Engineering outboard gear, among other modules—were employed for various sessions. “The audio nerds would say you have a problem with so many different algorithms and you’ll lose detail going through all these different converters, but the platform wasn’t as important as the end product,” says Boyette. “Felix sees engineers as instruments to put on the album, so tracks get passed around to get two or three different perspectives going.”
“When I’m in the studio with an engineer that’s quiet I’ll pick on you, and if you’re talking I’ll be quiet, because I don’t want things to get too comfortable and you don’t want to work,” says Felix.
Take the lead single, “Is Everything OK?” Austrian producer/mix engineer Christoph Trücher, Trücher had flown to Atlanta and was staying with Felix, working in his basement project studio. It was 12 a.m. and the two were discussing the soundtrack to the Ryan Gosling film Drive, specifically the Kavinsky song “Nightcall,” which people felt ripped Felix’s style of ’80s recalls.
“I was a huge [John] Carpenter and [Giorgio] Moroder fan; they were like cult heroes to me, and you can hear that in my tracks from way before Drive,” says Felix. “I thought if people are ripping me, I’ll jack them back and show them how it should have been done. I played the bass line, had the beat, and then I thought I heard my mother-in-law upstairs crying, so that was where we got the idea for the song. I went to check on her, then I went to bed, and at like 4 a.m. Chris messages me to come hear something, and there it was. The whole demo took one night, because the guys I work with understand it’s all about waiting to get each song when it’s ready so the album doesn’t just sound like one big compilation.”
As quickly as the framework would come once an idea hit, however, the mixing could be another matter altogether. “Me and Felix did something like 30 different mixes of ‘The Natural’ [a submerged, deliberately lo-fi vibe featuring Lee “Scratch” Perry] while we were in Ibiza, sleeping, eating, and showering in the studio and leaving mostly just for his gigs,” recalls Stewart.
Final mixdown and mastering duties fell primarily to Parkinson and Boyette. Knowing Felix was going for a balance of hair and air, compression and EQ were used far more for coloration than heavy-handed control, and mixing involved a lot of subtraction.
Parkinson turned primarily to Waves PuigTec EQP-1A and SSL plug-ins for balance, doing energy sweeps with a few key elements to create space. Parkinson used the Waves Maserati ACG— an acoustic guitar multi-effect—to brighten synths as needed (though he warns the Exciter function should be approached with respect). And he applied the A.O.M. Invisible Limiter on the drums, bass, synth, and vocal buses.
“It’s fantastic, the best limiter I’ve ever used,” says Parkinson. “It’s very transparent and gives you more volume and takes away the harshness. It’s 20 to 30 percent more than you get off any other limiter. Do your slight limiting, your minus-two-or-three threshold and compressor to minus 20 on the early stages to stop things from spiking and taking the headroom. If you get the mix right on individual channels, mastering isn’t that much of a problem.”
Boyette says that he’s always amazed by the effortlessness of the session files he gets from Parkinson. “He doesn’t do anything that makes the meter do anything significant in order to translate emotional content; his mixes are so clean, yet so effective,” he says. “Testimony to Felix, Devon, Chris and Dave, I’d say it’s 95-percent done by the time I get it, and there’s not much force needed to get it mastered.”
With plenty of dynamic range intact, Boyette often set out to streamline arrangements and reinforce saturation. His go-to gear includes FabFilter and Stillwell Audio plug-ins, as well as Native Instrument effects hosted in Guitar Rig 5. Slate Digital VCC, UAD 1176LN, and Fairchild 670 emulations are also some of his favorite glue when busing stems together.
Antelope Audio and Black Lion clocks (plus a Black Lion summing mixer) assured low-end resolution and kicks hold together. Running everything through TL Audio M1-F Tube Console shelving EQs added presence.
“We’re good with being on the lower side of volume, because Felix wants an album that stands up in any listening situation, not a club record,” says Boyette. “In the end it’s about what makes a perfect song, not a perfectly polished-to-death recording.”
BFFs: Felix and the Juno-106
Felix’s Roland Juno-106 represents the threads of fate that tie this latest project to his beginnings. “The first piece of gear I had was a drum machine, I think it was a Roland, and I let this guy borrow it and he never brought it back,” he recalls. “So one day he comes over with a Juno-106, and I didn’t even know what it was, but I told him I’d hold on to it until he found my drum machine. He never did, so the Juno was sitting there until one day I plugged it up, and ever since it’s been the brains of my music. It just fell in my lap; I didn’t even know what impact it would have in my life.”