Onstage, you might see a sweaty dude in a panda suit dancing around the band. But just because there are antics and fog machines involved doesn’t mean Seattle’s Head Like a Kite treat their music like a gimmick. Frontman Dave Einmo is a gear lover who diligently records live instruments, then rearranges and cuts them up as if the parts were samples from dusty thrift-store vinyl.
Although primarily a one-man act in the studio (drummer Trent Moorman tours with Einmo live), HLAK got some help from producer Boom Bip, Her Space Holiday, and members of The Long Winters, Saturday Knights, Smoosh, and Swervedriver for his self-released third album, Dreams Suspend Night, a medley of electronic, indie-rock, and hip-hop tracks.
Here, Einmo talks about recording live instruments, mangling the crap out of them, balancing a studio party vibe with serious recording methods, and getting in trouble while drinking scotch.
Could you pick a song on Dreams Suspend Night and explain the step-by-step process of creating it, from writing to recording to mixing?
I approach writing and recording like a DJ/producer does, except instead of sampling vinyl or other recordings, I sample myself playing melodic loops on various instruments. I usually start out with a drum beat for inspiration and then build on that with synths, bass, guitar, strings, etc. Then I invite friends in to play various parts (cellos, violins, theramin, trumpets, vocals). Then once the song is organized, I deconstruct it and remix the parts with various electronic devices such as my Electrix Mo-Fx. Those things are amazing. By adjusting the feedback and rate of the analog delay, you can create some crazy loops that sound like vinyl being scratched by an android on ecstasy. ??
An example of this approach is “We’re Always on the Wrong Side of Sunrise.” Lyrically, the idea came from an extremely late night in Las Vegas while on tour when the promoter took us out until 8 a.m. drinking Scotch. When we walked out of the club the sun was up, birds were chirping, and people were going to breakfast, and he said, “It looks like we’re on the wrong side of sunrise.” Indeed, I thought, and made a mental note to capture this stupidity with a song. When we got home from tour, I worked on a drum loop I created in Ableton Live, and then started creating loops on top of it with my Juno-106 and my Fender Rhodes and bass. I layered all the tracks and then asked Tilson to guest on the vocals (Graig Markel and Barbara Trentalange also sing on it). Once the vocal melodies were in place I cut up the original loops and completely rewrote them, in essence making this an entirely new song. It’s fun to take the original instruments and deconstruct them into something different, yet still keep the original vocal parts. It started out more like a Madlib-like grainy Optigan, slow hip-hop song, and evolved into a more pop-oriented number. To accentuate the new feel, I added the arena-rock guitar using a Les Paul Standard into a blackface Fender Champ, and invited Anthony Moore to come over and record the horn section. His horns sounded so good I added him to several other tracks. You can never have enough horns.?
Did you try out any recording experiments on the album? ?
Every Head Like a Kite album is always a process in experimentation because I write and record at the same time. I also really like altering the sounds of organic instruments (such as a koto) and then running them through guitar effects, and then randomly cutting up notes in Pro Tools and reorganizing the notes into an entirely different melody. If you start with an organic instrument like piano or guitar and cut it up this way, you can create some really original sounds because you get unusual overtones my mixing things together. You end up with an electronic feel because it’s glitched. Yet it still sounds warm because the original source was a stringed instrument. I did this with a bunch on songs, like “She’s Wearing That Costume” and “Beat Zero.” We also experimented with using morse code as percussion at the end of “Beat Zero.” It was a surprisingly fitting way to end the album.??
I mixed the album at Electrokitty Studios in Seattle with Gary Reynolds, and he was kind enough block out a month for us to fiddle with knobs. He’s a genius. He has this really nice 56-channel SSL 9056 J console and towers of Neve, Universal Audio, Telefunken, Manley, and other outboard gear. It was like Disneyland for me. I didn’t want to leave. When I drank all his Scotch, he finally said it was time to wrap it up.??
While recording, I had a box of costumes in the studio, and at various times, we’d grab a wig or cape or other festive attire to lighten the mood. I think the album really captures the party vibe, and in part it’s because the studio sessions were more like New Year’s Eve masquerade parties.?? ?
You worked with a few guest vocalists with very different voices and styles, such as Asya Smoosh and Tilson. Do you use different signal chains for each vocalist and treat vocals differently in the mix?
Yes. For my vocals and for Asya, we used Neumann mics into my API 3124+ mic pre. And For Tilson we used a variety of different mics and compressors. Adam Franklin of Swervedriver sings on the album, as does Terri Terrantula, Barbara Trentalange, and Graig Markel. They each have their own styles and vocal tones, so we used different compressors and EQs for each of them. It was fun having that luxury to have so many different vocalists guest on the album, because we could really dial in the mixes to fit each singer. In the end I stopped looking at gear and just listened. People sometimes forget to listen in the studio, and instead they just mix based on what experts have told them to do. Obviously, you want to use quality equipment and proven techniques, but I think advertisers can convince us that one mic is better than the other, when in reality a no-name piece of gear might actually sound better in certain applications. Gary has an amazing mic and outboard gear collection. So I basically had any mic and mic pre and compressor I wanted at my disposal. But I tried to really focus on what sounded best as opposed to what had the biggest price tag. A great example is during the recording of “Thrones of Glory.” I tried nearly every amp in his studio—various vintage Vox and Fender amps that would make a collector drool. But in the end, an old amp he bought for $125 sounded the best for that song. ??
There are some interesting sounds going on in “Robot Makes Love With the Swingset, 1976,” from strings, horns, wah guitar, and glitchy edits. How’d you record the organic sounds, such as the strings? And in contrast, how did you create the more choppy and programmed sounds? ?
I love mixing organic instruments with glitched parts. The beginning of “Robot Makes Love...” starts out sounding like a 1970s Italian porn disco track and then midway through it glitches into 2010 by cutting up the Moog Rogue and Juno 106 synths into a frenzy. On “Robot...,” I created a drum loop in Ableton Live and then recorded a wah-wah guitar using a 1967 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Goldtop with a Crybaby Wah plugged into an early ‘70s Fender Twin with the reverb at 5. I recorded it with a SM57 into an API mic pre. I must have played that part for about two hours straight before I finally got the timing I wanted. It was like a “Superfly Palooza” in the studio. White bellbottom pants and glittery polyester shirts. Once I had the main parts of the song recorded, I added MIDI strings as a placeholder and sent them to some friends in San Francisco (Kendra Osterhout and Andrew Vernon) so they could replace the MIDI strings with real violins and theremin. Then Barbara Trentalange added a sultry Donna Summer vocal hook towards the end. When it was all recorded, I began the deconstruction of parts to highlight the aggressive analog synths at the end, and do the time skip from 1970 disco to 2010 electronic afterparty. By using that Electrix Mo-Fx I was able to do radical pitch changes to individual parts of the loop by swinging the delay rate and feedback and then locking it in with the tap tempo.??
What are five pieces of gear or software that were key to making Dreams Suspend Night? ?
SSL 9056 J console?
My guitar effects board (with Moogerfooger 12-stage phaser, Moogerfooger Ring Modulator, Boss PS-3 Pitch Shifter, Boss Bass Synth, Ibanez AD9 Analog Delay, Full Tone-Full Drive II Mosfet)
Can I add a sixth? My API 3124+ mic pre is all over this album.
Speaking of gear, here’s a short video of us mixing “Director’s Cut” with Tilson:
And watch the video for “Director’s Cut” here: