If you haven’t listened to Houndmouth for a few years, then you’re behind. Though this band’s early LPs had a roots feel, their latest album, Golden Age (Warner Bros., 2018), slants toward processed vocals, e-drums, and synth sounds. The spirit of sonic experimentation has taken hold of them.
For example, give a listen to “This Party.”
When Houndmouth frontman Matt Myers began developing ideas for these songs, and demoing his songs in Garageband, he says he had in mind a vague feeling of nostalgia, espressed in new sounds, as opposed to specific story songs. He and the band envisioned Foxygen multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado producing the record.
“Because Rado is part of an indie scene, with an underground DIY vibe , the label wasn’t sure about him producing. I said, ‘Well, what if we could get Shawn Everett too?’ And so they signed off on both of them,” Myers says. “It was great because Rado has an endless catalog of melodies, and there was that nostalgic feeling I wanted. But the futuristic sounds that are like something you’ve never quite heard before, that’s because of Shawn’s sonic manipulation.”
The band worked in several different locations, fitting their recording sessions in between gigs. Studios included Sonic Ranch (Tornillo, Texas), plus Boulevard, Vox, Subtle Nugget, EastWest, and Sonora Recorders (all in Los Angeles).
“Rado and Shawn met the first day we went into the studio and we worked on the first song on the record, ‘Never Forget,’” Myers recalls. “It’s not really a song as much as it’s a chant or a mantra. It’s like the thesis of the concept of the record, and we didn’t know how to approach it. Shawn was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to score a movie, so maybe we could just score this song like a movie.’ So that’s how we approached it, and after that it was just all creativeness.”
Golden Age was engineered by Ivan Wayman, who has worked with Everett frequently during the past few years. Wayman says that each track was kept in the analog domain as long as possible, with parts being laid down to a 3M M79 machine. Many songs, Wayman explains, began with a LinnDrum part: “Rado has an original LinnDrum. A lot of times we would lay out the structure of a song first using something that, or another drum machine, and then start overdubbing, one thing at a time, on top of that onto the tape.
Wayman captured the LinnDrum sounds direct and through a pair of amplifiers. “In a lot of cases, we’d split the sound to a stereo signal,” he says. “The Linndrum would be in the control room with lines out to the live room. We would have the two amps in the corners of the room mimicking a wide stereo image, and then we would mike each one close with something like a Shure SM57 or a smaller dynamic mic, and then we would have two room mics that were large-diaphragm condensers.
“I think there was, from everybody involved, a desire to push the envelope production-wise,” Wayman continues. “So, every time we wanted a guitar part, everybody took some time to themselves to come up with an interesting new idea to record guitar, or a new way to arrange the song. We did a lot of 24-track tape loops—recording loops and then playing back through the console and arranging a song live that way. That was a large part of the process and a lot of what the record sounds like—tape loops.”
The team also took an inventive approach to Myers’ lead vocals: “Matt has a very open and experimental mind to begin with, and [his voice] being the focal point to the record, he was definitely down to experiment there,” says Wayman. “We tried some things like singing through headphones and through all kinds of different mics—tiny little ribbon mics and vintage things that were laying around. We would just see what worked, what didn’t, what was interesting on his voice. I know that a Harmonizer 910 was a big factor as far as vocal effects, too. That was fun to play with, to have something in the background of his voice moving around. We used Vocoders as well.”
Everett also employed playful ways to keep the mood light in the studio, while juicing everyone’s creativity. Wayman recalls a particular instance involving Shane Cody’s acoustic drum parts: “One day in Vox, we were doing a drum take, and Shawn had the idea for us to write down all of the effects in the outboard effects rack on pieces of paper and put them into a hat. We had 8 drum mics, and we chose at random from the hat which effect we would use on each input—an H3000 or EMT 250 reverb, or Lexicon delay, etc.
“The rule was, we had to use whatever we chose for that instrument. We had to make it work. It turned out awesome, and very interesting in a way we wouldn’t have arrived at if we hadn’t done that process. We found a way to make every effect contribute to an interesting drum sound.”
Another example of Everett adding the fun factor was on the song “World Leader,” which was tracked at Sonic Ranch. Everett recruited musicians from other sessions that were happening in the facility and brought them in to Houndmouth’s session. “We grabbed a click track and told everybody the key of the song, and then told them one at a time to bring over a bunch of instruments, and just noodle for the duration of the song in that key,” Myers recalls. “They didn’t know the progression or anything. We got like a hundred takes of all these guys on all different instruments. And once we had all this stuff on the faders, Shawn and Rado just played the faders at random, and that added to the spastic thing the song has.
“There were a lot of little things like that to keep us interested,” Myers continues. “We all like games, and it was games within games within games. We would create structure first—get everything lined up on a grid—and then we could get into the fun stuff of embellishing and experimenting.”