During the time it took to make the Monks of Doom’s latest album, The Bronte Pin, bass player/vocalist Victor Krummenacher cut five other albums: two solo records, one with roots band McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and two more with his longtime bandmates in Camper Van Beethoven.
It’s not that all of the other projects work at lightning speed; the Monks’ album actually took seven years to complete.
Formed in the mid 1980s as a jam/prog/jazz/rock side project to Camper, The Monks of Doom released their early records a lot closer together between ’86 and ’92, but then the members mainly put the Monks aside until a covers record, What’s Left for Kicks, appeared in 2006. The status of the Monks is inseparable from Camper’s story; members of both groups have changed over the years, while a core of founding members has remained constant. Each group stopped for a lengthy period and re-formed in the 2000s.
Today, the Monks of Doom are three current members of CVB: Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher, and drummer Chris Pedersen; and Counting Crows guitarist and occasional CVB member David Immerglück.
Immerglück’s busy touring schedule was one of the factors that extended the process of creating The Bronte Pin—that and the fact that all of the other members play in multiple bands and some work day jobs, plus Pedersen lives in Australia. There you have a recipe for a scheduling nightmare. But the band did manage to carve out two days for basic tracking in Fantasy Studios’ Studio A to get the songs rolling back in 2009.
To begin, the players shared what engineer Bruce Kaphan calls “kernels of ideas” for songs, and then expanded those into longer jams from which they could choose a direction, or pieces, that would end up on a final track.
Knowing a little about their process begs the question: How does a jam/prog/jazz/rock quartet who rarely see each other and don’t have fully formed compositions nail down basic tracks in just a couple days? The short answer is, they don’t. But in truth, they got a surprising amount done.
“After working together for 30 years, one thing that this group of people understands is efficiency,” says Kaphan. “And another lovely attribute of experience is that you come to count on your intuition. You trust that ideas will flow. Their attitude was, ‘Let’s make an album where we demand this from ourselves, where we are put on the spot and forced to create right now.’”
With only a couple days to create a foundation for the album, Kaphan knew he needed to capture parts from all possible angles. So he put up what he calls a “safety net” of multiple amps, mics and DI’s. While the bandmembers may have used their own effects as they worked to define what they could as far as arrangements and approach, Kaphan left a lot of sonic doors open to select or process sounds later
“For example, on drums, I set up close miking—a beater side and a front side of the kick drum, snare top and bottom, hi-hat, tom-toms, cymbals—as well as a Glyn Johns trio of mics, and a farther placed AKG C24 stereo microphone,” Kaphan says.
“We kept all that diversity, and then on some of the tunes, we later stripped things down to one presentation or another, so I might have been down to three microphones or even fewer at one point in a mix. I never had to insert myself during the sessions to change anything out because I knew they would have variables to work with.”
“And then Bruce gave me the drive and said, ‘Good luck!’” jokes Krummenacher.
Actually, what followed were numerous sessions in Kaphan’s personal studio, and Krummenacher’s and other bandmembers’, to refine the work they’d done in Fantasy and build pieces into whole songs. Copious overdubs, cut-and-paste editing, re-amping instruments, and plenty of sonic invention came into play.
Zeroing in on the development of the song “Up from the Cane,” Krummenacher offers a microcosm of the overall album creation.
“‘Up from the Cane’ was a song where I had a concept in mind,” Krummenacher explains. “I have a gold coin that belonged to my grandfather that was always supposed to be a gift to the first-born son. It was given to my Uncle Vic and then, because he didn’t have any male children, he gave it to me. It also comes with a rabbit’s foot—a really old, dry rabbit’s foot. My uncle was born in 1925, so you can imagine the state that rabbit’s foot is in now! It also came with this crazy letter that my grandfather typed up that basically tells the story that’s in the song. The moral is that if you have the gold coin, you’re protected from the perils of the world.
“For this song, I wanted a really aggressive tribal punk sound. I had paraphrased the story of the coin in the lyrics, and I had a kind of stupid three-chord bass riff that went with the lyrics. When we went into [Fantasy Studios], I started playing the riff, and Chris played along, and we did that for about 15 minutes with Greg and Immy [Immerglück] making guitar noise in the background. It was not entirely congealing, but in the midst of doing it, Chris just really caught the pocket and we ended up with a snippet that was not quite long enough to support the lyrics of the song, but was pretty well-executed.
“So, I took that snippet home and edited it and elongated it enough through some cloning to what needed to be the body length of the song,” Krummenacher continues. “But the guitar stuff wasn’t working, so I figured out a basic rhythm guitar part and a lead line that I thought could work. Then I presented that to the band.”
At first the guitarists didn’t warm to Krummenacher’s guitar parts, so they were reluctant to take his idea and run with it. “Then I thought, Greg plays crazy good slide guitar, and I said, ‘What if you play these parts but on the slide and we bring it up to a really intense level,’” Krummenacher says. “And Greg was good with that. Immy’s really great at creating colorations and stuff, but he still didn’t want to play guitar on it, and that’s where backwards piano came in.
“At one point we were in Phantom Vox Studio in L.A. Immy and I listen to a lot of free jazz, and we thought, let’s try to get a flavor of Sun Ra or Albert Ayler or something unexpected: those great single-note sounds that you get when you play something backwards—you turn it around to where the sound of the piano is sucking in. It added a lot of tension.
“And then on top of that, at another session with Chris, the percussion genius in him comes out. There are these interstitial breaks in the song where it’s just the bass riff but the drums have dropped out. So Chris started going through this series, this evolution of percussion: drum sticks on the floor, pieces of metal, just a lot of crazy sonic palette work.
“So, we’d done a lot of embellishment, but we still needed a really intense lead vocal, and that fell on me. Basically I shouted for so long—I couldn’t speak for about 2 days after I was done. And even after the labyrinth that it took to get there, the song went through maybe 10 mixes. Bruce was throwing in explosive sound effects—like, literally, sounds of explosions. And one of the very last moves was: we had re-amped the bass, but we also decided to double the bass because it would be more fluid and palpable.
“Then, suddenly it was like, ‘Wait, it’s losing something, let’s go back,’” Krummenacher recalls. “So, we went back three or four versions and we knew we had the one. That happened on several songs: We’d push and push until we’d gone too far, and then go back and find the sweet spot. That’s maybe one of the key lessons of this: Bruce says that if he gets a mix to the point where moving something half a dB is too much, he knows it’s done. And I feel like there’s another side of that on arrangements. If the music seems to be losing energy, go back.”