Yoni Wolf “discovered” The Ophelias across the street from his house in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was the fourth of July 2015 and bands were jamming in the park in his neighborhood. Wolf—the musician/producer behind WHY?—was immediately drawn to their music.
“I thought, this is not normally what you see around here. Cincinnati is a big funk town and there’s a lot of young people playing straight-ahead punk, but this had a lot more articulation than that. I stood there for the rest of the show, and after the show the band ran up to me, because they knew my band. It turned out they used to come into the student music center I volunteered at, and I knew a couple of the boys they used to play with.”
When Wolf says “boys,” he means it. The Ophelias were still high school girls when Wolf met them, but they already had one album under their belts, Creature Native, and they were making progress on the record that would become their second, Almost.
The band’s principle singer/songwriter and guitarist, Spencer Peppet had crafted a collection of songs that the she and bassist Grace Weir, drummer/percussionist Micaela Adams, and violinist Andrea Gutmann Fuentes tracked mainly in the now-defunct Ultrasuede Studios, which was owned by Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley.
“It was an awesome studio with anything you could want, and The Ophelias were friends with a kid who knew John and the kid got them in,” Wolf says.
“The studio was very ’70s,” recalls Weir. “Shag carpets in reds and oranges. There’s a big hand sculpture, and a lime-green couch that’s so low you fall into it. But they also had all these toys that we would never have been able to touch otherwise. I got to use their Rickenbacker, which was a big deal because it’s a bass I probably won’t be able to afford for a long time. It was an amazing opportunity.”
Wolf came in toward the end of basic tracking, and he was there to produce the last track on the album, “Moon Like Sour Candy” with John Hoffman engineering. Then the project moved to Wolf’s home studio, where he recorded vocals and overdubs, and mixed all of the tracks in Pro Tools. It was during those sessions that Wolf’s sensibilities—his fondness for psychedelic, spacey, and processed sounds—came into play. The Ophelias’ indie-folk foundation became somewhat distorted, saturated and wild, without losing the beauty and articulation that attracted Wolf to the band to begin with. Compromise became the mother of invention.
“A lot of the more inventive parts of our arrangements came from re-opening the box of all of these songs about a year after we originally recorded them and thinking about what would make it exciting for all of us,” explains Weir. “Also, Yoni comes from a completely different musical background from the four of us, so his unique view of each song was a beautiful lesson in collaboration for all of us. We had to find a happy medium that really excited all of us, and that’s how the arrangements were formed.”
“Sometimes Yoni would go in a direction that seemed too far. There’s this one song on the album called ‘Lunar Rover,’ and there was this random spaceship sound in it,” Peppet explains. “I remember being like, ‘Oh no, a spaceship sound!’ But completely opposite of that, at the beginning of that song, there’s all these backwards voices that come in like a slow crescendo, and I was like, ‘This is incredible! What is this?’ Those were not similar sounds but they were similar directions, and one of them was perfect and beautiful, but the other seemed out of place.”
“I always wanted to take things farther than the band necessarily wanted, so there was always a compromise where it was natural enough for the band’s taste, but also had some exciting qualities,” Wolf agrees.
One song that changed radically during the overdub process was the track “O Command.” The band had recorded the song live in Ultrasuede, but when Gutmann Fuentes came into Wolf’s space and tracked more violin parts, Wolf and Weir, who was sitting in, fell so in love with the violin sounds that they muted most of the other instruments.
“The violin parts that she wrote were so lovely that we cut out all the other instruments except for in between choruses,” Weir says. “That was a really cool experience that we were not expecting.”
“Grace called and said, ‘You have to hear it! Andrea came over, and it’s so good now!’ Andrea knows exactly what to do always,” Peppet says.
Wolf recorded many of the overdubs, including Peppet’s vocals, via a Lawson L47 microphone, (basically a Neumann U47 clone), into a Blue Robbie mic preamp, and then straight into Pro Tools—very simple and dry-sounding in his small, controlled home studio environment. It was during the mix that he began layering on those reverbs and other effects with his collection of Waves, Native, SoundToys, and Valhalla plug-ins, and more.
“I use a lot of those Valhalla reverbs. They’re like 50 bucks a-piece and they sound great! It can be so hard to find a good reverb plug, and they are the first ones that I thought they sound great,” Wolf says. “I’ll use different ones, depending on whether the song seems like a ‘room’ song or a ‘plate’ song. I work pretty intuitively.
“I’m actually a very slow worker,” Wolf continues. “Each move probably took me a shit-ton of time and has layers and layers and layers of plugs, and probably outboard stuff, and then a bunch of automation, too. I think sometimes, this is something that someone could probably do with a shortcut key if they know that kind of thing in Pro Tools: one stroke of a key—there you go, there’s your tail. But I think everything has more of an organic sound if you take time with it and do it all by hand, even though a lot of the work is digital. I think you can hear when moves are done by hand and when they’re done with a preset.”
Now that Almost is complete and ready to drop, it’s interesting to note how much the bandmembers’ lives have changed since the album creation started. When Peppet was writing some of the songs, they were still high school girls. Now they’ve all graduated and started college, some in different cities, but they all remain committed to The Ophelias.
“College is such a time when you start to discover yourself,” says Peppet. “I look back on songs I’ve written even two years ago, and think, was that me? But there’s still something about the way we work, the collaboration—it’s almost like a democratic band. Everything is collective. I write the songs, but they don’t become Ophelias songs until we play them and create the arrangements and the sounds together.”