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In The Thick Of It - EMusician

In The Thick Of It

Midnight Juggernauts on Creating the Jam-Inspired, Processed Layers Inside The Crystal Axis’Wall of Sound
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Midnight Juggernauts on Creating the Jam-Inspired, Processed Layers Inside The Crystal Axis’Wall of Sound

Engineer Chris Moore.

Melbourne, Australia’s Midnight Juggernauts are used to the DIY way: They write separately, selfproduce their albums, and release their music on their own label, Siberia. But for their second album, The Crystal Axis, the prog-rock leaning, electro-pop trio changed up their methodology.

“With this one, we spent a lot more time together in a room,” says multi-instrumentalist Andrew Szekeres. “When we first started the demos for the album, we set up a whole lot of equipment down at this remote house on the beach in eastern Australia on the coast, and we just started jamming. The more prog-y kind of psych tendencies that come out with some of the songs is just from the way we were jamming and messing around with loop pedals.”

After the demo stage, Szekeres recorded core tracks live with singer/synth-ist Vincent Vendetta and drummer Daniel Stricker at Melbourne’s Sing Sing Studios, with help from engineer Chris Moore (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs). The goal was to achieve a looser feel than their previous album and EPs. “When we recorded the first one, it was very rigid, sequenced, and even recording all the live stuff, it was desperately tied to this metronome,” Szekeres admits. “With this one, we tried to keep it a bit looser and have parts of songs where it gets kind of sloppy and weird. There are lots of mistakes on the album—happy accidents—which give the album character.”

Once basic tracks were recorded, the band began the long process of layering, stripping back, and layering some more. In the end, some tracks were jam packed, as with the epic and catchy second single, “Vital Signs,” which boasts a whopping 130 tracks. “This whole album is very much like a wall of sound, which makes it quite difficult when you’re going through it and trying to find space in different parts,” Szekeres says.

The guys experimented with a bunch of different synths, string synthesizers, and organs, including a Yamaha YC-20 combo organ and SS-30 string synth, ARP Solina String Synthesizer and 2600 synth, Moog Minimoog and Modular synths, Dave Smith and Casio synths, Roland RS-202 string/brass synth and VP-330 vocoder, and a Hammond B3 organ.

But some ideas originated on soft synths. “I either had Andy replay them or sent the original MIDI data to the synths via a Kenton MIDI to CV converter,” Moore explains. “Most of the work getting these sounds was done on the synthesizer itself; modular synths have a lot of sound-shaping possibilities, and I spent a lot of time getting unique sounds for every part. Recording-wise, it was just a matter of recording them through a DI into Pro Tools, although we did send a few stringsynth sounds through the Leslie cabinet of the studio’s B3 organ.”

Meanwhile, lots of sounds went through a Roland Space Echo, including a Suzuki Omnichord “going crazy all over the place,” says Szekeres, at the end of “Vital Signs,” and on the Minimoog during “The Great Beyond.” “And the sound at the beginning of ‘Lemuria’ is Dan feeding the echo back on itself and tweaking the delay time for some classic dub sounds,” Moore says.

The guys also fed a Z.Vex Super Duper pedal through guitars (either a ’70s Fender Telecaster or a Gibson SG played through a late-’60s Fender Twin) and synths. “The Z.Vex pedal was used as a boost to overdrive the amp for crunchier sounds, and it was also used for distortion on the synth bass on a couple of the songs,” Moore says.

Like many of the album’s tracks, “The Great Beyond,” which features a late-’70s/early-’80s pop-influenced chorus of vocals (sung through a Neumann U 67), morphed midway through recording. “Vin wasn’t happy with the chorus that he’d sung, so he redid it at another studio in Melbourne called Hothouse,” Szekeres says of Vendetta, whose deep voice hints at David Bowie, but on “The Great Beyond” reaches a higher register reminiscent of Alan Parsons. “He was constantly changing vocal melodies.”

Toward the end of the song, it takes a drastic turn into a jam-inspired freak-out of guitar, synths, and Stricker triggering bass from a Yamaha CS-15 from his kick drum, with later overdubs of smashing metallic lids.

“There are a couple of different guitar sounds at the end of ‘The Great Beyond,’ both involving the Roland Space Echo,” Moore says. “One was more traditionally recorded, with Andy playing his guitar through the Space Echo and a [Musitronics] Mu-Tron III envelope filter pedal into a Vox AC30 reissue. The other was recorded normally through the amp, but during the mix I ran it through the Space Echo, so that you can only hear the Echo and none of the original guitar signal. That created a lo-fi sort of sound where the guitar is constantly fluctuating in pitch and volume, which you can hear by itself at the very end of the song.”

Drum-wise, Midnight Juggernauts and Moore aimed for a tight, dead sound. “We actually recorded the drums in quite a big room, so we used a lot of partitioning and made this little box for the drums in a corner, so we’d get a really dead sound,” Szekeres says. “We only used 1/20th of the room because we wanted such a tight sound. And if we didn’t like the sound of snares or the way the drums were sounding, we’d try different mics.”

“The drums were miked in a traditional ’70s fashion,” Moore adds, “using Neumann mics—U 67s for overheads, KM 84 for snare, and U 47 fet for kick. We also used Beyer M88s for close mics on the toms. And the album was recorded on a vintage Neve console using 1073 mic pres on every drum and instrument sound.”

As for drum experiments, on the superrhythmic “Lara Versus the Savage Pack,” the group got a ringing, percussive sound for the choruses. “We brought a metal table from the control room out and had Dan hit it in time with the snare in the choruses,” Moore says. “You can barely hear it in the final mix, though.”

And on “Cannibal Freeway,” it sounds as though the hi-hat is panned to one side, but it’s a sleight of hand created by the Roland VP-330 vocoder. “When we were first doing mixing, we ran the drum track back through that and then re-recorded it through its audio input,” Szekeres says. “From the second half of the song, there’s this layer of tinny-sounding drums underneath, which are the drums going through the vocoder. The VP is being pushed to one side heavily, and because it’s tinny and doesn’t have any bottom-end, the hihat is coming through stronger.”

With such a long push and pull of the songs on The Crystal Axis—layers upon layers subtracted, added, and multiplied—it wasn’t easy for the band to stay engaged all the way through the process. “I think that there’s no greater feeling than that initial excitement and when you feel like you’ve either written something that you think is really working, or you first do some kind of production thing and come across some sound. It’s really hard to keep that feeling,” Szekeres laments. “You just lose perspective, and the longer you work on it, the harder it becomes. This album was a lot more difficult in that sense because it was a lot bigger production and a lot more tracked and layers and recording sessions over a long period of time, you don’t even know if it’s sounding good anymore or what the hell you’re listening to.”

At that point, Szekeres and Moore agree, it’s time to take a breather. “If a band is getting stuck or bummed out on a particular song, I recommend taking a break, getting some fresh air, and then returning to work on a different song,” Moore says. “Coming back to a song with fresh ears after a break, or the next day, can often re-generate everyone’s excitement about the song.”

But when you’re too close to something, sometimes space in between listens doesn’t help retain the excitement. “Eventually you just get tired of it, and you realize, ‘Okay, I’m pretty sure this is working,’” Szekeres says. “But you’re never sure, not as sure as you are when you first do it. I don’t think I’m really that interested in listening to the album right now because of months of dissecting and memories of hearing the vocal on its own a thousand times without any music. I think it is difficult for pretty much all musicians to continue to go over a song when you just want to move on to writing new music without having to painstakingly comb through all these details. That part of it isn’t much fun.”