ISLANDS FRONTMAN Nick Thorburn is open about the inspiration for the soulful songs he wrote for the group’s latest Anti release, A Sleep & A Forgetting: “Well, heartbreak,” he says.
After leaving a relationship and his home in Brooklyn, Thorburn found himself alone in a borrowed house on the left coast, with a piano for company. “Generally, my writing process starts with a guitar,” he says, “So, it was a different mode of working, and it forced ideas to come through a different conduit.
“The overall concept was about leaving New York,” he continues. “I made some very loose demos, just recording the essence of the songs. In Brooklyn, I had been working differently—making more fleshed-out demos, but this reduced everything to its essence, and that also dictated the direction of the record: simple arrangements and minimal production.”
Thorburn worked through that heartache by writing a very personal collection of songs, which he says he “cobbled together,” as he will do, from “fragments, ideas, and phrases—sometimes even just titles and words that I like.” By the time the songwriting was complete, he had a pretty well-formed idea that this album would be Islands’ take on an old-school soul record—with a more live sound and direct approach than previous Islands records.
It still sounds like Islands, of course, with their layers of synths and Thorburn’s bright vocals, but those elements are more judiciously applied to a foundation of live, fullband tracks that were recorded in a fast two weeks in L.A. last February.
After a week of pre-production, the bandmembers— vocalist/guitarist/co-producer Thorburn, bassist/co-producer Evan Gordon, drummer Luc Laurent, and keyboardist/guitarist Geordie Gordon—went into Studio A of Kingsize Soundlabs in the Glasser Park neighborhood of Los Angeles to start recording.
Thorburn says that, as is their way, the band went into the sessions well-prepared.
“I like to have an idea of the record conceptually even before we start tracking,” he says. “I often have an idea of the sequence. I think I get so excited about the whole process that I kind of obsess over the end result even at the beginning.”
They kicked off basic tracking with studio owner Dave Trumfio, but when he was pulled away by other projects within his six-studio complex, staff engineer Celso Estrada stepped up.
“We started out to do some basic tracking,” says Estrada, who’s worked his way from assistant to engineer at the studio. “We set up the rooms so we could jump ahead to overdubs as soon as we finished the basic tracks, thinking we would replace a lot of the parts, but a lot of the basic tracks that we recorded with the band together in the room ended up being kept.”
For guitars, for instance, we didn’t just set up one close mic and one room mic; we’d set up different ones to see which sound we liked, which one gave us the tone we wanted.
Estrada says that one of the reasons many of those basics were keepers is the effort he and the musicians put into dialing in instrument sounds on the front end. “We experimented with different miking techniques.
Among the mics Estrada says they used were a Royer 121, a Neumann U49, and a Shure SM57. “Depending on what type of song it was,” Estrada explains, “we would switch those out. If it was more of a rock guitar, then the 57 would give us a little more edge.”
From there, Estrada says the guitar-recording chain went to the Studio’s 32-channel Neve 8086 board—he used the inboard EQ—and then usually to a UREI 1176. “If it did need a little more EQ’ing besides the Neve, we had LISTEN profile some API 500s—maybe a 550B or 560 for a little extra EQ if we needed it.”
The various guitar sounds on the album— from tight Stax-style licks to more dreamy washes, must come from Thorburn’s technique as well as from switching out gear, as Thorburn says he stuck almost exclusively to one guitar on this session: “I have a lot of gear in storage in Brooklyn, but I only really had one guitar with me in California, and that’s a National Airline guitar that’s re-issued by a boutique guitar company in Canada called Eastwood,” Thorburn says. “I wasn’t planning on playing it at all. I planned to use guitars they have in the studio, because they had some nice ones. But every time we went to track, it always won out as the best sound, which was strange. I think it’s just kind of bonded to me.
“It’s new, it’s a re-issue, it’s not a cool guitar,” he says, “so I’m reluctant to embrace it and give it a cute nickname or something, You know, it’s not like it’s a ’57 Strat or something beautiful like that. On all accounts, it’s kind of dorky, but the tone I get from it—I just know it so well.”
Other than Thorburn’s trusty National, however, the band did make use of the facility’s impressive collection of amps and instruments. Evan Gordon played Trumfio’s ’60s Ventura bass, which Estrada captured direct and by miking an Ampeg SVT410HLF amp (also part of the studio’s arsenal).
Thorburn and Geordie Gordon made use of the studio’s Mellotron, piano, and a Farfisa organ on the brutal track “Can’t Feel My Face.”
“They also have a relationship with this guy [Curt Anderson] who loans out his gear, like this keyboard called a Rocksichord [an electronic harpsichord], which we used on some overdubs to texture some things,” says Thorburn. “The studio itself is relatively modest, but the gear they had was awesome, and the people who run it are so lovely. It couldn’t have been a better place to make this record.”
Estrada says that he also worked closely with the band to develop rough mixes that were as close as possible to the finished product the band desired. “I think probably every musician feels this way,” says Thorburn. “When I come out of tracking sessions, it’s nice to walk away with something that feels like it has a shape, and you can feel the contour of the songs, and I think that because these songs are more minimal in their style it was relatively easy to achieve that. Things went really smooth, and that’s also because Celso is the sweetest and really efficient, and all the gear was working so great.”
Another benefit of working in Kingsize Soundlabs was the B room, called Mant, at the complex is operated by engineer Rob Schnapf, who not only was available to mix the album, but also made a lot of his recording gear available to the band. “Rob would come by and say, ‘How’s it going? You need a tape echo? You need a pedal? There’s my room; just go over and get it,’” says Estrada.
After Schnapf’s mix, the tracks just had to go a little farther down the hall to Mark Chalecki’s Little Red Book mastering studio. Thorburn says he liked keeping everything “local,” and he’s pleased with what has turned out to be a pretty different-sounding record from previous efforts.“
The last thing I want to do is repeat myself,” he says. “That’s stagnation, and I might as well stop. I don’t think I’ve made the same record twice yet, and that’s very important to me. And I think I took a bad situation and—made lemonade. I used it as inspiration, and discovered new ways of making songs.”
Barbara Schultz is a freelance editor, and a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician and Mix.