“LET’S THROW 20 AT IT” SOUNDS LIKE A CAR TIRE CUSTOMIZATION, SOMEONE OFFERING YOU A BET, OR MAYBE A REALLY BAD IDEA IF YOUR NICKNAME IS “TWENTY.” IN ACTUALITY IT WAS THE MANTRA THAT HELPED FUEL THE STUDIO SESSIONS FOR THR!!!ER (WARP RECORDS), THE FIFTH ALBUM BY GROOVE-CONVERGING BAND !!! (PRONOUNCED CHK CHK CHK).
“That’s what Nic [Offer, !!! frontman] would always say when there was an idea that maybe didn’t fit the initial direction of the song,” says Jim Eno, drummer for the band Spoon and the owner of Public Hi-Fi, his studio in Austin, TX, where he helped produce THR!!!ER. “You don’t want to throw out an idea, never hear it, and then be left with the question of whether there’s something better that could have been done for a song. So we wouldn’t shoot down many ideas, we’d just try to nail it in half an hour to see if it was actually something worth pursuing. It was a good studio philosophy.”
!!! formed in Sacramento, CA, in 1996 and has been actively performing and recording since, though by 2000 the band members lived split between the West and East Coast. Today the sextet—which, along with singer/sequencer Offer, includes Mario Andreoni (guitar, synths), Dan Gorman (trumpet, synth), Allan Wilson (sax, percussion, keys), Paul Quattrone (drums), and Rafael Cohen (bass, guitar, vocals)— remains bicoastal, convening to tour and track records initially sketched and compiled in home studios split between Sacramento, Brooklyn, Portland, OR, and Philadelphia at various points.
This physical disconnect makes it all the more impressive how fluidly !!! channels funk-driven, dub-routed rave-ups, a rubbery, adrenalized, occasionally blown-out style of jamming labeled “disco-punk” upon the band’s debut. While the empowering influences of The Clash, Gang of Four, and Fela Kuti are certainly evident in the band’s work, there are equally vibrant inflections inherited from Arthur Russell, the early- ’90s Madchester scene in the U.K., plus the orchestrations of Quincy Jones and rhythmic accents of Bohannon. These, among many other touchstones, coalesce into what Offer describes as “the heat.”
“We’re always following that point where your eyes light up, that sweet spot where you’re excited,” he explains. “And more and more that means there’s no typical workflow. It has to be that way, and not just because we live long distance. We’re used to that; we’re used to each starting songs that we’ll then share over the Internet or in person so someone else can improve on the parts where they exceed. But we’re even more dedicated to reworking the blueprint, or otherwise what’s the point? We want each song to deserve its own very individual column.
“We have a philosophy of whatever’s clever; we’re in a perpetual state of making it up as we go along . . . each song is wearing the clothes that fit it,” continues Offer. “We’ve always chased interesting sounds, but sometimes we could go long and get lost. A big part of what Jim was good at was helping us be more efficient. We’d set out to get a bass sound, nail it, feel great about it and only then go to the synths, instead of saying something was good enough, filling in a few more competing parts, and later spending hours trying to figure out how to get back to where you imagined you’d be.”
Aware of Eno’s pro-analog ethos and his skill at gluing together very physical responses that balance detailing and bundled hustle, Offer and Quattrone met with him in Austin following the 2011 South By Southwest conference. Sitting at Eno’s 1969 Neve 8036, the centerpiece of the studio that sits adjacent to his Tarrytown house, the guys from !!! discussed their desire to step certain things back without toning the vibe down: While originating as a live act empowered by a gang mentality of everyone doing everything, going at it free and raw, the band wanted to make sure the energy didn’t obscure more melodic, multifaceted ideas.
“One thing Nic had mentioned they were looking for on this record is that everyone pretty much says hands down that !!! is a great live band, and they have never had a record that captures that feel,” reflects Eno. “So we talked for hours and days with all the band members about the differences between what makes a live show and a record exciting and how to translate the dynamics between the two.
“There are shows where it can be exciting when everyone starts at the top of a song and plays to the end, but that doesn’t always make a great recording because it’s static and linear,” continues Eno. “I like production that has things coming in and out, that has those ‘Wow, what was that?’ moments, while still focused around the song. So we set up a time where Nic and Rafael came down, and we worked on the demo that became the song ‘Careful,’ identifying what was and wasn’t working, dialing in those initial decisions that allow everything to fit sonically and stylistically.”
Following that first interaction, !!! booked another session for the entire band to attend, and on his second trial run, Eno tracked the band working through the songs “One Girl/ One Boy” and “Station (Meet Me At The).”
“With this record we had a real push to drive even harder, to make great songs that you can dance to,” says Offer. “And I knew we nailed a killer take with ‘Station,’ then Jim took it that extra step by toughening it up with his Altec [1567a 4-1 tube mixer]. We knew we were heading in the right direction as we were watching that track bloom. I don’t think the world thinks it needs another disco-punk record, but it’s a very different record and the world does need it.”
Eno corroborates that positive impression that came out of that session. “A lot of what you do as a producer and engineer is take comments from the band and figure out what it is they want to hear, so when they said they wanted it ‘tougher’ I knew positive distortion was the way to do it,” he says. “It was all about pushing the input, the front end of my preamps hard, and with the Altec you have to throw it into the mic level input and try to balance what is a super, super-saturated sound that you can dial in and use as that background weirdness. It adds a bounce, especially to kick drum and low-end things, that you can hear a lot.”
After tracking their take on controlled chaos, “cluttering” the 1K–5K range with excitement, Eno and the group went through the remaining demos to pinpoint the ones with the most potential for studio reinterpretation. The actual recording and mixing took place over three additional sessions across a two-month period.
“In the early days we jammed on everything, and everything was made from edited jams and jams edited together,” reflects Offer. “But we have a more mature viewpoint now, where we think about what could work versus bashing it out until something fits. So we looked at the best things that were really solid from the start and we dialed it in from there.”
From freak out to geek out, the genesis of each song on THR!!!ER varied. In their home studios, the multi-instrumentalists of !!! primarily used Apple Logic Pro as a DAW/timeclock, with some Ableton Live incorporated. Shure’s SM57/58s and the Beta 52A, as well as the AKG C1000 S were run into basic Radial DIs and various interfaces, with the majority of processing handled with stompboxes (such as classic Mutrons and modern Moogs) or in the box.
Offer and Andreoni have amassed a wealth of the band’s recording gear over the years, and for them a lot of ideas were generated from Dave Smith Instruments gear, including the Poly-Evolver, Mopho, and the Tempest, as well as some classic keys such as the Korg MS-10 and a Wurlitzer 200A. A Viscount-era Oberheim OB- 12, Moog Lil Phatty, Nord Stage 1, plus Elektron Machinedrum and Monomachine helped round out the physical sound generation engines.
With his sequencers synced up to Logic, Offer often started songs punching in rhythms, and once the groove was established, the beat dictated whether a bassline synth, vocal melody, or perhaps a guitar loop came next. A song, such as “Get That Rhythm Right,” may have originated with the drum machine, had its rhythm taken to California to be jammed on with other band members, then that session was taken back to New York to be chopped up, have some chords and vocals added, and only then was it ready as a template. “The thing about a good groove is, once it’s going, you can do whatever you want on top,” says Offer. However, the foundations of THR!!!ER varied more than previous !!! albums.
In some instances only one band member would contribute a nearly complete arrangement, such as the instrumentals for “One Girl/One Boy” and “Even When The Water’s Cold,” which came from Cohen ready for Offer to lay down guide vocals. In yet another scenario, the entire band would receive the opportunity while rehearsing for a tour to track a full-band live session as a source for samples and a bed for eventual overdubs.
All of these set-ups, as well as others, were fed into the band’s time at Public Hi-Fi. Built around the restored console plus Studer 827 2-inch 24-track tape machine and Ampex ATR-102 1/2- and 1/4-inch mixdown deck, and populated by a variety of compressor/ EQ modules from Neve, Pultec, API, GML, and many more, Eno’s process is very anti “fix it in the mix.” While all the !!! sessions were recorded to the Pro Tools HD2 Accel System, putting everything in/pushing everything out through outboard gear was a key element in getting THR!!!LER’s feel.
Instrument-wise, !!! enjoyed hands-on time with Eno’s Memorymoog, Sequential Circuits Pro One Synth, and a Hohner Clavinet Pianet DUO, among other vintage kits. Lead and rhythm guitar were usually tracked with either a RCA BK5 or a Shure SM57 with a Royer R121 bussed to one track to get a great midrange, and this would go through either a Urei LA-3A or 1176 to tape. For bass guitar the chain would usually be an Opus mic or the Electro-Voice RE20, with both run into a DI and mixed together with additional keyboard bass for buzz. Compression and EQ were less common at the start, unless going for a specific effect.
In terms of effects and processing, key units made a distinct impression, including the EMT140 stereo tube plate reverb, Binson Echorec Magnetic Disk delay, Fender Spring Reverb Tank, Eventide H910 harmonizer, Masteroom Spring Reverb, Ibanez AD202 Analog Delay, Otari MTR12 1/2" four-track for tape echo, Roland 201 Space Echo, AMS DMX 15-80S stereo digital delay, and more.
“For each part we’d go through our options, commit to a sound and build off that till we got it right, because if you just record hundreds of tracks and then mix two months later, you can lose all your perspective,” says Eno. “We didn’t want an album made from notes; we wanted one made from great performances. And when you’re working with a band with an incredibly dense rhythm section, where drums and bass take up a lot of space, it’s better to know early on what kind of space there is for everything else in your mix so you can start to shape what you track instead of get stuck carving into things later to find room.”
Looking for tones with more personality than absolute perfection, Eno would bring up a kick and a snare and throw them around to various delays until he’d stumble on a polyrhythmic pattern to tuck around other parts that would avoid the normal half-note, quarter-note, and triplet delays, and that would stay out of the box wherever possible. He’d also turn to the Eventide and set up its internal delay and feedback to get a pitched down, intentionally degrading fringe on certain drums needing a sputter glam feel.
Various techniques were employed throughout THR!!!ER to help parts sit in with and stand out from the rhythm. For example, at the end of the song “Except Death” the guitar part is given added dimensionality by recording passes of the part through the filter section of the Korg MS-20, then panning several wide and delaying the left and right channel to differing degrees, keeping the initial performance in the center. The result was “a linear driving thing that still had special excitement,” explains Eno.
Meanwhile, on “One Girl/One Boy,” a guitar pass was recorded to the ATR-102 with its varispeed set down, then that was dumped to Pro Tools with the tape machine set to normal play. “The result is these takes that sound high frequency, very robotic; you lose the feeling because you can lock in a lot easier at the lower speed playback, but the different voicings really get the part to jump out at you,” says Eno.
Another physical “effect” entailed putting a regular cymbal on top of a china crash cymbal, so it creates a “trashy” sound. “It’s this incredibly short decay and it almost sounds like you’re gating cymbals,” says Eno, who used it to accent various songs. In addition, Eno’s two-story live room has 25- foot ceilings, and he keeps a Neumann SM69 stereo tube mic 15 feet in the air in the live room; even when drums were tracked in a booth this catwalk mic was used to add some nice air into the tone.
While most of the album was structured as songs, not just mixes, there were outliers on THR!!!ER. “The song ‘Slyd’ is probably the most digital thing we’ve ever done,” says Offer. “The idea was to write something like [M/A/R/R/S] ‘Pump Up The Volume,’ using contemporary technology to throw everything over the groove. But instead of buying samples, we decided to make a song that sounds like 12 different ones hanging together, pulled together like how a DJ cuts between themes that match up without necessarily making sense together. A lot of people chase these specific keyboard tones that reference the ’80s, but I wanted to make a track that could represent the sound of today’s gear. I tried to use the first preset that would come up, building the whole thing in Logic.” A collage of loops put through TC Helicon and Logic delays and pitch shifters, “Slyd” shows that everyone can take the same tools and achieve different results.
Whether it was a full band performance or parts compiled, the songs of THR!!!ER slam the meters hard without fatigue or muddying the focus. This is thanks to a cityscape approach to mixing, where not every component sits at the same height, and parts pull back to reveal new angles. A song like “Station (Meet Me At The)” has a distorted Rhodes track as its “Empire State Building,” drawing attention whenever present, while another uses its tape-affected guitars to anchor its skyline. The album is consistently varied, pulled together not by mix bus compression but by the nexus of Eno’s Neve and !!!’s aesthetic hub.
“We worked hard to have things pop through the middle,” confirms Offer. “It’s a continual lesson that every musician needs to learn, that sometimes you need less of one thing not more of everything.”
Pushing forward, !!! is re-evaluating the tracks that didn’t make initially THR!!!ER. “Out of 16 potential songs, we definitely burned the cake on some of them, but there’s still some good stuff that might make an EP for the diehards,” says Offer. “We’ve joked about calling that F!!!ER [‘FILLER’].”
Giving every 20 100 percent, THR!!!ER brings together spaced-out tendencies and tight structures without sounding overly slick, and it redirects the flow through familiar fields without hitting any ruts. Married to the groove, !!! will continue to break the process down while getting down.
“We were doing this style before it was a phenomenon, and we’re doing it after, because it’s what we love,” says Offer. “I think we made a great record that you can dance to, but I don’t think we did everything I wanted to do with this album, and I’m glad. That means there are still things to do. At the end of the day I’m just trying to make funky music, songs that every person just has to get up and dance to, so ultimately I’ll keep trying until we make that perfect wedding jam.”
Tony Wareis a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician.