Body/Head—the rock-noise duo of Sonic Youth alumnus Kim Gordon and experimental guitarist Bill Nace—stretches the outer sonic limits of guitars and vocals, and sound in a space: Some of the crunchy, buzzing, reverberant and occasionally rhythmic sounds on the pair’s latest full-length album, The Switch, seem to echo from an adjacent room, while others may actually be in your head.
To some extent, this music is born out of performance. Nace says that, “Onstage is kind of when we do our rehearsing and work out ideas.” And all of the recordings start with live jams, in Sonelab Studios (Western Mass.) with engineer and studio co-owner Justin Pizzoferrato, who also tracked Body/Head’s previous album Coming Apart.
“We just booked a couple days and went in and just looked at it as, this is the time we have and we’re going to make something,” Gordon says. “We don’t know ahead of time what it’s going to be.”
“Body/Head sessions are almost all live because Body/Head is primarily based upon improv,” Pizzoferrato says. “My studio has a large live room—about 1,700 square feet, with 16-foot ceilings—and we set up in the middle of the room where they can have space for their pedal boards and their amps.
“One of the most important things is they have good line of sight with each other and they can hear each other. That presents a challenge for me because the amps really need to be isolated well from each other, but I don’t normally use any baffling. I end up relying on mic placement and room acoustics, and a lot of times it just comes down to Kim and Bill balancing well with each other.
“They’ll unload all their gear; we’ll set it all up—like a show basically—and while they’re doing that, I’m putting mics on stands,” Pizzoferrato continues. “They start playing when I get back in my control room, and I start dialing. There’s not even a moment when I tell them they’re rolling.”
Pizzoferrato works mainly in Pro Tools, but he also monitors via his 1980s MCI JH636 console. “The console has great headroom, and it’s very flexible and easy to work with, but with Body/Head sessions, I don’t use it a lot because they don’t wear headphones: I don’t have to build those mixes.”
Nace says the guitar he used on these sessions is a Les Paul copy that a friend of his found and gave to him; his amp is a Fender DeVille. Gordon meanwhile plays a modified Fender Jazmaster through Pizzoferrato’s mid-’60s Vox AC50. The engineer captures hours of improvised guitar playing and choice pedals/effects using AEA N22 microphones through Helios mic pre/EQs.
“Kim’s vocals are also run through an amp,” Pizzoferrato explains. “We use a ’68 Fender Princeton reissue. I also pull a ‘DI’ for her voice; I run her beyerdynamic M88 into a DI box, then out of the DI box into her pedals, and then into the Princeton. So I had a clean mic signal with no effects on it and I miked up the amps, and I could blend those if we wanted. The sound that we used a lot on the record was what was coming out of the amp with her whole vocal pedal board, and usually I would blend in a little bit of the clean signal that I grabbed from the DI.”
Pizzoferrato also points out that, with the artists controlling copious effects on-the-fly, he uses zero compression during tracking. “They’re so dynamic,” he says. “There’s no plan for what they’re going to play, so I want to capture that as purely as possible and let them control as much as possible when we’re mixing.”
During basics, Pizzoferrato also roughs out mixes. “We might have an eight-hour session and we might get 4 or 5 hours of music out of that,” he explains. “I’ll create a stereo track in Pro Tools—send my console to that stereo track and just put up a rough mix as they’re doing takes.
“Then Kim and Bill will take those rough mixes and sit on them for a few weeks or months, until we can get together again, and meanwhile they’ll come up with a lot of ideas about how they want to edit things. Kim also came back to do some vocal overdubs, just singing in the live room through a Neumann U67 that she likes—clean, with none of her pedals.”
Other ideas that developed during the overdub phase led to further sonic experimentation. As an example, Nace points to the intro to the last track on the album, “Reverse Hard.”
“Kim and I had recorded three different sections of two loops going against each other,” Nace says. “I took those loops back in the studio. When we made them, I also had a handheld recorder that I was also recording them on. For the intro section of [‘Reverse Hard,’] I took that handheld source tape and we kept re-amping it; we would play that through an amp into the room, mike that, and keep doing that so it kept degrading. Then we switched that around, so the piece starts with the most degraded section and the sound is going back down to what the original source was, until it’s in the same key as what it cuts to, which is a section from what we played live.”
Overdubs and editing dovetailed into final mixes. “I would say most of the coloration came from what happened on the floor,” Pizzoferrato says. “But every now and again there would be a point where there was Kim’s guitar by itself or Bill’s and it sounded cool, but we wanted somehow to make it talk a little more or add some layer of curiosity to it, so we used my Echoplex a fair amount—a lot of times with short repeats or with one repeat to create a weird stereo effect.”
Other pieces that figured prominently in the mix are a Tascam RS-20 reverb that Pizzoferrato used on Gordon’s overdubbed vocals, and an ADR Compex bus compressor, which Pizzoferrato says acts like “glue” for most of his mixes.
“I also have a pair of Neve 2254s that I would use if I ever need better control of something—mostly vocals, because there would be moments when there was so much happening with the guitars that I would just put compression on the vocals to maintain clarity,” he says.
“But on guitars,” Pizzoferrato continues, “I feel like I reached for a couple of compressors, and Kim would be like, ‘Did you just do something to my guitar?’ And I’d be like ‘No,’ and turn it off. When it comes down to it, Bill and Kim like a pretty pure representation of what happens in the studio.”