New studio and synths inspire longtime band’s evolved sound
SINCE FORMING the New Pornographers in Vancouver in the late ’90s, the bandmembers have worked within numerous other groups and projects, fanned out to disparate locations, and periodically reconvened to make something new together. Their latest album, Brill Bruisers, is at least partly informed by the best of ’80s pop, with driving electric guitars and often lush vocal orchestrations, brightly embellished with synth sounds and effects.
“On most of the records we’ve made, our way of working has been: ‘What have we got lying around?’” says Carl Newman, the principal songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, and co-producer of the New Pornographers. “It would be like, ‘We have a pump organ here, so let’s put lots of pump organ on.’”
But for Brill Bruisers, the music-making process led by Newman and co-producer/engineer/bassist John Collins, started with a new studio and several new synthetic tools.
Collins installed a little writing/recording setup for Newman in a 300-square-foot, shed on Newman’s property in Woodstock, N.Y.; he outfitted the shed with Digital Performer 8 (Collins’ platform of choice), an API lunchbox, a Telefunken AK7 MkII mic, a pair of Avedis Audio MA5 mic preamps, and Elysia Xpressor 500 discrete compressors, as well as Newman’s instruments and amps. The new “Little Blue” studio became the production heart of Brill Bruisers.
“I’d say 80 percent of the vocals, 90 percent of the keyboards, and 90 percent of the guitars came from there,” says Collins. “Carl and I were in there for six or seven months, just the two of us.”
Carl Newman (front) with bandmate and co-producer John Collins in Little Blue Studio. “Some songs just show up finished,” Newman says about their process. “For example, on the title track, the game was just writing the lyrics. We started playing it, it sounded good, and we had it. But other songs like ‘Backstairs’—that was completely a creation in the studio. I’d just bought a Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano and came up with a weird little synth progression that I liked, and the whole song evolved from that. Then John took another Pocket Piano line, transposed it, and it turned into this bizarre, psychedelic, atmospheric section that became one of my favorite parts of the whole record.”
Newman also added an Arturia V softsynth collection to his rig for this project. “On the song ‘War on the East Coast,’ it felt like we needed more abrasive sounds,” he says. “‘Champions of Red Wine’ [with Neko Case on lead vocals] needed sounds that are softer and smoother. That collection has essentially a soft synth [version] of every single cool synth that’s ever been played, so we could do a lot with that.”
A smaller but mighty acquisition was the Animoog app, which was used to enhance atmospheric effects. “When that came out, there was a deal where you could buy it for 99 cents. I think I got my dollar’s worth!
“Once we have the song, and the bass, drums and guitars are essentially figured out, we’re looking for bells and whistles to hang on them,” Newman continues. “That’s also where arpeggiation is really cool, and that was a really fun part of this record: trying to make the interplay between arpeggiators and real drums, and use that to make songs really propulsive.”
Collins says that when he and Newman are developing sounds together, they produce “a lot of chaff. We both make a lot of stuff, and then we decide we don’t like most of it and cut each other’s parts.”
“We have to go, ‘Let’s listen to the song and take out what doesn’t work and throw out the garbage.’” Newman says. “We’re mining for gold.”
Working in a small, one-room space meant traveling an unusual path to some of the keeper tracks, however. A longtime engineer with his own fully loaded facility (JCDC, Vancouver), Collins is a bit sheepish about the way guitar sounds evolved. “We were DI’ing everything to begin with, to a USB keyboard into the Performer synths,” he says. “We were playing with tempos and keys the whole time, changing things, so we kept one of Carl’s electrics and a bass DI’d just to keep the ball rolling while we figured things out, but eventually we got fed up with not knowing what proper kinds of guitar sounds we were going to use.
“So I put his Matchless amp outside, in the woods, in his Honda Element with a 57 on it, ran some cables out there,” Collins continues. “I also DI’d it. We were in a one-room building with no isolation, and I wanted to get some objectivity on the sound of the amp. But we quickly realized that the nice tone of his Matchless didn’t seem any better for what we were doing than the DI. It’s almost embarrassing to say, but I kept comparing amp tones to simulated tones, and since I knew I would have access to more simulators and a lot of other amps when I got everything back to my studio [to mix with studio partner David Carswell], I decided I was cool with the way the DI sounded.”
After months of productive experimentation and recording in the Little Blue studio, Collins and Newman had developed tracks and sounds for most of the songs, and established the tempos for all of them.
“I was often trying to get things to be a bit faster,” Collins says. “It can be difficult to convince a singer that a song needs to be faster. They want it to be the speed that they thought of it, but after a couple of years of playing it, it’s going to be faster.”
They then booked Greenhouse Studios in Vancouver, where Howard Redekopp recorded Kurt Dahle’s drums to Pro Tools—sometimes as overdubs to tracks, and other times just to click tracks with the established tempo. “Howard records all the drums when we make records,” Collins says. “On this, he put up a lot of mics, but nothing very close in, going for a big, open sound.
“Then in the fall, we got Neko’s vocals,” he continues. “We had to chase her around the country some [while she was on tour], but at one point we brought everything from Carl’s studio and had her sing into the Telefunken in [FarelMart], an ex-theater in an ex-post office that she owns. Then we had Todd [Fancey, guitarist] and Kathryn [Calder, keyboards and vocals] do their parts. Meanwhile, we can’t forget, a quarter of the tunes were by Dan [Bejar, vocals and guitars] and those were coming together simultaneously in Vancouver. We had Dan’s Shure SM7 going for a lot of the vocals, too. That’s a staple with us. I wouldn’t say this was the most convoluted thing I’ve ever worked on, but…”
“Now we are figuring out how this is going to work live, because we are playing festivals this summer and proper touring happens in October/November,” Newman says. “I’m excited to play all this new material, but we have definitely entered a new technical age for this band, where we listen to our own record and go, ‘How the hell are we going to work all these arpeggiators into our live sound?’ It’s going to be tricky.”
Barbara Schultz is Electronic Musician’s managing editor.