Rough And Real: White Rabbits and Spoon’s Britt Daniel Mine the Tarnished Glory of Demos

The cover of White Rabbits’ It’s Frightening [TBD Records] is a blackand- white photo of a motion-blurred figure with two sets of flailing arms. One pair, equipped with sticks, bangs on an invisible snare drum, while the other attacks the keys of a vintage Helpinstill Roadmaster 64 piano. Raucous and beautiful, the picture is the perfect visual summation of the band’s ability to find balance between their clamorous nature—three of the six members are capable drummers— and the uncomplicated way in which they embrace melody.
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“The last record was definitely six people firing on all cylinders all the time—just creating a racket,” says singer and keyboardist Stephen Patterson. “With this record, we were much more selective about where to drop in what instruments. We took a much sparser approach.”

Produced by Britt Daniel of indierock darlings Spoon and tracked by Nicolas Vernhes (Fischerspooner, Animal Collective), It’s Frightening has a more dynamic sound than its predecessor— due in part to the vintage boards and outboard gear used throughout its creation.

Demos were recorded through a TASCAM Model 5A mixing board belonging to rehearsal space cohabitants the Walkmen, and the album was tracked through a 1979 MCI JH-536 console onto a 1971 3M M79 recorder at Rare Book Room in Brooklyn. For Daniel, preserving the unhinged spirit of those original demos was paramount to the process, and he even incorporated a portion of the early material into the final versions. For example, Patterson’s meandering piano line and haunting, choral-esque hums on “Leave It at the Door” are products of the band’s rehearsalspace sketches.

Daniel also noticed that most of the demo drum tracks had a crispy, overdriven quality—the result of miking the kits with a single Shure SM58. To retain that thin, barebones sound, the TASCAM Model 5A was brought down to the Rare Book Room and used as a mic preamp before going into the MCI console. Daniel also encouraged the band to embrace “incidental moments” and imperfections on the demos—such as the intimate room noise captured by an overhead Neumann U 67 on “Midnight and I” (if you listen closely, you can even hear Patterson light up a smoke at the 55-second mark), and the ragtime sound of the keys on “Rudie Fails” (attributed to the fact that no one bothered to clean out all the junk that fell into the back of the piano over the years).

Echoing the band’s desire to “treat mixing as a performance rather than a perfected process,” Mike McCarthy (Trail Of Dead, Lee Ann Womack) performed his mixes without automation, moving faders on the fly, and then editing the best mix moments together before the mastering session. He also relied heavily on panning to create extra space. For example, the multiple percussion tracks on “Lionesse” are panned hard right and hard left to make room for the traipsing piano lick that sits in the middle.

But while lo-fi sonics, vintage gear, and self-imposed technical limitations played significant roles in the production of It’s Frightening, the album’s biggest creative decision may have been opting to use analog tape.

“It was our first time recording analog, and that proved to be very beneficial for us,” Patterson says. “There are so many guys in the band, and it’s really tempting to keep putting on layers upon layers. But being limited to a certain number of tracks helped us stay focused on which pieces really mattered.”